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Between Athens and Jerusalem: More Augustine for Adventists

In previous posts, we’ve discussed both Augustine’s biography, and also the Platonism that influenced much of his thought. For better or worse, most of us in the Christian or post-Christian West have imbibed from this well. In this post, we’ll examine another aspect of Augustine’s thought that has been bequeathed to us: his understanding of “free-will.” I’ll argue against his view, at least as articulated in his early work On Free Choice of the Will, claiming that we are significantly less free than Augustine claims. Ironically, such an understanding, I’ll claim, should positively shape our ethical perspectives of ourselves and others.

The significance of Augustine’s claims about the will, or voluntas, becomes more evident if compared to the dominant understanding of his day. Plato explained non-virtuous behavior as ignorance; people do what they do because they do not understand any better, or in Platonic language, they do not grasp the Form of the Good. Ignorance of the good leads to non-virtuous behavior, while an intellectual grasping of the Good gives one the knowledge, and the ability, to properly order his or her desires, actions, and life, i.e. to lead a virtuous, or excellent, life.

This raises questions, however, about the origin of human ignorance of the Good. Or in the words of Augustine’s interlocutor, Evodius, “Please explain to me the source of our evil doing” (Bk. 1, Ch. 2).

Augustine’s exploration of this question is theologically motivated. “We believe that everything that exists comes from the one God, and yet we believe that God is not the cause of sins. What is troubling is that if you admit that sins come from the souls that God created, and those souls come from God, pretty soon you’ll be tracing those sins back to God,” he explains (Bk 1., Ch. 2).

Those familiar with Augustine’s biography will recognize that this is very personal issues and question for Augustine. One thing Augustine explains very clearly from the beginning: God is good and in no way responsible for human evil-doing. (By “evil-doing” Augustine has in mind actions like murder and adultery.)

Humans do evil because they choose evil.

Actually, Augustine’s analysis is much more complex than that. According to him, evil doing is ultimate motivated by misdirected desire, which results in fear. “All wicked people, just like good people, desire to live without fear,” Augustine explains, “The difference is that the good in desiring this, turn their love away from things that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing them. The wicked, on the other hand, try to get rid of anything that prevents them from enjoying such things securely” (Bk. 1, Ch. 4).

It is desiring too much things that one can lose against one’s will, i.e. temporal goods like money, sex, power, and fame, and the fear of losing them that results in a laundry list of human evils. From Augustine’s perspective (influenced strongly the Stoics), it is a futile task to desire permanent possession of something that is temporal and fleeting. Along this line, it is much more reasonable to desire those things that can never be lost against our will, i.e. virtue and God. This kind of desire is not coupled with fear, and therefore, no violent actions and drives that harm others.

“Our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee,” Augustine would later pray to God.

Who, or what, is responsible for this misdirected desire? Augustine argues it is not the goods that are external to us, or the strength of the desires within us. It is a choice. In other words, humans have volitional control over their desires and can direct them to temporal goods or eternal ones. Augustine explains, “The goods that are pursued by sinners are in no way evil things, and neither is free will itself. . . What is evil is the turning of the will away from the unchangeable good and toward changeable goods” (Bk. 2, Ch. 18).

It’s important to distinguish Augustine’s understanding of choice or will here, i.e. as control over the object of one’s desires, and the other ways we have grown to use this term. Augustine is not talking about control over our physical actions, formation of intentions to act, or judgments about the truth or falsity of certain beliefs. We are responsible for our loves, which ultimately is what fuels our other choices.

Augustine is clear to point out that there is no further explanation for this choice than choice itself. There is no “natural” explanation. Comparing the movement of the will to a falling stone, Augustine notes, “[T]he stone has no power to check its downward movement, but the soul is not moved to abandon higher things and love inferior things unless it wills so. And so the movement of the movement of the stone is natural, but the movement of the soul is voluntary” (Bk. 3, Ch. 1).

Here we get a radical conception of the freedom of the will (what today is called the libertarian view, which is distinct from the political view that share that same title, but is not unrelated) as a faculty that is independent from the natural order, but has some sort of causal power!

All this raises some interesting philosophical questions. Do we have volitional control over our desires? Doesn’t “the heart want what the heart wants,” as Woody Allen once quipped? Secondly, are we, in fact, as free, as Augustine claims and as many of us think or want to be?

Before turning to explore these questions, let’s examine Augustine’s motivation, other than his theological one, for being so insistent on the radical nature of the free choice of the will. This motivation is ethical. Simply put: “If the movement of the will by which it turns this way or that were not voluntary and under its own control, a person would not deserve praise for turning to higher things or blame for turning to lower things” (Bk. 3, Ch. 1).

In other words, justice requires responsibility, and responsibility requires free-will.

Here is another aspect of Augustine’s thought that continues to influence us today, outside the realm of theology. It is a basic principle of our penal/judicial system.

Did Augustine, however, get it right? How does one reconcile his understanding of human choice and freedom today in the light of what sociologists, psychologists, and biologists tell us about all the factors that shape who we are, what we desire, and what we do? It is difficult deny that that one’s community, experiences, and genes, limit the range and strength of human choice significantly.

If this is true (and I think it is), individuals are significantly less responsible for their actions than Augustine claims.

Acknowledging this does not entail denying that humans make choices or have a free-will, i.e. determinism, or that humans are not responsible for their actions; it is the recognition that there are numerous other factors that need to be taken into consideration, factors that, in many cases, greatly decrease the amount of blame and praise an individual deserves. (In some instances, however, it may greatly increase it!)

Keeping this in the forefront of our minds, I believe, will have a significant and positive effect on our attitudes toward ourselves and toward each other.

First, it widens the scope of responsibility for certain evils in society to include a wider circle. This does not absolve the individual of responsibility , but allows us corporately to share in both praise and blame for the actions of an individual. We need to examine and improve social systems and communities and think long-term about solutions for human moral failure, not just short-term retribution and rewards for individuals.

Secondly, it should make us more gracious to the failures we perceive in ourselves and in others, as many of these are shaped by factors outside an individual’s control.

Augustine’s views we’ve explored here need to be tempered by what he had to say much later in his life, after his interaction with the Pelagians. I close with some of Augustine’s words at the end of his life, wise words that raise many other issues and questions:

Unless the will is liberated by grace from its bondage to sin and is helped to overcome its vice, mortals cannot lead pious and righteous lives. And unless the divine grace by which the will is freed preceded the act of the will, it would not be grace at all (Reconsiderations, Bk. 1, Ch. 9).


Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University, and, in light of some of his desires, actions, and beliefs, is grateful for grace.

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