Augustine and the Nature of Sin
In common parlance the phrase “it is in my nature to ______” generally holds the connotation that the action is faultless, since the subject cannot possibly be held responsible for its own nature. The same would seem to hold for inevitable actions that derive from nature. At issue in this post is Augustine’s concept of ‘nature’, which encompasses a vague set of variables that are seemingly in flux. This creates several problems when considering the concepts of original sin, free will, and punishment. Specifically I believe that Augustine fails to define nature adequately and thereby leaves his interpretation open to a certain set of criticisms, which I will enumerate. First I will briefly outline Augustine’s argument surrounding the origin of sin in a free will, and the role that nature plays in his argument. From there I will offer an interpretation of our nature and will contrary to Augustine’s, namely that it is a fault of our nature to be mutable and thus it is unjust to punish the inevitable corruption. Drawing a contrast between these two viewpoints, I will show how neither option is consistent with his writings and thus neither is preferable.
Free Will As Source of Sin
First I will establish the goodness of our nature, and then outline the cause of sin. Augustine’s theory of creation plays a pivotal role in the themes of nature, original sin, and free will. Augustine tells us that God is immutable and absolutely Good – and it would follow that if God fashioned all of creation out of his very being, all things would be immutable and good. But because God fashioned all of creation out of nothingness, it is all subject to change: “Thus we say that there is only one unchanging Good; and that is the one, true, and blessed God. The things he made are good because they were made by him; but they are subject to change, because they were made not out of his being but out of nothing,” (472). And so, created from nothingness by the perfectly good God, we are given a nature which we know to be good, since, “the things he made are good because they were made by him,” (472). Thus it is that we have a good and mutable nature. We also know, based on what Augustine says about the Devil, that our nature can never become so corrupted that it ceases being good: “There exists, then, a nature in which there is no evil, in which, indeed, no evil can exist; but there cannot exist a nature in which there is no good. Hence not even the nature of the Devil himself is evil, in so far as it is a nature; it is perversion that makes it evil…The good that God imparts, which the Devil has in his nature, does not withdraw him from God’s justice by which his punishment is ordained,” (871). And so, based upon these passages in City of God, we can conclude that God gives all things a good nature by virtue of his authorship and this nature can never be completely corrupted.
This nature is mutable and thus subject to corruption, yet even the most corrupt of natures (the Devil’s) is still fundamentally good.
Crucial to Augustine’s conception of nature is that there is no such thing as an evil nature, since evil is a corruption of good and not a substance in itself: “The conclusion is that although a fault cannot hurt unchangeable good, it cannot hurt anything except a good of some kind, since it only exists where it does harm. It may be put in this way: a fault cannot exist in the Highest Good, but it cannot exist except in some kind of good,” (474). With this knowledge we will investigate Augustine’s view of the corruption of the will and the justice of God’s punishment.
As with everything God created, Adam and Eve possessed good nature and free wills. In the garden God gave them every tree to eat from except one, which he expressly forbade. Though the traditional story is that the first sin was eating from this tree, Augustine’s view is different. For Adam and Eve to have even decided to disobey God they must necessarily have sinned first in their will and subsequently in their action. Of this Augustine says, “For they would not have arrived at the evil act if an evil will had not preceded it…This then is the original evil: man regards himself as his own light, and turns away from that light which would make man himself a light if he would set his heart on it. This evil came first, in secret, and the result was the other evil, which was committed in the open,” (571-3). Because Adam and Eve had good, yet mutable, natures and they still sinned, Augustine reasons that our nature cannot possibly be the source of sin. He also claims that this does not make logical sense: “For if [we were to say] nature is the cause of the evil will, can we help saying that evil is derived from good, and that good is the cause of evil? This must be so, if the evil will derives from a nature which is good. But how can this be? How can a nature which is good, however changeable, before it has an evil will, be the cause of any evil, the cause, that is, of that evil will itself?” (479). Thus Augustine’s view is that, because the idea of evil coming from good is absurd, the will itself must be the efficient cause of an evil choice and not nature.
This is the source of Augustine’s theory that a free choice, made with a free will and a good nature, is the source of sin and corruption of our natures. It would follow then that if our wills are truly separate from our natures, and our natures are good and do not inform our wills, then it would be just for God to punish an act of will and not an act of nature. Of this Augustine says, “[Punishment] is just, in that no one is punished for faults of nature but for faults of will; and even the wickedness which has become habitual, and has developed and hardened into ‘second nature’, had its origin in an act of choice,” (474). This seems to be a fair statement, since our nature is not something we have control over though our will certainly is. We will return to this iteration of justice shortly as we discuss the issues present in Augustine’s argument, which we will now turn to.
Mutability as the Source of Sin
It appears equally plausible that rather than sin spawning from our free will and corrupting our good nature, our nature is flawed in that it is mutable and this corruptibility degrades our will and leads us to make sinful decisions. Augustine essentially admits that the cause of our evil choice lies in our mutable nature. While discussing how an evil choice could possibly come from a nature that is good he says:
And so if anyone asserts that the man himself caused the evil choice, though before that evil choice he was undoubtedly good, he must go on to ask why he caused it. Was it because he is a natural being, or because his natural being is created from nothing? It will then be found that the evil choice takes its origin not from the fact that the man is a natural being, but from the fact that his natural being is created from nothing. (479)
If our evil choices are based on our natural being having come from nothingness instead of God’s being, and our mutable nature is a product of our coming from nothing as we discussed earlier, then transitively our evil choices derive from our nature. This calls into question our consideration of God’s justice as outlined by Augustine, who said that, “no one is punished for faults of nature but for faults of will,” (474). For God’s punishment of evil choices to be unjust it must be the case that mutability is a flaw in our nature. This would seem to be the case, since earlier it was mentioned that God’s nature is immutable and perfect. Because humanity’s nature even prior to the Fall, when Adam and Eve were in the most perfect and original state humanity could aspire to, is mutable it must necessarily be imperfect because it is not like God’s nature.
In this way we have illuminated the following line of reason: God has created our natures out of nothingness, and due to this our nature is mutable and subject to change. As outlined above, Augustine believes our nature to be inherently good – and because it would be blasphemy to think God’s creation could be improved upon, any change to our nature must necessarily be to its detriment: “If, on the other hand, the good angels were at first without this good will, and produced it by themselves without the operation of God, then they themselves improved upon God’s original creation, which is unthinkable,” (483). Also, if human nature were created with a good nature and walked in the Garden with God and knew his will, what other than degradation of our nature could lead us to turn from him? Thus if it is in the ‘nature’ of our nature to change and the only change possible is a corrupting one, how could it be considered just to hold us accountable for the inevitable?
From the start of creation, all things began to change from the way God created them, and Adam and Eve’s nature were not exempt from this. According to Augustine the beasts and trees decayed in nature: “It would be ridiculous, on the other hand, to regard the defects of beasts, trees and other mutable and mortal things which lack intelligence, sense, or life, as deserving condemnation. Such defects do indeed effect[sic] the decay of their nature, which is liable to dissolution,” (475). I believe it is just as plausible that, based on the reasoning above, as time elapsed in the Garden the natures of Adam and Eve began to slowly degrade, eventually affecting their wills and spawning the decision to eat from the forbidden tree. While this action is still disobedience to God’s command, it seems inevitable and thus not just to punish Adam and Eve for something that would have happened regardless.
It would then seem that Augustine needs to clarify his use of the term ‘nature’ and reconsider whether it is the will or the mutability of nature that leads to our corruption. His logic for why the source must be an act of will does not exclude it being an inevitability of our nature: For if [we were to say] nature is the cause of the evil will, can we help saying that evil is derived from good, and that good is the cause of evil? This must be so, if the evil will derives from a nature which is good. But how can this be? How can a nature which is good, however changeable, before it has an evil will, be the cause of any evil, the cause, that is, of that evil will itself?” (479). The simple answer to this last question is simply that the mutability of the nature is such that it opens itself to change, which must be decay rather than growth because God’s creations cannot be improved upon.
As his definitions and logic stand, Augustine seems to have two choices, both of which go against passages in City of God. On the one hand, the mutability of our nature is not a flaw and instead it is our wills that freely decide to make evil choices, and punishment of such choices would be just. However this goes against his statement that the source of our evil choices is our origin in nothingness, unless he means to say that our wills are mutable though he never discusses this. On the other hand, the cause of our evil choices could indeed be our mutable nature instead of our will, but this would directly conflict with numerous passages that state all evil choices are acts of will. It would also mean that God’s punishment of these choices would be questionable. Neither interpretation is favorable, and Augustine’s treatment of this topic is confusing at best and conflicting at worst.
**All citations, unless noted otherwise, refer to St. Augustine’s City of God. As always, feel free to e-mail me or leave a comment if you are interested in finding out more detailed citation information.**
 This ‘second nature’ which Augustine hints at is mentioned intermittently as the corrupted stock that we inherit from Adam: “And so it is that everyone, since he takes his origin from a condemned stock, is inevitably evil and carnal to begin with, by derivation from Adam; but if he is reborn into Christ, and makes progress, he will afterwards be good and spiritual. The same holds true for the whole human race,” (596). Though this is an interesting concept and certainly informs much of Augustine’s view on God’s mercy and our punishment, it is beyond the scope of this post.