In St. Augustine’s “City of God,” he describes the difference between the the earthly city and the heavenly city, and the object of love entertained by the inhabitants of both:
“Wee see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point o contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord.” The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God.”
Matthew Johnson articulates certain characteristics of St. Augustine’s theoretical understanding of love:
“When Augustine speaks of love making the city, he is collapsing a number of factors into one small word. What ‘love’ consists in, among other things is (1) a certain focused attention in (2) a specific direction on (3) an object of desire which intends (4) the good of that object possibly over-against (5) the good of other objects. Love, then, is dynamic and relational, depending on another for its very coherence. The difference between life in the heavenly and earthly cities, between true and false worship, between obedience and sin can be articulated with reference to this complex of willing, attending and loving in a context of particular relationships.”
St. Augustine’s understanding of sin is inescapably relational. Indeed, his very understanding of what it means to be human is relational, particularly when it comes to the interpersonal nature of conversion. For Augustine, conversion necessarily entails, not only union with Christ, but participation in the Godhead. For Augustine, the essence and root of all sin is pride; a turning inward into oneself and away from God, whereas conversion has as its object God rather than the self. One scholar, Diane Leclerc, goes as far as to suggest that the Augustinian understanding of the nature and essence of sin be termed “relational idolatry,” while at the same time suggesting a more multifarious and non-reductionistic understanding of sin. Indeed, the most basic category for Augustine’s relational ontology is participation in another, namely, God.
Not only is man inherently relational with respect to God, either fleeing from his presence or participating in his divine nature, but humans are inherently bound up in relation with other humans as well. For Augustine:
“God chose to make a single individual the starting-point of all mankind…His purpose in this was that the human race should not merely be united as a soiety by natural likeness, but should also be bound together by a kind of tie of kinship to form a harmonious unity, linked together by the ‘bond of peace.'”
Augustine is here describing our primordial unity with Adam, whose fall is the ground of original sin. Indeed, one of Augustine’s aims is to point out that humans, as bound together in Adam, also necessarily participate socially with one another. The human person is an inherently social person.
All good things, for St. Augustine, are gifts. This is no less true of participation or fellowship with God than anything else. It is not by nature that humans participate in communion with God, but by grace. In describing the two aforementioned cities, Augustine says that their inhabitants are distinguished from each other by the nature and directions of their desires.
“There is, in fact, one city o men who choose to live by the standard of the flesh, another of those who chose to live by the standard of the spirit. The citizens of each of these desire their own kind of peace, and when they achieve their aim, that is the kind of peace in which they live.”
Augustine notes, as does Paul (Gal. 5:19-21), that sin is synonymous with the “works of the flesh.” However, St. Augustine was quick to condemn the views of Mani and of Neoplatonists, who believe that matter is inherently evil. Instead, “flesh” simply refers to the part of human nature that is subject to the effects of the Fall. Matter itself, Augustine reminds us, is inherently good, as it was created by God, and everything which God creates is inherently good.
In any case, it is clear that the cities are distinguished by the objects of the desires of their inhabitants. The inhabitants of the Heavenly City are directed towards God and the inhabitants of the Earthly City are directed towards the self. Love of self is not inherently evil, however, unless it is a kind of love which revels in its own supposed self-sufficiency and autonomy, regarding participation in God unnecessary or irrelevant. The essence of this apostasy is pride [superbia]:
“For they would not have arrived at the evil act [Adam and Eve, during their Fall] if an evil will had not preceded it. Now, could anything but pride have been the start of the evil will? For ‘pride is the start of every kind of sin.’ And what is pride except a longing or a perverse kind o exaltation? For it is a perverse kind of exaltation to abandon the basis on which the mind should be firmly fixed, and to become, as it were, based on oneself, and so remain. This happens when a man is too pleased with himself: and a man is self-complacent when he deserts that changeless Good in which, rather than in himself, he ought to have found his satisfaction. This desertion is voluntary…the evil act, the transgression of eating the forbidden fruit, was committed only when those who did it were already evil”(Augustine).
Thus, for Augustine, the evil perversion of their originally good wills preceded the actual consumption of the fruit of the tree, and the latter was only the open manifestation of it. One of the greatest ironies, for Augustine, is that, in seeking to become autonomous from God, and entirely self-sufficient, humans actually lose some of our being and tend toward nothingness.
Since God is the Supreme Being, and the one with the most substantive being, and since humans are inherently ontologically dependent upon God’s will, turning away from God diminishes one’s own being. It must be kept in mind that sin, or Augustine, is a kind of non-being, rather than a form of being. Thus, it is like a whole in a tissue rather than a substance it is stained with:
“And what is pride except a longing for a perverse kind of exaltation? For it is a perverse kind of exaltation to abandon the basis on which the mind should be firmly fixed, and to become, as it were, based on oneself, and so remain. This happens when a man is too pleased with himself: and a man is self-complacent when he deserts that changeless Good in which, rather than in himself, he ought to have found his satisfaction”(Augustine).
One of the key volitional aspects of the Christian life is desire towards the Being of God and fellowship with him. Although harboring ascetic tendencies in Augustine’s day, Christianity is quite far from the attitude of the Stoics. So Hannah Arendt pointed out: “Since man is not self-sufficient and therefore always desires something outside himself, the question of who he is can only be resolved by the object of his desire and not, as the Stoics thought, by the suppression of the impulse of desire itself…Strictly speaking, he who does not love and desire at all is a nobody.”
St. Augustine is also keen to point out how quickly pride can result in living a private and hermetic life, which is inherently unChristian. As Dr. Jenson points out:
“The isolation o sin is sharply contrasted to humanity’s telos in the beatific vision. Augustine’s description of this vision at the end of the City of God is profoundly communal, such that we enjoy God together, and we only enjoy one another as we enjoy one another in God. In all this, Augustine implies that in turning from God, we have turned from the only source of true communion with others. Community, then, is only possible in a relationship of participation in God. The converse of this is that relation to God is at one and the same time relation to other people. We cannot have one without the other”(Augustine).
In the words of Mary Clark, who argues that “Augustine is radically a philosopher of community”:
“Man is neither an en-soi (an inhuman individual) nor a pour-soi (a human individual). Of course man-is-in-the-world and he is with-others, but man-is-for-God, yet for a God who creates and loves his world and all persons in it. This is why Augustinian other-worldliness can never be interpreted rightly as anti-world. In the Augustinian context man cannot fulfill his human vocation except by collaborating in the creative work of God. Man cannot really be for-God unless he is for-others. Other men, in the true spirit of St. John’s Gospel and St. Paul’s vision, mediate God’s call to each man, and this is why Augustinian anthropology is a humanism precisely because it is theocentric.”
For St. Augustine, there is no private or personal love. Love becomes radically public. Everything is shared by everyone, everyone loves one another, everyone shares one another’s joy without envying them, and shares in one another’s goods. Rather than those who selfishly jealously guard their enjoyments and fortunes from one another:
“A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely bt the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them. Inf act, anyone who refuses to enjoy this possession in partnership will not enjoy it at all; and he will find that he possesses it in ampler measure in proportion to his ability to love his partner in it.”
In other words, the Heavenly City, inhabited by individuals who truly and completely love one another, will experience joy in sacrificially loving one another. Thus, those who share a piece of cake with another do not experience this as a privation of a good to which they may have had access, but are overjoyed in the opportunity to enrich another, and enjoy this activity infinitely more than they would have enjoyed the cake to which they would otherwise have been entitled.
Source: “The Gravity of Sin,” by Matt Jenson.