Augustine on Human Nature

Notes by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last Updated March 5, 2002

Augustine took from Plato the view that the human self is an immaterial soul that can think. Plato held that after death the souls of those who most love the forms would rise to contemplate the eternal truths, a sort of heaven beyond space and time. Augustine said that these forms were ideas in the mind of the perfect eternal God. He said that what was required was that we love the perfect eternal God.

While Plato emphasized the importance of perfecting reason and following it, Augustine emphasized the importance of the will, the ability to choose between good and evil. The fundamental religious duty is to love and serve God; if we can succeed in this, we will also choose the good and avoid the evil.

Human nature, as created by God, is good, and the free will that He originally gave us places us higher in the metaphysical ladder of beings than nonhuman animals or plants. (The angels and, of course, God Himself are above us.)

Originally, according to Augustine, we were equally free to choose good or evil. But humans are now constantly attracted towards evil, that is, toward excessive satisfaction of our lower desires for material things and pleasures. (As he explains it, this derives from our having inherited original sin from our first parents. Adam and Eve disobeyed God when they ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.) We can only escape from inherited sinfulness if we receive grace from God, and there is no way we can earn such grace, or force God to give it to us by being good.

This is a view that combines a rather low opinion of human nature with a belief in the immortality of the soul. Therefore, materialists like Thomas Hobbes or Sigmund Freud are not the only thinkers who have a low opinion of humanity in general.

It's true that Augustine believes that there are saintly humans. Such humans love the things that they ought to love. They use reason properly. But without the grace they get from God, and which they cannot earn, they would neither be good nor able to reason correctly.

Augustine's view was that God selects only a few people to receive grace and be saved. The rest of humanity will just continue to sin and not repent, and then they will be punished for it after death in hellfire.

Augustine was deeply schooled in the literature of pagan Rome and pre-Christian philosophy. In his later years he came to think that most of this literature was worth very little, and preferred to discuss and cite Scripture rather than pagan authors. He did think that Neo-Platonist philosophy -- a pre-Christian philosophical school based on the works of Plotinus (3rd century A. D.) and indirectly on Plato (5th and 4th centuries B.C.) -- sometimes anticipated Christian insights and so he did not reject them totally. But studying pagan authors was no guarantee of a person's goodness. It might even contribute to a person's vanity. Augustine may have thought that God's grace could work on us through our encounter with Holy Scripture, but even here salvation was not automatic: no amount of recitating or even studying Holy Scripture could guarantee that a person would receive or had received grace.

For more on Augustine's view of original sin in the context of a discussion of philosophical views on the nature of God, see Philosophical Views of God.

Not all Christians follow Augustine in accepting the idea of inherited original sin. Those who, like nineteenth-century Unitarian minister and writer William Ellery Channing, reject the notion of original sin often say it is contrary to the goodness of God. Universalists like Channing's contemporary Hosea Ballou, moreover, claim that no one is destined to eternal damnation and that everyone will sooner or later be reconciled with God.