Disability in Augustine's De Civitate Dei

In the course of pressing toward the best interpretation of the inscription at Delphi, Plutarch’s character Ammonius characterizes those who are not spiritually alert as being in a state of sleep.1 Philo writes of Abraham’s turning from astrology to Yahweh as opening the eye and awakening from sleep.2 The figures of speech denoting a state of lack of spiritual awareness which are used by both of these writers are those conditions which are common to all of humanity. They thereby imply that spiritual unawareness is a potentially universal condition, a part of human nature. Such figures of speech do not imply that spiritual unawareness is linked to physically disabling conditions, or that such disabilities are a recompense for any particular transgressions.

A complaint of many disability advocates today, though, is that Christian utterance often symbolizes the state of not being spiritually aware with figures of physical disability: for example, being blind, lame, dumb, or deaf. This creates an implication that to have a disability is to be in a sinful state. A particularly glaring (and popular) example comes from John Newton:

I once was lost, but now am found;

was blind, but now I see.3

The judgmental attitude of disability images is problematic, and so is their particularity. The universality of sleep makes it more difficult for any given person to disassociate themselves from the lack of spiritual awareness expressed by Plutarch and Philo. It is clear from these examples that not being spiritually alert does not need to be symbolized in terms of physical disability, nor need one correlate physical disability with a state of sinfulness. The use of such more universal and less judgmental images by non-Christian writers aroused my interest in the use of disability images and the attitudes toward disability in early Christian writers. This paper is the result of that interest.

Augustine’s City of God is the focal point of this study. As a response to the sack of Rome, and the suffering which resulted from it, the book deals with concrete issues. Augustine’s concern for suffering is real, but it is also the springboard for a wider and deeper inquiry: “this question has a wide extension, for many people are continually troubled by the fact that the everyday gifts of God, as also the disasters of humanity, happen to those of good and those of evil life without distinction.”4 The book is a massive exposition of Christian faith, and covers a wide range of material. As a mature work, it is a vehicle for a summary of Augustine’s thought. The Enchiridion provides a complement, giving practical, straightforward advice. There are also scattered references to Augustine’s other works to fill in details, and the use of secondary sources for interpretive guidance and background.

In this paper, I first examine Augustine’s theory of humanity (I), and then some practical examples he deals with that relate to disability issues (II). Then I look at his exposition of the resurrection body (III), and finally, I consider the human obligations and responses that Augustine sees as appropriate (IV). The issues considered here are views of the body, images of not being spiritually alert, and considerations of how these are correlated and how they are used in practical settings. Through this lens, we are able to come to some conclusions about Augustine’s view on the role of God in disabilities, and the human reaction.

City of God and the other works contain few direct references to disabilities. Augustine does make use of the state of blindness to refer to spiritual unawareness, and also discusses the condition of persons with disabling conditions after the resurrection. These will be examined in detail further on, but, through much of this survey, we gain far more information from related discussions, such as the causes that underlie any untoward event. How ought these to be viewed, and the person treated? Does any physical ailment or injury create a permanent stain on the soul, or is it an affliction of the body which can be treated—either now by humans or later in a restoration (or fulfillment) of perfection at the resurrection? The first area of concern, though, is the structure of the world in which all of this occurs, which provides a foundation for understanding why things are the way they are.


In Augustine’s thought, God holds an overwhelming position. Augustine notes that the first article of the creed expresses belief in God Almighty, and that such belief requires human acknowledgment that God may do whatever God pleases.5 God is omnipotent and omniscient; although God knows “all things before they happen,” humans still act in free will, for events would not occur “without our volition.”6 God does not act at random—there is an order to the universe. Humans cannot understand this order, but God knows it perfectly. Although God acts in accordance with this order, God is its master, and is in control of it, not subject to it.7 Augustine thus removes life from the deterministic ravages of an impersonal, uncaring fate or destiny, and maintains God’s supreme and complete power, while building a foundation for humans to freely and inevitably choose to err.

God’s omniscience means that God foreknew Adam’s sin, but it is a sign of God’s justice that God brought good out of that situation.8 God does not seek evil in any circumstance. God’s justice is thus made an absolute. As we will see, humans suffer punishment, but this punishment is for our own good, and not administered for retribution. Thus we can trust that whatever God does is intended to bring the best results out of human errors. This weakens any arguments that a disability may have been sent to a specific person as punishment. Someone might have a disability as the best way to deal with some other situation, but it would seem (here, at least) that God would not decree a disability simply as retribution.

The intent behind this argument is a demonstration of God’s power, but it also shows how Augustine shares with the non-Christian writers cited earlier a foundational belief that any explanations offered about the cosmos must attribute proper worthiness to the divine. In particular, a good God cannot be the cause of evil.9 The concept of divine worthiness gives Augustine a foundation to understand the world. The pattern which he outlines in the Enchiridion is: God is good; the world is created by God; so the world must be good.10 And if creation is good, then one’s attitude to the body, as an aspect of creation, is radically re-oriented. In City of God, Augustine says that the body is created by God and is good.11 This pattern, of course, differs greatly from the prevalent Platonic view of the Roman world in Augustine’s day. This view, which many in the early church accepted, held that the physical world is inherently flawed and the body is a burden to the soul. Augustine overturned this view, as well as that of the dichotomy of body and soul, which went with it.12

Although he affirms the goodness of creation, Augustine is acutely aware that “the whole of man’s life is pain.”13 Since God cannot bring about evil, the obvious question is then, whence evil? The answer, which seems like a theological tight-rope walker’s act, is worked out through Platonic images and presumptions, leading to a very un-Platonic conclusion. Evil is defined as a change wherein good is diminished; its origin is the absence of God’s goodness. The creation is from God, who is unchanging, but it is not exactly like God: it shows the order and beauty of the divine, but it is not unchangeable.14 From earlier writings of Augustine, we learn that variety is required by this changeable order, so differences within the world are to be expected. These differences include the relative lack of good in some things. The creation can yet be called good, because evil does not attack the divinely good order of the cosmos. Thus something may occur which to one person is evil without reflecting on the order of the whole.15 In City of God, Augustine emphasizes that good is diminished by acts of human will, not by acts of God.16 Following this, one could consider an individual’s disability to be evil, without charging God with inflicting the evil, for it is a variation in the mutable created world. This would not upset the order of the world as a whole. So then, if evil in any form is not from God, disabilities are not divine punishment (this is, of course, to the extent that disabilities are considered an evil, which I take for granted—I have yet to find any instance in personal acquaintance or in literature where a disabled person seriously considers their disability to be good of itself. This is not to deny that good may come out of a disability or that some writers who do not experience disabilities have some notion of their hidden benefits). Nor do disabilities give cause for affront to anyone: they are anomalies of the physical world, something that has changed within the physical realm— they are not cosmic errors or disruptions in some sort of dangerous person from which “normal” humans must be shielded.

We have also noted that Augustine attributes evil to acts of human will. According to Augustine’s reading of Genesis, humans were created with all parts of the body under control of the will. This control was disrupted by desire, and this disruption led to the Fall.17 As a result of the Fall, humans suffer a schism between intelligence (knowledge, mind) and will (love); thus their sense of the order of creation has been lost. This disorder is the mark of sin, and is displayed as humans turn from the Creator to created things—in short, the search for happiness is directed to the self rather than God, which is an act of pride. The soul’s presumptuous self-absorption and mis-directed love, concupiscence, leads humans to cosmic disorientation.18

We may also note that it is the body’s corruptibility, not its presence, which is a burden to the soul. Sin originated in the soul’s insubordination, which resulted in the corruption of the flesh. Not only were bodies not the source of sin, they were not created as punishment in the fall; their corruption is the punishment, not the cause, of sin.19 The necessary cure for the disordered human person is not to shun the body, but to bring it under proper control.20

This disorder is a condition that is common to all, and the pervasiveness of pain is evidence of the Fall and the resulting punishment. As Miles notes, the idea of original sin is not popular these days, but it does allow for a “gentler interpretation” of the human situation than theories which place all of the blame on personal responsibility.21 This would be particularly true of disabilities. They are the result of sin, but that sin is endemic. Therefore, Augustine would, I think, strongly caution us against linking a disability with some transgression. As we will soon see, Augustine does not deny that a disability or injury may come to a person as punishment, but he also notes that there are many other causes, and that humans are not in a position to judge why any particular event occurs. The question is less why some untoward event befalls some people than why such events do not happen to all people.

As Augustine surveys the wide range of disaster which befalls humans, we can discern three areas of inquiry: what the specific cause of a particular affliction might be (and, consequently, how we should view such a person), how a person who is afflicted should respond to God as the omnipotent Creator, and how others should react to an afflicted person. The opening pages of City of God give us a broad outline for these categories. After charging us not to blame God for disasters and then claim human credit for good, Augustine tells us that afflictions are God’s method of correction and teaching,22 and perhaps, as with Job, a test to learn the degree of “disinterested devotion” to the Creator.23 He also tells us that both good and evil events befall the righteous as well as the wicked, indiscriminately.24 Bad events are not spoken of as punishment for a particular moral evil. That some are corrective would indicate that there is a degree of divine response to evil acts, but some are examinations of the righteous. So it is a dangerous thing for humans to attribute any cause, for, to Augustine, only God knows the complete story. Thus, there can be no direct correlation between bad things happening and sinfulness. It is also a dangerous thing for humans to blame God for an ill and then credit themselves for good—the person with a disability who in some way overcomes their handicap does so by God’s grace, not their own effort.

One thing Augustine is sure of, throughout City of God, is that the grace of Christ is what humans, as suffering sinners, should seek.25 We will return to the human response to divine grace after surveying how Augustine’s foundations work out in practical examples.


The claim that the soul’s control of the body is the origin of sin, and thereby determinative of the person’s condition, is strengthened as Augustine deals with the case of women raped in the Roman disaster. Flowing from the idea that sin resulted from a decision of the will, Augustine says that one’s purity is determined in his or her mind. He tells us that if the mind is controlled by virtue, this control consecrates the body, and what another does to the body cannot bring blame to the sufferer. If purity could be lost on the basis of a physical action alone, it would not be a matter of virtue, but a simple physical quality, subject to the transitoriness of all physical attributes. The person who has virtue may endure evil without consenting to it, even when it involves their body. One cannot decide what will happen to the body, but can decide what the mind will accept.26 The sufferings of the women are not to be equated with a loss of virtue, which would also say that they are not to undergo the further sufferings of social stigma. There are at least two lessons applicable to our interest here. First: since the mind controls the body, this aspect is determinative of one’s virtue, not the status of the body. A person who lives with a disabled body is not per se outside of divine grace or favor, nor is such a body a sign of wrath sent from God. If the mind is attuned to God, the condition of the body is secondary.27 Second, Augustine is extremely compassionate toward those who suffer physical ills. In either case, their physical condition is not to be used to exclude them from being considered whole people.

The idea of control is also important because it lies behind Augustine’s use of the term “blind” to refer to spiritual unawareness (which we should note is infrequent). John Newton certainly seems to link blindness to sinfulness—and vision is a frequent metaphor for spiritual and mental understanding elsewhere. Does Augustine have in mind a similar equation of an involuntary defect in vision with sin? As the basis for an answer, we may note how Miles explains the theory of vision used by Plato, which persisted through Augustine’s day. As she does so, she demonstrates that the careless use of this figure, if drawn from the literature of antiquity, is a mis-reading of the process which was thought to be behind it. The first clue here is in Plato’s use of the sense of sight. Vision is the sharpest (o)cuta/th) of the sensations. Beauty flows naturally, like a current (r(eu~ma), into the soul through the eyes. The vision of earthly beauty causes the soul to recall something of its once-heavenly placement and hopefully leads it to seek true beauty (e.g., the divine realm).28 We see that vision is certainly a spiritual matter, but the theory of its operation stands apart from typical sense perceptions. One’s basic knowledge comes from sensation. But this knowledge is not true knowledge, for it deals with the mutable objects of the physical world. The true sensation, and what can be really known, is the result of the soul’s use of the body to bond to these sensed objects.29 As the viewer concentrates on an object, the projections of the object are transmitted to the viewer, creating a momentary unity. The soul has a store of images of external objects, so it chooses what to concentrate on, based on its memory. Thus the soul is an active agent in vision; unlike the ear, it does not simply respond indiscriminately to stimuli as they come. The eye, as an active part of the soul, must be trained, exercised, and cleansed of its wrong affections.30 This model of vision emphasizes the importance of the viewer’s initiative and direction, which is a reminder of the soul’s control of the body. So when Augustine uses the term “blind” to refer to someone who refuses to “see” the truth,31 it would seem that he is using a metaphor that does not refer to an involuntary disability, but to those who refuse, through their misguided will, to exert a positive influence over their body. This refusal is an example of the continuing effort of disordered human souls to direct their own course.32

Miracles are always a subject of interest when disability is discussed. To some observers, that some disabled person does not receive a miraculous healing is a sign that the person lacks religious faith. Some see a healing miracle as a sign that some dark, deep sin has been forgiven. To the disabled person, there is often a perception in miracle stories that the person involved stands in need of a cure, and is not whole unless they are restored, thereby creating classes of able or whole versus disabled or lacking, which widen the supposed lack of faith or forgiveness.

Augustine tells us here, as he does in other areas, that a complete explanation is beyond human understanding. For one thing, miracles of healing may not be granted because the wrong motive stands behind a request. Religion is not about the benefits of this life, but the next, and miracles can bring a wrong emphasis, resulting in confusion on this point. But they may also not be granted because a suffering person should display the courage of faith.33 This is generally a positive approach for a person with a disability, since there is no expectation that a person with a disability will receive healing as proof of faith. But Augustine’s insistence on repeating miracle stories (as in Book 22 of City of God) leads to an area of discomfort for many disabled persons today. The person who has received such a miraculous healing (which may be taken broadly, to include “supernatural” efforts to live with their body and overcome the condition in which they live) might be singled out as blessed in everyday practice. This leads, albeit unintentionally, back to the expectation that a faithful person will be healed.

Augustine further questions whether miracles were even needed in his day, for they were signs meant to bring belief in Christ in a world where he was not known. This further removes their occurrence from anything related to personal sins, or the “need” for physical healing to become whole. Then he notes that there are miracles in his day, and reports on several. He reports a cure of blindness without any comment on or reference to the symbolism of blindness as a spiritual state. The same occurs when he reports the cure of a paralytic: there is no reference to a spiritual renewal, only the setting right of a bodily function. Also instructive is the story of seven brothers and three sisters, residents of Caesarea, who were cursed by their mother because she felt ignored by them. They were “afflicted with a frightful trembling of the limbs.” Wherever they went, they were stared at, and they took to wandering. Two were healed (at different times) at the shrine of St. Stephen in Hippo after “praying that God would now be appeased and restore them to their former health.” In all of these, Augustine’s interest is not the healing itself, but making God’s power known.34 The miracles are done by God, to show that the Christian faith, and specifically the resurrection of Christ, is true, and to proclaim the martyred saints to be valid intercessors.35 They are not done for the sake of the person healed. This might be taken as a slight, for the person’s sufferings do not seem to be of great interest. By way of reply, we might propose that Augustine takes the existence of human suffering as a given, for, as we have noted before, suffering is universal. He is simply not interested in dwelling on the details, because there is nothing unusual about them—and that is significant of itself, for it says that he finds nothing to take great notice of in the existence of disabilities. They simply happen in the course of human life. We may also note that there is also no link of healing a physical ailment with forgiveness of sin in the first two incidents recounted. The latter story is more problematic in this regard. We may note, however, that this was a healing of an acquired condition, not a birth disability. We recall that Augustine allows that physical ills may be a punishment for transgression, but that we cannot always reach such a conclusion. To the one recounting the story, the cause is very clear here, and we cannot deny that some people suffer because they have made bad choices. But not everyone suffers because of sin, and thus, overall, disability remains an enigma.

It is also significant that miracles and the validation of the Christian faith are tied specifically to the resurrection. Not only are miracles possible because of the resurrection, they are a sign of its truth to Augustine, as well as a statement on the value of the body.36 We now turn to that direction.


The claim that sin originates in the soul, and that the body is good, is a reversal of the ideas that had permeated Christendom. Now we meet another reversal of commonly held ideas, one that follows from those already presented: his claim about the importance of bodies. We may find this claim revealed in the stories of miracles, the resurrection of Christ, and the expectation of a bodily resurrection to judgment. These themes may be seen most strikingly in Augustine’s expositions on the nature of the resurrection body. In Book 22 of City of God and in portions of the Enchiridion, Augustine defends the doctrine of a general bodily resurrection. His interest in this doctrine arises from 1 Corinthians 15: the resurrection of the body is a cornerstone of the Christian faith, and the resurrection of Christ is the paradigm and guarantee of the resurrection of each person. For Paul and Augustine, this central idea stood in opposition to Platonic sensibility: why would one want to be reunited to the body from which they had so long sought liberation?37

In this light, it is natural that Augustine would take up a defense of the doctrine of resurrection as a central feature of the conclusion of City of God. In the course of this defense, he deals with what seem to be objections to the doctrine, especially its presumed logical contradictions, which had been raised by opponents. A great part of this defense is the question of how differences among human bodies, especially “deformities and defects,” will be handled in the resurrection.38 One of the questions dealt with at length comes from the statement of Luke 21.18 that “not a hair of your head will perish” (NRSV).

To understand how Augustine approaches this issue, we must return to the earlier discussion of the fundamental necessity that one’s conceptions must be worthy of the divine. Another issue of worthiness is how to interpret scriptures and other religious sources, such as myths. Plutarch argued that the Greek myths cannot be read literally: this would irreverently demean the divine.39 Allegorical reading as a means of understanding was also one method used by Augustine. To read all of the Christian scriptures literally would result in blasphemy and impiety.40 The promise in Luke is a place where a literal reading would be absurd (and thereby, impious); the issue is the perfection of the resurrection body, and the promise is about “number of hairs, not length.”41 The promise that not a hair will perish is taken to mean that one’s natural physical potential will be fulfilled at the resurrection. Nothing that is essential to the person will be lost. For example, those who died as infants will be resurrected according to the potential they held for growth into adults. Here, Augustine likens the potential with which humans are conceived and born to a “pattern on a loom.”42 Although humans will be resurrected with the body that their potential would have allowed them to have in their prime, he sees age differences as insignificant, for there will be no weakness of mind or body at the resurrection.43

Augustine is quite certain that the resurrection will be of a physical body, but one very different from the present one. The absence of defects in the resurrection body extends to incorruptibility, lack of subjection to the misleading of concupiscence, and the impossibility of its becoming endangered or diseased.44 Although Augustine says that the resurrected body will have no defects, he cannot say how that will work out, or what will happen, in every imaginable case. For example, he does not know what will happen with stillbirths, but if they are resurrected, it will be to their potential had they lived.45 Looking at the case of Siamese twins, he says that birth defects and deformations “shall at the resurrection be restored to the normal shape of man.” The principle of restoration is not that of restoring all the hair or nails ever cut off, for restoration need not be replacement to be complete. It is rather a reshaping, as if the metal of a deformed statue were melted and re-shaped into the figure which the sculptor had intended. Therefore, certain physical features, such as stature, build, and features, will be retained, so that a person is recognizable. However, nothing that would “jar upon their sensibilities,” a category in which he includes many physical anomalies, will remain, and everything will be “graceful and becoming.” Inequalities that remain will not be problematic—they will be variations that work together, as the difference in voices contributes to musical harmony.46 Augustine allows one exception to the general physical restoration and renewal: the wounds of the martyrs, which will not be a deformity, but “glorious,” will remain.47 This attention to the details of how the body will be raised is one indication of its importance.

But why is the body so important? Augustine gives the answer to this, beginning with a discussion of burial in an earlier book of City of God: “actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing.”48 At another point, he says that “a man’s body is not mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to his very nature as a man.”49 The resurrected body, however, will not be corruptible, so it will not be at odds with the soul—and Augustine is careful to say that it will be a body of flesh, not a spirit.50 The body must be resurrected because the soul needs one to function.

In the course of dealing with the importance of the body, Augustine overturns another presumption, giving us an insight on what was probably the most significant disability of the ancient world—being female. Augustine had previously undermined the basis for perceptions of femaleness as inferior: not only were bodies not the result of the Fall, as we have seen, but humans had been created as male and female, and (albeit under vastly different circumstances) would have had children if they had remained in paradise.51 Now he says that not only will the resurrection body will be one of flesh, but sexual identity will be preserved, because “a woman’s sex is not a defect, it is natural.”52 Women are not, just because of their bodies, to be considered inferior to men. Not only are bodies themselves necessary, their sexual distinctions are perfectly normal. In one stroke, Augustine has overturned many of the presumptions of his day.

We have seen that Augustine’s portrayal of human suffering, in all of its dimensions, is ruthlessly and consistently realistic. This is welcome, but also creates some problems. Although some would like to, we cannot deny the physical reality of disability and its effects on bodies just because some other effects (e.g., social stigma) are undesirable. It is to his credit that Augustine does not single out anyone here. Everyone suffers. Some suffer more than others, and humans are in no position to try to understand why this is, but neither are they to single any person out as either righteous or a sinner based on physical disability or any other suffering.

The first problem arises is that this is an ideal, of course. For those who are oppressed, Augustine offers no recourse other than to trust God for their happiness to come in the future life (which is not, for him, a “weak” option, as we shall see). Nor is this a justification of oppression. Miles notes that Augustine’s concept of social order is parallel to the workings of a human being: it is complex and this necessitates an order. In this order, inequality is necessary, but it is not something to be glorified or justified. Those with greater positions are placed there to be servants.53 But to one who lives under such conditions, it seems sometimes that a future reward is the self-seeking justification of a system that promotes inequity for someone’s gain.

The second problem arises from Augustine’s statements about the body being the nature of the person. Augustine took a bold step with his assertion that femaleness is part of nature, and that women will be resurrected as women. For all this, as he discusses the restoration of defects in the body, he seems to overlook the fact that one’s body as a whole is part of their nature. If the person has lived with a disabled body, the characteristics of that body frame a life, and so become part of the person’s nature. What becomes of that nature at the resurrection, if one very important part is changed? If a person who walks with difficulty is suddenly able to run, there will be more changes than just an increase of mobility and transformation of an eyesore. His interests, defined by a previously forced degree of sedentary life, could change. He could take up an interest in sports, and leave behind a scholarly life. The body is indeed part of the person’s nature—and the nature is also part of the body. If one changes, so does the other, and the changes reach far beyond bodily repair. While it is doubtful that one who lives with a disabled body and expects an Augustinian resurrection would not want that physical restoration which Augustine speaks of, it would seem that Augustine has not considered the effect of these changes to that disabled person.

One also wonders, if the wounds of martyrs are glorious, and being female is a matter of nature (and both are conditions which will remain in the resurrection), why a disability cannot remain as a glorious sign of perseverance, or a natural matter that contributes harmoniously to variety. If disabilities are viewed as something to be cured, it does not especially matter if they will be cured now or later: they are problems, and not a contribution to variety. Therefore, they are deviations, and given the human tendencies which Augustine so well describes, can easily become a source of the unjust treatment which he cautions against. Again, it is not that the disabled person might not desire the changes described by Augustine, but the foundational attitude that says such changes are necessary (for whatever reason) reveals an approach that can undermine everything else the author has to say about equal treatment.

This caution is important because Augustine says that those who do not suffer should be wary of thinking themselves better off for that, a warning that should not be lost.54 Further advancing this warning is a discussion on how one should treat those injured in war, stating that neither holiness nor being a person is a matter of a correctly functioning, complete body:

the body is not holy just because its parts are intact, or because they have not undergone any handling. Those parts may suffer violent injury by accidents of various kinds, and sometimes doctors seeking to effect a cure may employ treatment with distressing visible effects.55

This also tells that in Augustine’s view, neither accidents nor medical manipulations change the essential goodness of the body. Nor would it seem that Augustine would criticize those who seek medical relief for a condition. Although, given the state of medicine in his day, the cure might be as bad as the disease, one need not endure a condition that can be treated.56 Augustine also tells us that physical beauty, while good and from God, is not the most important characteristic a person can have, for it is temporal. Those who place it above their love of God commit a sin. True happiness is not found in the physical, but in an upright life that attends to God.57

As Augustine tells about the resurrection body, he deals with the troubles of the present body, and here we learn something of his view on how disabilities occur: they are proof of the mortal life being lived in a state of punishment. As such, they are part of the universal experience of misery resulting from human disobedience. The more obvious conditions serve to make this message clear and increase our longing for the happiness that is to be found only with God.58 This is a subject Augustine has brought up before, as when he asserts that the cause of human misery is “nothing but his [humanity’s] own disobedience to himself.”59 Now he reaffirms that this suffering is universal, and comes to both righteous and wicked persons. All persons suffer their deserved punishment, and any one who thinks he does not suffer is probably not heeding the call of God in his life. In Augustine’s anthropology, humans are not divine; they are creatures of a God who is both all-powerful and all-good.60 As creatures, they have a place in the creation, and Augustine says that they should stay within the boundaries defined by God. Pride of any kind is totally out of place, given the human situation. Furthermore, it is only divine mercy, and not any worthiness of one’s own, that determines who will suffer.61

Because some degree of suffering, recognized or not, is common to all humanity, one’s attitude is all-important. It is one’s response to the events of life, especially the unpleasant ones, that tells what one is really like, not physical beauty or some other external perception. A good person will pray and praise through suffering while a wicked one blasphemes, for suffering makes the good to shine and the chaff to smoke.62


What matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings.”63

Augustine’s discussion of suffering, miracles, the resurrection of the body, and the place of humans in the cosmos tells us much about his reaction to and view of disabilities, as well as suffering in general. He has also told us something of how suffering comes to be. But when it is all over, we must accept what happens in life, for understanding the workings of the universe, knowing how a just God chooses one person in mercy and rejects another, is ultimately an “insoluble problem.”64 This is not an obstacle to Augustine, for the person who entrusts his life to God realizes that this world is not the realm of fulfillment. Happiness comes only by living a life that gives due regard to God, and even then one realizes that a true state of happiness will only arrive after death.65 True hope is that which is placed in God’s promise of the future resurrection. The good person neither rejoices in good things in this life, nor allows affliction to overwhelm him, for the wicked are punished by misfortune as much as they are corrupted by good.66 The universality of suffering is further extended as Augustine reminds us that there is nothing “extraordinary” about the sufferings of his age, for the same sorts of things have happened throughout history.67

I have noted places where the effect of Augustine’s arguments could lead to more suffering, and it seems that his response is to live with it. This could be considered a matter of not resisting the status quo, the easy way, reflected in the aphorism “don’t rock the boat.” But Augustine does not think of enduring suffering as an easy thing—it is difficult, and can only be done with God’s grace. The sign of a person rightly attuned to God is his strength to endure suffering. For this reason, Augustine specifically rejects suicide under any circumstance.68 It should be noted that while several recent cases of persons asking for liberalization of present laws on assisted suicide have gained media coverage, there is (in my observation) substantial opposition among the disabled community, out of concern that it could lead to forced euthanasia of those with costly medical conditions. Augustine’s affirmation that life is always worth living (at least with God’s grace) is also an affirmation of the value of every person’s life. No one is less human than another—and here one of the greatest positive statements anyone could make about disabilities.

Augustine also asks us to “observe whether any disaster has happened to the faithful and religious which did not turn out for their good,” for the greatest gift, that of faith, cannot be lost due to physical disasters.69 Happiness is with God, not with the state of one’s body, whether that body functions well or not (and, in many ways, no body functions well, for they are all corrupt).

Although there are some problems with his system, Augustine’s realistic treatment of disability as part of a problematic human condition is encouraging. Especially in the light of common notions, he takes some great steps. Disabilities are not to be singled out as particular category that signifies anything unusual beyond their appearance. They are not, to any more or less extent than any other suffering (which is universal), divine punishment for specific sins. They are neither signs of danger nor of blessing. Inequity in distribution, and the larger question of how God could send but not be responsible for evil, remains a problem—but at least Augustine is honest about this, and here he has nothing more or less to offer than many others.

Augustine might also say that the question is less why any disabling condition or suffering might come to one person, than why it would not come to all. In the long term, his affirmation that we all live in corrupt bodies is more like the image of being asleep than being blind. To have a disability is to be in a sinful state, but this not a condition peculiar to anyone, for we all share in suffering and long for the life to come.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

De Trinitate 8.9, discussing what justice is, “But what does he know it from? Has he ever seen it with his eyes, or some just body perhaps, like a white or a black or a square or a round one? Who would ever say such a thing? All he has ever seen with his eyes is bodies, and it is only the mind in man that is just, and when a man is called just he is called it from his mind and not his body. For justice is a sort of beauty of mind by which many men are beautiful even though they have ugly misshapen bodies. (Hill, p. 249)

On Rebuke and Grace, NPNF 1, vol 5, ; ch 43 (14), if he who is rebuked belongs to the number of the predestinated, rebuke may be to him a wholesome medicine; and if he does not belong to that number, rebuke may be to him a penal affliction. Under that very uncertainty, therefore, it must of love be applied....


Augustine of Hippo. Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. Translated by Henry Bettenson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972.

Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. 2 vols. With an English translation by William Watts. Loeb Classical Library Nos. 26 and 27. Cambridge: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann, 1912.

Augustine of Hippo. Enchiridion [to Laurentius] on Faith, Hope and Love. Translated by J. B. Shaw. Washington: Gateway Editions, Regnery Publishing.

Babcock, William S., ed. The Ethics of St. Augustine. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.

Bottomley, Frank. Attitudes to the Body in Western Christendom. London: Lepus, 1979.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: a Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Bruning, B. , M. Lamberigts, J. Van Houten, editors. Collectanea Augustiniana. Vol. 1. Louvain: Leuven University Press, 1990.

Haj, F. Disability in Antiquity. New York: Philosophical Library, 1970. (*)

Marrou, Henri Irénée. The Resurrection and Saint Augustine’s Theology of Human Values. Translated by Maria Consolata. The Saint Augustine Lecture Series, no. 7. [Villanova PA]: Villanova Press, 1966.

Meynell, Hugo A., editor. Grace, Politics, and Desire: Essays on Augustine. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1990.

Miles, Margaret R. Augustine on the Body. American Academy of Religion Dissertation Series, No. 31. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979.

Miles, Margaret R. “Vision: The Eye of the Body and the Eye of the Mind in Saint Augustine’s De trinitate and Confessions,Journal of Religion 63 (1983): 125-142.

Philo. De Abrahamo, De Iosepho, De Vita Mosis. With an English translation by F. H. Colson. Loeb Classical Library, No. 289. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1935.

Plato. Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus. With an English translation by Harold North Fowler. Loeb Classical Library, No. 36. Cambridge: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann, 1914.

Plutarch. Moralia, Volume V. With an English translation by Frank Cole Babbit. Loeb Classical Library, No. 306. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Teske, Roland J., S.J. “St. Augustine’s View of the Original Human Condition in De Genesi contra Manichaeos,Augustinian Studies 22 (1991): 141-155.

United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist Worship, The. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989.

(*) background information for study, not cited in paper

1Plutarch, De E Apud Delphos 21.

2Philo, De Abrahamo 15.

3John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” in The United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 378. As an aside, this is all the more glaring because of the revision committee’s stated interest in justice, reconciling ministry, and their alteration of many hymns to use inclusive language (cf “Preface”), even when the results are stilted.

4Augustine, City of God (hereafter De civ. Dei) 2.1.

5Augustine, Enchiridion [to Laurentius] on Faith, Hope and Love (hereafter Ench.) 96.

6De civ. Dei 5.9.

7De civ. Dei 4.33.

8Ench. 104.

9e.g., Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride 45.

10Ench. 99, 102.

11De civ. Dei 22.24.

12Frank Bottomley, Attitudes to the Body in Western Christendom (London: Lepus, 1979), 14; Margaret Miles, Augustine on the Body (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979), 45-46; Henri Irénée Marrou, The Resurrection and Saint Augustine’s Theology of Human Values, ([Villanova PA]: Villanova Press, 1966), 9.

13De civ. Dei 21.14; also see the comments of Margaret Miles, “The Body and Human Values in Augustine of Hippo” in H. A. Meynell, ed., Grace, Politics and Desire: Essays on Augustine (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1990), 56.

14Ench. 10-12. So it seems that while God’s goodness is perfect, it is not omnipresent.

15Augustine, Confessions 4.13, 7.13-14; J. Patout Burns, “Augustine on the Origin and Progress of Evil” in William Babcock, ed., The Ethics of St. Augustine (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 70.

16De civ. Dei 5.9.

17De civ. Dei 13.3, 13.14; Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 399-403.

18De civ. Dei 14.13-15; Ench. 24-26; Bottomley, op. cit., 83-85, 90-95; George Lawless, “Augustine and Human Embodiment” in B. Bruning, et al., Collectanea Augustiniana 1 (Louvain: Leuven University Press), 1990, 172-177; Miles, “The Body and Human Values in Augustine of Hippo,” 60. Much of the secondary literature on Augustine’s view of the body deals with sex, and why it is so important to his thought. Sex and concupiscence are not the focus of this study at all, but do indicate that the body is to be taken seriously: as Miles says in Augustine on the Body, 55, bodily activities are not indifferent. Therefore disability can be taken seriously.

19De civ. Dei 13.6, 13.17, 14.3; Lawless, op. cit., 177.

20De civ. Dei 13.17, 14.24, 22.26.

21Miles, “The Body and Human Values in Augustine of Hippo,” 59.

22De civ. Dei 1.1.

23De civ. Dei 1.9.

24De civ. Dei 1.8.

25De civ. Dei 1.9, 22.22, for example.

26De civ. Dei 1.16-18, 1.28.

27It is worth noting in this regard that the concept of mental disability is of relatively recent origin, where literacy and rational ability have become important to daily life. Although there are descriptions in ancient literature that we might match to such conditions, they were not categorized as such, so it is difficult to say how Augustine might react to such conditions.

28Plato, Phaedrus 30-31, 34.

29Miles, Augustine on the Body, 11-12.

30Margaret Miles, “Vision: The Eye of the Body and the Eye of the Mind in Saint Augustine’s De trinitate and Confessions,Journal of Religion 63 (1983): 127-134.

31De civ. Dei 2.1.

32I did not find any references in my readings to the spiritual status of a physically blind person. Knowing what Augustine might have to say about such a person, especially if it is of the nature of the women who were raped in the sack of Rome (i.e., that the mind’s positive control supercedes negative physical occurrences) would be informative here.

33De civ. Dei 22.22.

34De civ. Dei 22.8. On miracles as intended to bring belief, also see Ench. 95.

35De civ. Dei 22.9.

36Miles, Augustine on the Body, 36-37.

37Miles, Augustine on the Body, 100, 113.

38De civ. Dei 22.12.

39Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride 11.

40Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967) 252-253, 260-263 (q.v. for a fuller discussion of the nature of scripture); Roland J. Teske, S.J., “St. Augustine’s View of the Original Human Condition in De Genesi contra Manichaeos”, Augustinian Studies 22 (1991): 141-142.

41De civ. Dei 22.19.

42De civ. Dei 22.14.

43De civ. Dei 22.16.

44Ench. 91; Miles, Augustine on the Body, 114-115.

45Ench. 85.

46Ench. 89-90.

47De civ. Dei 22.19. Here, Augustine also uses the reworking image to explain restoration of deformities; the simile is that of a potter reworking a pot.

48De civ. Dei 1.13.

49De civ. Dei 14.10.

50De civ. Dei 13.17, 13.20, 22.26.

51Teske, op. cit., 144.

52De civ. Dei 22.17. Miles, “The Body and Human Values in Augustine of Hippo,” 64-65, notes that although Augustine says there will be sexual differentiation after the resurrection, the description he offers is that of a male body.

53Miles, “The Body and Human Values in Augustine of Hippo,” 62-63.

54De civ. Dei 22.23.

55De civ. Dei 1.18.

56De civ. Dei 22.8, especially the stories of Innocentius and Innocentia.

57De civ. Dei 15.22.

58De civ. Dei 22.19, 22.22.

59De civ. Dei 14.15.

60Marrou, op. cit., 13.

61Ench. 95.

62De civ. Dei 1.8

63De civ. Dei 1.8.

64Ench. 95.

65De civ. Dei 14.25.

66De civ. Dei 1.8.

67De civ. Dei 4.1.

68De civ. Dei 1.22.

69De civ. Dei 1.10.


28 March 2011