Augustine is known for his rather uncompromising position on the presence (or, rather, absence) of virtue in those who do not worship the true God. Indeed, in Book 19 of The City of God, Augustine seems quite clear: “The very virtues which the mind imagines that it has, and by which it rules the body and the vices for the sake of gaining or keeping whatever is the object of its desire, are themselves vices, and not virtues at all, if the mind does not direct them to God” (19.25). So, it would seem, no matter how virtuous non-Christians may appear, they are, in the final analysis, simply vicious: their seemingly virtuous actions are misdirected, ordered toward love of self rather than love of God.

Such a vision of the world and its inhabitants might strike us as exceedingly stark, black-and-white, and overly simplistic. But one wonders whether a different, slightly more nuanced vision might be found elsewhere in Augustine’s writings. Indeed, in his Confessions, we see Augustine examining the words and deeds of several non-believers (himself included) and finding a mess of mixed motives—many of them, it is true, being far less than admirable, but at least some of them seeming to reveal sparks of goodness, even if, as yet, undeveloped.

A particularly intriguing passage in this regard is found in Book 5, where Augustine narrates his encounter with Faustus the Manichee. Augustine had been eagerly anticipating Faustus’s arrival in Carthage for some time, hoping that the renowned Manichee would be able to address some of his nagging concerns about aspects of Mani’s writings. Of course, as it turned out, Faustus was not up to the task.

Significantly, however, Augustine acknowledges that Faustus seems to have known his limits and refused to speak about matters that he knew he knew nothing about. Augustine writes, “He was not one of the talkative kind, of whom I had suffered many, who tried to teach me but said nothing. His heart was, if not right with you, yet not without discretion. He was not altogether unaware of his own lack of awareness and was unwilling to enter rashly into argument that might leave him cornered, with no way out and no easy means of retracting” (Conf. 5.7.12). Augustine, of course, is not lavishing praise on Faustus’s restraint here: the Manichee’s discretion or cautiousness is presented more as a function of his desire to avoid losing an argument than as the fruit of a virtuous honesty. That said, Augustine admits that Faustus was not as bad as some other people he had encountered; at least Faustus was not so deluded as to think himself capable of pontificating on any topic whatsoever in a compelling and coherent way.

We can, of course, think about this comparison simply in negative terms: Faustus was not as bad as others. But, intriguingly, Augustine instead draws attention to the beauty that he had perceived in Faustus’s restraint: “This attitude endeared him to me all the more, for the restraint of a mind that admits its limitations is more beautiful than the things about which I desired to learn” (5.7.12). In spite of Faustus’s problematic motives for restraint, the restraint itself was something beautiful—and that beauty attracted the young Augustine.

Several other similar episodes can be found earlier in the Confessions: when Augustine relates his theft of the pears (but claims that he would not have done so on his own), when he admits that he sometimes taught his students how to argue for the acquittal of the guilty (but never the conviction of the innocent), or when he confesses to cohabiting with a young woman (but emphasizes his sexual fidelity to her). In all these instances, Augustine, viewed negatively, is simply emphasizing that he was not as bad as he could have been. But that negative perspective does not tell the whole story. Viewed positively, Augustine also seems to be hinting that there were, even in his darkest moments, pinpricks of light shining through: some sparks of goodness remained, even if they were weak and in danger of being snuffed out.

Of course, when Augustine is retrospectively speaking about these sparks of goodness in himself, we might suspect that Augustine the rhetorician is at work, attempting to “lighten the blow” of his public confessions (“I wasn’t as bad as you’ve heard!”). But the fact that he treats Faustus in a somewhat analogous fashion should give us pause in adopting a too-cavalier hermeneutic of suspicion with respect to his narrative.

Instead, perhaps Augustine is hinting at something else: that even at its worst, sin defaces but cannot totally destroy; it dims but cannot completely darken. Perhaps these sparks of goodness in the midst of sin are in fact signs of God’s activity in a person’s heart, early stirrings of a future conversion. In this sense, even if the non-Christian’s actions, in Augustine’s view, are not virtuous, they surely contain aspects of the good that can, if pursued, lead that person to conversion and authentic virtue. Viewed from this perspective, Augustine’s vision of the moral character of the unconverted sinner is not simply one of darkness and depravity, but one with glimmers of light, hope, and potential.