Augustine Project Week Twenty-Five

This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.

City of God 14.1–14.11.

Book fourteen discusses the distinction between flesh and spirit and how they relate to our emotions and our bodies. Augustine will also critique some philosophical positions, especially the Stoics.

14.1–2. Citizens of the City of God live by the spirit, and citizens of the City of Man live by the flesh. But what exactly is meant by spirit and flesh? Augustine claims that even the high-minded philosophers live by the flesh.

Flesh means a number of different things in the various passages of Scripture. Here Augustine uses it to refer to the totality of the human individual and society in its fallen state. Only God’s redeemed live by the spirit.

Augustine refers to those who believed that Christ had no human soul. This doctrine was known as Apollinarianism, which was condemned as heresy in the fourth century. (My copy of the Penguin edition misplaces the footnote on this a sentence too early, which might confuse some readers.)

14.3–4. Augustine argues that “the flesh” does not cause us to sin. Rather corruptible flesh is the punishment for the sin of Adam. He says that a corrupted body might incite a person to sin, but it cannot be the source of sin. After all, the Devil is the father of wickedness, but he has no fleshy body.

The real source of sin, Augustine says, “is living by the rule of self, that is the rule of man.” Human sin is satanic in that it substitutes the individual’s standard of morality for God’s standard.

This distinction separates the two cities. Those people who live by man’s standard belong to the City of Man; those people who live by God’s standard are citizens of the City of God.

14.5. The flesh was originally good in its nature, but it is perverted when it lives by its own standard instead of God’s. This idea is opposite the Manicheans who taught that the creator of the material world was an evil deity co-eternal with God. Augustine claims that the Platonists had a better idea than the Manicheans because they merely claimed that the flesh weighed down the soul, causing it to lust after the wrong things. He believes, however, that the Platonists are inconsistent on this point in locating all sin in the flesh.

14.6. Augustine attempts to defend emotions from their critics, for example the Stoic Cicero. He claims emotions are an act of the will, and their goodness or badness depends not on the emotion itself, but what it is directed toward.

The relationship between will and emotions is an interesting question. I think it’s worth comparing Augustine’s explanation to Jonathan Edwards who suggested that the will is dependent on the emotions. One must act on his desires. Edwards said what we believe influences what we desire and what we desire influences what we do. Augustine believes that the Christian, imperfectly now and perfectly in his final body, employs emotions through the will, which is directed at God.

At the end of this passage, Augustine tells his reader to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” It’s an old idea.

14.7. Augustine feels it necessary to defend the concept of love. Stoics tended to be suspicious of love. Augustine says that love isn’t the problem, no matter which word for it you use. The problem is when love is directed toward the wrong end.

14.8. Augustine discusses the emotions of will, gladness, and caution, which the Stoics believed belonged to the wise man, and the emotions of desire, joy, fear, and grief, which they believed belonged to the fool. He considers whether Scripture supports this idea, and he notes some passages that do seem to conform to this usage.

He decides, however, that language isn’t so neat and tidy. Scripture doesn’t speak consistently in this manner, and not even the Stoics maintain their consistency. Augustine says that all these emotions can be either good or bad, depending on the end to which they are directed.

At the end of the chapter, he tells a story about Alcibiades and Socrates that he found in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. Alcibiades was one of Socrates’ pupils in Athens, but Thucydides tells us that he went wrong, becoming a traitor during the Peloponnesian War. In antiquity, Alcibiades becomes a cautionary tale of the danger of putting one’s own glory before the welfare of the city. The Tusculan Disputations also includes the story of the Sword of Damocles, another tale that explores what constitutes happiness.

14.9. Augustine gives scriptural evidence for his assertion that rightly directed emotions are part of the Christian life. He relies on the example of the apostles and of Jesus himself.

Stoic apathy is not the goal of the Christian. In the New Heavens and New Earth, the Christian might be apathetic concerning grief and fear, but love and gladness will be appropriate in eternity. Moreover, Augustine argues that grief and fear are appropriate on this side of eternity.

Augustine thinks those people in the City of Man who constrain their emotions give themselves over to pride, which makes them even more insufferable than the man ruled by his passions.

(My Penguin edition has a confusing typo on page 564. It reads, “If we say that there is no sun in us, we are fooling ourselves.” It should read, “If we say that there is no sin.”)

14.10–11. There could be no fear or grief in the Garden before the first sin, and Augustine speculates that if Adam and Eve had not sinned, then, after the predestined number of citizens of the City of God were born, God would have blessed everyone with a new body.

Instead though, humans chose to abandon God’s standard and follow their own. Augustine says that since the human will has abandoned God, it cannot rightly be called “free.” He says, “The choice of the will, then, is genuinely free only when it is not subservient to faults and sin.” Only Christ can liberate the will.

Augustine then compares the culpability of Adam and Eve in the Fall. The serpent seduced Eve, but Adam sinned through standing in solidarity with Eve. Adam is guilty, but not guilty of exactly the same thing as Eve. Augustine believes that Adam knowingly entered into sin, but that he didn’t understand the devastating consequences.

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