112 - Help Wanted: Augustine on Freedom

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Augustine attempts to reconcile human freedom with God’s foreknowledge and his own claim that we need divine grace to avoid sin.



Further Reading

• G. Bonner, “Augustine and Pelagianism,” Augustinian Studies 23 (1992), 33-51 and 24 (1993), 27-47.

• M.T. Clark, Augustine: Philosopher of Freedom (New York: 1958).

• W.L. Craig, “Augustine on Foreknowledge and Free Will,” Augustinian Studies 15 (1984), 41-67.

• A. Dihle, The Theory of Will in Classical Antiquity (Berkeley: 1982).

• G. O’Daly, “Predestination and Freedom in Augustine’s Ethics,” in G. Vesey (ed.), The Philosophy in Christianity (Cambridge: 1989).

• J.M. Rist, “Augustine on Free Will and Predestination,” Journal of Theological Studies 20 (1969), 420-47.


Padmadipa on 20 January 2013

irresolvable dilemmas of Christianity in episode 112

This episode of HoP, as enjoyable as ever, shows how even the greatest thinker, is reduced to making very unconvincing arguments of Christian justification to one of the main dilemmas of the faith: free will and God's foreknowledge. But this problem, like all the others involving pre-destination, are themselves subsidiary problems of the fundamental dilemma pointed up long ago by Epicurus: how can an all loving deity, who is at the same time all powerful, allow evil in the world of his/her creation? This is the fundamental problem of Christianity when subject to philosophical criticism, which has never been solved to this day. It can only be briged by an irrational leap of Christian faith. Which, while it might make sense to the Christian, leaves the ground wide open for the non-Christian to say: "No, I am not going to make such a leap". Perhaps it might be worthwhile tracing all these arguments back through Neo-Platonism, and the Stoics to this even earlier, ancient argument of Epicurus.

In reply to by Padmadipa

Imran on 20 January 2013

Evil God

If evil is the creation of god. than so is good. and no action can be judged. No praise no blame. No free will. No lack of will.The amazing individual, with the ability of rational thought, is no more.
Then why are we so full of judgments ? Why do we look back on situations and say, I should have acted this way ?

This leap which seems irrational, may not be so irrational. Electrons make leaps when they get excited. Scientific and mathematical thought wasn't a linear progression, there were countless leaps. Einstein's theories required leaps in thought.

For us to hold god accountable for our actions is a scary thought to me. Scary in our lack of appreciation of the individual. The most amazing creation. We are different from every species on this planet. But what makes us different ?

I really like Augustine. "Creation of human beings who have the freedom to decide how to act on their own is so vital a part of the divine plan for the cosmos that it outweighs the obvious consequence that we nearly always choose badly"

Now an angel (the idea of an angel) can have no appreciation of god (the idea of god). How sad must that be ? (although they would not know it). To be given the freedom to come about that idea on your own, our through the ties of sympathy, is an amazing gift.

In reply to by Imran

Peter Adamson on 20 January 2013

The problem of evil

Hi folks,

Thanks for the fast feedback on this episode! Without taking sides here about who is ultimately right on this issue, I would agree the problem of evil is the biggest difficulty for Christian believers who are alive now, I mean, the strongest philosophical argument against it. I think though that as far as the history of philosophy goes, one needs to be careful about assuming that Augustine is in the same situation as the contemporary Christian. Like pretty much every philosopher until fairly recently, he, everyone else he has ever met, and everyone whose existence he's aware of is a theist (even the Epicureans denied that they were atheists). So the idea that you could point to evil and say that it proves that God doesn't exist isn't, in my view, a genuine issue for him (the conclusion of atheism would effectively just prove the argument was faulty, because the atheistic conclusion is universally agreed to be not just false but obviously absurd). The problem is rather how to account for evil, given that everyone agrees God does exist. So this is why the discussion is against Pelagians and Gnostics -- it is never about "can I defend the claim that God exists at all?" It's about, e.g. "is there a principle of evil in addition to God, the principle of goodness?" (Gnostics say yes, Augustine and other Church Fathers say no.)

I just point that out because we shouldn't necessarily expect Augustine to even try to show us that God's existence can be defended against the problem of evil. His arguments are rather aimed against rival conceptions of how God does co-exist with evil. This might explain why you may find his arguments unconvincing -- this is a theist arguing against other theists, not a theist trying to defend theism against atheism.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Tom Roche on 21 January 2013

One objection, one question,

One objection, one question, and one hope (that this formats correctly :-)

Peter Adamson on Sun, 01/20/2013 - 20:28
> Like pretty much every philosopher until fairly recently, [Augustine],
> everyone else he has ever met, and everyone whose existence he's aware of
> is a theist (even the Epicureans denied that they were atheists). [...]
> The atheistic conclusion [was] universally agreed to be not just false but obviously absurd

I have several objections to this empirical claim:

1. There is an empirical record of atheism. There is even


which seems pretty blunt.

2. The facts that

* so many people, for so long, have been accused of being atheists
* so much ink has been spilled in rebuttal to atheist arguments

strongly suggests that ... wait for it ... there have been atheists for a long time! ("Known atheists" in the JTB sense of knowledge.) One might reply that people have been accused of witchcraft for a long time. But atheism is a "thought crime"--no physical-law violations here--and is merely the advocacy of arguments, themselves known.

3. "The Epicureans denied that they were atheists," as did Hume, and ... ISTM everybody knew (JTB) they were atheists :-)

Hence, IMHO this empirical claim is "obviously absurd."

My question regards (what seems to me to be) an obvious out for Augustine (et al) theodically (if that's a legit adverb :-) Why did they not punt on divine foreknowledge? This might be counterfactual, but given the amount of surviving discussion on the most trivial minutiae of Christian doctrine (notably, trinitarianisms), I'm guessing this has been previously discussed, and at length--but ICBW.

Being an atheist (but you guessed :-) my aquaintance with theology is fairly slim, but it definitely STM that, of the triad of {omnibenevolence, omnipotence, omniscience}, the latter causes the Abrahamists (the sum of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the myriad of weird little sects that don't get much press) the most problems theodically, which in turn is (as you note) "the strongest philosophical argument against" Abrahamic theism. One might object that foreknowledge is needed for divine perfection, but you note that Augustine was willing to punt on divine control of human will (throwing omnipotence under the bus?), so perfection is toast. So why not just say, "God gave us free will, and, in so doing, sacrificed foreknowledge. But he does have perfect and complete knowledge of the present and the past--he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good or burn in hell! You better watch out! You better not cry!" (Sorry, wrong mythology, but ... you get the point :-) One gets all the political and (for them) "scientific" goodness of theism, without the obvious theodical baggage.

In reply to by Tom Roche

Peter Adamson on 22 January 2013

Historical atheism

Just to follow up on this question about Augustine's context and atheism: my point is that Augustine did not have any historical opponents or contemporaries of any significance (to him) who were atheists. It may be possible to dig up the odd assertion that looks like atheism by trawling through all of ancient literature, as that Wikipedia article does. But largely, I think the Wikipedia article (maybe unwittingly) makes the point that there is effectively no atheism in ancient philosophy. The Epicureans, as already mentioned, pay lip service to theism, and it's telling that for other examples they draw from Xenophanes (who was a very convinced theist, and only criticizing traditional conceptions of the gods), from satirical plays, skeptics who were saying that the gods are beyond our ken, and so on. The upshot is that in ancient philosophy generally and late ancient philosophy in particular, atheism pretty much always turns up as an accusation ("if you say that the world is governed by chance, then you are effectively an atheist!" as the Stoics would say to the Epicureans) and not a positively held view.

The reason this is important is that it reminds us that Augustine's context (and that of all other ancient thinkers) was not the same as ours. Nowadays, atheism is effectively the default: as analytic philosophers like Plantinga have complained, theists are expected to argue for God's existence and if they can't succeed, God is assumed not to exist. That gives us a situation that is, dialectically speaking, worlds away from the one that faced Augustine. As I said, all his opponents were theists, albeit that they might have had different conceptions of the gods (because they were pagans, Manicheans, Pelagians, etc). This holds true even if one thinks that one can dig up good cases of atheism back in the Presocratics or whatever: my point here is just that Augustine was not confronted by atheists.

A possible objection to my view is that he, and other medieval thinkers, devote a good deal of energy to proving the existence of God. In fact he does this in On Free Choice, the text I discuss in this episode. Here I would say, however, that this is not aimed against some possible atheists who might need to be defeated/convinced. Rather, he is trying to show that reason lines up well with religious belief and allows us to understand our belief better ("believe in order to understand"). In fact I think one can go so far as to say that for him, if human reason showed that God didn't exist this would be a problem for human reason not for theism. Also, proofs for God's existence establish certain conceptions of God that are otherwise controversial in this historical context, e.g. His simplicity, Hie uniqueness, His identity with pure goodness or being, etc. That is why people like Augustine, Aquinas, Avicenna and the rest argue for God's existence; it's not because they are confronted by actual atheists but to clarify what it is that theism amounts to.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Syed Faizan on 22 January 2013

The only Atheists in the ancient world-'Carvaka' philosophers?

Very informative discussion ,regarding atheism in an ancient context if 'there is effectively no atheism in ancient philosophy' could the Carvaka's in India be the only exception! A lecture on them by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen http://www.humanistictexts.org/carvaka.htm

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ken on 24 January 2013


I can't wait until you get to Kierkegaard and the existentialist. Talk about people looking for bogey men that don't exist. Wanting to be offended by what is not being leveled at them.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Glenn Russell on 25 January 2013

What happened to the Goddess?

Hi Peter,

It really is quite something that the monotheistic religions, particularly at this time, speak of divinity exclusively in the masculine. Could you say a few words about the Goddess being snuffed out.

I recall one scholar saying how, with the death of the Goddess, civilization turns hard and militant, even militant when it comes to religion.

In reply to by Glenn Russell

Peter Adamson on 26 January 2013

God's gender

HI there,

Well, this isn't so much in my area of speciality since it's more history of religion. One thing to bear in mind is that in a language with gendered nouns (like Greek or Latin) the word "god" may have a male gender grammatically, which means that the pronoun "He" will refer to "Him" (ho theos, etc). But the pronoun "er" ("he") refers to "table" in German and that doesn't mean Germans think that tables are male.

Nonetheless I suppose that ancient Christians generally thought of God as male (artworks are strong evidence of this), unless they were being careful about thinking of Him as transcending gender for philosophical reasons; even there I'm not sure I've ever seen a passage where this sort of gender-transcendence is spelled out explicitly. And the Trinitarian Persons are further evidence of this (Father and Son, not Mother and Daughter). Pagan religion of course had explicitly male and female gods/goddesses but I think the association of divinity with femininity largely dies out in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions. Depressingly, even in pagan culture female gender is often seen as some kind of defective version of male gender, and that may be echoed in the assumption that God is male, if He has a gender at all.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ryan W on 24 July 2019

In regard to artwork, I would

In regard to artwork, I would note that there was a strong resistence to portraying God the Father in any way in ancient Christianity. In ancient Christian art, God the Father appears in symbolic form as a hand descending from a cloud, or as one of the three angels in the visitation to Abraham. Generally speaking, the depictions of God as an old man with a beard are later, and generally from the Western part of the Christian world. These kinds of depictions were eventually condemned in the Orthodox world. I think that ancient Christians didn't comment often on God's (lack of) gender because they thought the point was too obvious to be worth belabouring. When the point is made, it's often made either in passing or as a step in establishing some other conclusion. For example, as you noted in an earlier episode, Gregory of Nyssa said that human gender only existed because of sin. But the reasoning leading him to that conclusion involves the premise that gender "has no counterpart in the divine archetype". Gregory doesn't argue that God has no gender. He takes it as an unproblematic premise that can be used to establish other things. In his commentary on Isaiah, Jerome notes that the Holy Spirit is masculine in Latin, feminine in Hebrew and neutral in Greek, and comments, "No one ought to be scandalised in this matter because in Hebrew the Spirit is spoken of in the feminine gender, when in [Latin] the masculine gender is applied, and in Greek the neuter; for in the Godhead, there is no gender (in divinitate enim nullus est sexus)". In Oration 31, Gregory of Nazianzus mocks overly literalistic interpreters of the Bible by saying that, following their methods, we might as well say that God is male because we call him "Father". The context makes it clear that this is intended as a reductio ad absurdam. Gregory seems to think that the idea that God has a gender is so transparently silly that any premise that would lead to the conclusion that he does must be false. Later, Maximus the Confessor will again assume without argument that God is not gendered, and use that as the basis for a step in the progression of the monastic life. Maximus presents the monastic life as the overcoming of a series of dualities on the way to mirroring the unity of God, and one of the dualities to be transcended is gender. Given the popularity of the apophatic approach among ancient Christian theologians, it would be odd for this not to be the case. It would be very strange, for example, for Gregory of Nyssa to speak of God as "luminous darkness" in one breath, then as being limited to one half of a duality found in organic beings on the other.

In reply to by Ryan W

Peter Adamson on 24 July 2019

God's gender

Thanks for this learned comment! The point about God having no gender actually comes up in a paper I wrote recently, about Gregory of Nyssa's dialogue "On Soul and Resurrection," in which I argue basically that his chocie of a female main speaker (his sister Macrina) may relate to the idea that humans are in truth simply rational souls that, as god-like, lack gender or are at least without standard markers of gender.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Padmadipa on 21 January 2013

What can we learn from Augustine and his contemporaries?

Thanks Peter that is excellently put. And thank you too, Imran for your initial response to me, for although I think I could have a pretty good stab at answering, it would just take the discussion into the area of believer versus non-believer, and for the reasons that Peter mentions, away from a focus about Augustine. However what is to the point is what can we learn from the history of philosophy; and to the case in hand, from Augustine and his contemporaries? The doctrine of Original Sin, in the way in which he formulated it, has, in my view, led to the most devastating psychological consequences for the west. The sense of irrational guilt that so many suffer from, often manifested in the sense of un-worthiness, I think, can be traced to Augustine. (And here I would distinguish between irrational guilt, i.e. the general sense of unworthiness, not locatable to particular events and actions; form a healthy remorse – essential for ethical progress - for particular misdeeds, which one can confess, make amends to the offended, and move on.)

The belief in virtue, and hence the desire to perfect virtue, is not in itself dependent on a belief or non-belief in a creator-God. (In an ironic way, Augustine was quite right on this point of his criticism). But therefore as a consequence, for contemporary humanity, it is from Pelagius that we have most to learn and not Augustine.

Thanks, Padmadipa

In reply to by Padmadipa

Peter Adamson on 22 January 2013

Pelagius vs Augustine

Thanks -- I certainly agree that this stuff is highly relevant still. As long as we don't expect them to be arguing for more than they intend to! I also tend to agree, personally, that the Pelagian view actually looks quite reasonable. It is perhaps surprising to see that this apparently innocuous claim (that it's possible for humans to will the good, using nothing more than their natural powers) became not only a rejected view, but heretical, for many centuries. Conversely I think we see from this dispute something deep about Christianity (at least, as it developed post-Augustine) and how it differs both from other religions and from previous ancient philosophical traditions. When Augustine rejects Pelagianism he is also rejecting fundamental assumptions of Stoic, Platonist and Aristotelian ethics.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Emil Bøye on 21 November 2013

Hi Peter, First off I want to

Hi Peter,
First off I want to thank you for making this wonderful podcast. Having finished my master in philosophy and history earlier this year, it's great to be able to listen to some philosophy on the way to and from my current very unphilosophical work.
I hope it's fine to comment so much later on these older episodes.

Now on topic. Is it just me, or does Augustine's views regarding the necessity for God's assistance in choosing the good completely undermine his own views concerning free will? That seems to me a serious issue with his system, and one I don't feel was addressed in the podcast.
I mean, if a human being literally cannot choose the good without God assisting him, it seems to me that the human being essentially has no choice or will after all. God, after all, is making the decision to aid or not to aid some individual, and then proceeds to reward or punish that individual for "choices" God made that individual choose.
Does Augustine at all consider this type of objection?

Again, many thanks for the podcast!

In reply to by Emil Bøye

Peter Adamson on 25 November 2013

Augustine on freedom

Hi there,

Thanks for your comment (comments are always welcome, even on older episodes!). You are certainly putting your finger on a key problem in Augustine. I would say he is certainly aware of this issue but doesn't resolve it, in part because his works most directly on the topic (especially De Libero Arbitrio) were written before he got into the controversy with the Pelagians, and his anti-Pelagian works don't usually proceed at this level of philosophical abstraction - they are more like debates over the correct interpretation of Scripture. At least that's my memory, I haven't looked at them closely in some years.

As we'll see Latin medieval philosophy is much concerned with the project of reconciling the position on grace with the position on free will, so stay tuned for that!


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Emil Bøye on 26 November 2013

Thank you for the reply. I

Thank you for the reply. I will look forward to that, it'll be very interesting, even though I have a hard time imagining I'd find a compatibilist position satisfying.

Sorry if this is adressed somewhere, but I have been unable to find it. How broad is the scope, you intend for this podcast? Do you intend/hope to eventually cover even Indian and Asian philosophy? How about African philosophy (ubuntu?)?

In reply to by Emil Bøye

Peter Adamson on 27 November 2013


Actually we're just been discussing this over on the main comments page; see here.

bobb on 8 March 2013

Good and Evil in Augustine

Please pardon me if this is a repeat post. I tried to post it earlier but didn't see it, and don't know if a post needs to get approved...

I got the impression from this podcast that Augustine equates evil with suffering, and believes that both come from sin. Would he say this applies to all suffering? For instance, if someone is sick, is that due to sin?

Also, am I correct to think that Augustine things good only comes from God, and people can perform good only if they are Christians and baptized? Would he say that no good in non-Christian societies?


In reply to by bobb

Peter Adamson on 8 March 2013

Sin and suffering

Hi there,

Maybe you didn't hit "save" on the message? Anyway it is here now! Thanks for the questions. I would say yes, for him all suffering is due to sin... ultimately. It doesn't mean that if you suffer it's specifically retribution for a sin you committed (that would obviously be a problem with suffering newborn children, for instance). But without the original sin of Adam there would be no suffering.

Also, yes, all good things come from God including of course the universe itself which is good. He does think, I believe, that non-Christians can be good -- he even thinks they can be saved albeit that they would need a separate revelation of Christ's grace. However even sinners can do good, in fact since absolute evil is non-being (as Plotinus says, and as Augustine agrees) there is some good in everything we do. Typically sin is in fact pursuing a lesser good than the one we should be pursuing, e.g. by valuing the good that is health or personal happiness above the good of God himself.

Hope that helps!


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jorge on 23 January 2021

How did Agustin square this circle?

Hi Peter,

Sorry if this is quite outside of your specialty (going too deeply into biblical exegesis) but this discussion about the source of the world's evils reminds me of the following bible passage in the Gospel of John Chapter 9:

1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

Is there anywhere in Agustin's doctrine of original sin as a source of the world's evils where this quite explicit contradiction to it from the sacred text is addressed?

I also wanted to ask whether you would consider that omitting the teachings of Jesus (or at least those of the people that composed the texts in the New Testament) might be quite a big gap in this history of philosophy? Was it too much of a derailment or a minefield? I have recently been reading Tolstoy's "The Kingdom of God is Within You" his "Gospel in Brief" and quite relevantly his "My Confession" and really enjoy seeing how he contrasts what he calls Christ's original teachings from those of "orthodox" Jews and later those of the institutional Church. Tolstoy for example talks about the incompatibility of the Sermon of the Mount and the Nicene Creed.

[side question: would you consider covering Tolstoy once you get to XIXth century philosophy in about 2046?]

Is it possible to detach Jesus's teaching from his supernatural status as Tolstoy tries to do in an effort to extract what he saw as the core of his teaching? In your interview with David Sedley, he points out how similar greek philosophical schools were to religious movements and how that reverence of authority (bordering on infallibility) got even scientifically minded Stoics in trouble when trying to justify Xeno's assertion that the seat of reason resided in the chest; and in other episodes of the podcast you have mentioned miraculous attributions and claims of divine authority or inspiration as quite common to ancient philosophers like Pythagoras's "golden thighs", Socrates's "Divine Sign" and the whole "Divine Plato" thing.

Taking into account first century Judea was a Hellenized Roman province, and that the texts of the New Testament being originally written in Greek and that the teachings of this Palestinian rabbi ended up being somewhat influential in the course of philosophy and western culture, I would have been interested in hearing about the place that a Jesus-as-philosopher would occupy in the history of philosophy, and how teachings like those in the aforementioned bible passage would square against say Stoic ideas of Divine Providence. Is this something you wish you had included in the podcast looking back (in keeping with this episode's opening theme) and if not, might I ask why?

Thank you for your podcast, and sorry for being like a Pelagian that forces you to look back on what you wrote years ago to see if you would have done differently.



In reply to by Jorge

Peter Adamson on 23 January 2021

Jesus as philosopher

Right, I have been asked this before: why not cover Jesus as a philosopher, or cover the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as texts; similarly I did not cover the Quran when I did the Islamic world. This looks especially inconsistent when you consider we did do the Vedas and so on in the India series. Back then to be honest I don't think I gave this much thought: when I was doing antiquity, the scope of the project was a little smaller and I didn't often stray far from what is usually considered philosophical texts. If I were doing it now, I might approach it differently, but as you say, it would be really hard to know how to approach these texts from the point of view of the history of philosophy, and of course potentially offensive too. I did wind up saying quite a lot about them in the end though, e.g. about the book of Job in episode 167.

As for the more detailed questions: that is a fascinating passage you cite from the Bible! I don't know off the top of my head if Augustine addresses it, but presumably he would just have to say that Jesus' point is that the blindness was not sent as a special punishment for one specific sin or sins, even though in general our susceptibility to things like blindness would be due to original sin.

And yes I would definitely cover Tolstoy! I have an idea of doing a whole mini-series on Russian 19th c philosophy and literature when (if) I get that far.

Natalia Doran on 18 May 2013

What is so special about Augustine?

Modern Greek theologians regularly point out that Augustine was not widely known or influential in his time. There were plenty of intellectual giants who shaped the Ecumenical Councils, but he was not one of them. He became known only later, with the rise of the Franks, who, looking to emancipate themselves from the Empire, wanted a champion theologian and retrospectively chanced on Augustine, who suited the role, because he wrote a lot, wrote in Latin, lived in the West and was, on the whole, orthodox, though hardly original. So, thanks to them, he became THE theologian.

Having listened to you so far, I, sadly, have to agree with this analysis. These lumps of free-floating theology hardly compare with the lucidity and intellectual vigour of mainstream Christianity of late antiquity.

As for the “problems” themselves, they only arise because of insufficient, or even absent, application of the energies/essence division in the case of the “problem” of God’s foreknowledge and evil, and because of monophysite, or, more specifically, monothelite, tendencies in the case of the “problem” of the free will.

In reply to by Natalia Doran

Peter Adamson on 19 May 2013

The Augustine hype

Hm, that's an interesting take on things, especially because you know the Greek tradition well enough to compare. I think I disagree, but there is certainly an important truth in what you say insofar as Augustine wound up being so influential on Christian thought in part because he wrote lots and in Latin. (Interestingly by the way the selection of Augustine's works read in the middle ages also seems to have been surprisingly small, I can't remember if I managed to fit that in.) However, there are some reasons to think that he is special beyond his historical influence:

1. My favorite thing about Augustine, which is unparalleled in any other ancient author I know (though Plotinus is closest) is his incredibly subtle analysis and description of our mental lives. No one in the ancient world wrote anything even in shouting distance of the Confessions, when you are talking about self-analysis of emotion, weakness, and also more "intellectual" aspects of life like memory. In this context Augustine also makes wonderful use of the skeptical tradition by probing and exploring issues while being open to lots of different explanations; he is vividly aware of his own subjective life and unable to explain it, yet trying to do so from many angles. That's philosophically really exciting.

2. He wrote De Trinitate. I can't claim to have read all the works of the Church Fathers obviously, especially the Greek ones. But of the fairly large number of things I read for the podcast and previously, I would say this is the one I find most impressive and rewarding, along with Origin's "On Principles." (City of God is also formidable in its own way, incidentally.)

3. His writing is amazing; he makes full use of his rhetorical training and gifts, and can write in a very wide range of registers, from theological polemic to introspective meditation. He can be a bit verbose but in general he's acute, persuasive, and sometimes even funny.

4. His theory of grace is one of the most crucial theological (and philosophical) moves in the history of Christianity, and as we'll be seeeing poses a challenge that will be confronting this faith basically for the rest of its existence (at least in the Western church).

It may be that Augustine doesn't offer what the Greek theologians do, in the sense that he doesn't necessarily make the kind of advances in dogmatic positions and technical distinctions concerning, say, the Trinity or the Incarnation. In these respects he does tend more to re-assert orthodoxy (as he understood it). But I personally don't think there is any doubt that he merits his place in the history of philosophy and theology.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jeremy R Pierce on 19 May 2013

Augustine's philosophical contributions

Another thing Augustine does that doesn't always get highlighted (I haven't listened to your podcasts on him yet, so I'm not sure if you highlight this) is that he seems like the Thomas Reid of his day. He defends what Reid calls common sense, and he engages with the philosophers current in his day by resisting them in ways that no one was doing. His resistance to skepticism in City of God strikes me as assuming the same sorts of things that Reid later defends, moves that contemporary epistemologists have done a lot to make reputable. Reid was never given his due in his own time, but after Augustine epistemology ceased to be a major issue, at least in terms of responding to skepticism. It wasn't just the cogito, which Descartes gets so much credit for even though it was fully taken from Augustine. It was the fallibilist lowering of standards as to what counts as knowledge. That move is seen today as one of the most fruitful responses to skepticism, even though many who suggested it were ignored in their own time (Leibniz is another example, in addition to Reid).

Another way Augustine strikes me as contributing philosophically is his broad commitment to what Davidson calls charity to what ordinary people mean by terms. His epistemology is one instance of that. If the skeptical standards for what counts as knowledge are too high, because that's not what ordinary people mean by such terms, then the same problem occurs in other places. The Stoics' use of emotion-terms to describe anything contrary to reason but refusal to use such terms for feelings compatible with reason leads them to reject all emotions, but then they have to say funny things like the insistence that moral indignation isn't an emotion, since that kind of feeling is perfectly all right. It leads him to distinguish between a kind of absolute goodness that's unachievable in this life while insisting on using goodness-language in a more relative way to say that, even though no one is really good, some can be more good than others, and one can improve or worsen.

I also think his account of virtue in terms of desiring what's most good according to how good it is is a genuine contribution, and his allowance for the intrinsic goodness of things outside oneself as contributing to ethics, in a philosophical climate that focused only on what contributes to one's own happiness, is a breath of fresh air, even if not completely unique. And his approach to free will in terms of final-cause determinism as an explanation of divine foreknowledge, while rejecting Stoic efficient-causes determinism, strikes me a innovative beyond what's out there already in his time.

It's possible my ignorance of what we now consider minor figures in his day allows me to think these are all contributions, while nothing here is new at all, but I find that unlikely. Correct me if any of this was really fully out there before him, but I'm unaware of anyone doing most of this stuff first.

In reply to by Jeremy R Pierce

Peter Adamson on 19 May 2013

Augustine and skepticism

Thanks, that's a very interesting and rich post! Just a quick thought: I agree that Augustine has a very interesting response to skepticism, but to take full account of it (and especially the question of its originality) one would need to track his reliance on the discussions of skepticism in earlier Latin literature, especially Cicero. Remember that a more moderate skeptical position may have been put forth by Philo of Larissa - his view is sometimes described as fallibilist. My Augustine interviewee Charles Brittain has done very important work on this including a book on Philo.

The point about goodness strikes me as more obviously original with Augustine albeit that it responds in interesting ways to Stoic and Neoplatonic ethical doctrines. Still the City of God seems to be staking out new ground here.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Natalia Doran on 19 May 2013

Augustine hype?

I do not want to run him down too much, after all, he is a saint of the undivided church.

And I would question the time you spend on him still less, since he is influential, though, I still suspect, unoriginal and, yes, hyped up.

1. Evagrios, the first Christian psychologist. The whole of the Philokalia. Anyway, would you not agree that truly sophisticated psychology can only be preserved in the unwritten tradition of spiritual direction, since psyches are unique and any one-size-fits-all analysis that is too detailed is as helpful as mass-produced dental braces. But the general principles are in the Philokalia, and especially Evagrios.
2. De Trinitate was not even conceived until after Trinitarian theology had been disputed, formulated and sealed by the Second Ecumenical Council. I am not saying that Augustine is not a good populariser, just that he was not an original thinker, in a culture where original thinkers were numerous.
3. St Gregory the Theologian is studied purely for his style! And he formulated, rather than merely re-stated, theology. (And educated his slaves to be his peers, and set them free, but that is another matter.) St John Chrysostom.
4. It was a local dispute, in a culture where important disputes had no trouble going global.
Rant over. Thank you, once again, for wonderfully stimulating material.

In reply to by Natalia Doran

Peter Adamson on 19 May 2013

More on Augustine

Right, I think however interesting one finds Augustine (and as I say, I think he's fantastic) his historical influence merits the large number of episodes. Incidentally I originally planned fewer but just couldn't cover it all without this many episodes; like, I couldn't not do City of God, but that clearly needed its own episode, and likewise for the other topics I looked at. Oh, I forgot to mention in my earlier post how interesting he is on language! De Magistro is very ground-breaking.

From your other comments I suspect that you are evaluating him on different criteria than I am. I don't think De Trinitate is interesting for its doctrinal innovations, which I agree are minimal or non-existent (indeed he would have insisted he wasn't innovating on that score!). The reason it is a masterpiece is the subtle philosophy of mind he produces to explore what a trinitarian structure might mean; so my admiration for that work is entirely to do with its philosophical content, not its theological content, however much I would also want to stress that one cannot understand the philosophy without a solid understanding of the theological issues at stake. There is an important lesson here, in that the best philosophy in late antiquity and of course the nedieval period is often found in explicitly theological contexts! And so these texts can be of interest even to people with no interest in theology or religious history.

In reply to by Natalia Doran

Ryan W on 24 July 2019

Re: The Augustine hype

I have a number of responses to these two comments, most of which are of an interpretive nature. However, it's worth noting at the outset that a couple of the assertions made are simply factually false.

1. Augustine was not "widely known or influential" in his time, and had no major impact on the Ecumenical Councils. To start with the second half of the assertion, the falseness of this claim is easily seen in the Acts of the third and fourth Ecumenical Councils. At the third ecumenical council, the very first canon passed was a condemnation of Celestius, the most famous adherent of Pelagius (even today, there's some controversy whether Pelagius himself was actually a "Pelagian", or whether his followers, most notably Celestius and Julian of Eclanum, pushed his ideas beyond what they were originally meant to claim). At the fourth ecumenical council, where the two natures of Christ were first dogmatically asserted, Augustine's posthumous influence was decisive. The "tome" of Leo, which was accepted as an authoritative statement at the Council, was essentially a slightly edited catena of quotes from Augustine. In exercising a posthumous influence on a Council, Augustine (in relation to the 4th) closely resembles Maximus (the 6th) and John of Damascus (the 7th). At the 5th Ecumenical Council, Augustine was included in a list of "Fathers" alongside such illustrious companions as Athanasius, the Cappadocians and Cyril of Alexandria. Furthermore, Augustine's authority was drawn on to justify the passing of anathemas posthumously. Moving back to the first half of the assertion, this can also be seen to be false. Debates over Augustine's writings on grace raged throughout the Latin world for decades, drawing in such major figures as John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, Caesarius of Arles and Prosper of Aquitaine. The dispute went on for more than a century until it was resolved (mostly in Augustine's favour) at the Council of Orange. All of this long predated the rise of the Franks in the West.

2. The dispute over grace and free will was a "local dispute". This claim can be seen to be false by what's already been stated above. Pelagianism was condemned by the universal church at the 3rd ecumenical council. Earlier, the dispute came to the attention of the Eastern bishops when Pelagius traveled to Jerusalem. Although this was certainly a dispute that originated in the Latin West, it didn't stay there.

Getting to more interpretive matters, as has already been noted, Augustine yields to no one in terms of his importance as a dogmatic theologian. It was largely Augustine that formulated the language (two natures, one person/hypostasis) that would be recognized as authoritative at the Council of Chalcedon. This represented a real advance over the theology of Cyril of Alexandria, who understood the importance of the integrity of Christ's humanity, but never managed to find a language to express the idea clearly (largely because of his not being aware that the phrase "one nature of God the Word incarnate" was an Apollinarian forgery). This would be enough to secure Augustine's centrality in the history of dogma, but his contributions on grace and free will were also critical, both in West and East. It's certainly true that some of Augustine's specific formulations (especially his flirtations with ideas of "double predestination") were rejected in both West and East. But Augustine, in emphasizing the centrality of grace and the impossibility of salvation by merit put his finger on a theme that is absolutely critical to any Biblical Christianity (if you don't get the theme of the complete helplessness of humanity on its own to combat sin, you'll never get off the ground in terms of understanding the Pauline epistles), but that's also found in the earlier Greek and Latin fathers. Irenaeus, for example, for all his stress on human freedom, states flatly, "It was not possible that the man who had once been conquered...could re-form himself and obtain the prize of victory; [and it was] also impossible that he could attain to salvation who had fallen under the power of sin." Similar statements can be found in the works of the other Greek fathers, but they're not prominent, and tend not to be found in sections of their works where they're explicitly thinking about freedom of the will. There are historical reasons for this. The concern of the Apologists to contrast Christianity as "the true philosophy" to various pagan alternatives led to an emphasis on Christ as teacher, and the necessity to refute Gnostic and Manichaean fatalism led to an emphasis on free will. But, these emphases, necessitated by the occasional nature of much early Christian writing, led to a danger that the necessity of grace would be forgotten. The Church, East and West, owes it to Augustine above all that this critical component of its Biblical foundation wasn't overshadowed.

As an aside, the idea that Augustine was just confused because he didn't "get" concepts like the essence/energies distinction betrays a very unpleasant Hellenic tribalism that's been unfortunately common in too much of recent Orthodox theology (as an aside, I'm not saying that polemically. I'm an Orthodox Christian concerned for the integrity of my own tradition and keeping it free from narrow sectarianism, rather than an opponent looking for points to criticize). In any case, the essence/energies distinction has no bearing on the problem of divine foreknowledge considered by Augustine. Whether we locate divine foreknowledge "in" (so to speak) the essence or the energies, it remains foreknowledge. The "energies" are often taken as permitting the existence of a degree of contingency, which could help to remove the suspicion of absolute necessity, but foreknowledge remains foreknowledge, and the appearance that the future is fixed (even if only contingently so) is still there. The idea that Augustine's views on grace derive from some kind of "monophysitism" is absurd. As already mentioned, Augustine was the source of much of the diphysite language enshrined at Chalcedon. In any case, any impact that our doctrine of Christ will have on our view of the human will will only be by analogy. In Christian theology, the case of Christ and other human beings is fundamentally different. In Christ, the human nature, even though it retains its integrity, is the human nature of a divine person, and is perfectly united to a divine nature. Our human nature is not like that, but in an analogous way, requires a tight binding to divinity (in this case, through grace rather than a "hypostatic union") to be purified.

Getting back to Augustine as a figure in the history of philosophy, I think part of what makes him so interesting is that he's a rare case in ancient Christianity of someone who is interested in philosophical questions for their own sake. The Greek fathers tend to draw on philosophy in an occasional way, as they pursue more directly theological projects. I think the spirit of Irenaeus lives on to a degree even in the most philosophically sophisticated of the Greek fathers. They're only interested in philosophy to the extent that it helps them deal with some theological problem (Origen being the major exception to this generalization). Augustine seems much more interested in looking at a problem, recognizing that it doesn't really need to be solved from the theological point of view, but then trying to solve it anyway. In my judgment, from a purely Christian point of view, there's room for both approaches, but I can see why, for people who are more interested in the history of philosophy than specifically with Christian theology, Augustine seems to merit a lengthier treatment than the Greek fathers.

Brian on 26 June 2013

Plato and Augustine reconciled

In this episode you say "when someone wills evil, they are doing exactly what they want". Can this be reconciled with Plato's "no one knowingly does bad"?

I tend to prefer Augustine's straight-talk because "everything goes toward the good" is too often used by bad people as cover for their bad actions. My own sense is that Plato's statement should be understood in the context of his pedagogy and that the philosophers ultimately agree. But I am wondering what you think?

In reply to by Brian

Peter Adamson on 27 June 2013

Plato and Augustine

Yes, that's a good question. Actually as I recall this is one issue that Sarah Byers and I were discussing; I have always tended to think that Augustine has the notion of a "perverse" sin i.e. one in which one knowingly does the bad but I think Byers would disagree with me on that and see him as following more of a Stoic line where sins are expressions of false desires. And she makes a pretty good case for that, so it would be worth listening to the interview with this question in mind.

Alexander Johnson on 19 October 2018

3 Quick Quesitons

1.  In the above discussion, Padmadipa talked about original sin causing unnecissary feelings of guilt.  I think a more disturbing conclusion would the the inheretence of sin/guilt, given that then it could be used to justify ethnic and classist predjudices.  Is there much time spent devoted to the clarification that only original sin is inherited and not other forms of sin?  Or was this a debated topic with Augustine or those after him?

2.  Also in the above discussion, Emil Bøye talked about the problem with divine grace being incompatable with free will.  Isn't a more charitable reading of Augustine's distinctions on this point that before seeking good, a person has the free will either to seek god's grace or not.  Once god grants his grace, then an person has the free will to choose goodness over sin, but these two choices must be made in that order.

3.  I know the end joke was a joke on 2nd order desires.  But I wonder, if you want me to want to listen to next episode, isn't that for you just a social want, and thus 1st order?  It seems like "a want for a want" should require the two wants to be held by the same person.  It seems that (A) where if you want to not want to smoke, you know if you succeeded or not, if you want me to want to not smoke, you don't know if i succeeded or not, and thus are really wanting the expression of my want to listen to the next episode (which i will do on monday) and (B)  your own wants in a case where you want me to want to listen, seem too closely related to the want for someone to laugh when you tell a joke (or smile amusedly while rolling their eyes), and thus seems to be a desire for a social aspect, and not a want of a want itself.  Also (C) as your own wants are internal to you, other peoples wants are an external good, and thus should be included with the other external goods, which would not be 2nd order.  Just wondering if this disctinction is actively discussed or where my instincts on the issue puts me relative to the establised philosophical discussion [i have no philosophical background other than this podcast a loose listening to others only occassionally]

Thank you!

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 19 October 2018

Augustine on sin and desire

Wow, that's a lot of good questions in one post! Let me see if I can do them justice:

1. What you inherit according to Augustine is not a certain sinful act called original sin, but fallenness of nature i.e. an inevitable tendency to commit sins. There is actually no one sin that everyone cannot avoid, but you can't avoid sinning now and again.

2. What you're suggesting was one reading of him offered later but it came to be called "semi-Pelagianism" because it suggests that you can, as it were, elicit God's grace through a free choice. I get into this in the medieval episodes, like especially in the ones on Anselm and then 276 on foreknowledge.

3. Ok, fair point - normally when we speak of a second-order desire we indeed have in mind that a given agent wants to want something, not that for instance I want you to want something. Technically speaking that is second-order too because it is still a desire about a desire (just as it would be second-order knowledge for me to know that you know something); but almost always, when people talk about second-order desires they mean within one agent. So, yes, I agree!

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