Augustine on why babies are evil

One of my professors in graduate school argued that St. Augustine is the most influential philosopher in history. I’m not convinced, algeriastampthough 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, augustinesimply 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. augustine-of-hippo 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.”saint-augustine-hammer-of-the-donatists-heresy

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.”)

Why C.S. Lewis gives me the creeps
Who is the most loathsome philosopher in history?
Self-esteem in Walt Whitman and C. S. Lewis
Freud and original sin

Image source:
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.”

6 thoughts on “Augustine on why babies are evil

  • December 3, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Saint Augustine couldn’t do it. But can you explain what kind of fruit Adam and Eve ate in the story? After thousands of years it’s time to think, read, and give the real explanation based only on the facts in the story. No guesses, opinions, or beliefs. We’ve already had way too many of these. Treat the whole thing as a challenge. You can do it! Or can you? But first, do a quick Google search: First Scandal.

  • June 29, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Allow me to begin by saying I recently watched “Nietzche and the Nazis” and I think it might be one of the best presentations on both subjects I have ever come across. I have recommended it to many of my friends, especially in light of current ideas floating around America. And I intend to buy both the DVD and the book.

    I would like to ask a question regarding this article. Is the problem really logic or is it not simply not liking the option? Your questions are common. A matter of fact the apostle Paul anticipated them, “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory..” What if you knowledge on the bible, the glasses in which you read it through are tainted? You have presuppositions (we all do) that might not be quite right?What if there are hard sayings but what if there is also the most magnificant news? What if the bad news is far worse than you imagined (and that’s saying a lot in light over you studies) and the good news is for better than you could even think?

  • June 29, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    And I need to add….some of your explanations that you say come from “standard religious accounts”, if are in fact ideas come from “Christians” they are not the best of the ideas presented.

  • January 22, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    “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.” I always did like that quote, lol.

  • June 26, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    “The only innocent feature in babies is the weakness of their frames; the minds of infants are far from innocent.”
    The only innocent feature in babies is that their brains are not mature enough to differentiate the good and evil. They touch everything they see, Put in their mouth everything they see. A wicked minded one do not behave that way

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