Augustine on Angels, Free Will, and the Passions

A short reflection on Book XII of The City of God

Angels, I would say, have no passions, since they do not have bodily desires to take care of “in time.” In other words, they do not seek an immediate pleasure or relief of pain, and in this way, are not moved to a lesser good that may be in conflict with a greater good. At least, they do not have physical passions. Of course, the issue goes deeper than this, but that is enough for my point here.

Studying the angels intellect and will, even though unaffected by human passions, is a good exercise in knowing ourselves. After all, our own passions are a good and are designed to be directed by our reason.

Augustine, in much of the first half of Book XII, takes up the problem of the will in the angels, a possibility of a bad will having an efficient cause, and just how the will must always seek good, but not, by necessity, the ultimate good. His discussion reminds us that, true to the Catholic faith and to good philosophy in ethics and in psychology, we are always after the good, at least the apparent good. No one can will evil in a direct sense, but only, in chosing a lesser good over a better, wills what is evil.

Again, Augustine’s discussion of the “two cities” of angels, with all the twists and turns of goodness, will, efficient cause, etc, is also a great reflection on our own powers of intellect and will, and a reminder that our passions are to be under the control of our reason. They, too, are a good thing in themselves, however poorly our passions seem to lead us as a result of original sin. After all, our passions direct us to good things. It is a matter of our intellect to discern if these good things are appropriate to try and achieve (should we “will” them) given the circumstances and what other greater good may be neglected in doing so.

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