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The Ladder of Love

In one of the most well-known passages of City of God, Augustine describes the ordo amoris, or order of loves. In his characteristic style of inserting brilliant theological observation within historical description, Augustine exposes the superstructure of his theology. In the midst of classical culture, he identified the central problem of humanity not in externals as the Manichaeans nor ignorance as the Pelagians, but in the fallen human will. More than the intellect alone, Augustine understood that we are pulled—compelled—by love. Here is the doctor of grace prescribing the cure for restless and wayward hearts:

And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good. . . . For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately. . . . But if the Creator is truly loved, that is, if He Himself is loved and not another thing in His stead, He cannot be evilly loved; for love itself is to be ordinately loved, because we do well to love that which, when we love it, makes us live well and virtuously. So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love. (Augustine, City of God, XV.22, trans. Marcus Dods)

Augustine describes virtue as not merely loving the right objects but loving them in the right order. This is difficult because we use the word “love” too much. We can love pizza, our dog, our football team, our spouse, or our children, yet we recognize instinctively that these loves are not equal. We are flawed if we love pizza more than our children or our football team more than our spouse. There is a proper order and hierarchy to these loves, but all of the objects themselves are good and worthy of love. When the miser loves gold more than justice, Augustine says, he does not reveal a fault in the gold, but in the himself (City of God, XV.22). No thing created by God can be called evil for “everything created by God is good and to be received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4), but when loved inordinately it is loved evilly.

By rejecting the existence of evil substances, Augustine locates original sin in the deficient will. An efficient cause, something outside, did not corrupt the will, but it turned away from God, the highest good, towards lesser goods. It was a deficiency—a falling away. This upsetting of the order of loves and hierarchy of goods is the essence of sin. Evil is loving lesser goods above greater ones. This moves the center of gravity from the intellect, knowing what is good, to the will, loving what is good. Consider the aim of your teaching for a moment. Do you view your task as filling the intellectual bucket with the correct ideas or forming the right habits of love? This means training the child in his likes and dislikes.

The nature of the will causes Augustine to summarize the difference between the two cities in terms of love (City of God, XIV.28). “The good make use of the world in order to enjoy God, but the evil, in contrast, want to make use of God in order to enjoy the world” (City of God, XV.4). The earthly city is ruled by libido dominandi as it subordinates all to its desire to possess, to control, to devour. The heavenly city is ruled by love of God, and all things are ordered under that love. We can never love God too much, but many goods may be valued too highly. The irony is that in loving them more, we actually destroy them by loving them too little.

As C.S. Lewis remarks, a man in the grip of lust who wants a woman actually does not want a woman at all. What he wants is an object with which to gratify his animal instinct. If he desired a real woman, he would want everything that attends her, such as a house, picket fence, children, and a stable relationship. At the highest intensity of desire, he is actually the farthest from loving the woman as a woman at all. This is the violence of pornography: It prioritizes the body above the soul and destroys both as it dehumanizes for the sake of bodily pleasure. The image on the screen is no longer a human being, but an expendable object to be consumed.

In contrast, love leads us onward and upward to God as our soul ascends. Lust turns us in on ourselves and points our eyes downward to the earth. Perhaps the young resonate with Dante’s bodily Inferno more than the intellectual Paradiso because we have not yet learned to enjoy the spiritual apart from the corporeal. As teachers, we often look to the “furniture” of education. Whether it is considering grades as the ultimate measure of growth or seeking to change curriculum and environment to artificially create learning, we place lower goods above nobler ideals such as virtue or wisdom.

In the closing of City of God, Augustine hints at properly ordered love when he describes the beatific vision. He intimates that our vision of God will not be one of the body, where we see God’s corporeal form (He has none), or of the spirit, where we see a spiritual essence, but that we will have the capacity to see God in all things at all places just as we can recognize a living soul from the movement of the body (City of God, XXII.29). By loving all objects for God’s sake, we are led by this ladder to see God present and governing all things, and we are able to enjoy Him forever.

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