An Exploration of Augustine’s Works on the Origin of Souls
The unity of human beings is deeply important both in Augustine’s early and late works. Standing behind his writing is the idea that, despite the diversity of human beings, they are somehow one, inextricably united. Augustine’s case against the Donatists testifies to this; he earnestly attacked the Donatists’ separatism as “the most grievous sin that is involved in separation itself.”2 The urgency of unity led him even to accept the use of coercion against his earlier inclination. So great is the power of unity for Augustine that it at times appears as the most integral ingredient needed for salvation. “Since the Catholic Church . . . contained within her bosom either some that were rebaptized or some that were unbaptized,” writes Augustine to the Donatists, “either the one section or the other must have won their salvation only by the force of simple unity.”3 The Catholic Church, for Augustine, is the great unifier.
Schism and disunity were painful wounds for Augustine because, I suggest, he believed all human beings to be linked in their very soul. Augustine, however, never gave a comprehensive and unequivocal exposition of the origin of the human soul. Consequently, many scholars have debated over his actual views and whether he preferred one position to others. Scholars such as Gerard O’Daly (in Platonism Pagan and Christian) and Pawel Kapusta (in Articulating Creation, Articulating Kerygma) conclude that we have insufficient evidence to determine Augustine’s view. Indeed, in his writings, Augustine presents multiple hypotheses on the origin of the soul and addresses them in a variety of ways across different works. Nevertheless, I contend that by examining the works in which Augustine gives his most detailed explorations of these hypotheses one can discover Augustine’s own position.
Donald Burt suggests that Augustine is more concerned with the future of human beings than with their origin.4 This paper will demonstrate that uncovering Augustine’s understanding of the origin of the soul illuminates his deeply rooted concern for unity and reveals much about the nature of the Christ, the future of human beings in the New Jerusalem and the meaning of a universal Christianity. It is through examining the origin of human beings that we can better understand and appreciate the meaning and import of their future. Through a reading of De libero arbitrio, De genesi ad litteram, and De anima et ejus origine, I will review the major hypotheses on the origin of the soul that Augustine addresses and trace the development of his thought through time, attending to what is at stake in taking one position over another. After establishing Augustine’s own position, I will reconcile this with his view of original sin and concupiscence, a concept deeply interwoven with that of the origin of the soul. This paper will conclude by bringing to light how this allows us to better understand Augustine’s perception of the unity of human beings and the two heavenly and earthly cities described in De civitate dei.
De libero arbitrio: Four Hypotheses
In De libero arbitrio, probably written in year 388 CE soon after his conversion to Catholicism, Augustine puts forth four theories of the origin of the human soul. As Robert O’Connell notes, these four theories were not without precedent. None other than Jerome presents “the very same hypotheses and intimates that any well-read person knew they were the ones taken seriously in learned discussions of the time.”5 These “current” theories presumably included a fifth, “Manichaean” theory that Augustine omits but Jerome includes. Due to his all too recent disillusionment with Manichaeism, it is not surprising that Augustine refuses to entertain a theory that suggests the human soul derives from God’s substance.6 Augustine takes the remaining four theories given in De libero arbitrio as potentially plausible positions to hold. They are: a) traducianism/propagation, in which “only one soul was originally created, and the souls of all men since born derive their origin from it,”7 b) creationism, wherein “souls are created separately in individual men as they are born,”8 c) preexistence, in which “souls pre-exist in some secret place and are sent out to quicken and rule the bodies of individuals when they are born,”9 and d) pre-existence with volition, which assumes that “souls existing in some place are not sent by the Lord God, but come of their own accord to inhabit bodies.”10
If we take seriously that these four theories were all current and widely held among the educated at the time Augustine wrote De libero arbitrio, we can also surmise that by adopting or refuting any one of them Augustine would have faced open resistance from those who held the views he found unfavorable. This offers one explanation for why he omitted rather than refuted the Manichean hypothesis. It is understandable that Augustine then demonstrates a particular reticence to show any preference for one theory over another. As a new convert to Catholicism he judiciously concludes, “None of these views may be rashly affirmed. Either that question, because of its obscurity and perplexity, has not been handled and illuminated by catholic commentators on Holy Writ. Or, if it has been done, their writings have not come into our hands.”11 For those of us who wish to determine Augustine’s own inclinations, on paper he remains frustratingly agnostic.
Despite Augustine’s apparent agnosticism, he does briefly explore each of these hypotheses for their compatibility with scripture and the penal condition of humanity due to the Fall of Adam and Eve. Augustine finds the first theory, traducianism or propagation, to be logically consistent with the concept of inherited sin. “If,” he writes, “only one soul was originally created, and all men since born derive their origin from it, who can say that he did not sin when the first man sinned?”12 All future human souls, being contained in Adam’s soul, thereby participated in Adam’s sin and his subsequent punishment. As Robert O’Connell states, by this hypothesis “the connection between sin and merited punishment is unambiguously clear, but qua souls, we are not ‘other’ than Adam!”13 This theory’s explanation for the inheritance of original sin is arguably the strongest and cleanest of that of the four theories, and its implications are far reaching. Not only is the soul the location of inherited guilt; the unity of all human beings also lies in the shared origin of every soul in the soul of the first man.
The justice of the penal condition of human beings is less clear in the second theory: in this telling, each soul is created separately at birth. Nevertheless, Augustine asserts that “it appears not to be unreasonable but rather most appropriate and in accordance with right order that the ill desert of an earlier soul should determine the nature of those which are created afterwards.”14 This conclusion strains the human sense of justice because there is no direct link between the punishable transgression and each individual human soul. Whereas the first hypothesis lays blame on all human souls due to their participation in Adam’s disobedience, the second theory admits no such connection. Adam’s given nature is categorically distinct from the given nature of all later human beings, thus creating a clear disconnect between Adam and all of later humanity. Through no fault of their own, later souls receive a nature lower than that which Adam received at his creation. Augustine implicitly concedes that all later human souls would not properly remain guilty of original sin, although they receive the blemished nature of its consequences. A later soul could only “rightly be held guilty of sin” if it does not make “good use of the power it has received.”15 Despite this, as in the first hypothesis (traducianism/propogation), the human soul bears the mark of original sin.
Like the second hypothesis (creationism), the third and fourth hypotheses, which take souls to be pre-existent “in some secret place,” do not suggest that souls are culpable for their damaged condition. Rather, they are given the “opportunities for ministering to the restoration of the integrity of the body.”16 What is notable about these latter hypotheses is that they shift the location of the damage caused by Adam’s disobedience from the soul to the physical body: “the flesh coming from a sinful stock causes this ignorance and toil to infect the souls sent to it. Only in this sense are they to be called sins, and the blame for them is to be ascribed neither to the souls nor to their Creator.”17 Not only is the consequence of Adam’s disobedience written into the physical body, but also the nature of that damage is such that it invades the previously undamaged soul like an infectious disease.
In summary, the first two hypotheses, traducianism/propagation and creationism, both locate the consequence of original sin in the nature of the soul. The first does so via participation and the second by precedence. The latter two hypotheses both hold that God created human souls as pre-existent to their incarnation and map the damage of original sin onto the physical body rather than the soul. Only the first hypothesis imputes guilt to human souls in regard to original sin. All of the other hypotheses understand human souls as affected by original sin only in that they enter into earthly existence in a lower condition than did Adam.
Though De libero arbitrio is one of Augustine’s early works, it outlines some of the rudimentary strengths and weaknesses of each theory of the origin of souls. Because his later expositions on the origin of the soul address the same four hypotheses in various forms, De libero arbitrio remains a helpful reference for exploring those works. One such work is De genesi ad litteram, or “The Literal Meaning of Genesis,” written between 401 and 414 CE. This exegesis of the first three chapters of Genesis holds an extensive exploration of the origin of the soul and, because it is ostensibly a literal interpretation of the scripture, it includes a number of issues not addressed in De libero arbitrio.
De genesi ad litteram
In De genesi ad litteram we meet a very different Augustine. Between the writing of De libero arbitrio and De genesi ad litteram, Augustine was forcibly ordained as a priest and later a bishop. No longer a new convert with philosophical ideals, Augustine was now a catholic bishop burdened by the responsibility of caring for his flock. In the midst of the Donatist controversy and with Pelagianism on the horizon, De genesi ad litteram reads as a refreshing island floating amid a sea of anti-heretical writings. Even so, the need to curtail heretical ideas was never absent for Augustine. In De genesi ad litteram Augustine refutes the Manichean understanding of the soul on multiple counts, immediately rejecting the hypothesis, omitted in De libero arbitrio, that the human soul is derived from God’s substance. This is declared heretical primarily on the basis that the human soul is changeable and God is not.18 He then rejects both the corporeality of the soul and the Origenist theory of transmigration of souls to which, according to Augustine, the Manicheans also purportedly adhered.
In Book Seven, Augustine explores a number of positions, rejecting some while remaining agnostic toward others. His only certainty in this book is the conclusion that the rational soul “is made from nothing.”19 By Book Ten, however, he presents only two theories on the origin of the soul, traducianism/propogation and creationism. Having previously concluded that the soul is created from nothing, he ostensibly reopens the possibility that the soul might be created, not from nothing but, from “some spiritual and, of course, rational creature.”20 Though Augustine presents these two possibilities as mutually exclusive, we need not understand them that way. In fact, I will suggest that Augustine’s later theory works to reconcile them.
The reason why Augustine shows some doubt as to the creation of souls out of nothing stems from Genesis 2:2–3. He interprets the words “God rested from all the work that he had done in creation,” to mean that all creation out of nothing concluded after the sixth day. It is because of this that he writes, “it is quite unreasonable to hope to demonstrate that something is made from nothing once the works were finished in which God created all things simultaneously.”21 Though Adam and Eve were created within the six days, all later human beings were not. Thus, if we accept the previous conclusion that souls are created out of nothing, the creationist hypothesis is untenable.
In order to trace the implications of Augustine’s assertions we must distinguish between the creation of Adam’s soul and the creation of the souls of his progeny. Augustine’s difficulty with creation out of nothing applies only in regard to Adam’s progeny, not Adam himself. With this in mind, we can discern that the origin of souls ex nihilo, out of nothing, makes untenable the hypothesis that “souls are created separately in individual men as they are born,”22 (creationism) but does not threaten the traducianism/propagation hypothesis.
Curiously, Augustine does not allow the reader to reach the conclusion that the traducianism/propagation hypothesis could resolve the apparent dilemma between the need for creation out of nothing (established in Book Seven of De genesi ad litteram) and the impossibility of such creation after the sixth day (Genesis 2:2–3). Instead, he shifts the reader’s attention by limiting the alternative to creation out of nothing (creation of souls from some pre-existing spiritual, rational creature) to the argument that God creates souls either from angels or the substance of Godself. By defining, or rather limiting, this option in such a way Augustine encourages the reader to dismiss it entirely before he or she can posit the possibility that the pre-existing rational creature from which God creates souls, is the soul of Adam.
Perhaps Augustine does not explore this possibility here in De genesi ad litteram because he is concerned, in this moment, with the origin of human souls in terms of substance and not in method. Whereas the traducianism/propagation theory distinguishes between the creation of Adam’s soul and the manner in which later souls are derived from it, the creationist theory considers each instance an identical act of independent creation. One might conclude from this that Augustine implicitly assumes the creationist hypothesis when he presents the possibilities for the derivation of the substance of the soul above (“nothing” or a pre-existing creature). Even if this is the case, however, he continues Book Ten by examining the two hypotheses as equally plausible.
After examining a series of scriptural passages he concludes, “it is difficult to determine the origin of the soul on the basis of scripture.”23 He turns instead to examining the two hypotheses “in the light of original sin and the practice of infant baptism.”24 As one might similarly conclude from De libero arbitrio, here Augustine seems to argue that the traducianism/propagation theory is more logically consistent with the tradition of infant baptism than is creationism. The infant’s “contamination by contact with sinful flesh can in no way be imputed to it if it was not created from the first soul of Adam who sinned.”25 Augustine silently asks: for what other reason than its own guilt must the infant be baptized before death in order to attain salvation?
Despite some equivocation leading up to the final chapter, Augustine concludes Book Ten of De genesi ad litteram and its exposition of the origin of the soul with a clear, if tentative, preference for the traducianism/propagation hypothesis. “After pursuing this investigation as thoroughly as time has allowed,” he writes, “I should judge the weight of reason and of scriptural texts to be equal or nearly equal on both sides, were it not for the fact that the practice of infant baptism gives greater weight to the opinion of those who hold that souls are generated by parents [i.e. propagation].”26 His final stance should come as no surprise. As I noted above, his assertion of the soul’s creation out of nothing, in conjunction with his interpretation of Genesis 2:2–3 as meaning that God does not create out of nothing after the sixth day, logically excludes the creationist hypothesis from consideration.
After this promotion of the traducianism/propagation hypothesis, Augustine warns the adherent to this hypothesis against a corporeal conception of the soul, a fault to which Tertullian succumbed. If Tertullian is any indication, the current conception of traducianism/propagation at the time of Augustine was likely to have been a specifically materialistic one. Augustine’s admonishment against a material understanding of this theory not only distinguishes himself from Tertullian (and the Manicheans) but also clarifies his own theory of spiritual traducianism/propagation while maintaining its familiarity to current thought.
Remember the four hypotheses outlined in De libero arbitrio: a) traducianism/propagation, b) creationism, c) pre-existence, d) pre-existence with volition. The two hypotheses that are not seriously considered in the later De genesi ad litteram (c. and d.) both locate the consequence of Adam’s disobedience in the physical body. The two theories in De libero arbitrio that place the mark of original sin in the soul are the same ones that are judged to be “nearly equal” in De genesi ad litteram. Can we then conclude that Augustine has rejected the possibility that original sin is mapped onto the physical body? Considering the basis by which he articulated a preference for the traducianism/propagation hypothesis—infant baptism—it seems so.
We should not underestimate the importance of infant baptism for Augustine. It was, after all, arguably the central foundation of his case against the Pelagians, in which he was involved at the time of writing this work. Therefore, the force behind the following statement is considerable: “the custom of our mother church in the matter of infant baptism is by no means to be scorned, nor to be considered at all superfluous.”27 With this in mind, I suggest that Augustine’s preference for the propagation/traducianism theory of the origin of souls is not as equivocal as he, at times, indicates.28
If we conclude that in De genesi ad litteram Augustine locates original sin in the soul, this becomes for the traducianism/propagation hypothesis not only the strength by which it outweighs the creationism hypothesis, but also its weakness. This weakness is particularly evident in the case of Christ. Augustine writes, “even if the advocates of traducianism prevail . . . it will not follow that we must believe that the soul of Christ has also come by generation from the soul of Adam, for we cannot suppose that our Lord Himself is made a sinner through the disobedience of the first man.”29 With the blemish of original sin residing in the soul of Adam, Augustine can only conclude that the soul of Christ is a miraculous exception. The soul of Christ, therefore, must be “from the source whence Adam received his, rather than from Adam’s own soul.”30 Later Augustine adds, “the soul of Christ is from the original soul only on the condition that it has not contracted the taint of sin; but if it could not be from that source without the guilt of sin, it has not come from that soul.”31 It is difficult to determine whether Augustine considers propagation in regard to the soul of Christ as a serious possibility at the time of this work, or if this remark is merely a rhetorical concession. All indications suggest that he does not, both because he rejected it earlier in Chapter Eighteen, and, because he appears to base his preference for the propagation hypothesis for the origin of other human souls on the premise that the soul is the carrier of original sin.
Yet if the origin of Christ’s soul is the exception that proves the rule, not only does it contradict Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis 2:2–3 and creation ex nihilo, but Christ’s humanity also becomes even further removed from human beings born after the Fall.32 Though such a miraculous exception makes those of us who wish to find a fully consistent system squirm uncomfortably in our chairs, Augustine is remarkably unbothered by the possibility. “[H]ow can we have the temerity, in our human folly, to venture to deny that the divine power can create things which are new . . . ?”33 For Augustine, God is, after all, omnipotent, and the incarnation of Christ is the most unique and miraculous event of human history.
De anima et ejus origine34
In De anima et ejus origine, written ten to twenty years after De genesi ad litteram in 421 CE, Augustine maintains that in his earlier work,35 he “did not venture to define anything about the propagation of the soul.”36 Despite his supposed previous agnosticism he shows clear preference, yet again, for the traducianism/propagation theory. Augustine remains noticeably anxious not to discount the theory that souls are “severally assigned to each person without propogation [sic], as the first was to Adam,”37 yet his own preference for the theory of propagation is obvious.
De anima et ejus origine suggests that Vincentius Victor, toward whom Augustine directed this work, was a proponent of the creationist theory.38 Augustine dedicates Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen of Book One to a defense of the origin of souls by propagation, stating that “the passages of scripture adduced by Victor do not prove that souls are made by God in such a way as not to be derived by propagation.”39 Though Augustine might wish his reader to believe that his defense of the propagation theory serves only to maintain an agnostic equity between it and the creationism/insufflation theory, Chapter Thirty-Three leaves no illusion as to his own equivocation. He writes, “As for the opinion, that new souls are created by inbreathing without being propagated, we certainly do not in the least object to its maintenance-only let it be by persons who have succeeded in discovering some new evidence.”40 Here, Augustine shows his true colors. Though “new evidence” may be found to refute the theory of propagation (for such is the definition of theory), until such evidence is found, he seems to say, it is best to assume the origin of souls via propagation.
In the midst of the Pelagian controversy at the time of writing this work, Augustine was acutely aware of the Pelagian undertones of the creationist/insufflation theory that Vincentius Victor propounds. Those who hold to such a theory cannot, logically, “affirm that souls become sinful by another’s original sin,” but they must not, Augustine warns, conclude from this “the now damnable and very recently condemned heresy of Pelagius, to the effect that the souls of infants have not original sin.”41 From this comment in De anima et ejus origine, we know that Augustine still holds that original sin is marked on the soul rather than the body. It is once again the North African tradition of infant baptism that holds together both his case against the Pelagians and his theory of the origin of souls via propagation.
Original Sin and Concupiscence
Having established Augustine’s preferred theory of the origin of human souls and some of the tensions therein, let us turn to his understanding of original sin in order to flesh out the implications of the theory of traducianism/propagation and make sense of the exceptional nature of Christ. It is already clear that Augustine’s theory of the origin of souls is intimately connected to his understanding of original sin. Only because all human souls participated in Adam’s disobedience does infant baptism hold such power and significance for him. We should be able, then, to read the theory of traducianism/propagation into Augustine’s account of original sin in works such as De civitate dei, and De nuptiis et concupiscentia. Though Augustine’s expositions of the origin of the soul explain the manner by which original sin is present in every human being, he does not explain the nature of that sin. It is in De nuptiis et concupiscentia and De civitate dei, both written around the same time as De anima et ejus origine, that Augustine explains the nature of original sin.42 He is, however, strangely silent concerning the theory of traducianism/propagation and emphasizes instead the physical repercussions of Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
In both of these works Augustine avers, “[I]n the punishment of that sin the retribution of disobedience is simply disobedience itself.”43 This disobedience is marked on the body as the unwieldy will of the male erection. The very physicality of concupiscence, which appears in these two works, might suggest that Augustine has shifted course from the earlier pieces examined above, in which he locates the consequence of original sin in the soul, to the opinion that original sin dwells in the physical body.
Augustine remarks that Adam and Eve covered their sexual organs out of shame because “[i]t is the punishment of sin; it is the wound and vestige of sin. . . . It is the law in the members that resists the law of the mind.”44 He also affirms that “no one born from man and woman, that is, through that union of their bodies, is found to be free from sin; the one who is free from sin is also free from this manner of conception.”45 From these two statements, Augustine specifies that the union of bodies is necessary for the transmission of original sin. Keeping in mind, however, the fact that Augustine reveals his belief in the propagation theory of the origin of souls in De anima et ejus origine, written at approximately the same time, I suggest that he understands the union of bodies as necessary not only for the propagation of flesh but also for the incorporeal propagation of souls.
One might read Augustine’s use of Wisdom 12:11, “for their seed was cursed from the beginning,” as meaning that original sin is contracted through the physical substance of the semen. Indeed, it is possible that Augustine had some kind of conception of the role of the male seed in the propagation of the soul. If he did, however, in light of his admonition against Tertullian in De genesi ad litteram, we should assume that its role would have been non-physical.
This view is not without precedent. Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals states in regard to the soul, “this principle has to be supplied by the semen of the male, and it is when a female’s residue secures this principle that a fetation is formed.”46 It was a common understanding in ancient physiology that the male provided the dynamic principle and also contributed, along with seminal residue, pneuma (wind or spirit). In fact, Aristotle writes, “the physical part, the body, comes from the female, and the Soul from the male.”47 Despite the fact that Augustine writes long after Aristotle, very comparable ideas remained current during his lifetime, particularly in the work of Pliny.48 Indeed, such an understanding actually helps reconcile the apparent tension between Augustine’s works on the origin of the soul and his explanation of “concupiscence of the flesh.” Augustine’s understanding that “the whole human race was in the first man, and it was to pass from him through the woman to his progeny, when the married pair had received the divine sentence of condemnation” is best understood in view of this.
The case of Christ’s birth may indeed be the exception that proves the rule. Given these Aristotelian ideas, the miraculous exception to the traducianism/propagation theory, the soul of Christ, makes sense. Christ had to be born without “marital intercourse” not only because he needed “to be conceived without that concupiscence” of “sinful flesh,”49 but also because a father producing human seed would have “dragged”50 out a human soul from the soul of Adam (through the parents) which had participated in that first act of disobedience. Similarly, because in this understanding of physiology the female contributes the physical matter, Christ’s flesh was fully human, derived from the body of Mary. It would have been the formative forces accompanying the newly created soul that shaped the physical matter.
Augustine’s contention that Christ was not subject to original sin affirms that, in his understanding, original sin resides in the soul, the site of the will. Concupiscence is a consequence of original sin and its mark on the body is due to the soul it contains, not the body itself. The mark is not the erection in itself; rather it is the will of the erection, the will that is unwieldable. Because for the couple after the Fall “licit and honorable intercourse cannot take place free from the heat of sexual desire [concupiscence],”51 propagation is subject to this disobedient will. The will is not a physical substance though it wields physical substances. Just as we move our arms and legs with our will, the wayward will of concupiscence moves the limb of the phallus. This is to say that in reading Augustine’s statements on the “concupiscence of the flesh” the emphasis should be put on “concupiscence” rather than “flesh.”
Now that we have established that Augustine shows clear preference for the traducianism/propagation theory of the origin of souls and that it does not conflict with Augustine’s account of original sin and concupiscence, we can better understand Augustine’s perception of the unity of human beings. Not only are human beings united by their fallen state, their endless struggles with concupiscence, and a common ancestor, but their very souls are bound together. Successively dragged from that one original soul, as Robert O’Connell remarks, “qua souls, we are not ‘other’ than Adam!”52
Roland Teske notes that in De quantitate animae, an early work written around the same time as De libero arbitrio (388 CE), Augustine “rejects the idea that soul is merely one” and “also rejects the idea that the soul is simply many.”53 From this he suggests that Augustine may “[have] in mind the Plotinian hypostasis ‘soul,’ in which individual souls partake and which makes them somehow one despite their diversity.”54 “In any case,” Teske writes, “he finds less objectionable the idea that soul is both one and many—precisely the view . . . which he may have found in Ennead 4.9.”55
It is not entirely certain that Augustine is working with this Plotinian concept, particularly in his later works, but the connection is intriguing.56 This unity despite diversity articulates well the picture of the traducianism/propagation theory of the origin of souls. We must not, however, take this unity to the extreme. Though all human beings may have begun as one soul, the soul itself “is happy in one person and unhappy in another, and one and the same being cannot be happy and unhappy at the same time.”57 Rather than imagining a larger, “world soul” in which all human souls participate, it is better to suppose that the late Augustine envisions humanity as a single organism made multiple by the Fall of Adam.
In De civitate dei, his magnum opus and exposition of human history past and future, Augustine repeatedly emphasizes the underlying unity of human beings. This unity is visible even in the act of creation, and it is specific to the human being. God created “some living creatures of a solitary habit. . . . He made others gregarious, preferring to live in flocks and herds. . . . Yet neither of these classes did he produce by starting with individuals of the species; he commanded many to come into existence at once.”58 The human being, however, was created “as one individual; but that did not mean that he was to remain alone, bereft of human society. God’s intention was that in this way the unity of human society and the bonds of human sympathy be more emphatically brought home to man.”59 This unity is emphasized again through the creation of Eve. “And to this end . . . he decided not to create her in the same way as he created man himself. Instead he made her out of the man, so that the whole human race should be spread out from the one original man.”60
Through this unity we are bound together not just in similitude of nature or by physical relationship to a single ancestor, but in our very being, our soul:
For we were all in that one man, seeing that we all were that one man who fell into sin. . . . We did not yet possess forms individually created and assigned to us for us to live in them as individuals; but there already existed the seminal nature from which we were to be begotten.61
This “seminal nature” is not the physical semen, nor is it the anachronistic concept of genetic material. It is the pre-individuated soul, “the man in whom we all existed at that time,”62 from which all souls would be “dragged.”
Yet the division of the human race is not a mere illusion. The unity of this one man, Adam, has been painfully divided, physically and psychically. The disobedience of all human beings in the being of Adam “was so great that there was a great change for the worse in his nature.”63 This change in nature not only resulted in the struggle of concupiscence but it ultimately sundered the unity of mankind. If Adam had not disobeyed the command of God, Adam and Eve would have produced the exact number of the elect, and no more.64 Now, however, the number of the elect is selected by the grace of God from among the crowds of sinners, leaving some forever severed from this unity.
As Peter Brown states, for Augustine “the Catholic Church was a microcosm of the re-established unity of the human race.”65 Perhaps the greatest glory of the resurrection for Augustine is the final, perfect unity of humanity, both with itself and with God. This unity is assured by yet another compensatory shift in nature for the human being: a truly free will.66 Augustine writes: “The first freedom of will, given to man when he was created upright at the beginning, was an ability not to sin. . . . But this last freedom will be more potent, for it will bring the impossibility of sinning.”67
Augustine left a thread throughout his works, which reveals his own position on the origin of souls. An understanding of Aristotelian propagation can help harmonize this with Augustine’s notion of original sin and the nature of Christ. Through this, Augustine reveals a picture of human unity on an enormous scale. The unity of the resurrection is not an Origenist utter unity of mind. It is a marvelous unity-with-individuation such that “the thoughts of our minds will lie open to mutual observation,”68 “the same freedom in all, indivisible in the separate individuals.”69 Though the resurrection ostensibly heals the wound of the Fall, we are left with the nagging discomfort of the sundered portion of Adam meted out for punishment. Perhaps for Augustine this provides for God’s perfect Justice. Adam, in the elect, is healed and made once again whole. Adam, in the condemned, receives his punishment. Mercy is given and justice obtained.
The church as the body of Christ and the notion of Christ as the new Adam take on a new reality. If we take seriously the idea that Augustine, and perhaps other early Christians, imagined all of humanity as a single organism which was made painfully multiple by the Fall, we might better understand both the terror of separation from the church and the desperate, often violent, impulse to convert others. Though Christ, through the church, is the healer and unifier, the sundering of Adam can never be undone for Augustine. A portion of that wound will always remain, just as the wounds of the crucifixion remained visible to Thomas and his fellow disciples on the body of the resurrected Christ.
1. I would like to thank Charles Stang and my fellow classmates for the lively seminar on Augustine at HDS for which this paper was initially written and John Zaleski for his encouraging skepticism that propelled my enthusiasm to write it.
2. Augustine, “On Baptism,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, vol. IV ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 421.
3. Augustine, “On Baptism,” 434.
4. Donald X. Burt, Augustine’s World: An Introduction to His Speculative Philosophy (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996), 224.
5. Robert J. O’Connell, The Origin of the Soul in St. Augustine’s Later Works (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987), 33.
6. Augustine does briefly address this fifth hypothesis and rejects it as an impossibility in some of his later works on the soul. See De genesi ad litteram Books Seven and Ten.
7. Augustine, “On Free Will,” in Augustine: Earlier Writings, ed. J.H.S. Burleigh (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), 203 (De libero arbitrio 3,xx,56).
8. Ibid., 203 (De libero arbitrio, 3,xx,56).
9. Ibid., 204 (De libero arbitrio, 3,xx,57).
10. Ibid., 205 (De libero arbitrio, 3,xx,58).
11. Ibid., 206 (De libero arbitrio, 3,xxi,59).
12. Ibid., 203 (De libero arbitrio, 3,xx,55).
13. O’Connell, The Origin of the Soul in St. Augustine’s Later Works, 33.
14. Augustine, “On Free Will,” 204 (De libero arbitrio, 3,xx,56).
16. Ibid., 205 (De libero arbitrio, 3,xx,57).
18. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, vol. II, (New York: Newman Press, 1982), 4 (De genesi ad litteram, 7.4.6).
19. Ibid., 31 (De genesi ad litteram, 7.28.43).
20. Ibid., 101 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.4.7).
21. Ibid., 102 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.4.7).
22. See note 9.
23. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 108 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.10).
24. Ibid., 113 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.14).
25. Ibid., 115 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.15.26).
26. Ibid., 127 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.23.39).
28. Roland Teske, in his article “Augustine’s Theory of Soul,” also concludes that in De genesi ad litteram “the first hypothesis [propagation] seems least problematic as representing Augustine’s view at this point.” Roland Teske, “Augustine’s Theory of the Soul,” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, ed. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 122.
29. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 120 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.18.32).
30. Ibid., 121 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.18.33).
31. Ibid., 126 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.21.37).
32. Christ’s soul is still created and human if it comes from “the source whence Adam received his.” Ibid., 121 (De genesi ad litteram, 10.18.33).
33. Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 501 (De civitate dei, XII, 21).
34. Also known as De natura et origine animae.
35. This refers to a small work found and refuted by Vincentius Victor. It is toward this refutation that De anima et ejus origine is directed.
36. Augustine, “On the Soul and Its Origin,” trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, ed. Phillip Schaff. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing, 1887), http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1508.htm, (26/xvii).
37. The Retractions, Book II, chapter 56, concerning De anima et ejus origine.
38. It seems Victor, upon reading this “small work,” concluded that Augustine adhered to the propagation/traducianism theory.
39. Augustine, “On the Soul and Its Origin,” 17/xiv (De anima et ejus origine).
40. Ibid., ch. 33.
41. Augustine, “On the Soul and Its Origin,” ch. 34 (De anima et ejus origine).
42. Though De civitate dei as a whole was written over number of years, Book Fourteen, which contains his most explicit elaboration of the fall of Adam and Eve and the nature of its repercussions, was written in 420 CE. See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 282.
43. Augustine, City of God, 575 (De civitate dei XIV,15).
44. Augustine, “Marriage and Desire,” trans. Roland J. Teske, in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, vol. 24, ed. John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1998), 66.
45. Ibid., 62 (De nuptiis et concupiscentia, II,5,15).
46. Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, trans. A.L. Peck (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1943), 175.
47. Ibid., 185.
48. Pliny writes the following in Chapter Seventeen, Book Seven of Naturalis historia in regard to menstrual flux: “For in very deed, it is the materiall substance of generation: and the mans seed serveth in steed of a runnet to gather it round into a curd: which afterwards in processe of time quickeneth and groweth to the forme of a bodie.” (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/holland/pliny7.html). Here he clearly understands the female to contribute the matter and the male the formative principle, using the same cheese metaphor that Aristotle uses in On the Generation of Animals. Concerning Augustine’s familiarity with Pliny specifically see, Mary Emily Keenan, “St. Augustine and Biological Science,” Osiris 7 (1939): 588–608.
49. Augustine, “Marriage and Desire,” 37 (De nuptiis et concupiscentia, I,12,).
50. Trahuntur, meaning “to drag.”
51. Augustine, “Marriage and Desire” 45 (De nuptiis et concupiscentia, I,24,27).
52. O’Connell, The Origin of the Soul in St. Augustine’s Later Works, 33.
53. Teske, “Augustine’s Theory of Soul,” 119.
56. Admittedly I am not well-versed enough to be able to determine the extent to which Augustine’s conception of the origin of the soul is commensurate Plotinus’s hypostasis “soul” or archetypal man. Robert O’Connell’s book The Origin of the Soul involves an extensive investigation of Augustine’s works in light of Enneads 4.2–5, 5.8, and 6.4–5 in particular. He comes to the conclusion that Augustine understood the Plotinian Ideal Man to have been Adam, both the archetype and the historical individual, in which all human beings sinned as one man. Though rather different than my conclusion it may not be entirely incompatable.
57. De quantitate animae 32.68 (cited in Roland Teske, “Augustine’s Theory of Soul,” 119).
58. Augustine, City of God, 502 (De civitate dei XII, 22).
59. Ibid., (De civitate dei XII, 22).
60. Ibid., 503 (De civitate dei XII, 22).
61. Ibid., 523 (De civitate dei XIII, 14).
62. Ibid., 524 (De civitate dei XIII, 15).
63. Augustine, “Marriage and Desire,” 51 (De nuptiis et concupiscentia, I,32,37).
64. Augustine, City of God, 567 (De civitate dei XIV, 10).
65. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 220.
66. This “will be the result of God’s gift, not some inherent quality of nature” Augustine, City of God, 1089 (De civitate dei XXII, 30).
67. Augustine, City of God, 1089 (De civitate dei XXII, 30).
68. Ibid., 1087 (De civitate dei XXII, 29).
69. Ibid., 1089 (De civitate dei XXII, 30).
Matthias Giles received a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School in 2014. His academic interests center around mid-to-late antique Christian theology and how ancient scientific theories of sense perception and physiology underlie and structure the articulation of religious ideas of early Christian theologians. He is currently pursuing ordination in the Christian Community, Movement for Religious Renewal.