“Secret Ruin Precedes Open Ruin”

"Enough about me - what do YOU think of my figleaf?"

As we were saying, there’s a mind-bending insight at the heart of Augustine’s squib on Original Sin located dead center in his City of God. His biology is bad, but his psychology is time warps ahead of somewhere.

Augustine’s viewpoint is binary: it’s in his title. There’s what he calls both the “City of Man” and the “flesh,” which is where we all live — a universe of whims and desires and confusions very much like the Buddha’s “dukka.” And then there’s the “City of God” and the “soul.”

So Augustine’s point is that men are at war inside themselves just as states are at war; and of course, this ain’t no coincidence. The engine of all is the human will: “For the will is in them all; yea, none of them is anything else than will.”

Where we point our wills is all-important. Even emotions are caused by our wills, as we are sad because something we’ve decided to want is denied us. “And generally,” he says in Book XIV Ch. 6:

“… in respect of all that we seek or shun, as a man’s will is attracted or repelled, so it is changed and turned into these different affections.”

Look at that, girls! He’s saying where we point our wills is what we become. Again: we become what we love. So be careful what you love. (“The right will is … well-directed love, and the wrong will is ill-directed love.” XIV:7)

And what about Eve and Adam? Truckloads of theology and pastoral commentary have been forklifted onto the question: Why did they eat the freakin’ fruit? Genesis doesn’t really tell us. They were tempted, yes. But why did they — the Children of God — actually do it?

Their choice — the Original Sin — was an act of the will. But why oh why could they not follow some simple instructions?

We will what we love, says Augustine. So a better question is: What did Adam & Eve LOVE more than God? His answer is clear: THEMSELVES.

The Original Sin is self-centeredness. And humans are self-centered because of a perceptual bias caused by our senses: we are, quite literally, at the center of our world. Our mistake is in failing to know — or too often forgetting — this simple truth.

Bet you didn’t know that. I know I didn’t, before Augustine told me. Here’s how he works it out.

Life in Eden was sweet, endless, and lacked any pain. God’s one requirement was to listen up. Each human is created so that “submission is advantageous to it, while the fulfillment of its own will in preference to the Creator’s is destruction” (XIV:12).

We are like canines, not wolves, forced to live in a human world. Survival requires submission to one who knows more than we do (i.e., dog trainer/God). When we think we know better, we are wrong. Bam. Print that, people.

In Chapter 13, Augustine lays it on us:

“Our first parents fell into open disobedience because already they were secretly corrupted; for the evil act had never been done had not an evil will preceded it. And what is the origin of our evil will but pride?”

What is this horrible “pride,” anyway? It’s when the soul “becomes a kind of end to itself.” He quotes Proverbs 18:12: “Pride goes before destruction, and before honor is humility.” “That is to say,” he says in a typically lovely phrase, “secret ruin precedes open ruin.”

It’s the paradox of our lives: Wanting to be more than we are, we become less; and in humility, a simple acceptance of present reality, we are lifted up and “exalted.”

In this light, our punishment is actually kind of poetic:

“For what else is man’s misery but his own disobedience to himself, so that in consequence of his not being willing to do what he could do, he now wills to do what he cannot?”

We are condemned to see Paradise, and want it, and yet fail to get there again and again for the odd reason that we cannot obey our own wills. I’d be so much happier if I ate right, exercised, didn’t yell at my kids, didn’t expect too much, cared about my clients, felt good about life, helped those in pain. Right? And isn’t my life one loooong failure to do this?

I know mine is.

This post is already too long. I’ll point to where we’re going with this: Augustine knew there’s something baked into people that makes us self-centered. That thing is intrinsic to our perspective: we are literally the center of our worlds.

And we’re back to Religious Epistemology for Absolute Blithering Idiots! … and our favorite self-centered philosopher, the great Soren Kierkegaard 😉


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