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FOUR: CHRISTIANITY REJECTS PERFECTION: THE ELEMENTS - John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man 
The Perfectibility of Man (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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CHRISTIANITY REJECTS PERFECTION: THE ELEMENTS
The crucial text is in Matthew, from the Sermon on the Mount: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”1 Nothing could be more explicit, more uncompromising. Jesus here lays it down that men are to perfect themselves.* Since he would not behave so absurdly as to command men to become what they are in fact incapable of becoming, it follows, on the face of it, that men must be able to perfect themselves. So Pelagius was to argue. But Pelagius has been almost unanimously condemned as a heretic, the arch-heretic. With relatively few exceptions, Christians have denied that men are capable of becoming perfect, even with the aid of divine grace. Why this unusual degree of unanimity?
The explanation is in part metaphysical, in part moral—or more accurately, perhaps, “anthropological,” in that older sense of the word in which it means “relating to the nature of men.” On the metaphysical side, once Christian theologians took over what Karl Barth has called “the pagan tradition of describing God as ‘simple, absolute Being,’”2 they found it impossible, on metaphysical grounds, to ascribe godlike perfection to man. On the “anthropological” side—and much more importantly from the point of view of everyday Christian teaching—the Christian emphasis on guilt and sin, on human corruption, already strong in Paul, greatly intensified in the troubled, demon-ridden, world of North Africa and Hellenistic Rome. Man, it came to be argued, was through-and-through corrupt, by his inborn nature. This denigration of man had the effect of increasing the moral, as distinct from the metaphysical, distance between God and Man. Man begins his life with so heavy a moral handicap that it becomes ridiculous to suppose that he can attain to perfection before death overtakes him.
First, let us look at the influence of Greek metaphysics. Originally, many Christians were suspicious of Greek culture and, more particularly, of Greek philosophy. Paul had written: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit.” Celsus, writing in the second century, accuses the Christians of enjoining men thus: “Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near.” In his reply to Celsus, Origen does not deny that this is an apt enough description of a good many Christians, although Origen’s own view is that “the gospel wants us to be wise.”3 Tertullian’s outburst is notorious: “What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem, between the Academe and the Church? . . . For us, we have no need for curiosity, after Jesus Christ, nor for investigation, after the Gospel!”4
Tertullian, however, was an extremist. And his outburst, significantly enough, was provoked by the fact that by the end of the second century attempts had already been made to construct what Tertullian scornfully calls “a Christianity of the Stoic, of the Platonist, of the Dialectician!” Once Christianity set out to convert the educated Graeco-Roman world it had to explain itself intellectually; at the very least, its new converts, Greek-like, felt impelled to explain their conversion to themselves in intellectual terms. It was embarrassing, no doubt, after having extolled Christianity as “the Word,” a once-and-for-all complete revelation of God to man, to appeal for intellectual support to Plato. But there were ways out of this difficulty. Philosophy, so Clement of Alexandria argued, “prepares the way” for the New Testament; it was the Schoolmaster to the Greeks, just as the Old Testament was the Schoolmaster to the Jews, and no less a revelation.5 In the end, indeed, the two revelations, Hebraic and Greek, are identical: “For what is Plato,” Clement asks after Numenius, “but Moses speaking in Attic Greek?” Even in the seventeenth century there were many who argued, as there is still an occasional diehard who argues, that not only Greek philosophy, but the whole of modern science, lies concealed in the revelation granted to Moses.6 By such arguments Greek philosophy could be made respectable, not a rival but an ancillary to Revelation.
The assimilation of Hebraic thought and Greek philosophy once made, God came to be thought of not merely, in the Hebraic manner, as an immensely powerful, absolutely reliable, perfectly righteous, perfectly just, perfectly merciful Being, but as also, in Philo’s manner, metaphysically perfect, as “the God of the Philosophers,” identifiable with Plato’s “form of the good,” the “One” of Plato’s Parmenides and the “ideal” Beauty of his Symposium. Then the difficulties which lie in ascribing to man a perfection like that of his Father in Heaven, while still remaining within the ambit of Christian thinking, are only too obvious. Consider, for example, Augustine’s deliberately paradoxical description of God as “good without quality, great without quantity, a creator though He lacks nothing . . . in His wholeness everywhere, yet without place, eternal without time, making things that are changeable, without change of Himself, and without passion.”7 How could any man be perfect as such a God is perfect?
Indeed, under post-Platonic influence, theologians began to argue that no predicates can be applied, with the same significance, to both God and man. We have already met this view in Philo; Clement of Alexandria, writing his Miscellanies about the end of the second century, applied Philo’s arguments to the God of Christianity. Strictly speaking, he says, even names like “the good” or “the perfect” do not apply to God. To be perfect as God is perfect, then, is quite impossible; so far as God can properly be called “perfect,” this cannot be in any sense in which man is capable of perfection. The Stoics, according to Clement, were altogether mistaken in believing that human goodness could be identical in character with divine goodness. To those who would quote against him Jesus’ command to men that they should be perfect, Clement replies with another passage from Matthew: “there is none good but one, that is God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”8 The “perfection” which is demanded of all men, Clement concludes, is not godlike perfection but to “keep the commandments”—obedientiary perfection.
Yet how differently Clement sounds when later in the Miscellanies he writes his chapter “On Spiritual Perfection”!9 We no longer hear how different man is from God, or how impossible it is for man to share God’s perfection. The ordinary Christian, no doubt, may have to content himself with keeping the commandments. But “the perfected gnostic,” the man who has reached the heights of Christian knowledge, is “assimilated to God,” he has “undisturbed intercourse and communion with the Lord,” he is “translated absolutely and entirely to another sphere.” There could scarcely be a neater illustration of the two opposing tendencies in Hellenized Christianity: the one to make God so different from man that it becomes impossible to understand how man could ever be “like God,” the other so to exalt man that complete assimilation to God lies well within his powers—or at least within the powers of a spiritual élite.
More than a thousand years later, Aquinas reaffirmed Clement’s principle that “no name is predicated univocally of God and of creatures.”10 But he, too, still wanted to assert that men can, in some sense, be “like God.” He tried to reconcile the two opposing tendencies in post-Platonic theology—one to insist on God’s unlikeness to man, the other to insist on the possibility of man’s becoming like God—in a somewhat remarkable way. Human beings can be like God, he argues, even although it “can in no way be admitted that God is like creatures.”11 Aquinas denies, that is, that likeness is a symmetrical relationship. “A statue,” he says, “is like a man, but not conversely.”* The outcome of this argument is that although man can achieve a perfection which is in some analogical sense “like” God’s perfection, he cannot be perfect as God is perfect; he cannot even satisfy that less ambitious injunction of Luke’s to be merciful as God is merciful.
God’s goodness, as Aquinas sees the matter, is unified in a way in which human goodness cannot be unified; Aquinas ascribes to God alone that unified goodness which the Stoics allowed to the Sage. Men achieve their goodness, so Aquinas argues, not, as God does, simply by being, but “through many things”; a man, unlike God, can be good in one respect and not in others. The human being, too, cannot stand alone; he is “incomplete” without his relationship to God. He lacks, that is, the self-sufficiency which Aquinas, Greek-wise, assumes to be essential to perfection.12 In short, if men are ever to be accounted perfect, they certainly cannot be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect; the Stoics were wholly mistaken in supposing that they could achieve that level of perfection.
There was, on the face of it, one obvious way of preserving, when confronted by this difficulty, something at least of the force of the commandment to be perfect as God is perfect. Jesus did not say: “Be ye perfect even as I am perfect.” But once he was taken, in however obscure a sense, to be God,* it might have seemed reasonable enough to think of Jesus, himself a man, as the pattern which, except in so far as his behaviour involved the use of supernatural powers, men should attempt to imitate. The idea of such a perfect exemplar was a quite familiar one, both to Hebrew and to Greek thought; Jesus could take the place of Abraham or of Socrates. And does not Jesus speak of himself as setting an example?13
The idea of imitating Jesus, of following his example, certainly plays a central part in Christianity. One of the most highly esteemed of medieval Christian devotional writings bears the title The Imitation of Christ; the imitation of Christ is, for its author, the task all men are called upon to undertake, their way of acquiring merit in the eyes of God. “The imitation of Christ,” on this view, gives content to the concept of “task-perfection,” it sets the task. And although Calvin, to take an example of a very different kind, entirely rejects the central assumption of The Imitation of Christ, denying that the Christian can “acquire merit,” whether by imitating Christ or by any other means, the imitation of Christ continues to be of central importance to him. Through our sufferings and tribulations we come to an assurance, according to Calvin, that we are at one with Christ, are living Christ’s life. “We share Christ’s sufferings,” he writes, “in order that as he has passed from a labyrinth of all evils into heavenly glory, we may in like manner be led through various tribulations to the same glory. . . . The more we are afflicted with adversities, the more surely our fellowship with Christ is confirmed.” No one, he elsewhere asserts, can properly claim to be a disciple of Christ unless he is prepared to imitate Christ. For Calvin, however, such imitation, which is not a means to salvation but a consequence of it, is restricted to self-renunciation and “the voluntary suffering of the Cross”; there is no question of man’s being able to imitate Christ’s moral perfections.14
There are, indeed, great difficulties in the idea of “becoming perfect as Jesus was perfect,” if this is taken to mean anything more than imitating him by “taking up our cross.” Some of them are theological. One has only to read Aquinas’s account of the relationship between Jesus and God—Jesus having, for example, two intellects, two wills and, in general, two natures while remaining one person* —to see what theological problems can arise in setting up Jesus as a model suitable for humanity to follow.15 To say that man must be perfect as Jesus’ human nature is perfect is to abandon the ideal of being perfect as God is perfect; to say that man must be perfect as Jesus’ divine nature is perfect merely revives the original difficulties. In any case, these “two natures” are not, for orthodoxy, to be thought of as wholly disconnected. Even Jesus’ earthly body is “divinized” in a way which makes him inimitable; his actions, too, are informed by a degree of charity which lies beyond man’s reach. In the thirteenth century Bonaventura argued, indeed, that considered as external actions capable of being imitated by men, many of Jesus’ actions are imperfect. It would be quite wrong, on this view, for men to take them as their standard.16
That view of Christianity which takes the path to perfection to lie in the “imitation of Christ” very easily leads, furthermore, to heterodoxy.* A modern Roman Catholic theologian, Louis Bouyer, has remarked that however Christian its intentions, it leads to “a view of Christ in which the divine would appear as nothing more than the ideal of perfection that could be readily conceded to exist in a human nature conceived of exclusively within the lines of our own experience.”17 It suggests, that is, that Jesus’ divinity is merely contingent: as if it would be proper to compare him with Buddha, with Socrates, with Confucius, and ask which is the morally better man, and which, therefore, it will be better to imitate. An unorthodox modern theologian, P. M. van Buren, has asked, indeed, whether a humanist might not speak of himself as being “in Socrates” just as an evangelical does of being “in Christ.”18
Matthew Arnold might no doubt write in his Anti-desperation:
But Arnold’s definition of religion in Literature and Dogma as “morality touched by emotion” would satisfy few Christians. (It is interesting to observe just how often Arnold refers to The Imitation of Christ.) Abelard thought that Christ died on the Cross to set men an example of how they should behave, rather than as a sacrifice on their behalf. But Abelard was condemned as a heretic. John Stuart Mill wrote that “it is Christ, rather than God, whom Christianity has held up to believers as the pattern of perfection for humanity.” But the advantage he sees in this, that Christ serves as a model “even to the absolute unbeliever,” is unlikely to recommend itself to orthodox Christians.19 Criticizing Teilhard de Chardin, a Roman Catholic theologian has discovered in his system “a certain aroma of Pelagianism” on the ground that for Teilhard “Christ is a guide, a model, a trainer,” rather than “the Saviour, the Source of grace, the only Mediator between God and Man.”20 When heterodox theologians pronounce that “God is dead” all they sometimes mean is that although the Christian story “may manage to stay on as merely illuminating or instructing or guiding, . . . it no longer performs its classical functions of salvation or redemption.”21 And indeed Christianity, if not God, is dead, if “the Christian story” is merely a guide to behaviour. To become perfect, for orthodox Christians, it is not enough to look with admiration at the human life of Jesus as any secularist might do, and then set out to imitate him: it is to be redeemed by his sacrifice, and then perfected by his grace. Jesus is not a “hero” in the Greek sense; he is God, or “the Word made flesh,” come to earth to save men from their sins—a most un-Olympian conception.
There was another possible way out for Christianity, a way of preserving, as intelligible, the commandment that men should make themselves perfect as God is perfect. Christianity might have gone the whole way and neo-Platonized itself. It might have emerged as the view that man can perfect himself by ceasing to be man, by absorbing himself into the Deity. Jesus could easily enough have been fitted into this picture, by means of the Graeco-Jewish conception of the Logos.* He is, it might have been said, the Logos made flesh—serving to demonstrate to all men, by way of example, that although they are in the flesh they can still hope, if only by the sacrifice of that flesh, to become God.
This was a real temptation for Christianity. Just how real can be seen by considering the case of “Dionysius the Areopagite” or, as he is sometimes called, “pseudo-Denys.” Dionysius was a Christian neo-Platonist of the fifth century, author, amongst other works, of a Divine Names in which he examines the nature and attributes of God, and a Mystical Theology which describes the ascent of the soul to mystical union with God. He was wrongly identified—or identified himself, there is some disagreement on this point—not only with that Dionysius whose conversion to Christianity by Paul is recorded in the New Testament22 but with Denys, the French martyr.
After his translation into Latin by John Scotus Erigena in the ninth century,23 Dionysius exerted an extraordinarily powerful influence on medieval theology, especially in its mystical and negative forms. Not until the sixteenth century was it generally recognized, and even then by no means universally admitted, that Dionysius was, in fact, a fifth-century heretic. In his Summa theologica—and especially in the section entitled “Treatise on God”—Aquinas refers to him constantly. Dionysius, indeed, is his principal “Platonic” source. Without Dionysius’ authority, it would have been far more difficult for Christian mysticism to maintain its orthodoxy; his writings were, as it has been put, “the charter of Christian mysticism.” When, as we shall see later, the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, was denounced to the Inquisition as a heretic, his defender, the Professor of Theology in the University of Salamanca, appealed to “Saint Dionysius” as compelling evidence that John’s mysticism did not pass beyond the limits of orthodoxy.
God, for Dionysius, is “super-essential,” transcending all “Discourse, Intuition and Being.” We achieve a knowledge of “It,” in this super-essential character, only by “unknowing,” by mystical apprehension. (One of the most famous of English mystical writings is called The Cloud of Unknowing; it appeals to Dionysius as an authority who “clearly endorses all I have said, or will say, from beginning to end.”)24 The Scriptures, Dionysius admits, appear to describe God’s nature in everyday language, but they do not speak of God as he is revealed to the mystic. They describe God in language which is suitable for the limited comprehension of the ordinary, unenlightened, man—as when they speak of God as the “Cause and Origin and Being and Life of all creation.” In contrast, “any lover of that Truth which is above all truth” must not “celebrate [God] as Reason or Power or Mind or Life or Being, but rather as most utterly surpassing all condition, movement, life, imagination, conjecture, name, discourse, thought, conception, being, rest, dwelling, union, limit, infinity, everything that exists.”25
The Scriptures use symbols, material symbols, to convey to an élite what cannot be said directly. By means of symbols they tell men, in particular, that God is “a Principle of Perfection to them that are being perfected; a principle of Deity to them that are being deified.”26 Dionysius is prepared to assert, that is, that men can be perfected and even deified. Man, in the neo-Platonic style, is one of the “emanations” of Dionysius’ super-essential God. And as an emanation of God he can finally return to God. There is, according to Dionysius, “a perpetual circle for the Good, from the Good, in the Good, and to the Good . . . perpetually advancing and remaining and returning to Itself”—an ethical procession which was to haunt the imagination of medieval mystics.27
It is not necessary to continue. The general character of Dionysius’ thinking is by now sufficiently clear. Equally clear, in consequence, is the temptation of neo-Platonic ideas for Christians. If we ask: “Why did not Christianity convert itself into a variety of neo-Platonism?” one possible reply is that, in the writings of many of its theologians, it did so. But that reply would not be wholly accurate. Reading Dionysius, and recalling that for centuries no difficulty was felt in supposing his writings to be the work of a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, reading John Scotus Erigena and recalling that his orthodoxy was for long unquestioned, reading Aquinas, even, on the names of God, we may be inclined to conclude, with so many Protestants, that Roman Catholic orthodoxy allowed itself to be wholly overwhelmed by an essentially non-Christian neo-Platonism.* It is not surprising that Martin Luther exhorted his followers “to detest as a veritable plague this Mystical Theology of Dionysius and similar works,” condemning it as “pure fables and lies” and “sheer nonsense,” the work of a man who is quite obviously a disciple of Plato, not of Christ.28 (It is important to remember that Luther himself greatly admired the mystical Theologia Germanica, a work which appeals to “Saint Dionysius” as one of its principal authorities and in its opening chapter describes God, in Dionysian terms, as “Nothing.” Luther knew what he was rejecting.)
Yet, even at its most Platonic, Christianity does not wholly neo-Platonize itself. For Christianity, however Hellenized, is a Jewish religion. Against paganism, Clement of Alexandria sets not philosophy but “the voice of the Divine Word,” the Jewish lesson that men “could not be saved in any other way but by believing.”29 To think of Christianity as a whole as a misshapen offshoot of Greek philosophy is quite to misunderstand its nature as a religion—however accurate a description that may be of a good deal of Roman Catholic theology.
The Jews were not philosophers; they were quite devoid of that speculative curiosity which characterized the Greeks, their habit of asking how and why. No Xenophanes arose amongst the Jews to rebuke them for ascribing to Jahweh acts which would be accounted a shame and a disgrace amongst men;* no Socrates to ask them to define righteousness, or justice, or to explain why Noah and Job should be accounted perfect; no Parmenides, in particular, to inquire how God stood in relation to the world. The Jews were innocent of systematic theology, of ethical theory, of cosmology. Philo, writing in the first century in cosmopolitan Alexandria, was their first philosopher—although admittedly his thinking, in part, grew out of post-Exilic Rabbinical speculation—and their last for a thousand years. Philo’s influence, certainly, Christianity was to feel. But in the Old Testament writings as they stood, read literally, not allegorically as Philo read them, there were no philosophical theories to be found.
There were, however, doctrines of a kind to be extracted from the Old Testament. If there was not an ethical theory, there were certainly moral reflections; if not a cosmology, then at least a creation story; if not a theology, then at any rate a special assumption about God and his relation to man. These reflections, stories and assumptions had a permanent effect on Christian theories of perfectibility, however much, in the outcome, they were to be modified and reinterpreted in the light of Greek speculations and the sacramental practices of the mystery religions.
In some ways, the most influential Jewish idea of all, and the least Greek, was the idea of a sacred book, holy scriptures, a solitary and complete source of revelation, given by God to Moses—or at least, for there is dispute on this point, to Moses and his successors. This was to act as a permanent restraint on Christian, as on Muslim, theological speculation. No doubt, there were Greek analogues. The writings of Homer and Hesiod were usually regarded, Xenophanes and Plato notwithstanding, with special veneration; Plotinus was unwilling to disagree outright with Plato. The fact remains that Greek speculation was never seriously restrained by the belief that the final truth, about the perfectibility of man or about anything else, must somehow be contained in a special revelation. Aristotle’s famous dictum that he could not love Plato so well, did he not love the truth more, may stand as representative of the attitude of the best Greek thinkers. In the teachings of the Bible, in contrast, it is necessary to have faith, utter and uncritical confidence, a conception quite alien to the spirit of Greek philosophy.*
Christian disputes about perfectibility, therefore, are in part—in a manner very disconcerting to a philosopher—a battle of texts. The true view, it is presumed, must at least be consistent with what has been revealed in Scripture, and ought, in so fundamental a matter, to be deducible from it. Thus internecine Christian controversies move within a kind of “Biblical space,” its limits determined by Biblical texts. The boundaries of this Biblical space, to make matters even more awkward, are themselves contested. The meaning of individual texts is anything but clear; their right to be accounted a genuine part of the sacred writings may be a matter of dispute. Some Christians, furthermore, are prepared to read Biblical texts allegorically in the manner of Philo and Origen, as symbols rather than as historical records; others, not going so far as this, reserve the right to read them in ways which, they freely admit, were not specifically intended by their authors; for still others the Bible must be taken literally, read in a manner which rules out special interpretations or allegorizing. But however subject to adjustment, the Biblical boundaries act as a restraint upon every Christian—and for the Greeks there were no comparable boundaries.
The second important fact about the Hebrew religion is that its God is a person, a person it is appropriate to describe as merciful, just, righteous, wrathful. The general tendency of Greek philosophy was, in contrast, to depersonalize the idea of divinity: at first, as in the Ionian physicists, the Olympian Gods; eventually, as in Plotinus, the God of the Orphic-style religions. Something of the same kind happened, no doubt, within the Hebrew religion, especially after the Exile and not impossibly under Greek influence. In Rabbinic speculation God is progressively de-anthropomorphized; he no longer acts upon the world directly but rather—in the manner Philo described—through his “Spirit” or his “Word.” But he remained a person, the Father of his people, providentially active in their history. “Wholly remote from Jewish thought,” as G. F. Moore puts it, “is the idea of God as pure and simple being, in his proper nature an unknowable and unnamable Absolute.”30
The depersonalization of God, towards which Christian theology is certainly tempted, can take either of two forms—“substantial” depersonalization or “conceptual” depersonalization. “Substantial” depersonalization consists in converting God into “the One,” the substance of substances, entirely self-sufficient, wholly unified, absolutely simple. This is the path taken by Parmenides and Plotinus. “Conceptual” depersonalization consists in turning God not into a substance, but into an abstract concept, a pure quality. So Augustine said of God that we must think of him not as merciful but as Mercy. The awkwardness in asserting of God both that he is Being and that he is Mercy or Justice is met by denying that the substance-quality distinction applies to God. But the total effect is, to say the least of it, confusing in the extreme. It is not at all clear what precisely we are being asked to do when we are told “to think of God as Mercy.”
The source of the conceptualizing of God is Plato, although Plato did not himself conceptualize God; he speaks of him not as a Form but as knowing or apprehending Forms. But “the form of the good” looked, to Christian theologians, like their God, and they were even more impressed, as were the neo-Platonists, by Plato’s account of Beauty in the Symposium. Plato there describes, professing to quote Diotima, priestess of the mystery religions, man’s yearning for Beauty and the way in which it finally finds satisfaction. Beginning from the love for one particular body, the man in search of beauty rises, according to Plato, from that particular object to a love of beautiful bodies in general. From that point he rises still further to “set a higher value on the beauty of souls than on that of the body,” and then, higher again, to admire the beauty of human society and of human knowledge. Even at that point he cannot find rest; he must pass on, rising still higher on the ladder of being, until he is able to contemplate “essential beauty entire, pure and unalloyed; not infected with the flesh and colour of humanity.” By that means he can come to achieve immortality and “win the friendship of Heaven.”31
There is not the slightest suggestion in this passage that Beauty is to be identified with, or even that it characterizes, God; as in the Phaedo, men become like the gods by contemplating the forms, but the forms are not themselves gods. Yet when a modern Thomistic theologian, Garrigou-Lagrange, quotes this passage he does so in order to illustrate what he calls “the natural love for God” and he imports into his translation a reference to “a man who attains to the contemplation of God” which has absolutely no place in the text.* So attached are theologians to this most un-Christian, most Platonic, description of human perfection! Of persons it is proper to say that they are merciful, just, loving, but certainly not, except as an extravagant metaphor, that they are mercy, justice, love. Indeed, if it were true that “God is Love” then God ceases to be loving; love cannot love, any more than justice can be just, or mercy merciful. Only people, not concepts, can love. If God is a person, then it is necessary to abandon any attempt to identify him with concepts.
Even although Christianity tended—in its theology as distinct from its religious practices—to depersonalize God, it is normally pulled back from the verge of describing God as suprapersonal, in the neo-Platonic manner, just in virtue of its adherence to Revelation. So for all that Aquinas so often writes of God in neo-Platonic terms he still argues that the “proper name” of the supreme being is “He-who-is,” not “the One.” Clement may write of the problem of naming “It”—not “Him”; Dionysius may speak of our “super-essential understanding of ‘It’”; God may be described by Anselm as “id quo maius cogitari nequit”—“that thing than which nothing greater is thinkable.” But Aquinas is on more orthodox, if perhaps less consistent, ground in describing God as “He.” In the long run Revelation conquers neo-Platonism. “Being like God” or “entering into union with God” consists in perfecting oneself as a person, not in ceasing to be a person. But the opposite view—that personality must be cast off—is by no means unknown in Christianity; classical mysticism, to say the very least, has trouble in avoiding the Buddhist and neo-Platonic view that so long as I remain “I,” I cannot achieve perfection.
Thirdly, Christianity took over from the Old Testament a conception of God and his relationship to the world which has no precise parallel in Greek thought, which denied, indeed, what seemed to the Greeks obvious—that “out of nothing nothing can be made.” Not that the Old Testament ever made so metaphysical a remark as that “the world was created out of nothing.” But this is how Christian theologians, at least from the second century on, interpreted such texts as “God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” “Thou didst speak,” wrote Augustine, “and they [heaven and earth] were made.”32 The neo-Platonic doctrine that men and the world are created by a mere overflow of God’s goodness as distinct from a divine act, the Orthodox Christian must condemn as heresy.
The Hebraic view, thus understood, raises in a particularly acute form the question: “Why are not men perfect?” The imperfection of men can no longer be explained, as Greek thinkers explained it, either as a consequence of the bungling incompetence of God’s coadjutors, since he had none, or the imperfections of the materials on which he had to work, since he created out of nothing, or his own limitations as a creator, since he was omnipotent. Dissident theists, like William James, have sometimes been attracted by one or the other of these Greek hypotheses—the view that God’s powers are limited had quite a run among philosophers in the latter half of the nineteenth century—but they certainly lie on the remotest periphery of Christian thinking. The alternative, Zoroastrian, hypothesis that all the world’s evils are the work of Satan and his minions came to the fore in post-Exilic Jewish thinking, and was profoundly to influence Christianity. But it threatened, if taken too seriously, to weaken God’s supremacy. It came to be associated, too, with heresy, with such powerful heresy as Manichaeanism. Satan could be allowed some influence over men, but it would not do to explain their imperfection solely by reference to his wiles.
God, Christians also learnt from the Old Testament prophets, exercises a constant watchfulness not only over the world as a whole, but over each and every individual it contains, a doctrine to which even the Stoics were hesitant to commit themselves. “For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord and he pondereth all his goings.”33 In Jewish thought, the point of this remark was moral, not metaphysical; men cannot hide their sins from God. But why then, it is natural to ask, does he not save men from themselves? Why, even if men are born imperfect, does he not take steps to ensure that they will perfect themselves?
Christian theologians tried to solve this problem by taking over and refashioning another Old Testament idea—the idea of an elect. In the Old Testament, the elect were a nation, the Jewish nation, chosen not because they possessed any special merit but simply because God had picked them out as his own: “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land.”34 For the Greeks, in contrast, if men—individuals or a nation—were “elect,” this was as a consequence of their merits. Even Philo, as we have already seen, describes grace as a reward for merit.35
In the later prophetic writings, the idea of a chosen nation is transformed into the idea of a chosen people—who need not form part of a single national group. It is in this form that it was taken over by Christianity: the “chosen people” is the Church, the Body of Christ. And that in turn was converted into the idea of chosen “individuals,” granted a special grace by God, over and above the grace granted to all Christians. The importance of this fundamentally Jewish idea of “election” can scarcely be overestimated, particularly when it was interpreted as implying that men could make progress towards perfection only as a consequence of such divine election. God saves men from themselves, and in no other way can they be saved. If he does not save everybody this is either because—there is dispute on this point—he has chosen to save only a few, or because some men refuse the grace he offers them. Whether he ever carries his “saving” even of his elect to the point of perfecting them in this life is, as we shall see, also a matter of dispute. But certainly, on the Christian view, if he does not, men have no hope of perfecting themselves.
The God of the Old Testament is not only an elective but a “jealous” God, not only supreme but solitary in his divinity. Man, therefore, cannot perfect himself, on the Hebraic view, by becoming divine, by being transformed into a lesser god, as even relatively monotheistic Greek philosophers were prepared to allow. For the Greeks, the characteristic of “being divine”—“being deathless”—was the important one; it was a matter of detail to how many persons that predicate is applicable. For the Jews, as the Christians ordinarily understood the Old Testament, the central presumption was that there was one particular person who alone could properly be called God.*
Of course, a man might become a saint. No doubt, too, saints in the Roman Catholic Church performed many of the functions which the Greeks ascribed to minor deities, serving, for example, as the “household gods” of churches, communities, or individual persons, and taking over particular minor responsibilities, as Antony of Padua takes a special responsibility for the return of lost property. But a saint, all the same, is not a god—even if he may play a larger part in the religious consciousness of, let us say, a Neapolitan than the more austere figure of God himself. (For the French peasant, it has been said, the Trinity consists of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. In describing Roman Catholic “orthodoxy” one is often a long way from describing what the majority of Roman Catholics actually believe.)
The Old Testament God, furthermore, is a God who stands alone, and is eternally distinguishable from his creation. Men cannot in any sense become part of God, or unite themselves with God in a single Being: God and his creatures remain for ever distinct. No doubt, there have been temptations, on this point, to heterodoxy. The ideal of unity with God reasserts itself within Christian mysticism. Even Charles Wesley, though certainly no pantheist, could permit himself to write in a hymn:
But the main tendency of Christianity remains resolutely Hebraic in its separation of God from his creatures.
If we ask, then, why Christianity did not become neo-Platonic, one answer is that it was committed, by its adherence to Revelation, to a set of beliefs which were essentially opposed to neo-Platonism: the belief in a personal God, creating the world by an act of will, wholly distinct from it, and exercising within it his grace. So far as it was faithful to these teachings, Christianity could not accept a neo-Platonic theory of perfection, a perfection which men could achieve by their own strivings and which consisted in returning to the One from which they had emanated.
There was a particular reason why Christianity found it necessary to take a determined stand against perfectibility. It had to distinguish itself from Gnosticism. The exact relationship of Gnosticism to Christianity is still a matter of dispute. It used to be supposed that Gnosticism was a form of Christian heresy; the sects which the Church Fathers attack as “gnostic” certainly incorporated Christian doctrines. But gnostic ideas ante-date Christianity, perhaps as Jewish heresies, even if it is only after the rise of Christianity that gnosticism took shape, in the teachings of Valentinus or Basileides, as a mythological system.36 Clement of Alexandria opposed it with particular vigour, as did Plotinus—with the more vigour because they stood so close to it in so many respects. Certain members of Plotinus’s own intellectual circle were, it would seem, gnostic; there are ideas in the Enneads which it is not easy to distinguish from Gnosticism. As for Clement, he, as we have already seen, had been prepared to employ the word “gnostic” to describe the fully-fledged Christian. Indeed, Christianity of the Platonic sort was very liable to find itself confused with Gnosticism, or to be unconsciously influenced by it, and found it all the more necessary sharply to distinguish itself from it.
Over the last two thousand years, Gnosticism, under a variety of influences, has assumed a number of different forms—as Manichaeanism, Catharism, the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit, to say nothing of twentieth-century sects. What in all these versions it has insisted upon is that men can be perfected and that to achieve perfection they must purify themselves by complete aloofness from the flesh, from whatever is material, with the help of a higher knowledge—“gnosis”—accessible only to true believers. “Born of light and of the gods,” runs a Gnostic poem, “I am in exile and cut off from them . . . I am a god, and born of gods, shining, sparkling, luminous, radiant, perfumed and beautiful, but henceforth reduced to suffering”—to suffering through presence in the flesh.37
This was an uncomfortable doctrine for Christianity, because its own attitude to the flesh and, more generally, to “the world” was by no means unambiguous.38 No doubt Christ had taken flesh; it followed that the flesh could not be intrinsically evil. But many Christians found this hard to believe. The first centuries of Christianity abound in heresies, influential heresies, according to which Christ’s flesh was an illusion, not true flesh but a way in which he made himself visible to men. Some “Docetists”—to name one such heretical sect—went so far as to deny that it was Christ who died on the Cross; Judas, they said, changed places with him at the last moment. (According to the Gnostic Basileides it was Simon of Cyrene who died on the Cross.) Even for orthodoxy, Christ took flesh by very special means, which preserved him from contamination. He was not conceived by the ordinary processes of generation; Joseph was no more than his foster-father. He was born in such a way as to preserve his mother’s virginity. As for human relationships of a fleshly kind, if Christians were permitted to marry, it was certainly better for them to make “themselves eunuchs,” as Origen literally did. Paul has no doubt that the world would be a better place if everybody was like him, in respect to continency. If he concedes that it is “better to marry than to burn,” his tone of contempt is unmistakable.* As for the material world in general, there are relatively few signs in Christianity—although the attitude is by no means unknown—of the spirit exhibited in the Rabbinical saying that “a man will have to give account on the judgement day of every good thing which he might have enjoyed and did not.”39
Gnosticism could not easily be fought off by emphasizing, when this emphasis was so hedged around with reservations, the value of the flesh and the world. The flesh, the world and the devil were too uncomfortably allied in Christianity itself: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.”40 What Christians could and did deny, however, is that matter as such, as distinct from man’s worldly attitude to it, was evil, and that, in consequence, men could perfect themselves by cutting themselves free from whatever is material. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body—as against the Gnostic view that salvation belongs to the soul alone, since the body is by nature subject to corruption—was one way of insisting on that point. The doctrine of the Eucharist was another. “Vain in every respect,” writes Irenaeus, staunch critic of the Gnostics, “are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body.”41 In spite of all these theological points, Gnosticism has been a constant temptation to Christianity: the view, at least, that Christians could perfect themselves, if once they were prepared to withdraw from the world, to mortify the body, and thus to soar above the flesh is one which constantly recurs in Christian thinking.* The easiest way of meeting it boldly is to deny, as Luther did, that man is perfectible whatever he does.
Most fundamental of all, however, in forming Christian attitudes to perfectibility is that feeling which underlies so much Christian teaching, that man is by nature guilty, sinful, in such a way and to such a degree that not even Christ’s sacrifice, although it saved man from the worst consequences of his sin, could wholly perfect him. “In the course of justice,” as Portia puts it in The Merchant of Venice, “none of us should see salvation; we do pray for mercy.” To pray for perfection would be to ask altogether too much. The merits of Jesus, according to Luther, might be “imputed” to man, but man himself was, although not beyond redemption, certainly beyond perfection. If for Roman Catholicism Christ’s merits were in some degree imparted, as distinct from imputed, to man, this was still not to the extent necessary to secure man’s perfection.
At this point, too, Revelation was crucial—the Genesis story of the Fall of Man. That story has a double importance for the history of perfectibility. Christians of the more optimistic sort have read it as asserting that men were once perfect, so that imperfection is not, as it were, inseparable from man’s nature. And on this belief—as on the Marxist belief in “primitive Communism”—was often based the hope that men might again achieve perfection. “Time will run back,” in Milton’s words, “and fetch the Age of Gold.” On the other side, when the Genesis story was pressed into the service of the theory of “original sin,” it acted as a bulwark against Gnostic, and neo-Platonic, doctrines of perfectibility.
The Greeks had invented myths not dissimilar to the Garden of Eden story. Hesiod described a Golden Age in which “men lived like gods, free from worry and fatigue,” and contrasted that Golden Age with the rigours of the Age of Iron, in which we now live.* Empedocles, as we have already seen, traced back men’s sufferings to a primaeval sin, the guilt of which all men inherit, and, in so doing, he may have been giving expression to a commonly-held religious belief. Plotinus—read and admired by Augustine—ascribed the imperfection of the soul, in its embodied form, to its having fallen away, as a result of the attractions of the material Universe, from the One to which it properly belongs. “It has fallen:” he writes, “it is at the chain: . . . it is a captive; this is the burial, the encavernment of the Soul.” He associated his view, one may note in passing, with “the Empedoclean teaching of a flight from God, a wandering away, a sin bringing its punishment.”42 But no Greek believed that man was corrupted once and for all by his having fallen away from God; he could still hope, in this life, to regain his godlike state.
The Christian doctrine of “original sin,” as resulting from the Fall, is not made explicit in Genesis, where it is the suffering rather than the sinfulness of man which derives from Adam’s Fall. Even after Paul had written in his Epistle to the Romans—in a passage the meaning of which is anything but obvious—that “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned,” the doctrine of original sin was by no means firmly established in the Christian Church. Paul, indeed, was not an influential figure in the Early Church; for a time Christianity swung away from Pauline doctrines.
“In all the writings of the Apostolic Fathers,” according to Boas, “the name of Adam occurs but once and the Earthly Paradise and the fatal tree are not mentioned at all.”43 Not until the end of the second century did the Fall come to be discussed in detail by Christian writers, and even then, in the writings of Theophilus, the penalty of the Fall is still “labour, pain, grief and death” rather than sin. The struggle against Gnosticism, however, led Irenaeus to suggest that man’s sin arose out of Adam’s Fall; this provided an alternative to the Gnostic view that it arose either as a direct consequence of man’s materiality, or as a result of the operations of an Evil One. Origen, Athanasius, Tertullian and Ambrose took this doctrine further, and Ambrose, in particular, explicitly laid it down that all men must take the responsibility for Adam’s sin. But it is only in Ambrose’s pupil, Augustine, that the doctrine of original sin, as a product of the Fall, is promulgated with its full severity. “God, the Author of all natures but not of their defects, created man good,” he wrote in his City of God, “but man, corrupt by choice and condemned by justice, has produced a progeny that is both corrupt and condemned. For, we all existed in that one man, since, taken together, we were the one man who fell into sin through the woman who was made out of him before sin existed.”44
On the nature of Adam’s sin Christian theologians have been unable to agree. Gluttony, disobedience, egoism, spiritual pride, have all had their advocates. Some theologians, indeed, have ascribed to poor Adam every possible form of sin, all inherent in his single act of eating the forbidden fruit.* Empedocles had suggested that man’s original sin was some form of bloodshed. But the Garden of Eden story, flexible though it is, would scarcely admit of that interpretation. On the whole, indeed, the Christian Church has been much less interested in bloodshed and violence, as forms of sin, than in sexual desire, or in pride, in the attempt by man to achieve that self-sufficiency and independence which the Greeks took as their ideal, to become what the Lord God of Genesis describes as “one of us.” Pride and sexual desire have sometimes been conjoined—as in the doctrine, which seems to have been Augustine’s, that Adam’s sin originated as pride but revealed itself as, and is passed on to his successors through, sexual desire, the desire involved in the very act of generation.
The formal ground of original sin, too, has been disputed, whether all men suffered from Adam’s crime merely because he was their ancestor—as on the archaic view, which Hesiod had affirmed and against which Euripides had protested, that pollution was inherited—or because all men are in some sense “part” of Adam, or because Adam entered, as the legal representative of his descendants, into a covenant with God and for Adam’s breaches of this covenant all men must take responsibility. But that there had been a sin, and that all men must endure the consequences of that sin was to become, for all its obscurity, standard Christian doctrine.45 And in its more rigorous form—although not all Christians have been prepared to accept this interpretation—it is not merely the consequence of Adam’s sin but its actual guilt which all men inherit.
As a consequence of Adam’s sin, “There is no question,” so Augustine wrote, “of man’s meriting a place in God’s City.” This, it might seem, is all that need be said about Christianity and perfection. “The whole mass of mankind is cankered at the roots”; it has not the slightest prospect of perfecting itself. The best an individual man can hope for is that, by God’s grace, he will turn out to be one of that “fixed number of saints” by which God will fill his City. There were other lines of argument, too, which led to the same conclusion. One might call them empirical in the sense that they rest, unlike the doctrine of original sin, not on a supposed Revelation but on a knowledge of human nature, a knowledge of its incapacity fully to obey the commands which God laid down for all men.
The commands of perfection, it has generally been agreed, were summed up in Matthew 22:37–39. The first and foremost commandment is that “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”; the second commandment that “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” A number of questions* arise immediately in the attempt to interpret these commandments, and it is largely because they answer them differently that Christian sects can disagree so profoundly about the conditions, and the limits, of human perfectibility. The most fundamental question can be put thus: on the face of it men love a great many things and this seems to be part of their nature. How can they, then, ever bring themselves into, or be brought into, a state of mind in which they love God with all their heart, and all their soul, and all their mind? Will not their other loves always interfere with the complete dedication of their heart to God?
A second question is a special application of this more general question: if men are to love God with their whole heart, how is it possible for them also to love their neighbours? Do not these two commandments conflict? And how, in the light of the first commandment, can Paul write, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”?46 For surely what the Law puts first is that we shall love not our neighbours, but God.
Thirdly, what is the force of the phrase “love thy neighbour as thyself”? Does this imply a third commandment: “Thou shalt love thyself”? And if, once more, to be perfect a man must love himself, then how can he love God with all his heart?
Three different tendencies within Christianity arise out of different answers to these questions: we may characterize them, respectively, as theocentric, egocentric, and (to coin an etymologically somewhat barbarous but self-explanatory adjective) fratrocentric. For a theocentric Christian, to be perfected a Christian must love God with all his heart, even if that means the entire destruction of his own happiness. Should it be true, to take the extreme instance, that by loving God he will wreak his own damnation, God still ought to be loved. This was the view taken by Fénelon in a famous eighteenth-century French controversy. The soul, according to Fénelon, should be able to say to God, “If thou wouldst condemn me to the eternal pains of hell, without losing thy love (although the supposition is impossible) I would love thee none the less.”47 For egocentric Christians, in contrast, a man perfects himself by achieving his own happiness; to this everything else is subordinate. If he loves God this is because God offers him happiness; if he loves his neighbours, this is because such love is a path on the way to happiness. So, arguing against Fénelon, Bossuet was led to maintain that “to love God is simply to love our own beatitude more distinctly.”48 And Aquinas had already laid it down that: “assuming what is impossible, that God were not men’s good there would be no reason to love him.”49 For the fratrocentric Christian the foundation of perfection is the love of neighbours; to this, self-love must be wholly subordinated, and it is only through the love of neighbours that God can be loved. Contrast Aquinas, for whom the love of our neighbour is not essential as the love of God and self-love are essential: “if there were but one soul enjoying God, it would be happy though having no neighbour to love.”50 Ascetic Christianity of the extreme sort, indeed, saw in a neighbour nothing more than an occasion of sin.
Most Christians, however, would seek to avoid the absolutism of, in their different ways, a Fénelon or a Bossuet or an anchorite. The question: “Ought we to love God even if he cared nothing for our happiness?” is, they would argue, an abstract one, which need not be faced. In practice, the three loves, of God, of self, of neighbour, entirely coincide and must, considering their nature, do so. This was certainly Augustine’s view. “Scripture,” he writes, “enjoins nothing except charity . . . I mean by charity that affection of the mind which aims at the enjoyment of God for His own sake and of one’s self and one’s neighbour for God’s sake. By lust I mean that affection of the mind which aims at the enjoyment of one’s self and one’s neighbour without reference to God.”51 Anything other than God, on this view, must be loved only as a way of loving God. The things of this world ought to be “used”—as instruments of salvation—not enjoyed. Neighbours were somewhat of a problem for Augustine. It was clear that they must not be loved for their own sake—this is a variety of lust—any more than one’s self ought to be loved for its own sake. His conclusion was that neighbourly love is a missionary love; the true love for neighbours consists in “bringing them in” to God—a doctrine which was to be invoked, in later times, to justify a good many forms of conduct which it is otherwise not very natural to include under the heading of “neighbourly love,” from wars to inquisitions. Augustine himself defended a policy of “dragging men to salvation” and asserted the Church’s right to “compel men to good.”52 When the beggar calls, “Alms for the love of God,” he displays his Augustinian orthodoxy; to give alms for the love of man is not to give them as one should. It is to act out of “cupidity,” not out of “charity.” For the seventeenth-century Jansenists, devotees of Augustine, all alms-giving had to be carefully scrutinized, to ensure that its true motive was the love of God.
Augustine’s theology is certainly theocentric, then, in so far as he firmly maintains that nothing but God ought to be loved for its own sake—the love of God, he says, “suffers not a tricklet to be drawn off from itself, by the diversion of which its own volume would be diminished.”53 There is no love “left over,” as it were, to be directed towards the world, or towards our neighbours, or towards ourselves. But this is not inconsistent, according to Augustine, with my loving myself because self-love, rightly understood, is not a distraction from loving God, but is equivalent to it. “The love wherewith a man truly loves himself is none other than the love of God. For he who loves himself in any other way is rather to be said to hate himself.”54 For a man to love himself in this sense, to seek his own true good, is to cherish the image of God within, to love God. To raise the question, then, whether Augustine’s theology is fundamentally egocentric or fundamentally theocentric is to ask a question which cannot be answered; for on his view a theocentric and an egocentric theology, properly understood, will coincide.
Luther will have no truck with such concessions to self-love. His theology is resolutely theocentric. Those who truly love God, he says, “submit freely to the will of God whatever it may be, even for hell and eternal death, if God should will it, in order that his will may be fully done; they seek absolutely nothing for themselves.”55 “Love your neighbour as yourself” does not imply, as Augustine had also recognized, “you ought to love yourself”; it rests only on the observable fact that every man does love himself; it is the equivalent of Jesus’ other precept: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”56 Men ought not to love themselves but hate themselves, hate themselves precisely because they love themselves. By hating themselves, they can both love God and love their neighbours. For the medieval doctrine, as expressed, for example, by Bernard of Clairvaux, that men can attain to perfection by beginning from self-love and gradually arising above it, Luther has nothing but contempt.57 According to Luther, then, the sign that a man loves God with his whole heart is that he hates himself, and is prepared, even to damnation, wholly to submit himself to God’s will—not that Luther believed that such a man would be damned! Augustine, in contrast, saw as the perfected man one who loved himself, in the “higher” sense of self-love, but who loved nothing in the world for its own sake. They agree, however, on the crucial point; neither kind of perfection is possible to men.
Augustine’s Confessions is in this respect a very revealing document. Up to a point, it follows a common pattern, if in an unusually distinguished manner: the story of a pagan sinner saved, saved by conversion to Christianity. But Augustine does not end his story at this point: the curtain does not fall on a triumphant note with his conversion; he describes in detail his state after his conversion and the agonies which still beset him.
And what is his problem? It can be put thus: he is still unable to love God with his whole heart. He still finds in himself a longing for food and drink; he sometimes “sins criminally” by caring more for the musical beauty of a hymn than for its religious content; the sins of the eyes still trouble him; from the malady of curiosity he is by no means free, nor from the love of praise, nor from the desire to be loved by men. Only in one case does he feel ready, perhaps, to confess himself sinless, achieving the indifference of a Stoic Sage. “With the attractions of odours,” he writes, “I am not much troubled. When they are absent, I do not seek them; when they are present, I do not refuse them; and I am always prepared to be without them.”58 We breathe a sigh of relief on Augustine’s behalf. But wait! “Perhaps I am deceived.” Only God knows the secrets of a man’s heart. Perhaps after all, Augustine reflects with anxiety, he is merely deluding himself in supposing that he is no longer susceptible to the charm of perfume. Perhaps he has turned aside without necessity, merely to enjoy the sweet scent of a summer garden; perhaps he has dreamt nostalgically, in a Roman winter, of the smell of the hot earth in his native Carthage; perhaps, most abominable sin of all, he has unconsciously lingered as he passed in the street a girl, fresh from the bath, to savour the sweetness of her skin.
Augustine, it is worth observing, tries to steer clear of the wilder shores of Puritanism; even Puritanism, indeed, becomes in his eyes a temptation, an occasion for sin. “Sometimes I err out of too great preciseness,” he rebukes himself, “and sometimes so much as to desire that every one of the pleasant songs to which David’s Psalter is often set, be banished both from my ears and from those of the Church itself.”59 There are times, indeed, at which he writes for the moment like the Platonist he also was, and is prepared to enjoy the beauty man creates in so far as it emanates “from that Beauty which is above our minds, which my soul sighs for day and night.”60 But “Beauty,” in this context, is a synonym for God. Whereas in aesthetic appreciation we fasten our eyes on the attractive object as it is in itself, to enjoy it for its own sake, Augustine permits us to enjoy the beauty of physical objects only as an expression of God.
The final outcome of Augustinianism, then, is reasonably clear. In the first place, no man ought ever to claim that he is perfect, since only God can be sure that he is not deceiving himself. And, secondly, it is highly unlikely, to say the least of it, that any man will be perfect, that he will succeed in achieving that degree of detachment from any form of sensuality, any form of secular love, which Augustine demands of the morally perfect man. Augustine does not assert that it is actually impossible for a man to achieve perfection; to say that would be to limit God’s omnipotence. But he is quite sure that God has not in fact chosen to bestow upon any man that degree of divine grace he would need in order to be wholly perfect.
Luther came, by a very different route, to the same conclusion. Augustine had been a “great sinner,” Luther had been a monk. Like Paul before him, he thought he could speak out of his own experience in laying it down that no man could hope to be perfect by his own efforts. As a monk he had been a perfectionist: “When I was a monk,” he writes, “I thought . . . that I was utterly cast away, if at any time I felt the concupiscence of the flesh.” It was with a sense of relief that he abandoned such a monkish ideal of perfection and concluded: “Martin, thou shalt not utterly be without sin, for thou hast yet flesh.”61 Unlike Augustine, it does not appal Luther that he is still subject to human frailties: such sin, he thought, “nothing hindereth . . . holiness”62 provided only that the man who committed it had faith in God and was repentant. What is more important, even if a man could succeed in freeing himself from all “lusts of the flesh,” he would still not be perfect; to suppose otherwise was, for Luther, the mistake of mistakes. Luther, we said, had been profoundly influenced by the Theologia Germanica; the leading tenet of that centre-piece of fourteenth-century devotion was that egoism, taking “myself to be my own,” is the root of all evil.63 It is just because men cannot overcome their egoism, cannot wholly submit to God’s will, so Luther argues, that they cannot hope to achieve perfection. “Love God,” for Luther, came to mean “Have complete faith in God,” “Place your entire trust in him.” Sinful man cannot hope to reach such heights.
To sum up, then, Christ’s command to be “perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” is, according to that orthodox Augustinian view which has predominated in the Christian Church, impossible for men to obey. Impossible for metaphysical reasons, since human perfection, so far as it can be attained at all, is the perfection of a finite temporal being, with all the limitations this involves. Impossible for moral reasons, since man, even when granted God’s grace, has been so corrupted by Adam’s Fall that he is incapable of achieving, even, that degree of moral perfection which his metaphysical nature permits.
It is interesting to observe that when American Unitarian transcendentalists set out, in the nineteenth century, to challenge the view that man cannot perfect himself, these are precisely the points they seized upon. Channing’s discourse on “Likeness to God,” is, in this respect, particularly striking.64 He rejects, in the first place, the doctrine of original sin. Man, on Channing’s view, is not born corrupt, and must not allow himself to become corrupted. But that is only his starting-point. The perfections of God, he argues, are human perfections, raised to a higher power. “God is another name for human intelligence, raised above all error and imperfection, and extended to all possible truth.”
Nevertheless, it might be replied, the fact remains that God’s perfections are infinite, man’s finite; the insuperable gap between God and man persists. To this objection Channing answers, first, that an attribute does not change its nature by becoming infinite. Secondly, and more fundamentally, Channing rejects the view that man is finite: “there are traces of infinity in the human mind . . . in this very respect it bears a likeness to God.” Channing sees what has to be argued if it is to be said that men can perfect themselves by being “like God”; God must be converted into a being much more like man than traditional Christian metaphysics allows him to be, and man must at the same time be elevated to a moral and metaphysical status considerably more exalted than Christianity would allow to him. So long as man is thought of as a being at once finite and corrupt and God as a being who is perfect in a sense quite other than the sense in which man could, with any degree of intelligibility, be described as perfect the Christian cannot avoid concluding that he is by nature incapable of being perfect as God is perfect. At best he has to think of the injunction in Matthew, and the Sermon on the Mount generally, as expressing an ideal, or as a challenge to complacency, rather than as a precept to be obeyed.65
[1. ]Matthew 5:48.
[* ]Albert Schweitzer has argued that the more stringent of Jesus’ precepts were only an “interim ethics,” directed to a community living in daily expectation of a Second Coming and called upon to live “separated” lives until that day arrived. Whatever be thought of the accuracy of this view as a description of Jesus’ intentions, Christians have generally presumed that Jesus’ teachings were meant for all men at all times or, at the very least, at all times for a spiritual élite. The Early Church, a small group of fervent believers living in an intensely eschatological atmosphere, was perhaps more ready, however, than the Church of Augustine’s day to believe that men could be perfect, immaculately perfect at least. The Epistle to the Hebrews (6:4–6) was read as asserting that no Christian could expect forgiveness should he sin even once after he has been cleansed by baptism. Many early Christians, for that reason, did not seek baptism until they believed death to be near. In the second century the Apostolic Father, Hermas, permitted one, although only one, post-baptismal sin. From the point of view of less accommodating Christian moralists, such as Tertullian after he became a Montanist, this was the thin edge of the wedge. For Hermas, see “The Shepherd” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. K. Lake, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols (London, 1913), Vol. II, pp. 83–85, and for examples of early Christian perfectibilism—not necessarily typical—see the article on “Perfection (Christian)” in James Hastings, ed.: Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 9 (Edinburgh, 1917). As so often, the statements ascribed by Matthew to Jesus can be matched in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18:13 and Leviticus 19:2). But, in the more anthropomorphic and legalistic atmosphere of these utterances, the problems we are discussing in this chapter did not arise. In fact, both Noah and Job are called “perfect.” If the prophets tend to emphasize the imperfection of men, there were Jewish writers who affirmed that all men can and ought to be perfect. See, for example, Ben Sira in Ecclesiasticus 15:12, 15. It is now sometimes argued that the exhortation to be perfect is not a genuine saying of Jesus but a summing up by Matthew of what he took to be Jesus’ demand upon men. This, like Schweitzer’s “interim ethics,” is an interpretation of the situation which could only be maintained in comparatively recent times and has not affected the main historic tendencies of Christian teaching.
[2. ]God Here and Now, trans. P. M. van Buren (New York, 1964), p. 13. Just when Hellenization set in I shall not attempt to say; some recent scholars think of Paul, even, as a Hellenizer, or suggest that Christianity was from the very beginning a Hellenistic sect. See, for example, Jacob Neusner, ed.: Religions in Antiquity, Studies in the History of Religions, XIV (Leiden, 1968).
[3. ]Contra Celsum, III. 44–45, trans. Chadwick, pp. 158–59.
[4. ]De Praescriptione Haereticorum, vii, quoted in P. de Labriolle: History and Literature of Christianity from Tertullian to Boethius, trans. H. Wilson (London, 1924), pp. 18–19, which should be consulted generally on this question.
[5. ]Miscellanies (Stromateis), I.28; II.18.2. See E. F. Osborn: The Philosophy of Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, 1957), pp. 122–23. “Schoolmaster” is the traditional translation but “moral guardian” would be more accurate. The Oxford “moral tutor” is perhaps the nearest equivalent. Clement’s quotation from Numenius is in Miscellanies, I. 150, trans. Osborn, p. 123.
[6. ]Harry Rimmer: The Harmony of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, 1936). In the seventeenth century this view was strongly maintained by the Cambridge Platonists, especially Henry More.
[7. ]De Trinitate, V.i.2, as trans. A. W. Haddan in Vol. 7 of the 15 vols collected ed. by M. Dods (Edinburgh, 1872–76).
[8. ]Matthew 19:17.
[9. ]Miscellanies, VII. 3, as trans. J. B. Mayor in Alexandrian Christianity, ed. J. E. L. Oulton and H. Chadwick, Library of Christian Classics, 2 (London, 1954), pp. 100–101. For a discussion of the earlier argument from Bk. V of the Miscellanies, see Osborn: The Philosophy of Clement of Alexandria, pp. 25–37.
[10. ]Summa theologica, Pt. I, q. 13, a. 5.
[11. ]Ibid., Pt. I, q. 4, a. 3.
[* ]We may well be dissatisfied with Aquinas’s argument on this point, which confuses, on the face of it, between the relation “is a likeness of,” which is admittedly asymmetrical, and the symmetrical relationship of likeness. A man, no doubt, is not “a likeness of” a statue—something made in order to be like a statue—but it does not follow that he is not like a statue. “How like he is to that famous bust of Socrates” is a remark we might well make of a man. But Aquinas is working with a very strange semi-causal concept of “likeness,” derived from “Saint Dionysius.”
[12. ]Summa contra gentiles, III. 20.
[* ]I do not know how to state the Christian view on this matter. To take too literally John’s “I and my Father are one” (10:30) is clearly heretical. The Sabellian doctrine that monotheism can be preserved only on the supposition that God the Father died on the cross forms no part of Christian orthodoxy. The reader must interpret for himself my assertion that Jesus was taken to be God; I shall not venture to explain to him what, if anything, it means. Let him turn for that purpose to the theologians, to Augustine on the Trinity, to Aquinas, or to a host of modern commentators. The expression “Jesus was taken to be the Eternal Word” can, if any reader thinks it more perspicuous, be substituted without harm to my argument for “was taken to be God.”
[13. ]John 13:15. For a detailed discussion of “Jesus Christ, the Pattern” see James M. Gustafson: Christ and the Moral Life (New York, 1968), pp. 150–87.
[14. ]For the first passage from Calvin see Institutes of the Christian Religion, III. viii. 1, trans. F. L. Battles, 2 vols, Library of Christian Classics, 20, 21 (London, 1961), Vol. 1, p. 702. For the second reference see Commentary on Matthew, 16. 24, as quoted in F. Wendel: Calvin, trans. P. Mairet (London, 1963; paperback ed. 1965), p. 250.
[* ]The opposite, “monophysite,” doctrine that Jesus had only one nature, and that divine, was, however, extremely powerful in the fifth-century Church, especially in Alexandria. Formally condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, it remains the official teaching of the Coptic and the Armenian Church. On this view the imitation of Jesus would, quite unambiguously, be the imitation of God.
[15. ]Compendium of Theology, ch. 212, as trans. C. Vollert, pp. 235–39.
[16. ]For details see Gordon Leff: Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, 2 vols (Manchester, 1967), Vol. 1, pp. 85–86.
[* ]A less extreme view is that the imitation of Jesus is no more than a preliminary stage on the path to true Christian virtue. So although Bernard of Clairvaux begins by insisting on the need for imitating Christ as “a man meek and lowly of heart, kind and collected, chaste and pitiful, conspicuous for all goodness and sanctity” he goes on to argue that “although such devotion to the flesh of Christ is a gift, . . . nevertheless I call it carnal in comparison with that love which does not [so much] regard the Word which is Flesh, as the Word which is Wisdom, Justice, Truth, Holiness.” Man cannot perfect himself, that is, by imitating Jesus. See R. N. Flew: The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology (Oxford, 1934; repr. 1968), pp. 220–22. Views which to a theologically unsophisticated observer look very similar to this have, however, been condemned as heresy. See R. A. Knox: Enthusiasm (Oxford, 1950; corr. repr. 1951). The path of orthodoxy is, indeed, a narrow one. Mystics have disagreed about whether even the image of Christ on the Cross is, at the last stages in mysticism, a distraction. Teresa denied that it was, but knew that she stood somewhat alone on this point.
[17. ]The quotation is from the article “Jesus Christ” in Louis Bouyer: Dictionary of Theology, trans. C. U. Quinn (New York, 1966), pp. 250–51. For a fuller discussion of the effects of devotion to a human Jesus, see L. Bouyer: Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame, Ind., 1955), especially pp. 247–50. Compare, for a similar Protestant view, Karl Barth’s discussion of D. F. Strauss in From Rousseau to Ritschl, trans. B. Cozens (London, 1959), ch. x, pp. 362–89.
[18. ]See P. M. van Buren: The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (London, 1963; repr. 1965), pp. 138–39.
[19. ]Three Essays on Religion: Nature, The Utility of Religion, Theism (London, 1904), p. 106.
[20. ]Nicolas Corte: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, trans. M. Jarrett-Kerr (London, 1960), p. 94, referring to the criticisms of the abbé Louis Cognet.
[21. ]T. J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton: Radical Theology and the Death of God (New York, 1966), p. x.
[* ]There was a time, not long ago, when it was generally presumed that the doctrine of the Logos was entirely Greek in origin. It is now recognized that there was a late-Jewish Logos doctrine. The Greek and the Jewish doctrines were not identical but they were eventually assimilated to one another, if not by John then at least in subsequent theology.
[22. ]Acts 17:34.
[23. ]There may have been earlier translations but it was Erigena who did most to bring Dionysius to the attention of theologians. His own De divisione naturae is profoundly influenced by Dionysius. For a detailed study of the influence of Dionysius on a particular Christian mystic see F. von Hügel: The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends, 2 vols (London, 1908; repr. 1961), Vol. II, pp. 90–101. Dionysius himself can be read in Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, trans. and ed. C. E. Rolt, 2nd ed. (London, 1940; repr. 1957). All references are to this translation. The historical detail on the role of Dionysius derives, in part, from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross (London, 1957).
[24. ]From the translation into modern English by Clifton Wolters (Harmondsworth, 1961), ch. 70.
[25. ]Dionysius on the Divine Names, pp. 55, 60.
[26. ]Ibid., p. 55.
[27. ]Ibid., p. 107. See the extraordinary diagram from the fourteenth-century mystic Heinrich Suso in A. Nygren: Agape and Eros, trans. P. S. Watson, rev. 1-vol. ed. (London, 1953; repr. 1957), facing p. 616.
[* ]On this point, it is illuminating to read the account of Dionysius (Pt. I, ch. ix) and of Erigena (Pt. II, ch. xii–xiii) in the Jesuit historian F. Copleston’s History of Philosophy, Vol. II (London, 1950). He admits that what Dionysius says about the Trinity is “questionable” and that he has very little to say about the Incarnation. Quite without irony, however, he goes on to remark that it does not seem possible to reject Dionysius’s views on the Incarnation as “definitely unorthodox” unless “one is prepared also to reject as unorthodox, for example, the mystical doctrine of St. John of the Cross, who is a Doctor of the Church” (p. 92). In the end, however, Copleston is prepared to admit that there is a tension in the thinking of Dionysius between his neo-Platonism and his genuine Christianity. He expresses doubt, too, whether his writings would have exercised the influence they did exercise, had it not been for the supposition that he was Paul’s Dionysius. Copleston finds a similar “tension” in Erigena. He does not dispute Erigena’s condemnation by the ecclesiastical authorities—this was not until 1210, three and a half centuries after the publication of his De divisione naturae—but writes of him with sympathy. Indeed, to condemn Erigena outright and in toto would be to condemn, at the same time, a great body of Roman Catholic mystical writings. And Copleston is perfectly correct in saying that neither Dionysius nor Erigena allow themselves to go completely over to neo-Platonism, close though they come to doing so.
[28. ]The relevant passages are collected in A. Nygren: Agape and Eros, pp. 705–6. Calvin’s attitude was very similar.
[29. ]Exhortation to the Greeks, trans. G. W. Butterworth in the Loeb Classical Library selection of his works (London, 1919), pp. 189–91.
[* ]It is by no means surprising, however, that many Christians were perturbed over this point. To read the Old Testament literally, Origen argued, as a record of God’s actions would be to conclude that God is worse than “the most savage and unjust of men” (De principiis, IV, ii, I). In the second century the Marcionite heresy spread like wildfire through the Christian world; it is sometimes suggested, indeed, that had it not forbidden marriage, and hence reduced the number of its adherents, it would have conquered the world. It rejected the Old Testament as describing the deeds of a God who was not a God of love, and therefore not the Christian God. Indeed, it admitted as truly Christian only—and then in an expurgated form—Luke’s gospel and the Pauline Epistles, with their characteristic antitheses between Law and Love. Had Marcion succeeded, there would have been no obstacle to the Hellenizing of Christianity. But the Old Testament was too valuable as a source of prophecies to be lightly discarded. The point, above all, which distinguished Christianity from its alternatives, the manifold mystery-religions of the Hellenistic world, was that its God-Man had been prophesied. Compare Justin Martyr’s use of the prophecies—for all that Jews might grumble that the lion had not lain down with the lamb—in his speech to the Emperor Hadrian. “The First Apology,” trans. E. R. Hardy, in Early Christian Fathers, ed. C. C. Richardson, Library of Christian Classics, I (London, 1953), pp. 260–77.
[* ]For classical Greek philosophy, as for Plato, faith (pistis) is the lowest form of belief, characteristic only of the wholly uneducated, who fail to reflect critically on what they experience or are told. The Jewish-inspired Christian emphasis on faith struck educated pagan observers with astonishment; it represented, in their eyes, the extreme of anti-intellectualism—“foolishness.” It was not long, no doubt, before Christianity itself began to place more stress on intellectual argument, to a degree which eventually provoked the Lutheran counter-reaction, with its emphasis on the primacy of faith. But at its most intellectual, Christianity still has to appeal to faith, to have recourse to “mysteries.” Compare E. R. Dodds: Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, pp. 150–53.
[30. ]Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, 3 vols (Cambridge, Mass., 1927–30; repr. 1962), Vol. I, p. 361. For the post-Exilic “metaphysicalising” of God see Charles Guignebert: The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus, Bk. II, ch. 1.
[31. ]As trans. W. R. Lamb, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1925), 210c–212.
[* ]The One God, ed. cit., p. 329. Garrigou-Lagrange or his translator, it is fair to add, brackets the passage in question, but in round, not square, brackets which do not make it clear that it is an interpolation. And even if it is only intended as a gloss, the fact remains that there is nothing whatever in the text to justify the gloss. Theologians now generally agree—it is interesting to observe—that Augustine’s mystical visions were Platonic rather than Christian. There are some dissentients on this point, as is only to be expected since Augustine is not the only Christian to express his vision in Platonic terms, but the point is difficult to controvert, in the light of the language Augustine uses. Compare Gerald Bonner: St. Augustine of Hippo (London, 1963), and, on the other side, Cuthbert Butler: Western Mysticism, 2nd ed. (London, 1926).
[32. ]Confessions, XI. v. The text is Genesis 1:3.
[33. ]Proverbs 16:2.
[34. ]Deuteronomy 9:5. See also Deuteronomy 7:6–8.
[35. ]See pp. 87–88 above for grace in Greek thought.
[* ]There is considerable argument as to whether, or from what point on, Judaism was strictly monotheistic. “Thou shalt worship no other God but me” certainly does not imply “there is no other God but me”—it suggests the contrary. This is what G. F. Moore calls “practical monotheism,” as distinct from “theoretical monotheism.” (Compare, too, “for the Lord your God is God of gods” in Deuteronomy 10:17.) My sole concern is with what Christians thought they read in the Old Testament, not with the complex history of Judaism. For Christians, until very recently, the Old Testament was essentially one book, even although the word “Bible” derives from the plural Greek “biblia”—books. The idea that it was the history of a developing religion is a relatively new one, which the Jews themselves would have entirely rejected. If Christians noted the plural “us” of Genesis 3:22—“And behold the man is become as one of us”—or observed that “Elohim,” generally translated “God,” has a plural form, they either concluded that this is a “royal plural” or else, in Eusebius’s manner, that it was the Trinity who were being thus plurally referred to. (Astonishingly enough, Eusebius takes almost all his Biblical evidence for the Trinity from the Old Testament.)
[36. ]See R. McL. Wilson: The Gnostic Problem (London, 1958) and, for an indication just how little can, in discussing Gnosticism, be taken for granted, Ugo Bianchi, ed.: Le Origini dello Gnosticismo, Studies in the History of Religions, XII (Leiden, 1967)—a symposium containing essays in German, French, Italian and English.
[37. ]Quoted in J. Guitton: Great Heresies and Church Councils, trans. F. D. Wieck (London, 1965), p. 65.
[38. ]For details see, for example, Rudolf Bultmann: Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting, trans. R. H. Fuller (London, 1956), pp. 189–95, “The Situation of Man in the World.” The complexities are nowhere better brought out than in the First Epistle of John. On this see K. E. Kirk: The Vision of God, 2nd ed. (London, 1932; repr. New York, 1966), p. 83.
[* ]Elsewhere, no doubt, Paul attacks those false teachers who would forbid marriage entirely (I Timothy 4:3); he urges that married men should love their wives; he compares the relation between Christ and the Church to the relationship between husband and wife (Ephesians 5). But the apocryphal Acts of Paul make it perfectly clear that by the middle of the second century Paul was regarded as doing what he could to discourage matrimony. Christian attitudes to marriage, taken over the centuries, have been extraordinarily complicated. Mystics have delighted in the imagery of bride and bridegroom to describe their relationship to God, while at the same time condemning marriage as an obstacle to perfection and attempting to scourge themselves free of all sexual desires; Roman Catholicism has extolled the virginity of Mary while counting marriage as a sacrament; Puritans have limited marital relationships in the oddest of ways. Paul’s attitude in I Corinthians 7, quoted above, has, however, been typical of Christian asceticism: marriage, on that view, is a second-best relationship, a concession to the flesh. “To avoid fornication,” as Paul puts it, “let every man have his own wife.”
[39. ]Quoted in G. F. Moore: Judaism, Vol. II, p. 265. Calvin, however, urges us to appreciate the good things of this world—even if, at the same time, he tells us to despise the world and this earthly life. (Compare Institutes, III. xx. 42 and III. x. 2–4.) D. S. Wallace-Hadrill in The Greek Patristic View of Nature (Manchester, 1968) has emphasized the enthusiasm for nature displayed by the Greek fathers.
[40. ]I John 2:15–16.
[41. ]Trans. in A New Eusebius, ed. J. Stevenson (London, 1957; corr. repr. 1968), pp. 123–24.
[* ]Paul explicitly attacks asceticism in Colossians 2:20–23, a passage which, interestingly enough, is translated in the Authorized Version in a fashion which is obscure to the point of unintelligibility. But there can be no doubt that he was widely read as an ascetic. In the apocryphal Acts of Paul Paul is reported as teaching: “Blessed are they that keep the flesh chaste; blessed are they that abstain; blessed are they that renounce the world; blessed are they that possess their wives as if they had them not; blessed are the bodies of virgins.” At the same time, Paul was to be extensively quoted by antinomians: phrases like “there is nothing unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14), “to the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15) and “every creature of God [everything that is created by God] is good” (1 Timothy 4:4) were obviously extremely convenient for those who wished to argue that any form of conduct was permissible to the sanctified. Antinomianism and asceticism are the extreme poles of Christian thought. But each of them is particularly important, as we shall see, to the Christian perfectibilist. The passages from the Acts of Paul are to be found in The Apocryphal New Testament, ed. M. R. James (corrected ed. Oxford, 1955), p. 273.
[* ]As early as the second century, Irenaeus, with an ingenuity worthy of a better cause, tried to weave the Garden of Eden and the Golden Age into a single narrative. Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews, written about ad 94, had already introduced into his account of the Garden of Eden many details derived from the classical “Golden Age.” Thus it is that the extremely bare Biblical narrative was converted into the Garden of Eden of the popular imagination. For Josephus see L. H. Feldman: “Hellenizations in Josephus’s Portrayal of Man’s Decline” in Jacob Neusner, ed.: Religions in Antiquity, pp. 336–53.
[42. ]Enneads, IV. 8. 4–5, trans. MacKenna, 1956, p. 361. E. R. Dodds, in his Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, pp. 24–26, argues that, although Plotinus first thought of the “fall” as the result of sin, he finally came to the conclusion, by the time he came to write Enneads, IV. 3.13, that it was no more than an inherent biological necessity. In the light of this reference to Empedocles, I am inclined to doubt whether Plotinus ever finally made up his mind on this question. Dodds draws attention to similar neo-Pythagorean teachings, in which, as for Augustine, the sin is a kind of hubris.
[43. ]Quoted from George Boas: Essays on Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages (Baltimore, 1948), p. 15. The historical detail which follows in the main text is derived partly from that source, partly from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, article “Original Sin.”
[44. ]The City of God, Bk. XIII, ch. 14, in the abridged trans. ed. V. J. Bourke, pp. 278–79.
[* ]So Milton writes: “What sin can be named which was not included in this one act? It comprehended at once distrust in the divine veracity, and a proportionate credulity in the assurances of Satan; unbelief; ingratitude; disobedience; gluttony; in the man excessive uxoriousness, in the woman a want of proper regard for her husband, in both an insensibility to the welfare of their offspring, and that offspring the whole human race; parricide, theft, invasion of the rights of others, sacrilege, deceit, presumption in aspiring to divine attributes, fraud in the means employed to obtain the object, pride and arrogance.” (De doctrina christiana, Bk. I, ch. XI; as trans. in The Works of John Milton, ed. F. A. Patterson, 20 vols [New York, 1931–40], Vol. 15, pp. 181–83.)
[45. ]See F. R. Tennant: The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin (Cambridge, 1903) and, for controversy in the United States since 1750, H. Shelton Smith: Changing Conceptions of Original Sin (New York, 1955). The relatively small “coverage” of Shelton Smith’s book lets one see more clearly how difficult Christians find it to agree about the nature and transmission of original sin. F. R. Tennant’s article on “Original Sin” in J. Hastings, ed.: Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 9, is a good summary. See also N. P. Williams: The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin (London, 1927; repr. 1938).
[* ]There are deeper questions which we have to avoid. What is meant by “love” in these contexts? Is the love of God, of self, of the world, of neighbours, the same or a different kind of love? See on this topic A. Nygren: Agape and Eros; John Burnaby: Amor Dei (London, 1938; repr. 1960) with Augustine as its central theme; M. C. D’Arcy: The Mind and Heart of Love (London, 1945, repr. 1946); R. G. Hazo: The Idea of Love (New York, 1967), Pt. I, ch. 3. D’Arcy, in particular, brings out very clearly the enormous complexity of the idea of love. But if after reading these books one then goes back to Plato’s Symposium, it becomes apparent how much there is still to be said. In earlier versions of this chapter, I tried to discuss these issues, but they refused to be confined within manageable limits. To a restricted degree, I return to them in the last chapter.
[46. ]Epistle to the Galatians 5:14.
[47. ]Quoted in R. N. Flew: The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology, p. 267. Francis de Sales taught a similar doctrine. See R. A. Knox: Enthusiasm, pp. 254–58.
[48. ]Instruction sur les états, 10, as quoted in K. E. Kirk: The Vision of God, p. 458.
[49. ]Summa theologica, Pt. II, ii, q. 26, a. 13. I have not followed the Dominican version here.
[50. ]Ibid., Pt. II, i, q. 4, a. 8. Compare Aristotle on the speculative life, which stands in no need of others, pp. 62–63 above.
[51. ]De doctrina christiana, III. x. 15, 16, as trans. in An Augustine Synthesis, arranged E. Przywara (London, 1936; repr. 1945), p. 347.
[52. ]Epistle 173. Cf. his Select Letters, trans. J. H. Baxter, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1953), p. 285.
[53. ]De doctrina christiana, I. xxii. 21, as trans. in A. Nygren: Agape and Eros, p. 503.
[54. ]Epistle 155. 15, quoted in John Burnaby: Amor Dei, p. 121.
[55. ]Luther: Lectures on Romans, ch. IX, trans. W. Pauck, Library of Christian Classics, 15 (London, 1961), p. 262.
[56. ]Matthew 7:12.
[57. ]On Bernard, see A. Nygren: Agape and Eros, p. 646.
[58. ]Confessions, X. 32. The trans. is adapted from that by A. C. Outler, Library of Christian Classics, 7 (London, 1955), p. 230.
[59. ]Ibid., X. 33, adapted from Outler, pp. 230–31.
[60. ]Ibid., X. 34, as trans. Outler, p. 233.
[61. ]Commentary on Galatians 5:17, rev. trans. by P. S. Watson (London, 1953, 1956), quoted in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. J. Dillenberger (New York, 1961), pp. 148–49.
[62. ]Ibid., 5.19. See Dillenberger, p. 160.
[63. ]Trans. S. Winkworth, corr. version, ed. W. R. Trask (New York, 1949; London, 1950). See, for example, ch. XXXVI: “Adam, I-hood and self-hood, self-will, sin, or the Old Man, the turning away or departing from God, all these are one and the same” (p. 178). Augustine sometimes spoke of pride as the root of all evil, a pride which is closely related to this kind of egoism, when a man “lets God go and loves himself,” as Augustine puts it. But even if pride is the original cause of man’s sin, that sin now consists in the “lusting of the flesh.” (Compare Burnaby: Amor Dei, pp. 188–91.)
[64. ]Delivered in 1828. Reprinted, in part, in George Hochfield, ed.: Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists (New York, 1966). The quotations are from pp. 57–58, 60.
[65. ]Compare A. Boyce Gibson: The Challenge of Perfection (Melbourne, 1968). This is a brief essay but it brings out the main issues.