Augustine’s Ordo Amoris: Unwise Love as Sin and Wise Love as Graceful Perseverance

It is common to here, among the unread and the wannabe fashionably trendy, that Augustine is to blame for total depravity. Nowhere in Augustine’s corpus, as scholars of Augustine know, did he teach total depravity. He did teach grace antecedent to prior to conversion, but he also taught efficacious grace, grace after conversion wherein the Divine energy and human will cooperate to enhance and perfect man’s soul (see De gratia et libero arbitrio). As such, man’s love (or, more properly, what he is loving) and not his depraved nature, per Reformed theology, is the cause of sin.

Augustine maintained, as is clear in parts of the Confessions, City of God, and De Trinitate, human nature seeks love and desires happiness. This is true for people without God’s grace, people with God’s grace, “pagans” and Christians alike. In sum, all human nature seeks love. Without grace, however, the impulse toward love cannot be sustained and eventually collapses into lower loves, which, in Augustine’s hierarchy of loves, is what constitutes idolatry, or sin. This is a result of a lack of knowing, knowledge, or wisdom, regarding what will supply the love and happiness that we seek. Grace, in Augustine, is not merely a regenerate nature, it is also enlightenment, a regeneration of the mind to Truth and Love (who is God) as he finds in the writings of Saint Paul (cf. Rom. 12:2) as being the basis of the imago Dei (image of God) where humans are made in wisdom for wisdom and in love for love.

According to Augustine, proper love stems from proper knowing. Improper love stems from improper knowing. The Fall of Man was mankind’s attempt to decide for themselves what was good and true to produce happiness, as Augustine said in City of God, it is “live by a lie” (or a standard of falsity). In another word, it is to live by imperfect (or unwise) knowledge.

Before we proceed, however, we must return to the Pelagian Controversy that gives Augustine a bad name by his uninformed critics, and gives him unwarranted praise by stricter schools of Reformed theology. The modern memory of the Pelagian Controversy is said to be about free will. This is a half-truth. The will wasn’t what Augustine critiqued the Pelagians over per se (though he has plenty of things to say about the will). The real debate Augustine unleashed was the place of grace in relation to faith: “if grace precedes faith, since it [also] precedes the will, then clearly it precedes all obedience, and it also precedes love, by which alone God is truly agreeable and enjoyed.”

Augustine asserted that the Pelagian view of salvation entailed faith preceding grace. Augustine’s mature theology of grace, found in his rebuttal to the semi-Pelagians of southern France, was that grace precedes faith but doesn’t abrogate, or impact, in the strict sense, the free will that all humans have. The elect have a free will that cooperates and perfects grace through wisdom of God, and the reprobate have a free will that desires love but without grace to have perfect knowledge of God this deteriorates into idolatry (sin). Note, again, the citation from The Gift of Perseverance: Grace precedes faith and the will, it also precedes love. Augustine’s schema of human nature is as follows: [Grace] > [Faith] > Love (Desire) > Will > [Cooperation and Perseverance]. Sinful nature is: Love > Will absent of preceding grace and absent restored faith and perseverance. Regenerate nature is: Grace > Faith > Love > Will > Perseverance.

Since all humans, regenerate or reprobate, have love and will, this is what is common to all. This is our shared human nature according to Augustine. Love is the active principle that compels, or influences, the will to action.

In De Trinitate, Augustine writes that all things should be loved. Love attracts through partial knowing. We never love anything entirely unknown. We love things we have some understanding of. Proper love comes, then, in order or knowledge and understanding. We love ourselves, first, because we know ourselves. We love others next, especially as we get to know others. The more we know them the more we love them. We start to love the world as we have understanding of what the world represents: beauty, harmony, etc. which we encounter through our senses. Then, Augustine argues, this knowledge of self, others, and world points us to God, the Source of Love itself. Hence, when Augustine outlines his orders of love in City of God (Book 15), the hierarchy of love moves from the self to God. As he also writes in De Trinitate: “The word is conceived in love of either the creature or the creator, that is of changeable nature or unchangeable truth; which means either in covetousness or in charity. Not that a creature is not to be loved, but if that love is related to the creator it will no longer be covetousness but charity.”

Sin is stopping short of love of God. Instead of God, one loves oneself as God. One loves another as God. One loves the world as God. So on and so forth. Augustine sees this as resulting from a lack of wisdom since Wisdom is Christ, the link that ties truth (God) and love (bodily desire) together. Sin as “missing the mark” (as it was later developed in Scholastic theology, following Augustine), is, really, unwise love: a love directed to something that cannot return the love you seek and, as a result, cannot produce the happiness you desire from love. Only God can do this.

Augustine then develops his theology of love in love of God. You love yourself not for the sake of yourself but for God. You love others not for their sake but for God (repeating Jesus’s command that to love God is to love others). You love the world not for the sake of the world but for God. When you love something for its own sake divorced from God, that is what sin is. This is idolatry. In another sense—drawing from Paul and the Old Testament—Augustine doesn’t see “sin as sin” as we sometimes think of it today. Instead, Augustine sees sin as idolatry. Idolatry is placing something other than God as the ultimate source of your life. Idolatry is the manifestation of a good desire improperly actualized from lack of understanding.

This returns us to the place of wisdom in Augustine’s theology and how it relates to Grace. Wisdom, who is Christ, is the intermediary that binds the Transcendent Love who is the Source of All Things (God) and the material world of bodily desires/love (amor) which seeks fulfillment in something. The highest calling of the human soul, the mind, is love of knowledge (love of wisdom). For love of wisdom is what allows one to have a proper understanding of the hierarchy of existence and love: self, others, world, God. And since Wisdom incarnate was Christ, this leads to knowledge of Christ. Knowledge of Christ completes our understanding of self and world in relation to God which permits proper loving (God in all things) to occur. This is only possible through grace.

The wisdom and grace that transforms our knowledge allows a more intimate love of ourselves, others, and the world, because in that intimacy we also discover God in all things. It is God in ourselves, God in others, and God in the world that we ultimately want to find. This enhances ourselves, others, and the world once understood.


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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