Augustine and Ecology (II): The Will to Power and the Order of Love

How then are Christians to understand the character of the cosmos, including its intended diversity and its problematic imperfection, in the light of faith in the transcendent creator God?

Augustine speaks of the intended order and beauty of the world, only partially known to us in its present state, as an order of love, ordo amoris. The diversity of material and spiritual things is divinely intended, and inherently good. Any sense of hierarchy—and there certainly is one for Augustine—must be interpreted solely in terms of beauty and love; power is not itself the character of cosmic diversity, beauty is. Love is the purpose with which God creates, and the order to which God calls. When power or order serves its own ends and not those of God, it is perverse.

All things are good, in that they exist and thereby have their own way of being, their own appearance and in a sense their own peace (City of God 12.5).

The perverse employment of power is the key to Augustine’s understanding of sin itself. Since God is the creator of all, evil is not part of God’s will, yet has no source external to God (such as the Manichean alternative principle of evil, or some quasi-Christian accounts of the Devil). Evil appears solely as the correlate of freedom; since human beings (and angels) are free, they can choose, and in some cases have chosen, to act according to principles based on their own will to power (libido dominandi).

The will to power, rather than to love, is the desire to act as though we are gods, ends or goods in ourselves rather than solely in relationship to God and God’s will to love. This misunderstanding of our own place and the actions arising from it amount both to our own fall and to the set of ways in which we exploit, rather than steward, what God has given.

All forms of moral evil can be understood, directly or indirectly, in these terms. Oppression and violence among humans reflect our will to power, and our failure to discern, accept and live into our intended place of immense dignity and responsibility relative to one another.

It is also not hard to see how environmental degradation is a result of this ‘will to power’ on the part of humanity. God’s intention is that human beings exercise reasoned and loving power in creation, not on behalf of themselves but as part of this order of love, which is God’s. A sustainable beauty is therefore God’s plan.

Although recent ecotheologies have criticized the way classical theology gives humanity a unique place and destiny within creation, the reading suggested here actually requires a sort of 'anthropocentrism', but of a very specific kind. The historical reality of human existence reflects the distorted attempt that human beings have made to dominate one another and the earth, but Judeo-Christian tradition inescapably bestows on humans a pre-eminence which is intended to reflect and foster the order of love which is God’s will.

The ethical challenge for humankind does include recognition of our affinity with the earth (Gen 2:7), but also a unique calling (Gen 2:15) among its creatures. It is not the intended pre-eminence of humankind as a self-transcendent, creative and intelligent being which is the source of the earth’s woes, but the will to power which involves rejection of the divinely-intended role for another—at once a more vaunted but less responsible one.

Given the objectification and exploitation that characterizes much human behaviour towards the natural world, ecotheology is justified in seeking to re-emphasize the theme of affinity between humans and other creatures that has a genuine and important place in Christian thought and practice; the shared ‘creatureliness’ relative to a transcendent God is, as we have seen, essential to Augustine’s classical Christian position also.

However the rejection even of a relative or modified anthropocentrism such as that suggested above is problematic, if it entails a call for practice based solely on human participation in, or even identity with, the natural order. Not only is this avoidance of the distinctive calling of humankind too far removed from biblical witness to be useful for Christian ethics, it also involves a collapse of subject and object whose implications for any sort of ethics are unhelpful.

Just as the ethics of gender and of race require the negotiation of affinity and difference, rather than romanticized over-identification with the ‘other’, so too environmental ethics requires acceptance of the uniqueness of humanity as well as affirmation of our affinity with other creatures, and the particular relation of grace and power required of human beings living on earth.


  1. Anonymous4:35 am

    Sounds to me as if you are arguing for balance here, between the extreme positions that we get bombarded with in the media?? Power is inherently such a destructive and seductive thing without proper management and checks and balances. Am I getting warm here??? - julie

  2. Anonymous6:13 am

    Augustine's belief that "The diversity of material and spiritual things is divinely intended, and inherently good" would seem to me to be a verbalisation of the human need to create order out of chaos, to impose structure on what may be random. The remarkably adaptive nature of the human species is facilitated by a brain that specialises in pattern recognition. The downside is that sometimes, patterns are perceived where they do not necessarily exist.
    If this world and all the diverse life within it were created by a god, is the creation necessarily "good" or is it more correctly identified as beautiful? Not all that is good is beautiful and not all beauty is peaceful.
    All animals seek to exploit the resources of their environment to gain power, which in the most basic terms, confers breeding advantages. Likewise, humans exploit their environment and can justify such exploitation as ethical because, rather than seeking "power" per se, they seek to provide for themselves and the next generation.
    You raise a very interesting and difficult point about the need to modify our anthropocentrism. Perceptions of what constitutes "power" as opposed to "need" vary so markedly, even within a small population, let alone a global community. Augustine's ordo amoris is a transcendently beautiful idea but I fear it is not enough to create order from the inherent chaos.


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