Free Will in Saint Augustine’s Confessions
The Judeo-Christian tradition believes that God had given human beings free will, or the ability to select from among a variety of options. This conviction was intended to show how history followed a divine plan of salvation. Despite bestowing humans with the capacity to make their own decisions, God was aware of the judgments each individual would make. Sin emerged when free will was not used in accordance to his desires. Salvation would only ensue if the sinner repented and finally used his or her free will to do actions that would be pleasing to God.
Philosopher and theologian Saint Augustine of Hippo operated on a similar premise when he discussed the concept of free will in Confessions. For him, possessing free will does not emancipate a person from the need for divine help. Sin occurred because humans relied too much on the strength of their own mind and will. When a sinner repents, he or she is acknowledging God as the source of everything that he or she has.
In the process, God is glorified as the source of true salvation.
Confessions first analyzed the nature of evil before proceeding to the subject of free will. Book V detailed Augustine’s attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with the supremacy of God. While studying in Carthage, Augustine embraced the Manichaean heresy. This unorthodoxy strongly emphasized dualism in nature. A good spiritual god and an evil material god fought for supremacy and control over the universe.
As a Manichaean, Augustine believed that evil was tangible – a “(material) substance (which has) its own foul and hideous bulk” (Pusey, 44). He therefore strongly opposed the Christian belief that there is only one god from whom all existing things came from. For Augustine, it was impossible for evil to have originated from a good spiritual god. Evil came from a hostile power independent of the latter (Pusey, 44).
Augustine, however, eventually became disillusioned with the Manichaean system of thought. The latter believed that the struggle between good and evil permeated every aspect of nature, including human existence. Thus, human beings are merely pawns in the said battle. Every decision an individual makes was actually motivated by either the light or the darkness. It is revealed in Book IV that the Manichaean heresy held humans blameless for their sins – wrongdoing was the handiwork of “(heaven), Venus, (Saturn) or Mars” (Pusey, 28).
In Confessions, Augustine was able to identify the origins of evil through his descriptions and observations of human emotions and motives. Human emotions and motives stemmed from a special kind of freedom which came from God. Augustine, however, never considered this liberty as an excuse to behave irresponsibly before God. Good ensues when humans allow God’s grace to influence them on how they exercise their autonomy. Otherwise, evil becomes dominant.
Augustine first affirmed the goodness in all of God’s creation. In Book I, the former regarded God’s handiwork as “vessels which uphold (God himself)” (Pusey, 3). Everything which God fashioned contained a part of him. If an individual wished to search for God, he or she did not have to look far – God was present in him or her.
But the advantage of human beings over all the other beings which God created was that the former was made in God’s image and likeness. While humans possessed a physical body that was prone to corruption, they likewise had an incorruptible soul. Through the soul, the human being becomes the spiritual image of God (Pusey, 146). Free will, meanwhile, is what patterns the human being after the likeness of God (Pusey, 152). Simply put, human beings closely resemble God in the sense that they have free will, which allows them to become the masters of their respective souls.
Humans, however, are free only to the extent that they can only do things in accordance to the grace of God. When God created human beings, he gave the latter free will for them to be able to perform actions that would further glorify him. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve used their free will to choose creaturely goods over God. A corrupted form of free will ensued and was passed on to the descendants of Adam and Eve (Pusey, 7).
This tainted kind of free will heavily influenced the generations of humans which succeeded Adam and Eve. In Book I, Augustine argued that human beings are not spared from sin from the moment they are born. He used his observation of infants and his own infanthood as examples to further elaborate on this point:
(Like) in other infants…I flung about at random limbs and voice, making the few signs I could, and such as I could…what I wished. And when I was not presently obeyed (my wishes being hurtful or unintelligible), then I was indignant with my elders (and) with those owing me no service…and avenged myself on them by tears.
Augustine believed that the behavior of infants is the earliest manifestation of the tainted form of free will which human beings inherited from Adam and Eve. While infants are still too weak and helpless to cause any harm, they use their disadvantaged condition to control the people around them. Their elders, in turn, coddle them immediately out of pity. Infants then grow into children who think that they should be constantly accorded special treatment. Children will continue living with this mindset until their elders teach them to treat other people with consideration.
Despite efforts to teach them to be selfless and considerate, children will constantly use their free will to pursue selfish ends. Augustine recalled a time in his boyhood when he was punished for neglecting his studies. Looking back, he believed that he was chastised not because he was stupid or lazy, but because he went against the wishes of his elders (Pusey, 7). Augustine used this episode in his life to draw comparisons between his childhood mistake and original sin. Adam and Eve’s transgression was a result of their disobedience – they refused to heed God’s warning that they will die if they ate the forbidden fruit.
As humans grow older, they start using their free will as a vain attempt to demonstrate their power over God. By the age of 16, Augustine was already a sexually mature young man. This delighted his father, Patricius, especially after seeing him naked in a public bath – Patricius was already “anticipating his descendants” (Pusey, 14). Monica, however, was “startled with a holy fear and trembling” (Pusey, 14). She was afraid that Augustine might fall into adultery and fornication and thus constantly gave him motherly advice regarding chastity.
But Augustine wanted to become popular among his peers. Consequently, he always boasted to them his sexual exploits and even came up with overly exaggerated accounts on some of these. Looking back, Augustine clarified that he was actually looking for love and companionship. However, he was unable to distinguish love from lust. Furthermore, Augustine demonstrated his pride by turning a deaf ear to Monica’s warnings – admonitions which he considered to have come from God himself (Pusey, 14).
It also did not help that Augustine’s parents did not do anything to save him from sin. During his time, celibacy was regarded as a Christian’s ultimate goal (Pusey, 15). Marriage was merely an alternative for those who cannot control their sexual urges (Pusey, 15). But instead of arranging a legitimate marriage for Augustine, Monica and Patricius tolerated the promiscuous lifestyle of their son. They did so because they were hoping that Augustine would have a brilliant career which would enable him to marry into a rich family (Pusey, 15).
Given the bad example provided by his parents, it is no longer surprising if Augustine spent his youth as if there was no God to whom he answerable to for all his actions. One night, Augustine and his friends broke into a neighbor’s orchard and stole many pears. They tasted only a few and threw the rest to the pigs. It was very unusual for Augustine to participate in such an activity, considering that he came from a well-off family and therefore had never gone hungry in his entire life. The passage below explains his motive behind the theft:
Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee what it sought here, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved my mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself! (15)
Simply put, Augustine stole not out of greed or any other form of self-interest but out of the mere thrill of being able to get away with wrongdoing. Disobedience towards God through the misuse of free will is a form of rebellion. The individual who misuses free will is actually staging a perverse demonstration of imagined self-sufficiency. An inordinate love of self prompts a person to imitate God’s omnipotence by using his or her free will to pursue selfish ends.
In the last part of Book VII, Augustine discussed how providence can be reconciled with free will. His studies on Platonism gave him the idea of an immaterial god – a sharp contrast from the Manichaean concept of a physically limited deity (Pusey, 68). The material world, however, is too imperfect for it to be able to appreciate the supreme righteousness of the Platonic god. In the context of free will, this means that the material bodies of human beings hinder them from fully understanding that they are supposed to use their freedom in accordance to God’s command (Pusey, 67).
Augustine believed that the chasm between God and man was so wide that a mediator was very much needed:
For Thy word, the Eternal Truth, far above the higher parts of Thy Creation, raises up the subdued unto Itself: but in this lower world built for Itself a lowly habitation of our clay…by taking our coats of skin; and wearied, might cast themselves down upon It, and It rising, might lift them up. (67)
This mediator was no other than Jesus Christ. By assuming a human form, he was able to show that it was possible for human beings to fully understand God and be obedient to him. Indeed, Christ exhibited every human characteristic except for sin:
Only I had learnt out of what is delivered to us in writing of Him that He did eat, and drink, sleep, walk, rejoiced in spirit, was sorrowful, discoursed; that flesh did not cleave by itself unto Thy Word, but with the human soul and mind…(I) acknowledged a perfect man to be in Christ; not the body of a man only, nor, with the body, a sensitive soul without a rational, but very man. (67)
Furthermore, Christ was the very model of human obedience. He did not use his own free will to pursue his selfish desires. Rather, he obeyed God by carrying out his role in the divine plan of human salvation. Despite being tempted thrice by the Devil himself, Christ remained faithful to his mission of saving humankind from their sins. This undertaking was finally accomplished when he was crucified, died and rose from the dead after three days.
Augustine then ended Book VII with the reminder that all human beings can also be like Christ. All they have to do is to turn away from sin and submit in total obedience to God. Complete obedience to God entails the usage of free will do acts that are pleasing to him. In the process, God is glorified as the source of all good things (Pusey, 69).
Although God bestowed human beings with free will, this does not mean that humans can finally take the place of God. This was what Saint Augustine of Hippo was trying to point out when he wrote Confessions. Evil ensues when humans attempt to replace God. Good, however, will take place when humans acknowledge God as the source of their freedom by obeying his will.
Edward Bouverie Pusey, trans. Confessions. By Saint Augustine of Hippo. n.p.
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