Welcome back to this episode on anthropological pessimism in the West as we explore, in Part Two of the podcast, the coming of the Great Schism and the consequences it had on the character of Western Christendom. In the previous segment of this episode, I introduced St. Augustine and described an anthropology that he developed around his doctrine of grace and free will that was comparatively pessimistic in relation to the optimistic anthropology of Greek Fathers like Basil the Great.
In this segment of the episode, I will continue to discuss St. Augustine by looking first at his famous—some would say notorious—doctrine of original sin and its impact on the conception of man in the West. St. Augustine is well known for a doctrine of original sin that goes beyond conceptions of the Fall and primordial sin of Adam and Eve that had been worked out by Eastern Fathers and even by Western Fathers before the fifth century. For Augustine, the consequences of the Fall are not just limited to the wounding of our common humanity. That had been the claim made in the Greek East and even in the Latin West for the most part prior to Augustine. But for Augustine, the Fall resulted in man’s actual participation in the guilt of Adam, his actual participation in the very guilt of Adam’s original sin. This is a fundamental difference between Greek patristic understanding of the Fall and Augustinian, Western understanding, as it would be elaborated after the time of Augustine in the West.
Adam’s sin was an act of will for Augustine that was grounded in his concept of concupiscence, or evil desire. As a result of Adam’s sin, all of Adam’s descendants—every last one—participated in that act of will and therefore were personally guilty of the act of transgression. Augustine was inclined toward this interpretation of the Fall not only by his doctrine of grace and free will that he had worked out early in his life in response to his experiences of lustful desires, documented in his book, Confessions, and in his response to the Pelagian controversy.
Augustine was also inclined toward this interpretation of the Fall by the translation of the Bible that was now being used in the West in his time. In the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, and in a very important passage from the epistle of Paul to the Romans 5:12 in modern versification of that passage, the meaning of the original Greek was subtly changed by Jerome. Let me read the passage in English from the Orthodox Study Bible which uses the New King James Version. This is what Paul writes in Romans 5:12.
Therefore, just as through one man (that would be Adam) sin entered the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because all sinned…
That’s an English translation based upon the original Greek. The key here is that for the original Greek, for the word because there in that last clause, the Greek original was ef ho, which usually is translated into English as because: “So that death and sin entered the world because all sinned. Death and sin entered the world and spread to all human beings because all sinned.” But the Vulgate, the Latin translation of ef ho, the Greek ef ho, altered this meaning. The Latin translation was in quo, which is properly translated as in whom, and relates, in this passage, to Adam himself, in whom the entire human race itself participated in sin, in a willful act of transgression. So with this translation in hand, Augustine was able to assert that in Adam, in the person of Adam and in his very act of willful rebellion against God in the Fall, in the original sin, all human beings have sinned; all human beings have willfully participated, as descendants of Adam, in Adam’s personal sin.
This was revolutionary. This was a radical departure from how the Fall had been interpreted by earlier Church Fathers, especially those in the Greek East. And this doctrine of original sin had important corollaries that would be worked out in the West with time. In fact, even in Augustine’s own time he himself worked out some of these corollaries. The first was that if all human beings have sinned in Adam through original sin and have been conceived in sin and have therefore come into the world personally guilty of original sin, then all human beings are deserving of punishment by God. The human condition is understood as a condition deserving punishment, universal punishment. This emphasis upon punishment presented a God that was increasingly understood as one demanding retribution, retributive justice, acting on a relationship to man of wrath.
I can quote here a passage from one of Augustine’s works. It’s called the Enchiridion, or Handbook, and it gives a good account of this concept of God’s wrathful, retributive demand for justice or punishment on man. This is what Augustine writes.
The whole mass of the human race was under condemnation, was lying steeped and wallowing in misery and was being tossed from one form of evil to another, and having joined the faction of the fallen angels, was paying the well-merited penalty of that impious rebellion. For whatever the wicked freely do, through blind and unbridled lust, and whatever they suffer against their will in the way of open punishment, this all evidently pertains to the just wrath of God.
So as Augustine himself began to elaborate, the consequences of an original sin that involved the entire human race in the very personal guilt of Adam, he began to bring more and more attention to punishment, to a God of wrath issuing punishment and retributive justice upon mankind.
Another corollary that grew out of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin was that unbaptized infants—infants who were born, but died before they could be baptized, perhaps having lived only for a day or two before a priest could be found to baptize them—were destined for hell, destined for hell because they were born with the guilt of Adam and therefore not having had that guilt washed away by baptism, were destined to be punished in hell for it. This was a very severe doctrine that Augustine held, and was in fact moderated and softened later in the history of the Roman Catholic Church by a doctrine called limbo, which assigned children who had been unbaptized to a place in hell—and it was hell—called limbo, where there’s really no punishment that takes place, but they are indeed consigned to hell.
A further corollary is that baptism itself became more and more understood as a sacrament exclusively of washing away sins, of remission of sins, and not, as it had been previously, both in the East and in the West, as a sacrament both of the remission of sins but also of the deification of the believer, as we saw in reviewing the doctrine of deification in the Greek East earlier in this episode. We saw that baptism itself was understood to impart deification, the gift of the Holy Spirit deifying the believer. So baptism now is seen more and more simply as a source of washing away sins instead of being both that and also a means of bringing deification into the lives of people living in this world.
Finally, a corollary to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is that the entire human race became characterized by a condition called depravity: depravity, moral bankruptcy. In fact, Augustine himself used the phrase massa damnata, a damned mass, for the entire human race, on various occasions, that the human race was a massa damnata, a damned mass, of creation, awaiting punishment, were it not for the life-creating sacraments of Christ’s holy Church.
As he elaborated his doctrine of original sin, by which all human beings participate in the willful action and therefore guilt of Adam’s original sin, Augustine brought attention to man’s condition in this world. Here we see how anthropological pessimism could lead to a kind of cosmological pessimism. For Augustine described man’s condition in this world as one of misery, of almost unmitigated misery. The misery of the human condition repeatedly appears in Augustine’s writings. The world was not a place, as it had been for the Greek Fathers, of man’s participation in the divine life, of an experience of deification, so much as a place to be endured, a place of punishment to be endured until such time as one died and was relieved of misery and suffering and entered into eternal bliss if they had been predestined for that state.
Salvation was a release from punishment. In Augustinian soteriology, as it’s known, the understanding of salvation, salvation was understood as a release from punishment in an afterlife, a life following this life here. This differed quite a bit from the understanding of salvation that had been elaborated in the Greek East. Again, as I’ve done in this episode, I will quote David Bradshaw’s book, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom. I repeat here what Bradshaw had to say about the character of this world in light of the Greek doctrine of synergy.
It led to a tendency to think of earthly, bodily existence as capable of being taken up and subsumed within the life of God. Emphasis was placed not on any sudden transformation at death but on the ongoing and active appropriation of those aspects of the divine life that are open to participation.
Those are Bradshaw’s words that I repeat. And so it was that for Augustine, original sin produces a world not in which participation in the divine life—deification through synergy—is possible so much as one in which man’s condition, man’s life, is dominated by what he called a concatenation of miseries. Here I’ll quote The City of God in which he talks about life in this world and the overbearing presence of misery within it.
For God, the Author of natures, not of vices, created man upright, but man, being of his own will corrupted and justly condemned, begot corrupted and condemned children. For we all were in that one man…
He’s speaking here of Adam.
...since we all were that one man, who fell into sin by the woman who was made from him before sin. For not yet was the particular form created and distributed to us in which we as individuals were to live, but already the seminal nature was there from which we were to be propagated. This being vitiated by sin and bound by the chain of death and justly condemned, man could not be born of man in any other state. And thus, from the bad use of free will there originated the whole train of evil, which, with its concatenation of miseries, convoys the human race from its depraved origin as from a corrupt root onto the destruction of the second death which has no end, those only being excepted who are freed by the grace of God.
So a concatenation, a kind of sequence, interminable sequence of miseries, is how, in The City of God, Augustine presents life in this world. Elsewhere in that book he actually catalogues this chain of miseries. I’ll read here a list—it’s a very long list, as a matter of fact, so I ask for your patience as I read through it all, but it says a great deal and characterizes quite well how Augustine saw this world. This is what he has to say.
That the whole human race has been condemned in its first origin, this life itself, if life it is to be called, bears witness by the host of cruel ills with which it is filled. Is not this proved by the profound and dreadful ignorance which produces all the errors that enfold the children of Adam and from which no man can be delivered without toil, pain, and fear? Is it not proved by his love of so many vain and hurtful things which produces gnawing cares, disquiet, griefs, fears, wild joys, quarrels, law suits, wars, treasons, angers, hatreds, deceit, flattery, fraud, theft, robbery, perfidy, pride, ambition, envy, murders, parricides, cruelty, ferocity, wickedness, luxury, insolence, impudence, shamelessness, fornications, adulteries, incests, and the numberless uncleannesses and unnatural acts of both sexes, which it is shameful so much as to mention…
He doesn’t stop there.
...sacrileges, heresies, blasphemies, perjuries, oppression of the innocent, calumnies, plots, falsehoods, false witnessings, unrighteous judgments, violent deeds, plunderings, and whatever similar wickedness has found its way into the lives of men, though it cannot find its way into the conception of pure minds. These are indeed the crimes of wicked men, yet they spring from the root of error and misplaced love, which is born with every son of Adam.
So that’s the catalogue of miseries to which all human beings are subject in this world according to Augustine’s anthropology, which is grounded in his doctrine of original sin.
It is also true that there follows this passage in The City of God, a few paragraphs later, what can be called a catalogue of blessings, which Augustine presents as a consolation for those who are, as he puts it, predestined to death, and a pledge of future paradise to those who are predestined to life. I might, because it’s so beautiful, just continue here, if my listeners will be patient with me as I quote from it. It’s really quite beautiful.
How can I tell of the rest of creation, with all its beauty and utility which the divine goodness has given to man, to please his eye and serve his purposes, condemned though he is and hurled into these labors and miseries? Shall I speak of the manifold and various loveliness of the sky and earth and sea; of the plentiful supply and wonderful qualities of the light of sun, moon, and stars; of the shade of trees; of the colors and perfume of the flowers; of the multitude of birds, all differing in their plumage and in song; of the variety of animals, of which the smallest in size are often the most wonderful; the works of ants and bees, astonishing us more than the huge bodies of whales? Shall I speak of the sea which is so grand itself a spectacle when it arrays itself, as it were, in vestures of various colors, now running through every shade of green and again becoming purple or blue? Is it not delightful to look at it in the storm and experience the soothing complacency which it inspires by suggesting that we ourselves are not tossed and shipwrecked?
What shall I say of the numberless kinds of food to alleviate hunger and the variety of seasonings to stimulate appetite which are scattered everywhere by nature and for which we are not indebted to the art of cookery? How many natural appliances are there for preserving and restoring health? How grateful is the alternation of day and night! How pleasant the breezes that cool the air! How abundant the supply of clothing furnished us by trees and animals! Who can enumerate all the blessings we enjoy? If I were to detail and unfold only these few which I have indicated in the mass, such an enumeration would fill a volume, and all these are but the solace of the wretched and condemned, not the rewards of the blessed.
What then shall these rewards be, if such be the blessings of a condemned state? What will he give to those whom he has predestined to life, who has given such things even to those whom he has predestined to death?
So a beautiful, beautiful catalogue of the earth’s blessings, the blessings of this world. For those, in fact, as Augustine points out, for those who have been predestined to hell, predestined to death. They are not the blessings of those, as he put it, predestined to life, those predestined to heaven, to paradise, to life, [who] are to await those glories, those wonders, those pleasures. In the meantime, they endure a great deal of misery, a concatenation of miseries in this world.
As Augustine reflected on these miseries, which spring forth from the reality of original sin, Augustine also brought attention to the role of punishment and to the actual value of punishment, arguing that punishment can and often does play a valuable role in bringing people to paradise, bringing the saints who have been predestined for paradise, to that experience which awaits them after they die in this age. As he described all the miseries of this world, which a man sharing in Adam’s sin cannot escape from, Augustine described these miseries as penal in character, that is to say, punishing in character, something designed by God to punish man; there was a penal character of suffering in this life. This is what he had to say, again from The City of God.
In the heavy yoke that is laid upon the sons of Adam, from the day that they go out of their mother’s womb to the day that they return to the mother of all things, there is found an admirable though painful monitor, teaching us to be sober-minded and convincing us that this life has become penal in consequence of that outrageous wickedness which was perpetrated in paradise and that all to which the New Testament invites belongs to that future inheritance which awaits us in the world to come and is offered for our acceptance as the earnest, that we may in its own due time, obtain that of which it is the pledge.
So paradise, from which man was expelled, has no place in this world. It is something that man will experience, or rather the saints will experience, after they have died, after this life has passed away, in that other life, in that world to come, as he puts it here. This life, he says, has become penal, a place of punishment. But that punishment is good, for Augustine, or at least for the saints who are being purified and prepared in this life for paradise. He speaks actually, Augustine does, of what he called a purificatory punishment, a punishment that purifies. Here is Augustine speaking of this purificatory punishment.
On our part, we acknowledge that even in this mortal life there are indeed some purificatory punishments but penalties inflicted on those whose life is not improved thereby, or is even made worse, are not purificatory.
In other words, those not predestined for heaven receive no benefit from the punishment that God offers to those in this life who are being prepared for paradise.
Punishments (he continues) are a means of purification only to those who are disciplined and corrected by them.
So punishment has a positive role to play in this world for those who are being prepared, disciplined, for paradise.
Furthermore, it’s in this very passage that Augustine reflects on punishment that takes place after this life, a punishment which he speculated takes place in a purgatorial sense after death. This is what Augustine had to say about that.
As for temporal pains, some people suffer them in this life only; others, after death; others, both in this life and in the other. Yet all this precedes that last and strictest judgment.
In other words, hell itself, and the final judgment.
However, not all men who endure temporal pains after death come into those eternal punishments of hell which are to come after the judgment. Some in fact will receive forgiveness in the world to come, for what is not forgiven in this world, as I have said above, so that they may not be punished with the eternal chastisement of the world to come.
In other words, some, through undergoing punishment after this life in a condition that is purgatorial in character, purificatory, will, by that punishment, be brought ultimately to paradise, to eternal life, to the kingdom of heaven.
So these are some of the thoughts, then, that Augustine had on the question of punishment and its value, within the context of the misery of the human condition which his pessimistic anthropology, an anthropology which related closely to a cosmology, played in Augustine’s mind. It was a very original direction in traditional Christianity. Augustine, defending Orthodoxy against the anthropological heresy of Pelagianism, had taken a stance that distinguished him sharply from the consensus in the Greek East about the condition of man, the dignity of man, and his place in this age and the possibility of him experiencing divine life, paradise itself, even in this world.
As I’ve tried to note, the picture Augustine painted was not always negative, always pessimistic. There was that beautiful sequence, that catalogue of blessings that he described, but overall his point, his emphasis, was on the misery of the human condition and the indignity of man as the result of original sin, as he, uniquely, defined it.
Join me next time when I complete this discussion of the influence of Augustine on the rise of anthropological pessimism in the West by reflecting on the influence of Augustine on other Western spiritual fathers.