Saint Augustine on Rightly Ordered Love

St. Augustine by Sandro Botticelli

In his City of God, Saint Augustine defined virtue as “rightly ordered love” (City of God, XV.23). The right ordering of love was a running theme in Augustine’s life and writings. In one of his clearest explanations, he said:

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)

Augustine’s conception of rightly ordered loves has prompted a lot of substantial and creative theological reflection over the centuries. In Purgatorio, for example, Dante conceived of the seven deadly sins in terms of disordered love. The proud, envious and wrathful were guilty of misdirected love; the slothful were guilty of deficient love; and the avaricious, gluttonous, and lustful were guilty of excessive love. While I don’t believe in purgatory, these characterizations of sin in relationship to love are still helpful. If virtue is love rightly ordered in our hearts, it stands to reason that vice is the opposite.

This understanding of virtue and vice meshes with Scripture’s insistence that love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:8; Gal 5:14; James 2:8). Augustine called virtues “the various movements of love,” and described the four cardinal virtues in terms of love: 

I hold that virtue is nothing other than perfect love of God. Now, when it is said that virtue has a fourfold division, as I understand it, this is said according to the various movements of love…We may, therefore, define these virtues as follows: temperance is love preserving itself entire and incorrupt for God; courage is love readily bearing all things for the sake of God; justice is love serving only God, and therefore ruling well everything else that is subject to the human person; prudence is love discerning well between what helps it toward God and what hinders it. (On the Morals of the Catholic Church, XV.25)

Beneath Augustine’s conception of virtue as rightly ordered love was a foundational conviction about the nature of reality. Augustine believed that the summum bonum, the highest good, was God himself and that all other goods are lesser goods that flow from his hand, intended to lead us back to him. In the Confessions, for example, Augustine says:

For there is a joy that is not given to those who do not love you, but only to those who love you for your own sake. You yourself are their joy. Happiness is to rejoice in you and for you and because of you. This is happiness and there is no other. Those who think that there is another kind of happiness look for joy elsewhere, but theirs is not true joy. (Confessions, X.22)

Within this framework, sin springs from hearts that neglect God as the Supreme Good and seek their happiness in lesser goods. But such people ignore the order and nature of reality. This is the heart of evil: to prefer a lesser good over the Supreme Good, to worship and serve the creature rather the Creator (Rom 1:25).

These are thy gifts; they are good, for thou in thy
goodness has made them.
Nothing in them is from us, save for sin when,
neglectful of order,
We fix our love on the creature, instead of on thee,
 the Creator.  (City of God, XV.22)

Augustine’s ethical system is an outgrowth of this conviction. Echoes of this are everywhere in his writings. Commenting on one of the Psalms, he writes:

He who made all said, Ask what thou wilt: yet nothing wilt thou find more precious, nothing wilt thou find better, than Himself who made all things. Him seek, who made all things, and in Him and from Him shalt thou have all things which He made. All things are precious, because all are beautiful; but what more beautiful than He? Strong are they; but what stronger than He? And nothing would He give thee rather than Himself. If aught better thou hast found, ask it. If thou ask aught else, thou wilt do wrong to Him, and harm to thyself, by preferring to Him that which He made, when He would give to thee Himself who made. (Commentary on the Psalms, Psalm 35.9, in NPNF, 1.8.81)

I’m sure that I have not done justice to Augustine’s theology of love and ethics. A lifetime could be devoted to exploring this theme in Augustine! Nevertheless, I think Augustine’s understanding of sin in relationship to love, and love in relationship to the hierarchy of goods, helps us in at least four ways: 

1. First of all, it tightly tethers our thinking about ethics to the heart. Behavior matters, but behavior is always a reflection of what’s going on in the heart – of what we love. This means that we can never settle for mere outward compliance with rules. Our approach to spiritual transformation must always be inside out. If we would change our ways, we must first order our loves.

2. Augustine’s approach allows us to embrace all created goods in their proper order. Other goods do not need to be rejected, but rather submitted, put in order, held in their proper place. Consider, for example, how Augustine discusses the good of physical beauty:

Now physical beauty, to be sure, is a good created by God, but it is a temporal good, very low in the scale of goods; and if it is loved in preference to God, the eternal, internal, and sempiternal Good, that love is as wrong as the miser’s love for gold, with the abandonment of justice, though the fault is in the man, not in the gold. This is true of everything created; though it is good, it can be loved in the right way or in the wrong way – in the right way, that is, when the proper order is kept, in the wrong way when that order is upset. (City of God, XV.22)

3. Thirdly, this means that one of our aims in Christian living should be learning to love and enjoy God through the things he has made. This is the only way to avoid idolatry. If we allow our love to terminate on a lesser good, our love for it becomes ultimate and therefore central. In Augustine’s own words, “He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.” (Confessions, X.29)

So, how do we learn this? How do we enjoy a created thing without making it an idol? How do we, to use a phrase from C. S. Lewis, chase the sunbeam back up to the sun?

I think the answer is that we must trace the specific features of the things we enjoy back to their source in God. Created goods are temporal, finite streams that flow to us from the fountain of God’s uncreated and unending goodness. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

So when you enjoy the taste of food, remember that the Creator of food is Christ himself, the Bread of Life, and then taste and see that he is good. When you are mesmerized by the enchanting sound of music, remember that this is but an echo of the original Voice, whose love song birthed creation.

Tell me. Love, if thou canst, anything which He hath not made. Look round upon the whole creation, see whether in any place thou art held with the birdlime of desire, and hindered from loving the Creator, except it be by that very thing which He hath Himself created, whom thou despisest. But why dost thou love those things, except because they are beautiful? Can they be as beautiful as He by whom they were made? Thou admirest these things, because thou seest not Him: but through those things which thou admirest, love Him whom thou seest not. (Commentary on the Psalms, on Psalm 80:11 in NPNF, 1.8.389)

4. Finally, Augustine's writings constantly remind us that learning to love God in everything is a work of grace. We cannot order our own hearts. That’s why every sentence in Augustine’s Confessions is a prayer. He had learned first hand how absolutely dependent he was on God’s grace. That’s why he prayed,

O Love ever burning, never quenched! O Charity, my God, set me on fire with your love! You command me to be continent. Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will! (Confessions, X.29).

And that’s why we also must pray with Augustine, “Set love in order in me.” (City of God, XV.22).


mwh said...

Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! I feel that I have a better grip on Augustine's thought on love.

Ben Murray said...

Spent an entire of seminary studying Augustine, and came to the same conclusion as you: I could take an entire life studying this guy. Fortunately Augustine always points us to thestudying of Scripture and our Triune God.