Augustine: On the Fall of Man, Part II

Having examined Augustine’s reading of the Fall of Man in an anthropological and teleological sense, in which we can conclude that the Fall of Man is the rejection of reason (God, since God is Reason) and that man attempts to fulfill their happiness through purely willing their own happiness without reason (reason ordering desire to its end), we are now turning to Augustine’s reading of the Fall concerning the ramifications of the Fall on: human relationships, humanity’s relationship with nature, and why Augustine is seen as the godfather of much of existentialism – especially in Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Beauvoir, and Sartre.  For Augustine, who – again – takes Genesis allegorically, the story of the Fall in the Garden is symbolic but symptomatic of the human condition.  The Fall ruptures human relational harmony with each other (between man and woman), ruptures the harmony between man and nature, both of which constitute the beginning of our alienation from the world (existentialism), and taken together also represents the human corruption of the participatio Trinitatis (participation with the Trinity).


Augustine’s allegorical reading of creation is not, again, a literal “six day” creation account as anyone who has read Confessions XIII or De Genesi ad Literram knows.  But Augustine sees creation as reflecting the Trinity itself.  We must remember that, for Augustine, who gave the most authoritative and simple definition of the Trinity: “the Trinity is a relations of love,” love and the ability to love is what defines the creation.  There is, then, a sort of cosmic trinitarian formula to creation: creatio ex nihilo, creatio ex amore Dei, and imago Dei.

God created from nothing.  This is very important to remember.  Next is creation from love of God (God created the universe in love).  Finally is imago Dei, that creation is an image of God.  Properly speaking, imago Dei only applies to humans.  But the rest of creation – following St. Paul – bears the stamp of God’s creative trademark so to speak.  All creation is a sign of God’s beauty and love.  The Fall is slow unravelling of the entire creation formula for Augustine.

Augustine reads Genesis 2 as an account of organic harmony between man and nature.  Adam, whom Augustine doesn’t regard as a “literal” figure like the fundamentalists do but regards him as both literal and archetypal, is representative of man in his original state.  Adam is at one with nature.  He catalogs the animals.  (Cata-Logon meaning “according to Reason.”)  Adam, man, has a harmonious relationship of love and wisdom with nature.  And yet he is lonely.

Contrary to 20th century existentialist theologians claiming that the eating of the Tree of Knowledge is the rise of anxiety and consciousness, we already see this in Genesis 2.  Augustine notes that Adam’s loneliness is because man, while having a harmonious relationship with nature, is nevertheless different from nature.  Humans are the full imago Dei.  Thus, God makes Eve, woman, from his side.

This is very important to understand in Augustine’s allegorical reading of the creation of humanity.  That woman is taken from man’s ribs – his side – means co-equality.  Eve is not made from his head implying superiority.  She is not taken from his lower half implying inferiority either.  She is taken from his side to be side-by-side companions.  Man and woman united in a harmonious relationship together in love.  This is what Augustine understands the creation narrative to be asserting.  Man and woman are made for each other and complete each other.  Thus, Augustine also articulates an authentic individualism – individual in English comes from the Latin word individuum which means “indivisible” which presupposes a “coming together.”

The harmonious relationship of love between man and woman is a reflection of the Trinity itself because the Trinity is a relations of love.  Man and woman have a relation of love in Eden.  They literally participate with the Trinity, that is, they participate in a co-equal relationship of love just as the three persons of the Trinity do in traditional Trinitarian theology.  Furthermore, they live together with the animals and the rest of nature in the garden.  Although humans sit atop the cosmic hierarchy as I explained in understanding Augustine’s commentary on Genesis 1 in Book XIII of the Confessions, man is not alienated from nature.  Instead, man finds a home in nature.

Thus, in Augustine’s eyes, there exists prior to the Fall an organic and harmonious relationship between humanity and the natural world, and a harmonious relationship between humans with one another.


The eating of the Tree of Knowledge represents multiple things for Augustine.  First is the temptation of the Snake to Adam and Eve where he promises them that they should be like “gods” in the plural.  This is a rejection of monotheism according to Augustine where man fancies himself as sovereign over God and prefers himself over God – that there would be many “gods” rather than one “God.”  (Augustine also sees this as the birth of relativism because we are all our own gods means that we are all creating our own reasons and reasonings for our actions, there is no universal Truth, but “many truths.”)  Since God is Reason and Reason is God, and God is Love, Augustine understands this to mean as humanity’s rejection of its rational faculties of the soul (rejecting being an imago Dei) and rejecting love of others for love of the self.  This is what Augustine calls the incurvatus in se – the “inward curve to the self” where self-love and self-want trumps everything.

Second is that the eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents humanity’s desire for happiness and wholeness, which it had in its original state, and is technically not something evil qua evil.  However, because the story is principally a rejection of Reason (God), the story shows that man attempts to will his own happiness apart from the Logos.  Man becomes pure will separated from Reason (which is the separation from the Logos, and since the Logos is Christ in traditional Trinitarian theology that really means we have separated ourselves from Christ).  As Augustine notes, in this separation from Reason, from God and God’s standard, man became the “measure of all things,” and thereby necessarily lived by falsity.  “So when man lives by the standard of truth he lives not by his own standard, but by God’s. For it is God who has said, ‘I am the truth.’  By contrast, when he lives by his own standard, that is by man’s and not by God’s standard, then inevitably he lives by the standard of falsehood.”[1]

Third, and more critically, when God confronts Adam about what he has done Adam shatters the harmonious relationship of love with Eve when he rebukes God and blames God for “making this woman” who was the first to have been tempted and gave the fruit to him.  This is probably the most important ramification of the Fall.  That harmonious and indivisible relationship of love that humans shared prior to the Fall is shattered and corrupted.  It torments us.  It estranges us from others.  It leads to total self-absorption and suspicion and skepticism of the other.

Furthermore, Adam’s refusal to take responsibility for the burden of his action has dramatic consequences in Augustine’s reading.  As mentioned, it represents the rupture between man and woman, which Augustine reads in a larger macro sense as the rupture of humanity with itself which explains why humans do not live in harmony with one another.  Second, Adam’s refusal to take responsibility when God gives him a chance is also man’s rejection of being a rational animal.  Rather than take responsibility for actions, man seeks excuses to place the burden of responsibility onto others.  This comes out in various forms: one is that humans “blame God” for their woes, second is that there is no meaning or responsibility in life; both are really the same though regardless of whether there is a God or not because it represents the shift of responsibility away from the human being.

Lastly, the expulsion from the Garden represents human estrangement and alienation from nature itself – humans are literally kicked out of their once harmonious relationship with the natural world and begin to see themselves in competition with nature.  This leads to human exploitation of nature (and also exploitation of other humans) as a result.  Thus, that beautiful portrait of creation that Augustine sees as the starting point is reduced to creatio ex nihilo.  The Fall ruptures imago Dei and creatio ex amore Dei.  We are thus left with an empty shell of the creation forumal: creation from nothing.

For Augustine this is the most haunting aspect and ramification of the Fall.  What this really means is that we live for nothing.  We live not for Truth.  We live not for Love.  We live not for others.  We live not in harmony with nature and other humans.  We live for the self.  And since the self was created from nothing – for dust you are and to the dust you shall return – what that really means by living for the self is that one lives for nothing.  It is simple logical syllogism if one agrees with the Christian portrait of anthropology.


The enduring legacy of Augustine’s reading of the Fall of Man has been in phenomenology and existentialism.   First, since humans are creatures of desire, Augustine has always loomed large in phenomenological philosophy which agrees with that proposition that humans are creatures of will and desire moreover than anything else.  Second, since humans are now estranged with each other, but also estranged from nature, existentialism from Nietzsche to Sartre has always had a love-hate relationship with Augustine.  That love-hate relationship is that Augustine was right except for his belief, being a Christian, that there is a path for restoration (through the salvific works of Christ and the sacraments of the Catholic Church).  For existentialists like Camus and Sartre, this is “bad faith” or misplaced hope.  It is, ironically, a refusal to accept the reality of our wretched condition which Augustine was so astute in establishing.  In other words, Augustine’s anthropology and analysis of alienation are all correct.  Augustine goes wrong in thinking that Christ (the Logos) has a positive or restorative role in fixing this rather bleak state of existence we now find ourselves in.  (I’m simplifying this because Augustine still thinks that beauty, love, and compassion still exist in the world even after the post-Fall state but I don’t have the time to go into that here.)

For these reasons many scholars have noted that existentialism and (atheist) phenomenology is thoroughly rooted in the Christian tradition minus Grace and soteriology.  Per Sartre’s Being and Nothingness we are, in fact, creatures of immense desire.  We desire love but cannot find love or truly love because love never permeated the creation to begin with.  Our estrangement from nature and others leads to our two relations with others: sadism and masochism.  However, both are attempts to find happiness.  For Camus we must “imagine Sisyphus happy” which means we must lie to ourselves about our condition in the world so as to avoid the slip into suicide.  For Nietzsche we must say “Yes” to life by destroying anything beautiful and loving that we make by our own hands for that is misplaced hope and meaning which causes the cessation of self-overcoming.  Nietzsche, in this regard, is the most thorough going “tragic” Augustinian: We must continuously will ourselves to life itself to the bitter end – in other words, Nietzsche embraces Augustine’s post-Fall state and says this is the world we live in and this is the world as it has always been and the only way of coping with this is the will to power.


The take-away from the ramifications of the Fall in Augustine is our complete and utter alienation and estrangement from nature and other humans.  Imago Dei has been compromised.  That organic and harmonious relationship with nature and between humans has been ruptured as a result of the Fall.  Augustine, being Christian, nevertheless thinks the path to restoration is through the Logos (Christ).  One of the ironies of Augustine is that his outlook has also been highly influential and informative on non-Christians too.  After all, Augustine’s account of the Fall – which is not that Evangelical-Fundamentalist reading of the “loss of immorality” – really seems insightful in explaining the current condition of man and man’s relationship to the world, especially in light of the 20th century.


[1] City of God, 14.4.

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