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Law and Conversion in St. Augustine: Improving the Current Model

In Augustinian literature, much attention has been given to the topics of conversion and coercive law respectively. The former topic is rightly treated under the topic of the affections and Augustine’s concept of the ordo amoris, while the latter typically seeks to situate Augustine according to a variety of coercive models, liberal or otherwise. To date, however, no adequate study has been conducted on how coercion and conversion are related in Augustine’s mind. This paper therefore seeks to elucidate what other authors have left implicit or unexamined: how can external impingements of the law create a change in the internal re-ordering of the affections? In Section One, I argue that the most interesting treatment of this topic so far by John von Heyking is insufficient and misleading, and that this is due to his misreading of a correspondence between Augustine and a Roman official. In Section Two, I argue that a correct reading of this correspondence and attention to other key evidence in Augustine’s writings provide us with a more robust Augustinian theory of the relationship between coercive law and conversion of internal affections. Finally, in Section Three, I defend this theory against an obvious worry that arises when coercion and conversion are related in this manner – that forcing people to change their behavior simply cultivates hypocrites who do the right thing for the wrong reason. To do this, I utilize recent work in moral theology by Jennifer Herdt and Joshua Hordern to show how laws in the Augustinian theory serve as external ‘place holders’ for inner virtue, creating the social space necessary for its proper inculcation by other means. 

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