Reflections on Augustine's Spirituality

Donald X. Burt, OSA

Friendship and Society:
Introduction to Augustine's Practical Philosophy


Chapter 3

I.    The Questions Raised
II.   Augustine's Ethical Theory
        A.  The Meaning of Happiness
        B.  Augustine's Answer to "What is Good?"
        C.  Augustine's Answer to "Why be Good?"
        D. The Characteristics of the Good Person
III.  Concluding Thought: Hopeful Optimism   

Chapter 3



The science of ethics seeks to answer the basic question of the human being facing a life of multiple possibilities. The question is simply this: "What should I do? How should I act in this particular situation?"

This simple question leads to other questions that are not so simple, questions that are the fundamental issues of the science of ethics. We constantly speak about good actions that should be done and evil actions that should be avoided. We praise some humans as being good people and others as being evil. To justify such assertions we must be able to give some answer to the three following questions:

1. What is "good?" What are the characteristics that make one course of action "good" while others are "not-good" or "evil?"

2. Why do the "good?" Assuming that I have discovered that a particular course of action is good while its opposite is evil, what is the justification for saying that I must do the good and avoid the evil? We seem to assume the truth of the principle: "DO GOOD; AVOID EVIL!" but can that assertion be supported by reasons, reasons why "I am bound by moral obligation?"

3. Finally, since the aim of ethics is not to make laws for law's sake but rather to give guidelines so that each individual can become a "good" person, what are the essential characteristics of the "good" person?

A moral system is said to be objective if it maintains that the answers to the questions "What is good?" "Why be good?" "What is a good person?" are to be discovered rather than created by individual human beings. It affirms that statements of the form "X is a morally good act," "You ought to do x," have a truth value and that the criteria for discovering whether the proposition is true or false are to be found in the real world, a world which for the most part the individual cannot create or control.

There is general agreement that when we make statements of the form "x is a good act," we do more than describe a factual situation. We also note our approval of the act and hold out the act as worthy of being imitated. But is there a reasonable justification for our approval, for our claim that this act should be done and that its opposite should not be done? Certainly over the history of the human race, many criteria for goodness have been offered. Egoism argued that an act is good if it promotes "my" best interest. Utilitarianism demurred, saying that the good act must result in the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Some have argued that the good act is that which society agrees is good, either by a quasi-contract or simply by custom. For Hitler the good act was that which brought about the purification of the race; for Marx it was that act that led to the classless society. Kant argued that a good act was one that came from a good will, one that sought to follow the dictates of rational nature. Aquinas, following in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, held that the good act was one that moved the individual towards her/his proper goal which was to be the best human being possible. To say that some act is good for a human to perform means that it leads to an environment in which that human can flourish.1

It would seem logical to say that the "perfecting" nature of the act must in some way depend one's nature, one's place in the universe with all the relationships that this entails. Put simply, we must have some knowledge of what a human being is before we can say what is good or bad for them, what will make them more or less perfect. If such knowledge is impossible, ethical assertions from this perspective become meaningless.2 Perfect knowledge is not required. Even such minimal knowledge of my position in reality is enough to begin my moral venture. Knowing that I have a body and a mind suggests that I should always act that way, neither giving too much or too little attention to either. Knowing that I have acquired relationships to others through family or contract, means that I should act out the course of action that such relationships entail. If I am employed, I should work at my job. If I am married, I should be faithful to my spouse. If I have children, I should nourish and protect and love them to the best of my ability. I will be made better by doing the "right" thing and the "right" thing will be dictated by the position I hold in the universe. "A good act is one that makes more perfect" seems like a sensible statement and it is not empty of meaning as long as I have some sense of what it is to be a human being and, more specifically, to be the individual person that I am.

Knowing what is good does not give an answer to the second question "Why be good?" Luckily most people will not make an issue of the "Why" if you can show them an answer to the "What." They will agree that the fundamental principle of ethics "Do good; avoid evil" should be followed if someone could only convince them of the nature of good and evil. However the question of "Why should I do this and not that?" is a legitimate question. In ordinary life it is usually answered by giving a motivating reason, a reason that will sway the person to freely choose to do this rather than that. For example, a child refusing to eat its supper and saying "Why must I?" may be moved to eat by threatening the loss of their allowance. But this is not a justifying reason, a reason that would make the imposition of obligation, giving reasons why this child is doing something "wrong" in not obeying. For a truly complete and objective ethics some answer must be given to the question "Why be good?" and like the question of "What is good?" it should be an answer firmly rooted in reality, perhaps a freely entered into contract whereby person "a" agreed to follow the rules set down by person "b" or perhaps a subordination established by the nature of things whereby one person is truly subject in some respects to the will of some "other," be it a society, a human superior, or God.

Further, for a completely objective system of morality it is important that the obligation be a categorical imperative ("Do this!") rather than a hypothetical imperative ("Do this if you want to please me!"). In the latter case the recipient of the command still has it within her/his power to make a non-blameable choice. If the person is not interested in pleasing me, then the command loses all force. Ethics then becomes a game something like etiquette, a game that one can choose to play or not without being blamed.3

The problem in giving moral commands is whether it is possible to give a "justifying reason," a reason that can give a sound basis for the asserted moral obligation. We certainly can give motivating reasons to people to get them to act in this way or that, reasons that will influence them to act in the way we wish them to act; but can we justify the obligation we impose, give reasons rooted in the nature of reality itself such that we can truly say that "You should do this because if you do not, you are guilty of evil?"

It is obvious that if we cannot answer the questions "What is Good?" and "Why be good?" we cannot give a sensible answer to the question "What is a good human being?" It seems intuitively true to say that a good person will be one who does good things and avoids bad things. A good person is one who has developed a habit of doing good. Only by answering the first two questions can be explain why temperance is a virtue and intemperance is a vice, why selfishness is wrong and altruism is right, why love is good and hatred bad.


A. The Meaning of Happiness:

Happiness is one of those aspects of reality that needs no long explanation. All humans have an understanding of the term even if they do not share much of the reality. Consequently, when Augustine speaks about happiness, he seems to assume that everyone knows what he is talking about. He gives a working definition of happiness almost as an aside in the preface of book five of The City of God, saying that it is "the full possession of all that the heart can long for." Scholastic philosophers later on gave a more technical definition which says about the same thing: "Happiness is the conscious satisfaction of all innate appetites."

Some of our appetites are innate in that they flow from our human nature itself. Others are acquired in that they result from our free choices or from our life experiences. The desire for food and drink is a natural appetite. The appetite for an addictive drug is an acquired appetite. Although satisfaction of acquired appetites play a part in our happiness now, they are not essential to our being happy. If we have acquired them, we can also suppress them. But innate appetites cannot be suppressed. We cannot "will away" hunger or thirst. To be happy our only alternative is to satisfy our natural hungers. Also it would seem reasonable to say that in the satisfaction of such appetites not only are we made happy, we are also made better. Health results from the rational satisfaction of our natural needs.

Although unconscious beings may be described analogously as having "natural appetites" (the tree whose leaves turn towards the sun and whose roots search for water; the falling rock which seeks equilibrium in the midst of the competing forces that affect it), their condition upon satisfaction of these "appetites" is not properly called "happiness" because it is not a conscious state. A tree in a nourishing environment may be called healthy but it is not happy. A rock that has achieved its proper place may be at rest but it is not at peace. Though Augustine shows concern for the preservation of nature and the health of the animal kingdom, his discussion of "happiness" is restricted to "rational beings," especially those members of the human race who are still living this side of death, those still striving to achieve perfect happiness.

Degrees of happiness are possible and the extent of our happiness or unhappiness depends on the extent of the satisfaction of our desires. The definitions suggested by Augustine and later philosophers in speaking about "perfect and permanent" satisfaction of all desires are thus speaking about "perfect happiness" or beatitude. Beatitude is not simply feeling good today; it is feeling good forever. This perfect happiness is what Augustine means by the word in all of his discussions, this is what humans strive for and, until they achieve it, they are not perfectly satisfied. There is still something more to be desired.

In one of his earliest examinations of the happy life, he takes it as beyond question that everyone wants to be happy and he repeats this sentiment frequently throughout the rest of his writings.5 Our thirst for happiness is not caused by chance or by our arbitrary decision. We can choose whether we shall "desire" the pleasure of smoking by choosing to build up the habit. We are not born with a cigarette in our mouth. But we cannot choose whether we shall "desire" happiness. We do not begin to exist like a straight stick caught between the alternatives (being happy/being unhappy) with such indifference to either that we could easily choose either one. From the very beginning of our existence we are like a concave mouth already hungering for happiness.

The great mystery is how this passion for perfect happiness came to be in the human psyche. Obviously none have experienced such perfect satisfaction because if they had they would no longer be searching for something more. Indeed it almost seems that some have had no experience of happiness at all. Where then does this desire for an unknown, an unexperienced state come from? The only answer that makes any sense is that humans are born with it. Just as there is an inborn desire to live such that some humans will even choose to live miserably than not to live at all, so the desire for perfect happiness must flow from human nature itself.6

Indeed, the only logical explanation for the human hunger for happiness is that God wanted it to be so; it is a desire "which the supremely good and unchangeable blessed Creator has implanted in the will."7 The divine decision that the human should desire happiness was an integral part of the decision to make the human a rational animal, a being with the capacity to know the good and to desire the good. The human desire for happiness is as unchanging as the nature of the human being. To be rational implies the capacity and need to know the "true" and to desire the "good." God could have made humans such that they would not seek happiness only by making them something other than rational animals. But this was not done, and the fact that humans beings do exist as beings with a desire for happiness must be described as being a GOOD since they were made this way by God and "All that God creates is good."8

The consoling fact implied in all this is that perfect happiness must be possible for human beings. It is inconsistent with God's goodness to maintain that he brought human beings into existence with a desire that could not be fulfilled. Perhaps (as Augustine believed) humans later made such happiness impossible by turning away from God, but the first humans did not begin to exist that way. If they had been, it would indeed have been the height of cruelty, making a creature with an uncontrollable thirst that was impossible to satisfy. To do so would be to condemn the individual to a life of misery, a horrifying creation that would be simply incompatible with the goodness of the Creator.

The fact that all humans want to be happy does not answer the more difficult question: "What will make humans happy?" To say, as Augustine says, that happiness consists in the full possession of all that we love, does not answer the question either. To "love" something is nothing other than to desire that something for its own sake. Love is thus a kind of motion or action and the motion is always towards a "something."9 The benefit and also the peril of love is that when we achieve what we love we are changed in a much more radical way than when we simply "know" the object of our love. To know a lovely thing is not to become it. There remains a radical difference between the knower and the thing known. However when we love that known thing and come to possess it, we somehow become that thing. That which is loved necessarily affects with itself that which it loves, as a chameleon takes on the colors of its environment and a mother's love somehow gives the unborn child some of her characteristics. Thus to love the earth is to become earthy; to love the eternal heaven is even now to become eternal.10

It follows that what humans love and how they love will have an immense effect on their search for happiness. To possess what you desire will not always bring happiness. As Augustine observes:

Humans love many different things and when they seem to have all that they desire, we are accustomed to call them happy. But we can be happy only if we are loving what ought to be loved. Happiness does not consist simply in having what we happen to love. We sometimes are made more unhappy by having what we love than in not having it. When unhappy persons love something hurtful, they are made even more unhappy.11

Even when humans love truly good things (Augustine lists such things as large families with blameless and attractive sons and daughters, an abundance and peace in both family and society), the happiness that results can only be incomplete and tinged with sadness because it is temporal."12 It will end with death and even as we enjoy its possession, we fear its loss.13

Even though we may not know exactly what will bring perfect happiness, we do know some of its characteristics. For example:

1. True happiness is a conscious state of satisfaction based on knowledge of what is true. The object that will bring happiness must be known and be "true," not a fiction created by our passion or confused imagination.14

2. To be happy it is not enough to "know" the good and to desire it. It must be possessed through love, a force that drives us towards immersion in the object loved, which indeed results in our becoming one with the object loved.15

3. Since we are made into that which we love, we cannot be happy if we do not have that truly good thing which we love nor can we be happy when we do have something that is bad for us.16

4. Since we are made into that which we possess through love, it is logical to assume that perfect happiness cannot come from loving something less than ourselves (which makes us less) or even loving something at the same level as ourselves (which changes us in no radical way. Happiness can come only through the possession of that which is best for us and that best can only be something that is superior to us. This leads to the conclusion that our perfect happiness will come only if we come into conscious possession of God. 17

5. Finally, the possession of this best object must be permanent. Even if we possessed all that was good in the universe but knew that we would or even could lose it at anytime, there would still be something more that would make us even more happy. This would be the assurance that the ecstasy we experience now in the possession of our greatest love will never end. If life ends in oblivion at death, we would of course not be unhappy in that condition; we would be nothing at all. But if at this moment in time we are happy but are conscious that this happy state will someday end, we cannot be other than a bit dejected. Our present happiness is tinged with heartache over what will come. For happiness to be perfect, it must be permanent.18

B. Augustine's Answer to the Question "WHAT IS GOOD?"

It is clear that Augustine believed that "perfect happiness" is the ultimate subjective good, that perfect feeling of fulfillment in the individual that would seek nothing more. But what is that objective good which, when possessed, will bring about such perfect fulfillment? The conclusion that Augustine comes to at the end of his discussion of happiness makes it clear that this objective good is not determined by an arbitrary decision made by human beings or even by God. It is determined rather by what it is to be human, by the wants and needs that are rooted in their nature, by what it means to be a "perfect" human. As we have seen, Augustine concludes that the individual human will be perfectly happy if and only if he/she loves and possesses that which is best for human beings and possesses it forever without fear of loss.19

The phrase "best for human beings" needs clarification. It is clear from Augustine's analysis of happiness that a particular good is not made "best" for me simply because I desire it. I can desire things which are not truly good for me at all. Wishing will not make it be what it is not; rather, something is "best" or "not best" for me because of the nature of things. There is a definite hierarchy in reality and I have a very defined place in that hierarchy. Thus, when Augustine comes to describe the human soul, he gives a quasi-geographical description: "God alone is better than it, the angels are equal to it, and all the rest of creation is below it."20 My place as a human being is thus in the middle of reality. Some parts are above me and some are below me. Augustine concludes from this that happiness can come only from the possession of a good that is greater than human beings and indeed is a good than which there is no greater.

The principle that we are made happy only by possession of that which is best for us, thus leads Augustine to the conviction that we will only be made perfectly happy when we achieve permanent possession of God, the infinite being, the being that encompasses all good in every possible world.21 Thus, the possession of God is the goal of the ethical life and this is not because of the will of humans or even because God specifically commands it to be that way. It is because of the nature of the reality that is God and the reality that is the human being. It is in the very nature of things that God should be the ultimate good which will bring humans perfect happiness when possessed. Once humans were created in their particular place in the really existing world, they could do nothing other than "look to the heavens" to find the source of perfect happiness. Augustine's famous principle "You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you" is much more than a simple prayer; it is a statement of fact.22

What this "rest" in God will be like remains a mystery until it is actually experienced. The only analogy offered by Augustine is that of an eye rejoicing in light, bathed in that reality for which it had been made and to which it is perfectly adapted.23 But resting in God is much more that this. The eye surrounded and immersed in light does not become light, but we humans in possession of the Infinite Loved One are affected in a much more dramatic way. We become "better" because we become is some mysterious way the "best." As Augustine says, he would never dare make such a claim without the support of sacred scripture:

Do you love God? What shall I say: "You will become God?" I dare not say this on my own. But let us listen to the scripture where it is written: "I have said `You are gods and sons of the most high.'"24

The answer to the question "What is the proper end for human beings, that object which all humans should strive to possess?" is clear. It is nothing less than God, the supreme being. Any human action will be a good action that leads towards that end, and concretely such actions will be those that respect the order of reality. In the words of Augustine:

Everything God created is good. The rational soul performs good action when it observes the order of creation, when it chooses the greater over the lesser, the higher over the lower, spiritual values over material goods, eternal realities over those that last only in time.25

The fundamental principle answering the question "What is the good?" thus becomes:

The morally good act will be that which is in accord with the order of the universe.

Some have suggested that Augustine answered the question from a Divine Voluntarist perspective, saying that a good act is good because God wills it to be good.26 In my view it is more accurate to say that moral good depends on the will of God only indirectly, on God's will creating the universe as it actually exists with human beings made to be finite beings of spirit and matter in a universe composed of pure spirits, pure matter, and an infinite being who is superior to and rules all the rest. God could not have made a universe in which it was "good" for a human to act like God or to live pretending that they had no soul or no body, dedicating themselves to a harsh asceticism or to the pleasures of material existence. The essence of the immoral act is disordered love. The sin of Adam was to feel so important that he no longer needed God. The sin of Judas was to believe that his sin was so important that it was unforgivable. Adam made too much of himself. Judas made too little. In both cases there was a sin against reality. In both instances the human being was unable to achieve what was best for him because he lived in a fantasy land created by his disordered love. Indeed, it is not inaccurate say that Augustine would describe sin as being in the wrong place at the wrong time and would describe hell as being in the wrong place for all time. The penalty seems especially fitting considering the nature of the crime.

Could the order of this actual world, and thus the content of the moral law, have been different? Are there possible worlds in which our "evil" would become "good" or at least morally indifferent? God is omnipotent, but omnipotence does not mean the power to do the impossible. In his book The Trinity (1.6.9) Augustine describes the real world as including two radically different components: God and those things created by God out of nothing. Certainly God's decision to create was a free act as was his decision to create this rather than that. The elements and therefore the hierarchy in created being could have been different. God could have made a world without angels or a world without human beings or a world in which there were only angels and humans. He could have made a world where there was only one human being and where such obligations as justice and charity towards others would not exist. The nature of moral good thus does indeed depend on the will of God in the sense that it depends on the actual world which God freely chose to create. But once that world exists with its particular order, the determination of moral good comes proximately from that order and the characteristic of "being good" cannot be changed without changing that order. God could not have created a world in which it was not morally evil to blaspheme the creator, pretending that the creature was more than the creator. God could not have created a being of mind and body where is was morally permissible for the latter to rule the former. God could not have created a multitude of human beings with identical natures and value and then allow humans to treat each other as though all were not of equal value and dignity. To do any of these things would contradict the order built into the nature of things and the orderly rules for creation that follow from the Creator's nature as exemplary cause of all that is. Morally good actions are therefore those that are in accord with the order of the universe and only remotely those that God wills in choosing to make this universe the way it is in actuality.

C. Augustine's Answer to the Question: "WHY BE GOOD?"

To be able to tell a person why an action is good does not tell them why they have an obligation to perform it. The concept of "obligation," like the concept of "good" is a defining element in any system of ethics. Of all the various disciplines, ethics is the only one that moves beyond a description of what is to an assertion of what should be done about it. To know that one can make water by combining oxygen and hydrogen carries no implication that one should or should not make water; but to say that violating a contract is a moral evil leads immediately to the assertion that one should avoid such violation.

Moral Obligation rests on law, the imposition of the will of a superior upon an inferior, a ruler on a subject. For a law to be justifiable there must be some reason given why the superior has been designated as superior, why the ruler has the right to rule. The reason may be the free choice of a group of humans, as for example in a sorority or fraternity where the members elect their president and then stipulate that "in this area of life we shall follow your orders." It may also be rooted in an ontological superiority, one based on the nature of reality. Thus we justify making dogs our pets and using animals and plants for our purposes by claiming that we belong to a higher order of reality than they do. A law is nothing more than a guide showing others what they should or should not do. Free beings are not forced to follow this guide, but if they do disobey and the law is a valid law, they can be said to be "in the wrong" because they are not doing what they should do. Law is the only instrument which can move ethics beyond a hypothetical imperative ("Do this if you wish to be happy!") to a truly categorical imperative ("Do this!"). Augustine argued that we have a natural need to be united to God, but is there an obligation to be so? How can we move from the proposition "We tend naturally to God" to the proposition "We are obliged to freely choose to tend towards God?"27 To justify obligation one must justify subordination and indeed since we are speaking about moral rules for every aspect of human life, we must find a superior who is not simply above every individual human being but also above the human race itself. Some have suggested that such absolute authority can be found in the state or in human society itself, that these human groupings are essentially superior to every human individual in every aspect of his/her life. Others, like Augustine, have pointed to God as the source of moral obligation.

According to Augustine the first rule or law of the universe, governing both free and non-free creatures, is the eternal law. He describes it as follows:

The divine reason or the will of God commanding that the order of nature be preserved and forbidding that it be disturbed.28

For Augustine the moral law (in later centuries called "natural law") was nothing more than that aspect of eternal law which applied to human beings as free, rational beings who had the power to choose not to follow the law, that is, to love in a disorderly way.29 Although it was impossible for any human being to follow the moral law without the help of God's grace, the law itself was nevertheless present to the mind of every person who took the time to consider it. As Augustine says:

Through the ineffable and sublime management of all things by divine providence, natural law is transcribed upon the rational soul so that in the conduct of their life on earth humans can discover how to act in such a way that their actions reflect the will of God.30

There is no question that God has the superiority in being that justifies the authority to impose the moral law, but to establish that God was sufficiently interested in the human race to impose such a law is a more complex task. Augustine turned to sacred scripture for his proof. There it was made abundantly clear that God was involved in the destiny of the human race by his providential care. In the Old Testament it is recorded that God gave ten commandments to his servant Moses and the New Testament testifies that the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, promulgated a law of love which ordered humans to love God above all and their neighbor as themselves. One might also argue that if God had not imposed these laws, he should have; that for God "not to make law" guiding free creatures would be inconsistent with his nature as an infinitely perfect being. To give the human race a thirst for heaven without giving directions on how to get there would seem at least imprudent and at worst unkind.

The primary expression of moral law is the eternal law itself. From it are derived other principles which begin to apply the general rule about "keeping order" to specific areas of life. Immediately flowing from it is the general principle of justice commanding that we treat every existing thing with the respect due it because of its place in the universe. This rule implies that lower things should be subject to higher things, that equality should be preserved among things which are equal, that temporal affairs should be subordinate to those which are eternal, that the corruptible be recognized as being inferior to that which is incorruptible.31

The law of charity follows as an application of justice to a person's relationship to God, other humans, and all things desirable. It commands that one should love all that is good but in an orderly way. Here Augustine distinguishes between goods that are loved as useful means to an end and those goods that should be enjoyed for their own sake. Only God is in the latter category and all other loves must hold a subordinate position. Thus, to love God and neighbor properly means to enjoy God for his own sake and one's neighbor for the sake of God.32 Applying the principle of charity specifically to one's fellow humans, Augustine derives the so-called Golden Rule: "Do not do to another what you would not want done to yourself."33

The principles of Justice ("Give all their due") and Charity ("Love all things as they should be loved") are the foundation for all other moral rules. Thus, for example, the commandments of the Decalogue regulate our love for God and others, the first three forbidding actions which do not recognize the superiority of God, the last seven forbidding the ways in which we harm each other in body and in spirit.

D. The Characteristics of a Good Person

The various regulations of the moral law are not aimed at having obedience to law for its own sake. Their real purpose is to guide humans in the development of those characteristics which can make them into truly good human beings. The primary concern of ethics is not good in general or about making good laws. Its aim is to give direction in the making of good people. This was Augustine's purpose in writing and speaking about ethical matters. Doing good acts is commendable, but becoming a good person is absolutely necessary. A good person is not constituted by doing this or that good act. It is not even in having one or two virtues, habits of doing good. Good people are those who possess so many virtues so perfectly that in every situation they will have an inclination or tendency to do what should be done in every situation. The goal of ethics is not good action or good habits; it is to help form a person of good character.

Augustine believed that the central virtue that must be the foundation of all other virtues is the virtue of charity, the habit of loving well. He found his justification both in the teachings of the New Testament and in an examination of the human condition as it is now and how it could be after death. Just now the human being lives in a middle ground between success and failure. It is still possible this side of death for any of us to pursue and achieve the goal for which we were created, perfect happiness in union with the infinite good who is God. Pursuit of this good is by love, a desire for something for its own sake. Day by day the direction of our love is not predetermined in any one direction. We are free, which means that as we view the multitude of good things in our daily lives, we could move towards any of them by our love. The challenge and temptation of this life is created by the many good things in our daily experience that are worthy of desire. God of course is infinitely good but all of creation (in that it reflects the perfection of its Creator) is also good and desirable. We spend our time in the midst of competing goods that pull us this way and that. The direction that we ultimately take will depend on which good we come to love more at that particular moment. As Augustine so aptly describes it: "My love is my weight; it carries me wheresoever I go."34

The good person is one who is moving towards the ultimate goal for all humans: union with God. The force driving this movement is orderly love, or desire, for the goods experienced. As Augustine observes:

When we ask how good a man is we do not ask what he believes or hopes but what he loves. Indeed, every commandment has the same goal: namely, charity."35

To love God above all is the first requirement but this does not mean that one should not love created things. As Augustine told his friends one day:

I don't want you doing no loving at all, but I want your loving to be rightly ordered. Put heavenly things before earthly ones, immortal things before mortal, eternal things before temporal and put the Lord before everything else.36

The reason for his advice was his conviction that a good life is not created by holding back love from anything that is worthy of love but rather by loving all things, God and creatures, as they should be loved. Indeed, degrees of holiness are measured by the extent, fervor and orderliness of one's love. Sin or moral fault is nothing other than not loving what should be loved or loving it less than it should be loved.37

Only through a life of ordered love can humans achieve the perfect happiness that comes with the possession of God. Love is like a "wedding garment" required for entrance to the heavenly banquet; it is absolutely necessary for salvation.38 Our journey to the heavens is by our desire, our love. It is for this reason that Augustine gave the following advice to his friends: "If you wish to come to God, do not be slow to love because we run to God not with our feet but with our affection."39

It follows that it is not enough simply to perform acts which are in accord with the order of the universe. To be "forced" to be just, to give to the poor out of fear is not especially noble. In such actions the implication is that we would not do them if the force or fear was not present. A truly good act is characterized by a person obeying the law with no desire to do otherwise under any circumstances.40 Augustine considered keeping a law out of fear of punishment rather than from a desire to be righteous was an unfree action and not an observance of law at all. No fruit is good which does not grow from the root of love, and this root is not present if we do not "delight" in doing the righteous act.41

It is in light of this conviction that one must understand Augustine's famous statement: "Love and do what you want!"42 One obvious purpose of the phrase is to emphasize the importance of motive in performing any action. But this does not mean that Augustine was saying that motive, acting out of a spirit of love, was the only factor in determining the morality of an action. There are many sorts of love and some of them are perverse and "out of order." When Augustine speaks about love in this text and in similar texts he is speaking about the highest form of ordered love, that love whereby one chooses God over all things. He is saying that if we truly love God with an all-consuming love, we will never want to act against eternal law by disturbing the order of the universe. Nothing but good can come from what Augustine calls "the root of love;" only good can come when the source of every activity is the love of God.

Charity, the foundation for the good life, expresses itself through many other virtues.43 Thus, temperance is love giving itself wholeheartedly to that which it loves, preserving itself whole and unblemished for God. Fortitude is love enduring all things willingly for the sake of that which is loved, enduring all things willingly for the sake of God. Justice is love serving only that one who is loved, serving God alone and, therefore, ruling well those things subject to human beings. Prudence is love choosing wisely between that which helps and that which hinders, discriminating correctly between those things that lead towards God and those which stand in the way. Indeed, true virtue is nothing else than the perfect love of God.44

Two virtues are of special importance as preconditions for anyone to have perfectly ordered charity. The first of these is humility. This is the root of true charity because before one can love in an orderly way one must accept one's place in reality, neither making oneself more or less than what one actually is. As Augustine remarks:

The Son of God came to this earth as a human being and became humble. You too are commanded to be humble but this does not mean denying your humanity, thinking you are no better than a beast in the field. God indeed became a human being but you, a human being, must recognize that you are just that: a human being. Humility for you consists in knowing exactly who you are.45

True humility is thus contrary to both pride and despair and this explains why it is so important. Those who claim to know everything and to have the highest prudence will never be able to see the true God because they think themselves to be divine.46 Pride is the sickness that is part of all sin; humility is the one medicine that can cure it. In a picturesque analogy, Augustine describes the proud as being blocked from entering heaven through the "narrow gate" because they are too swollen, too filled with themselves. The swelling must be brought down and humility is the only medicine that can do that.47 Like the tree, humans must fix their roots deep in the ground before they can lift their arms to touch the sky. In trying to reach the heights without a love growing from humility, humans challenge the wind without having any roots. The result is not surprising: they crash to the earth rather than grow towards heaven.48

Humility does not mean that one ceases to value oneself. Even though the world may consider a person to be the refuse of creation, that person is still the best reflection of the Creator in the universe. Thus, there is nothing wrong in praising ourselves as long as we praise ourselves as the work of God, praising ourselves not because we are this or that kind of person but because we are God's creation, praising ourselves not because we have this or that gift but because God works through our gifts (whatever they are) to accomplish his purpose in the world.49 The terrible mistake of the builders of Babel was that they thought that they could build a "highway to heaven" through their own power and skill. They did not realize that the only way to discover such a an exalted path is from a humble perspective.50

The second virtue that is a precondition for the perfection of charity is faith. In his work The City of God and in his debate with Julian the Pelagian Augustine was confronted with the question of whether true charity was possible without the gift of faith in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. Was the "noble pagan" a contradiction in terms? Augustine believed it was if by "noble" one meant one who could be saved and by "pagan" one meant the unbeliever. His argument was based on his interpretation of the scripture teaching on what was necessary for salvation. He read there that the truly good action is one that flowed from love. This love has to be manifested in two ways. First of all, "what" is done (what later scholastics would call the "moral object") had to be in accord with the order of the universe. Secondly, the "why" (the motive for acting) had to be the love of God. Any action performed from a noble motive other than the love of God cannot be described as being "less good." At best it is "less evil" than an act done with a truly perverse intent. The so-called virtues of the "noble pagan" are in fact as far from true virtue as vices are from virtues. Augustine makes the point to Julian in the following words:

You know that virtues must be distinguished from vices, not by their functions but by their ends. The function is that which is to be done; the end is that for which it is done. When a man does something in which he does not seem to sin, yet does not do it because of that for which he ought to do it, he is guilty of sinning. Whatever good is done by man, when it is not done for the purpose for which true wisdom commands it be done, it may seem good from what it accomplishes, but if the motivation is not right, it is a sin.51

A person who performs good acts will eventually be saved, not because of what is done but because in the doing God is loved above all. Such saving love is expressed by obeying the will of God out of love for God. It is possible that an unbeliever could recognize and obey some of the dictates of the moral law which is imprinted on the hearts of all humans, believer and unbeliever alike. But how can a person act out of love for the true God when that God is not explicitly recognized? Augustine concludes that it cannot be done:

Works cannot be counted as good before there is faith. Where there is no faith there is no good work. It is the intention that makes the work good and faith directs the intention.52

Virtues are genuine only when the one doing the apparently virtuous act believes in God. The works of unbelievers cannot be done with a truly good will because an unbelieving and ungodly will is not a good will. To live a truly good life, one that will lead to salvation, one must recognize the one true God.53

This is the message that Augustine received from his reading of Scripture. Belief in Christ is necessary. To say otherwise would lessen the importance of Christ's life and death in God's scheme of salvation. As Augustine tells Julian:

Christ died in vain if one without faith in Christ could by reason or some other means come to true virtue, true justice, true wisdom. If the will of a human being can achieve justice on its own by simply acting in accord with nature, then Christ died in vain because anything that can bring about true justice must also give entry to the kingdom of God.54

The last phrase is crucial. If the truly just (good) act leads to the making of the truly good person, it must also lead that person to the kingdom of God. Christianity teaches that it is only by the death of Christ that such a goal becomes possible. Salvation results in seeing God face to face, but to achieve that lofty experience humans must be lifted up. They need not only the grace to perform acts in accord with the universe's order; they also need an uplifting grace, the grace of faith whereby they are able to believe even now in that hidden God whom they are destined to someday see.

The apparent virtues of the non-believer cannot have this uplifting effect. Although noble pagans may do "right", they cannot do so in a way which will raise them to heaven. Every true virtue must lead towards the proper end of human beings, citizenship in the city of God.55 There is only one way to enter that kingdom; one must pass through the sheep-gate that is Christ. How can anyone get through that gate if they do not even know where it is? It is true that noble pagans commit no murder, theft, or adultery, that they have only good desires, that they honor their parents, bear injuries patiently, even give all their goods to the poor. But since these acts are not done out of a love for the true God, they cannot be means of salvation. Augustine interpreted the harsh rule of Paul in his letter to the Romans (14.23) as being unambiguous and universally true: "All that does not proceed from faith is sin."56 Considering Augustine's conviction on the absolute need for faith as a basis for charity it is understandable why he was so passionate about preaching about faith in Christ and so intolerant of those who would preach against it and cause disunity. In his view, such disruptive activity was much worse than killing the body; it was killing the soul.

III Concluding Thought: Hopeful Optimism

Vernon Bourke has described Augustine as a "cheerful personality" who has suffered from those who have overdone his sometimes pessimistic view of life. He writes:

To my mind this looking forward to better things to come under divine providence is more characteristic of St. Augustine during most of his life than are the expressions of discouragement that sometimes appear in his anti-Pelagian works.58

Perhaps the source of that cheer flowed from his conviction that the human thirst for happiness is a need created by a providential God who cared. It follows that perfect happiness is possible to achieve and that it can be achieved by doing good in this life with the help of the grace of God. Augustine believed that whatever ultimate success he would achieve as a human being was dependent more on God's will than his own, but for him this was a cause for joy. The experience of his own passionate nature and the turmoil in the lives of others convinced him that humans, left to their own devices, have a tendency to make horrendous decisions. Better by far to place human salvation in the hands of a loving, all-powerful God rather than depending on the strength of wounded human freedom.


1. For an example of this position see Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions Concerning Truth, q. 21, a. 1, corpus.

2. For a discussion of this problem see Mary Mothersill, "Duty," in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), vol. 2, pp. 444 ff.

3. Phillipa Foot, "Morality as a system of Hypothetical Imperatives," Philosophical Review, 71, p. 312.

4. As Babcock observes, Augustine never dealt with ethical theory as a separate discipline. There is no one work where he specifically addresses the questions that serve as the structure for this chapter: "What is good?" "Why be good?" "What are the characteristics of a good person?" The structure of this chapter should not be taken as an "Augustinian Structure" but only as a convenient way of organizing Augustine's reflections on ethical issues. See William S. Babcock, "Introduction," The Ethics of St. Augustine, edited by William S. Babcock (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1991), pp. 3-4. See P. Gregorio Armas, La Moral de San Augustin (Madrid: Difusoria del Libro, 1954) for useful texts.

5. The Happy Life, 1.10. Other citations on the universal desire for happiness are the following: The Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.3.4; The Trinity, 13.4.7; Confessions, 10.21.31; Sermon 150, 4. In The City of God (19.1) he suggests that the only reason for doing philosophy or anything else is in order to be happy.

6. See Augustine The City of God, 11.26-27. Augustine explores the mystery of the human desire for the as yet unexperienced perfect happiness in his Confessions (10.20.29; 10.21.31). See William S. Babcock, "Cupiditas and Caritas: The Early Augustine on Love and Human Fulfillment, The Ethics of Augustine, op. cit., pp. 39-40.

7. The Trinity, 13.8.11.

8. Letter 140, 2.4.

9. Augustine writes: "Love is a kind of motion and all motion is towards a something. To love is nothing other than to desire something for its own sake." (83 Diverse Questions, 35.1). See Soliloquies, 1.13.22.

10. The Trinity, 11.2.5; 83 Diverse Questions, 35.2.

11. Commentary on Psalm 26, 7. Augustine adds that a truly "happy-making" good must be one that can be possessed whenever one wants it. It is not enough to love; one needs "to have and to hold" what one loves. See Free Choice, 1.11.22; 1.15.33.

12. Commentary on Psalm 143, 18. This is not to deny that there are many things in this world which are truly good and which contribute to our happiness. Augustine lists some of the things that obviously contributed to his happiness in The City of God (19.13).

13. The Happy Life, 2.11. Augustine writes: "Unquestionably the only cause for fear lies in the fact that what is loved might be lost, once acquired; or might not be acquired, once hoped for." (83 Diverse Questions, 62).

14. Free Choice, 2.13; The Happy Life, 4.34. Though possession of our proper good (the good that is meant for us) is the cause of happiness, knowledge of the good is a precondition. To be happy one must be wise; one must have a balanced mind. (The Happy Life, 4.33). To be happy one must indeed possess the highest good but this good is known and possessed in that truth that is called wisdom. (Free Choice, 2.9.26).

15. Commentary on Psalm 143, 18. See Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, trans. by L.E.M. Lynch (New York: Random House, 1960), pp. 8-9.

16. The Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.3.4.

17. Ibid.; See Free Choice, 2.13.36. Augustine repeats in many places the theme that happiness depends on the possession of God. For example, The Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.6.10; 83 Diverse Questions, 2; Confessions, 10.22.32.

18. The Trinity, 13.7.10; Sermon 359A, 4.

19. Augustine discusses various opinions from Greek and Latin philosophy on the "supreme good" that must be achieved for humans to be perfectly happy in The City of God 19.1-4. In his Sermon 150 he criticizes the Epicurean and Stoic positions.

20. The Quantity of the Soul, 34.78.

21. Thus Augustine writes: "Just now our love can only drive us towards God and make us live well; if we reach God after death we shall live not only well by happily." (The Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.6.10). See Confessions, 10.22.32. A suggestion of Augustine's answer to the question "What is Good?" can be found in The City of God (8.8) where he describes ethics as the science which deals with that supreme good towards which all human actions are (or should be) directed. The definition implies two facts. First, actions which are properly described as "human" actions naturally tend towards a specific goal and in moving towards that goal they exercise their proper function. Thus, for example, the act of eating has as its proper goal the health of the person and when exercised in an appropriate way it achieves that goal. Second, the goal of all human actions taken together is the supreme good for human beings. Once it is achieved no further good is sought.

22. Confessions, 1.1.1. Other texts that expand on this point include the following: Commentary on Psalm 134, 6; On Lying, 1.18.13.

23. The City of God, 8.8.

24. Commentary on the Letter of John to the Parthians, 2.14. For Augustine the conclusion was obvious: "It is good for me to stick to God. He is complete goodness. But do you wish for something more? I am saddened by your wishing. My friends, what more do you wish for? There is nothing better than to be "glued" to God." (Commentary on Psalm 62, 36).

25. Free Choice, 1.8.18; 1.15.32.

26. Vernon Bourke, for example, has suggested that Augustine moved from an early natural law position to a position of legal voluntarism, "...the view that the source and standard of moral good is the will of some legislator." He refers to Sermon 124 (# 3) where Augustine says: "Justice is whatever God wills" and The City of God (21.7.1) where Augustine writes: "The whole point of being Almighty is that God has the power to do whatever He wills to do." (Vernon Bourke, "Voluntarism in Augustine's Ethico-Legal Thought," Augustinian Studies, 1 (1970), p. 3 & 7). However the last statement is made in the context of arguing that God has the power to suspend the ordinary laws of nature which would demand that the bodies of the damned be consumed and not burn for eternity. And even the first statement is not directly applicable to the question "What is good?" but rather refers to issues such as "Was it unjust for Abraham to take the life of Isaac?" I have argued against identifying Augustine as a Divine Voluntarist in "Augustine and Divine Voluntarism," Angelicum, 64 (1987), pp. 424-36. Koterski is correct when he notes the movement in Augustine's ethical theory over his long life, at least in his appreciation of the human inability to do good without the grace of God. But throughout these changes he remained convinced that morality was based on the order of the universe, an order that was unchanging. See Joseph W. Koterski, "St. Augustine on the Moral Law," Augustinian Studies, 11 (1980), p. 65.

27. See Bernard Roland-Gosselin, "St. Augustine's System of Morals," A Monument to St. Augustine, edited by M.D'Arcy (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1930), p. 233. For a general discussion of the problem of justifying moral obligation see my article: "The Problem of Justifying Moral Obligation: An Aspect of the Moral Argument for the Existence of God," Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 49 (1975), pp. 72-81.

28. Against Faustus the Manichean, 22.27. See Free Choice, 1.6. Fortin notes that for Augustine morality rests on reason in two ways: on God's mind establishing and imposing a plan on the universe, a plan that makes sense and is wise. In a secondary sense morality rests on the human mind which is able to discover this order and intuit within itself the law that dictates its observance. (Ernest Fortin, "Augustine and the Problem of Human Goodness," University of Dayton Review, 22 (Summer 1994), # 3, p. 187). On the fittingness of an ordered universe in which the inferior is subject to the superior, see Augustine Commentary on Psalm 46, 10; Commentary on Psalm 143, 6.

29. Free Choice, 1.6.15.

30. 83 Diverse Questions, 53.2. See Commentary on Psalm 57, 1. Augustine suggests that one of the reasons why it is important for humans to "know thyself" is because only by knowing yourself can you come to knowledge of the eternal rules of justice that are imprinted on our hearts much like a ring imprints its characteristics on soft wax. (The Trinity, 10.5.7; 14.15.21). He firmly believed that God speaks to all human beings through their conscience, revealing the basic moral rules. (A Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount, 2.9.12). Miethe comments: "St. Augustine, by introducing the fundamental concept of a theistic eternal cosmic law, laid the foundation for all natural law ethics in the centuries to come." Terry L. Miethe, "Natural Law, the Synderesis Rule, and St. Augustine," Augustinian Studies, 11 (1980) p. 95.

31. Letter 140, 2.4.

32. Christian Doctrine, 3.10.16; 1.4.22. On the distinction between goods that are properly enjoyed (frui) for their own sake and those loved as goods to be used (uti) for higher ends see Ibid., 1.22.20 and also The Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.37. In the latter work Augustine writes: "It is unnecessary for me to say more about morally good action. God is the highest good for the human being. It clearly follows that since living a good life is nothing more than to seek to possess this highest good, then living a good life is nothing else than to love God with one's whole heart and soul and mind." (Ibid., 1.25). See Commentary on Psalm 89, 17. In the Confessions (10.37) Augustine writes: "You have command us not only to be continent, that is, to withdraw our affections from some things; you also command justice through which we bestow our love on other things. Thus, it is not your desire that we should love you only; we must love our neighbor also."

33. Commentary on the Gospel of John, 49.12; Commentary on Psalm 57, 1.

34. Confessions, 13.9; The City of God, 11.28; Letter 55, 10.18.

35. Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity, 31.117; 32.121. As we shall see, Augustine did not believe that perfect charity (which includes love of the true God) was possible without faith. But, as he says in Sermon 90 (# 8), it is unfortunately possible for a person to have faith and no love.

36. Sermon 335C, 13. Carney is correct in his description of Augustine's moral theory as a "double matrix ethic." It rests on love, but this love must be grounded in truth. Moral action does not consist in loving every sort of thing in any sort of way. Truth is the root of "the good" in that the good act is one where one loves in accord with the actual order of the universe. See Frederick S. Carney, "The Structure of Augustine's Ethic," The Ethics of St. Augustine, op. cit., p. 11.

37. The Perfection of Justice, 6.15; 3.8. See also Letter 137, 5.17; Nature and Grace, 70.84.

38. Sermon 90, 6. For a more complete discussion of the place of grace and freedom in the performance of the good act see my book Augustine's World: An Introduction to His Speculative Philosophy (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996), pp. 139-166.

39. Commentary on the Gospel of John, 26.8.2.

40. Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 1.10.19; 2.9.21. Augustine writes: "What good do we do if we do not love? And how can we not do good if we love? Even though it seems that the commands of God are fulfilled by one who does them out of fear rather than from love, there can be no good work where there is no love." The Grace of Christ and Original Sin, 1.26.27.

41. The Spirit and the Letter, 14.26.

42. Commentary on the Letter of John to the Parthians, 7.8.

43. A complete discussion of Augustine's ascetical and mystical philosophy (how the individual searches for God in this life, a description of the way of perfection, the obstacles standing in the way of a person's spiritual development) is far beyond the scope of this volume. It must wait for another book at another time, a volume specifically dedicated to Augustine's teaching on individual spirituality.

44. The Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.15.25. As Davis notes, the determining factor between good and evil in any human action is whether or not the act is driven by the love of God and is in accord with the will of God, the one who must be loved above all. See G. Scott Davis, "The Structure and Function of the Virtues in the Moral Theology of St. Augustine," Studia Ephemeridis "Augustinianum," # 26 (Rome: Patristic Institute "Augustinianum," 1987), vol. 3, p.12.

45. Commentary on the Gospel of John, 25.16.2. For an extensive treatment of Augustine's teaching on humility see: Michael Cardinal Pellegrino, Give What You Command: Augustine's Reflections on the Christian Life (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1975), pp. 37-70.

46. Sermon 57, 8. Augustine's advice to those who want to contact God is very simple: "Don't go seeking God either in caverns or on mountains. Have lowliness in your heart, and God will raise you up to as high an altitude as you could want. He will even come to you and be with you in your bedroom." Sermon 45, 7.

47. See Sermon 142, 2-11.

48. Sermon 114, 4. Augustine suggests that this in the reason why Christ chose fishermen rather than people of importance to be his first apostles. They were humble. They were not filled up with themselves. There was thus much room for the grace that God wished to pour into them. (Sermon 87, 12).

49. Commentary on Psalm 144, 7.

50. The City of God, 16.4.

51. Against Julian the Heretic, 4.3.19-21. Augustine illustrates his point through the examples of a flute player and a miser. The flute player may dedicate himself to a continent life but only out of ambition, reserving his strength so as to win a contest. The miser may appear on the surface to be very temperate in his use of material goods but only because he is driven by greed. One would hardly call either man virtuous even though what they were doing would be called virtue if done out of love of God. See ibid, 4.3.18. Augustine sums up his position in Sermon 142 (13): "Great actions done without charity are useless."

52. Commentary on Psalm 31/2, 4.

53. The City of God, 19.4.1; Against Julian the Heretic, 4.3.33; 83 Diverse Questions, 35.2.

54.Against Julian the Heretic, 4.3.20.

55. On the Spirit and the Letter, 28.48; The City of God, 5.2.

56. Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14; 3.7.23. See also Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, 45.10.2. Augustine makes it clear that the excuse of the unbelievers that they have never heard of Christ is not a sufficient reason for them to claim salvation. (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 89.3.1). He admits that there are many non-Christians who are living good lives but unfortunately they are running on a path that is distant from the one and only way to salvation, the way that leads through that Christ who clearly declared himself to be to be "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." (John: 14.6). Though one must honor such noble pagans for their efforts, it would be better for them to "limp and stagger on the right way, than to walk strongly and vigorously off the way." (Sermon 141, 4). Augustine was led to this sad conclusion (and it saddened him too) by his narrow interpretation of the ways in which one could "go through Christ" to achieve salvation. For mature adults the one and only way was through explicit faith in Jesus Christ.

57. On Order, 2.10.29. It should be remembered that Augustine's emphasis on the necessity of faith for salvation occurred for the most part in the midst of his passionate response to the humanism of the pagans and Pelagians. He had no incentive, and indeed it would have been counterproductive to his argument, to develop a doctrine of an "implicit" saving faith in all those who through no fault of their own did not believe in Christianity but who lived lives of ordered love. However in other parts of his writing (especially in his Commentary on the Letter of John to the Parthians), we find emphasis on the very scriptural texts which prompted later Christians to recognize that there were paths to salvation other than baptism, faith, and martyrdom, that indeed everyone who would be saved would only be saved through Jesus Christ, but that God was not limited in the ways in which that passage could be effected. Augustine himself seemed to leave that door open by suggesting that the spiritual heroes of the Old Testament received a private and personal revelation of Christ. An even larger opening for the working of God's redeeming will is suggested by a statement which he made in one of his earliest works and which was never retracted: "God's merciful assistance reaches out to all people in a more abundant fashion than we could ever imagine." This view is reflected in the current teaching of the Catholic Church: "Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks truth and does the will of God in accord with his understanding of it can be saved." Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), # 1260.

58. Vernon Bourke, Joy in Augustine's Ethics (Villanova, PA: Villanova University Press, 1979), pp. 17-18.

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