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Inseparable virtue and the imago Dei in Augustine: a speculative interpretation of De Trinitate 6.4

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2019

Adam Ployd*
Eden Theological Seminary, 475 East Lockwood Ave, St. Louis, MO


In De Trinitate 6.4, Augustine compares the inseparability of virtues within the human soul to the divine attributes within the simple divine substance of the Trinity. In this paper, I will suggest that this is more than a convenient analogy. Rather, I contend, the soul's virtues become inseparable as the soul itself conforms to the image of God through the primary virtue of love. My argument includes an analysis of the history of inseparable virtue in Graeco-Roman philosophy and a comparison of Augustine's use of the concept in Trin. 6.4 with his more extended treatment in Epistle 167. In the face of a seeming conflict in these two texts, I argue for a ‘soft’ or ‘imperfect’ version of inseparability in Augustine's view of the virtues. Finally, I suggest that the cultivation of the virtues within the unity of love may be understood as the way we come to image the Trinity.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 At present only two articles tackle the subject of inseparable virtue in Augustine: Bowlin, John, ‘Augustine Counting the Virtues’, Augustinian Studies 41 (2010), pp. 277300CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Langan, John P., ‘Augustine on the Unity and the Interconnection of the Virtues’, Harvard Theological Review 72 (1979), pp. 8195Google Scholar. Langan helpfully observes that Augustine ‘replaces the standard philosophical thesis of the interconnection of the virtues with his own view of the identity of the virtues with charity, together with a gradualist and progressivist notion of virtue’ (92). He does not engage, however, the passage on inseparable virtue in Trin. 6 that would problematise this reading. As I will argue below, it is not just a shift from inseparability to identity, but a more nuanced adaptation. He also situates Augustine within the philosophical context of Aristotle and Aquinas but ignores the Platonic tradition that, I will argue, accounts for much of Augustine's approach. Bowlin offers a compelling theological interpretation of the unity and plurality of the virtues in this life, such that ‘temporal enjoyments and eternal yearnings are brought together with time's many virtues and eternity's singular love’ (280). Much of Bowlin's understanding of the relationship between the virtues and beatitude and between heavenly unity and earthly plurality is consistent with the reading I will provide below. But I do not think he takes seriously enough the challenge of reconciling Trin. 6.4 and Ep. 167, deciding to read the latter as determinative of the meaning of the former. As with Langan, Bowlin lacks a substantive engagement with the larger philosophical context that, I will argue, helps explain these texts better. For existing studies of the unity of virtue in other early Christian figures, see Bayliss, Grant, The Vision of Didymus the Blind: A Fourth-Century Virtue-Origenism (Oxford: OUP, 2015), pp. 145–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Radde-Gallwitz, Andrew, ‘Gregory of Nyssa on the Reciprocity of the Virtues,’ Journal of Theological Studies ns 58 (2007), pp. 537–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Horn, H.-J., ‘Antakoluthie der Tugenden und Einheit Gottes’, Jahrbuch für Antike Christentum 13 (1970), pp. 528Google Scholar.

2 For the significance of Trin. 6, see Ayres, Lewis, Augustine and the Trinity (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), pp. 221–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Barnes, Michel, ‘De Trinitate VI and VII: Augustine and the Limits of Nicene Orthodoxy’, Augustinian Studies 38 (2007), pp. 189202CrossRefGoogle Scholar; La Bonnardière, Anne-Marie, ‘Recherches sur les antécédents, les sources et la redaction du Livre VI du De Trinitate de saint Augustin’, Annuaire de l’école pratique des Hautes Études 83 (1971), pp. 202–11Google Scholar.

3 E.g. Athanasius, C. gentes 46. See Barnes, Michel, The Power of God: Δύναμις in Gregory of Nyssa's Trinitarian Theology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001), pp. 125–72Google Scholar.

4 Augustine, Trin. 6.1.2. All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.

5 Trin. 6.4.6.

6 Trin. 6.3.5.

7 Trin. 6.4.6.

8 Bowlin, ‘Augustine Counting the Virtues’, p. 286.

9 Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity, p. 222.

10 For a more thorough and extensive history of the concept in ancient and Hellenistic philosophy, see Cooper, John M., ‘The Unity of Virtue’, Social Philosophy and Policy 15 (1998), pp. 233–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 On these dialogues and debates on how to discern Socrates’ or Plato's actual positions, see Devereux, Daniel, ‘The Unity of the Virtues’, in Benson, Hugh H. (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 325–39Google Scholar; Cooper, ‘Unity’, pp. 235–47; Vlastos, Gregory, ‘The Unity of the Virtues in the Protagoras’, in Platonic Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 221–69Google Scholar; Penner, Terry, ‘The Unity of Virtue’, Philosophical Review 82 (1973), pp. 3568CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 This same idea (or slightly nuanced versions of it) has been termed ‘reciprocity’, ‘mutual entailment’ or ‘bi-conditionality’ in other scholarship, but given Augustine's Latin terminology, I will use ‘inseparability’. To be precise, ‘inseparability’ is not identical to ‘mutual entailment’ and the rest. Rather, it is a concomitant consequence of the logic of mutual entailment. Thus, ‘inseparability’ should be read to represent not just the inability to be divided one from another but the more general affirmation that the presence or absence of one virtue entails the presence or absence of all others.

13 For debates on how to read Aristotle on this theory as well as its continued legitimacy, see Sharples, R. W., ‘The Unity of the Virtues in Aristotle, in Alexander of Aphrodisias, and in Byzantine Commentators’, Etica e Politica 2 (2000)Google Scholar; Badhwar, Neera K., ‘The Limited Unity of Virtue’, Nous 30 (1996), pp. 306–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gottlieb, Paula, ‘Aristotle on Dividing the Soul and Uniting the Virtues’, Phronesis 39 (1994), pp. 275–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Plutarch, Virt. mor. 440E–441D (L&S 61B). See Cooper, ‘Unity’, pp. 247–53.

15 Plutarch, St. rep. 1034c (L&S 61C). See Cooper, ‘Unity’, pp. 261–4.

16 St. rep. 1034c-d (L&S 61C). See Cooper, ‘Unity’, pp. 253–61.

17 Diogenes Laertius 7.125.

18 For a more nuanced analysis of Stoic positions on the unity of the virtues, see Jedan, Christoph, Stoic Virtues: Chrysippus and the Religious Character of Stoic Ethics (London: Continuum, 2009), pp. 7580Google Scholar.

19 Cicero, Tusc. 2.14.32.

20 Diogenes Laertius 7.127 reports that Chrysippus and Cleanthes disagreed on this, with the latter believing it to be irremovable while the former allows for the influence of intoxication and other temporary mental states.

21 While this position is a key feature of ancient Stoicism, later adherents adapted the idea to make more room for moral progress. Further, much of the association of the Stoics with a hardline position on this issue comes from the Platonic polemics of Plutarch. See Roskam, Geert, On the Path to Virtue: The Stoic Doctrine of Moral Progress and its Reception in (Middle-)Platonism (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

22 Plutarch, Comm. not. 1063A (SVF 3.539 = L&S 61T). Here I maintain the English translation from L&S.

23 Alcinous, Didask. 29.3–4. See Roskam, On the Path to Virtue, pp. 364–75.

24 Apuleius, De dog. Plat. 2.6. See Roskam, On the Path to Virtue, pp. 375–90.

25 Augustine, Conf. 2.3.5; Epp. 102.32, 137.4, 138.4; Civ. Dei 4.2, 8 passim, 9.3, 9.6–7, 10.9, 10.27, 12.10, 18.18.

26 For a recent analysis and affirmation of Apuleian authorship, see Harrison, Stephen, Apuleius: A Latin Sophist (Oxford: OUP, 2004), pp. 174–80Google Scholar.

27 Plotinus 1.2.7.

28 Henceforth, when I refer to a ‘Platonic’ version, I am referring not to Plato's own works but to what scholars used to name ‘Middle’ and ‘Neo-’ Platonism as represented by Alcinous, Apuleius and Plotinus, and which is much indebted to Aristotle's understanding of perfected virtue.

29 This also happens to lie within the proposed timeframe for the initial composition of Trin. 6, meaning that we need not see one text as a later development of the other. They may reasonably be considered as contemporaneous with one another. For the dating of Trin. 6, see Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity, p. 120.

30 Augustine, Ep. 167.1.3.

31 Ep. 167. 2.4.

32 Ibid.

33 Ep. 167. 2.5.

34 Ep. 167. 2.7.

35 Ep. 167. 3.10.

36 Ep. 167. 4.13.

37 Ep. 167. 3.11.

38 Ep. 167. 4.15.

39 Ep. 167. 4.14.

40 On this aspect of Trin., see Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity, pp. 273–81; Gioia, Luigi, The Theological Epistemology of De Trinitate (Oxford: OUP, 2008)Google Scholar; Williams, Rowan, ‘The Paradox of Self-Knowledge in Augustine's Trinitarian Thought’, in On Augustine (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 141–54Google Scholar; and Williams, ‘Sapientia: Wisdom and the Trinitarian Relations’, in On Augustine, pp. 155–70.

41 Augustine, Trin. 9.4.4.

42 Trin. 9.6.9.

43 On inseparable operations in Augustine and prior Latin authors, see Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity, pp. 42–71; for inseparable operations as a unifying theme in both Latin and Greek pro-Nicenes, see Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, pp. 296–300.

44 Augustine, Trin. 1.4.7.

45 As summarised by Augustine at Trin. 15.3.4: in secundo et tertio et quarto eadem, sed de filii missione et spiritus sancti diligenter quaestio pertractata tres libros fecit, demonstratum quae est non ideo minorem mittente qui missus est quia ille misit, hic missus est cum trinitas quae per omnia aequalis est pariter quoque in sua natura immutabilis et inuisibilis et ubique praesens inseparabiliter operetur.

46 Trin. 4.21.30.

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