Augustine’s Dialectic of Love and Wisdom

Throughout the long-winded confession that is Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, he offered two of the most memorable quotes in all of Christian history, “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in you” (1.1) and “I was in love with the idea of love” (3.1).  Both statements reflect the heart of Augustine’s anthropology and his understanding of imago Dei, and both statements embody the end to which humans exists for.  Likewise, it is impossible to understand Augustine’s dialect of love without the knowledge that he said that the Trinity is principally “a relationship of love that binds the thinking mind to his Logos.”

The beginning of Augustine’s anthropology is a portrait of a unity of love and wisdom – eros (body/desire) and logos (mind/soul) – in communion with the Divine image in a state of enduring happiness precisely because of the harmony of desire and reason by which desire is fulfilled through wisdom (this is called “communio theology”).  Toward the end of the Confessions Augustine briefly explains that part of the being made in the image of God means “man [is] renewed in the knowledge of God, after the image of Him that created him.”  So not only are humans made in love for love (since God is a love and the Trinity is a relationship of love), humans are made in wisdom for wisdom.  If humans exist for happiness, then it is also true that humans exist for wisdom – and as Augustine explained, the enduring happiness that humans seek is consummated through intellectual knowledge of the source of wisdom.  Love and wisdom go together.

In traditional Christian thought, and as enshrined in Catholic doctrine, Christ is Logos.  Wisdom was part of the first principle of creation, meaning that the world is rationally ordered and created and so too are all things in creation.  Humanity’s capacity for rational thought is a special component to the imago Dei, and it is through the power of logos that humanity communes in a union with the source of beauty, love, serenity, and enduring happiness.  The beatific vision, beyond being social and relational, is intellectual.  After all, one must first believe in order to understand.

One of the more peculiar and often confusing doctrines of Christianity is the Fall of Man.  What was the Fall?  According to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, mortality was always part of humanity’s natural condition.  Augustine wrote in De Genesi ad Litteram that, “[man] was mortal…by the constitution of his natural body” and that humans are “rational mortal animals.”  Furthermore, it is this mortality that gives humans their search for want of love – it is through the death of one of his friends in Confessions that causes him to seriously reconsider his life after all.   Likewise, Aquinas remarked in the Summa Theologica, “It would seem that in the state of innocence man was not immortal.  For the term ‘mortal’ belongs to the definition of man. But if you take away the definition, you take away the thing defined. Therefore as long as man was man he could not be immortal.”  The Fall, as Augustine explained in De Trinitate, was the corruption of the divine image – the corruption of the beatific communion – whereby humans sought wisdom and happiness apart from logos (which is to say apart from God).  It was not the loss of “immortality,” but the loss of eternal happiness, and also the loss of wisdom.

This sets up the heart of Augustine’s theological anthropology and the dialectic of love contained in Confessions, especially the first few books which primarily focus on desire and how unordered desire leads to alienation with oneself, to be sinful against one’s own nature as Augustine says.  The incurvatus in se, the “inward curve to the self,” is the attempt to satisfy our desire for wisdom, love, and happiness, without logos ordering our desire to its ultimate end.  Humans become the judges of their own wisdom, love, and happiness, but our own innate and instinctive knowledge of the divine beatitude remains unsatisfied since it is still dimly lit.  The end result of this constant quest for wisdom, love, and happiness through pure concupiscence is perpetual dissatisfaction and alienation – the growing rupture between the body and the soul and humans no longer understand who they are (are they just bodies, or just souls – properly they are both).

Augustine’s desire for love reflects his own pluralistic ontology.  Augustine instinctively understands that love is good, and he “desires to love be loved,” but he also seeks love in other things apart from him – the beauty of other bodies, the beauty of people (in friendship and sex), the beauty of the world, and the beauty of literature.  Augustine’s want for love is part of the flame of eros inherent to all humans, but he remains unsure where to find the satisfying allure of desiring love.  Even at mass, he gazes upon a girl who is in attendance – his mind is one another image of God, but not God himself.  They subsequently have sex during mass as Augustine infamously says.

When Augustine wrote that he was “in love with the idea of love,” he previously admitted he did not love God for he did not have any knowledge of God (God is also love and love is God in Christianity since love is seen as an eternal and transcendent force).  Without this knowledge of God he sought love elsewhere, primarily through sex, to satisfy his desires, but especially in material things.  His womanizing only left him more alienated with himself.  Likewise, his enthralled interest in the idea of love led him to weep for Dido as she commits suicide in The Aeneid but not the miserable state of his own soul.   “I wept for Dido but did not weep for my own soul,” he writes.  He also seeks love through friendship and is moved by Cicero’s philosophy of friendship and Cicero’s recommendation that one should study philosophy to help satisfy one’s desires.  Augustine loves the idea of love and seeks to satisfy his appetite for love through many means but is unable to find the source of love and is therefore unable to truly know love and never satisfy his desire for love.  Because he does not know love itself (God) he cannot properly love himself, others, and the world.

The core of Augustine’s dialectic of love is the post-Fall disharmony between eros and logos and the struggle between desire and wisdom to reunite in harmony together.  The manner by which the harmony is restored, that “renewal of the mind” which is also the “renewal of the Divine image,” is through the power of Logos.  This is the tension in Augustine’s anthropological portrait: the want for love and happiness that is humanity’s end and reflected in the embodiment of human desire, and the want for love and happiness that is humanity’s end and reflected in the embodiment of the human want for wisdom.  Thus, part of the dialectic of love in Augustine is the desire for love and the desire to know love.  The two need brought together in union.  To know love itself is the only way to consummate love in life and find fulfillment in life.  Again, humans are made in love for love (eros) and in wisdom for wisdom (logos).  Love is self-giving, and is something that we come to know.  Lust, on the other hand, is self-centered (and therefore one doesn’t really know love since they are confusing love with lust).  Thus, we can say from Augustine’s perspective that love accompanies wisdom, while lust is the end result of rejecting the Logos. Thus, Augustine’s dialectic of love is between love (which comes from knowing) and lust (which is concupiscence detached from knowing).

The influences of neo-Platonism, and Roman Stoicism, upon Augustine are generally well known and well-documented.  Insofar that Augustine is a pure philosopher, he is a neo-Platonist.  However, Augustine rejects key aspects of Plotinus’s philosophical anthropology.  A core element of Plotinus’s Enneads is the notion we more commonly refer to as “mind over matter.”  In fact, the implicit logic of Platonism and neo-Platonism is a flight from the world, and one that views materiality and the body as bad.  This was the error that the Manicheans had fallen into.  However, the neo-Platonic element that remains is that love always returns to the source of love just like how Plotinus’s soul returns to the source from which it came.  Love, then, is a sort of cosmic circular harmony in Augustine’s understandings (this is especially the case in his many homilies and letters).

Augustine’s dialectic of love is not one of ablation or sublation in conflict, as the more famous representatives of dialectical philosophy – Georg Hegel and Karl Marx – envisioned the dialectic.  Instead, the dialectic of love in Augustine is the attempt to restore the harmony between desire and wisdom.  Augustine’s dialectic is one of conflict not leading to annihilation but restoration.  The Manicheans, as Augustine explains, erred in thinking the body and material world was bad because of their own deficient reasoning.  Manichean dualism sought the ablation of the body through the superiority of the spirit.  Hence, the Manicheans preached renunciation of the material world while Augustine would later come to see all material things in nature as reflecting a certain degree of beauty within the hierarchy of beauty.

For Augustine the problem wasn’t that the body and materiality were bad, but that the body had become, essentially, detached from wisdom.  The harmonious union that occupies the origo of Augustine’s anthropology was corrupted because of the Fall and now we’re left in the wake of this corruption seeking enduring happiness without the ordering principle of reason.  The thrust of desire, ideally, will also lead to the growing cultivation of the mind because it is only through wisdom that desire finds the end that it seeks.  As desire grows the seeking of wisdom should grow with it.  Alternatively, and more dangerously, as desire grows wisdom is suppressed.  This is why Augustine cries out repeatedly that he is in search for “Truth! Truth! How the very marrow of my soul within me yearned for it as they dinned it in my ears over and over again!” (3.6).

Since it is that dimly lit desire for wisdom that remains from the original beatific communion that rears its head to remind us that our desires cannot be satisfied apart from logos, humans either respond by coming back into communion with Logos or attempt to suppress and ultimately destroy wisdom under the false belief that once that flame of wisdom is destroyed our desires can be satisfied because no old flame of satisfied desire causes us grief, shame, or alienation.  The attempt to destroy wisdom is another part of the incurvatus in se, if we destroy eternal wisdom and I become the judge of wisdom then I can construct a “wisdom” that can deceive myself into thinking my desires have, in fact, been satisfied.  As Augustine writes in Book II, the law written on our hearts is still very present even in our state of sin.  (This is something that John Calvin, in particular, rejects, which shapes the different understanding of soteriology between Protestantism and Catholicism.)  We cannot, however, destroy our nature though we constantly seem to want to suppress it.

Augustine understands that the Word had to become incarnate into the world to resolve this problem and corruption of the imago Dei because humans, through the incurvatus in se, are unable to elevate logos over eros on their own.  Through the Word’s incarnation, Logos entered the world and took on the substances of the material world.  The incarnate Word, then, embodies the perfect portrait: through the unity of mind and body that is the dual nature of Christ he embodied the union of eros and logos in his composite nature.  “Knowing Christ” is not the cheap tagline of consumerist Christianity as it has become in modernity but the highest reflection of the calling of humanity’s existence and capacity for wisdom and desire for happiness.  To know Christ is to know Wisdom itself since Christ was the incarnate Logos.

The image of the incarnate Deity is the most blessed and sublime image in the history of time.  It simultaneously reflects God’s desire for humanity and the unity of desire and wisdom in Christ’s nature.  In seeing the image of the incarnate Word that dimly lit flame of wisdom and our constant drive for desire has its (re)oriented end back in sight.  The re-harmonization of eros and logos follows because logos draws eros unto itself and the restoration of the imago commences.  Therefore, “our heart is restless until it finds peace in [Logos]”; for the human desire for love, happiness, and wisdom can only be satisfied through a union with the wisdom that made it and calls it home for enduring happiness.

Augustine’s dialectic of love is one of communion, harmony, and union.  This sets him apart from the other prominent dialectic philosophers, especially of the modern era, who see the dialectic as one of progress through destruction.  Augustine understands that there is nothing beautiful in the dialectic of ablation.  Beauty is only found in a dialect of communion and harmonization, which is the restored harmony of eros and logos – the restoration of the imago Dei.  (This is called “divinization” in Catholicism where one becomes like god in the process.  As Augustine quotes the Psalms in one of his homilies, “Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” (Ps. 82:6))

In the end, then, Augustine’s dialect of love is principally one that he acknowledged at the end of the Confessions and is built upon in his other works (especially De Trinitate): It is the renewal of the mind, that is to say wisdom (logos), and its coming to know the sources of wisdom.  This fulfills humanity’s natural desire for knowledge.  In this attainment of wisdom, we come to understand the nature of our natural (bodily) desires, which then allows us to find greater fulfillment in the body.  (And this is the problem that the Manicheans do not understand, or comprehend, precisely because they view the body as evil while Augustine understands the body as good.)

The restoration of the image of God is the “renewed…knowledge of God.”  Through the re-harmonization of eros and logos, humanity’s capacity and desire for love and knowledge, from which enduring happiness stems, is finally satiated.  And, more importantly, one now participates in the creative act of love itself, bringing life, and bringing ever greater beauty and love into the world through the creative participation with Wisdom.  Only in this reunion of desire with logos can humans finally bring peace and order to their lives and begin to enjoy things for what they are in route toward union with the Divine source of all things.  This is when we finally “know” love rather than be “in love with the idea of love” which is at the heart of Books I and III in Confessions.  We must, in all reality, come to know what love is.  And to know what love is, is to come to know God.  It is in love that we are made whole, “made new.”


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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