Augustine's doctrine of weakness of the will after 411

Ann Ann Pang-White, Marquette University


Weakness of the will (hereafter, WOW) is often defined by philosophers, e.g., Aristotle and others, as "the moral state of agents who act against their better judgment." John Rist, a prominent Augustinian scholar, claims that for Augustine, all humans are always weak-willed toward everything. If we adopt the Aristotelian concept of WOW and apply it to Rist's statement, Augustine's position is quite alarming. For according to the Aristotelian concept of WOW, moral agents are said to be weak-willed only when they actually act against their better judgment, and thus are morally blameworthy. According to this, Rist's statement could mean that for Augustine, since we are always weak-willed toward everything, we always act against our better judgment and therefore are always morally blameworthy. But is Augustine's position so counterintuitive? Since Augustine's position on this issue underwent several considerable changes during his forty-some years of writing, I have limited my investigation to his anti-Pelagian works. For the encounter with the Pelagian heresy made Augustine rethink his position. In his eleven anti-Pelagian writings, Augustine presents his most mature view on WOW. In this dissertation, first, I discuss Augustine's change of views on the ability of the human will. Second, I argue that Augustine distinguishes four different kinds of WOW. Third, I investigate the various factors which cause WOW. Fourth, I infer a theory of two-levelled consent. I then critically evaluate some contemporary scholars' interpretations of Augustine's position. The proper definition of Augustine's idea of WOW is, I argue, the state of mind in which concupiscence is present, or in which both concupiscence and a person's final consent to its enticement are present. Since being "weak-willed" for Augustine is a concept which refers to both a universal condition of fallen human nature and one's actual behavior, being weak-willed in the Augustinian sense does not necessarily entail moral blameworthiness. I conclude that Rist's statement is correct only when it means that all humans, ranging from ordinary people to great saints, always suffer the defect of concupiscence and not that all are always morally blameworthy.

Recommended Citation

Pang-White, Ann Ann, "Augustine's doctrine of weakness of the will after 411" (1997). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9811400.