Sacred Texts  Christianity  Early Church Fathers  Index  Previous  Next 

Chapter 10.—Sin is Only from the Will.  His Own Life and Will Best Known to Each Individual.  What Will is.

For let any men whatever, if only no madness has broken them loose from the common p. 102 sense of the human race, bring whatever zeal they like for judging, whatever ignorance, nay whatever slowness of mind, I should like to find out what they would have replied to me had I asked, whether a man would seem to them to have sinned by whose hand while he was asleep another should have written something disgraceful?  Who doubts that they would have denied that it is a sin, and have exclaimed against it so vehemently that they might perchance have been enraged that I should have thought them proper objects of such a question?  Of whom reconciled and restored to equanimity, as best I could do it, I should have begged that they would not take it amiss if I asked them another thing just as manifest, just as completely within the knowledge of all.  Then I should have asked, if some stronger person had done some evil thing by the hand of one not sleeping but conscious, yet with the rest of his members bound and in constraint, whether because he knew it, though absolutely unwilling, he should be held guilty of any sin?  And here all marvelling that I should ask such questions, would reply without hesitation, that he had absolutely not sinned at all.  Why so?  Because whoever has done anything evil by means of one unconscious or unable to resist, the latter can by no means be justly condemned.  And precisely why this is so, if I should inquire of the human nature in these men, I should easily bring out the desired answer, by asking in this manner:  Suppose that the sleeper already knew what the other would do with his hand, and of purpose aforethought, having drunk so much as would prevent his being awakened, should go to sleep, in order to deceive some one with an oath.  Would any amount of sleep suffice to prove his innocence?  What else than a guilty man would one pronounce him?  But if he has also willingly been bound that he may deceive some one by this pretext, in what respect then would those chains profit as a means of relieving him of sin?  Although bound by these he was really not able to resist, as in the other case the sleeper was absolutely ignorant of what he was then doing.  Is there therefore any possibility of doubting that both should be judged to have sinned?  Which things having been conceded, I should have argued, that sin is indeed nowhere but in the will, 210 since this consideration also would have helped me, that justice holds guilty those sinning by evil will alone, although they may have been unable to accomplish what they willed.

13.  For who could have said that, in adducing these considerations, I was dwelling upon obscure and recondite things, where on account of the fewness of those able to understand, either fraud or suspicion of ostentation is accustomed to arise?  Let that distinction between intelligible and sensible things withdraw for a little:  let me not be found fault with for following up slow minds with the stimuli of subtle disputations.  Permit me to know that I live, permit me to know that I will to live.  If in this the human race agrees, as our life is known to us, so also is our will.  Nor when we become possessed of this knowledge, is there any occasion to fear lest any one should convince us that we may be deceived; for no one can be deceived as to whether he does not live, or wishes nothing.  I do not think that I have adduced anything obscure, and my concern is rather lest some should find fault with me for dwelling on things that are too manifest.  But let us consider the bearing of these things.

14.  Sinning therefore takes place only by exercise of will.  But our will is very well known to us; for neither should I know that I will, if I did not know what will itself is.  Accordingly, it is thus defined:  will is a movement of mind, no one compelling, either p. 103 for not losing or for obtaining something. 211   Why therefore could not I have so defined it then?  Was it difficult to see that one unwilling is contrary to one willing, just as the left hand is contrary to the right, not as black to white?  For the same thing cannot be at the same time black and white.  But whoever is placed between two men is on the left hand with reference to one, on the right with reference to the other.  One man is both on the right hand and on the left hand at the same time, but by no means both to the one man.  So indeed one mind may be at the same time unwilling and willing, but it cannot be at the same time unwilling and willing with reference to one and the same thing.  For when any one unwillingly does anything; if you ask him whether he wished to do it, he says that he did not.  Likewise if you ask whether he wished not to do it, he replies that he did.  So you will find him unwilling with reference to doing, willing with reference to not doing, that is to say, one mind at the same time having both attitudes, but each referring to different things.  Why do I say this?  Because if we should again ask wherefore though unwilling he does this, he will say that he is compelled.  For every one also who does a thing unwillingly is compelled, and every one who is compelled, if he does a thing, does it only unwillingly.  It follows that he that is willing is free from compulsion, even if any one thinks himself compelled.  And in this manner every one who willingly does a thing is not compelled, and whoever is not compelled, either does it willingly or not at all.  Since nature itself proclaims these things in all men whom we can interrogate without absurdity, from the boy even to the old man, from literary sport even to the throne of the wise, why then should I not have seen that in the definition of will should be put, "no one compelling," which now as if with greater experience most cautiously I have done.  But if this is everywhere manifest, and promptly occurs to all not by instruction but by nature, what is there left that seems obscure, unless perchance it be concealed from some one, that when we wish for something, we will, and our mind is moved towards it, and we either have it or do not have it, and if we have it we will to retain it, if we have it not, to acquire it?  Wherefore everyone who wills, wills either not to lose something or to obtain it.  Hence if all these things are clearer than day, as they are, nor are they given to my conception alone, but by the liberality of truth itself to the whole human race, why could I not have said even at that time:  Will is a movement of the mind, no one compelling, either for not losing or for obtaining something?



The Pelagians used this statement with considerable effect in their polemics against its author.  In his Retractations Augustin has this to say by way of explanation:  "The Pelagians may think that thus was said in their interest, on account of young children whose sin which is remitted to them in baptism they deny on the ground that they do not yet use the power of will.  As if indeed the sin, which we say they derive originally from Adam, that is, that they are implicated in his guilt and on this account are held obnoxious to punishment, could ever be otherwise than in will, by which will it was committed when the transgression of the divine precept was accomplished.  Our statement, that ‘there is never sin but in will,’ may be thought false for the reason that the apostle says:  ‘If what I will not this I do, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.’  For this sin is to such an extent involuntary, that he says:  ‘What I will not this I do.’  How, therefore, is there never sin but in the will?  But this sin concerning which the apostle has spoken is called sin, because by sin it was done, and it is the penalty of sin; since this is said concerning carnal concupiscence, which he discloses in what follows saying:  ‘I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good; for to will is present to me, but to accomplish that which is good, is not.’ (Rom. vii. 16-18).  Since the perfection of good is, that not even the concupiscence of sin should be in man, to which indeed when one lives well the will does not consent; nevertheless man does not accomplish the good because as yet concupiscence is in him, to which the will is antagonistic, the guilt of which concupiscence is loosed by baptism, but the infirmity remains, against which until it is healed every believer who advances well most earnestly struggles.  But sin, which is never but in will, must especially be known as that which is followed by just condemnation.  For this through one man entered into the world; although that sin also by which consent is yielded to concupiscence is not committed but by will.  Wherefore also in another place I have said:  ‘Not therefore except by will is sin committed.’"—A.H.N.

On this matter Augustin’s still earlier treatise De Libero Arbitrio, and his interesting Retractations on the same, should be compared.  The reader of these earlier treatises in comparison with the Anti-Pelagian treatises can hardly fail to recognize a marked change of base on Augustin’s part.  His efforts to show the consistency of his earlier with his later modes of thought are to be pronounced only partially successful.  The fact is, that in the Anti-Manichæan time he went too far in maintaining the absolute freedom of the will and the impossibility of sin apart from personal will in the sinner; while in the Anti-Pelagian time he ventured too near to the fatalism that he so earnestly combated in the Manichæans.—A.H.N.


This dictum also Augustin thought it needful to explain:  "This was said that by this definition a willing person might be distinguished from one not willing, and so the intention might be referred to those who first in Paradise were the origin of evil to the human race, by sinning no one compelling, that is by sinning with free will, because also knowingly they sinned against the command, and the tempters persuaded, did not compel, that this should be done.  For he who ignorantly sinned may not incongruously be said to have sinned unwillingly, although not knowing what he did, yet willingly he did it.  So not even the sin of such a one could be without will, which will assuredly, as it has been defined, was a ‘movement of the mind, no one compelling, either for not losing or for obtaining something.’  For he was not compelled to do what if he had been unwilling he would not have done.  Because he willed, therefore he did it, even if he did not sin because he willed, being ignorant that what he did is sin.  So not even such a sin could be without will, but by will of deed not by will of sin, which deed was yet sin; for this deed is what ought not to have taken place.  But whoever knowingly sins, if he can without sin resist the one compelling him to sin, yet resists not, assuredly sins willingly.  For he who can resist is not compelled to yield.  But he who cannot by good will resist cogent covetousness, and therefore does what is contrary to the precepts of righteousness, this now is sin in the sense of being the penalty of sin.  Wherefore it is most true that sin cannot be apart from will."

It is needless to say that such reasoning would not have answered Augustin’s purpose in writing against the Manichæans.—A.H.N.

Next: Chapter 11