The attitudes and values we associate with Christian tradition, particularly attitudes toward sexual matters, evolved in Western culture at a specific time—during the first four centuries of the Common Era, when the Christian movement, which had begun as a defiant sect, transformed itself into the religion of the Roman Empire. These attitudes had not previously existed in the Christian form they eventually took and they represented a departure from both pagan practices and Jewish tradition. Many Christians of the first four centuries CE were proud of their superiority to non-Christians in practicing sexual restraint. They rejected polygamy and often divorce as well, which Jewish tradition allowed; and they repudiated extramarital sexual practices, including prostitution and homosexuality, that were commonly accepted among their pagan contemporaries. Christians who practiced celibacy believed, too, that their sexual restraint freed them from the burdens of marriage and family life.

When we read the work of Jewish and Christian writers from the first centuries of the Common Era, however, we find that they seldom talk directly about sexual behavior, and they seldom write treatises on marriage, divorce, or gender. Instead they often talk about Adam, Eve, and the serpent—and it is here, in the story of creation, that they tell us what they think about sexual matters. From about 200 BCE the story of creation became, for certain Jews, and later for Christians, a primary means of revealing and defending basic attitudes and values. Our spiritual ancestors argued and speculated over how God had commanded the first man and woman to “increase and multiply; fill the earth, and subdue it”; and how God instituted the first marriage; how Adam, after he found among the animals “no helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20), met Eve, with well-known and disastrous consequences. Such interpretations of the first three chapters of Genesis engaged intensely practical concerns and articulated deeply held attitudes, for example, toward procreation, animals, work, marriage, and the human striving to “have dominion” over the earth and “subdue it.”

Augustine, one of the greatest teachers of Western Christianity, also derived many of his fundamental moral and social attitudes from the story of Adam and Eve—that sexual desire is sinful; that infants are infected from the moment of conception with the disease of original sin; and that Adam’s sin corrupted all of nature. Even those who think of Genesis as literature, and those who are not Christian, live in a culture indelibly shaped by such interpretations as these.

What has been insufficiently understood, however, is that for nearly the first four hundred years of our era, Christians had regarded freedom as the primary message of Genesis 1–3—freedom in its many forms, including free will; freedom from social and sexual obligations such as marriage and business; freedom from tyrannical government and from fate; and self-mastery as the source of such freedom. Gnostic Christians sought and claimed to find freedom through deeper knowledge—gnosis—of Christ’s message. The Gnostics’ opponents, however, including the philosopher Justin, who was converted to Christianity around 138, emphasized instead that believers gain freedom from sin—the freedom to live a moral life—through baptism. Justin declared that baptism had freed him and other Christians from the passions of lust, greed, and racial hatred:

We, who formerly delighted in immorality, now embrace chastity alone,…we, who once valued above everything else acquiring wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and share with everyone in need; we, who hated and destroyed one another, and refused to live with people of a different race, now live intimately with them.

Justin also claimed to be free from the demands of the Roman government where these conflicted with his commitment to Christ. When arrested and ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods, Justin refused; he was immediately taken out to be beaten and beheaded along with six other equally adamant Christians. Despite such persecution, and sometimes in direct defiance of it, many Christians of the first three centuries regarded the proclamation of autexousia—the moral freedom to rule oneself—as virtually synonymous with the Gospel.

Yet with Augustine, around the end of the fourth century, this message changed. In the story of creation, where his Jewish and Christian predecessors read a message of freedom, Augustine came to read instead a story of human bondage—of “original sin”; and Augustine’s writings became the dominant influence upon all subsequent Western Christian tradition, Catholic and Protestant alike, ever since. In what follows I briefly describe the transformation in the way Christians came to perceive freedom and human nature, and suggest how this change coincided with the most extraordinary social and political transformation in the history of Christianity.


For the defiant Christians hounded as criminals by the Roman government a central question was: Are human beings capable of governing themselves? And to this question they emphatically answered “yes.” But following the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 313 CE, most Christians gradually came to say “no.” Early Christian spokesmen, like Jews before them and, for example, the American colonists long after, had claimed to find in the biblical account of creation divine sanction for declaring their independence from governments that they considered corrupt and arbitrary. For in the Hebrew account of creation God gave the power of earthly rule to adam—not to the king or emperor, but simply to “mankind” (and some even thought this might include women).1


Most Christian apologists during the first four centuries would have agreed with Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century theologian, who was following Rabbinic tradition when he explained that after God created the world “as a royal dwelling place for the future king” he made humanity “as a being fit to exercise royal rule” by creating it in “the living image of the universal King.” Consequently, Gregory concluded, “the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character…in that it owns no master, and is self governed, ruled autocratically by its own will.” Besides dominion over the earth and animals, this gift of sovereignty conveys the quality of moral freedom:

Preeminent among all is the fact that we are free from any necessity, and not in bondage to any power, but have decision in our own power as we please; for virtue is a voluntary thing, subject to no dominion. Whatever is the result of compulsion and force cannot be virtue.2

Augustine, in his later years, radically broke with most of his Christian predecessors, and effectively transformed the teaching of the Christian faith. In place of the freedom of the will and the royal dignity of humanity, Augustine argued for the bondage of the will. Humanity, he wrote, is sick, suffering, and helpless, irreparably damaged by the Fall. For “original sin,” Augustine insists, involved nothing else than Adam’s prideful attempt to establish his own autonomous self-government. Surprisingly, Augustine’s radical views prevailed, eclipsing for future generations of Western Christians the consensus of more than three centuries of Christian tradition.

When he was about thirty, Augustine renounced the Manichaean version of Christian doctrine that he had embraced as a young man, a doctrine that categorically denied the goodness of creation and the freedom of the will. As a chastened convert, he now claimed to accept Catholic orthodoxy, and he affirmed both. But as he tried to understand the turbulent experience of his own life, especially the passions of sexual desire and of grief, he concluded that the qualities of the original state of creation were no longer present—at least not directly—in human experience. Human beings had been able to enjoy the unflawed glory of creation and the freedom of the will only during their primordial moments in Paradise. But ever since the Fall, such glory and freedom could be apprehended—and even then but partially—only in moments of inspired imagination. For all practical purposes they are wholly lost.

Given the intense inner conflicts of his passionate nature and the struggle to control his sexual impulses which he reveals in his Confessions, Augustine’s decision to abandon his predecessors’ belief in free will need not surprise us. Much more surprising is the result of his decision. Why did most Latin Christians, instead of ignoring Augustine’s idiosyncratic views as marginal—or rejecting them as heretical—eventually embrace them? How did his teachings on “original sin” become the center of Western Christian tradition, displacing, or at least wholly recasting, all previous views of creation and free will?

The political and social situation of Christians in the early centuries had changed radically by the beginning of the fifth century. The traditional declarations of the virtues of human freedom by martyrs like Justin, who defied the Roman government as being inspired by demons, no longer seemed to fit the situation of Christians, who found themselves, under Constantine and his Christian successors, the emperor’s “brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Both Augustine and his Christian opponents recognized that political issues were at stake in theological controversy, yet none of them discussed government in what we would recognize as political language. Instead, since everyone agreed that the story of Adam and Eve offered a basic model for ordering human society, argument over the role of government most often took the form of conflicting interpretations of that story. Augustine and the most eloquent exponents of the theological doctrines he revised—for example, the brilliant Greek church father John Chrysostom—each read, in opposite ways, the politics of Paradise.

John Chrysostom and Augustine were contemporaries. Augustine was born in North Africa in 354, and John was born in Antioch around the same time. Both grew up in an Empire nominally Christian. During the forty years since Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 313, Christian emperors not only had begun to persecute the former persecutors of Christians, but had poured magnanimous benefits upon the Christian churches. John was a young priest in Antioch when a public riot against the emperor’s taxation policies erupted, and angry crowds smashed the statues of the emperor and his family. Rumors of the emperor’s rage, and his planned retribution, preceded his return to Antioch. Yet in this time of public crisis John boldly declared to the crowds that the right of government belongs not to the emperor alone but to the entire human race: “In the beginning, God honored our race with sovereignty.” For, John asked rhetorically, what else does it mean that God made us “in His image”? “The image of government [tæs archæs eikona] is what is meant”; and, John declared, all human-kind shares equally in that gift:


For the image is not in part of our nature, nor is the divine gift in any single person…but this power extends equally to the whole race; and a sign of this is that the mind is implanted alike in all; for all have the power of understanding and reflecting,…they equally bear within themselves the divine image [italics added].

For of governments, some are natural [physikai], and others artificial [cherotonætai]: natural, such as the rule of the lion over the quadrupeds, or the eagle over the birds; artificial, as of an emperor over us; for he does not reign over his fellow slaves by any natural authority. Therefore it happens that emperors often lose their sovereignty.

As John saw it, imperial rule epitomized the social consequences of sin. Like his persecuted Christian predecessors, John ridiculed the imperial propaganda, which claimed that the state rests upon concord, justice, and liberty. On the contrary, he said, the state relies upon force and compulsion, often using these to violate justice and to suppress liberty. But because most humankind followed Adam’s example in sinning, government, however corrupt, has become indispensable, and, for this reason, even divinely endorsed:

If you deprive the city of its rulers, we would have to live a life less rational than that of the animals, biting and devouring one another…. For what crossbeams are in houses, rulers are in cities, and just as, if you were to take away the former, the walls, being separated, would fall in upon one another, so, if you were to deprive the world of magistrates and the fear that comes from them, houses, cities, and nations would fall upon one another in unrestrained confusion, there being no one to repress, or repel, or persuade them to be peaceful through the fear of punishment.

Because of human sin, fear and coercion have infected the whole structure of human relations, from family to city and nation. Everywhere John sees the disastrous results: “Now we are subjected to one another by force and compulsion, and every day we are in conflict with one another.”

But the tyranny of external government sharply contrasts with the liberty enjoyed by those capable of autonomous self-rule—and, above all, by those who, through Christian baptism, have recovered the capacity for self-government. Chrysostom identifies external tyranny with the Roman Empire, and the capacity for autonomy, with the emerging new society of the Christian church: “There, everything is done through fear and constraint; here, through free choice and liberty!” The use of force, the driving energy of imperial society, is utterly alien to church government:

Christians, more than all people, are not allowed to correct by force the faults of those who sin,…in our case the wrongdoer must be corrected not by force, but by persuasion.

Although he believes that a priest’s authority actually surpasses the emperor’s, Chrysostom says that Christian leaders refrain from using force out of religious principle:

For neither has the authority of this kind to restrain sinners been given to us by law, nor, if they had been given, should we have any place to exercise our power, since God rewards those who abstain from evil out of their own choice, and not out of necessity [italics added].

The Christian leader, refraining not only from the use of force but even from the subtler pressures of fear and coercion, must evoke each member’s voluntary participation:

We do not have “authority over your faith,” beloved, nor do we command these things as your lords and masters. We are appointed for the teaching of the word, not for power, nor for absolute authority. We hold the place of counsellors to advise you. The counsellor speaks his own opinions, not forcing his listeners, but leaving him full master of his own choice in what is said [italics added].

Church government, unlike Roman government, remains wholly voluntary and, although hierarchically structured, it is essentially egalitarian, reflecting, in effect, the original harmony of Paradise.

Yet Chrysostom is uneasily aware that the actual churches he knows in Antioch and Constantinople fall far short of such celestial harmony. Having inherited his vision of the church from such heroic forebears as Justin and Clement, Chrysostom, measuring the church of his own day against theirs, alternately grieves and lashes out in anger:

Plagues, teeming with untold mischiefs, have come upon the churches. The primary offices have become marketable. Hence innumerable evils are arising, and there is no one to redress, no one to reprove them. Indeed, the disorder has taken on a kind of method and consistency of its own.

Excessive wealth, enormous power, and luxury, Chrysostom charges, are destroying the integrity of the churches. Clerics infected by the disease of “lust for authority,” he charges, are promoting their candidates for church positions on the basis of family prominence, wealth, or partisanship. Pagans rightly ridicule the churches: ” ‘Do you see,’ they say, ‘how all matters among the Christians are full of vainglory? And there is ambition among them, and hypocrisy. Strip them,’ they say, ‘of their numbers, and they are nothing.’ ”

Chrysostom still sees his church contending against powerful rivals. 3 He does not consider that his vision of the church, sanctioned by nearly four centuries of tradition, may no longer fit the situation of his fellow Christians at the turn of the fifth century. The world had invaded the church, and the church the world, and new questions were being posed. What, for example, was the correct relationship of Christians to a Christian emperor, and what was the legitimacy of his rule, not only over unruly pagans, but over Christians themselves (including the increasing flood of nominal converts)? How are Christians to account for the unsettling new prominence and political importance of the churches?

Traditional Christian answers to the question of power no longer applied by the late fourth century, when the Empire had been ruled by Constantine and several other Christian emperors, including Theodosius the Great. Augustine’s very different interpretation of the politics of Paradise—and, in particular, his insistence that the human race, including the redeemed, is incapable of self-government—offered Christians radically new ways to interpret their changed situation.

Where Chrysostom proclaims human freedom, Augustine draws an opposite conclusion from the same Genesis story. As for autexousia, the power to rule oneself, Augustine cannot acknowledge it as a reality—or even a genuine good—in his own experience, let alone for all humanity. Augustine begins his reflections on government, characteristically, by recalling in the Confessions his own emotional experience. He instinctively identifies the question of self-government with rational control over sexual impulses. Describing his struggle to be chaste, Augustine recalls how, “in the sixteenth year of the age of my flesh…the madness of raging lust exercised its supreme dominion over me.” Augustine was powerless, a captive and victim. Through sexual desire, he says, “my invisible enemy trod me down and seduced me.” Of his sexual involvements, he admits that “I drew my shackles along with me, terrified to have them knocked off.” Acknowledging that one of his friends was “amazed at my enslavement,” Augustine reflects that “what made me a slave to it was the habit [consuetudo] of satisfying an insatiable lust.”

Had Augustine confessed as much to a spiritual adviser like John Chrysostom, he would have been urged to undo the chains that bound him to bad habits and to recover and strengthen, like unused muscles, his own neglected capacity for free choice (autexousia). But Augustine in his Confessions directly challenges such advice. Free will is only an illusion—an illusion that Augustine himself once shared: “As for continence, I imagined it to be in the liberty of our own power, which I, for my part, felt I did not have.”

As he grew older, Augustine changed his mind. Instead of denouncing his own lack of faith in the power of free will, Augustine attacked those who falsely assume that they possess such power: “What man is there, who, being aware of his own weakness, dares so much as to attribute his chastity and innocence to his own virtue?” The aging Augustine then takes his own experience as instructive for all human experience—indeed, for Adam’s: “Being a captive,” he says, “I feigned a show of counterfeit liberty.” Adam, he said, had done the same, bringing upon himself and his progeny an avalanche of sin and punishment.

No wonder, then, that the young Augustine had been drawn to the Manichaean theory, which held that man was the product of a primal struggle between God and Satan, and that he embraced Manichaean ideas, which “explained” the sense of helplessness he felt. When he abandoned Manichaean theology in his late twenties, Augustine admitted he was at a loss to understand the Christian teaching on free will. Later he would claim, of course, that in denying the power of the will he was only repeating what Paul had said long before: “I do not do what I will, but I do the very thing I hate…. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (see Romans 7:15–25). Many Christians ever since—including the Augustinian monk Martin Luther—would find Augustine’s interpretation of Paul’s words persuasive. Yet recent scholarly study suggests that Augustine in effect invented this interpretation of Paul’s words by daring to apply them to baptized Christians.4

Augustine’s Christian predecessors, including Justin, Clement, and Chrysostom, had assumed that Paul’s statements about the will’s capacity applied only to those who lacked the grace of Christian baptism. Augustine himself acknowledges this, and says he worked hard to understand the Catholic teaching that says (in his words) “free will is the cause of our doing evil…. But I was not able to understand it clearly.” Once he began to recognize the power of his own will, he says, “I knew that I had a will…and when I did either will or nill [i.e., refuse to will] anything, I was more sure of it, that I and no other did will or nill; and here was the cause of my sin, as I came to perceive” (italics added). Yet far from relinquishing entirely the role of victim, as opposed to the role of the initiator of sinful actions, Augustine says, “But what I did against my will, that I seemed to suffer rather than do. That I considered not to be my fault, but my punishment.”

Through the agonizing process of his conversion Augustine claims to have discovered that he was bound by conflict within his own will:

I was bound, not with another man’s chains, but with my own iron will. The enemy held my will, and, indeed, made a chain of it for me, and constrained me. Because of a perverse will, desire was made; and when I was enslaved to desire (libido) it became habit; and habit not restrained became necessity. By which links…a very hard bondage had me enthralled.

Augustine came to see his own will, then, divided and consequently impotent: “Myself I willed it, and myself I nilled it: it was I myself. I neither willed entirely, nor nilled entirely. Therefore I was in conflict with myself, and…was distracted by my own self.”

How can he account for such conflict? Augustine insists that, since he suffered much of this

against my own will,…I was not, therefore, the cause of it, but the [cause was the] “sin that dwells in me”: [I suffered] from the punishment of that more voluntary sin, because I was a son of Adam [italics added].

Augustine seems intent on proving that, even if Adam once had free will, he, Augustine, had never possessed it. Even in the case of Adam Augustine’s account betrays ambivalence, or, indeed, outright hostility, toward the possibility of human freedom. What earlier Christian apologists had celebrated as God’s greatest gift to humankind—free will, liberty, autonomy, self-government—Augustine characterizes in surprisingly negative ways. Adam had been given freedom as his birthright, but, as Augustine tells it, the first man “conceived a desire for freedom,” and his desire became, in Augustine’s eyes, the root of sin, betraying nothing less than contempt for God. The desire to master one’s will, far from expressing what Justin, Clement, and Chrysostom consider the true nature of rational beings, becomes for Augustine the great and fatal temptation: “The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is personal control over one’s own will” (proprium voluntatis arbitrium).

Aware of a contradiction in his argument, Augustine explains that obedience, not autonomy, should have been Adam’s true glory, “since man has been naturally so created that it is advantageous for him to be submissive, but disastrous for him to follow his own will, and not the will of his creator.” Admitting that “it does, indeed, seem something of a paradox,” Augustine resorts to paradoxical language to describe how God “sought to impress upon this creature, for whom free slavery (libera servitus) was expedient, that he was the Lord!” Whatever the constraints upon Adam’s freedom, however, Augustine insists that the first man was still more free than any of his progeny; for only the story of Adam’s misuse of free will can account for the contradictions Augustine discovered within himself, his own will caught in perpetual conflict, “much of which I suffered against my own will, rather than did by my will.”

Augustine knows that most of his Christian contemporaries would find this claim incredible, if not heretical. Indeed, John Chrysostom warns the fainthearted not to blame Adam for their own transgressions. Answering an imaginary interlocutor who asks, “What am I to do? Must I die because of [Adam]?” he replies, “It is not because of him; for you yourself have not remained without sin. Even though it is not the same sin, you have, at any rate, committed others.” That Adam’s sin brought suffering and death upon humankind most Christians, like their Jewish predecessors and contemporaries, would have taken for granted. But most Jews and Christians would also have agreed that Adam left each of his offspring free to make his or her own choice of good or evil. The story of Adam, most Christians assumed, was intended to warn everyone who heard it not to misuse that divinely given capacity for free choice.

But Augustine wants to prove the opposite point. He laboriously attempts to show that Adam, far from being the individual person Chrysostom envisioned, was, instead, a corporate being. After Adam sinned, his punishment caused a change for the worse—in effect, a genetic mutation—in the whole human race. Augustine derived the nature of that change from an idiosyncratic interpretation of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 5:12.

The Greek text reads, “Through one man [or: because of one man, di’henos anthropou] sin entered the world, and through sin, death; and thus death came upon all men, in that [eph’ho] all sinned.” John Chrysostom, like most other Christians, took this to mean that Adam’s sin brought death into the world, and death came upon all because “all sinned.” But Augustine read the passage in Latin—where eph’ho is translated as in quo—and so either ignored or was unaware of the connotations of the Greek original; thus he misread the last phrase as referring not to all men but to Adam. Augustine insisted that it meant that “death came upon all men, in whom all sinned”—that the sin of that “one man” Adam brought upon humanity not only universal death, but also universal—and equally inevitable—sin. Since Adam was a corporate person, “we all were in that one man, since all of us were that one man who fell into sin through the woman who was made from him.”

How can one imagine that millions of people not yet born were “in Adam” or, in any sense, “were” Adam? Anticipating objections that would reduce his argument to absurdity, Augustine declares triumphantly that, although “we did not yet have individually created and apportioned forms in which to live as individuals,” what did exist already was the “nature of the semen from which we were propagated.” That semen itself, Augustine argues, already “shackled by the bond of death,” transmits the damage incurred by sin. Hence, Augustine concludes, every human being ever conceived through semen already is born contaminated with sin. Through this astonishing argument Augustine intends to prove that every human being is in bondage not only from birth but from the moment of conception.


When he describes the onset of original sin in Adam, Augustine chooses, above all, political language—and specifically the language of sexual politics. He describes his experience of passion in political metaphors—as “rebellion” against the mind’s governance. For in the beginning, when there was only one man in the world, Adam discovered within himself the first government—the rule of the rational soul, the “better part of a human being,” over the body, the “inferior part.” Augustine, influenced, no doubt, by his study of Platonic philosophy, characterizes the soul and the body in political language: the soul by divine right is to subjugate every part of its “lower servant,” the body, to the ruling power of its will. Within Adam as within Eve both soul and body originally obeyed the authority of rational will:

Although they bore an animal body, yet they felt in it no disobedience moving against themselves…. Each received the body as a servant…and the body obeyed God…in an appropriate servitude, without resistance.

But the primal couple soon experienced within themselves not only the first government on earth but also the first revolution. Since Adam’s assertion of his autonomy was, Augustine insists, tantamount to rebellion against God’s rule, Adam’s attempt to establish his own independence involved him in insubordination to his divine Master. Augustine appreciates the aptness with which the punishment fits the crime: “The punishment for disobedience was nothing other than disobedience. For human misery consists in nothing other than man’s disobedience to himself.” Augustine stresses, however, that the penalty for sin involves more than bodily impulses rebelling against the mind. Instead, the “flesh” that wars against the “law of the mind” includes, he says, the “whole of one’s natural being.” The commonest experiences of frustration—mental agitation, bodily pain, aging, suffering, and death—continually prove to us our incapacity to implement the rule of our will. For who would undergo any of these, Augustine asks, if our nature “in every way and every part obeyed our will”?

But what epitomizes our rebellion against God, above all, is the “rebellion in the flesh”—a spontaneous uprising, so to speak, in the “disobedient members”:

After Adam and Eve disobeyed…they felt for the first time a movement of disobedience in their flesh, as punishment in kind for their own disobedience to God…. The soul, which had taken a perverse delight in its own liberty and disdained to serve God, was now deprived of its original mastery over the body.

Specifically, Augustine concludes, “the sexual desire [libido] of our disobedient members arose in those first human beings as a result of the sin of disobedience…and because a shameless movement [impudens motus] resisted the rule of their will, they covered their shameful members.” At first, the Adam and Eve whom God had created enjoyed mental mastery over the procreative process: the sexual members, like the other parts of the body, enacted the work of procreation by a deliberate act of will, “like a handshake.”

Ever since Eden, however, spontaneous sexual desire is, Augustine contends, the clearest evidence of the effect of original sin: this, above all, manifests passion’s triumph. What impresses Augustine most is that such arousal functions independently of the will’s rightful rule: “Because of this, these members are rightly called pudenda (parts of shame) because they excite themselves just as they like, in opposition to the mind which is their master, as if they were their own masters.” Sexual excitement differs from other forms of passion, Augustine contends, since in the case of anger and other such passions, the impulse does not move any part of the body, but the will remains in control and consents to the movement. An angry man still decides whether or not to strike; but a sexually aroused man may find that erection occurs with alarming autonomy.

Augustine considers this irrefutable evidence that lust (libido), having wrested the sexual organs from the control of the will, now has “brought them so completely under its rule that they are incapable of acting if this one emotion [libido] is lacking.” So disjoined is will from desire that even a man who wills to be sexually aroused may find that libido deserts him.

At times, the urge intrudes uninvited; at other times, it deserts the panting lover, and, although desire blazes in the mind, the body is frigid. In this strange way, desire refuses service, not only to the will to procreate, but also to the desire for wantonness; and though for the most part, it solidly opposes the mind’s command, at other times it is divided against itself, and, having aroused the mind, it fails to arouse the body.

Augustine insists that the experience of such arousal, even apart from any action taken, itself is sin: “Such disobedience of the flesh as this, which lies in the very excitement, even when it is not allowed to take effect, did not exist in the first man and woman.” Augustine admits, however, that

the trouble with the hypothesis of a passionless procreation controlled by the will, as I am here suggesting it, is that it has never been verified in experience, not even in the experience of those who could have proved that it was possible. In fact, they sinned too soon, and brought upon themselves exile from Eden.

But Augustine believes that each person can verify from experience the radical leap to which his own inner turmoil impelled him—the leap that identifies sexual desire itself as evidence of, and penalty for, original sin. That each of us experiences desire spontaneously apart from will means, Augustine believes, that we experience it against our will. Hence, he continues, sexual desire naturally involves shame: “A man by his very nature is ashamed of sexual desire.” The proof that such assertions are true, Augustine says, is the universal practice of covering the genitals and of shielding the act of intercourse from public view.

By defining spontaneous sexual desire as the proof and penalty of original sin, Augustine believes that he has succeeded in implicating the whole human race except, of course, for Christ, born without libido and without semen which transmit its effects. But the rest of humankind issues from a procreative process that, ever since Adam, has sprung wildly out of control, marring all of human nature.

What, then, can remedy human misery? How can anyone achieve internal balance, much less establish social and political harmony between man and woman, man and man? Augustine’s entire theology of the Fall depends upon his radical claim that no human power can restore man from the state of sin. Knowing, however, that many philosophically minded people (including philosophically educated Christians from Justin Martyr through Chrysostom) strongly disagree, and would invoke, against his argument, the evidence of all who successfully practice self-control—pagan philosophers and Christian ascetics alike—Augustine seizes the offensive. There are, he admits, a few people who restrain their passions through self-control, leading temperate, just, and holy lives. But while others honor them for their achievement, Augustine accuses them, in effect, of neurosis: “This is by no means a healthy state due to nature [sanitas ex natura], but an illness due to guilt [languor ex culpa].”

Augustine ridicules such efforts to reassert the power of the will, and concludes that the “rebellion in our members,…that proof and penalty of man’s rebellion against God,” is not only universal but also ineradicable. Part of our nature stands in permanent revolt against the “law of the mind”—even among the philosophers, even among the baptized and the saints. And since not only “the common mass of men, but even the most godly and righteous” confronts the same continual insurrection within, Augustine concludes that humankind has wholly lost its original capacity for self-government.

Augustine draws so drastic a picture of the effects of Adam’s sin that he embraces human government, even when tyrannical, as the indispensable defense against the forces sin has unleashed in human nature. His analysis of internal conflict thus extends to his view of social conflict in general. The war within us drives us into war with one another—and no one, pagan or Christian, remains exempt. So, he explains, “while a good man is progressing to perfection, one part of him can be at war with another of his parts; hence, two good men can be at war with one another.”

In the beginning, Augustine agrees with Chrysostom, politics began at home:

The union of male and female is the seed-bed, so to speak, from which the city must grow…. Since, then, a man’s home [hominis domus] ought to be the beginning or elementary constituent of the city…it follows…that domestic peace serves civic peace, that is,…the ordered agreement of command and obedience among citizens.

Recognizing that Adam and Eve originally were created to live together in a harmonious order of authority and obedience, superiority and subordination, like soul and body, “we must conclude,” says Augustine, “that a husband is meant to rule over his wife as the spirit rules the flesh.” But once Adam and Eve had each experienced that first internal revolt in which the bodily passions arose against the soul, they experienced analogous disruption in their relationship with each other. Although originally created equal with man in her rational soul, woman’s bodily nature made her the “weaker part of the human couple.” Being closely connected with bodily passion, woman, although created to be man’s helper, became his temptress and led him into disaster. The Genesis account describes the result: God himself reinforced the husband’s authority over his wife, placing divine sanction upon the social, legal, and economic machinery of male domination.

Apart from the relationship between the sexes, however, Augustine again agrees with Chrysostom that “God did not want a rational being, made in his image, to have dominion over any except irrational creatures; not man over men, but man over the beasts.” Unlike man’s dominion over woman, man’s dominion over other men violates their original equality; hence, “such a condition as slavery could only have arisen as a result of sin.”

Now Augustine diverges sharply from Chrysostom. He traces the way that sin, transmitted from the primal parents through sexual reproduction, infected their offspring so that now “everyone, arising as he does from a condemned stock, is from the first necessarily evil and carnal through Adam.” When Cain murdered his brother, he exemplified the lust for power that now dominates and distorts the whole structure of human relationships.

Those who share Augustine’s vision of the disastrous results of sin must, he believes, accept as well the rule of one man over others—master over slave, ruler over subjects—as the inescapable necessity of our universal fallen nature:

Such, as men are now, is the order of peace. Some are in subjection to others and, while humility helps those who serve, pride harms those in power. But as men once were, when their nature was as God created it, no man was a slave either to man or to sin. However slavery is now penal in character, and planned by that law which commands the preservation of the natural order and forbids its disturbance [italics added].

Human nature, Augustine explains, instinctively desires social harmony: “By the very laws of his nature man is, so to speak, forced into social relationships and peace [societatem pacemque] with other men, so far as possible.” Yet sin distorts this universal impulse, turning it instead into the enforced order that constitutes “earthly peace.”

Although, as several scholars rightly have stressed, Augustine is well aware of the evils of government,5 he regards government as a “necessary evil,” not only for pagans, as Justin and Chrysostom would have agreed, but also for Christians, and even for the most saintly among them. For as he sees it, all government remains only a superstructure imposed upon the internal rebellion that sin has instigated within everyone, pagan and Christian alike. Consequently he believes the situation of the baptized Christian is far more complex than Chrysostom imagined. The Christian, like the unbeliever, has to contend against the enemy within that holds power over his will; hence he too needs the help of external discipline. So even in his domestic life, Augustine says, although the Christian longs for heaven

where there will be no further need for giving orders to other human beings,…meanwhile, in case anyone in the household breaks its peace by disobedience, he is disciplined by words or whipping or other kinds of punishment lawful and licit in human society, and for his own good, to readjust to the peace he has abandoned.


If Christians cannot be trusted to govern themselves, how are they to approach church government? Later in his life Augustine came to endorse, for the church as well as the state, the entire arsenal of secular government that Chrysostom had repudiated—commands, threats, coercion, penalties, and even physical force. While Chrysostom had defined his own role as that of adviser, not ruler, Augustine, like Ignatius of Antioch, sees the bishop as ruling “in God’s place.” One of Augustine’s favorite images for church leaders, as for his model, Christ, is that of the physician ministering to those who have been baptized, but, like himself, are still sick, each one infected with the same ineradicable disease contracted through original sin. Augustine tends to discount the patients’ opinion. It is the physician’s responsibility not only to administer to sick and suffering humanity the life-giving medicine of the sacraments, but also, when necessary, to carry out disciplinary procedures as a kind of surgery.

This vision of the church clearly corresponds, as we have seen, to Augustine’s own experience. He admits how desperately lost, sick, or helpless he felt, believing his will morally paralyzed as he awaited the revelation of grace, mediated through the church, to penetrate him from without and effect his healing. But other Christians surely would not have recognized their own experiences in his account. The British monk Pelagius, for one, sharply objected, criticizing Augustine’s Confessions for popularizing pious self-indulgence. How, then, did Augustine’s idiosyncratic views on the effects of original sin—and hence on the politics of the church and state—come to be accepted from the fifth and sixth centuries, first by the leadership of the Catholic Church and then by most of its members?

To help answer this question let us consider first how the conflicting views of Chrysostom and Augustine might have sounded to their contemporaries. By the beginning of the fifth century Catholic Christians lived as subjects of an empire they could no longer consider alien, much less wholly evil. Having repudiated the patronage of the traditional gods some two generations earlier, the emperors now sometimes used military force to help stamp out pagan worship. An earlier generation of Christian bishops, including Eusebius of Caesarea, convinced that they lived at a turning point in history, had hailed Constantine and his successors as God’s chosen rulers. Augustine, like most of his fellow Christians, had shared that conviction. But after two generations of the Christian empire and its rulers, few who dealt with the government firsthand—certainly not Chrysostom and not Augustine either—would have identified it with God’s reign on earth.

The mature Augustine offers a theology of politics far more complex and persuasive than any of its rivals. Although Augustine insists that God has subjected everyone to external government, he diverges sharply from the naive endorsement of imperial power that we find in the work of a court theologian like Eusebius. Augustine’s dark vision of human nature as ravaged by original sin and overrun by lust for power makes uncritical admiration of the emperor impossible and qualifies his support of imperial rule. That same dark vision impels him to reject Chrysostom’s optimistic premise that imperial power is necessary for pagans but, in effect, superfluous in the lives of pious citizens. Augustine, on the contrary, places secular government at the center of human society, as indispensable for the best as well as the worst among its members. Augustine acknowledges the emperor’s rule, however limited (or even however brutal), to be as permanent and as ineradicable in this world, at least, as the effects of original sin. More effectively than either Eusebius, on the one hand, or Chrysostom on the other, Augustine enables his contemporaries to deal both with the fact and with the intractably human nature of Christian empire.

For if the fifth-century state no longer looked so evil as it once had, the church, in turn, no longer looked so holy. Chrysostom, holding to his by now essentially sectarian theory, deplored what had happened to the church since imperial favor first shone upon Christians: first, the huge influx of nominal converts; and second, the way that a shower of imperial privileges had radically changed the nature—and raised the stakes—of ecclesiastical politics. But what Chrysostom could only denounce, Augustine could interpret. Challenging the traditional model of the church and the assumption on which it rested—free will—Augustine’s theory of original sin could make theologically intelligible the imperfections not only of the state but of the church as well.

Secondly, while changing the way Catholic Christians understood the psychological and religious meaning of freedom (libertas), Augustine’s theory bore the potential for changing as well their understanding of—and relationship to—political liberty. Throughout the Roman republic men of wealth and power tended to agree that libertas meant living under the rule of a “good governor,” that is, an emperor of whom the senate approved.6

Yet some Christians, among others, despised the patricians’ version of liberty, regarding it as a euphemism for slavery—that is, for the political subjection to the totalitarian rule of the later Caesars. For some, true liberty meant freedom from superior authority and freedom from constraint—including, for example, “freedom of speech.”

Christians, while they remained an illegal, persecuted, and minority sect, sided, naturally, with the latter position. Minucius Felix, writing c. 200 CE, rhetorically described the Christian who, undergoing torture for his faith, maintains his libertas:

How beautiful is the spectacle to God when a Christian does battle with pain, when he is brought up against threats, and punishment, and torture; when, mocking the noise of death, he treads underfoot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his liberty against kings and princes, and yields to God alone…when, triumphant and victorious, he tramples on the very one who has passed sentence upon him [italics added].

Repudiating the charge that Christians are afraid for superstitious reasons to offer pagan sacrifice, Minucius Felix had declared that “it is not a confession of fear, but an assertion of our true liberty!”

Augustine, on the contrary, having denied that human beings possess any capacity whatever for free will, accepts a definition of liberty far more agreeable to the powerful and influential Christian rulers with whom he himself identifies. As Augustine tells it, it is the serpent that tempts Adam with the seductive lure of liberty. The forbidden fruit symbolizes, he explains, “personal control over one’s own will.” Not, Augustine adds, “that it is evil in itself, but it is placed in the garden to teach him the primary virtue”—obedience. So, as we noted above, Augustine concludes that humanity never was really meant to be, in any sense, truly free. God allowed us to sin in order to prove to us from our own experience that “our true good is free slavery”—slavery to God in the first place and in the second to his agent, the emperor.


Finally, anyone observing the contrast between the careers of Augustine and John Chrysostom might well conclude that Augustine’s version of the politics of Paradise could effectively deal with the politics of the fifth-century Roman Empire where Chrysostom’s version failed. Both bishops grew up in a world ruled for more than a generation by Christian emperors—a succession interrupted only by the two years of Julian’s abrupt reversion to imperial patronage of paganism. But Augustine’s responses to the new constellation of imperial power were very different from Chrysostom’s.

Chrysostom lost his father when he was young, and he was raised with his sister by his Christian mother; he was baptized at the age of eighteen and became a monk. In one of his youthful publications, Comparison Between a King and a Monk, Chrysostom passionately defends sacred against secular power—a theme that would preoccupy him throughout his lifetime. Some twelve years later, after the people of Antioch had rioted and smashed the imperial statues in protest against the emperor, John Chrysostom dared to proclaim not, as Augustine might have, that even the Christian is subject to the emperor, but that the emperor himself needs the priest and is subject to the priest’s superior authority.

In 397 Chrysostom received an unexpected summons to Constantinople. Hurrying there in secret, he was surprised to find himself appointed bishop of Constantinople, a position near the pinnacle of ecclesiastical power. By canon law of 391, the bishop of Constantinople ranked second only to the bishop of Rome; but often a man in that position, as chief spiritual adviser to the emperor, to the imperial family, and to the whole court, surpassed all others in actual influence. Eutropius, the brilliant and powerful eunuch who controlled much of court politics for the emperor Arcadius, his ineffectual young charge, had arranged for Chrysostom’s appointment, probably guessing that the pious and eloquent Chrysostom had neither the taste nor the talent for court politics.

He was right; Chrysostom was so impolitic, so concerned with his responsibilities as moral adviser to the powerful, so much an advocate for the destitute and oppressed, and so austere a guardian of clerical discipline, that within three years he had offended many of those who had once welcomed his appointment. His acts of social conscience turned powerful people among the court and clergy against him. And his attempt to build a hospital for lepers directly outside the city walls set off a “war” of protest that ended with his being expelled from office.

After six years Chrysostom learned that his enemies had prevailed even over his former supporters: deposed from episcopal office, perhaps narrowly escaping death, he began the arduous journey into exile. Ill and alone, defended and consoled by a few loyal friends, he lived only three years longer. But Chrysostom’s convictions never swerved: he continued to hold that secular and spiritual powers are antithetical and mutually exclusive. From exile he wrote to his close woman friend and supporter, the deaconess Pentadia, words that surely express his view of his own suffering, as well as hers:

I rejoice…and find the greatest consolation, in my solitude, in the fact that you have been so manly and steadfast, and that you have not allowed yourself to do wrong…. Be glad, therefore, and rejoice over your victory. For they have done everything they could against you. You, who knew only the church and your monastic cell, they have dragged out into the public eye, from there to the court, and from court to prison. They have brought false witnesses, have slandered, murdered, shed streams of blood…and left nothing undone to terrify you, and to obtain from you a lie…. But you have brought them all to shame.

Now consider Augustine. Born into a nonpatrician family, Augustine tells us that his pagan father, Patricius, a man habitually unfaithful to Augustine’s mother, expressed pleasure in his adolescent son’s sexual appetite. Augustine sought a secular career with intense ambition and plunged into the life of the city—theatrical performances, dinner parties, rhetorical competition, many friendships. After various sexual adventures he lived for years with a lower-class woman who bore him a son, then abandoned her for the sake of a socially advantageous marriage his mother arranged for him. Yet once he had become a successful rhetorician, Augustine found himself divided. Although attracted to philosophical and religious contemplation, he was unwilling to give up his marriage and career. Then, at the age of thirty-two, inspired by stories of the desert solitaries, he renounced the world and was baptized. Three years later, around 389, having “given up all hope in this world,” Augustine went to Hippo to set up the communal monastic life he intended to enter. Later he protested to his congregation that he had had no intention whatever of seeking church office and expressed ambivalence about his successful ecclesiastical career: “I was grabbed, I was made a priest…and, from there, I became your bishop.”

Augustine’s position as bishop of a provincial North African city can scarcely be compared with Chrysostom’s prominent position three years later in the capital city of the eastern Empire. Still, in accepting the episcopate, Augustine, too, became a public figure and ruler of a community. At the time of his baptism, the Catholic Church was in the process of consolidating its identification with imperial rule. Armed with support from the emperor Honorius, the leaders of the western church, intent on preventing a rival group of Christians from returning to favor, committed themselves to the policy of implementing imperial authority and so, in the process, of asserting and consolidating the primacy of Catholicism over all its Christian rivals. When Augustine’s authority in North Africa was challenged by the rival church of Donatists, he came to appreciate—and manipulate—the advantages of his alliance with the repressive power of the state. Donatist Christians denounced this “unholy alliance.” Echoing Chrysostom’s principle, these Donatists insisted that the church must employ only spiritual sanctions and not force.

Yet Augustine abandoned the policy of toleration practiced by the previous bishop of Carthage, and pursued the attack on the Donatists. Like Chrysostom, he praised the church’s use of persuasion, not force; yet he himself, after beginning with polemics and propaganda, turned increasingly to force. First came laws denying civil rights to non-Catholic Christians; then the imposition of penalties, fines, eviction from public office; and finally, denial of free discussion, exile of Donatist bishops, and the use of physical coercion. According to Catholic historians, the Donatist cause became increasingly identified with active resistance to authority, including outbreaks of violence. Despite his earlier misgivings, Augustine came to find military force “indispensable” in suppressing the Donatists and “wrote the only full justification, in the history of the early church, of the right of the state to suppress non-Catholics.”7 He came to realize, he explained, that fear and coercion, which Chrysostom had considered necessary only to govern outsiders, was necessary within the church as well; many Christians as well as pagans, he noted regretfully, respond only to fear.

After Augustine had spent more than thirty years in battling the Donatists, he was dismayed to confront Christians following the monk Pelagius, who had criticized his view of sin. These Christians, whom Augustine called “Pelagians,” despite many differences shared with the Donatists both a sectarian view of the church as necessarily separate from state power and an insistence on free will. When his own party was outvoted in the Christian synods, Augustine unhesitatingly allied himself with imperial officials against the clergy defending Pelagius. In 416, Innocent, bishop of Rome, received from African synods two condemnations of Pelagian ideas together with a long personal letter from Augustine and his closest associates as well as an open letter from Augustine challenging Pelagius. The documents went beyond a condemnation of Pelagius and his followers, to warn, in Peter Brown’s words, that

the ultimate consequence of [Pelagian] ideas…cut at the roots of episcopal authority…. The documents claimed that by appeasing the Pelagians the Catholic church would lose the vast authority it had begun to wield as the only force that could “liberate” men from themselves [italics added].8

Pelagias’ supporters would make the counterclaim (and with reason) that they only followed ancient tradition concerning the church and human nature—tradition most recently championed by John Chrysostom. But the declarations of the African synods, engineered primarily by Augustine and his associates, signaled a major turning point in the history of Western Christianity. They offered to the bishop of Rome and to his imperial patrons a clear demonstration of the political efficacy of Augustine’s doctrine of the Fall. By insisting that humanity, ravaged by sin, now lay helplessly in need of outside intervention. Augustine’s theory not only validated secular power, but justified as well the imposition of church authority—even by force, if necessary—as essential for human salvation:

Augustine, having outlived by twenty-seven years his exiled and disgraced colleague, achieved, unlike John Chrysostom, a position of extraordinary power and influence in the Roman world until his death at seventy-six on August 28, 430. Augustine’s ideas certainly did not win immediate or universal acceptance. Throughout the following century, until the Council of Orange in 529, Augustine’s views were ardently debated. Even in the centuries following that council, which endorsed Augustine’s views, many theologians held—or were accused of holding—“semi-Pelagian” views. Yet far beyond his lifetime, even for a millennium and a half, the influence of Augustine’s teaching throughout Western Christendom has for passed that of any other church father.

There are many reasons for this, but I suggest, as primary among them, the following: Augustine’s theology of the Fall forged the uneasy alliance between the Catholic churches and imperial power; and it justified and made this alliance necessary for the majority of Catholic Christians. Augustine’s doctrine, of course, was not, either for him or for the majority of his followers, a matter of mere expedience. Serious believers concerned primarily with the deeper questions of theology, as well as those concerned with political advantage, could find in Augustine’s theological legacy ways of making sense out of a situation in which church and state had become inextricably interdependent.

The eventual triumph of Augustine’s theology required, however, the capitulation of all who held to the classical proclamation concerning human freedom, once so widely regarded as the heart of the Christian gospel. By the beginning of the fifth century those who still held to such archaic traditions—including those the Catholics called “Donatists” and “Pelagians”—themselves came to be condemned as heretics. Augustine’s theory of original sin, once espoused in simpler forms only by marginal groups of Christians, now moved, together with the imperially supported Catholic church that proclaimed it, to the center of Western history.

This Issue

May 12, 1988