St. Augustine: Ethics, Nature, & Salvation


Doctrines & Discoveries

Notes & Quotes

(I) Two Cites:




Augustinian Dualism

Manichean period

RE: God's nature

personal fatherhood

metaphysical infinitude

soul & body

inward & spiritual realm

outward & physical realm

Two Classes of "Citizens" (1,2)

The chosen saints: citizens of heaven

The damned: citizens of hell

will be sorted as the last day but are all mixed up together here on earth in the meanwhile (1)

At the last: literal bodily resurrection (following scripture)

for the damned: incombustible bodies that can be perpetually burned without ever being consumed (4)

for the saved: "incorruptible bodies"  living in perfect harmony with themselves & each other (5,6)

Virtue is "the order of love" (7)

beatitude (heaven) is the state we achieve by the right  ordering of our love, toward God (8)

torment (hell) is the state we suffer by the wrong ordering of our love (9)

1.        The one [group] is predestined to reign eternally with God, and the other to suffer eternal damnation with the Devil. (103)

2.        Let each one question himself as to what he loveth [God or self]; and he shall find of which city he is a citizen.

3.        You have heard and know that there are two cities, for the present mingled together in body, but in heart separated.

4.        [The bodies of the damned] by a miracle of the most omnipotent creator can live in the fire … without being consumed.

5.        [They shall dwell in] perfect peace, each with himself and with the other saints. (103)

6.        [In heaven] marvelous discoveries …shall … kindle rational minds in praise of the great Artificer.  (103)

7.        Love and do as you will. (Sermon on the Epistle of St. John, 7:8)

8.        [T]he striving after God is therefore, the striving after beatitude, the attainment of God is beatitude itself.

9.        [T]he rational creature … has been made so that it cannot itself be the good by which it is made happy.

(II) The Earthly Pilgrimage






The human predicament: being in the world is trying

external ills (1)

uncaring natural world full of sickness, disaster, death

social & political injustice, indifference, and corruption

internal ills (2)

besetting temptations

that our wills are too weak, by themselves, to resist

The predicament as paradox

in Augustine's own experience he was at once

responsible for sins

he was incapable of avoiding

the theological rub:

 it seems unjust & sadistic for God to punish me for what I am incapable of avoiding:

it seems inconsistent with God's perfect goodness.

Augustine's Attempted Solution to the Paradox

moral helplessness is the result original sin inherited from Adam (6)

God could not have given Adam the power not to sin and still made Adam human

everything created is deficient in some respects (3)

due to being made out of nothingness

only God is complete, sinless, & perfect

sin is the kind of evil the results from a deficient will

We are redeemed by the Grace of God through Christ (4,5)

1.        Let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery.  And if any one either endures or thinks about them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling. (106)

2.        Thou didst set me face to face with myself, that I might behold how foul I was, and how crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous.

3.        [Evil is] that which falls away from essence and turns to non-being . . . .  It tends to make that which is cease to be.

4.        When man tries to live justly by his own strength without the help of the liberating grace of God, he is then conquered by sins; but in free will he has it in his power to believe in the Liberator and to receive grace.

5.        [T]his turning away and turning to are not forced but voluntary actions.

6.        I it was who willed, I who was unwilling. It was I, even I myself.  I neither willed entirely nor was entirely unwilling.  Therefore was I at war with myself, and destroyed by myself.  And this destruction overtook me against my will, and yet showed not the presence of another mind, but the punishment of my own . . . in that I was a son of Adam.

(III) Ethics & Politics

The delights of the flesh are inconsequential and so are its pains.

Such evils as we think we suffer are either

goods in disguise

or well-merited punishments

To try to alter or improve existing social-political arrangements implies discontent with God's program for us. (1)

Look for your rewards in the other world, rather than this one.

The only morally important thing is the will.  (2)

"The virtues which [the soul] seems to itself to possess . . . are rather vices than virtues so long as there is no reference to God in the matter." (119)

1.        We do not attribute the power of giving kingdoms to any save the true God, who . . . gives kingly power on earth both to the pious and the impious, as it may please Him, whose good pleasure is always just. (117)

2.        [T]he virtue that makes life good has its throne in the soul, . . . and . . . while the will remains firm and unshaken, nothing that another person does with the body or upon the body, is any fault of the person who suffers it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin. (118)

(IV) The Drama of Salvation



No one really knows if they're among the elect or not.

Cannot determined from the outward deeds and circumstances

will is all

external acts of piety can be spoiled & made sinful if they are done in a prideful spirit (1)

Cannot be determined by examining your own will

our true motives are often hidden from ourselves (2,7)

The mechanics of salvation through acceptance of Christ's sacrifice "a great mystery unintelligible to pride" (V)

Lessons conveyed by the Incarnation

flesh as such is not evil (3)

death may be punishment for our sins but is not itself a sin

Jesus' acceptance of crucifixion shows how we ought to live

God's sacrifice of his Son demonstrates God's great love for us despite our sin. 

Tension between the mystical and ecclesiastical elements

mystical: salvation involves the inward turning of the will toward God, by God's grace (4,5)

ecclesiastical: that salvation depends on the proper administration of the sacraments

threat of Donatism (6)

if the blessedness of the sacraments flows from the good  willing of the participants

it undermines the Church's claim to be the door of salvation and hence the institutional authority or the Church.

The Church and its members are the body of Christ

an organism of many parts standing in various relations of ordination and subordination

owing its life and allegiance to Jesus

1.        [The falsely pious please themselves] in Thy good things as though they were their own . . . or as though of their own merits. (120)

2.        My mind, making inquiry into herself concerning her own powers, ventures not readily to credit herself; because that which is already in it is for the most part concealed.  ...  And no man ought to feel secure in this life, the whole of which is called a temptation, that he, who could be made better from worse, may not also from better be made worse. (120)

3.        In its own kind and degree the flesh is good. (113)

4.        But even this trusting in God's help could not be achieved without God's help. (123)

5.        [N]o man acts rightly save by the assistance of divine aid. (123)

6.        As to the pagans, they may indeed . . . reproach us for the laws . . . enacted against idolaters.  [However, they ought to thank us, since many of them] have thereby been, and are now daily, turned from idols to the living and true God. (126)

7.        I contend not in judgment with Thee, who art the truth; I fear to deceive myself: lest mine iniquity lie unto itself. (Confessions I:v)

(V) Nature and Natural Science


Understanding is the reward of faith.  Therefore do not try to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand. (On the Gospel of Saint John)


Let him rejoice even thus; and be content rather by not discovering to discover Thee, than by discovering not to discover Thee. (Confessions I:vi:10)

 Augustine's "extremely naïve teleology" (Jones)

the purpose of the physical world it to be the stage on which the drama of salvation unfolds.

e.g., there are seven planets to remind us of the seven cardinal virtues and seven deadly sins

Disinterest in scientific understanding of the world

to pry to deeply into nature's secrets would be a sinful act of intellectual pride

they key to happiness & well being lies in the next world and it's at best a distraction -- at worst a kind of idolatry -- to be overly concerned with the working of this world.

Acceptance of -- even hunger for signs and wonders

oddities are not exceptions to be brought under the cover of revised rules (whence comes scientific progress)

oddities are wonders to be marveled at  (2)

The fleeting view that everything is miraculous. (3,4)

1.        [The Greeks] made efforts to discover the hidden laws of nature. ...  And some of them, by God's help, made great discoveries; but when left to themselves they were betrayed by human infirmity, and fell into mistakes. (132)

2.        God . . . does not disdain to work miracles . . . that He may thereby awaken the soul to worship ... Himself. (132)

3.        Even the very things which are most commonly known as natural would not be less wonderful nor less effectual to excite surprise in all who beheld them, if men were not accustomed to admire nothing but what is rare. (133)

4.        A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature. (133)

(VI) History

History was designed by God to instruct, punish, and test us.

Instruction: the history and struggles of the Jews "signify and fore-announce [the drama of Salvation].

Punishment: the fall of Rome due to its not turning to Christ soon enough and completely enough.

Nothing happens by chance, everything happens for a reason: salutary emphasis on developmental pattern

history has a purpose

a crucial turning point: the resurrection

and a direction: towards salvation

Universal vs. narrowly tribal history

1.        [D]ivine providence is wont to reform the depraved manners of men by chastisement. (134)

2.        That most glorious society and celestial city of God's faithful, which is partly seated in the course of these declining times, wherein "he that liveth by faith" is a pilgrim amongst the wicked; and partly in that solid estate of eternity, which as yet the other part doth patiently expect, until "righteousness be turned to judgment"; being then by the proper excellence to obtain the last victory, and be crowned in perfection of peace, have I undertaken to defend in this work … and exhibit it against all those that prefer their false gods before this city's founder. (De Civitate I:1)