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Rethinking Augustine’s Misunderstanding of First Movements: the Moral Psychology of Preliminary Passions

  • Yuan GaoEmail author


Augustine’s theory of first movements (primus motus, propatheia, and propassio) has provoked many controversies over the years. When discussing Augustine’s position in preliminary passions, some scholars maintain that he misunderstands the Stoics, whereas some others argue that he grasps their works rather well and his accounts are consistent with Stoic teaching. This article examines how Augustine transforms his predecessors’ conception of first movements into his own theory, with particular focus on whether Augustine misinterprets his predecessor’s doctrine in his approach. The first section introduces the recent disputations on Augustine’s misunderstanding of the Stoic concept of the first movements. The second section compares Augustine’s opinions in his early, middle, and late writings to determine whether changes occur in his interpretation. Based on the above observations, this essay argues that Augustine is familiar with the Stoic doctrines, but in his later works, he ‘deliberately’ deviates from their concept of the first movements in order to refute their ‘pride’ and to defend his Christian position on the psychology of preliminary passions. These deliberate new changes of terms by Augustine do not derive from a misunderstanding, but rather follow from his attempt at constructing a new dynamic theological framework of addressing passions during his later thought. The article concludes with a third section that revisits the modern critiques and responds with a consideration of the significance of Augustine’s views on preliminary passions.


Augustine First movements Moral psychology Preliminary passions 



I would like to take the opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to my two supervisors, Professor Simo Knuuttila and Professor Miikka Ruokanen, who offered invaluable advice during the first draft of this paper. Also, special thanks to Lucy Melville from Peter Lang who kindly gave permission for the use of material from my book, Freedom from Passions in Augustine (2017). Their generous support allowed me to deepen my appreciation of, and rethink, Augustine's position from a new dynamic theological scheme of the psychotherapy of first movements. Finally, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the editors of Sophia in getting this manuscript ready for publication. Any and all errors remain my responsibility.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sun Yat-Sen UniversityGuangdongChina

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