The National Catholic Review

Alan Jacobs’s new book is best read as an intellectual jeu d’esprit: a playful, wide-ranging, erudite meditation on the nagging question of whether human beings enter the world predisposed to evil and sinfulness. Jacobs, a professor of literature at Wheaton College, deploys a staggering range of literary, theological and cultural sources—from Odilo of Cluny to the movie “Hellboy,” from the rabbis of 17th-century Amsterdam to his own experiences in 1990s Nigeria. The result, while constantly entertaining, is sometimes chaotic.

The author’s approach is unwaveringly diachronic. His book stresses the idea that, mutatis mutandi, we have been having more or less the same debate about human nature for several millennia. Perhaps so, perhaps not: but the role of contingency, of specific historical circumstances, in that debate ought not to be underestimated. Jumping back and forth from Augustine to C. S. Lewis to Milton, from this century to that century, as though all such peoples and times were engaged in an identical intellectual endeavour, is sometimes instructive (and demonstrates just how widely Jacobs has read), but it can also be misleading and a bit reductive. One is reminded of those critics of the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker, quoted by Jacobs, who, dismayed by Pinker’s suggestion that a tendency toward aggression is part of our genetic legacy, accused him of reinventing Augustine for a new age, of producing a “jumped-up, down-market version of original sin.” There is endless room to debate the virtues of Pinker’s theorizing, but it has to be understood on its own, historically determined terms, not simply as a rehashing of a hackneyed idea. Jacobs rightly scolds the sneering tone of some of Pinker’s critics, but he sometimes comes close to imitating their errors of oversimplification.

The thought of people as different as St. Paul, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Grandison Finney, Coleridge, G. K. Chesterton and the rest of Jacobs’s luminous cast of characters ought not to be corralled into a single, overly static historical narrative. It seems unhelpful, for instance, to refer to Pelagius as “something like the Tony Robbins of his time.”

This major cavil aside, Original Sin has a great deal to offer both the general reader and those already well versed in this most controversial of theological arenas. Many of the grand battles in the debate about original sin—St. Augustine versus Pelagius, 17th-century Jansenists versus the Jesuits, the leaders of the Great Awakening and their critics—are recounted with economy and precision. Jacobs also strives to be even-handed. He is perhaps a little charitable when it comes to analyzing the hugely influential, some would say hugely debilitating, thought of Augustine of Hippo; but he makes the excellent point that those who argued from the opposite perspective—those who stressed the importance of human free will or even dreamed dreams of human perfectibility—were no less likely to take up dogmatic, unflinching, even fanatical positions. The message of Augustine’s great rival Pelagius, for instance, with its insistence on the role of free will in the salvific economy, might seem at first blush to encourage a decidedly optimistic, empowering worldview. In fact, Jacobs suggests, it placed the “terrifying weight of complete freedom on the individual” at every moment, which was just as likely to engender anxiety, excessive asceticism and a “creed for heroes” to which few people could measure up. Admittedly, Jacobs fastens upon some conspicuously soft targets in making this point (Pelagius, Rousseau, and so on), but his point is still a good one. Positing a neat division between bleak, mean-spirited believers in original sin and their jolly, optimistic opponents is often entirely misguided.

Into the bargain, the seemingly devastating consequences of a belief in original sin and human depravity and cupidity could sometimes have a surprisingly positive cultural, political and intellectual impact. Such beliefs could fuel a pragmatic political realism and form the basis of a sophisticated, robust, even comforting devotional attitude. Such results might not have been to everyone’s taste. In the political realm, for instance, belief in original sin usually encouraged a conservative, even reactionary outlook; but this does not diminish the fact that those few sentences in Genesis, as filtered through the thought of thinkers like Augustine, possessed an extraordinary cultural creativity.

Original Sin includes many intriguing digressions, but it is at its best when it enters solidly theological terrain. The accounts of how religious thinkers have sought to conceptualize the stain of man’s first disobedience and hammer out its consequences are often extremely well wrought. Readers will sometimes be distracted by the author’s inability to resist a good story, however tangential it might be, but they will also be reminded that, far from being an arcane theological construct, the doctrine of original sin is at least “an intellectually serious attempt” to answer that abiding question: where does all the wrongdoing come from?

Jonathan Wright, who writes extensively on early modern religious history, is the author of