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OCR A-level RS Essay Feedback


I have completed this practice essay and was wondering if anyone could give me feedback? I would really appreciate it!

Thank you!

To what extent, if at all, does Augustine offer an analysis of human nature that is still useful today? [40]

Augustine’s view of human nature is often portrayed as being pessimistic to be useful. This is because he was extremely obsessed with the idea of “original sin” and “the fall”. He constantly emphasised that no matter what we do, there is no way we can save ourselves; we can only be saved through the grace of God. Augustine’s teaching on the human nature has been highly influential in the Christian West, from its conception in the 4th century up to the present day. His work continues to be very useful when considered in relation to some of the ills committed by the human race in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is despised by some who see him as having an archaic and morbid view of the human nature in comparison to the optimistic thought of the enlightenment. However, by others his teaching is seen as providing a realistic assessment of the human nature. After considering Augustine’s specific teaching and a number of alternatives, I will argue that he is defensibly pessimistic (or realistic). I will, however, agree with Niebuhrian that the nature of sin should be seen as social rather than individual. In this essay, I will endeavour to show that although Augustine’s view on human nature can be described as pessimistic, it is more or so just realistic and so it is still useful. I will use scholars such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Reinhold Niebuhr to support and contradict the question. I will also question the extent of our free will in accordance with concupiscence and akrasia; whether he was pessimistic or whether he just had a greater expectation of humanity due to his belief in ecclesia.

Augustine speaks in quite positive terms about the human nature before the fall. Based on a reading of the beginning of the Genesis creation narrative, he makes several significant points. He speaks about the human will as something given by God and thus reflective of the imago dei. The will is free, but with this freedom comes the ability to act in selfish love (cupiditas) as well as in selfless love (caritas). Humanity is also in a state of paradise whereby friendship with God and with fellow humans (Adam and Eve) can be freely enjoyed. Within this context, sexual love is seen as pure and without lust. Significantly, for Augustine, in relation to the charge of pessimism, friendship and love are not entirely destroyed in the fall, although relationships are made complicated and strained. In terms of what happens as a result of the fall, Augustine does indeed paint a pessimistic picture. Disobedience is a key hallmark of the fall and is closely associated with pride; pride being that which causes Adam and Eve to want to become like God. The fall is a wilful act proceeding from the evil will. Augustine is saying that the fall was something that happened as a result of a free act of humanity. A distinction can be made here from a Manichean form of Platonic thought whereby it is the evil body that negatively overcomes the will. In Augustine, because the will chooses evil there is a clear negative result in that the will now becomes divided. This is exemplified in Paul’s language in Romans 7 where the desire to do good is seemingly overcome with the desire to do evil. Augustine explicitly spells out the implications of the divided will by focussing on the evil desires that become part of the human nature (concupiscience). Humanity is now geared towards the sins of the flesh, particularly lust. Indeed, this sin is passed on through the sexual act. Some would say that this paints a highly negative picture of human relations and sex in particular to the point where sex is somehow evil in God’s eyes.

Augustine’s understanding of how humanity might become good, however, is arguably more optimistic in that for the Christian there is hope that the divided will can be restored through grace. That is, for those chosen in Christ, sin can be overcome. Indeed, the work of Christ does this in that Christ takes the consequences of sin into his own body. This view is not without its problems, however, and raises questions about what happens to those who are not predestined. We might say, therefore, that Augustine’s teaching is indeed quite pessimistic regarding the unredeemed will. Whether or not it is too pessimistic remains to be seen. Indeed, arguably for those who are predestined, the picture is very bright and hopeful. What Augustine cannot be accused of, though, is ignoring the significance of sin and I would suggest that this remains his most brilliant insight into an understanding of the human nature. It is appropriate at this point to compare Augustine’s thought with that of his contemporary Pelagius. Pelagius insisted that the fall does not destroy the human potential to become good. Indeed, humans not only have the potential, but also the requirement to be good. Augustine considered this view to be highly misleading, not just because of his own struggle with sin, but because he thought that Pelagius lessened the significance of God’s saving grace. In the end, Pelagius arguably merely paints a picture of humans as those that absolutely must use their free will to become good. The danger here is that governments, be they sacred or secular, can become dictatorial on the basis that they can exist in order to create and insist upon a perfect humanity according to their kind. Indeed, I would argue that Pelagius’s insistence on the potential and goodness of the human will does not acknowledge sufficiently human frailty and weakness which is so evidently present. Likewise, by saying that humans must act well, he presumes that it is acceptable to demand that that they do so.

Another view that commits this mistake, in my view, is embodied in the humanitarian principle; that is, the principle which insists that humans become good simply through prioritising the interests of others. This is a compelling ideal, but not, I would suggest, realistic. There are people, for whatever reason, who simply cannot live up to this ideal. For this reason, and because I ultimately agree with Augustine on the extent of human sin, I find the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr particularly compelling. His disillusionment with the optimistic view of the human nature portrayed through enlightenment thinking is entirely understandable when one considers the atrocities of humanity through history, not least in the 20th century. His suggestion that sin is a societal sickness as much as an individual one is also compelling when one considers the ills of certain institutions in the modern world, not least as seen in the accounts of sexual abuse in places such as the BBC as well as the more oft referred to example of the Catholic Church. Also, Niebuhr is highly relevant in political discourse when one considers Western foreign policy of recent times which can seem highly judgemental, rather than self-critical. Niebuhr’s work reminds us of why Augustine’s insights are so important and useful. However, his emphasis on social sin, I would argue, is a necessary corrective and one that makes more sense within the modern global context.

The problem with acting to be saved is that it is not right. Richard Dawkins argues that acting morally just to be rewarded by God or in heaven is not ethical. This is because although we are doing what is good we have intentions that will benefit us in the long term. Therefore, we are not doing our duty for the sake of doing it but rather to get a reward from it. Instead of acting morally right for a potential reward people should decide to do the right thing because they believe it to be so even if it does not benefit them. Richard Dawkins also disagrees with Augustine because he disapproves with the idea of “original sin”. In his book “The God Delusion” he writes, “What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child even before it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor?” This is a perfectly valid point because it makes no sense for an omnibenevolent God to punish us for the sins of our distant ancestors. He also points out that if evolution is true, humans ascended from much less sophisticated mammals that lacked the kind of consciousness needed to make moral choices. Therefore, logically speaking, “original sin” could not have occurred. This makes the Genesis story a dangerous and an unrealistic idea. For the sake of this argument, let’s suppose that “original sin” did occur, does it sound morally right that God restores human nature by killing his own son. If so, it only shows that God is sadomasochistic and irrational. This shows that Augustine is pessimistic but not by his own disposition but rather with the disposition of the church and Christianity as a whole. Dawkins was also right about Christianity being “obsessed” with “sin, guilt, violence and sexuality” as it is seen in most of Augustine’s work, especially in “Confessions”.

In conclusion, therefore, I would argue that Augustine is justly pessimistic about the human nature, rather than too pessimistic and so he offers a useful analysis of human nature. Or to put it another way, he is realistic in his overall judgement. This is not to say that his evaluation of the particular problem is wholly correct. Indeed, I would suggest that his emphasis on concupiscence and the libido is overblown and indeed too Platonic in that these sins are associated too particularly with bodily lust and a negative view of the specific nature of the flesh. However, as we have seen through recent institutional scandals, sexual sin is still a problem. I would argue, though, again in Niebuhrian terms, that it is the lack of self-critique of institutions that allows this to be such a problem. I also personally agree that goodness is something gifted rather than innate, or in Augustine’s terms, an act of grace. Goodness requires something other than myself. More specifically, goodness requires God’s grace. I likewise disagree with Pelagius that goodness is something that is universally demanded of us all, particularly due to the fact that there are particular social and emotional barriers that can limit the ability of people to become good. I also believe that goodness is ultimately something given in Christ, universally given maybe, but given nonetheless. And it is because of the givenness of grace that there is reason to be hopeful despite holding to an appropriate pessimism regarding the human nature unaided.

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