Fragility, Amplified: The Contribution of the Latin Fathers to the Philosophy of Finitude

One of the conceits of modernity is its belief that it has discovered human finitude or fragility for the first time, by devoting attention to aspects of the human condition which were supposedly ignored or suppressed when philosophical anthropology existed within a theological horizon. Now that humanity is considered purely on a plane of immanence, the story goes—as a merely mortal being defined by “being towards death”—fragility and finitude can finally receive their due.

Perhaps Jean-Louis Chrétien’s greatest contribution to theological anthropology is his deconstruction of this self-serving myth. In his 2017 work Fragilité, the French phenomenologist, poet, and theologian uncovers a rich heritage of reflection on human fragility which existed, before Christianity, in the Latin literary, philosophical, and theological tradition. Yet the heart of Chrétien’s project of re-narration and ressourcement is the “Christian enlargement of fragility,” which he explores by tracing the concept through the work of the Latin Fathers, especially Ambrose of Milan, Augustine, and John Cassian (with Tertullian—among others—making guest appearances).[1] When the Christian gospel encountered the preexisting Latin literary tradition of fragility, the Latin Fathers preserved its insights while bestowing a unique “inflection and an imprint which it can no longer lose.”[2]

Despite what our contemporaries may fear, Chrétien insists that in Christianity, fragility “is not abolished nor suppressed.”[3] If anything, in Chrétien’s narrative, it is modernity (especially the work of Immanuel Kant) which is responsible for a marginalization of fragility and an impoverishment of its meaning! For as Chrétien shows, enriched with new meanings, the word “fragility” pervades patristic theology. It is enlarged, deepened, and metamorphosized, with new dimensions deployed and new usages uncovered.[4] Chrétien especially emphasizes the creaturely fragility which has been affirmed and dignified by the Incarnation, the sinful moral fragility of our fractured will, and the new usage of fragility which has been made possible by grace. This polyvalent notion of fragility, Chrétien implicitly suggests, is more nuanced and complex than anything philosophical modernity has to offer.

The Incarnation as Affirmation of Creaturely Fragility

The most decisive “imprint” on fragility left by the Latin Fathers stems from the Incarnation, the kenotic act by which the very Word of God assumes our fragility. This condescension had already begun with revelation itself. Augustine reads the title “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” as a “name of mercy” which precedes the famous “name of substance”: “I am who I am.”[5] For God thus shares “the name of God’s fragile witnesses.”[6] As Chrétien explains, letting “Godself be named by creatures, joining those God has drawn from nonbeing, is thus, in the order of speech, a first coming of God in fragility, a nominal assumption of the latter . . . and thus a pledge of hope for our fragility.”[7] We are addressees of revelation not where we transcend our fragility, but precisely in it, where God joins us.

This truth is radicalized with the Incarnation, in which “the light of hope comes to shine in human fragility, liberating it without destroying it nor abolishing it, in accommodating itself to it.”[8] As Ambrose writes, the Word “has assumed the fragility of our body, the servitude of our condition.”[9] Human fragility does not irreparably separate us from God, but is the very site where God draws near. Our fragility is not obscured by the brilliance of divine glory. Rather, our fragility is, for the very first time, seen with clear perspective, deployed and dignified to the fullest extent. For “God, in becoming incarnate, comes to inhabit and traverse in its diverse forms the very fragility of humanity,” displaying all of them except “the penchant to evil or injustice.”[10] The Incarnation is the key to theological anthropology, for “it is in the Incarnation of the Word, coming to inhabit human fragility and transfiguring it . . . that we can consider human fragility through and through, in all its dimensions.”[11] Here is the “only true light for considering our fragility.”[12]

Thus the Incarnation affirms and bestows a new dignity on the forms of human fragility which Gnostics were tempted to despise. Speaking of the Incarnation of the Word, which embraced the whole person, including the process of gestation and the truth of embodiment, Tertullian famously argued that that “with the human being, [Christ] has loved also her birth, he has loved also her flesh. No being can be loved abstracted from that by which she is what she is. Or else, suppress the birth, and show me the human being; remove the flesh, and make me see that which God has redeemed.”[13] Birth and embodiment, as forms of fragility, are part of creaturely existence in via, not an evil. In the incarnation, human fragility is revealed as what God loved, God took on, and the dimensions of the creaturely condition to which it is attached attain a dignity above all contempt.

Moral Fragility in the Shadow of Revelation

Yet although the Incarnation bestows new dignity on aspects of creaturely fragility, it also sheds light on forms of fragility which are not part of humanity qua created but are the legacy of a primal fracture. The second Christian “imprint” on fragility extends the concept to the moral fragility which is the legacy of the Fall. As Chrétien writes, “fragilitas conserves its ancient sense, the capacity of breaking physically, but also takes on a moral sense. In the vocabulary of the Fathers of the Church, fragilitas becomes an essential term for the penchant for evil, that is to say injustice.”[14] This shadow side of the human condition as we know it, has also been illuminated by the Incarnation. For as Chrétien writes, “the second Adam, the Christ, alone gives us the measure of the Fall of the first, in the very act by which he has made it possible for us to be delivered from it.”[15]

The Christian doctrine of the Fall amplifies moral fragility in at least two ways. First, only when we see the extent to which God was willing to go do we realize the depths of our malignity for the first time:

The extent of this fragility which is ours is deepened because of the strong conception of the Fall of humanity. We are always already, in history, in a state of servitude to the powers of death and destruction, from which we cannot escape by ourselves, and all the orders of human action have been affected, including the spirit itself, blinded and prey to a hatred of the truth, since it reverts on itself.[16]

There is a fracture in the will itself which brings about a situation of constant temptation, rendering our predicament “slippery,” ever in danger of falling anew.[17] This condition was profoundly described in Augustine’s writings on sin and Cassian’s spiritual guidance for escaping temptation. Yet our self-deception is such that this knowledge can only be mediated to us from without, our true evil only manifest in the moment of deliverance.

However, the Christian doctrine of sin also implies a second aspect of moral fragility. For “the present condition where we find ourselves . . . is not . . . the original condition of humanity.”[18] Humanity could only have undergone a break if it was primordially fragile, “whatever were the fantastic perfections that the Christian thinkers of yesteryear . . . attributed to humanity before the Fall.”[19] Thus the Fall presumes an anterior fragility, belonging to human beings from their creation, which Chrétien explains using Augustine’s theology. Our penchant towards injustice has its ultimate root in the unfallen, but fallible, fragility of the first human beings. This fragility, though different from our own, was real: “Adam possessed a power to break and to die as well as a power neither to break nor to die, distinct from our having to break and having to die.”[20]

Until perfected, created freedom is fragile, for it can allow itself to fracture in turning towards evil. Only then, “once it has passed to act,” does it become “in us a reality which leaves traces, and diminishes effectively our power or our resistance.”[21] Far from moral fragility stemming only from the Fall, “there is thus a sense where fragility characterizes as possibility every condition of the human being” in time, a sense which “corresponds to what the moderns call finitude.”[22] Christianity does not stigmatize fragility by equating it with sin—it was present from the beginning of God’s good creation.

In fact, the Christian doctrine of the Fall requires that one be able to separate them in order to think unfallen finitude or fragility, “the state of journeying” in which humanity would have persisted had sin not intervened.[23] For the Latin Fathers, the shadow cast by the good news helps us plumb the depths of our malignant moral fragility to which pride blinds us, as well as revealing a second fragility which belongs to finite freedom as such (even unfallen) until it reaches the end of its journey.

The Usage of Fragility: A Hope That Transfigures

A third and final Christian “imprint” on fragility is the new usage of fragility made possible by Christian hope. For although the Incarnation lends new dignity to our creaturely fragility and the doctrine of the Fall exposes the malignancy of our moral fragility, the key task in the spiritual life is not sorting fragility into “good” and “bad” forms. We can make our “good” creaturely fragility an occasion for sin, just as the battle against our “bad” moral fragility can be part of the accomplishment of our salvation. Rather, the challenge concerns what Chrétien calls “the usage of fragility”—where Christianity will offer transfiguration, “another usage than vanity.”[24]

Fragility is where our humanity is decided, depending on how we respond to it. Chrétien’s anthropology, as suggested by his book L’effroi du beau (The Terror of Beauty), is agonic. Our humanity is not something we possess once and for all by virtue of our essence or traits, but a task, an ordeal, or a struggle which lasts our entire life, in which our very being is always in danger of being lost. The human is the being for whom “its proper essence is neither possession nor grace, but a task”; “the gift of humanity is the gift of a test”; “humanity is only defined in multiple trials.”[25]

In Fragilité, fragility is the name for this test. As Chrétien explains, “Human fragility . . . is itself the privileged site of the struggle to accomplish one’s humanity in justice and in truth.”[26] Here our being is decided, depending on the usage we make of fragility. Exposure is not optional. We are delivered over to fragility by virtue of being a human creature, without getting to select which forms we think we can manage. The question that decides our fate is not whether to be fragile, or which kinds we wish to encounter. One can only determine “who I will be, and how I will be in this fragility, what I will make of it, with it, and by itin modern terms, how I will enact [j’existerai] my fragility.”[27]

There are at least two dominant ways of enacting fragility which Chrétien rejects in order to elucidate the Christian usage of fragility. As we have seen, the first, represented by Stoicism, ultimately suppresses fragility, overcoming or escaping it by finding an inner fortress where, by our own power, we are invulnerable. The second is despair, to which knowledge of our fragility “by itself, could certainly lead,” if “we cannot see how to use it in orienting it elsewhere.”[28] If fragility is the last and only word, it can only break us, convincing us that everything is vanity.

The Latin Fathers, however, Chrétien shows us, offer us a third way. As Chrétien summarizes the insight of Ambrose. There is a “transfiguration of fragility”; it is “neither abolished nor suppressed (he insists) but transformed by another usage than vanity.”[29] Now “the motor and guide of this novel usage of fragility is, of course, the incarnate Word.”[30] Because fragility has been taken up by the Word and transfigured in his saving economy, fragility receives a new usage. Thanks to Christ, fragility can be performed or traversed with new power and a new end in view, rather than overcome (as in Stoicism) or simply left to itself (as in nihilism).

For Christ himself made a new use of fragility where humanity had misused it. The Fall occurred when the fragility which was ours from the beginning (as a possibility for freedom) was abused, becoming a moral fracture in the will. Reflecting on Augustine’s theology, Chrétien notes that Christ could only bring salvation by taking up fragility: “he could not be the doctor without coming to the very site of the infection.”[31] In being made flesh, Christ did not abolish fragility, but assumed it in all its dimensions (sin excepted), to the point of being “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5).

Yet he did not leave it unchanged—Christ made use of the fragility of flesh to heal and save, making possible a transformation of our fragility into an instrument of salvation. Christ did not fracture his fragility like Adam but rather walked “on the waters of human fragility,” elevating what he assumed rather than being dragged down by it.[32] Fragility is thus “transformed from the interior,” taken up by another movement other than disintegration, the movement of Christ’s sojourn on earth, which culminates in resurrection life.[33] For Christ’s humanity, in its very fragility, had saving power. In him, it was possible for fragility “also, paradoxically, to be remedy or medication.”[34] Christ enacted and traversed human fragility in such a way that it became the very site of salvation, transforming “fragility itself into the road towards justice.”[35]

Outside fragility, there is no other road, no other remedy. By and in fragility alone can we be saved—not only because Christ’s own saving humanity was fragile but because no aspect of the Christian’s life is ever free from fragility, not even an “interior citadel.” As Augustine insisted against the Pelagians, we never reach such a state of invulnerability or “moral purity” that we no longer have to pray the “Our Father.”[36] Instead, we learn to “use” the fragility which never ceases to surround us, just as Christ did. For Christ’s novel usage of fragility is not confined to him alone. Through incorporation into his Body, it admits of participation.[37] Our own fragility, by being joined to his, can become our “road toward justice.” This is true because in the resurrection we have new hope and in divine grace new power, a hope and power for and in fragility itself.

By the resurrection, new hope is breathed into our fragility. For although we will always be “exposed to sickness, to death, to tests” and “temptations of all kinds,” “we are no longer, by [fragility] imprisoned in evil and injustice.”[38] We need not be “submerged by [the effects of fragility, thrown by them into exhaustion and despair.”[39] Existence in fragility need not culminate in moral fracture or end in dissolution and death. Christ traversed fragility without sin and without death having the last word, showing that fragility can be the road that leads to resurrection, after which the threat of disintegration no longer looms.

To live in hope amidst fragility is not to escape it, standing “above the fray in a quietest enjoyment but to keep, at the forefront of our eyes, a fixed point, in the very midst of our incessant peregrination.”[40]

[It] is to live on the way, and even staggering, constantly falling and getting back up, always and again fragile, in a light which we do not possess and which we are not, but to which we belong henceforth by the thread, at once tenuous and firm, of our spiritual gaze, which “anchors” us in the heavens. (Hebrews 6:19).[41]

We may break, but even our temptations, failures, and falls can be turned to good use.[42] They can be a new occasion for confession and the reception of grace. Fragility is “where I can indeed fall or split, but it is also the place where . . . I can always get back up. One finds in Saint Augustine or Saint Bernard . . . encouragements not to despair of fragility. Where the danger is, there also is the salvation.”[43] My fragility is the very thing that always opens up for me the opportunity to call upon God’s grace.

In fact, fragility is where grace is displayed most clearly. Augustine was known above all for this appeal to grace, but Chrétien shows its presence in John Cassian as well, despite accusations of semi-Pelagianism.[44] But the root is in St. Paul. Beginning with the cross of Christ, “in the which the Word crucified in the naked display of his weakness,” fragility becomes the very paradigm of divine power.[45] Meditating on how God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9) and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:25), Chrétien writes in Under the Gaze of the Bible that “it is when I myself do not make myself strong and recognize my fragility that the strength of God has the space to deploy within me and throughout me.”[46] As Chrétien writes, “the very conditions of servitude become the weapons of liberation: fragility becomes the very place where the power of God communicated to the human being can be deployed in the modes which are absolutely unique to us.”[47] Our fragility becomes the occasion for the divine grace which loves to manifest itself in the fragile. In this hope and by this grace, we never cease to make new use of fragility, to run and to struggle, always and ever fragile, until our final breath.

For only with the resurrection, Chrétien notes with a reference to Cassian, can we speak of an end to fragility.[48] Yet even this could mislead. For the resurrection body is not the Stoic citadel. Rather than withdrawing into impenetrability, we will be, if anything, more porous, more open, more exposed to others, retaining our tenderness. If we are no longer “fragile,” it is not because we have become hardened or closed off, but because the hospitality of the communion of the saints offers no occasion to fracture, break, or wound us. In the words of Isaiah, cited by Chrétien, the servant of God “will not break” “a bruised reed” (Isaiah 42:3).[49] The structural contours which make us who we are remain intact, the dimensions which once made us fragile persist, but they no longer double as fault lines. The model is Christ, who bears scars but “will never die again” (Romans 6:9). This is the final “usage of fragility”: the transfigured wounds which testify only to love.


For Chrétien, far from suppressing human fragility, the Christian tradition is responsible for unprecedented amplification of its scope and significance. Only following the passion of Christ, through the lives and teachings of those who followed his kenotic example, were the depths of fragility truly appreciated. On the one hand, philosophical modernity’s fixation on “finitude” and fragility reflects an unwitting (secularized) debt to this Christian legacy. Yet on the other hand, this secularization represents an impoverishment. In place of Christianity’s complex narrative of various forms of fragility—some reflective of our creaturely freedom as such and others the consequence of the fateful fracture of original sin—philosophical modernity offers a univocal notion of finitude in which much of what are only the consequences of a primal fall are deemed “natural.”

This does not lead to new appreciation or acceptance of fragility, but rather gives rise to an oscillation between an attempt to surmount fragility through science, economics, and technology—the equivalent on a civilizational scale to the Stoic citadel—and nihilistic despair. Chrétien shows us that only when the Incarnation and the cross and resurrection of Christ reveal its new “usage” or “transformation” can we truly confront human fragility without flinching. To recover the amplitude of this vision, one must abandon the self-sufficiency of philosophical modernity, its attempt to emerge from the tutelage of the classical and Christian world into an autonomous adulthood. While our era can undoubtedly contribute something new and irreplaceable to reflection on our inexhaustible fragility, this can only take place if our reflection is sheltered by the voices of the past. Not least among these are the voices of the Latin Fathers, who hymned in unforgettable fashion the fragility loved and assumed by the Incarnate Word.

[1] Jean-Louis Chrétien, Fragilité (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2017), 159. All translations of Chrétien are my own unless otherwise noted. I have sought to use inclusive language. Sometimes I have translated l’homme as “the human being,” sometimes as “humanity.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 163.

[4] Ibid., 25, 159, 191, 201.

[5] Ibid., 202.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 203.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 161.

[10] Ibid., 205.

[11] Ibid., 192.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 35.

[14] Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michaël Fœssel, and Camille Riquier, “Sens et formes de fragilité,” (interview) Esprit (May 2018): 100-111, 106.

[15] Fragilité, 178.

[16] Ibid., 160-161.

[17] Ibid., 170-171.

[18] Ibid., 160.

[19] Ibid., 26.

[20] Ibid., 191.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] See the Catechism for this phrase. CCC 302.

[24] Fragilité, 174, 163.

[25] Jean-Louis Chrétien L’effroi du beau (Paris: CERF, 2008), 42, 49, 42-43. The word I have translated variously as test and trial is the same French word [épreuve].

[26] Fragilité, 26.

[27] Ibid. The usage of exister as a transitive verb, which may go back to Levinas, is difficult to translate.

[28] Ibid., 205, 184.

[29] Ibid., 163.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 203.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 205, 192.

[34] Ibid., 164.

[35] Ibid., 203.

[36] Ibid., 163.

[37] As Chrétien writes, “the collective body of Christ that is the Church (a central theme in the thought of St. Augustine) begins with the Head, who clears the way that the members, after him, will take in the course of time.” Ibid., 203.

[38] Ibid., 201.

[39] Ibid., 173.

[40] Ibid., 195.

[41] Ibid., 194.

[42] Ibid., 165, 181.

[43] “Sens et formes,” 107.

[44] Fragilité, 188.

[45] Ibid., 15.

[46] Jean-Louis Chrétien, Under the Gaze of the Bible, trans John Marson Dunaway (New York: Routledge, 2015,) 76.

[47] Fragilité., 201.

[48] Ibid., 192. Chrétien speaks several times of an end to fragility at the resurrection. See also 161.

[49] Ibid., 37.

Featured Image: Jacek Malczewski, The Annunciation, 1923; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Timothy Troutner

Timothy Troutner is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Drawing upon 20th-century German theology and French phenomenology, his research explores the doctrine of creation as it intersects with language.

Read more by Timothy Troutner

Jean-Louis Chrétien's Wounded Word

Timothy Troutner, ND PhD Candidate in systematic theology, celebrates the life and work of Jean-Louis Chrétien.

Delaroix Jacob Angel