Monday, January 18, 2010

After the Fall (Christians on the Broken Man)

In this final post on the theme of "The Broken Man", I will discuss the Christian beliefs concerning why happiness is so difficult for human beings.  I will primarily focus on the writings of Saint Augustine.  The Christian view was in some ways more hopeful and in other ways more pessimistic than that of the pagan philosophers, which perhaps says something about the limitations of the categories "hopeful" and "pessimistic".  On the one hand, the problem is far worse than any of the pagan philosophers believed, except perhaps the Stoics.  On the other hand, there is a solution available to everyone, something none of the other groups believed except perhaps the Epicureans.  In this section, I will discuss what they believed the problem is, and I will discuss the solution elsewhere.

Like in Aristotle, human beings suffer from two defects: there is both natural limitation and unnatural defect.  Human beings, even if there was no Fall, would still be incapable of reaching God, which constitutes their ultimate fulfillment.  Human nature is limited, and without the Fall, human beings would not have been able to reach God by their own power.  This does not mean that they would lack the natural virtues.  For instance, human beings could be just, temperate, wise and courageous, even without God's further help.  Moreover, without the Fall, they would have been immortal, able to live in a naturally perfect state.  However, this naturally perfect state is not the highest possible end for human beings.  That is to be unified with God.  Therefore, even perfect human beings would require God's help for supernatural virtues such as faith, hope and love.

However, there is something further wrong with human beings: we are no longer perfect.  After the sin of Adam, human nature became broken in significant ways.  Specifically, our desires, reason, language and relationships have all been damaged.  With the advent of the Fall, vice, incontinence and even continence entered the world.  This came to be known as the "fomes" of Original Sin, the distortion of our desires following the Fall.  Whereas Aristotle believed that matter itself is responsible for defects in particulars, Christianity held that, without the Fall, there would have been no natural defects.  The defects in our human nature come specifically from the sin of Adam, and as a result, our desires are not broken.  Note that they are still there, and still essentially good, but they are distorted.

This Fall is more pervasive than Aristotelian vice.  Aristotle believed that some people could have virtue, and that there are virtuous people.  These virtuous are virtuous by their own power; they are simply actualizing their potential.  However, according to the Christians, no one can be virtuous without God's help.  This does not simply refer to God's continuing creation of the world.  What this means is that virtue is impossible for everyone, pagan or Christian.  Pagans can come to some approximation of virtue, but even that is through God's grace, even if they don't recognize it.  However, if this approximation of virtue is distorted by a pride that undermines it without God's help.

Christians, then, believed that human happiness is impossible for humans alone.  The Fall has broken human nature, which accounts for the difficulties in human nature noticed by the pagan philosophers.  These difficulties are extremely pervasive, making even natural virtue impossible for human beings without God's grace.  Our human nature is still basically good (though limited), but we are incapable of virtue on our own.

Painting: "Adam and Eve" by Lucas Cranach


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