St. Augustine: The Changeable and the Permanent from the Letter to Coelestinus (390 CE)

St. Augustine, the first major Christian philosopher, was deeply influenced by Platonic thought as he developed his theology and his philosophy. In wrestling with the problem of evil (i.e., why is there evil in the world if an all-powerful and all-good God is in charge?) he reaffirms that everything that God made is good, including, both the body and the soul. (Thus he cannot blame the evil we do on our bodily desires, as some thinkers had done.) But not all things are of the same status; there is a hierarchy, with God at the top, then angels and humans in the middle, brutes, plants and the inorganic realm at the bottom. The higher something is on this scale, the greater potential it has for good but also for evil -- except for God, who is unchangeably good.

Augustine admits that both our body (physical nature) and our soul (spiritual nature) are subject to change, since both are part of the created realm. But which of those two does he think is more important and can make the most significant changes (i.e., toward wretchedness or toward blessedness)? Why?

As I know you well, I ask you to accept and ponder the following brief sentences on a great theme. There is a nature which is susceptible of change with respect to both place and time, namely, the corporeal. (1) There is another nature which is in no way susceptible of change with respect to place, but only with respect to time, namely, the spiritual. And there is a third Nature which can be changed neither in respect to place nor in respect to time: that is, God. Those natures of which I have said that they are mutable (2) in some respect are called creatures; the Nature which is immutable is called Creator. Seeing however, that we affirm the existence of anything only in so far as it continues and is one (in consequence of which, unity is the condition essential to beauty in every form), you cannot fail to distinguish, in this classification of natures, which exists in the highest possible manner, and which occupies the lowest place, yet is within the range of existence, and which occupies the middle place, greater than the lowest, but coming short of the highest. That highest is essential blessedness; the lowest, that which cannot be either blessed or wretched, and the intermediate nature lives in wretchedness when it stoops towards that which is lowest, and in blessedness when it turns towards that which is highest. He who believes in Christ does not sink his affections in that which is lowest, is not proudly self-sufficient in that which is intermediate, and thus he is qualified for union and fellowship with that which is highest; and this is the sum of the active life to which we are commanded, admonished, and by holy zeal impelled to aspire.

Translated byJ. G. Cunningham

(1) Physical, bodily.

(2) Changeable.

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. If, after examining the table of contents of the complete volume, you are interested in considering it for use at your own campus, please contact Paul Brians.

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