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Did Augustine Teach a Self-Oriented Love of God?

What did Augustine say about the love of God, better known as Christian charity?  Is it a self-interested love, one that seeks God as a means to happiness?  Some have interpreted him in this way.  The following are some key texts in Augustine that have been (wrongfully I think) interpreted this way.  I have included numbered sources, commentary, and some quotations.

1. Augustine, “The Spirit and the Letter,” in Augustine: Later Works, edited and translated by John Burnaby, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 36 [221], 51 [235-236].  Augustine considers the gift of grace primarily in terms of love, and love as caused by faith.  This is also how he interprets Paul’s doctrine of justification—God’s making us love God by the gift of faith, which makes us likewise delight in doing whatever he commands.

2. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, translated and edited by R.P.H. Green, Oxford World’s Classics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), I.35-37 [25-26].

Augustine admits that even in someone’s compassion for the needy

… somehow there also results an advantage to us, since God does not let the compassion we show to the needy go unrewarded.  This reward is the supreme reward—that we may thoroughly enjoy Him and that all of us who enjoy Him may enjoy one another in Him.  For if we enjoy one another in ourselves, we remain as it were on the road and put our hopes of happiness on a human being … When you enjoy a human being in God, you are enjoying God rather than that human being.  For you enjoy the one by whom you are made happy, and you will one day rejoice that you have attained the one in whom you now set your hope of attaining him.  … Yet the idea of enjoying someone or something is very close to that of using someone or something together with love.  For when the object of love is present, it inevitably brings with it pleasure as well.  If you go beyond this pleasure and relate it to your permanent goal, you are using it, and are said to enjoy it not in the literal sense but in a transferred sense.  But if you hold fast and go no further, making it the goal of your joy, then you should be described as enjoying it in the true and literal sense of the word.  This is to be done only in the case of the Trinity, the supreme and unchangeable good.  Augustine, On Christian Teaching, I.35-37 [25-26] 

Augustine makes a distinction between loving someone “in ourselves” and loving someone “in God.”   I.76-80 [25-26]).

Here is Augustine’s famous definition of love:

By love I mean the impulse of one’s mind to enjoy God on His own account and to enjoy oneself and one’s neighbor on account of God. … What love does to benefit itself is self-interest, and what it does to benefit a neighbor is known as kindness.  And here self-interest comes first, because nobody can do good to another out of resources which he does not possess.  The more the realm of lust is destroyed, the more the realm of love is increased.  Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 3.37-38 [78]

There is still an element of uncertainty here.  I am saying that we enjoy a thing which we love for itself, and that we should enjoy only a thing by which we are made happy, but use everything else.  God loves us [but] if he enjoys us, he stands in need of our goodness, which only a madman could assert; for all our goodness either comes from him or actually consists of him… So God does not enjoy us, but uses us.  (If he neither enjoys nor uses us, then I fail to see how he can love us at all).  Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 1.73-74 [24].

3. Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, translated and edited by R.W. Dyson, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (New York, NK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Augustine thinks the chief folly of pagan philosophers is to seek the “Final Good” or “the Supreme Good” in something temporal such as the body, the soul, or virtue, and then seeking to achieve it “by their own efforts” (Augustine, The City of God, 19.4 [919]).  He goes on to underscore the limitations of the best of pagan virtue and scrutinizes as absurd the notion that this life, with all its attendant miseries, can truly be called happy, concluding: “Let them no longer suppose that the Final and Supreme Good is something in which they may rejoice while in this mortal condition” (Ibid., 19.4 [924]).  Even though Augustine puts great stress on how “we do not enjoy a present happiness,” yet he affirms that “it is in hope that we have been made happy” (ibid., Italics added).  This paradox demonstrates that Augustine’s language is imprecise, and when he denies present happiness, he does not intend to rule out present delight or happiness altogether, but considers this life a sad prospect for ultimate happiness.  There is no doubt that Augustine’s contemporary circumstances (read: the fall of Rome) as well as Scripture itself greatly shaped his concern to emphasize the temporal limitations of the “city of man.”

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Book Review: By Knowledge & By Love by Michael Sherwin

Michael S. Sherwin, O.P.  By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005.  270 pp.

Book Review in PDF Format

While the aftermath of Alasdair Macintyre’s Enlightenment critique and return to the virtue theory of Aristotle and Aquinas has caused a timely and refreshing revitalization that has exploded onto the scene of Catholic moral theology, Protestant ethics, and moral philosophy, by now it has produced different interpretations of the authorities of virtue ethics.  It is in the context of an interpretive dispute over the virtue theory of St. Thomas Aquinas that our author, Michael S. Sherwin, enters the fray as a new voice in the conversation.  A school of thought within Catholic moral theology that Sherwin calls the “theologians of moral motivation” have appropriated Aquinas’s complex Aristotelian moral theology to give added credibility to their peculiar Rahnerian notions of option fondamentale and transcendental freedom (xix).

In particular, Josef Fuchs and James Keenan have developed the Rahnerian doctrine of transcendental freedom in a way that views the will’s motion in transcendental freedom as antecedent to, or independent of, practical reasoning and objects of choice. Hence a separation is made between one’s goodness (one’s fundamental orientation) and one’s rightness (one’s concrete moral judgments and actions); one’s wrongness in actions therefore may be seen as not necessarily undermining their goodness on the transcendental level (which is more important).  Sherwin’s book is nothing short of a penetrating polemic against theologians of moral motivation (Keenan in particular) who claim that such a distinction is implied in Aquinas’s mature thought on the will and charity.  The author argues that although there was indeed development in Aquinas’s mature thought, nevertheless there remained in Aquinas a basic continuity on the point in question: knowledge always has a structural priority over the will.

Aquinas held that the intellect has a certain causal priority in the act of specification (specifying the good in particular based on a perceived notion of the good in general) while the will and its appetites for the end have priority of the intellect in the act of exercise (the intellect is moved by the will’s appetites to consider the good and to choose the means for attaining this good).  This does not lead to intellectual determinism, however, because the will influences our judgments, how we perceive things and whether we consider one aspect of something over another aspect.  Since intellect and will seem to presuppose one another, Aquinas escapes the problematic of an infinite regress by attributing the cause of the will’s and the intellect’s first act to human nature and thus to God.  Since voluntary action presupposes rational choice, to choose apart from knowledge of the good is actually a “form of insanity” (100).  Sherwin finally shows that for Aquinas, as it is with the intellect and the will in human nature, so it is with faith and charity in the infused virtues.  Faith has a similar structural priority over love while love informs all the virtues.  Finally Sherwin demonstrates that if charity has its act apart from the intellect’s knowledge, it ceases to be a virtue because it no longer has a recognizable concrete form in an account of human actions—it is not “recognizably human” (224).

The strength of Sherwin’s book is surely his rigorous analysis of Aquinas’s virtue theory (building on Henri Bouillard and Max Seckler) that consequentially yields a more intelligible view of human action that leaves little wanting.  His is also more faithful to the Christian tradition’s Augustinian insight that one cannot love what one does not know.  The book has a helpful index and contains figures that depict the dynamics and principles of human action.  A more believable interpreter of Aquinas, Sherwin’s Aquinas helps us see the folly of spoiling the proper relationship between the intellect and will and between knowledge of God and love.

Bradley R. Cochran

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