Social Reality and Sexual Metaphor in
Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin
Augustinian Studies 23 (December 1992): 125-147.
- The Death of a Friend
- Through Death and Friendship
- Social Transmission, Social Procreation
The only joy to be attained had the fragile brilliance of glass, a joy outweighed by the fear that it may be shattered in a moment.
For modern readers of Augustine, few of his teachings are more difficult to assimilate than his doctrine of original sin. His pilgrimage of faith may inspire, the acumen of his intellect may surprise, the grandeur of his theological achievement may awe, and his struggle with the problem of evil may wrench from the reader a deep empathy. Yet when these converge in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, something seems to ecclipse all else — his attitude toward sexuality. Even so learned and sympathetic a reader as Augustine’s modern biographer Peter Brown found the doctrine shaped by the “harsh moral climate of the age,” by Augustine’s long self-denial of much life experience, and by his polemical skill at conjuring “the fears and prejudices that the average man accepts unconsciously.”
Still, no Augustinian teaching could more potently illumine the modern situation. In the greatest achievements of modern civilization, tragedy and creativity prove inseparable. As the Worldwatch Institute noted in its 1987 State of the World report: “A frustrating paradox is emerging. Efforts to improve living standards are themselves beginning to threaten the health of the global economy.” The household refrigerator became, in the report, a symbol for our time. A basic invention that could vastly improve the quality of life of millions of poor families also bears chemicals that are puncturing the fragile membrane of ozone that protects the planet’s biosphere. On many fronts, humanity is crossing “key thresholds in natural systems” and threatening the earth’s capacity to sustain humankind.
Of course, the human drive to transcend the limits of nature is nothing new, but only the global scale on which its consequences are now evident. Yet that very drive also blinds human beings to the most obvious warnings of even the most dangerous consequences. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a half century ago, “Contemporary history is filled with manifestations of man’s hysterias and furies; with evidences of his dæmonic capacity and inclination to break the harmonies of nature and defy the prudent canons of rational restraint. Yet no cumulation of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself.” This drive, this pride, this permanent tension between human finitude and human transcendence, this perennial defiance of limits through humanity’s misuse of its greatest capacities — this is what Augustine, if not the Bible, has been trying to reveal to us, about us, all along. This is the lesson of original sin.
But if the need to recover Augustine’s doctrine of original sin remains as acute as ever, so too does the problem of how to do so without locking his insights within fifth-century biology or late Roman sexual attitudes. As the preeminent American voice for twentieth-century Neo-Orthodoxy, Niebuhr is particularly instructive. Among theologians of that school Niebuhr attempted most self-consciously to recover the core not just of classical orthodoxy but of Augustinian theology. In The Nature and Destiny of Man he systematically undercut crypto-Pelagian assumptions in modern religious thought, and particularly those of Protestant liberalism. Yet even as he located original sin preeminently in the human will, thereby returning to Augustine, Niebuhr’s explanation of how one generation actually transmits original sin to the next remained closer to liberalism. Like that of liberalism, his was a theory of social rather than sexual transmission.
Niebuhr’s reappraisal of the Augustinian legacy has put us greatly in his debt. Yet he himself recognized that his treatment of original sin left obstacles in the way of modern minds. Of course the doctrine itself suggests that the main obstacle, pride, may prove intractable. But if there is any alternate way to present the doctrine without undue distraction from sexual motifs, we may at least allow its full weight to confront our pride and call us to live within our limits.
The Death of a Friend
There is such an alternative. Augustine himself had at least the raw material for a theory of original sin involving social rather than sexual transmission. Its contours are implicit in books 4 through 6 of the Confessions, beginning with his struggle to come to terms with the death of a friend. There, sexuality was first of all a metaphor for understanding social reality in its most basic link, friend to friend.
Augustine’s account of the death of his nameless friend served the larger purposes of the Confessions in various ways. Book 4 was transitional, setting Augustine on his way from Thagaste to Carthage. In Carthage, his disappointing encounter with the Manichaean teacher Faustus (5.6-7) would move him even more forcefully toward Rome and Milan. But the movement began in book 4, where Augustine the promising youth was unable to rest long in complacency. No sooner had the young man settled down in his career (4.4.7), with his concubine (4.2.2), with his friends and his Manichaean religion (4.1.1) than, “Behold, you took the man from this life when he had scarcely completed a year in my friendship, sweet to me above every sweetness of that life of mine” (4.4.7). The young Manichaean, whose religion he supposed would supply him with neat answers to all questions, became a “great riddle” to himself. Everywhere he looked in his native town, he saw death; everything he had ever done with his friend became a “cruel torture” (4.4.9).
So recounting the event years later, the bishop still confronted a riddle (4.6.11). “Why do I speak of these things?” He ought now to be confessing, he pondered, not questioning. “Wretched was I, and wretched is every soul that is bound fast by friendship for mortal things, that is torn asunder when it loses them, and then first feels the misery by which it is wretched even before it loses those things.” From book 1 of the Confessions Augustine had been plumbing the sin and selfishness evident already in the infant who grasps jealously at the breast (1.6-7). Now he plumbed his grasping at friendship. It was a grasping so selfish that he grieved more at the loss of his friendship than at the loss of the friend himself. “So wretched was I that I held that life of wretchedness to be more dear to me than my friend himself…. I was more unwilling to lose it that I was to lose my friend” (4.6.11). As deeply as he seemed to be grieving for his friend, Augustine discovered even more deeply within his soul that the friend was more dear as an instrument to be used for creating the pleasures of friendship than he was dear in and for himself.
But there was a new element in book 4. Such a wretchedness was tragically self-perpetuating, tragically self-punishing. Once jolted by the death of one friend, he would always anticipate the death of any friend, grasping at passing friendship ever more tenaciously, sensing the loss ever earlier, descending still further into self-centeredness, and on and on. The downward spiral would continue at least until he learned “how to love men, as men should be loved” (4.7.12). Augustine’s main point was that he should have lifted his burden to God, not sought solace in human friends for the pain he had lately found inherent in all finite friendship. But whether a mature Augustine could ever break the cycle and fully learn to love his Christian friends in God (4.12.18) is an open question.
For now, his choice was the sole solace of new friends in Carthage (4.8.13). It was a choice that in one tiny circle reproduced all the creativity and tragedy of human society itself. In a way, time and a change in scenery did heal Augustine’s sorrow. “Most of all, the solace of other friends restored and revived me.” But in these friends, “I loved what I loved in place of you. This was a huge fable and a long-drawn out lie, and by its adulterous fondling, our soul, itching in its ears, was corrupted. But that fable did not die for me, even when one of my friends would die.” The fable was not the Manichaeism that his friends may have shared, but the pretense of human society itself. It was more like the fable of Roma Aeterna, the social creativity and tragic pretense of which Augustine would treat in the City of God. For now, Augustine went on to describe all the exchanges –jovial or high-sounding, contentious or pleasing– wherein he and his comrades created the illusion of transcendent unity out of their self-serving use of one another. These thousand gestures “were like fuel to set our minds ablaze and to make but one out of many.”
An “adulterous fondling.” “Fuel to set our minds ablaze” with passionate friendship. Just as Augustine would later say of the lust that Adam’s sin had imposed on human sexuality, friendship in book 4 of the Confessions was self-punishing. For in fact, the fable of human society, the illusion of self-transcendence, “is what we love in our friends” (4.9.14). And so, our consciences condemn us not only when we refuse to return the love of another, but even when we reciprocate. For at some level of consciousness, we know we are false; it is not really the friend we care most about, but rather, it is the friendship that pleases us and the friend is the instrument we need to enjoy it. Sin taints even the best of human friendships, therefore, because each violates the other with mutually instrumental treatment.
The tragedy is more melancholy than brutal, yet devastating nonetheless. The more passionately we enjoy the beauty of earthly goods, which include friendship, the more we hasten their demise, or at least awareness of their demise (4.10.15). Yet as long as death must be feared, what choice do we have but to grasp at such finite parts of the whole as we can (4.11.17)? That Augustine addressed this question to his now-converted soul, which knew that God is the whole, but which was still subject to finitude, hints that this propensity for sin remains for the regenerate Christian as surely as does the lust that, according to Augustine’s later writings, transmits original sin.
In any case, there is clearly no way back to the garden. In what may be an allusion to the angels guarding the gates of Eden, Augustine confessed in 4.15.26 that “I strove towards you, but I was driven back from you, so that I might taste of death, for you resist the proud.” Yet there might be a way to return to a mansion that had never known the fall. So promise the closing lines of book 4. Although “we have become perverted” by turning from God, our good abides forever, “beyond all decay,” for our good is God’s own self. Hence “we do not fear lest there be no place to return to, although we rushed headlong from it, for while we were far from you, our mansion, your eternity, fell not into ruin” (4.16.31).
Through Death and Friendship
Any such return, however, would have to mean facing the reality of death squarely (“tasting death”), rather than fleeing from it into illusion. In the City of God Augustine would make this explicit. Its discussion of the fall and original sin (books 13 and 14) notes how “the great and wonderful grace of our Saviour” inverts the logic of death and puts it to good use in the service of righteousness. Where death first came by sinning, righteousness now comes by dying. For “It was then said to man, ‘You will die if you sin.’ Now it is said to the martyrs, ‘Die, rather than sin.'” In the martyr, what was an object of fear becomes an instrument of virtue.
But not in the martyr only. In the Confessions the same logic was already implicit, and with only passing reference to martyrdom. Monica, the paradigm of ordinary Christian virtue, had long ago “put me before you on a bier” in her mind (6.1.1). And unlike both Adam and Eve, and Augustine himself, she could obey immediately upon learning from Ambrose that she should not bring to the shrines of the martyrs “a basket filled with the fruits of the earth” (6.2.2)! Augustine professed amazement at the devout obedience with which she willingly accused her own custom rather than willfully resisting the bishop’s command. Of course, Augustine’s own will was at this time teetering powerlessly between devoting himself “wholly to seeking God and a life of happiness” and retaining the pleasing things of the world with “no small sweetness of their own” (6.11.19). But he could not even search for the truth of the former, much less will to obey it, without investigating the reality of death. That is where his own change, his moral conversion, began. And that is where, in response to the Romans 13:14 command to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” who had willingly suffered death, it would climax (8.12.29).
Along the way, however, Augustine walked in the company of friends. The multiple conversions in book 8 of the Confessions are well known. Our own interest in them is focused: In portraying victory over sin they also illumine the original problem of sin. The conversion of Victorinus (8.2) stands in especially sharp contrast to the famous account of Augustine’s youthful theft of pears (2.4 and ff). There Augustine presented and then dissected the gratuitous evil of the crime he committed when he and his friends stole pears from a neighbor’s garden.
Since the pears were in fact rotten, and he had better ones at home, Augustine at first claimed to find no purpose in the theft whatsoever: “Foul was the evil, and I loved it…. I sought nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself!” (2.4.9; cf. 2.8.16). It was an act of sheer willfulness, revealing the dynamic of evil all the more clearly in its ostensible insignificance. And yet there was an alluring good involved, the good of the gang’s groupness itself. “The friendship of men, bound together by a loving tie, is sweet because of the unity that it fashions among many souls” (2.5.11). Yet by embracing this lower good, “the soul commits fornication when it is turned away from you and, apart from you, seeks such pure, clean things as it does not find except when it returns to you” (2.6.14). The writer of the Confessions would have been the last to shift the blame for his act away from his own willful decision. And yet his final comment was that “By myself I would not have committed that theft in which what pleased me was not what I stole but the fact that I stole. This would have pleased me not at all if I had done it alone; nor by myself would I have done it at all. O friendship too unfriendly!” Friendship was in fact the “unfathomable seducer of the mind.” Any kind of mindless crime becomes possible “merely when someone says, ‘Let’s go! Let’s do it!’ and it is shameful not to be shameless!” (2.9.17).
The process of Victorinus’ conversion involved precisely the opposite movement of the will (8.2). As an eminent Roman professor of rhetoric, translator of Plotinus and thundering defender of paganism, Victorinus had earned a statue in the Roman forum itself, already during his lifetime. Yet in his waning years he “did not blush” to become a newborn Christian, “to bend his neck under the yoke of humility and to lower his brow before the reproach of the cross.” At first, he simply studied the scriptures, secretly assented, and privately admitted to Simplicianus that he was a Christian. But finally he “put aside shame from vanity and became modest before the truth.” He identified with Christianity, attended church, became a catechumen, and received baptism in the most public of ways. “Rome stood in wonder, and the Church rejoiced.”
News of Victorinus’s conversion was critical to Augustine’s own. Learning of it from Simplicianus began to undo the kind of web that had snared Augustine in his sixteenth year. Because Victorinus had despised the shame of being a Christian and resisted the sophisticated peer pressure of the Roman elite, Augustine himself could respond to a new and positive peer pressure, sense a little less shame, and begin to overcome the shameful web of internalized pressures to remain willfully in sin. In the end, of course, Augustine and none other must obey the command to “Take up and read,” then respond to what he read in Romans 13:13-14. But a great cloud of witnesses mediated the grace to do so. After Victorinus came the life of Antony, which provoked Augustine’s anguished wondering that the “unlearned rise up and take heaven by storm,” while erudite ones like himself claim to seek truth but are ashamed to follow (8.8.19). Then, just before hearing the command in the garden of Trèves, Augustine saw a vision of Continence herself, surrounded by a crowd of ordinary but continent Christians (8.11.27). They too shamed Augustine into despising his own shame and embracing the stern but peaceful humility of Jesus Christ. Salvation came with a new set of peers, and a redirected passion. “For when many men rejoice together, there is a richer joy in each individual, since they enkindle themselves and they inflame one another” (8.4.9).
Even so, ambivalence about how to take pleasure in souls by loving them in God without inordinate grasping, continues in the life of the Christian. The first part of the Confessions ends eerily, with all the themes we have charted converging around the death of Augustine’s mother, Monica. His friendship with her had just reached its earthly term in the Ostia vision of eternal, “ravishing,” shared fellowship with God (9.10). Augustine at first stifled his grief, then struggled with how to express it. In private, he finally allowed himself to weep. But by writing of it later, his grief was no longer private and he struggled again with shame. Please, he pleaded with the reader, do not interpret my weeping with scorn (9.12). Did he still fear lest he cling too tightly to the noblest human fellowship?
Social Transmission, Social Procreation
“If you find pleasure in bodily things, praise God for them, and direct your love to their maker,” wrote Augustine guardedly as he reflected on the death of his friend. “If you find pleasure in souls, let them be loved in God” (4.12.18).
Augustine could never resolve neatly the tensions of either sexuality or friendship. But to remain sexually continent — this at least he could resolve once and for all. Augustine’s passion for friendship offered no such line in the sand. He admitted this himself, as Brown has pointed out. In book 10, after more or less sorting the ordinate from the sinful uses of earthly pleasures such as food and music, Augustine despaired at assessing the joys of conversation and the praise of friends. “For other types of temptation I have some kind of ability for self-examination, but for this scarcely any” (10.60). Throughout his life, Augustine expressed his yearning for the physical presence of absent friends in almost erotic language. Brown has noted that “the most characteristic anxiety of Augustine, was the manner in which he still felt deeply involved with other people…. Having read the life of this extremely inward-looking man, we suddenly realize, to our surprise, that he has hardly ever been alone…. Augustine has hardly changed in this: in middle age he remains delightfully and tragically exposed to ‘that most unfathomable of all involvements of the soul — friendship.'”
Perhaps Augustine could more easily bear to implicate sexual intercourse than social intercourse in the transmission of original sin. Clearly friendship warmed Augustine’s heart, while sexuality had a cold objectivity that made it a blunt weapon in Augustine’s rhetorical assault on Pelagian optimism. As the battle progressed, his account of original sin became harsher and more vivid. Meanwhile, the biography of Augustine by his friend Possidius assures us that in the midst of his battles against heresy, an aging Augustine welcomed to his table a constant influx of clerical friends.
Who is to begrudge him this mature Christian “pleasure in souls?” No one, surely, had he not begrudged a like pleasure in the bodily communion even of mature Christian spouses. By now it should be clear how alike these pleasures are — how alike they were even in the mind of a younger, mellower Augustine. According to Brown’s reading, at roughly the time that he wrote the Confessions Augustine “had even gone so far as to suggest, with great sensitivity, that the quality of sexual intercourse itself might be modified and transformed by the permanent friendship of two people in marriage.”
In fact, even a harsher, older Augustine witnessed to this continuity. Examined closely, at least some of his later formulations of original sin and its transmission turn out to implicate the social rather than the biological dimension of sexual intercourse. In Marriage and Concupiscence 1.27 it is clearly lust, not semen, that is the vehicle for original sin. Marriage and procreation are good, as Augustine often insisted. But
whenever it comes to the actual process of generation, the very embrace which is lawful and honourable cannot be effected without the ardour of lust…. [This lust] is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins. Now from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin….
Lust, or “carnal concupiscence,” resides in the soul, not the body, as Augustine reminded his readers throughout book 14 of the City of God. If a soul is attracted –perversely or otherwise– to another’s body or soul or both, then a social relationship, a social transaction, is involved.
As the most vivid and mercurial of all social relationships, sexuality is alternately the most creative or destructive of human encounters. There is no reason to deny its power as a metaphor for the potential creativity and tragedy in all human relationships. But what we may wish that Augustine had made clearer is precisely that it is a metaphor. At least it was a metaphor at mid-career when Augustine wrote the Confessions and described friendships as an “adulterous fondling.” In his later anti-Pelagian polemic, the metaphor eventually eclipsed the reality it was meant to describe. But this in no way prevents us –precisely as we reduce the metaphor to its original proportions– from regaining sight of what he was trying to describe even then. All human relationships, even the noblest of friendships, are capable of transmitting original sin. For if the potential for using the other instrumentally is nowhere clearer than in the sexual act, nowhere is it clearly absent either.
The implication as we reconstruct a theory of original sin is that anything Augustine said about friendship is potentially serviceable for a sexual ethic, and anything he said about sexuality is potentially serviceable for a social ethic. If we may name the taint in all friendship –all “pleasure in souls”– so too may we honor the goodness of sexual pleasure between faithful marriage partners who learn, over time, the kind of continence and preference for the other without which sexual pleasure cannot finally be satisfying. The contested question of whether Augustine really condemned sexual pleasure is no longer so pressing. At the very least, sexual pleasure in a mature Christian marriage is no less sinful than the pleasure that any two hearty friends find in their friendship — and more likely, it is fully as good.
But the main reason for clarifying Augustine’s attitude toward sexuality, at least here, is to clear our own view of original sin. Reassurance concerning the goodness of sexual pleasure in marriage may help make the doctrine of original sin accessible to Christians in the modern era. But our conclusions must focus back on the doctrine itself. Of primary importance, the correlation between sexuality and friendship yields positive insights into the structure of original sin. The legitimate worry about theories of socially transmitted original sin is that they dilute each person’s responsibility for sin by focusing on external conditioning. But if we understand Augustine aright, not only can we say that original sin is socially transmitted, we must say that we ourselves are socially procreated.
Complex webs of social solidarity shape and permeate our very identities, which we ourselves cannot help but appropriate as consciousness dawns. Whatever Augustine would later say about the mechanics of procreation, “fathering” was for him first of all a socially constructed project of moral (mal)formation; in the Confessions 2.3 he complained that his father engendered dubious social ideals in him with no concern for his moral education. Augustine’s teaching on original sin has always been most coherent (and least Manichaean) where it is clear that the complex of social solidarity, not biology, is the import of procreation: From the moment of conception on, we are part of this complex, we are members of the human race, we accept human standards as our own, we are intimately bound up in Adam. There is simply no other way to be a human being without implicating ourselves in this network, for “the human race is, more than any other species, at once social by nature and quarrelsome by perversion.” Further, since we are a dying race from birth, there is no way to steel ourselves against despair and remain sane without embracing the proud and massive “fable” of societal greatness and immortality. No way, that is, except to embrace in the cross the truth about ourselves. Our hope is humble confession of our sin; our freedom is acceptance of our limits; our life is a gift we lose by grasping.
So the interest here is not to salve the consciences of a promiscuous age but to prick the consciences of an imperialist race bent on overreaching itself. Understanding the doctrine of original sin will actually highlight what is truly sinful in sexual sin — instrumental use of the other. But equally important, a proper understanding will counter the obsession with sexuality that has all too often distracted Christians from applying its lessons to economics, militarism, and violence against the environment. Unfortunately, Augustine was the first one blinded to the full import of his formulation of original sin vis-à-vis slavery, religious persecution, and the state. Surely this is one explanation of why he failed to apply so fully his trenchant critique of the fundamental sin of human pride to policies such as these. “Carnal concupiscence” was once a metaphor for all inordinate grasping at penultimate goods and instrumental use of others. Yet functionally, it increasingly appeared as the fundamental human sin itself. To be sure, this went against Augustine’s best insights. But it is no wonder that so many Christians have misunderstood those insights ever since.
So what should our doctrine of original sin look like today? Without claiming anything like a full elaboration, let me outline seven provisional theses that may serve to mediate between Augustine’s concerns and our own situation:
1. It is the instrumental use of others that we might better describe as the vehicle for transmitting original sin. Summarizing what Augustine meant by concupiscence, Peter Brown has provided what may also serve as a fitting definition of this instrumental use of others: It “was a dark drive to control, to appropriate, and to turn to one’s private ends, all the good things that had been created by God to be accepted with gratitude and shared with others. It lay at the root of the inescapable misery that afflicted mankind.” Friendly concupiscence partakes of this instrumentality subtly, yet just as surely as fleshly concupiscence.
2. In the background, the finitude and contingency that find their ultimate expression in the threat of death provide the permanent occasion for sin — the temptation both to violate the limits of nature and to use other human beings in the driving effort to transcend mortality.
3. As any doctrine of original sin must affirm, sin is not an ontological necessity, even if it is practically inevitable. Theoretically, a child of Adam and Eve who fully came to terms with mortality, ceased to fear death, and formed his or her identity solely through friendship with God and in solidarity with the society of God’s friends, might avoid sin. In fact, this is what Christians affirm concerning Jesus Christ. Yet if even Jesus Christ, with his face set towards Golgatha and his will attuned to that of his heavenly Parent, struggled against temptation, how pervasive is this permanent occasion for our own sin.
4. As soon as we are once treated instrumentally, our own sense of contingency instinctively responds in kind. Born down by the threat of death, we need each other so desperately that we cannot receive one another as gifts of God and relate to one another in pure and respectful mutuality. This friendly concupiscence is a punishment for sin, which perpetuates itself in further sin. Our dignity threatened, we strike back. And the striking back need not be overtly violent. It can also be noble, cultured and pious. When another seeks our friendship, they rarely if ever seek it unselfishly. But as soon as we accept, we willingly make a pact with the devil, so to speak.
5. So not only have we been reared by human cultures where the pattern we soon observe is the instrumental use of others (a fact which by itself would allow us to externalize blame for our own sin), but this is a pattern that we willingly appropriate as our own identity.
6. Only with time, deep acquaintance, and training in virtue does some self-transcending love become possible. But by then, we have reproduced the pattern in our social network.
7. Thus, through the above process, we are socially procreated. Whether or not we have all descended from a historical Adam and Eve is probably irrelevant here. Only one sin, one instrumental use of another, producing a corresponding sense of threat and contingency, is necessary to set the social web shimmering. For the human family is like any dysfunctional family unit; in family systems theory the illness of the “identified patient” is in some way the illness of all.
I believe this provisional outline for a contemporary doctrine of original sin is one that Augustine would recognize. In the City of God his long march through the anthropology of books 13 and 14, toward the history and destiny of the two cities, began in 11.1 with the outline for a theology of power. “[T]he citizens of the earthy city prefer their own gods to the founder of [the] Holy City.” These gods are of course “false gods, the impious and arrogant gods who are deprived of [God’s] changeless light….” They exercise a certain power over the earthly city, but are “reduced to a poverty-stricken kind of power, and engage in a kind of scramble for their lost dominions and claim divine honours from their deluded subjects.” This grasping, arrogant yet poverty-stricken kind of power contrasts with that of the angels, who subject themselves to God’s power in joyful worship. But its hold on the earthly city is that the citizens of this city willingly accept it as the paradigm for their own exercise of power. Augustine announced that he would be demonstrating precisely that “the beginnings of those two cities arose from the difference between two classes of angels.”
Human social relations can never transcend all limitations; some instrumental use of nature and of others is inevitable. As Niebuhr would remind us, to think otherwise is to fall into either Pelagian or Utopian illusions, thereby increasing the power of sin through one more effort at a false transcendence that is all the more dangerous for its subtlety. But as Niebuhr also reminded us –including the Augustinians among us– human beings are most free when they discover that they are not free. In the face of seemingly intractable tragedies throughout the social and natural environment that is home to every human being, some creativity is still available. But the paradox of our freedom is that little of it is available without recognition of our limits and respect for the other. Whether that other is a spouse, a friend, an enemy, an employee or a tree, we are married to them all. The need for something like marital continence in all social and ecological relationships has never been greater. If our condition is such that we may never entirely unlearn lust, we might at least avoid abusive relationships and outright adultery.
2. Eastern Orthodox theologians, and not simply modern Westerners, have been repelled by Western Christianity’s Augustinian portrayal of sin in juridical terms, its preoccupation with individual guilt, and its negative attitudes toward erotic sexuality in marriage. See Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality, Contemporary Greek Theologians 3, trans. Elizabeth Briere, with a forward by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984). On juridicism, sin and guilt, pp. 32-47, 92, 150-155; on sexuality, pp. 157-172. Yannaras believes that Augustine was “the font of every distortion and alteration in the Church’s truth in the West”!
3. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 389, 390, 396. Some of the harshest words in Brown’s biography are in this section (387-397) on the doctrine of original sin, as Augustine debated it with Julian of Eclanum. Brown described Augustine as a “sorcerer’s apprentice” accustomed to polemical “tricks” (389). While Brown was sure that Augustine had not returned to Manichaeism by the end of his career, he allowed that the “human race, as Augustine presents it in his works against Julian, is very like the invaded universe of Mani” (395). Brown decided that “in the last resort, there was much that Augustine had refused to accept in the life around him: areas of experience had become unbearable to him, because they had been too long denied” (396).
4. Lester R. Brown and Sandra Postel, “Thresholds of Change,” in Lester R. Brown, et al., State of the World 1987: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987), 4.
6. I suspect that the most compelling critique of the present paper, since it stands with Niebuhr’s appropriation of the Augustinian tradition on this point, may come from feminist theologians such as Valerie Saiving, for whom Niebuhr was a leading representative of the “widespread tendency in contemporary theology to describe man’s predicament as rising from his separateness and the anxiety occasioned by it and to identify sin with self-assertion and love with selflessness” (Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader In Religion, ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979], 25-26). Saiving argued cogently that “the temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man, and the specifically feminine forms of sin … have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as ‘pride’ and ‘will-to-power'” (37). Still, even if the conception of original sin presented here turns out to apply only or especially to men, its relevance to problems such as environmental degradation remains. Feminism may actually throw that relevance into relief. Karen J. Warren, for example, has charted “important connections — historical, symbolic, theoretical — between the domination of women and the domination of nonhuman nature” (Warren, “The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism,” Environmental Studies 12 : 125). There is a marked, if suprising, Augustinian echo in such analysis.
7. Paul W. Taylor, in his proposal for an environmental ethics of respect for nature, energetically denied all claims to human superiority, out of concern about the human propensity to put such a notion to ideological use in justifying exploitation of “lower” species (Taylor, Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, Studies in Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy [Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986]: 129-156). Taylor identified three main sources for this claim, one of which is the hierarchical “concept of the Great Chain of Being” based on Christian monotheism (139-143). Taylor was right that Christians have put this concept to appalling uses, and I am more interested in putting Christianity’s own house in order than in refuting Taylor. But to that end, one must observe that Taylor has not noticed (because too few Christians have noticed) that the more fundamental and relevant claim of orthodox Christianity, is not that there is a Great Chain of Being, but that human beings strive to place themselves at the top of the pyramid, in place of God. It is not human superiority that has gotten us into our environmental mess, but the pretense of over-superiority that orthodox Christianity identifies as the fundamental sin of pride. To place ourselves rightly in the Great Chain of Being is to love ourselves by loving God, and in God, the common good of all creation and every creature (such a picture emerges from a cumulative reading of Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I.60,5; I-II.19,10; I-II.109,3; I-II.21,3-4; II-II.25,1-4, 26,4).
8. Even as he criticized liberalism, in the versions both of Friedrich Schleiermacher and of Walter Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr seemed to allow its argument for social transmission: “By…placing the inherited sloth in history rather than in each man’s own sensual nature, some justice is done to the actual historical continuum in which every human action takes place….” Human Nature: 246, including portion of footnote 3 on Rauschenbusch. Also see pp. 251-254; Niebuhr introduced this section with Kierkegaard’s suggestion that sin always presupposes itself, and closed by asserting that even Adam’s sin was not the first sin, since the devil’s sin preceded it. “One may, in other words, go farther back than human history and still not escape the paradoxical conclusion that the situation of finiteness and freedom would not lead to sin if sin were not already introduced into the situation” (254). This does not mean that a given individual can simply blame the external situation for his or her sin, as Niebuhr rightly insisted. But if the devil is involved in the transmission of sin, neither can it mean sexual transmission.
There are problems in Niebuhr’s recourse to the concept of the devil in explaining original sin (see note here). For the moment, it suffices to observe that sexual transmission is the one element of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin that Niebuhr felt compelled to drop. He did remind moderns that they have missed the “profound insights into the problem of sex in the Christian interpretation of sin,” (235-237), insights which make sexuality a powerful symbol for sinful passions generally (231). But in 1961, when Niebuhr wrote a preface to a new edition of Human Nature, he noted that even his own treatment of the “Fall” and of “original sin” had left difficulties: “My only regret is that I did not realize that the legendary character of the one and the dubious connotations of the other would prove so offensive to the modern mind, that my use of them obscured my essential thesis and my ‘realistic’ rather than ‘idealistic’ interpretation of human nature” (viii).
9. See previous note. Also, Niebuhr’s formulation succumbed to a strange inconsistency. I do not refer to the paradox that is fundamental to any doctrine of original sin — inevitability of sin, yet human responsibility for sin. Rather, on one hand Niebuhr argued against literalist accounts of the Fall, noting that the idea of a second inherited nature obscures full human responsibility for sin (260-264), while on the other, Niebuhr finally relied on just such an account. Without a chronological fall, Niebuhr risked turning inevitability back into ontological or created necessity by locating original sin in the very structure of the human person as finite/transcendent (150ff). This was clearly not his intention, for he wished to insist that the finite/transcendent human structure is the occasion not the cause of sin (178-181). Yet he wrote: “Adam was sinless before he acted and sinful in his first recorded action….This is a symbol for the whole of human history.” Thus he implied that the human being who must act to be human at all is necessarily sinful after all. Perhaps the problem is one that any theologian will have negotiating the horns of a doctrine that is avowedly paradoxical, and we should not be too critical. But Niebuhr’s inconsistency was another: In order to hold his system together and keep inevitability from reverting to necessity, he too reverted to the chronological mythology that he objected to in literalist accounts of the Fall. According to Niebuhr, it is only because the devil sinned before “Adam” that one can assert that “the situation of finiteness and freedom would not lead to sin if sin were not already introduced into the situation” (254).
10. The link between sexuality and social reality, social stability and social ethics was itself hardly original with Augustine, as Peter Brown makes clear at almost every major juncture in The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Lectures on the History of Religions 13 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). See pp. 6-7, 32, 286-288, 304, 388, 418. The tendency of modern interpreters, however, is to treat sexuality and friendship in contradistinction (see Body and Soul: 388, 402, 422; and comments on Elizabeth A. Clark’s “‘Adam’s Only Companion’: Augustine and the Early Christian Debate on Marriage” in note here). The burden of the present paper is to show their continuity for Augustine, clarifying thereby both the role that sexuality originally played for him and the implications of this continuity for social ethics.
12. In 6.16.26 Augustine was grieving at another loss, the departure of his concubine from Milan, and once again, found solace in still other friends. “For without friends I could not be happy, even in that frame of mind and with no matter how great a flood of carnal pleasures. In truth, I loved these friends for their own sakes, and I know that they in turn loved me for my own sake.” Perhaps this offers counter-evidence, for already before becoming a Christian –Augustine seems to have claimed– he had learned to love friends without selfishness. On the other hand, ambivalence remained, for he immediately continued: “O tortuous ways! Woe to my proud soul….” Furthermore, another expression of the same ambivalence returned at no less crucial a place than 9.12.30, Augustine’s account of his grief at the loss of his Christian mother, Monica. “What was it, therefore, that grieved me so heavily, if not the fresh wound wrought by the sudden rupture of our most sweet and dear way of life together?”
In a somewhat different context a similar pattern emerges. In 5.12.22 Augustine confessed his hatred of dishonest students in Rome. He wondered whether “perhaps I hated them because of what I was to suffer at their hands, rather than because they did unjust things to other men.”
14. Augustine consistently juxtaposed, and often merged, references to friendship and to eroticism. This provides us with a firm basis for reading the two issues in continuity and interpreting each in the light of the other. In 4.14.21 he compared his love for a would-be friend and patron to the love that inflames lovers (see note here), and proceeded in 4.14.22 to cluster the “varied and diverse types of love distributed within a single soul.” In 5.12.22 he accused a gang of dishonest Roman students — an older version of Augustine’s own teenage gang of pear thieves (2.4) — of various forms of fornication and harlotry, but their abuses had nothing explicitly to do with sexuality at all, and were rather fornication vis-à-vis God because they involved “embracing a fleeting world” and its trifles.
In 6.11-16 there is an intricate set of discussions concerning continence, marriage, proposals for a community of Augustine’s friends, and the painful departure of Augustine’s concubine. Though Augustine seemed to have sought solace in other women, his real solace at this time of loss came once more from his friends. “In my wretchedness I did not consider from what source it flowed to me that I could discuss so sweetly with my friends these things, foul as they were. For without friends I could not be happy, even in that frame of mind and with no matter how great a flood of carnal pleasures. In truth, I loved these friends for their own sakes, and I know that they in turn loved me for my sake. O tortuous ways! Woe to my proud soul…” (6.16.26).
15. There is another example of this instrumental use of others in IV.14, but it is less powerful because it is more crass. Augustine recounted that he dedicated his first books De pulchro et apto to Hierius, the official orator of Rome, although he knew him only by reputation (4.13). “I loved the man” nonetheless, wrote Augustine, in hopes that Hierius would take notice of his books and approve of them. Obviously Augustine hoped that Hierius’s patronage would further his own reputation and career. While the example is extreme in its crassness, Augustine clearly meant the passage as a commentary on all friendship, for he noted that he would not have loved the man if his reputation had been scandalous. The conclusion is unavoidable: the reputation was all he loved, not the man at all. This reinforces the earlier impression that what he really loved in even his closest friends was the illusion that was their mutual creation.
18. See Genesis 3.24. As many have observed, allusions to the Fall abound throughout the Confessions. The theft of pears from a garden, which dominates book 2 and which will merit further comment below, is perhaps the most noteworthy example. 4.12.18 implies that to grasp at the “sweet” good which is “pleasure in souls” (friendship) is sinful because the use and enjoyment is independent of God. Later, after speculating on the advantages of a drunk beggar on the streets of Milan, who was able to achieve some happiness immediately, Augustine despaired that, “If any good fortune smiled upon me, it was too much trouble to reach out for it, because almost before I could grasp it, it had flown away” (6.6.10; cf. 6.11.18). The vocabulary of “grasping” at “sweetness” and “fruit” occurs repeatedly, and not only in the Confessions. Augustine reported that he delayed conversion because he hesitated to give up sweet and pleasing things (6.11.19) Yet even as he delayed, according to the report in 7.10.16, he heard God saying, “I am the food of grown men. Grow, and you shall feed upon me….”
20. By turning towards rather than numbing the reality of death, Augustine’s thought steered clear of a Stoicism that might seek a salvation of sorts through the apatheia that simply numbs the pleasure of friendship to avoid its ambiguity (cf. De civitate Dei 14.8-10). At the same time, by portraying his conversion as a collective event, shared with friends (Confessions 8, passim) and witnessed by a cloud of ordinary but continent Christians (8.11.27), Augustine also steered clear of a radically ascetic mysticism that renounces all love of creatures (as, for example, in John of the Cross, Subida del Monte Carmelo 1.4).
21. Brown’s comments on the pear tree incident coincide perfectly with the argument of this paper: “Nothing shows Augustine’s preoccupation with the will more clearly than the way in which he recounts his adolescence. His African readers tended to think that a boy was innocent until he reached puberty: ‘as if’ Augustine once said, ‘the only sins you could commit were those in which you use your genitals.’ These, indeed, are the sins that seem to have interested the average reader of the Confessions ever since. Augustine, however, treats them as not very important: in his eyes they paled into insignificance before a single act of vandalism” (172).
23. In the De civitate Dei 19.8 the solace of friendship and the fear of death again appear in a tight and anxious cluster. “[W]hat consolation have we in this human society,” asked Augustine, “…except the unfeigned faith and mutual affections of genuine, loyal friends? Yet the more friends we have the more dispersed they are in different places, the further and more widely extend our fears that some evil may befall them from among all the mass of evils of this present world.” Likewise, Augustine wrote to Proba in 412 that in human affairs, no other earthly goods are friendly towards us if we do not have human friends, and yet no one can know another well enough for friendship to be fully satisfying. “Therefore, amid the shadows of this life in which ‘we are absent from the Lord’ as long as we ‘walk by faith and not by sight,’ the Christian soul should consider itself desolate, and should not cease from praying and from attending with the eye of faith to the divine and sacred Scriptures….This is indeed a dying life, whatever mortal comfort it may shower on us, whatever companions may share it with us, whatever wealth of worldly goods it may lavish on us….” Ep. 130; translation is from Augustine, Saint Augustine: Letters vol. 2, trans., Wilfrid Parsons, S.N.D., The Fathers of the Church 18 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953); emphasis mine.
25. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: 180; quotation is of Confessiones 2.9.17. Also see Brown, Body and Society: 388. On the theology of friendship that Augustine developed as he aged, see: Marie Aquinas McNamara, Friends and Friendship for Saint Augustine (Staten Island, New York: Alba House, 1964); and Joseph T. Lienhard, “Friendship in Paulinus of Nola and Augustine,” Augustiniana 40 (1990): 279-296.
27. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: 390, citing De bono coniugali 3.3. I am not sure how Brown could find in this particular passage any transformation of sexual intercourse, since the transformation of marriage through friendship appeared inversely related to the declining possibility of sexual relations as old age sets in. In fact, in The Body and Society Brown seemed to have revised his earlier opinion, writing: “Augustine never found a way, any more than did any of his Christian contemporaries, of articulating the possibility that sexual pleasure might, in itself, enrich the relations between husband and wife” (402). Nonetheless, Brown was certainly right to highlight the eloquence with which De bono coniugali 3.3 (along with 1.1) portrays the quality of companionate marriage. And there is the hint of a suppressed but more positive attitude toward sexual intercourse in Augustine’s willingness to recount a discussion of marriage and the pursuit of wisdom with his continent friend Alypius in Confessions 6.12.21. As late as the City of God, where Augustine fully developed his doctrine of original sin, he did so with eloquence rather than pathos, and this allowed him to comment warmly: “Furthermore, the fact that a woman was made for the first man from his own side shows us clearly how affectionate should be the union of man and wife” (12.28). All in all, as Elizabeth A. Clark has pointed out, Augustine had a far more positive view of marriage than any other patristic writer, and most notably, Jerome. See Elizabeth A. Clark, “‘Adam’s Only Companion’: Augustine and the Early Christian Debate on Marriage, Recherches Augustiniennes 21 (1986): 139-162.
28. Elizabeth A. Clark and Paula Fredriksen have recently taken opposite positions on this question. See Clark, “Adam’s Only Companion” (note here); Clark, “Vitiated Seeds and Holy Vessels: Augustine’s Manichean Past,” in Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism, ed. Karen L. King, Studies in Antiquity and Christianity (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1988), 367-401; Fredriksen, “Response to ‘Vitiated Seeds and Holy Vessels: Augustine’s Manichean Past’ by Elizabeth A. Clark,” in King: 402-409; and Fredriksen, “Beyond the Body/Soul Dichotomy: Augustine on Paul Against the Manichaens and the Pelagians,” Recherches Augustiniennes 23 (1988): 87-114. Clark has argued that Julian of Eclanum exposed the weak point in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, a faulty biology that was Manichaean in origin. Fredriksen has argued that Augustine was the first to overcome the body-soul dualism of all his interlocutors by showing that sin resides in both the body and the soul as a unit. Fredriksen added that this “has the curious effect of elevating human sexuality from the realm of the purely biological to the emotionally conflicted, compulsive, and indeed uniquely human world of the psychological” (“Response”: 408). And the world of the social, I might add. My own reading would mediate between Clark and Fredriksen. Augustine’s social analysis, already in the Confessions but supremely in the City of God, was, I agree, far ahead of his time. In fact, he may not have fully grasped its implications himself, and in any case, could hardly make full use of it in his debates with others. The web of social relationships did not provide hard enough data (was not sticky enough, as it were) to prove that original sin inevitably snared (and internally poisoned) every individual. And so, Clark is probably right that Augustine relied more and more on biology to make his point. Yet Fredriksen is probably right that his best insights led in another direction.
29. Translation of De bono coniugali is from A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. V, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, Mich., Eerdmans, 1978-1983; reprint of 1886-1890 edition). Emphasis added.
30. De civitate Dei 14.5, 14.13, 14.15. Prime evidence, for Augustine, was the sin of the devil and the fallen angels. They are quite able to sin without bodies, and in spite of immortality. Cf. Brown, Body and Society: 418.
32. Writing from the discipline of Christian ethics rather than Augustine studies, I am not in a position to extend the claim to historical theology, as though one could exegete every Augustinian text on sexuality in a way that directly correlates with texts on friendship, or vice versa. Certainly, if the theses of this paper are valid, there should turn out to be much more continuity than interpreters have noticed. In fact, the burden of proof ought perhaps to rest with hypotheses that assume discontinuity. I find Elizabeth A. Clark’s otherwise helpful article, “‘Adam’s Only Companion,'” to be problematic at just this point. She did not seem to reckon with the possibility that companionate friendship and sexual desire were two parts of a single problem for Augustine (139), and read a stark conflict between the two in precisely those passages of the Confessions where I have noted continuity (141ff). Actually, the passage in the City of God (De civitate Dei 14.11) from which she drew her title offers further evidence of continuity. If Adam knowingly sinned out of social solidarity with Eve, whom Satan had deceived, then companionate friendship is hardly more pristine and unproblematic than is sexual reproduction. Of course Clark was right, for reasons she may not have noticed, when she suggested that it was Augustine’s “theme of companionate marriage,…not the insistence upon the sexual and reproductive dimensions of marriage,” which would have provided him with a better case against Julian of Eclanum (157). In that very passage in the City of God, Augustine had portrayed the original transmission of Eve’s original sin as occurring socially.
33. Clark, in both “‘Adam’s Only Companion'” (149) and “Vitiated Seeds” (373), pointed out that the Pelagians forced Augustine to concede that “possibly –but only possibly– libido could have been exercised in a sinless Eden, although there it would have acted in cooperation with the will, not against it” (quotation is from the first article).
34. Of course it has never been clear that theories of sexually transmitted original sin finally avoid this problem either, since it is even harder to take responsibility for one’s biology than for one’s social inheritance. As Clark and Fredriksen agreed, if Augustine’s teaching rested on biology, Julian won the debate.
35. I owe this insight to John C. Cavadini, University of Notre Dame. In an unpublished communication Cavadini noted the narrative function of Augustine’s father in the Confessions 2.3 (significantly, just prior to the pear tree incident). Augustine’s father took pains to give him a good education as socially defined, but showed no concern for his moral education — unless negatively, by celebrating his adolescent desires at the baths. So on one hand, fathering as a “socially-constructed project” meant engrafting social ideals into the child. On the other, it meant passing on the social infection, “that intoxication, wherein this world, from the unseen wine of its own perverse will, tending down towards lower things, forgets you, its creator, and loves your creature more than yourself.”
36. De civitate Dei 13.14, 14.13; De peccato originali 36; De nuptiis et concupiscientia II 5.14; De bono coniugali 1.1. Eugene TeSelle has summarized: “Original sin is not biological for Augustine. It does not affect the genetic makeup of man; rather it is a kind of malfunction in the development of the personality. But it is associated with procreation, for it is “propagated” from one generation to the next.” Original sin is not a mere juridical bond, based on legal unity, but involves the moral unity of the race. “Adam’s descendants participate in his transgression because they have been begotten and born and brought up in disorder…. And yet Augustine does not think that this is a merely coincidental, de facto unity in sin; there is an inevitability about it, moral and natural at once….” Augustine the Theologian (New York: Herder and Herder; London: Burns & Oates, 1970), 318. Brown succinctly put the matter this way: “The Pelagian man was essentially a separate individual: the man of Augustine is always about to be engulfed in vast, mysterious solidarities” (360). Cf. also Paula Fredriksen’s position in note here.
39. Paul Rigby’s Original Sin in Augustine’s “Confessions” (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1987) embarks from interests somewhat different from my own, gives primary attention to different portions of the Confessions, and relegates the problem of transmission to an appendix (with the explicit statement that the “details of the handing down of concupiscence are … not essential” to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin). Yet Rigby reached conclusions that complement my own: “Adam fell and was punished with the threefold punishment of ignorance, concupiscence, and mortality…. [H]is descendants inherit from him this threefold punishment corresponding to the trinitarian structure of his sin…. Thus mortality negates man’s existence (his memory); ignorance denies man knowledge of the truth; concupiscence turns man’s love into hate. The threefold inherited punishment destroys man’s one essence, one mind, and one life. The only cure is humility. Humility alone enables the soul to be a being who knows and wills as God knows and wills. Moreover, Christ is the only effective source of this humility….” (113)
My main question concerning Rigby’s approach is whether this “trinitarian” dimension of original sin does not confuse the state resulting from original sin with that sin itself. That the same threefold situation exists in each generation does not explain how it passes from one generation to the next. Here we must focus mainly on concupiscence after all, both because Augustine is quite explicit that this is what transmits original sin, and because this is what causes problems for the modern thinker. (1) No one denies that sexual procreation passes on mortality, but we do not sin because we die. (Cf. De peccatorum meritis et remissione III 20.11; and Niebuhr: 173). And (2) ignorance does not need to be passed on. So even if Rigby was right about the trinitarian structure of our state of fallenness (and I think he reads Augustine correctly here), the key issue in how humans pass sin to one other by sinning remains (3) the meaning of concupiscence, or that for which it is a metaphor.
43. Leander S. Harding, Jr. has used family systems theory to present a creative if slightly idiosyncratic theory of atonement. In the therapeutic practice that corresponds to family systems theory, a single family member with the strength to confront the systemic illness can begin to effect the healing of all. This may or may not suggest an adequate account of Christ’s positive saving work, but it does suggest a way to describe how sin has worked its way through the entire human family. See “A Unique and Final Work: The Atonement as a Saving Act of Transformative Obedience” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 24 (Winter 1987): 80-92.