Skip to content

De Civitate Dei, Book XIV

December 5, 2011

Chapters 1-4: The Body is not Evil

Humanity was created for community as indicated in the fact that all humanity is drawn from one person and is thus kin. Due to sin, humanity would have moved straight from the first death to the second (cf. previous book), but the grace of Christ intervenes. This gives rise to two cities: one city living by the standard of the spirit and another living by the standard of the flesh. “The citizens of each of these desire their own kind of peace, and when they achieve their aim, that is the kind of peace in which they live” (p547).

We must carefully understand what is meant by “the standard of the spirit” and “the standard of the flesh”. Some think that the Epicureans who saw bodily pleasure as their highest good live by the latter while the Stoic who saw a stability of mind as their highest good live by the former. However, Scripture uses “flesh” in many ways which it would be tedious to chronicle. For our discussion we need only understand the meaning of the phrase “the standard of the flesh”. In this respect, we can look to Galatians 5:19-21 to see that the works of the flesh concern not only bodily pleasure (fornication, impurity, lust, drunkenness, etc.) but also sins of the mind (idolatry, sorcery, enmity, etc.). It becomes clear that “flesh” is being used as a part-for-the-whole kind of speech, and thus living by the flesh means living according to humanity (or self).

While Wisdom 9:15 says that “the corruptible body weighs down the soul,” and it is significant here to note that the corruption and not the body itself is the problem. In the resurrection, we will have a body but it will not be corruptible and thus not the cause of any trouble to us. Virgil (expounding Plato) blames the most familiar disturbances of the mind – desire and fear, joy and grief – on the body. These are supposedly the origins of all sins and moral failings. However, the Christian view is quite different. For one, the origin of sin was not the body but the soul. This must be true or else the Devil could not be called a sinner (since he has no fleshly body); but the works of the flesh from Galatians 5 can be attributed to the Devil.

Paul says that humanity is a liar but that God tells the truth (Romans 3:7). Thus, whenever we live according to ourselves we live according to falsehood. Here is how it works: we commit sin to advance our own welfare, but we do the opposite. Thus, we live according to falsehood.

Despite what the Platonists say on this point, we must not do our Creator injustice by blaming sin on our body. Rather, we should indict our pride which forsakes the good Creator and lives by the standard of humanity. Ironically, it is fleshly to blame our flesh for sin.


Chapters 5-11: The Passions

It was noted above that the Platonists blame the body for the four primary disturbances of the mind (“the passions”) which give rise to all moral failings: desire and fear, joy and grief. The Platonists contradict themselves on this point: Virgil presents completely purified souls lusting again for bodies. Where does lust arise from in a purified soul (we cannot blame the body on this occasion!). On the Platonists own admission here, the passions can arise from a source within the soul itself.

But we must give a different account of the passions. What really matters in all emotions is the will that gives rise to them. And the quality of the will is determined by the love which directs it – a good love gives rise to proper emotions. All four of “the passions” which Plato views negatively can be found both positively and negatively in the Scriptures. So the situation is more complicated than merely saying that these four passions are evil, for they can be either good or evil depending on the love that is behind them.

The Stoics give a different account of the passions. They list desire, joy, fear, and grief as those dispositions which disturb the mind; these are to be replaced by will, gladness, and caution. But this account does not square with the Scriptures either. While Isaiah 57:21 says that there is no gladness for the wicked and Matthew 7:12 implies that will can only be for good things, there are other instances where it is implied that gladness is not only for the righteous (1 Corinthians 13:6) and that will can be used for willing evil also (like Ecclesiasticus 7:13; Luke 2:14). The classical texts also show a flexibility in these terms that the Stoic account of the passions does not seem to take into account. It might be too obvious to point-out texts where grief is positive, for example grief leading to repentance which the Apostle commends (2 Corinthians 7:8-11).

Instead of trying to classify passions according to words, we should realize that what matters is the love that gives rise to them. A righteous person will feel all the passions, as will an evil person – the difference is the love that is behind them. A righteous person fears eternal punishment and desires eternal life; they fear to sin and desire to persevere. A righteous person feels pain if someone perishes without Christ and feels gladness when they are set free by Him. The Apostle Paul, for example, rejoices and weeps, experiences fear of danger and yet hope of being with Christ. Or consider Jesus who felt anger at the hardness of the Jews’ hearts, pain at Lazarus’ death, longing to eat passover with the disciples, and grief over his coming crucifixion.

However right our emotions might be, they belong to this life and not the life to come. We sometimes experience these emotions without consent, which shows that these emotions belong to our weakness. The notion of impassibility is that the mind is not disturbed by emotions but guided by reason. The Psalmist says that fear endures forever (19:9) because the destination to which the fear itself leads will be permanent. So the condition of eternal life will not be characterized by the instability of the passions, though love will endure. In contrast, the city of man which lives by the doctrines of men and demons is constantly shaking by emotions as by diseases and upheavals.

Did Adam and Eve experience the passions before their fall into sin? We know that spiritual bodies will not experience then, but what about their unfallen animal bodies? Can one really be described as happy if exposed to fear or pain? We can say with confidence that before the fall Adam and Eve loved God and each other without interruption. They had no fear, because fear would only arise if they actually desired to eat the forbidden fruit – only then would they fear the consequence. So before evil desire entered the world, the first humans were not distressed by any agitation of mind or disorder of body. The will was only truly free before it desired evil, for only after desiring evil is the will bound to falsehood which is human truth.


Chapters 12-15: The First Sin

Why did the first sin so alter the course of human history? Do subsequent sins alter it in the same way? God’s instruction to Adam and Eve demanded obedience, and obedience is the mother and guardian of all other virtues in a rational creature. And this first commandment was so easy to observe, so simple to remember, and so unobtrusive in light of there being no desires contrary to it, that the sin itself was massively great. It was a great sin in proportion to the ease with which it could have been observed and fulfilled.

It was in secret that the first humans began to be evil: an invisible evil will preceded the evil act of disobedience. The higher Good shed its light on them, but they rejected it for their own guidance. This exaltation or prideful movement is truly a downfall. This is why humility is prized in the City of God. When a person aims at more than God has given, they are diminished. This is the original evil, namely, to regard oneself in his/her own light and thus to turn away from the light which would make man a light if he would set his heart on it.

Even worse than this turning to oneself is the denial of sin when it is brought into the light. Adam and Eve offered excuses. God’s punishment was first the very disobedience itself, as has been explained already in this section. But also, their bodies would no longer obey their spirits but would grow old, experience pain, endure hardships of many kinds, and no longer possess control over the body’s sexual capacities. In all of this, we have only succeeded in becoming a nuisance to ourselves. Fallen humanity experiences lusts of many kinds, and some have their own titles while others do not. For example, lust for domination does not have a title.


Chapters 16-26: Sex after the Fall

However, when “lust” is used by itself alone one usually assumes that it refers to sexual lust. This lust is not purely physical, for as a power it mingles the soul with the body. And when the lust is fulfilled it produces a delight so great that it excludes mental alertness almost completely. This lust is uncontrolled to a certain extent – it often moves when it is undesired, and it often does not move when an eager lover awaits. As discussed earlier, this is what Adam and Eve experienced after the fall that caused them such shame: the movement of their sexual organs without the control of the will.

This presence of lust in all human sexual activity is what leads married people to have intimacy only in private. This is why the Platonists held that anger an lust were perverted elements in humanity’s character and that they lead to acts which wisdom forbids. These are suppressed, they held, by intelligence and reason. They envisioned lust and anger as two parts of the soul, both of which try to overcome but are properly ruled by the third part of the soul, reason. When reason rules, they claimed, justice is preserved in the soul.

The Cynics – Augustine calls them canine philosophers – put forward an opinion to rebut the Platonists. They claimed that since there was nothing wrong with the sexual union of husband and wife, married couples could mate in public. But human nature, Augustine contends, is rightly ashamed of lust.

God’s original blessing upon marriage, to be fruitful and multiply, continued into the fallen state. This shows that procreation would have occurred in the paradisaical state if sin had not entered, though it would have occurred without lust. To imagine what that would have been like, we can imagine parts of our body that operate only in accordance with our will: the arms, hands, feet, etc. In contrast to these parts of our anatomy, the sexual organs sometimes do as they please without the consent or direction of the will. Just as the soul rebelled against God, so the lower parts rebel against the soul. And the contrast between our controllable parts of the body with our sexual organs is very significant in light of the power of the will over the body in extreme cases: for example, some can move their scalp, wiggle their ears, weep at will, etc. In all of these instances, the body is the obedient servant to the will, even to an unusual degree and in surprising ways. However, this same control does not prevail in the realm of fallen sexuality.

In paradise, humanity did not grow old or feel hungry or experience tiredness against his/her will. And similarly, no uncontrollable movement of the body would have been required for procreation. Just like moving his arm or foot, man would have injected the female with seed, and she would have grown and given birth to a new life without any pain or travail.


Chapters 27-28: God’s Design and the Two Cities

Human sin has not destroyed God’s plans for human history; rather, he knew that sin would enter the world. God knows how to turn evil into good. Though humanity did not have the power to live a good life, they did have and do have the power to live an evil life.

Based on humanity’s fallen desire for human praise and on God’s redeeming grace, there are now two cities. The first seeks praise from others, is dominated by the lust for domination, and loves its own strength; the latter praises God, is subject to Him, and loves God’s strength.


From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: