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Saint Augustine and the Fall of the Soul: Beyond O'Connell and His Critics (review)
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Reviewed by
Ronnie J. Rombs Saint Augustine and the Fall of the Soul: Beyond O'Connell and His Critics Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2006 Pp. xiii + 228. $64.95.

This study of Augustine's teaching on the fall of the human soul as a consequence of sin is divided into two parts. In the first, Rombs presents an extraordinarily clear exposition and analysis of Robert J. O'Connell's work. In the second, he provides his own analysis of the development of Augustine's use of the Plotinian theory of the fall of the soul, going beyond and correcting O'Connell.

In the first five chapters, Rombs expands the work of Eugene TeSelle to demonstrate how O'Connell elaborated his hypothesis of Augustine's adaptation of Plotinus's system to the needs of Christian theology. O'Connell's position is stated in three theses. In his early work, Augustine thought of the human person as a soul that existed before its body and fell into corporeal existence through sin. Augustine also seems to have adopted, at least initially, Plotinus's notion that through this fall the individuation of human souls from their unified existence was a process essential to the formation or elaboration of the bodily realm. Augustine's acceptance of the Christian belief in creation from nothing, however, eventually entailed the rejection of this second thesis. Finally, with Plotinus Augustine distinguished an initial, transcendent, and trans-individual life of the soul in Adam from its subsequent, earthly and private life; the transition was itself the consequence of a sin common to all souls.

Through the first five chapters, Rombs explains the neoplatonic position and O'Connell's attempts to demonstrate that Augustine had embraced it fully. The difficulty, as O'Connell himself recognized, was that Augustine never treated this theory explicitly and in detail; his suppositions have to be discerned through careful analysis of his discussions of the soul's embodied condition and its failure to perform properly. Sometime between 415 and 417, Augustine realized that Romans 9.11, in which Paul asserted that Jacob and Esau had done neither good nor evil before birth, clearly excluded the hypothesis that souls had lived and sinned as individuals prior to their bodily existence. O'Connell argued that Augustine had retained the hypothesis that humans had sinned in a communal existence, in which they all were one in Adam. Rombs's analysis shows that O'Connell took this position on the basis of the requirement that the penal condition into which human beings are born and the guilt which must be removed in baptism could be understood as justly deserved only on the basis of voluntary responsibility for a sin, which had to occur prior to birth.

In the second part of the study, Rombs traces a different development of Augustine's use of the Plotinian theory of the fall of the soul, showing how O'Connell's analysis went astray in the later period by failing to distinguish separable elements in the theory. This analysis samples the relevant major works of Augustine and focuses on a limited set of issues. In this it is more a correction of O'Connell than an independent and fully adequate study. In his earliest works, Augustine adopted Plotinus's explanations of the individuation [End Page 434] of souls, the differentiation of the material world, and the psychology of sin. As he attempted to correlate these theories with his anti-Manichean commitment to the goodness of the material world and his Christian metaphysic of creation from nothing, Augustine gradually abandoned the thesis that a moral failure produced the individuation of human souls from a world-soul or even resulted in their presence in an earthly body. In contrast, Augustine developed the third Plotinian analysis of the sin of audacity—tolma—into a Christian psychology of sin in the forms of pride, curiosity, and concupiscence. Augustine used these forms of sin to describe not only the initial fall of humanity in Adam but the subsequent patterns of human sinfulness. Rombs explains that O'Connell tracked this continuing reliance on Plotinus for the psychological understanding of sin but failed to distinguish it...