Luke McCracken, “Augustine’s Addiction and the Paradox of the Will”

Luke McCracken

PhD Candidate, Religious Studies Department,
University of California, Santa Barbara


“Augustine’s Addiction and the Paradox of the Will”

TUESDAY, January 23rd, 5:00 PM, Swift 207
The workshop will consist of a short presentation, followed by discussion and Q&A. This workshop will focus on a pre-circulated paper, which can be accessed here.


Saint Augustine has been credited as the “discoverer” of the free will. Pondering the perennial question of how evil could exist in a world run by a benevolent and all-powerful God, Augustine theorized early in his theological career that God granted human beings the ability to make their own free choices. Because we have free will, he taught, we are individually accountable for our own sins. Later in his career, however, prompted by the Pelagian controversy, Augustine would emphasize that the generational inheritance of sin renders our wills congenitally defective and thus unfree.

Augustine’s account of the will is deeply ambivalent—caught between the notion that we are free to make our own choices and the alternative that our behaviors are dictated by forces beyond our control. This ambivalence gives way to the subsequent uncertainty about the status of sin—whether it is a willful crime for which we should make amends or a congenital disease for which we should seek treatment. The concept of the will that we inherit from Augustine’s theology revolves around a constitutive paradox that animates his thought: We feel ourselves to be free, and yet we frequently find ourselves out of our own control.

The pervasive phenomenon of addiction exemplifies this Augustinian paradox of the will and raises the same questions about personal culpability. Some argue that addiction is the self-imposed consequence of an individual’s own free decisions, and thus they have justified holding addicts accountable for their bad choices (think the Reagans’ “Just Say No” campaign). Others insist that addiction is not a willful crime to be punished but a congenital disease to be treated (think Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program).

This modern secular debate about the etiology of addiction and the culpability of addicts rehearses Augustine’s ambivalence about the nature of the will and the meaning of sin. However, this secular rehearsal of an ancient theological paradox is no accident. The very concept of addiction—along with its constitutive disease-crime ambivalence—actually originated in early Roman theology. Several of the earliest and most influential Roman theologians, led by Augustine, used the Roman legal term addictio, which at the time denoted debt-bondage, as a metaphor for sin. Augustine formulated his ideas about the freedom and bondage of the will, about the voluntarity and heritability of sin, through the heuristic metaphor of addiction, and the paradoxes inherent in his theology have attended the concept of addiction ever since.

Through an analysis of Augustine’s theology of addiction, I argue that the ostensibly empowering idea of free will that early Augustine pioneered has asked individuals for too much and legitimized their punishment for too long. And yet, the subjective experience of free choice is so phenomenologically undeniable that the liberation of late Augustine’s determinism offers no ready alternative. Rather than choosing sides between the voluntaristic and deterministic Augustines, I suggest that we recover from within the Saint’s ambivalent theology of addiction a latent notion of the “social will,” which neither denies freedom nor presumes autonomy, but conceives of agency and guilt as a diffuse interpersonal network.

Hosted by the Philosophy of Religions Workshop at the University of Chicago.


The Workshop on the Philosophy of Religions is committed to being a fully accessible and inclusive workshop. Please contact Workshop Coordinators Danica Cao ( or Taryn Sue ( in order to make any arrangements necessary to facilitate your participation in workshop events.

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