BMCR 2020.04.46

Desires in paradise: an interpretative study of Augustine’s City of God 14

, Desires in paradise: an interpretative study of Augustine's City of God 14. Augustinus, Werk und Wirkung, Band 8. Leiden; Boston: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2019. 239 p.. ISBN 9783506792532 $112.00 (pb).


Augustine’s most important treatment of emotions is in The City of God (CG) book 14. Adam Trettel’s study is largely a commentary; it labors through CG 14 chapter-by-chapter and often word-by-word. Although its orientation is primarily philological, it also unravels Augustine’s lines of argumentation, connecting them to related doctrinal elements. Theological and philosophical issues also receive their due treatment here, especially concerning the topics of desire and emotions, reflecting the eye-catching title, Desires in Paradise.

The Introduction is a well-written testimony on the background of this research discussing a broad range of interesting topics. These include, for instance, the difficulties of the subject of emotions in ancient literature, the terminology of which does not always correspond to our modern conceptions. This treatment is complicated by the fact that we are dealing with a famously ‘emotional’ Christian thinker, a master of rhetoric who utilizes a broad range of vocabulary. Augustine is also a proponent of right reason, Christian ethics and morality, exhorting self-control and the bridling of such emotions as lust and anger. The author proposes a close reading of Augustine’s analysis of passions, emotions, desires, love and will, as well as Augustine’s considerations on the same topics in traditional Greek philosophy.

In doing so, Trettel contests many scholarly conclusions on Augustine’s view of emotions which are often linguistically based. He aims to show how Augustine aspires to a standpoint on emotions, for ‘those who feel trapped by the inhumanity of the classical emotional-control tradition, but also those who might see the tranquility this tradition promises as something to which Christians should aspire.’ Trettel judges Augustine’s use of the term ‘right reason’, recta ratio, as intended for polemical purposes: against ‘the insanity of body-hating heretics or senselessness of emotion-crushing philosophers.’

The author’s study builds upon the works of John Rist (the foremost expert on Augustine and Greek philosophy), underscoring that Augustine’s use of language would resonate among ancient readers who were familiar with Plotinus’ notion of eros or Plato’s works, Phaedrus or Symposium.

The author also builds upon Volker Drecoll’s studies on Augustine’s anti-Pelagian themes. Thus he also focuses on the Pelagian controversy, asserting that CG 14 represents an important staging-post in Augustine’s engagement with this group of Christians, contending that the church father may have been responding here to live theological debates without explicitly addressing his opponents. Trettel confronts gaps in current Pelagian scholarship regarding Augustine’s arguments on emotions related to this controversy. He aims to illustrate how Augustine intended ‘…to provoke a strong emotional reaction in them (his readers)…to inspire a kind of wonder—both at the strangeness of the evil love that motivated the primal crime (LZ: of Adam and Eve) but also the spontaneous goodness of God, who created us and who in his love “comes out of nowhere” to rescue us. …the force of this message can be lost amidst the sheer fecundity of his ideas, and the variety of interlocutors he is trying to address (p.14).’ This formulation lures the reader into what promises to be a satisfying reading experience.

Chapter 1. ‘The Two Cities’ (14.1)

The title of this chapter anticipates one of the central underlying motifs in this literary monument: Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities. However, book 14 deals with the origin of the two cities. This entails God’s plan to have drawn the whole human race out of one person and unite all in peace and unity. Yet because the first two humans sinned, human nature changed for the worse, subjecting them to physical death. Within this context, Augustine divides mankind into two types: those who live according to the flesh and those who live according to God, corresponding respectively to two cities: the earthly and the heavenly. The points highlighted by Trettel in this chapter include: what Augustine means by ‘peace’, the term cognatio, as well as what Augustine considers moral elitism (in terms of the Pelagian controversy).

Chapter 2. ‘The Flesh is Not Bad’ 14.2-5

Augustine’s main argument in 2-5 is that the flesh is not the cause of sin and is not in itself ‘bad’ or ‘evil’, although the flesh is indeed regarded lower in value than the soul. Trettel proceeds with ‘micro-level analyses’ of 2-5. Examples are his speculations on the word ‘someone’ (Latin: quisquis) in reference to an imaginary interlocutor; an explanation of an ‘a parte totum’ principle, and the term secundum, as in secundem carnem, ‘according to the flesh’ in which Trettel delineates Augustine’s meaning of ‘living by the flesh’. This is followed by a detailed commentary on these points as well as on Augustine’s analysis of various arguments concerning the flesh. In this context, the author clarifies the tripartite time structure in Augustine’s thought: before the Fall, after the Fall and the afterlife. An additional section is devoted to a discussion of the ‘secundum dichotomy’, which is important for the rest of book 14, a context in which Augustine is either referring to ‘according to the flesh’ or ‘according to God’.

This chapter pays close attention to the bible verses Augustine utilized and to how Augustine developed his line of argument. On p. 44, Trettel underlines important elements: Augustine’s discussion of Stoic values and a Platonist doctrine which posits that emotions derive from the body. Also treated here is the theory of four emotions, dubbed by Cicero as the ‘four perturbations’: desire, fear, happiness and sadness. Augustine also reflects on the emotions of Jesus, as well as the possibility of emotionlessness, the apatheia ideal. These lengthy expositions rightfully justify the importance of Platonism in certain theological issues in book 14—especially within the context of desires and paradise.

Chapter 3. “Christian Vindication of Emotions” 14.6-9

This well written and lucid chapter offers many refreshing insights into Augustine’s treatment of emotions in 6-9 and is delightfully thought-provoking. Additionally, the topic treatment is well explained, summarized and timely recapitulated. A number of central themes discussed in Chapter 3 are reiterations of Chapter 2: Augustine’s refutation of what is coined as the ‘Platonic Psychic—or Emotional-Model’—which dictates that emotions are derived from the body; the ‘four perturbations’; Augustine’s exposition on the will as it is related to love; and his view on apatheia.

Chapter 4. “The Fall and Spontaneous Love” 14.10-15

This lengthy and highly interesting chapter illustrates a special feature in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin: his imaginings of Adam and Eve’s sexual relationship before the Fall, contrasted with the sexuality of humans after the Fall. Trettel depicts how Augustine relates the theoretical begetting of children in paradise to the command in Genesis “increase and multiply”. The author continues to discuss Augustine’s conception of evil and the ‘bad will’, which leads to his attribution of the origin of evil (bad will and pride) to the person of Satan. The latter, ‘the fallen angel from spiritual paradise’ in Augustine’s portrayal, is amusingly deemed by the author as ‘an animal abuser’, having exploited a serpent—one of God’s otherwise innocent creatures—as an instrument to lure Adam and Eve into falling away from God. Trettel’s treatment of the influences of Platonism in Augustine’s portrayal of the pre-fall paradisiacal state (pp. 122-126) is informative, well-presented and convincing.

Chapter 5. “The Disobedience of the Genitals” 14.16-20

This chapter deals with a controversial and unique aspect of Augustine’s exegesis of the story of Adam and Eve: the post-lapsarian phenomenon that human genitals through sexual excitement do not (or ‘no longer’) obey the will. According to Augustine, the lost control over their genitals was God’s punishment for the bad will of Adam and Eve, for having sinned, disobeyed and followed their own intentions instead of God’s. Augustine substantiates this particular argument with an array of poignant examples from post-lapsarian times: for example, for the reason why genitals are always associated in some way with shame; that intercourse is always performed in private, far from the view of spectators; why sexual activity is often kept secret, and why the clothing of all people around the world always covers the genitals. Trettel convincingly shows how Augustine distinguishes himself from Platonist ideas on sexuality and lust, providing a more nuanced and realistic panorama on these matters.

Chapters 6. “Sex in Paradise” 14.21-25

In 21-25, Augustine speculates further on what sexuality would have been like in paradise. Because the church father deemed sexual lust a consequence of the Fall, sexuality in paradise was lust-free; he is now impelled to justify his statements. Trettel’s commentary focuses on such subjects as Augustine’s vision of Adam and Eve as a married couple, the reality of sexual differentiation, lust-free sex and the possibility of pre-Fall procreation. Also highlighted here is Augustine’s ‘Catalogue of Miracles’, which elicits the author’s comments on Augustine’s views on miracles and the wonder of human life. Trettel introduces a section relevant to the end of 24, in which Augustine discusses the Pauline statement ‘Man Does Not Live As He Wants’.

Chapter 7. “The Two Loves” 14.26-28

The discussion above is carried over into this chapter with a section on ‘General Conditions of Paradise: Man Did Live as He Wanted’, which includes a section on ‘God’s Providence’. A description of the subject matter in the title “The Two Loves” is given rather late in this treatment, at the end of the chapter on pp. 202-203. Trettel comments here further on Augustine’s encounter with Platonism and how the bishop of Hippo ends this book in an apophatic manner, with the subject of God’s love in the eschaton. Augustine does not believe there will be sexual reproduction in the heavenly city, yet joy and love will be in abundance.

Evaluation: I would recommend Chapters 3, 4 and 5 for their intriguing subject matter, written with precision and lucidity. The author’s command of the material brings the reader to the depth of Augustine’s mature thinking concerning emotions, sexuality and love. These chapters could serve as a general introduction to this material. Yet if the reader is already familiar with these items in CG 14, the author’s insights on these topics will also be of interest.

In Chapters 1-2 and 6-7, a summary of the passages in question would have been helpful before commencing with his analysis. Because the author’s treatment in these chapters is not sufficiently introduced, it is often unclear how these minute analyses are connected to the main themes announced in the title or the section headings. These chapters generally show no clear structure or narrative. In order to follow the author’s treatment, the reader often needs to refer to the primary source, otherwise the author’s discussion will not always make sense.

There are also some limitations to the author’s approach of solely focusing on book 14. One of them is the risk of missing major points in other books of CG which are highly relevant to the topic. One example is his conclusion on p. 48, typifying Augustine’s exposition as a ‘vicious attack’ on Platonism in 14.2-5. There is, in my view, nothing vicious in his tone here at all. (Compare this to Augustine’s ‘attack’ on Porphyry in 10.26-29.) This misleading qualification implies that Augustine’s treatment was unreasonable or unjust, when in fact the opposite is true. Augustine’s treatment of the Platonist view on emotions is a fair criticism and he justly substantiates his criticism.

Another example is the author’s final statement that ‘Augustine’s stance towards the Platonists here (up until 14.5) appears more polemical than in CG 8-10.’ This conclusion might require revision after a careful reading of CG 10.26-29, in which Augustine confronts Porphyry and theurgy-practicing Platonists at length, in a harsh fashion which is decidedly polemical.