Pelagius and Augustine: A Contemporary Take on an Ancient Controversy

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Tzvetan Todorov
CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), Paris

Date: October 4, 2011

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Co-sponsored by: The Consulate General of France, The Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy, The BC College of Arts and Sciences, The BC Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.


In the beginning of the fifth century, two major theologians, Pelagius and Augustine, were engaged in a passionate debate. The former defended the idea of human liberty: man being capable of achieving the good by his own means. The latter responded that our knowledge of ourselves is always incomplete and that original sin prevents us from attaining alone the sovereign good. Only submission and divine grace can provide it. The debate has continued through the Enlightenment and it remains relevant for us.

Speaker Bio

Tzvetan Todorov

Tzvetan Todorov is a philosopher, theorist, and literary critic. Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, he has lived in France since 1963. Since 1968, he has been a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research, Paris, where he has been honorary director since 2005. He is author of numerous books, many of which have been translated into English, including The Poetics of Prose (1977), Introduction to Poetics (1981), The Conquest of America (1984), Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle (1984), Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (1996), On Human Diversity (1993), Hope and Memory (2003), and Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism (2002), and The New World Disorder: Reflections of a European (2005). His most recent books include: The Limits of Art (2010) and The Totalitarian Experience (2011). He is member of many scholarly organizations and recipient of numerous prizes, including the Prix Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1991), the Spinoza (2004), and the Prince of Asturias (2008).

Event Photos

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Alan Wolfe introduces Tzvetan Todorov on October 4, 2011 at Boston College.

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Tzvetan Todorov, CNRS (Paris), speaks at Boston College, October 4, 2011.

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Boston College students, faculty, staff and community listen to Tzvetan Todorov.

Event Recap

This fall the Boisi Center was honored to host French-Bulgarian philosopher, theorist and literary critic, Tzvetan Todorov. A researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (Paris) and the author of many influential books, Todorov began his week-long visit with a lecture on the debate between Pelagius and Augustine about original sin, and its influence on the Enlightenment and modern totalitarianism. In the two seminars following the lecture, he traced the emergence of totalitarianism and discussed its relationship to the modern understanding of beauty and art.

In his opening lecture, Todorov argued that the fifth-century debate between Christian thinkers Pelagius and Augustine has had crucial influence on modern religious and political thought. Pelagius believed that man cannot be completely evil because he is created in the image of God; human sin is thus not innate but rather a matter of will. Because divine grace is simply God’s gift of free will, man is capable of perfecting himself— and thus, in a sense, of saving himself. Augustine forcefully rejected the Pelagian view, arguing that man is saved by God’s grace alone, that our will is easily perverted and thus an untrustworthy guide to perfection, and that perfection itself is always beyond our capacity.

Todorov then described how the fundamental questions Pelagius and Augustine debated—How much can humans improve themselves? How deeply-seated is our sinfulness? How reliable are our moral and intellectual capacities? To what extent is our salvation dependent upon our own actions?—influenced subsequent Western religious and political thought, using examples from Montesquieu, Rousseau, Condorcet, and many others. Todorov argued that the Pelagian belief in individual (and thus social) perfectibility ultimately informed the development of “political messianism” and the rise of totalitarianism in Europe.

In a faculty seminar the next day, Todorov gave more detail to his account of political messianism. He argued that three variants of political messianism developed among ideologues who were convinced that much good could be done in the world, but that it sometimes must be forced upon those who do not know what is good for them. Enlightenment messianists crusaded for universal liberty against barbarism and tyranny; Communist messianists sought to create a classless society of equals; and human rights messianists now strive to globalize Western norms of democracy and individual rights.

Todorov’s last public event at the Boisi Center was a graduate seminar on his recent book The Limits of Art. He explained how the Pelagian view of the perfectibility of man can be seen in the emergence of the modern understanding of art. Rather than seeing art as a reflection of a higher truth or morality, art is now seen as a creative act of the individual. Totalitarian leaders like Stalin and Hitler, he argued, understood themselves as artists perfecting the world. He concluded by pointing to a possible new understanding of art, one articulated by Iris Murdoch: art as an inescapably ethical activity.

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Further Reading

B.R. Rees, Pelagius, Life and Letters, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 1998. A critical study of Pelagius to date, together with a selection of his letters.

Saint Augustine, Confessions, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1991. In this intensely personal narrative, Augustine relates his rare ascent from a humble Algerian farm to the edge of the corridors of power at the imperial court in Milan, his struggle against the domination of his sexual nature, his renunciation of secular ambition and marriage, and the recovery of the faith his mother Monica had taught him during his childhood.

Peter Brown, Augustin of Hippo, A Biography, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2000. A classic biography of Saint Augustine's life and teaching, first published thirty years ago.

François Flahault, Le crépuscule de Prométhée, Paris, Mille et une nuits, 2008.


Hope and Memory, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003. Identifying totalitarianism as the major innovation of the twentieth century, Tzvetan Todorov examines the struggle between this system and democracy and its effects on human life and consciousness.

The Fear of Barbarians, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2010.Todorov offers a reasoned and often highly personal analysis of the tension between Western democracies and Islam. His analysis is rooted in Enlightenment values and yet open to the claims of cultural difference.