At the center of Augustine’s understanding of the will are desire and delight, and these too are the central threads that run through my following reflections on Han-luen Kantzer Komline’s Augustine on the Will. I will begin with choice and delight, move to sex and sexuality, and conclude with the eschatological will.
Augustine’s central place for delight is striking in some ways, given that his writing on desire (to say nothing of pleasure!) is in various regards so austere. Yet his account of desire and delight as responsive to true goodness can be so luscious and sensual. Kantzer Komline captures these aspects at a range of points in her recent study of Augustine on the will, a thorough and detailed account that provides an excellent resource on this topic. One of the key points that she draws out in her book is the relationship between delight and freedom, particularly as Augustine’s thought matures from his earlier understanding of freedom in relation to choice. As Kantzer Komline notes regarding Augustine’s later view, “delight, as opposed to mere free choice, amounts to genuine freedom” (p. 391). As Augustine’s doctrine of grace matures, along with his view of its corresponding relationship to human agency, his understanding of freedom shifts as well. While the shift away from choice risks undermining human agency, on the face of it, Augustine comes to affirm that the fallen will is already unfree in its choosing in ways True human freedom for Augustine is the freedom to delight in what is truly good: God and all God’s gifts.that fundamentally undermine human capacity to choose—and, in choosing, attain—what they truly desire: happiness. True human freedom for Augustine is the freedom to delight in what is truly good: God and all God’s gifts. As Kantzer Komline writes, “[if Augustine] is moving toward a conception of willing that has less to do with the choice between options and more to do with delight in a certain kind of object, then the lack of freedom of choice no longer necessarily violates freedom of the will” (p. 105). But this shift has as much to do with Augustine’s recognition of delight as the primary positive impetus of human willing as it does with the recognition that fallen human wills do not in fact have the capacity to choose freely between options. Human beings are drastically constrained in their options by their inability not to sin, and thus cannot fulfill their deepest longings, and without grace human willing only chases semblances of happiness that turn out to be false and harmful.
For Augustine, fallen wills have no true freedom of choice, though humans may mistake the superficiality of choosing distinct courses of action as freedom, when in fact they cannot help sinning. Without grace, all their courses of action are subject to frustration (and worse). They therefore have no freedom to choose the path of healing and true delight, but rather are in bondage to sin and the harm it wreaks on themselves and others. This follows Augustine’s account of freedom in its relation to sin in all the stages of redemptive history: pre-lapsarian, post-lapsarian, and eschatological freedom. Human Edenic freedom (in which humans were able not to sin, posse non peccare) is marred by sin after the fall (in which state humans are unable not to sin, non posse non peccare). The fall fundamentally harms the human capacity to access such delight without the help of grace. Graced freedom, fully realized, ultimately leads them to the blossoming of the free will in heaven when humans will be unable to sin (non posse peccare).
Kantzer Komline carefully tracks these shifts in Augustine’s thought both historically and doctrinally, demonstrating with laudable clarity the complex theological path Augustine charts over the course of his life on these matters. And this path points to delight. We find this expressed in Augustine’s extravagant images of union with God and heavenly joy which orient his understanding of freedom, of the graced will, and of the hoped-for end at which the arduous discipline of the will aims, even as the experience of that will on earth remains fraught and painful, as Augustine also describes in visceral terms.In Conf. 8, for example, he describes his will as bound by the iron chain of habit (8.5.10), as being violently dragged down and held by the strength of habit (8.5.12), as “turning and twisting first this way, then that, [half-wounded]” (8.9.19), as monstrously split (8.9.21); he describes himself as “vile,” “twisted and filthy, covered in sores and ulcers,” (8. 7.16) and as “gnawing” at his inner self (8.7.18). This is a central tension in Augustine’s thought on the will that matures, in part, as a result of his own experience of the painful experience of division and alienation—within oneself, from others, and from God—and the glorious possibility of alignment in all of these relationships. This alignment is never perfected in this life and yet one may taste it. Such foretastes nourish the hope and the vision of that eschatological freedom in which the alignment of the mind, heart, will, and body is full and secure.
I find it curious, in light of how significant sex and sexuality are in Augustine’s accounting of the will’s fall as well as its imagined eschatological healing, that Kantzer Komline largely avoids these passages from (most notably) Confessions and City of God.In Confessions, these span several books, e.g. Conf. 2.3.7–8; 3.1.1; 4.2.2; 6.11.20-25; 8.1.1–6.17 (beyond the passages specifically dealing with sexual desires in book 8, the account of his volitional struggle and conversion is wrapped up with a range of “lusts,” not always specified in nature, but which clearly significantly include the sexual); Civ. 14.9–26 and 22.17, 24, 29. These texts have been the object of a number of interesting readings of Augustine on sex and sexuality in the last couple decades, such as John Cavadini, “Feeling Right: Augustine on the Passions and Sexual Desire,” Augustinian Studies 36.1 (2005): 195–217; Kate Cooper and Conrad Leyser, “The Gender of Grace: Impotence, Servitude, and Manliness in the Fifth-Century West,” in Gender & History 12/3 (November 2000): 536–51; Margaret Miles, “Sex and the City (of God): Is Sex Forfeited or Fulfilled in Augustine’s Resurrection of Body?,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73.2 (2005): 307–27; Danuta Shanzer, “Avulsa a Latere Meo: Augustine’s Spare Rib: Confessions 6.15.25,” The Journal of Roman Studies 92 (2002): 157–76; James Wetzel, “Agony in the Garden: Augustine’s Myth of Will,” in Parting Knowledge: Essays After Augustine (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013). Kantzer Komline’s discussion of sex in relation to the will covers but a few pages and is restricted to the topic of sex within marriage and its procreative aim. Yet these passages contain some of Augustine’s most vivid experiential descriptions of volitional agony and sin’s harms. Augustine’s divided willing harms himself (he describes this division in violent and diseased metaphors); his relationships with others (sending away the mother of his child leaves his heart trailing blood even as he turns to other women to satisfy his sexual wants while awaiting his prospective marriage to a betrothed who is, at the time, but a child); and his relationship with God (over which he laments). This volitional agony and its harms emerge precisely in these most intimate and intense of desires. Further, and perhaps more positively in terms of the view of human sexuality implied, his account of the fall in City of God and both the pre-lapsarian and eschatological states of the will notably involve human sexuality and what it might be like to have sex and to experience one’s body in ways not fraught by divisions between one’s desire and one’s will, and between one’s will and one’s body. It is significant that Augustine has a place in his theological imaginary for what truly free sex(uality) might be like, unconstrained by the involuntary “perturbations” of both inner (emotional) and outer (physical) motions (and their misalignment)—however unsatisfactory or limited it might be relative to a positive place for sex and sexuality that I (to speak for myself) accord in my own theological positioning.
This brings me to my final point for discussion, which is the eschatological will. Augustine’s eschatology is perhaps the central recurring theme in my own thinking with Augustine. I am fascinated by Augustine’s eschatological reflections, not for their esoteric (and not infrequently ridiculed!) strangeness, but because I think eschatological visions reveal the contours of a person’s understanding of what it is to be human: human desire and longing, human agency, human fulfilment and perfection. Eschatology is a kind of imaginative terrain in which to explore these aspects of our lives and our loves as they might be, as we wish them to be, as we long for them to be, which says as much about who we understand ourselves to be now and what we long for in this life as it says about the next. These eschatological contours are not simply otherworldly, they do not merely indicate hoped for heavenly goods—they are equally revealing of a corresponding understanding of earthly life and action. At least, this is certainly the case for Augustine.
As Augustine understands the earthly Christian life as a process of journeying toward the homeland, a journey in which one orients oneself to the destination and conforms oneself to the Christological path that leads there by the inflaming power of the Holy Spirit, the continuity between eschatological hopes and earthly loves (and their ordering) is fundamental.This image is my focus in Sarah Stewart-Kroeker, Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation in Augustine’s Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Kantzer Komline points to exactly this continuity when she notes the persistence of memory in the eschaton: “Part of enjoying freedom of will in the eschaton will be remembering how one has been set free. The eschatological will does not efface previous forms of human willing, but embraces them, in the memory of the liberation accomplished by Christ and in its endless songs of praise” (p. 409). Augustine’s eschatological freedom, the complete healing of the fallen will and its entry into everlasting joy, does not erase the way undertaken to reach and enjoy liberation. Indeed, “the eschatological will does not float off into eternal bliss, leaving its history behind. Rather, its very freedomAugustine’s eschatological freedom, the complete healing of the fallen will and its entry into everlasting joy, does not erase the way undertaken to reach and enjoy liberation. includes an awareness of this history, and the occupation of the saints in the heavenly city will be the endless singing of the story of the will’s liberation to the praise of God” (p. 409). I note in passing that this is precisely a piece of what occupies me in relation to Augustine’s striking suggestion that not only Christ but the martyrs retain their wounds on their resurrected bodies, which he suggests we desire to see.Civ. 22.19. I elaborate on this point in Sarah Stewart-Kroeker, “Love of and For the Martyrs: Resurrected Wounds and the ‘Order’ of Restoration” in Studia Patristica Vol. 13 “Ordo Amoris in Augustine” ed. Paul Camacho and Ian Clausen (Leuven: Peeters, 2021), 91–98. It is also central to my forthcoming book, La terre martyre (Genève: Labor et Fides). I appreciate that Kantzer Komline attends to this place of memory in Augustine’s eschatology, which I think opens up a number of both interesting and challenging theological questions.
At the same time, I want to push a little further in thinking with Kantzer Komline about the significance of the eschatological will. While she is certainly right that when it comes to discussing the eschatological will (unlike the other three types), Augustine “lacks information” and has “limited data” (p. 381), this way of framing the topic misses something crucial not only about the nature of eschatological reflection but about the way Augustine conducts his. First, the ways in which these reflections are in fact deeply informed by his experience of earthly willing—both its defects and the longed-for healing of them—as well as by biblical sources. And second, it misses the important sense in which eschatological reflection is essentially imaginative. It is exploratory, it is evocative, and it is an exercise in desire, emerging from the desires that may spring up spontaneously in oneself (for wholeness, for alignment) and reflecting the desires that one may seek actively to cultivate. In his preaching, Augustine frequently engages in this second exercise: he deploys his considerable rhetorical talents to stunning effect when he tries to express just how abundantly wonderful life with God in the company of saints will be.En. Ps. 32.2.8; 36.1.12; 41.9; 124.4. See Sarah Stewart-Kroeker, “A Wordless Cry of Jubilation: Joy and the Ordering of the Emotions,” Augustinian Studies 50.1 (2019): 65–86 for a more detailed account of the relationship between earthly emotions and the foretaste of heavenly ones (specifically joy). Sometimes he invites them to an everlasting feast day accompanied by angel choirs; sometimes he beckons them into the beautiful “mountain-girt” city of peace, heavenly Jerusalem, radiant with light; sometimes he leads them into the secret mystical heart of ineffable union with God, an embrace so encompassing it surpasses human speech, and can only be imagined as a sustained and wordless cry of joy and praise. I find this fertile ground, rich in insight into Augustine’s most profound sense of who we are, we fallen and hopeful lovers.