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PART IV: From Stoic Agitations to Christian Temptations

24: First Movements in Augustine: Adaptation and Misunderstanding


Augustine knew about the idea of first movements from many sources. We saw in Chapter 22 that Jerome recorded the Stoic idea of a prepassion and that Plotinus had supplied not only talk of a shock but of a shock without hurt which Augustine borrowed. We shall see that Augustine knew Aulus Gellius’ discussion of prepassion and Gellius’ citation of Epictetus on the subject. Latin translations by Rufinus were available of both Origen and Evagrius. Augustine also] knew of the Life of the desert Father Antony which contributed to his conversion to Christianity.1

Augustine discusses the early stages of temptation in ways which relate to discussions of prepassion or first movements. In an early treatise On the Sermon on the Mount of 394 he explains Christ's saying that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.2 As noticed in Chapter 22 he says that Christ was criticizing someone who looked at a woman precisely in order to arouse his lust where it did not necessarily exist before. By contrast the person who is merely titillated (titillari) is not being criticized but only the person who assents (consentire) in such a way that he would take the opportunity to act if it were granted. Four years later Jerome gave the same explanation in his Commentary on Matthew adding that titillari is an example of mere Stoic prepassion.

Augustine's discussion in the following paragraphs looks un-Stoic in two ways. First Origen's notion of suggestio is used for the earliest stage of temptation. Secondly it does not on the face of it seem to fit with Stoicism that appetite and pleasure (appetitus delectatio) are allowed to occur before assent (consentire) that is apparently at least before assent to the pleasure.

The last issue is cleared up later in On the Trinity 12 in AD 414. It is now only the pleasure of thinking about a sin that precedes assent to action. There are elements in this discussion that could easily have come from Evagrius. There is sin already if the mind is pleased by illicit things in mere thought not indeed deciding that they are to be done but retaining and willingly (libenter) revolving things that ought to be spat out as soon as they touch the mind.3 Evagrius had already said that it is up to us not whether bad thoughts come to disturb us but whether they linger (khronizein) and that sin (hamartia) is assent (sunkatathesis) to the pleasure of the thought.4

Augustine makes a point of distinguishing different degrees of sin: assent to the pleasure of thought and assent to action. Augustine's view about the lesser sin the mere pleasure of thinking (sola cogitationis delectatio) was that it could be absolved by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer and in particular by the use of the sentence ‘Forgive us our debts’. But he insisted that this sentence should be accompanied by beating of the breast and linked with the immediately following clause ‘as we forgive our debtors’.5 So forgiveness of others was required. Moreover Augustine insisted that the Lord's Prayer should be recited every day6 and he connected the prayer's preceding request ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ with the bread distributed at the daily celebration of the Eucharist.7

Many of us if asked how often we do wrong might be complacent enough to suppose it was only from time to time. The existence of sin at the level of initial thoughts helps to show that it is many times a day. Hence the necessity for saying the Lord's Prayer every day. And it explains Augustine's revulsion from Pelagians like Julian who will be the subject of Chapter 26 since they are alleged to hold that people can by their own efforts reach the point where they have no debts for which they need to ask forgiveness.8 On Augustine's view this overlooks how sin permeates down to the level of our initial thoughts. Jerome agreed that no human can avoid this prepassion and so none can be free of sin.9

Elsewhere in the same book Augustine makes further distinctions among degrees of sin: there is silent anger an uttered expletive and actually saying ‘Thou fool’.10 Again sin can exist in the heart in an action or as a habit.11

I shall now quote some of the passages from Augustine. For present purposes I shall ignore the male perspective in which Adam represents reason and Eve pleasure or appetite although more will come up about that later.

Indeed we must reflect that [Christ] did not say ‘anyone who lusts after a woman’ but ‘anyone who looks at a woman in order to lust after her’ that is who attends to her with the purpose and intention of lusting after her. That is not being titillated (titillari) by the pleasure of the flesh but openly consenting (consentire) in such a way that the illicit appetite would not be bridled but if an opportunity were granted would be indulged.

There are three things by which sin is brought to completion suggestion pleasure and assent (suggestio delectatio consensio).… As when we are fasting and the appetite (appetitus) of the palate arises at the sight of food this does not happen except through pleasure (nisi delectatione) but we do not assent (consentire) to the latter but restrain it by the authority of its master reason. But if consent should be given it will be a complete sin in our heart known to God even if it does not become known through any deed to men.… It is as if the suggestion is made along with a kind of persuasion by the serpent whereas the pleasure resides in our carnal appetite as if in Eve while consent resides in reason as if in the man.12

So it is like the serpent speaking to the woman when that carnal or animal sense offers some enticement to enjoy itself as a personal and private good not as a public and communal good which is the unchangeable kind and offers it to the mental attention (intentio) which in its active function revolves with the vivacity of thought upon temporal and corporeal things. But to assent (consentire) to that enticement is to eat of the forbidden tree.

However if that assent (consensus) is content with the mere pleasure of thinking (sola cogitationis delectatione) whereas the limbs are restrained by the authority of higher counsels so they are not ‘offered to sin as the instruments of wickedness’ then I think it must be taken as if the woman alone ate the forbidden food.

But if in assenting (consensio) to the bad use of things that are sensed through the bodily senses any sin is decided on in such a way that it will be physically carried out if there is a possibility the woman must be understood to have given the forbidden food to her husband to eat together with her. For if sin is decided on by the mind not only as to be thought of with pleasure but also as to be perpetrated in actuality this cannot happen without the mind's attention yielding to the bad act and becoming its servant and it is that attention which has the supreme power of moving the limbs to or keeping them from the deed.

Nor indeed is it to be denied that it is a sin when the mind is pleased by illicit things in mere thought (sola cogitatione) not indeed deciding that they are to be done but retaining and willingly (libenter) revolving things which ought to be spat out as soon as they touch the mind. None the less it is a far lesser sin than if the thing were decided on as to be implemented in practice. And so forgiveness is to be sought for thoughts even of this kind. We must strike our breast and say ‘Forgive us our debts’. And we must do what follows and link in our prayer the words ‘as we too forgive our debtors’.13

Panic and pallor: the history of a mistake

So far there has been nothing more than a legitimate if distorting adaptation of the Stoic idea of first movements. But it is time now to tell the history of a mistake. We saw in Chapter 22 that Augustine's predecessors did not always distinguish first movements in Seneca's sharp way from emotions. In Augustine's case the conflation of the two was confirmed through his using Aulus Gellius rather than Seneca as his authority for Stoic ideas. In Gellius’ report of Stoicism there is a change of one single letter of the alphabet. This change was enough to mislead Augustine and so to play a role if only a small one in shaping Western views on sexuality.

Aulus Gellius the Roman philosophical journalist illustrated the idea of initial shock by telling how he was a fellow passenger with a Stoic philosopher on board ship in a storm.14 The Stoic became jittery (pavidus) and so when the storm subsided a rich Asiatic Greek asked him why he a Stoic was afraid (timere) and grew pale (pallere) when the Asiatic Greek did not. At first the Stoic gave the answer which the Cyrenaic philosopher Aristippus had offered in similar circumstances. Aristippus not being a Stoic had been free to acknowledge that he was afraid (timere) but responded that he was naturally more afraid for the life of Aristippus than his questioner could be for the life of a paltry fellow like himself.15 The idea behind this reply is found still earlier in Aristotle.16

Gellius not satisfied with this answer waited till the ship approached port and then asked him for an explanation again. The Stoic replied that the brief but necessary and natural jitters (pavor) were explained in the fifth book of Epictetus’ Discourses which he drew from his bag. Gellius continues by paraphrasing the extract into Latin:

In that book we read the following view written of course in Greek.

The appearances (visa) entertained by the mind which the Greeks call phantasiai and by which (quibus) the human mind is jolted (pellitur) right away at the first appearance (prima specie) of a thing impinging on the mind do not belong to the will (voluntas) and are not chosen (arbitrariae). Rather they infiltrate themselves by a certain force of their own as things for people to acknowledge (noscere). The approvals (probationes) however which the Greeks call sunkatatheseis by which these same appearances are acknowledged are voluntary (voluntariae) and happen by human choice (arbitratus). Consequently when some frightening sound occurs from the sky or from a ruin falling or as a sudden announcement of I know not what danger or whatever else of that kind the mind even of the wise person has to be moved (moveri) and to shrink (contrahi) for a little and to grow pale (pallescere) not through recommending a belief (opinio) that there is something bad but because of certain rapid and unsolicited movements (motus) which pre-empt the functions of the mind and reason. Soon however the wise person denies approval (non adprobat) to those same phantasiai of that kind that is to those frightening appearances in his mind; in other words he does not assent (sunkatatithetai) nor lend belief (prosepidoxazei) but he rejects them and spits them out [the metaphor borrowed by Augustine]. Nor does he see (videri) anything in them to be feared (metuendum). And they say that this is the difference between the mind of the wise and unwise. The unwise person thinks that things which seem to him dangerous and desperate at the first jolt (primō pulsu) of his mind really are like that and when they have begun as if they were genuinely to be feared he further gives approval (adprobare) by his assent (adsensio) and lends belief (prosepidoxazei)—for this is the word the Stoics use to discuss that phenomenon. But the wise person after being moved (motus) briefly and slightly in his colour and countenance does not assent (sunkatatithetai) but retains his stance and the vigour of the belief which he has always had about such appearances that they are not in the least to be feared but cause terror by putting on a false front with empty alarms.

We read in the book I mentioned that the philosopher Epictetus thought and uttered these doctrines of the Stoics. And I thought that they ought to be noted down so that we should think it not a sign of being unwise or cowardly if when things happen to arise of the kind I have mentioned we grow slightly jittery (sensim pavescere) and as it were go white and so that we should think that we are yielding (cedere) to natural weakness in that so brief movement rather than that we are judging (censere) those things to be as they appear (visa).17

Gellius’ paraphrase of Epictetus is absolutely unexceptionable. It speaks of the wise person's mind being moved (moveri) shrinking (contrahi) and [metaphorically] growing pale (pallescere). The danger begins in Gellius’ statement of his motive for offering the paraphrase where instead of pallescere ‘to grow pale’ he changes one letter of the alphabet to produce pavescere ‘to grow jittery’. Indeed he twice describes the Stoic sailor in the storm as experiencing jitters (pavor) and once as being jittery (pavidus). I have translated pavescere in terms of ‘jitters’ because it emphasizes the ambiguity of the word between actual fear and mere trembling. From a literary point of view this ambiguity makes it an excellent word to use. But from a philosophical point of view it is disastrous. For the ambiguity obscures Seneca's point five times repeated in On Anger 2. 2. 5 to 2. 3. 5 (translated in Chapter 2) and implied again in the passage translated next below that initial shocks like trembling are not yet the emotion of fear. This point is very important to Seneca because it is part of the method of control to be able to reassure yourself that at the stage of initial shock you have not yet indulged in emotion. Admittedly at one point Seneca himself uses the verb expavescere for the jitters experienced by animals. But he does not rely on the word alone to make the point that the jitters of animals involve no fear (metus). He makes the point explicitly in the adjacent sentence:

As a result their charging and commotion is violent. Fear (metus) however anxiety (sollicitudo) sadness (tristitia) and anger (ira) are not found but only certain things like them. Thus they quickly subside and change into the opposite state and after becoming intensely frantic (saevire) or jittery (expavescere) they start feeding and quiet or sleep immediately follows on their mad bellowing and rushing about.18

The trouble with Gellius’ comment on Epictetus and his account of the Stoic sailor is that he gives no warning that the jitters in his story are unaccompanied by fear even of the briefest kind. This was to have significant consequences for Augustine was to draw important conclusions from Gellius’ version.

Augustine's claim that the Stoics’ dispute with other schools is merely verbal was discussed in Chapter 14. He thinks that when the Stoics allow initial shocks they are really allowing emotions and that in conceding that some indifferent things are preferred they are really conceding that they are good. In City of God 9. 5–6 written between 415 and 417 Augustine summarises the account of Aulus Gellius telling it as he thinks more plainly (ut puto planius). But his ‘plainer’ version makes some vital changes. He twice uses Gellius’ word pavescere ‘to grow jittery’ but once he resolves any possible ambiguity in the wrong direction by adding ‘with fear’ (pavescere metu). He adds that the wise person may shrink with sadness (tristitia contrahi) and describes these reactions three times as passions (passiones). In the following chapter he refers back and uses the other main word for fear timor. He concludes from Gellius’ story that passions (passiones) do befall the Stoic wise person. He says that this is because the things the Stoics claim to see as indifferent but acknowledge to be preferred or dispreferred (commoda incommoda) are really seen as good or bad not as indifferent. For example the Stoic philosopher in the storm did not succeed in giving no weight (nihili pendere) to his own life. The notions of Pavor and Pallor would have been connected in Augustine's mind because he tells us that they had been made into two gods.19 But the equation of pavor with metus and timor is his own. The following is his main account:

Aulus Gellius says he read in that book that this is the Stoic doctrine. Appearances (visa) are entertained by the mind which they call phantasiai and it is not in our power whether or when they will fall on the mind. When they come from terrifying and frightening things it is necessary that they will move (movere) the mind even of the wise person so that for a little he either grows jittery with fear (pavescere metu) or shrinks with sadness (tristitia contrahi) as if these emotions (passiones) pre-empt the functions of the mind and reason. But no belief is formed on that account in his mind that there is something bad nor are those [appearances] approved nor assent given. For they [the Stoics] mean this [assent] to be in our power and they judge that the difference between the mind of the wise person and of the fool is that the mind of the fool yields to these same emotions (passiones) and allows assent of the mind. But the mind of the wise person although it is necessarily subject to those [emotions] yet retains a true and stable opinion with mind unshaken (inconcussa) about the things which rationally ought to be chosen or avoided.…

And perhaps the reason why the Stoics say those [emotions (passiones perturbationes)] do not fall upon the wise person is that they do not cloud with any error or trip with any fall the wisdom that makes him wise in the first place. But they befall the mind of the wise person while leaving his serenity intact because of the things which they [the Stoics] call preferred or dispreferred (commoda incommoda) although they are not willing to call them good or bad. For surely if that philosopher had attached no weight (nihili pendere) to those things which he felt he was going to lose in the shipwreck such as his life and the safety of his person he would not have shuddered (perhorrescere) at that danger in such a way as to be betrayed by the evidence of his very pallor.20

Augustine's misunderstanding is brought out further when he says in this passage that the mind of the wise person is unshaken (inconcussa). Seneca had made the opposite point. Our minds can never be unshaken (the same word: inconcussi) despite our hopes. This is because of first movements. But they can be unconquered (invicti).21

Augustine refers to the story again in another work written a few-years later in AD 419 and he correctly records Epictetus’ view that we do not have a genuine case of emotion (perturbatio) if reason does not yield to the initial movements. But Augustine still treats this as a merely verbal manoeuvre which after all concedes that in the ordinary sense perturbatio does befall the Stoic sage:

On the text ‘Around the setting of the sun panic (pavor) invaded Abraham and behold a great fear (timor) fell on him.’ On account of those who contend that those emotions (perturbationes) do not fall on the mind of a wise man we must discuss the question whether there is such a thing as Aulus Gellius mentions in his Attic Nights. He mentions a certain philosopher disturbed (turbatus) in a great storm at sea while he was on board ship and accosted by a wealthy young man. When the latter taunted him after the danger was past on the grounds that though a philosopher he had quickly been emotionally upset (perturbatus) the philosopher replied that his interlocutor had not been emotionally upset because it would have been wrong to have any fear for his own worthless life since his life did not deserve to be the subject of any fear. But when others who had been on board were eager and expectant he drew out a book by the Stoic Epictetus. What was read there was that the Stoic view was not that no such emotion (perturbatio) would fall on the mind of the wise man as if no such thing would be found in their feelings (adfectus). Rather emotion (perturbatio) was defined by the Stoics as occurring when reason yielded to such movements and when it did not yield nothing was to be called an emotion.22

Augustine's misunderstanding is exploited in more than one way in the City of God book 14 written between 418 and 420. Not only does he refer back to the supposed acceptance of emotions by Epictetus to justify his advocacy for Christians of moderate emotion23 but he also makes an exception of lust as undesirable in an argument that trades further on his misunderstanding.24

The attack on lust comes in City of God 14. 16–24. Lust is not good in moderation as many other emotions are (14. 8–9). At 14. 19 Augustine asks why lust differs from anger and other emotions in that we are ashamed to be seen indulging it even in the lawful marriage bed. In his answer he appeals to the point which we shall see in 26 is the centrepiece of his attack on lust. It is bad because it is not under the control of the will as it would have been but for the fall and punishment of man. Augustine is writing from a male perspective and the particular thing that is most commonly said and said here not to be under the control of the will is the male bodily movements. Augustine contrasts anger because there at least the fisticuffs or other bodily movements are under control. It is the disobedience to the will of male bodily movements that explains our embarrassment:

For whoever utters a word in anger or actually hits someone could not do this if his tongue and hand were not moved in some way at the command of the will. These members are moved by that same will even when there is no anger. But lust has so delivered the genitals as it were to its own jurisdiction that they are not capable of being moved if it is missing and if it has not arisen of itself or by being aroused. This is what causes shame. This is what avoids the eyes of onlookers with blushes. A person tolerates a crowd of spectators when he is unjustly angry with someone more than the gaze of a single person even when he is legitimately having intercourse with his wife.25

I think the wording conceals an a fortiori argument: the male movements fail to occur when summoned by the will. A fortiori when they do occur they are not subject to the will. Augustine's male perspective leaves us wondering if women should experience less embarrassment.

If Augustine had at this stage taken in the exposition of Seneca rather than of Gellius he would have realized that he was not comparing like with like. Irritation by seminal fluid is explicitly cited by Seneca On Anger in the passage translated in Chapter 4 above (2. 3. 2) as an example of a first movement which is not yet an emotion. What it should be compared with therefore is the involuntary reactions that precede anger and that is just what it is compared with by Seneca. In that same passage he cites first movements in connection with all three of the examples discussed by Augustine. Male movements are explicitly cited as first movements but so are the flashing eyes and quickening breath that precede anger not to mention the pallor that characterizes the sailor in the storm.26 Augustine should have compared the male movements with the flashing eyes. The fisticuffs by contrast which are under the control of the will should be compared with the wilful pursuit of the object of lust. Lust is no different from anger in this regard and the movements which the will fails to control are on Seneca's analysis neither culpable nor a proof of emotion.

The same applies to Augustine's explanation of sexual shame. The male's unruly movements will not on their own explain it given that first movements in anger too disobey the will but without causing shame. There is admittedly one difference from anger that the involuntary male movements are needed for the sexual act. But whatever may be true of anger the involuntary salivation in hunger is needed for the act of eating as we shall see in Chapter 26 and yet is no cause of shame.

I shall suggest in Chapter 26 that Augustine's misunderstanding impairs his argument in a roughly contemporary work The Literal Interpretation of Genesis written between 401 and 418. Augustine sets out to explain why consent (consensio) given in dreams to illicit sex is not a sin. But he finishes by explaining only why the male movements in dreams are not a sin.27 Seneca would have complained that the phase of first movements is entirely distinct from the phase of consent. Thomas Aquinas by contrast is clear that the male nocturnal emission is only a first movement.28

Augustine's unpreparedness to take in the Stoic picture is further illustrated in our present chapter by his treating lust as an emotion (affectio) which unlike other emotions bypasses the will. The Stoics would insist that every emotion is an act of will and Augustine agrees a little earlier in the same book of City of God.29 The Confessions would allow him to say that lust is an act of carnal will bypassing the spiritual will.30 But here in City of God 14. 19 he concedes only that the will gives assent to other emotions (eis consenserit). He thinks that in lust the will is bypassed and that it is the emotion itself not the will (a distinction that hardly makes sense on the Stoic view he had so recently acknowledged) that moves the male member:

What is the reason why shame does not conceal in every word and deed the actions of anger and of other emotions (affectiones) as it conceals the actions of lust which are performed by the sexual members? It is simply that with the other emotions it is not the emotions (affectiones) themselves that move the bodily members but rather the will once it has assented to the emotions (eis consenserit) and the will is in complete control of the use of those members.31

Why is Augustine so blind to the Stoic distinction between involuntary first movements and willed emotion? There is more than one reason. First by turning first movements into thoughts and suggestions Origen obscured the distinction between them and emotions which the Stoics saw as thoughts. Consequently the description of first movements as the preliminaries (principia) of emotion which had left the distinction quite clear in Seneca leaves it unclear in Origen and subsequent Church Fathers.

A different point that has been made to me is Augustine's reliance in these passages on a Platonic rather than a Stoic view of the soul. In City of God 9. 4 and On the Trinity 12. 12 he divides the mind between reason and the emotions or irrational parts which it should control.32 In City of God 14. 19 he explicitly says that he is taking a Platonist view of the soul. For Plato unlike the Stoics the rational part which curbs or permits (refrenare permittere) actions based on emotion is quite distinct from the two irrational parts which experience lust or anger respectively. Consequently emotions are not seen in the Stoic way as necessarily having the permission of reason. This can help to explain how in City of God 9. 4 Augustine can so ignore the Stoic position as to claim that the wise man has emotions even though he does not judge anything to be bad nor give his assent but retains a correct opinion about what should be pursued and avoided.33

I think this Platonism is an important factor and the point can be developed to explain why lust is differently treated from anger in City of God 14. 19. For Plato himself says in the Republic that anger is the ally of reason and never sides with the lower appetites (like lust) against reason.34 Still the appeal to Plato does not explain everything. For one thing Plato does not hold that all anger is approved by reason. For another he allows that lust may be approved by the lowest part of the soul even when not approved by reason.35 Augustine elsewhere recognizes an analogous point transposed in terms of the will when he allows the carnal will to approve what the spiritual will does not.36 But the appeal to will is closer to Stoicism than to Platonism as becomes clearer still when Augustine acknowledges that all emotions are acts of will.37 There is a further difference from Plato in that the Platonic passages are not concerned as Augustine is with merely physical reactions so they do not explain why Augustine notices the involuntary physical reactions in lust but not in anger.

Despite the other powerful reasons for Augustine to misinterpret the Stoics I think the linguistic misunderstanding will have contributed. Indeed a different linguistic misunderstanding has been postulated by others as contributing to his attack on lust. When the Wisdom of Solomon says that we cannot get control of (enkratēs continens) wisdom unless God grants it Augustine takes the words to mean instead that we cannot be continent unless God so grants.38 What I am saying is that Gellius’ use of the ambiguous word pavescere must have fortified Augustine in his belief that there is no real difference between the first movements which the Stoics exonerate and the emotions which they condemn. In City of God 14. 19 the failure to distinguish first movements from emotions enables him to treat lust as an exception reprehensible in a way that most other emotions are not. The disobedience of male movements to the will is only one manifestation of lust's disobedience to the will but it is by far the most commonly stressed manifestation and so forms a centrepiece of Augustine's attack on lust. Thus Gellius’ change of the double l in pallescere to the v of pavescere played at least a small role in Augustine's denunciation of lust a denunciation which has so affected attitudes to sexual feeling in the West. Here we have an example of how important good philology can be to good philosophy.