The Will in Augustine’s Confessions: The Law of the Mind and the Law of the Members

Unlike the ancient Greek philosophers for whom virtue is knowledge, and vice is ignorance—the problem of evil being a matter of intelligence and education—Augustine discerns that the problem of evil results from man’s unruly will, not from an absence of thinking, or a lack of education.


Just as Homer provides traditional wisdom on the subject of civilization, barbarism, and home and family in the Odyssey; while Dr. Johnson offers great understanding on the subject of happiness in Rasselas; and Jane Austen presents special insight into the subject of marriage in Pride and Prejudice; St. Augustine illuminates the subject of the human will in the Confessions. In his autobiography, Augustine shows that man’s struggle to live a moral life depends on the power of man’s reason to master the human will. Unlike the ancient Greek philosophers for whom virtue is knowledge, and vice is ignorance—the problem of evil being a matter of intelligence and education—Augustine discerns that the problem of evil results from man’s unruly will, not from an absence of thinking, or a lack of education. St. Paul examined this aspect of the moral life in a famous passage in the seventh chapter of Romans where he cites the conflict in man’s soul as a contest between man’s reason and man’s passions: “the law of my mind” versus “the law of my members.” What reason dictates (“The things I would do”), the will often opposes (“I do not”). What reason wishes to avoid (“The things I would not do”), the will desires (“I do”).

For St. Paul and for St. Augustine this division in human nature—a consequence of original sin—affects the moral life, creating the many aspects of evil associated with the will: the disobedient will, the slothful will, the perverse will, the uncontrollable will, the predetermined will, and the indecisive will. Augustine’s autobiography reveals that the problem of evil is a matter of will rather than one of knowledge. Even though man knows what is true and right, he does not listen to reason, or do the good. As St. Paul writes: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7: 15; 19, Revised Standard Version).

This conflict manifests itself, even in infancy, in the form of willfulness—the child’s irrational desires demanding doting attention and instant gratification. Augustine writes: “And when people did not do what I wanted, either because I could not make myself understood or because what I wanted was bad for me, then I would become angry with my elders for not being subservient to me, and with responsible people for not acting as though they were my slaves; and I would avenge myself by bursting into tears” (I, vi). Even though the innocence of childhood is never associated with sin or evil, the rebelliousness and disobedience will expresses itself in the form of an infant’s irritability, crying, and willfulness—symptoms that create moral havoc in adult lives when unchecked. In his meditation on the nature of the infant, Augustine quotes scripture to recall the mark of original sin: “For in thy sight, no one is clean of sin, not even the infant whose life is but one day upon earth” (I, vii). All the children of Adam, from infancy to old age, undergo this constant contest between reason and will, suffering the consequences of the Fall in those tendencies of selfishness described as concupiscence.  While the behavior of the demanding, crying baby appears harmless and normal, this conduct in an adult leads to the various seven deadly sins, all problems of the will, in disobeying reason. He poses these questions: “To get into a bad temper when people, who are responsible, and who are one’s elders, do not do exactly as one wants? To get angry even with one’s own parents? And with many others who are wiser than oneself, when they failed to do one’s whim?” (I, vii).

Through these questions, Augustine acknowledges the nature of the irrational will that does not obey reason. While the baby’s tantrum does not qualify as the sin of wrath, these fits of anger in an adult, erupting from an unmanageable will, constitute matter for sin. As Augustine explains, the so-called sinlessness of children rests upon their “physical weakness, not because of any innocence of mind” (I, vii). Augustine even speaks of an infant’s envy as another mark of the child’s inheritance of original sin, another proof of the disordered will that needs correction: “But can one really describe as ‘innocence’ the conduct of one who, when there is a fountain of milk flowing richly and abundantly, will not allow another child to have his share of it, even though this other child is in the greatest need . . . ?” (I, vii).

The willful, angry, or envious infant, whose unruly will becomes tamed as he grows older, is, of course, blameless. But, Augustine clarifies, “these same faults, if found in an older person, are considered quite intolerable” (I, vii). The unmanageable will of the infant can manifest itself as the slothful will of the schoolboy, or the disobedient will of the son. Augustine remarks: “I sinned in acting contrary to the commands of my parents, and of those schoolmasters” (I,x). He confesses: “Yet still we sinned by doing less than was demanded of us in writing, or reading, or studying literature. It was not, Lord, that we were deficient in memory or intelligence . . . . But what we liked to do was play . . . .” (I, viii). The schoolboy’s undisciplined will that indulges in play and disregards work, develops the habit of sloth, the defective will that does not exert itself to pursue the good, or fulfill obligations. The schoolboy also illustrates the problem of the perverse will, doing the opposite of what it desires as the good. Augustine writes: “I prayed to you that I should not be beaten at school,” yet he persists in the habits of negligence that result in corporal punishment. Non sequitur. He acknowledges the benefit of chastisement, admitting: “I would never learn, unless under compulsion” (I, xii), yet, he considers physical punishment an evil. He desires to escape pain, but he does not exercise the will power to escape the penalty for idleness. He wants to learn, and not learn. He will not learn by his own volition (“I would never learn, unless under compulsion”), yet, he is glad his tutors forced him to learn: “I did not enjoy my lessons, and I hated being forced to do them. However, I was forced to do them, and this was a good thing for me . . . .” (I,xii). The perverse will deliberately chooses the harmful over the beneficial, a choice that makes no logical sense.  Augustine’s excessive love of play, his habit of sloth, and his disobedience to authority, all violate the moral law. An uncontrollable, undisciplined will inevitably leads to sin and suffering, for God ordained that “every inordinate affection should be its own punishment” (I,x).

When the will rejects the authority of reason, moral law, parents, and schoolmasters, its excess knows no limits, its freedom turning to license. Augustine’s willfulness rejected all ideas of moderation or temperance in its enjoyment of pleasure. He confesses to “stealing from my parents’ larder or table, either out of sheer gluttony, or in order to have something to give to the other boys . . . .” (I, xix). He acquired the habit of cheating in his passion for winning in games, stubbornly protesting his innocence, even when guilty, rather than admitting the truth: “And, if I was caught cheating myself and blamed for it in the same way, I preferred to get into a rage rather than to yield and submit” (I, xix). As all these early episodes in Augustine’s life illustrate, the deadly sins—pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, sloth—follow from a disordered will ungoverned by reason. These uncontrollable appetites, with no sense of a golden mean, soon express themselves in an insatiable desire for sexual gratification during Augustine’s puberty at age sixteen. He is ruled by “the swirling mists of lust,” and he confesses: “I boiled over in my fornications” (II, i). Enslaved by “the madness of lust,” Augustine admits that his passion “had complete sway” over his desires, as he felt intoxicated with “the invisible wine of a perverse self-will, bent upon the lowest objects” (II.iii). His body ruling his soul, his will overthrowing his reason, his excessive appetites rejecting all ideals of temperance, Augustine discovers that his pursuit of pleasure, and life of uninhibited willfulness, lead to enslavement rather than freedom.

Irrational and lawless during this time of adolescence, Augustine even commits evil for the sake of evil, not even for the reason of pleasure, in the episode of the pear tree. Stealing pears at night from an orchard, with no intention of eating them—and even throwing them to the pigs—Augustine acknowledges that he experienced no pleasure in the theft, except for the forbidden act itself. He confesses: “[A]ll my enjoyment was in the theft itself and in the sin,” “Our real pleasure was simply in doing something that was not allowed,” and “I became evil for nothing” (II,iv). In his meditations on the theft of the pears, Augustine renders an account of another aspect of the will: its love of evil for its own sake, not even for the cause of a false good. With nothing to gain, and for no motive of revenge against the owner of the orchard, and without even the taste of the forbidden fruit to satisfy hunger, Augustine recognizes the reality of the perverse will, desiring neither the true good, nor some false good it imagines as a source of happiness. Illogical and mindless as it appears, Augustine asks: “Could I enjoy what was forbidden for no other reason except that it was forbidden?” (II,vi).

A free will separated from reason, moral law, and authority is capable of every kind of deformity and aberration. Thus, Augustine, in his confessing that “I did evil for nothing,” exposes all the deviations of the will that violate common sense, and contradict right reason. In stealing the pears—not only because it was forbidden fruit, but also because it was a matter for boastfulness among his friends, and because Augustine performed the deed with his shameless accomplices—he acknowledges the senselessness of the will, acting in the most contradictory way: “It has only to be said: ‘Come on, let’s do it,’ and we become ashamed at not being shameless” (II, ix). This rebellious, defiant will—admitting of no restraint, no reason, no self-control, no law, and no authority—creates a life of restless wandering that only leads to more misery. This wandering leads Augustine to vain philosophy and heresy as he uses his mind, not to govern the will or know the truth, but to justify evil and defend falsehood.

Restless in his wanderings, overcome by “that torment of pitch which boils and swells with the high tides of foul lust,” and “carried away, too, by plays on the stage” (II, ii), Augustine’s mind obeys his passions and pleasures, rather than reason governing the will. Instead of the will asserting its independence and expressing its license, now the will is the slave of uncontrollable appetites that dominate Augustine’s life: “and there I was fettered happily in bonds of misery . . . “(III,i). ,Recalling his nineteenth year, he recites all the sins that proceeded from his reckless will and prideful disobedience: “the immoderate use of things,” “the burning lust for things,” and the rebellion against moral law and authority he calls “kicking against the pricks” (III.viii). He experiences, at this stage, the darkened intellect, and “all those wanderings of my error” that accompany an immoral life, his belief in such nonsense as the weeping of figs, when picked from a tree, and his belief in astrology: “Mad and foolish I was at that time. I raged and sighed and wept and worried, I could not rest, I could not think intelligently” (IV, vii).

In Shakespeare’s famous phrase from Troilus and Cressida, “reason panders will.” Instead of using the mind to seek, love, and honor the truth, Augustine uses his intelligence to rationalize evil through philosophies of determinism: “The cause of your sin is inevitably determined by the stars” or “Venus was responsible here, or Saturn, or Mars” (IV, iii). Thus, Augustine refers to the abuse of reason as “fornication,” when it prostitutes itself to pander to animal desires, the use of the mind for base purposes for which it was never intended or designed by Nature or God. Whether it is belief in astrology, that explains evil as the influence of the constellations; or belief in Manichaeism, that proposes the idea of the two gods—the god of light and the god of darkness—at war in the world and in the soul; the mind commits fornication by lowering itself to defend nonsense and heresy rather  than ascending to seek and know the true God: “So the soul commits fornication when she turns away from you {God} and tries to find outside you things which, unless she returns to you, cannot be found in their true and pure state” (II, vi).

Thus, Augustine wandered until his twenty-ninth year; the sins he committed being the consequence of his will, rather than the outcome of his ignorance. Rather than assuming responsibility for his sins, and attributing them to free will, Augustine’s mind meandered from astrology to skepticism to Manichaeism, from blaming the stars as the origin of evil, to claiming that the mind cannot know the truth, to explaining evil as the work of the god of darkness. For nine years, he alleviated his shame and guilt by subscribing to the Manichaean heresy that blames the god of darkness, rather than the human will, as the root of all evil. Disenchanted by all these false theories of evil that defied human reason—a fig weeping tears, the same stars appearing at the birth of a child destined to be poor and another child born into wealth, two gods in constant war to conquer the world and to win the soul—Augustine views the Catholic faith in a new light, as a reasonable religion that does not make farfetched claims or teach absurd nonsense: “I felt that the Catholic faith showed more modesty, and more honesty, than did the Manichees, who made rash promises of certain knowledge, derided credulity, and then produced a lot of fabulous absurdities, in which we were required to believe, because they were not susceptible to proof” (VI,v). From the self-evident truths about God and Divine Providence that Augustine never doubted—“first that you exist” and “the government of human affairs is in your hands” (VI,v)—Augustine realized the reasonableness of God in inspiring Holy Scripture as a source of divine truth and practical wisdom, providing for man’s desire to know God: “So, since we were too weak to discover truth by pure reason and, therefore, needed the authority of Holy Writ, I now began to believe that you could not possibly have given such supreme authority to these Scriptures all over the world, unless it had been your wish that, by means of them, men should both believe in you, and seek after you” (VI,v).

Finally, Augustine saw in the Catholic faith a safe haven, and place of rest, for his restless wandering. He discovered a universal religion founded on a God of truth, reason, and wisdom specifically designed for all men, in all times, and in all places: “It is not for nothing, it is not meaningless, that all over the world is displayed the high and towering authority of the Christian faith” (VI,xi). Even though Augustine begins to free himself from the bondage of superstitions and heresies, and to exercise his intelligence as an instrument for the discovery of the truth, rather than as a panderer of the will’s lust for pleasure, again his reason and will clash and suffer division. While the mind assents to the truth of the Christian faith, the will resists, inventing excuses: “But wait. These worldly things are too sweet” (VI, xi). Augustine could not imagine a chaste life without sexual pleasures, believing he lacked the will power to conquer his lust—I thought I should be unbearably unhappy if deprived of the embraces of a woman” (VI,xi). Thus, Augustine encounters the problem of the indecisive will, or the powerless will—the “law of the mind” affirming the Catholic faith, and “the law of the members” rebelling at the thought of self-control and temperance.

Divided between the truth, known by the mind, and the carnal pleasure, demanded by the will, Augustine struggles to unify his soul, integrating into it the true and the good. On the one hand, his mind—released from the lure of the Manichees—comprehends the nature of evil as the deprivation of the good, rather than as a substantive reality. The origin of evil, as Augustine deduced from the story in Genesis, is the will, not some all-powerful, independent demonic force: “if the devil is responsible, then where did the devil come from? And if it was by his own perverse will that the devil himself, after having been a good angel, became a devil, then what was the origin in him of the evil will by which he became a devil?” (VII,iii). Likewise, Augustine also reasons that his own will is not inherently corrupt, determined by the stars, or under the enslavement of the flesh: “And I made an effort to understand what I had heard, that free will is the cause of our doing evil, and your just judgment the cause of our suffering . . . . I was just as certain that I had a will, as that I had a life. So, when I willed to do, or not do, something, I was perfectly certain that the act of willing was mine, and not anybody else’s, and I was now getting near to the conclusion that here was the cause of my sin” (VII,iii).

However, as Augustine’s mind begins to know and love the truth, his will opposes the good that follows from the truth—the virtue of chastity. After discovering the deception of Manichaeism and astrology, and understanding the origin of evil in a rational light rather than as superstitious belief, Augustine no longer doubts the truth of the Christian faith: “I would sooner doubt my own existence than the existence of that truth which is clearly seen being understood by those things which are made” (VII,x). But his pride prevents him from submitting his will to God’s will and God’s truth. So, he procrastinates because of the force of habit, and the reluctance to change: “And, while you showed me, wherever I looked, that what you said was true, I, convinced by the truth, could still find nothing to say except lazy words spoken half asleep: ‘A minute,’ ‘just a minute,’ ‘just a little time longer’” (VIII,v). Therefore, for Augustine, virtue is not knowledge, and vice ignorance, as Plato argued, because Augustine’s possession of the truth does not lead him to go the good. The will must subordinate itself to reason, and the body obey the soul.

The indecisive or slothful will presents another struggle between reason and will in Augustine that delays his conversion. Augustine knows the nature of the human will in all its behavior: its stubborn willfulness, its disobedient insubordination, its uncontrollable appetite, its perverse contrariness, and its indolent passivity: “For the law of sin is the strong force of habit, which drags the mind along, and controls it, even against its will” (VIII,v). All these deadly sins that Augustine records—from the envy and gluttony of the child, to the wrath and pride of the schoolboy, to the lust and sloth of the adult—begin in a disordered will, a problem that Dante, in his Purgatory (Canto XVII), identified as love perverse, love excessive, and love defective. Yet, even the ordered will presents problems for the moral life, as Augustine explains. He distinguishes between the absolute will, and the half-hearted will. The mind gives an order to the body which the body performs, but the same mind that gives an order to the will, finds the command disobeyed. Although human nature possesses one will, not two, it appears that man owns two wills—one that says “yes” and one that says “no”: “So it is not an absurdity, partly to will, and partly not to will; rather it is sickness of the soul, which is weighed down with habit so that it cannot rise up in its entirety, lifted aloft by truth. So the reason why there are two wills in us is because one of them is not entire, and one has what the other lacks” (VIII,ix). One can partially, lukewarmly, half-heartedly desire the good; or, one can seek it passionately, wholeheartedly, or “entirely.” The weak, uncommitted will is Augustine’s final obstacle to his embrace of the Catholic faith. God, who is absolute Love, desires the total, unconditional love of the person, not a partial relationship, bounded by conditions like “But wait” or “just a minute.” As Christ taught, the first great commandment is to love God with all one’s mind, strength, heart, and soul. As Augustine discovered, God is boundless love: “. . . O omnipotent Good, you who care for each one of us as though he was your only care, and who cares for all of us as though we were all just one person” (III,xi). God’s “boundless” love demands man’s “entire” love.

Again, Augustine suffers the problem of the divided will, not this time between the law of his mind, and the law of his members; he now suffers the problem between his willingness, and his unwillingness, a will that is not entire or absolute but in conflict—a situation that tortures Augustine’s soul until he resolves it by submitting his entire will to God. The mystery of divine grace moves Augustine’s soul to surrender totally to God’s love. Melted and touched, Augustine finally takes the momentous step: “Now, now, let it be now!” (VIII, xi); “I could see the chaste dignity of Continence; she was calm and serene, cheerful without wantonness, and it was in truth and honor that she was enticing me to come to her without hesitation” (VIII, xii). As he beholds the purity of young children, and the chastity of virgins and widows, Augustine discovers that God gives man the strength to overcome the habit of evil, and the resistance of the obstinate, or weak will: “Can you not do what these men, and these women, have done?” (VIII, xi). As he hears this voice of conscience, it prevails over the temptations of the world, which he calls his “mistresses” or “unclean members,” who whisper to him: “From this moment, will you never, for all eternity, be allowed to do this or to do that?” (VIII,xi). Weeping as he struggles to renounce the misery of his past life, and conquer his wavering will, Augustine hears the voice of a child urging: “Take it and read it”—words that speak to his heart, and move him to open the Bible, and read: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in concupiscence” (VII,xii). This episode climaxes Augustine’s struggle between reason and will, and between his lukewarm will and his intellectual conviction. Because God is truth and God is love, God desires Augustine’s reason to know him, and Augustine’s will to love him, in an integrated way that is “entire,” absolute, and unconditional.

As Augustine learns from the final events that lead to his conversion, God gives the grace to conquer the stubborn will, to govern the uncontrollable will, to inspire the slothful will, to correct the disobedient will, to order the perverse will, and to unify the divided will. Both knowing the truth with his mind, and loving the good with his will, Augustine gains the certitude of conversion: “I had no wish to read further; there was no need to.  For immediately, as I had reached the end of this sentence, it was as though my heart was filled with a light of confidence, and all the shadows of my doubt were swept away” (VIII,xii).

Thus, as the Confessions illustrates, the origin of evil lies in the disordered human will that disobeys the voice of reason and conscience, not in the lack of knowledge or education.  Free will, God’s greatest gift to man, as Dante testifies in the Purgatory (Canto XVI), is not subject to the stars, or to the Manichaean god of darkness, or the slave of the passions that produce the seven deadly sins. As Mark, the Lombard, explained to Dante: “You living men attribute to the sky/ the causes of all things, as if they moved/ ever and only by necessity./ That would destroy the freedom of your will . . .  still, light is  given that you may freely judge/ And choose the good or evil” 1 (Canto XVI, 67-70; 75-76). The gift of free will ennobles man to assume moral responsibility rather than blame dark, irrational forces as the cause of evil. The gift of free will exalts man above the level of instinct to love, rather than to lust, to conform man’s will to God’s will, and to return love for love, as Augustine does in praising Monica, and praising God: “What am I to you, that you should demand to be loved by me?” (I,v). Though wounded and weakened by original sin, and often opposing or subverting reason, the will, nevertheless, is not helplessly weak, slavish, or passive.

As Augustine’s autobiography reveals, the will can receive God’s grace, assert will power, change the course of a person’s life, conquer evil, cooperate with God’s Divine Providence, and love as God loves.  Created in God’s image, man shares God’s nature in the mystery of free will, that remains profound and hidden, full of surprises like Augustine’s conversion, and full of love, that knows no limit, like Monica’s love for her son, and God’s love for each soul. As Virgil said to Dante after his cleansing of the seven deadly sins in Purgatory, “Your judgment now is free and whole and true; / to fail to follow its will would be to stray./ Lord of yourself I crown and mitre you” 2 (Purgatory, XXVII, 140-142).

After his conversion, Augustine, too, deserves to be crowned and mitered, and complimented for becoming “Lord” of himself, instead of the slave of the appetites—the law of the mind now ruling the law of his members.

  1. Dante, Purgatory, trans. Anthony Esolen (New York: The Modern Library, 2004), p. 173.
  2. Ibid., p. 297.
Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian, PhD About Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian, PhD

The son of Armenian immigrants, Mitchell Kalpakgian was born in Milford Massachusetts, in 1941. He earned his BA in English from Bowdoin College in 1963, his MA in English from the University of Kansas in 1965, and his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974. In the fall of 2008, he joined the faculty of Wyoming Catholic College as professor of humanities. He was married for twenty-five years to the late Joyce Narsasian, and is the father of five children. He has written four books: The Marvellous in Fielding's Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature, An Armenian Family, and Wisdom Ever Ancient, Ever New (a collection of essays). He is a regular contributor to New Oxford Review, Catholic Men's Quarterly, Culture Wars, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.


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