Augustine on human nature- “Humans can never be morally good through their own efforts”. Discuss. (40 marks)

Augustine’s starting point is the account of creation in Genesis 1-3. He taught that in the beginning humans lived in harmony alongside God.  It was a time when the human body, will and reason were all in complete co-operation with each other. The human will comprised cupiditas (self-love) and caritas (generous love) which were both necessary to live according to God’s will. However, pride caused humans to reject their perfect relationship with God, which could never be enjoyed again because cupiditas became separated from caritas. This led to what Augustine describes as the ‘divided will’ and although it was still rational enough to know what is morally good, the damage done to it in the Fall meant that despite willing to do good it is now weakened by desires and so is incapable of doing good.  Here Augustine breaks from ancient philosophers on the teaching of a weakness of the will, known as akrasia.  It was previously believed that a weakness of the will was a stage within improving moral development rather than a fix human condition, as Augustine maintained.

In the post-Lapsarian world Augustine is adamant that everyone is tainted with Original Sin (the continued rebellious state of the will) and therefore humanity can do nothing other than fall short of the standards of morality that God requires.  As Paul wrote, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do.” (Romans 7:14-15).

However, some people might argue that even if people cannot reach a state of total perfection, nevertheless they can still aspire to be good people as far as it is possible, as much of the time as is possible.  Augustine’s views could lead people to the idea that there is little point in trying at all as the damage has already been done; but most people, including most Christians, would argue that there is every point in continuing to aim for high standards in personal morality.

It could be argued, however, as a counter to this criticism that Augustine’s recognition of human imperfection is actually more likely to lead to moral progress.  Reliance on human effort alone, such as Pelagius promoted, is always doom to failure as, since the Fall, we simply do not have the capacity for moral perfection; and so rather than being naively optimistic and setting out on an impossible quest, it would be wiser to listen to Augustine and realise that we have to rely on the grace of God from the outset.  By doing so, we might have a genuine hope rather than a false one.

It could be argued that Augustine’s emphasis on the sordid nature of humanity calls God’s mercy and wisdom, love and justice into question.  God’s mercy is called into question if he expects of us standards that we cannot possibly hope to meet; and His wisdom is questioned if He did not know that we would sin when he made us, and if He did not give Adam and eve enough moral strength to resist the temptation to do wrong.  It raises questions about God’s omnibenevolence, if God allows the disobedience of Adam and Eve to condemn the whole of humanity as a species rather than forgiving them or using his omnipotence to undo the damage that was done.

Some people argue that Augustine is wrong in his understanding of human nature as fundamentally corrupt.  Other, later thinkers have agreed with him in this respect; the Philosopher Thomas Hobbs, for example, argued that people are by nature selfish and that they work together only because they know it is in their own interests.  But others disagree.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, thought that people are by nature good and in general want to defend the weak and work for a society that is fairer for everyone.  Whether people are good or bad by nature is a difficult thing to establish scientifically, but there are studies in psychology in which people’s intuitive reactions to others in trouble are measured, with varying conclusions.  Augustine, however, would not have been persuaded by any such study, however reliable its data, because for him, even our best efforts towards moral perfection are hopelessly spoilt and damaged by the sin of Adam and Eve.

Augustine’s views about original sin and inherited guilt became less popular during the Enlightenment (which was a surge in the popularity of reason in philosophy during the eighteenth century in Europe).  Thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke tended towards the view that people are born with a ‘blank slate’, known in Latin as a ‘tabula rasa’.  In this view, babies are neither good nor evil, but born with a fresh start ready to make free choices and learn and become whatever they become.  Today, many modern Christian theologians write of ‘original blessing’ and of a ‘benevolent’ universe, emphasising that goodness and love of God in his dealings with humanity, and many steer away from Augustine’s focus on sin, guilt and condemnation.

Whilst Augustine was certain that people could not be morally good by their own efforts, he taught that reconciliation with God was achievable for those who accepted the gift of God’s grace. Along with Paul, Augustine realised that people would continue to sin even after they had accepted the grace of God, but that such a gift could help humans live a more moral life.  For Augustine, grace is understood as a quality which can give moral guidance to the lives of Christians, that can overcome human pride and which can transform the soul so that it is capable of obedience to God.  So moral worth is attainable, but only through the grace of God, as this gift, according to Augustine, is not available to all but rather only to those who are willing to accept the sacrifice of Christ.  For him, God’s grace was to be found in Christ and was the only way to overcome the damage done by Adam and Eve in their act of disobedience. So moral goodness, although limited, is attainable through faith, and so whilst humans may not be entirely morally good of their own accord, they can strive for moral development in this life, culminating in the summum bonum, the most supreme good, in the life to come.

Author: A Meredith

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