One of my professors in graduate school argued that St. Augustine is the most influential philosopher in history. I’m not convinced, though a good case can be made.
I recently re-opened Confessions and came across Augustine’s strong version of original sin. As he exclaims to his God, “no one is free from sin in your sight, not even an infant whose span of earthly life is but a single day” (Book I).
To explain, Augustine tries to reconstruct his own infancy: “What then was my sin at that age? Was it perhaps that I cried so greedily for those breasts? Certainly if I behaved like that now, greedy not for breasts, of course, but for food suitable to my age, I should provoke derision and be very properly rebuked. My behavior then was equally deserving of rebuke.”
And of course the tantrums. Witness “the actions of a child who begs tearfully for objects that would harm him if given, gets into a tantrum when free persons, older persons and his parents, will not comply with his whims, and tries to hurt many people who know better by hitting out at them as hard as his strength allows, simply because they will not immediately fall in with his wishes or obey his commands, which would damage him if carried out?” The little rotter.
Not to forget what kids do to diapers.
Thus, Augustine concludes, “The only innocent feature in babies is the weakness of their frames; the minds of infants are far from innocent.”
Supposing that babies are wicked, the next question is: How did they come to be so?
Western religions start the sordid story with Adam and Eve, but original sin is a puzzle. How can later generations be held responsible for the mistakes of the earlier? A cross-generational collectivism is necessary, and it needs a method for the guilt to be transmitted from one generation to the next.
Here’s a possibility. On standard religious accounts, a human being is an immaterial soul conjoined to a physical body.
So sin originates either in the soul or in the body. But if the soul of each person is made afresh by God, then it can’t be corrupt since God is supposed to be a perfect creator. So the source of sin must be in the body. That could make sense, since the original sin was committed by Adam and Eve and we could inherit it from them by being made by their bodies through sexual reproduction. But above Augustine clearly holds babies’ “frames” to be innocent and to locate the sin in their minds.
So we’re back to sin’s source being in the mind. What feature of the mind could be problematic? Free will, Augustine suggests. But other problems arise, since he is also committed elsewhere to God’s omnipotence and omniscience. If God is omnipotent and we are made weak and powerless, how can we be held responsible? Also, free will is a power; but if omnipotent God has all the power, then humans can’t have any. Further: if God is omniscient, then he knows the future, in which case there are no genuine options and so no free will.
But the philosophical puzzles don’t get babies off the hook for Augustine. Their sinful natures develop for the worse until adolescence generates even more sin. “From the mud of my fleshly desires and my erupting puberty belched out murky clouds that obscured and darkened my heart until I could not distinguish the calm light of love from the fog of lust.”
Greed, anger, lust, and the full panoply of sins thus become the lot of weakling mankind. And we know what awaits the wicked.
(Augustine always reminds me of a line from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals: “The truly great haters in world history have always been priests.”)
The image of Augustine forking heretic Donatists into the flames was taken from “St. Augustine pt. 2: Hammer of the Donatists, Advocate of Torture, Inquisitor.”