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Augustine, Manichaeism and the Good

by Kam-Lun E. Lee

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Institution: University of Ottawa and St. Paul University
Advisor(s): J. Kevin Coyle
Degree: Ph.D., Theology
Year: 1996
Volume: 238 pages
ISBN-10: 1581120176
ISBN-13: 9781581120172


This thesis will investigate, by means of the historical-critical method, Augustine of Hippo's understanding of the Manichaean idea of the Good, and how this understanding affects his own related notions of summum bonum and personal evil, and, as a corollary, his doctrine of predestination. The question of a possible Manichaean influence is particularly pertinent because Manichaeism is at heart a dualistic solution to the issue of good and evil. The focus is not on Manichaeism per se but on Augustine's perception of it, as more directly affecting his thinking.

Augustine's treatise De natura boni (399) in part summarizes his treatment of "the nature of the Good" in earlier polemics. From his first writing, De pulchro et apto (380), to that point, Augustine understands the Manichaean concept as equating the Good with the Beautiful, the latter taken to mean that which engenders tranquil pleasure. Conversely, evil is thought of as a disturbance of this state, whether spiritually or physically.

Carrying over from the Manichaean expectations he held in De pulchro et apto, Augustine perceives the summum bonum to be that which guarantees the soul's tranquil enjoyment. For the soul to attain tranquility, it must have modus, or the fullness of due order. God as the summum bonum can guarantee tranquility simply because, as summus modus, he exists fully, therefore cannot be lost as the soul's object of possession. In turn, God confers order on the contemplating soul.

Wickedness and mortality are deemed to be both spiritually and physically evil in Manichaean terms because they disturb a person's tranquil existence. In his non-metaphysical theory he designs to explain intrinsic personal evil developed in De uera religione (390), Augustine redefines these two notions as "sin" and "penalty," hence imposing on them a causal relation that makes the conception of a vicious circle mechanism possible. According to Augustine, in the human experience of evil habit (consuetudo), the mystery of one's bondage to sin, has to do with the vicious circle caused by the inherited penalty of the primal sin, resulting in bodily corruption, and by the effect of this corruption on the subsequent sinful defective turning of the will away from God toward preference for bodily pleasure. This defection is, in turn, reinforced by spiritual blindness, which is, again, the result of bodily corruption. In his debate with Fortunatus (392), Augustine was challenged to reread the Pauline writings. From this he discovered that his theory of consuetudo remained incomplete so long as no serious consideration was given to the role of concupiscentia as the intrinsic principle of rebellion against God's Law. Augustine's notion of concupiscentia is also linked directly to the Manichaean idea of evil as a disturbance of a person's inner tranquility. By the time he wrote De uera religione, Augustine had imported into that notion a strong sexual overtone by equating concupiscentia with the Manichaean term libido, which implies sexual desire.

Augustine's development of the idea of predestination reveals the Manichaean concept of the Good at work in three ways: on the framework of that development, in the implication of determinism, and on the context of the doctrine. To respond to the Manichaean view of the universe as a mixture of good and evil, Augustine suggests an alternative theory of cosmic ordering. Despite the presence of evil, he believes that the whole cosmos is in harmonious beauty so long as evil is assigned to its proper place. God is to preserve this order in both the physical and the spiritual (moral) creations, an order portrayable with a two-tiered frame. Initially (around 388), Augustine thought that an individual person, as a spiritual creature, should have self-determination by the exercise of the will. But gradually, due to his conviction that personal evil is inevitable (a view shared by the Manichees and demonstrated in his conceptions of consuetudo and concupiscentia), Augustine assigned determination of one's destiny to the jurisdiction of God. As he neared the maturation of his predestinarian idea (around 396), therefore, Augustine increasingly subsumed the individual's election or condemnation, which belongs to the moral order in the spiritual creation, into God's hidden eternal plan for the cosmos. Determinism, however, is not the only characteristic feature of Augustine's version of predestination. The cosmological and eschatological contexts of his doctrine demand the notion of summum bonum to warrant the beauty of the cosmic order as well as to assure the elect's eternal tranquil beatitude.

The Manichaean contribution to the success of Augustine's conception of predestination is both undeniable and indispensable. By engaging the Manichaean question of unde sit malum?, he was able to achieve what other Christian leaders of his time could not: a Christian theory of th