Saint Augustine and original sin

In his Confessions, St. Augustine sought the truth about himself and his motives, and the truth about the nature of God and His creation. 

What’s interesting to me is that he didn’t see his investigation of subjective truth, about himself, and of objective truth, about the nature of time and free will, as two separate things.  He saw them as different sides of the same thing.

What’s also interesting is that he didn’t see religious revelation as opposed to philosophical reason.  He saw them as mutually reinforcing.

I recently read The Confessions of St. Augustine for a couple of reasons.  One is that I just got finished reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which said fanatic mass movements such as fascism and Bolshevism were imitation religions, and I thought it worthwhile to read an account of actual religious belief.

Another is that there is a move afoot to abolish the teaching of the ancient classics on the grounds that they are irrelevant, and I thought it worthwhile to read an ancient classic to see whether it is relevant or not.

What follows is not a summary of the Confessions, but my personal reaction to it.

The main thing I got out of it was an understanding of how fundamental the doctrine of Original Sin is to Christianity.  This is the idea that sin is something baked into your nature that you can’t get rid of, no matter what you do.

Augustine condemned himself because, as a little baby, he didn’t care about anything except his selfish hunger for his mother’s milk. 

He condemned himself for what most people today would regard a normal desire for career success and for the approval of his peers.

He even criticized himself for being excessive in mourning the death of good friends.  It meant that he may have loved them more than he loved God.

He criticized himself for taking pleasure in the beauties of nature, or of art, unless it was combined with gratitude to God.

One act that particularly tore at him happened when he was a teenage boy.  He was part of a gang that invaded a walled orchard and stole pears.  He thought it was particularly evil because he didn’t need the pears.  He committed the theft because it was forbidden and because of peer pressure, not for the sake of pleasure or benefit to himself.

I have to say there is something to his last point.  I do think there is such a thing as evil, which is hatred of the good.  I think is different from mere badness, which is the inability to resist temptation.  But if this minor act of juvenile delinquency were the worst thing I myself had ever done, I would be well pleased with myself.

I do not see Augustine’s attitude toward sin as a distortion of Christianity.  Just the opposite!

Jesus taught that the great commandment is to love God with your whole heart, soul and mind.  He also taught a second commandment, to love your fellow human beings as yourself.

If you take these commandments literally, they are almost impossible to fulfill, even by people who are extremely spiritual and compassionate.  Who can say that the only thing they care about is God and his love?  Who can say they give other people’s needs the same priority as their own?  By this standard, who can escape sin?

All religions teach the need for atonement for wrongdoing and the need to make restitution to those you have wronged.  But none of them make repentance for sin the center of their religion in the way that Christianity does.

Only a Christian would say sin is inescapable.  Only a Christian would say that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.

One thing wrong with many people today, especially secular liberals, is that they no longer believe in God, except in a vague, metaphorical sense, but they still have a sense of sin. 

Not being Christians, they don’t know how to get rid of it, and this can shape their beliefs in strange ways.


Augustine lived from 354 to 430 A.D.  This was a time when the Roman Empire was still intact, although just barely, and Christianity was widely accepted, but other religions still existed.  The Confessions were written around 400 A.D.

It was a time before Christian doctrine had completely crystallized into its final form.  Augustine strongly influenced the definition of the Christian creed.  If not for him, it might be different in important ways from what it is.

He grew up in what is now Tunisia, the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother.  A benefactor subsidized his education.  He became a teacher in Carthage, then in Rome, then in Milan.

St. Augustine

One interesting sidelight of this early life is the story of his friend Alypius, an upright man who became addicted to going to gladiator games, which were still legal during Augustine’s lifetime.

Alypius was pressured by friends into going to one, and the influence of the crowd mind plus the stimulus of seeing the human slaughter generated a compulsion he could not resist. 

I’m reminded of what I’ve read about the power of Internet pornography and the addiction to violence of British football hooligans

Except for his inability to resist watching the slaughter of human beings, Alypius was a good man.  He was saved eventually through the strength of his Christian faith.

Most people who know of Augustine know of his prayer, “O, Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.”  He was a man of healthy sexual appetites who in early life found chastity a near-impossible ideal.

But he was not a seducer or a libertine.  He lived with the same woman, whom he does not name, for many years and had a son by her.

Eventually he decided to marry.  He did not consider marrying the woman he was living with.  Instead he had his mother arrange a marriage with a suitable young girl, whose name he also does not mention. 

His future bride was under-age at the time of the engagement, so Augustine had to wait two years to marry.  He sent his mistress away, but kept his son, who was 15 years old at the time they broke up.  He was unable to restrain himself from taking up with another women while waiting to marry.

But when the time came to marry, he had undergone a religious conversion experience that caused him to renounce sex and marriage altogether.  He became a celibate priest and eventually a bishop.

Augustine was strongly influenced in his early life by the Manicheans, who taught that the material world was created by an evil deity and the spiritual world by a good deity.  He eventually decided this could not be true.  A loving, all-powerful God would not allow the creation of an evil world.

Evil, he decided, was not real.  Evil was only a deficiency of good, just as darkness is a deficiency of light.

He also came under the influence of followers of Plato, and that influence was more fruitful. 

Augustine’s great insight was to see how classical Greek philosophy and Christian belief could reinforce each other.  The classical philosophers asked, “How can we know what is true?”  But the early Christian theologians asked, “How can we explain what we already know to be true?”

Christian faith in God provided a starting point for philosophical speculation.  Where did Plato’s forms come from?  They exist in the mind of God.  Where did Aristotle’s First Cause come from?  The First Cause was God.  And so on.

The study of philosophy, in turn, provided Christians a means to understand the implications of their faith.  This is illustrated by the last three chapters of the Confessions, which are philosophical interpretations of the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis.

 In the beginning, the Bible says, God created the Heavens and the Earth.  But how could there be a beginning?  What existed before the beginning?  Many people today still ask these questions.

Augustine answered these questions by analyzing the nature of time.  The only way we know time has passed, he said, is by noticing motion and its effects. 

If nothing moved, not even a single atom, then it would be the same as if time did not exist.  If fact, time would not exist. 

Therefore time came into existence when the universe was set in motion by God.  My understanding is that theoretical physicists believe something similar about time and the Big Bang. 

Augustine went on to write about cause and effect, free will and predestination, the sources of knowledge, what a perfect, unchanging being is like, and so on.

He also was an originator of the method of interpreting the Bible based on allegory and symbolism rather than literal meaning, which was very fruitful. 

Later he wrote many more books about theology.  He was a great denouncer of heretics—including the Arians, who disbelieved in the Trinity; the Pelagians, who disbelieved in original sin; the Donatists, who believed that those who renounced Christianity under threat of persecution ceased to be Christians; and the Manicheans and the leftover pagans.

He lived to see the barbarian Goths sack Rome and the barbarian Vandals march through Spain and North Africa.  In response, he wrote his other famous book, The City of God, which I haven’t read, to reassure Christians whose faith was shaken by these catastrophes.

Both the Confessions and The City of God have been read by Christians—Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox—down to this day.

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6 Responses to “Saint Augustine and original sin”

  1. philebersole Says:

    This is from an e-mail I received from a well-read friend.

    Kenneth Rexroth once said that Augustine invented the Oedipus complex—a lovely remark, that makes a LOT of sense.

    Reading Monica Baldwin’s book of many years ago, I Leap Over the Wall—which is about her life in (and after she left) a strict, enclosed convent—she was assigned to write a life of St Monica, Augustine’s mother, and obviously her own patron saint—she found she hated the woman. Yay!

    Some years ago at a gathering at Politics and Prose I asked Karen Armstrong, the writer on religion, if she had read Baldwin’s book, and she said yes, but went into the convent anyway, which shows how one can be really oblivious when young… Augustine’s morbidity has cursed Christianity ever since.

    He was the first Calvinist, who embraced that horrible original sin idea with fervor and carried it to its sadistic extreme.

    Christianity, as it developed, is calculated to make people fail and be in despair. You are presented with impossible ideal behaviors and castigated and threatened with agonies if fall short—which of course you do. I could go on, but why bother.

    You might find Rebecca West’s long essay on Augustine interesting. And she sure believed in evil and knew about the various effects of religion. Have you read her New Meaning of Treason or Black Lamb and Grey Falcon? Both are superb.


  2. philebersole Says:

    This is from an e-mail I received from a humane friend

    Thanks for this!

    I’m interested in your thoughts about sin. Sounds like inability to resist temptation—not sin. Sin being reserved for hatred of the good.

    I’m not a Christian. For me, the whole point of sin is a name to give it when you want to scare the congregants with hellfire, or want to burn some witch or other.

    For me, God is the creator. And the Creation doesn’t include anything of which He doesn’t approve. Like, here is a man, with human nature, just as I (God) made him. I would have to be a jerk to condemn him for being as I made him.

    After all, even we humans don’t call it sin when our babies poop their diapers. We humans all do what we can with what we’ve got. Some of us are ignorant, insane, deranged, hateful, and broken all different ways. I imagine T**** was kicked down the stairs early and often, to come out as he did.

    Of course, there are plenty of things which if we do them, will cause problems for ourselves or others. I figure that’s what we call bad behavior, or criminal behavior.

    For me, avoiding those behaviors is a good idea. We can call it virtue, but it is its own reward, not requiring an afterlife.

    Anyway, stay warm and safe!


  3. davidgmarkham Says:

    Hi Phil:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on Augustine’s Confessions and ideas. They certainly have had a tremendous influence on Catholicism and Christianity. The question I have is how it is that Augustine seems to put so much stock in the Greek philosophers and not seem to understand the deeper meaning of Jesus’ teachings?

    Jesus never condemned anyone for sinning but He did get upset about their lack of faith in God’s Unconditional Love for them. “Oh, ye of little faith,” Jesus would say, “if you only knew how much your father in heaven loves you.”

    So, it seems that Augustine got a lot of things wrong about human nature and the metaphysics of the spiritual life. Augustine was very trapped in the world of the ego and within this framework he struggled mightily, but he seemed to fail to see that there is a whole other way and that is the way of Love as you point out.

    Francis David said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” Poor Augustine and his followers spend too much time thinking.


  4. silverapplequeen Says:

    I cannot stand Augustine. His self-hatred (original sin) polluted Christianity. The idea that a baby is born “in sin” is an abomination. He is also a classic narcissist. Funny how heretics were just people who thought & worshiped differently than HE did. It’s all about Augustine. The Catholic Church would be a much better place if he had never existed IMHO.


  5. Vincent Says:

    Thanks for your excellent post & reference to “I Jumped Over the Wall”. Her story is readable for all sorts of reasons (I’ve picked it up again after 25 years.)

    Augustine’s story is addressed to his God alone from start to finish, and resembles a prolonged session in the confessional booth. Except that his concept of sin is not derived from a list of thou-must-nots compiled by the Catholic Church. He’s a free man under no compulsion. He’s had a lot of unashamed fun in his life. In old age he looks back and takes the view that sin is nothing more than a veil separating us from the ecstatic experience of God as master, teacher & lover. To review these obstacles and write about them is a way for him to focus on that connexion. As he says at the end, he hopes that his reader may be similarly helped.

    You say “I do not see Augustine’s attitude toward sin as a distortion of Christianity. Just the opposite!”

    Yes, it’s surely the other way round: that his writings have been used to define or support the dogma of Catholics & Protestants alike.

    Here’s a clip from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “ he may be said to have been the most powerful instrument of Providence in development and advance of dogma.”


  6. philebersole Says:

    This is from an e-mail I received from a distant friend

    “I do not see Augustine’s attitude toward sin as a distortion of Christianity. Just the opposite!”

    Yes, I very definitely get frustrated when people accuse atheists of going after weak versions of Christianity. If you look at the “big guns” in the history of Christianity–Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Augustine–it’s clear that they were smart and educated (by the standards of their time) men, but the arguments they offer are awful, and all-too-often suggest some deeply screwed-up psychological problems. (If you want misogyny, read Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet, an insane screed against Mary Queen of Scots.)


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