The City of God represents the fullest maturation of Augustine’s thoughts concerning Original Sin and the Fall of Man. Sin and the Fall are concepts so disparate now in the state of contemporary Christianity largely due to ignorance of tradition, confessions, doctrines, and patristic sources. Augustine’s reading of the Fall is not necessarily unique, St. Irenaeus of Lyon offered up a similar interpretation as will you find in many other patristic writers. However, due to Augustine’s outsized influence on the Western (Latin) Church, Augustine’s interpretation became de facto authority on the matter and has since become codified doctrine. Moreover, Augustine’s reading of the Fall and Original Sin is largely taken from his systematic reading of Genesis and the letters of St. Paul, principally the Epistle to the Romans.
Augustine was embroiled in many conflicts during his time as bishop. He had to contend against the Donatists (a schismatic purist sect claiming only the Donatist churches served by Donatist clergy were the true Christians), Pelagianism, and Manicheans. Augustine’s interpretation of the Fall was directly in response to Pelagians and Manicheans, among others. First, Augustine makes clear that it is not “the body” which is the cause of sin but the soul.[i] Here we need to diverge into Augustine’s anthropology.
Augustinian anthropology is integralist and pluralist. Man is not mere body nor is he mere soul. Soul, for Augustine, is man’s intellectual faculty. As he says in De Trinitate, “[W]e must find in the soul of man, i.e., the rational or intellectual soul, that image of the Creator which is immortally implanted in its immortality.”[ii] In Confessions Augustine also links rationality and intellect to the intelligible soul. But man is also a creature of desire. This is the “Augustinian insight.” Man’s constitution is a harmonious blend of eros (love) and logos (reason); body and soul; desire ordered to the Source of all that is Good. The image of God, for Augustine, was the image of the Trinity in the mind of man: Memory (Father), Intellect (Son), and Will (Spirit) with a hypostasis connecting the Will with the human heart, and the Will with Memory and Intellect. It is Will, Love, which unites all parts of the human person.[iii]
Man, fundamentally, seeks happiness and wisdom.[iv] For he is made in love for love and in wisdom for wisdom. In this way Augustine undercuts the Manicheans and Gnostics who assert that the body is bad, evil even, and that man’s real nature is pure spirit or soul. The frailty, or weakness, of the body is a punishment for sin—not the cause of it.[v] The divinization of man entails the redemption (and beautification) of the body not just the liberation of the soul.
Also, the original economy of relationships in the Garden prior to the Fall was one of mutual loving and non-coercive relationships. “We have already stated in the preceding books that God, desiring not only that the human race might be able by their similarity of nature to associate with one another, but also that they might be bound together in harmony and peace by the ties of relationship.”[vi] Before the Fall we have a perfect union of relations between God and man, man with woman, man with world, and interior and exterior man (properly ordered passions and will with soul).
The Fall of Man: The Stripping of Grace, Emergence of Lust, and the Seeds of the Two Cities
In reading the Fall of Man, Augustine asserts several things concerning the epistemological-anthropological condition. Man’s happiness is dependent upon truth. Thus, man’s ontological flourishing is dependent on his living in accordance with Truth itself (God). [God is understood to be Truth itself in Catholic doctrine.] When man lives by his own standard, that is apart from God’s standards (i.e. non-truth) then man slips into falsity and lives by false standards.[vii] As Augustine explains:
When, then, a man lives according to the truth, he lives not according to himself, but according to God; for He was God who said, I am the truth. When, therefore, man lives according to himself — that is, according to man, not according to God — assuredly he lives according to a lie; not that man himself is a lie, for God is his author and creator, who is certainly not the author and creator of a lie, but because man was made upright, that he might not live according to himself, but according to Him that made him — in other words, that he might do His will and not his own; and not to live as he was made to live, that is a lie. For he certainly desires to be blessed even by not living so that he may be blessed. And what is a lie if this desire be not? Wherefore it is not without meaning said that all sin is a lie. For no sin is committed save by that desire or will by which we desire that it be well with us and shrink from it being ill with us.[viii]
The first sin of man was the desire to be happy; to decide for himself what was good and true and what would produce his own happiness. In other words, man inverted the natural order and called truth false and good bad and bad good and falsity truth. This was the deception of the soul, the intellect, not the body. We have a term for people who try to explain away their wrongdoings: rationalization. The same holds true for the Fall of Man.
Adam and Eve decided—lusted for control according to Augustine—for themselves what would be good and true and by this usurpation of nature they believed (falsely) that they could enhance their happiness. For, as Augustine articulated, even sinful action is aimed at achieving happiness however misdirected it is. For that is what sin is—misdirected desire (love) to things to procure happiness that will not, ultimately, satiate oneself. In living by the standards of men, that is falseness, man spirals into further darkness and degradation. When man lives by the standard of Truth, which is to say God, he is elevated, beautified, and made whole and happy. Additionally, the bid to decide for themselves what was good and true was the attempt to “be like God” (Gen. 3:5) according to Augustine. That was the lusting for control which was the principal sin of Adam—a rebellion against the orders of God to seize control for himself what would be good and true to procure one’s own happiness. It was the sin of pride!
It is important, too, to note the language of how Eve (and then Adam) were cut-off from God; literally having fallen away from God. Eve looks upon the Tree and forgets God in the process. The fruit looks good to eat. The tree is beautiful to the eyes. And it beckoned to be seized to impart wisdom to the one who ate from it. This is the carnalization of God’s creation, seeing only material, or corporeal, or carnal things divorced from God: Earthly hunger, earthly beauty, and earthly wisdom, all divorced from its Source which earthly hunger, beauty, and wisdom ought to signify; a spiritual hunger, a spiritual beauty, and a spiritual wisdom which, when united with the goodness of creation, creates the wholeness and whole truth which total flourishing and true happiness derive. The rejection of Truth is the rejection of God, and the wisdom, love, and happiness now sought after is a corrupt and depreciated form of wisdom, love, and happiness as it is purely carnal and divorced from God carnal goods can never satisfy the yearnings of the soul.
Additionally, in Hebrew, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is tov wa-ra, ra meaning chaos or disorder. By eating of the tree knowledge of the good, true, and beautiful got distorted—disordered. It brought about a fundamental disordering of all relationships in the world as well as within man.
The Fall, then, fundamentally altered the human constitution—bring about an imbalance in human internal nature (disordered passions) through the privation of grace. The “nakedness” of Adam and Eve, Augustine interprets, to mean they were stripped of grace and this is what is properly to be understood by their nakedness; once clothed in grace their sin stripped them of grace.[ix] “Therefore, ‘that they were naked’—naked of that grace which prevented them from being ashamed of bodily nakedness while the law of sin offered no resistance to their mind [is how to understand our parents nakedness].”[x] We thus live only by the “desire of the flesh” because our soul has been obliterated in the being stripped of grace so we know not the standards of truth and goodness anymore and are just left with pure desire. But humans desire to do good and find happiness; this makes the human condition more tragic. Without grace we cannot consummate the goodness and happiness we lust after.
As Augustine goes on to explain,[xi] the Fall’s alteration of the human condition was the disordering of the passions from the will which leads to the quarrel of lust and will. Lust, which is the corruption of the will for lusting for licentious liberty for its own end, revels in the licentious lawlessness of nothingness. Since God created from nothing, to love things created by God without God is to love nothing—it is to love empty matter which cannot truly satiate us. The will, by contrast, desires to do good but can only do so with God’s grace. The will is torn between reveling in its lustful liberty which is slavery to lust—note the irony in Augustine’s thought here—and the desire to do good and return to God through the ordering of the passions. By loving God, and only by loving God, the will can reorient to God and appreciate all the things God has created which find their meaning and fulfillment in God.
Furthermore, Adam’s fault lies in his not taking responsibility. Instead of taking ownership, as God came to Adam to do, Adam curses God for creating Eve; thus, rupturing man’s relationship with God and Eve—bringing about the ruptured relationship between God and man and man with other men and women. That is what the Fall entails. The Fall of Man, then, is about man’s desire to control—for himself—what is good and true for his own happiness and the broken nature that results from this: The rupture of eros and logos internally in man (the destabilization of body and soul); the rupture of man from God; the rupture of man from other humans; and ultimately the rupture of man from the created world (represented in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden) all followed bringing about the disordered passions and relations.
It is important to also see Augustine’s doctrine of the Fall in light of his battles with the Manicheans and other Gnostics of his time. Both shunned the goodness of the body and emphasized its evilness while praising the spiritual side of man only, his logos, his reason, as that which was good and salvific. Augustine turns the Manicheans and Gnostics on their head, literally, by pointing out that the Fall of Man lay not as a fault of his body, but as a fault of his reason—namely, the rejection of Logos (who is Christ).
Fallen man, then, is lustful man; the corrupted will which rejoices in fleeting carnal pleasures and revels in that liberty of license which brings death. Fallen man, through his corrupt will, the lustful will, is a child of flesh. To be a child of the flesh is to be naked of grace and dominated by the lust of the passions. The falsity and slavery that man now lives under is the idea that fleeting happiness is the highest good. Man has become a consuming machine for the fleeting and temporary titillation of the body.
[i] See City of God, 14.3.
[ii] See De Trinitate, 14.4.6.
[iii] See City of God, 14.6.
[iv] Ibid., 19.3.
[v] Ibid., 14.3
[vi] Ibid., 14.1.
[vii] Ibid., 14.4
[ix] Ibid., 14.17.
[xi] Ibid., 14.23-24.
[xii] Ibid., 14.28.
[xiii] See R.A. Markus, Saceulum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine for a fuller explanation of just this little aspect of City of God.