“Original sin became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy — but not before decades of dispute”

Augustine’s tortured recognition that involuntary arousal was an inescapable presence—not only in conjugal lovemaking but also in what he calls the “very movements which it causes, to our sorrow, even in sleep, and even in the bodies of chaste men”—shaped his most influential idea, one that transformed the story of Adam and Eve and weighed down the centuries that followed: originale peccatum, original sin.

This idea became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy—but not before decades of dispute. Chief among those who found it both absurd and repulsive was a British-born monk, Pelagius. Almost exactly Augustine’s contemporary, he was in a certain sense his secret sharer: an upstart from the margins of the Roman world who by force of intellect, charisma, and ambition made his way to the great capital and had a significant impact upon the empire’s spiritual life.

Pelagius and his followers were moral optimists. They believed that human beings were born innocent. Infants do not enter the world with a special endowment of virtue, but neither do they carry the innate stain of vice. True, we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, and we live in a world rife with the consequences of their primordial act of disobedience. But that act in the distant past does not condemn us inescapably to sinfulness. How could it? What would be the mechanism of infection? Why would a benevolent God permit something so monstrous? We are at liberty to shape our own lives, whether to serve God or to serve Satan.

Augustine countered that we are all marked, in our very origins, with evil. It is not a matter of particular acts of cruelty or violence, specific forms of social pathology, or this or that person who has made a disastrous choice. It is hopelessly shallow and naïve to think, as the Pelagians do, that we begin with a blank slate or that most of us are reasonably decent or that we have it in our power to choose good. There is something deeply, essentially wrong with us. Our whole species is what Augustine called a massa peccati, a mass of sin.

The Pelagians said that Augustine was simply reverting to the old Manichaean belief that the flesh was the creation and the possession of a wicked force. Surely this was a betrayal of Christianity, with its faith in a Messiah who became flesh. Not so, Augustine responded. It is true that God chose to become man, but he did this “of a virgin, whose conception, not flesh but spirit, not lust but faith, preceded.” Jesus’ existence, in other words, did not depend upon the minutest touch of that ardor through which all other human beings are generated: “Holy virginity became pregnant, not by conjugal intercourse, but by faith—lust being utterly absent—so that that which was born from the root of the first man might derive only the origin of race, not also of guilt.”

The crucial word here is “guilt,” crimen. That we are not untouched by lust is our fault—not the result of God’s will but the consequence of something that we have done. It is here, when Augustine must produce evidence of our individual and collective perfidy, that he called in witness Adam and Eve. For the original sin that stains every one of us is not only a sin that inheres in our individual origins—that is, in the sexual arousal that enabled our parents to conceive us—but also a sin that may be traced back to the couple in whom our whole race originates. And now, in order to protect God from the charge that He was responsible for the innate defects in His creation, everything depended on Augustine somehow showing that in Paradise it could all have been otherwise; that our progenitors Adam and Eve were not originally designed to reproduce as we now reproduce but that they perversely made the wrong choice, a choice in which we all participate. To do this, Augustine would have to burrow into the enigmatic words of Genesis more deeply than anyone had done before. He would have to reconstruct the lost lives of our remote ancestors. He would have to find his way back to the Garden of Eden and watch our first parents making love.

Stephen Greenblatt, “The Invention of Sex”, The New Yorker (19 June 2017), 26-27.