TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 5: The Goods Which Fulfill Human Persons

Question F: What is St. Augustine’s theory of the human good as a whole?

1. St. Augustine holds that the human good consists in peace. By this he means harmony, the tranquillity of order, in oneself, with others, and especially with God. By focusing on peace, he calls attention to the existential dimension of persons and their fulfillment.

2. However, Augustine primarily thinks of peace as an ultimate, desirable condition which is to be realized in heaven. In this respect his view is similar to that which considers fulfillment to consist in satisfying one’s desires. Against versions of this conception of fulfillment other than his own, he makes the point that one’s deepest desire, for which one’s heart is always restless, is for union with God beyond this life.9

One can state Augustine’s position on the human good as a whole by beginning with God. God alone is the human person’s good, and he is good for persons in their possessing him. The possessing will be by a mental grasp, which will yield perfect enjoyment. Lacking this enjoyment, the soul longs for it restlessly. Thus, the good for human persons essentially is peace—that is, the eternal rest of the now restless heart.10

This theology, frequently mistaken for Christian faith itself, narrows human life to its religious dimension and renders problematic the very possibility of a Christian humanism. The conception of happiness as the enjoyment of an intellectual possession of God will be criticized (34‑A).

3. As Aristotle showed, a good life must be a whole life lived out. As Nietzsche argued, it must have room for self-realization and creativity. Augustine’s account of human fulfillment does not include these things. However, his treatment of peace as an other-worldly goal might be expanded into a more open view. Instead of a particular goal to be realized definitively, peace can be considered an inexhaustible good really shared in during this life, and shared in also, in another and superior way, in heaven.11

4. Even so, there are human goods which are not simply aspects of peace as Augustine understands it: life and health, knowledge of the truth, and skill in performance. An adequate account of human good must find a place for these substantive goods and their realization in this life.

5. Inadequate as it is, however, Augustine’s theory of the human good is suggestive. Peace in oneself, with others, and with God is an essential and special part of the human good, a part by which one who shares in it is called “good” without qualification—that is, good not in some limited respect, but simply as a person. Thus it is worth considering next what “peace” more precisely means, then indicating how the other human goods are included in the complete fulfillment of human persons.

“Peace” in the Old Testament has a much richer meaning than it does in St. Augustine, yet its sense is not indefinite.12 It signifies utter fulfillment, completion, perfection—a condition of well-being and flourishing in which nothing is lacking. The prophets foretell a Messiah who will be prince of peace (see Is 9.5–6).

About to die, Jesus leaves his followers peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14.27). Newly risen, he repeatedly greets the disciples: “Peace be with you” (Jn 20.19, 21). The proclamation of the gospel is of peace: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body” (Col 3.15). God will answer every prayer of Christians, and so they have nothing to worry about: “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4.7). As the alienation of sin brings death, so peace brings life (see Rom 5.12; 8.6–11).

It is clear that this promise and hope of peace include every aspect of human fulfillment (see GS 39 and 93). The sending of the Spirit at Pentecost begins to build up the new creation in Christ (see 2 Cor 5.17; Eph 2.10); God has sent forth his Spirit and the face of the earth is renewed (see Ps 104.30). Thus, in the end, sin and all its effects will be overcome; the evils initiated at the beginning will be healed. God creates a new heavens and a new earth, and from heaven sends to earth a new Jerusalem, which also is a new Eden (see Rv 21.1–6).

9. The clearest and most systematic treatment by St. Augustine of the question of the human good as a whole: The City of God, xix, esp. chaps. 10–11, 17, 20, and 25–28.

10. For a sympathetic study of Augustine’s thought centering on this view, see Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, trans. L. E. M. Lynch (New York: Random House, 1960), esp. 3–10; for a brief summary: Eugène Portalié, S.J., A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine, trans. Ralph J. Bastian, S.J. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960), 271–73. Augustine’s theology is heavily influenced by a particular metaphysics, namely, Neoplatonism: Robert J. O’Connell, St. Augustine’s Early Theory of Man, A.D. 386–391 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), esp. 217–18 and 279–89.

11. There is some basis for such an expansion in Augustine himself, and more in the Augustinian tradition: Thomas Renna, “The Idea of Peace in the Augustinian Tradition: 400–1200,” Augustinian Studies, 10 (1979), 105–11.

12. See Heinrich Gross, “Peace,” Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, 648–51; H. Beck and C. Brown, “Peace,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 2:776–83.