Augustine’s Sin and the Struggle of Wills

“The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me a prisoner.  The consequence of a distorted will is passion.  By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity. By these links, as it were, connected one to another (hence my term a chain), a harsh bondage held me  under restraint.  The new will, which was beginning to be within me a will to serve you freely and to enjoy you, God, the only sure source of pleasure, was not yet strong enough to conquer my older will, which had the strength of old habit.  So my two wills, one old, the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, were in conflict with me another, and their discord robbed my soul of all concentration.”  Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford 1991), p. 140.

Here Augustine describes the bondage by which sinful desires hold the human will.  He describes how this bondage of a distorted will becomes a sinful necessity.  He realized his bound condition only after the new will began to stir.  As he references Romans 7:17-25, Augustine wrote, “The law of sin is the violence of habit by which even the unwilling mind is dragged down and held, as it deserves to be, since by its own choice it slipped into habit.” Ibid., 141.

At this point Augustine begins the narrative of his conversion experience.  He recounts his study of the Scriptures, the life of St Anthony, and numerous discussions with others concerning these matters.  Finally, the moment arrived.  Augustine writes, “Our lodging had a garden.  We had the use of it as well as of the entire house, for our host, the owner of the house, was not living there.  The tumult of my heart took me out into the garden where no one could interfere with the burning the struggle with myself in which I was engaged, until the matter could be settled.  You knew, but I did not, what the outcome would be.  But my madness with myself was part of the process of recovering health, and in the agony of death I was coming to life.” Ibid., 146.

Augustine then proceeds to describe the conflict of the two wills within his mind. He returns to the theme of habit mentioned above. “We are dealing with a morbid condition of the mind which, when it is lifted up by the truth, does not unreservedly rise to it but is weighed down by habit. So there are two wills. Neither of them is complete, and what is present in the one is lacking to the other.” Ibid., 148.

The next post will examine the resolution of this conflict in Augustine’s conversion.


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