The Specter of Anthropological Pessimism

What historians call the late middle ages was a difficult period in the history of western Christendom. From about 1300 to about 1500, a series of horrible events occurred including the Black Death and the Hundred Years War.

Illustration of Victims of Bubonic Plague from the Toggenberg Bible

Dying Victims of Black Death

As they did, they caused new features of western culture to appear. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that these catastrophes acted as abrasives across the surface of an otherwise verdant Christian culture, exposing stones that had long remained buried beneath it.

One of these long buried stones was what can be called anthropological pessimism, a emphatically negative view of the human condition in this world.

It was not exactly new. The place of sin in traditional Christianity had long brought attention to the brokenness of the human being and the need for salvation. Christ’s death on the cross–a necessary act in bringing salvation–reminded Christian theologians of the price of salvation.

What is more, some church fathers had taken up Saint Paul’s lament about the almost inevitable force of personal sin:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. 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. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:14-24).

But Saint Paul himself was no pessimist. His epistles ring forth like Easter church bells when speaking about the “new humanity” that has been raised up with Christ to a life of perfect and joyful fulfillment.

Less so Saint Augustine. For this great Latin father of the church, writing in the west nearly four centuries after Paul, the human being was enslaved by a will that could not but sin against God. Augustine reached this conclusion in the context of a polemical argument he waged against a heretic named Pelagius. The latter had claimed that salvation in Christ is merely a matter of will power. All human beings possess an autonomous (self-governing) will by which the Christian, by directing it toward good ends, can achieve salvation. Augustine, recalling Paul’s anthropological lament and brooding on his own long and unsuccessful struggle early on to live a Christian life, countered by asserting that the human will is enslaved to sinful concupiscence (“evil desire”). Miserably, it can not, not sin.

This intensely pessimistic view of human life led Augustine to the conclusion that virtually all worldly pleasure is a spiritual entanglement and involves sin. So great was his consciousness of sin that for him every human being, by virtue of his descent from Adam, shares in the primordial guilt of the fall.


Expulsion of Adam from Paradise in Chartres Cathedral, France

As a result, hell awaits everyone who is not baptized and regenerated within the life of the Church. Even then, he mused, the human race was in many ways a “mass of damnation” (massa damnata), for which a curative process of “purificatory punishment” might be necessary.

The contrast of such anthropological views with the early fathers of the Christian east (who for the most part never read Augustine) is great. Not that the innate sinfulness of man was ever doubted, or that monastic fathers often tended to emphasize the vanity of the world. But by being sanctified through the incarnation, the world and life within it were represented as an opporunity for mankind to taste the glory of eternal paradise. The ultimate expression of this was the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Pascha, when eastern Christians were called by the hymnography of Byzantine worship to embrace each other and regard even enemies as their beloved brothers.

It is often commented that the prevailing eastern doctrine of salvation known as deification assumes that man’s will is free to cooperate (or “synergize” in the New Testament Greek) with the will of God and that God, for his part, shares his divinity with baptized believers in this age. Gregory Palamas, the defender of hesychasm in the Byzantine east, spoke of man’s immediate experience of God’s divine energies through the sacraments, and emphasized the traditional Christian doctrine of the incarnation as much as that of the crucifixion.

By this time in the west, however, the prevailing view of salvation was that of Anselm, the late eleventh-century theologian who singlehandedly redirected western soteriology, or doctrine about salvation, toward the need to “satisfy” an offended divine Father. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, at the heart of any traditional Christian view of salvation east or west, became virtually the only point of reference in human salvation. The incarnation and resurrection remained fundamental in western soteriology, but comparatively underemphasized. Man now stood condemned by an increasingly angry God the Father, whose wrath could only be mitigated by the punishment on the cross of the divine Son, in the place of a worthless, disobedient race of sinners.

This was the theological air that Petrarch, father of modern humanism, breathed as he came of age in fourteenth century Italy. But he and other architects of utopia were not for the most part interested in theology. Theirs was a world of culture, and the rise of anthropological pessimism in the late medieval west influenced that as well.

4 thoughts on “The Specter of Anthropological Pessimism

  1. St. Augustine has an off-putting feel for me. I don’t think he fits the Anglican sensibility well at all—this for a number for reasons—and I can’t recall ever hearing him quoted in a sermon in a C of E church. Did he actually say that the floor of hell was paved with the skulls of unbaptised infants? A clergyman told me that once, but he may well have been mixing up his sources with regards to who said what. If he did it’s not something that would go down well at a vicarage tea-party!

    For Augustine, as I understand it, original sin is something passed on in a quasi-biological way. For people who accepted this view of things I suspect this tended to lead to the thought, not as a logically necessary connection but as a “felt” connection, that perhaps sexual activity (however licit) is somehow sinful. (Perhaps those ideas might have been in proximity for Augustine himself, and that might have been so because of his own life-history—a similar thought to the one you express in the comment beginning “brooding on his own …”.) I think I’ve heard Augustine’s conception described as more like a notion of original guilt, and I’d be far happier with a notion of original sin that was more along the lines of: none of us is responsible for anyone else’s sin, and it isn’t, as such inherited, but that we enter a world in which sin is, so to speak, already “up and running” and, therefore, we inevitably get entangled in it.

    Augustine does seem to have genuine religious experiences himself, which is interesting. As I understand it, there’s a notion within Orthodoxy (originally going back a long way but perhaps revived by Vladimir Lossky?) that this is essential, and that some later theologians they are uncomfortable with are doing no more shuffling concepts. Nevertheless, he seems an uncomfortable figure. I found one of his reactions on “getting religion”—putting aside what we’d nowadays call his common-law wife and the mother of his son, she being sent back to North Africa and never, presumably, ever seeing her son again, chilling.

    It might be interesting to think about pessimism in the pre-Christian world. The Greeks and Romans seem to have thought of existence after death as an experience where as someone—I can’t remember who—put it the dead “sit around in the dust like draggled birds”. Achilles’ conversation with Odysseus in Book XI of the Odyssey is about as pessimistic a picture of the final destiny of man as one could get.


  2. Michael,

    I think an exploration of pessimism in the pre-Christian world would make for a very interesting point of reference. I regret I won’t myself be able to do that, not knowing enough about it, but I would love to learn about it.


  3. Pingback: An Eastern Perspective on the Western Renaissance | PARADISE AND UTOPIA

  4. Reblogged this on PARADISE AND UTOPIA and commented:

    In my presentation of past articles on the origin of what I call the “age of utopia”–the story of which I’ve been writing in recent months–this one helps establish the context in which the “father of humanism,” Francesco Petrarch, made his breakthrough into modernity. In a real sense it was a reaction against a pessimism that had never sat well within Christendom.


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