Principles of Catholic Morality II: Augustine on love and virtue

Both On the Morals of the Catholic Church and On Christian Doctrine begin in the most erotic framework imaginable:  God, and more specifically union with him through love, is distinguished as the supreme happiness of man, the only thing that really satisfies us.  To love God with one’s whole heart and soul is the means to and the content of man’s perfection.  Creatures are to be used; God alone is to be enjoyed for His own sake.  On the other hand, the love we are to direct to God is more than just desire.  It has a strong appreciative element, based on the acknowledgement of God’s intrinsic goodness.  It involves affection and obedience, and it is the motive force behind all true virtues.  Already to be seen is the side of Augustine that would one day divide mankind into those to love God to the extent of despising themselves and those who love themselves to the point of despising God.

In fact, Augustine’s theology of charity is a pretty good illustration of why the eros/agape distinction is not always helpful.  Our supreme happiness is to love God more than anything, including ourselves.  (At one point, he even says that ideally our self-love should be for God’s sake.)  As Augustine points out, one must love God more than oneself to even love oneself properly.  Selfishly prefering oneself to God means thwarting one’s own truest good, so a man who overloves himself relative to God doesn’t love himself enough!  So one could just as easily argue that charity is perfect selfishness as that it is perfect selflessness.  This is, I think, a great acheivement of Augustine’s theology of charity.

Although charity’s primary object is God, it necessarily involves a kind of love of neighbor as well.  To charitably love our neighbors is to love them “in” God or “for the sake of” God, i.e. to love them as potential lovers of God and potential sharers in divine beatitude.  It would be an error, as Augustine is quick to note, to think of this love “for God’s sake” as being less grand than loving our neighbor “for his own sake”, since it involves wishing for him the very best thing, the thing one wishes above all else for oneself, and is thus the true fulfillment of the command to “love thy neighbor as thyself”.  What this means is that, if we would prefer hard virtue to easy comfort for ourselves, we should prefer it for other people as well.  If we truly love our friend as ourself, we would hope that he would accept martyrdom rather than betray the faith, just as we would prefer this for ourselves.  We will find Augustine’s arguments for the connection between love of God and love of neighbor recurring in more elaborate form in Aquinas and Scotus.

Augustine breaks decisively with the prevailing views of the ancient world that reduced evil to carnality, or perhaps to matter itself.  The line he draws between good and evil is based on what one loves most.  The worst sin is the most spiritual one:  pride.  Love is the source of all the virtues.  In fact, Augustine regards the virtues as just different aspects or different applications of love:

As to virtue leading us to a happy life, I hold virtue to be nothing else than perfect love of God. For the fourfold division of virtue I regard as taken from four forms of love.  For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!), I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it.

On the Morals of the Catholic Church was written against the Manichaeans, and it shares the rather unpleasantly combative tone found in much Patristic literature.  If meekness is a virtue, it seems likely that the Fathers aquired it in Purgatory.  It is, though, intriguing to find how modern these Manichaeans sound.  Like most Vatican II Catholics I’ve met, they think that God carried out a complete policy reversal between the Old and New Testaments, replacing “judgment” with “love”.  Augustine spends some time refuting this claim, making points that would still be usefully heard today.

Finally, reactionaries will be thrilled by Augustine’s praise of the Catholic Church as the defender and sanctifier of hierarchy:

Thou subjectest women to their husbands in chaste and faithful obedience, not to gratify passion, but for the propagation of offspring, and for domestic society. You give to men authority over their wives, not to mock the weaker sex, but in the laws of unfeigned love. Thou dost subordinate children to their parents in a kind of free bondage, and dost set parents over their children in a godly rule. You bind brothers to brothers in a religious tie stronger and closer than that of blood. Without violation of the connections of nature and of choice, you bring within the bond of mutual love every relationship of kindred, and every alliance of affinity. Thou teachest servants to cleave to their masters from delight in their task rather than from the necessity of their position. You render masters forbearing to their servants, from a regard to God their common Master, and more disposed to advise than to compel. Thou unitest citizen to citizen, nation to nation, yea, man to man, from the recollection of their first parents, not only in society but in fraternity. Thou teachest kings to seek the good of their peoples; you counsel peoples to be subject to their kings. Thou teachest carefully to whom honor is due, to whom regard, to whom reverence, to whom fear, to whom consolation, to whom admonition, to whom encouragement, to whom discipline, to whom rebuke, to whom punishment; showing both how all are not due to all, and how to all love is due, and how injury is due to none.

One Response

  1. Indeed, God is a god of order not of chaos.

    It is a bonus feature of Christianity that those of a fundamentalist persuasion are lead to pacifism and self-sacrifice. In most other religions, fundamentalists are lead to become violent nationalists.

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