Human Nature

In this topic from the OCR Religious Studies AS specification you will study Augustine's teachings about human nature.  It would also be helpful for you to be able to refer to other contrasting theories concerning human nature such as the views of Sartre or Freud.

Candidates should be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of Augustine’s teachings on the following:

  • the relationship of men and women before and after the Fall;
  • the soul (deliberative and obedient) and its relationship to the body;
  • sin (concupiscence).

Candidates should be able to discuss critically these issues and their  strengths and weaknesses.

Augustine's Life:

Going further:

For a fuller summary of Augustine's life and its influence on his teachings read the biography page.  It is useful to know about Augustine's life because it will help you to explain more fully how he developed his theology.

Augustine lived between 354 and 430 CE.  His father was a pagan but his mother was a Christian and he had been exposed to Christian ideas from an early age. However, he was not baptised a Christian until 387 CE after he had been involved first with the Manichee sect and later with neo-Platonism.  Both Manicheanism and neo-Platonism were condemned as hereseys (false teaching) by the Catholic Church and in later life Augustine wrote books which explicitly opposed these ideas.  That said, some scholars believed that they had a lasting influence on Augustine's beliefs.

As a boy Augustine was a gifted student and was sent to the university at Carthage where he discovered great classical scholars like Cicero whose work he credited with igniting his love of philosophy.  When he had finished his own studies he became a teacher, first at Carthage and then in Milan.

However, despite his intellectual prowess, as a young man he was not a model student.  According to his own reports he lived a wild life and in adolescence 'ran wild with lust'.  He also remembered lying to teachers and parents, stealing pears just for the fun of doing something forbidden and being conceited about his own abilities.  A key idea in understanding Augustine's teaching about human nature is his own disgust at his inability to do what he knew he ought to do.  

After Augustine's conversion and baptism he returned to North Africa where he became first a priest and then bishop of Hippo.  He spent the rest of his life writing prolifically and caring for the spiritual needs of his parish.

There are several important figures in Augustine's life.  His mother Monica first introduced him to Christian ideas and opposed his forays into Manicheanism.  St Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, first showed Augustine a more inellectual and philosophical version of Christianity that Augustine found appealing.  His concubine (whom he never names) lived with him for thirteen years and had a son by him.  When Augustine was forced to dismiss her to make a socially acceptable marriage he compared the separation to a festering wound.  

The influence of Augustine's life upon his theology:

Many factors in Augustine's life may have had an impact upon his theological ideas. These possible influences include:

  • The influence of his mother.
  • The classical scholars he read as a student.
  • His 'wild' youth and life-long struggles with sexual urges.
  • His relationship with his concubine and the fact that he had to dismiss her.
  • Fatherhood (he had a son by his concubine)
  • His involvement in Manicheanism (especially the dualistic world view) and his eventual disillusionment with it.
  • His interest in neo-Platonism, (especially the hierarchical views)
  • His conversations with St Ambrose.
  • His argument with Pelagius about free will.

You may be able to identify other factors that you think might help to explain his theological views.  You can use this contextual knowledge to add depth to your 'explain' essays.

Augustine's Teachings:

The relationship between men and women:


Augustine has sometimes been accused of misogyny by feminist and feminist theologians.  However, it is important to remember that he was a man of his time and as such some of his beliefs reflect the views of his time.

Augustine's starting point for his account of the relationship between men and women is the story of the creation and Fall found in Genesis 2-3.

In Genesis 2: 18 God says  “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”  From this Augustine concludes that Eve is made to be Adam's helper.  He further deduces that her primary role must be procreation as (in his view) a male companion would be better for every other task.  Better for physical labour (stronger) better for conversation (more in common).  

'If it were not the case that the woman was created to be man’s helper specifically for the production of children, then why would she have been created as a “helper”? Was it so that she might work the land with him? No . . . a male would have made a better assistant.  One can also posit that the reason for her creation as a helper had to do with the companionship she could provide for the man . . . .  Yet for company and conversation, how much more agreeable it is for two male friends to dwell together than for a man and a woman! . . .

I cannot think of any reason for woman’s being made as man’s helper if we dismiss the reason of procreation.'

This is important because it means that sex has always been a part of God's plan. In Genesis 1 the creation of human beings is followed by the instruction to 'Go forth and multiply'.  This view is different to the views of many of Augustine's contemporaries who argued that Adam and Eve did not have a sexual relationship until after the Fall.  Augustine believed that they did have sex but that in the prelapsarian state sex would have been a rational act based on love in which the genitalia would be under the control of the mind rather than motivated by lust.  Adam and Eve were companions - friends - and sex was one aspect of that rather than the motivation for their relationship. 

'Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God…every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason… the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.'

(1 Corinthians 11:3-9)

However, although there were friends and intended to help one another Augustine did believe that there was a God-given hierarchy in which the woman was subordinate to the man.  (The Bible also explicitly refers to the woman's subordination to her husband in the household codes where they are told to 'obey' their husband and in Paul's letter to the church at Corinth in which he tells women to keep their head covered as a symbol of their subordination.) This is not to say that woman need be viewed as less valuable or less in God's image.   A possible analogy for this (though not one that Augustine used) is the relationship between parents and child.  Both are equally important but it is still natural for the parent to rule.

The Fall involved a subversion of the God-given order:

  • Humans disobey God
  • Woman leads man into sin
  • Bodily desire overrules reason and understanding

Augustine interprets the punishment given to Eve as including both a reiteration of and an increase in her subordinate status.  Rather than obeying man voluntarily out of love (as in the traditional marriage vows) he is to become her master.  

'…we must give consideration to the statements, "And you shall be subject to your husband, and he will rule over you", to see how it can be understood in the proper sense.  For we must believe that even before her sin woman had been made to be ruled by her husband and to be submissive and subject to him.  But we can with reason understand that the servitude meant in these words is that in which there is a condition similar to that of slavery rather than a bond of love….St. Paul says, "Through love serve one another."  But by no means would he say, "Have dominion over one another." Hence married persons through love can serve one another, but St Paul does not permit a woman to rule over a man.  The sentence pronounced by God gave this power rather to man; and it is not by her nature but rather by her sin that woman deserved to have her husband for a master. But if this order is not maintained, nature will be corrupted still more, and sin will be increased.'

For Augustine, marriage was the closest that a couple could get to the pre-Fall relationship between Adam and Eve.  In marriage men and women relate together as friends, sex could  occur for the procreation of children (its original purpose) and woman could obey out of love.  

'[Marriage is] the first natural bond of human society is man and wife. Nor did God create these each by himself, and join them together as alien by birth: but He created the one out of the other, setting a sign also of the power of the union in the side, whence she was drawn, was formed. For they are joined one to another side by side, who walk together, and look together whither they walk. Then follows the connection of fellowship in children, which is the one alone worthy fruit, not of the union of male and female, but of the sexual intercourse.'

On the Good of Marriage

The soul:

'...the true God who made not only our souls but also our bodies...'

Confessions Book VII Chapter 3

For Christians, the rational soul (which is often identified with the mind) is supposed to be the spiritual part of a human.  Augustine makes it quite clear that in his view both body and soul are created by God (something denied by the Manicheans who saw physical matter as an evil force distracting the pure soul). As both body and soul come from God, both are good and both are an essential part of what it is to be human.  

Just as Augustine believed that God had intended the man to obey God and woman to obey both God and man he also thought that God intended there to be a hierarchy between body and soul.  The soul, being rational, moral and capable of understanding was to be the ruler of the body.  He compares it to the rider of a horse steering the more animalistic instincts of the body and guiding a person along a sensible course of action.  

[The soul is] 'a certain substance partaking in reason and suited to rule the body'. 

Moreover, it is the soul that makes it possible for us to have free will.

'Now the human body is subject to mechanistic process, but thought is not so subject.'

Whilst the soul should be part that is in control, Augustine also thought that the body was also essential as the vehicle for the soul.  It enabled humans to interact with the physical world, to learn through senses and to carry out the all important command to procreate. Augustine compared it to physical frame of a lantern which carried the flame (the soul).

'We are composites of soul and body...For although soul and body are two things, and neither would be called a “man” if the other did not exist (for neither would the body be a man if the soul did not exist, nor in turn would the soul be a man if a body were not animated by it).'

To be human is to have both and although body and soul are distinct from each other they work together.

'If we should define a human being such that a human being is a rational substance consisting of soul and body, there is no doubt that a human being has a soul which is not the body and has a body which is not the soul'.

'the soul which has a body does not make two persons, but one human being'.

As the 'middleman' in the God-soul-body hierarchy the soul has two functions.  It has an obedient function which is concerned with obeying the things above it (God for man, God and man for woman).  The soul must be capable of understanding the instructions (e.g. moral commands) given by God.  It also has a 'deliberative' function.  To deliberate is to think about and choose between different courses of action.  It is the decision making part of the mind.  As Augustine believed that men and women had been assigned different roles by God he also believed that the deliberative soul would have a slightly different role in each.  For woman, her deliberative soul had to make decisions about her role as mother and all the other duties associated with that.  Whereas man's deliberative soul was concerned with ruling the earth in God's stead.

'I did not know it then but I was in love with a beauty of a lower order and it was dragging me down.'

Confessions Book IV Chapter 13

Although Augustine rejected his Manichean and neo-Platonist beliefs he does seem to sometimes think of the body in terms of something that drags down the soul.  However, he explicitly denied that the body was anything other than good (it did after all come from God) and he explained that it was not the body itself, but the corruptibility of the body that caused it to be a burden on the rational soul.

'I cared for nothing but to love and be loved.  But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of friendship.  Bodily desire, like a morass, and adolescent sex welled up within me exuding mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust…In my tender youth they swept me away over the precipice of my body’s appetites and plunged me in the whirlpool of sin.'

Confessions Book II Chapter 2

Concupiscence (sin):

Augustine had a life-long interest in sin and had been attracted to the Manichee sect partly due to its apparent ability to provide a credible explanation for why people sin.

To Augustine sin presented a logical problem, one he summed in Book 7 of his Confessions:

'I would ask myself once more: ‘Who made me?  Surely it was my God, who is not only good but Goodness in itself. How, then, do I come to possess a will that can choose to do wrong and refuse to do good, thereby providing a just reason why I should be punished?  Who put this will into me?  Who sowed this seed of bitterness in me, when all that I am was made by my God, who is Sweetness itself?  It if was the devil who put it there, who made the devil?  It he was good angel who became a devil because of his own wicked will, how did he come to possess the wicked will which made him a devil, when the Creator, who is entirely good, made him a good angel and nothing else?'

Confessions Book 7 Chapter 12

Essentially his question was why do humans have the potential to sin if they are made by a good God?  Even children, he believed, seemed to come into the world with a predisposition to sin as he knew from his own youthful indiscretions.

'For in your sight no man is free from sin, not even a child who has lived only one day on earth…It can hardly be right for a child, even at that age, to cry for everything, including things which would harm him; to work himself into a tantrum against people older than himself and not required to obey him; and to try his best to strike and hurt others who know better than he does.'

Confessions Book I Chapter 7

'Many times I lied to my tutor, my masters, and my parents, and deceived them because I wanted to play games or watch some futile show…I even stole from my parents’ larder…Can this be the innocence of childhood?'

Confessions Book 1 Chapter 19

He was also troubled by a second problem.  If we don't actually want to sin why do we do it?  He had been taught that we sin out of our own free will, but in his experience this did not seem to be the case.

'I was told that we do evil because we choose to do so of our own free will, and suffer it because your justice rightly demands that we should.  I did my best to undrstand this, but I could not see it clearly.'

Confessions Book VII Chapter 3

Augustine called evil a privation - a lack of good.

Augustine came to believe that God created humans good but with free will.  If someone is to have genuine free will then the must have a real possibility of choice.  If God had created humans who always chose to do good then they would not have real free will.  Augustine believed that evil was a lack of the good that God intended for the world.  In other words, it was a falling short of God's standards.  A traditional way of explaining this is to say that just as darkness is an absence of light so evil is no more than an absence of good.

This theory explained how a good God could create a world that had sin in it but did not full account for why humans seemed so prone to sin.  Nor did if fully explain why humans seem to sin against their will.

To explain this paradox Augustine developed the idea of concupiscence.  For Augustine, the Fall was not just an example of individuals falling short of good.  He believed that the Fall left lasting damage on human nature.  The soul's rebellion against God caused a rebellion of the body against the mind.  This meant that in the postlapsarian state every human from then on would be born with rebellion (concupiscence) at the heart of their being.  

'After Adam and Eve disobeyed...they felt for the first time a movement of disobedience in their flesh, as punishment in kind for their own disobedience to God... The soul, which had taken a perverse delight in its own liberty and disdain to serve God, was now deprived of its original mastery over the body.  Because it had deliberately deserted the Lord who was over it, it no longer bent to its will the servant below it, being unable to hold the flesh completely in its subjugation as would always have been the case, if only the soul had remained subject to God.  From this moment on, then the flesh began to lust against the spirit.  With this rebellion we are born.'

City of God Book 13 Chapter 13


Sexual lust is not the only example of concupiscence.  Any action in which bodily desire or animalistic drives overrule the judgement of the rational soul would also be an example of concupiscence.

For Augustine, the prime example of this was to be found in the case of sex. Whereas in the prelapsarian state sex was a rational act done at the bidding of the mind, since the Fall the body ruled.  Augustine cites as proof the fact that the sexual organs can both be active when the mind does not want them to be and passive when the mind wants the opposite.  For this reason, the genitalia act as a constant reminder of humanities sinful rebellion and become 'pudenda' - parts of shame.  The lust inherent in all sexual activity would ensure that concupiscence continued to be passed on from one generation to the next as all people are born as a direct result of sin.

'Sometimes the impulse is an unwanted intruder, sometimes it abandons the eager lover, and desire cools off in the body while it is at boiling heat in the mind.'

'...surely such a man would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust of this kind,  for then the parts created for this task would be the servants of his mind, even in their function of procreation...They would begin their activity at the bidding of the will, instead of being stirred up by the ferment of lust.'

City of God Chapter 14

Other views on Human Nature:


Pelagius was a British monk who argued that humans did have genuine free will which meant that he rejected the idea that we are born with an inclination to sin. He argued that:

  • It would be unjust of God to condemn us for something that we could not help.  (God is OMNIBENEVOLENT and JUST)
  • God knows our capabilities so he would not give us instructions that we could not keep.  (God is OMNISCIENT and OMNIBENEVOLENT) It must be possible (but unlikely) for humans to live the perfect life without God's intervention.
  • Good people existed in the Old Testament.  They lived before Jesus brought salvation into the world.

Pelagius' views were condemned in 418 CE at the Council of Carthage.  The council reiterated Augustine's view including the belief that sin is inherited, babies must be baptised to rid them of original sin and humans can only be good with the help of the grace of God.

The Second Vatican Council published a document on Human Nature in 1965.  It affirms that since the Fall 'man is split within himself.  As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness.  Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, that everyone feels as though he is bound by chains.  But the Lord Himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly...for sin has diminished man, blocking his path to fulfillment.'

Jean Paul Sartre:

Sartre was an existentialist French philosopher.  He argued that there is no such thing as human nature.  We all have the capacity to make our own essence through the choices we make.  He encouraged people to make choices in 'good faith', that is, to make choices that are genuinely their own.  To do the opposite is to allow other people's expectations of the views of society to affect our choice and by doing so live in 'bad faith'.

The motto of existentialism is 'existence precedes essence'.

Feminists like Simone de Beauvoire were very influenced by the idea of existentialism and rejected gender stereotypes.


To a certain extent Augustine's account of human nature seems to describe human nature accurately.  Many people would share his experience of wanting to do one thing and yet doing another.  His belief that 'bodily' desires can overthrow common sense also seems to perhaps fit with our experience of nature.

However, a big problem with Augustine's view is that it seems to be fairly firmly founded in some outdated ideas.  Specifically:

  • The Fall (challenged by evolution)
  • Belief in a spiritual soul (challenged by materialism/physicalism)
  • Inheritable corruption (i.e. original sin passed on by the lust inherent in sex)

So how damaging are these criticisms?  Fundamentalists would of course have no problem with dismissing the first as irrelevant; in their view creation happened as the Bible records it and if science says otherwise then science is wrong.  As for the second, it is certainly possible to argue that there are some reasons to believe in the soul (moral conscience, near death experiences).

Alternatively, one could argue that Augustine's theories are not necessarily based on a literal understanding of these ideas.  His account of human nature could be understood as a psychologically accurate account of the experience of being human even if the metaphysics under-pinning it is removed.

As Pelagius pointed out, the doctrine of Original Sin can present a theological and moral problem.  It would be unfair of God to punish people if they have inherited a nature that inclines them towards sin.  

"Everything, good and evil, concerning which we are either worthy of praise of blame, is done by us not born with us.  We are not born in our full development, but with a capacity for good and evil".

(Pelagius as quoted by Augustine).

Follow the links at the bottom under 'further reading' to find out what these experiments entailed.

Psychological experiments like the Milgram experiment and the Stamford prison experiment could be used to help explain why people do bad things.  

Evidence from the Milgram experiment suggests that rather than being naturally rebellious people are actually predisposed to do as they are told by authority figures.  They will obey orders even when it involves harming others and even when it goes against their own initial moral instincts.

The data from the Stamford Prison Experiment could suggest that some people are inclined to abuse power and authority and to harm others if they can.  Around a third of those given the role of guards in the original experiment appeared to enjoy harming the prisoners.  A further third of the guards were actively kindly towards the prisoners.  The remaining third played by the rules and neither deliberately harmed prisoners nor went out of their way to be kind.

Further Reading:

Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Augustine here.  Detailed but read-able and contains hyperlinks to other related issues.

Summary of some of the points made in the Pelagius/Augustine debate here.

Interesting BBC article on why people do bad things here.

Milgram experiment here

Stanford Prison experiment here.

Extracts from Augustine's Confessions here.  Short and accessible (and cheap) primary text material.  Gives you a real feel for Augustine's work.  Kindle version available.