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Augustine’s Divided Line Essay

1648 words - 7 pages

Augustine’s Divided Line

Augustine’s contention that man cannot possibly come into truth by reason in his temporal life constitutes his initial departure from the ancients, and results in the need for an entirely new structuring of the relationship between man and the good. In differentiating between the nature of God and man, Augustine argues that man’s nature—unlike God’s—is corruptible, and is thus “deprived of the light of eternal truth” (XI, 22) . This stands the thought of Plato on its head, since now no amount of contemplation and argument will be capable of getting man closer to a truth that exists on a plane that “surpasses the reach of the human mind” (XXI, 5). If reason is an instrument as flawed as man himself, how, then, is man to know the supreme good if he is forced to grope blindly for it in a state of sin without any assistance from the powers of his own mind? It is this question which serves as the premise for Augustine’s division of existence into the City of Man and the City of God and articulation of a system of vice and struggle against vice that keeps man anchored to the City of Man and prevents him from entering the City of God in temporal life.

In order to explain man’s path from the one to the other, he sets up a system of dichotomies that originate from Adam’s fall and are hinged upon the role of the will in earthly life. At the top, God is the source of the “supreme good,” and evil is its opposite (XII, 3). Up to this point, he is in agreement with the ancients, but he diverges again when he equates the good with nature, and evil with a defect of nature—an absence of the good (XII, 3). In this we have the first division of what “supremely is” between nature and vice, with nature arising from God’s creation, and vice arising for the falling away of this creation from God Himself. Everything falling onto the side of vice will thus be a defective and incomplete version of a creation of God, just as vice itself is a defective nature.

With this settled upon as the relationship between good and evil, God proceeded to create man with a will primed towards obedience. He “supplied [man] with an abundance of all things…and had not burdened him with a large number of oppressive and difficult precepts, but…had given him one very brief and easy commandment to keep him in wholesome obedience” (XIV, 15). Man is from the beginning not created to seek knowledge through reason, as philosophy is a “burden” to him in Paradise. Augustine does not take the modern view that the fall was caused by the fatal flaw of curiosity in man, but rather, it is through a the irrational passion of pride like the pride of Satan—“with an ambition like that of a tyrant, he wished rather to gloat over subjects than be a subject himself”—that Adam and Eve are compelled to eat the forbidden fruit (XIV, 11). Reason is thus given no role in the story of Eden—it is a battle between self-will and God’s will, with self-will aligning with...

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