Week 1: Saint Augustine

Trigger Warning: There are some nude bodies and images below

Saint Augustine

Photo courtesy of SveKonstantin, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Augustine was perhaps the greatest Christian philosopher of Antiquity and certainly the one who exerted the deepest and most lasting influence. 

He is a saint of the Catholic Church, and his authority in theological matters was universally accepted in the Latin Middle Ages and remained, in the Western Christian tradition, virtually uncontested till the nineteenth century. The impact of his views on sin, grace, freedom and sexuality on Western culture can hardly be overrated. These views, deeply at variance with the ancient philosophical and cultural tradition, provoked however fierce criticism in Augustine’s lifetime and have, again, been vigorously opposed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries from various (e.g., humanist, liberal, feminist) standpoints. Philosophers keep however being fascinated by his often innovative ideas on language, on skepticism and knowledge, on will and the emotions, on freedom and determinism and on the structure of the human mind and, last but not least, by his way of doing philosophy, which is—though of course committed to the truth of biblical revelation—surprisingly undogmatic and marked by a spirit of relentless inquiry. His most famous work, the Confessiones, is unique in the ancient literary tradition but greatly influenced the modern tradition of autobiography; it is an intriguing piece of philosophy from a first-person perspective. Because of his importance for the philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages he is often listed as the first medieval philosopher. But even though he was born several decades after the emperor Constantine I had terminated the anti-Christian persecutions and, in his mature years, saw the anti-pagan and anti-heretic legislation of Theodosius I and his sons, which virtually made Catholic (i.e., Nicene) Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Augustine did not live in a “medieval” Christian world. Pagan religious, cultural and social traditions were much alive in his congregation, as he often deplores in his sermons, and his own cultural outlook was, like that of most of his learned upper-class contemporaries, shaped by the classical Latin authors, poets and philosophers whom he studied in the schools of grammar and rhetoric long before he encountered the Bible and Christian writers. Throughout his work he engages with pre- and non-Christian philosophy, much of which he knew from firsthand. Platonism in particular remained a decisive ingredient of his thought. He is therefore best read as a Christian philosopher of late antiquity shaped by and in constant dialogue with the classical tradition.”[1]

Selections from City of God:

  1. That the disobedience of the first man would have plunged all men into the endless misery of the second death, had not the grace of God rescued many.

We have already stated in the preceding books that God, desiring not only that the human race might be able by their similarity of nature to associate with one another, but also that they might be bound together in harmony and peace by the ties of relationship, was pleased to derive all men from one individual, and created man with such a nature that the members of the race should not have died, had not the two first (of whom the one was created out of nothing, and the other out of him) merited this by their disobedience; for by them so great a sin was committed, that by it the human nature was altered for the worse, and was transmitted also to their posterity, liable to sin and subject to death. And the kingdom of death so reigned over men, that the deserved penalty of sin would have hurled all headlong even into the second death, of which there is no end, had not the undeserved grace of God saved some therefrom. And thus it has come to pass, that though there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress, are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit; and when they severally achieve what they wish, they live in peace, each after their kind.

2. Of carnal life, which is to be understood not only of living in bodily indulgence, but also of living in the vices of the inner man.

First, we must see what it is to live after the flesh, and what to live after the spirit. For any one who either does not recollect, or does not sufficiently weigh, the language of sacred Scripture, may, on first hearing what we have said, suppose that the Epicurean philosophers live after the flesh, because they place man’s highest good in bodily pleasure; and that those others do so who have been of opinion that in some form or other bodily good is man’s supreme good; and that the mass of men do so who, without dogmatizing or philosophizing on the subject, are so prone to lust that they cannot delight in any pleasure save such as they receive from bodily sensations: and he may suppose that the Stoics, who place the supreme good of men in the soul, live after the spirit; for what is man’s soul, if not spirit? But in the sense of the divine Scripture both are proved to live after the flesh. For by flesh it means not only the body of a terrestrial and mortal animal, as when it says, “All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, another of birds,” but it uses this word in many other significations; and among these various usages, a frequent one is to use flesh for man himself, the nature of man taking the part for the whole, as in the words, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified;” for what does he mean here by “no flesh” but “no man?” And this, indeed, he shortly after says more plainly: “No man shall be justified by the law;” and in the Epistle to the Galatians, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law.” And so we understand the words, “And the Word was made flesh,”—that is, man, which some not accepting in its right sense, have supposed that Christ had not a human soul. For as the whole is used for the part in the words of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel, “They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him,” by which she meant only the flesh of Christ, which she supposed had been taken from the tomb where it had been buried, so the part is used for the whole, flesh being named, while man is referred to, as in the quotations above cited.

Since, then, Scripture uses the word flesh in many ways, which there is not time to collect and investigate, if we are to ascertain what it is to live after the flesh (which is certainly evil, though the nature of flesh is not itself evil), we must carefully examine that passage of the epistle which the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, in which he says, “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” This whole passage of the apostolic epistle being considered, so far as it bears on the matter in hand, will be sufficient to answer the question, what it is to live after the flesh. For among the works of the flesh which he said were manifest, and which he cited for condemnation, we find not only those which concern the pleasure of the flesh, as fornications, uncleanness, lasciviousness, drunkenness, revellings, but also those which, though they be remote from fleshly pleasure, reveal the vices of the soul. For who does not see that idolatries, witchcrafts, hatreds, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, heresies, envyings, are vices rather of the soul than of the flesh? For it is quite possible for a man to abstain from fleshly pleasures for the sake of idolatry or some heretical error; and yet, even when he does so, he is proved by this apostolic authority to be living after the flesh; and in abstaining from fleshly pleasure, he is proved to be practising damnable works of the flesh. Who that has enmity has it not in his soul? or who would say to his enemy, or to the man he thinks his enemy, You have a bad flesh towards me, and not rather, You have a bad spirit towards me? In fine, if any one heard of what I may call “carnalities,” he would not fail to attribute them to the carnal part of man; so no one doubts that “animosities” belong to the soul of man. Why then does the doctor of the Gentiles in faith and verity call all these and similar things works of the flesh, unless because, by that mode of speech whereby the part is used for the whole, he means us to understand by the word flesh the man himself?[2]

Albrecht Dürer

A supremely gifted and versatile German artist of the Renaissance period, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was born in the Franconian city of Nuremberg, one of the strongest artistic and commercial centers in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries….

    Dürer’s talent, ambition, and sharp, wide-ranging intellect earned him the attention and friendship of some of the most prominent figures in German society. He became official court artist to Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and his successor Charles V, for whom Dürer designed and helped execute a range of artistic projects. In Nuremberg, a vibrant center of humanism and one of the first to officially embrace the principles of the Reformation, Dürer had access to some of Europe’s outstanding theologians and scholars, including Erasmus, Philipp Melanchthon, and Willibald Pirkheimer, each captured by the artist in shrewd portraits. For Nuremberg’s town hall, the artist painted two panels of the Four Apostles (1526), bearing texts in Martin Luther’s translation that pay tribute to the city’s adoption of Lutheranism. Hundreds of surviving drawings, letters, and diary entries document Dürer’s travels through Italy and the Netherlands (1520–21), attesting to his insistently scientific perspective and demanding artistic judgment.

    The artist also cast a bold light on his own image through a number of striking self-portraits—drawn, painted, and printed. They reveal an increasingly successful and self-assured master, eager to assert his creative genius and inherent nobility, while still marked by a clear-eyed, often foreboding outlook. They provide us with the cumulative portrait of an extraordinary Northern European artist whose epitaph proclaimed: “Whatever was mortal in Albrecht Dürer lies beneath this mound.”[3]

Dürer’s Adam and Eve of 1504. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 Here is the MET’s piece on Dürer’s Adam and Eve of 1504.[4]  Read the brief description and click on the print to examine it in full detail. 

Throughout his life, Dürer was in thrall to the idea that the perfect human form corresponded to a system of proportion and measurements and could be generated by using such a system. Near the end of his life, he wrote several books codifying his theories, including the Underweysung der Messung (Manual of measurement), published in 1525, and Vier Bücher von menschlichen Proportion (Four books of human proportion), published in 1528 just after his death. Dürer’s fascination with ideal form is manifest in Adam and Eve. The first man and woman are shown in nearly symmetrical idealized poses: each with the weight on one leg, the other leg bent, and each with one arm angled slightly upward from the elbow and somewhat away from the body. The figure of Adam is reminiscent of the Hellenistic Apollo Belvedere, excavated in Italy late in the fifteenth century. The first engravings of the sculpture were not made until well after 1504, but Dürer must have seen a drawing of it. Dürer was a complete master of engraving by 1504: human and snake skin, animal fur, and tree bark and leaves are rendered distinctively. The branch Adam holds is of the mountain ash, the Tree of Life, while the fig, of which Eve has broken off a branch, is from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Four of the animals represent the medieval idea of the four temperaments: the cat is choleric, the rabbit sanguine, the ox phlegmatic, and the elk melancholic.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020.

 What is Dürer saying about original sin at the dawn of the sixteenth-century?  If you believe it is unchanged from Augustine’s view, why?  If you think it differs, how?


[1] Christian Tornau, “Saint Augustine,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, September 25, 2019), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/augustine/.

[2] St. Augustine, City of God, Book XIV: Chapters 1-2.  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45305.

[3] Jacob Wisse, “Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.  New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/durr/hd_durr.htm (October 2002)

[4] “Adam and Eve,” metmuseum.org, accessed October 6, 2020, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/336222.