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Augustine on the Origin of Sin

Short essay on Augustine and the Origin of Sin for Harvard’s “History of Philosophy of Religion” course. I actually don’t believe that Augustine teaches that sin is caused by ignorance, but the professor said such in the essay assignment, so I made good of the opportunity to try and prove it true regardless. After submitting the essay, I followed up with my actual view in a class discussion post, which I’ve posted above the essay (scored 98%) below.

Discussion Post

A popular prayer was composed by St. Thomas Aquinas, in which he makes the following petition:

“Pour forth a ray of Your brightness into the darkened places of my mind; disperse from my soul the twofold darkness into which I was born: sin and ignorance.”

Contrary to the assumption in the first writing prompt, it does not appear, therefore, that ignorance is the cause of sin but one of the two effects of the human condition.

In Book III of “On Free Choice of the Will”, Augustine writes:

“All sinful souls have been afflicted with these two punishments: ignorance and difficulty.”

Again, it seems that ignorance is not seen as the cause of sin, but as a result thereof.

The only way that ignorance can be said to be the cause of sin is if we distinguish a number of different senses in which the term “ignorance” can be used, which Augustine may, in fact, be doing.

First, ignorance can be used to name a simple naivete, whereby man simply does not understand what he’s doing, like a toddler playing with a loaded gun. This, however, would contradict Augustine’s argument that sin is justly punished because it is voluntary.

Second, ignorance can be used to name the lack of wisdom, whereby man fails to control his “irrational desires”, which leads to sin. Augustine teaches that the knowledge of good and evil are “stamped on man’s mind”, so no excuse can be made. This use of ignorance can be reconciled with Augustine’s teaching on human culpability for sin.

Third, ignorance can be used to name a condition resulting from original sin, in which man, being separated from God suffers from a lack of natural knowledge. Augustine obviously uses the term in this sense in Book III.

I don’t, however, believe that it can be said that Augustine teaches that “sin is caused by ignorance”.

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