Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Incarnation and Humilitas in Augustine’s Confessions

Well, there has been a whole lot of Augustine going on around here lately. Figured I’d pile on with a short note.

In Confessions 1.11.17, as he is about to describe his time in the catechumenate and his desire for baptism when, during a childhood illness, he thought that he was going to die, Augustine writes:

Audieram enim ego adhuc puer de vita aeterna promissa nobis per humilitatem domini dei nostri descendentis ad superbiam nostram….

“For I, while still a boy, had heard about the eternal life promised to us through the humility of the Lord our God, who descended to our pride….”

The phrase per humilitatem domini is a reference to the Incarnation. But in the social context of the fourth century Roman Empire, the connotations of the word humilitas were much richer than they are for us, for it invoked distinctions of class and privilege between those who were humiliores (low on the social scale) and those who were honestiores (high on the social scale). Both adjectives make us think of virtues now (humility and honesty), but would not have been their primary resonance then.

In her commentary on Confessions I-IV, Gillian Clark notes:

For A.’s audience, humilitas had a social resonance: the humiliores were the ‘lower classes’ who were vulnerable not only to contempt and neglect, but to brutal physical punishments which were not prescribed for the honestiores, the more respectable.

The Latin phrase, then, for a Roman audience, called to mind not only Christ’s condescension in general terms, but identified him with people they knew, in their own communities: people whom, in general, it was acceptable to shut out or spit upon, or brutalize–and would have served as a reminder that this was just what was done to Christ himself in the first century Roman Empire.

His peers, by these three words, would have been reminded of both the Incarnation and the reason for it: the Crucifixion. They would serve as a reminder of God’s love and as a rebuke ad superbiam eorum; and, if we can hear them as a fourth century Roman would have, they can do the same ad superbiam nostram.


By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.