World, Flesh, Devil.

Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti quotes Augustine, Sermons 158.4:

There remains, however, the struggle with the flesh, there remains the struggle with the world, there remains the struggle with the devil.

restat tamen lucta cum carne, restat lucta cum mundo, restat lucta cum diabolo.

He asks:

Is this the first occurrence of this unholy trinity? I don’t have access to Siegfried Wenzel, “The Three Enemies of Man,” Mediaeval Studies 29 (1967) 47–66, rpt. in his Elucidations: Medieval Poetry and Its Religious Backgrounds (Louvain: Peeters, 2010 = Synthema, 6), pp. 17-38.

He’s definitely antedated Abelard, the first source cited in the Wikipedia article (other than stray Bible bits); that article says “The phrase may have entered popular use in English through the Book of Common Prayer,” which is probably where I first encountered it. At any rate, if anyone knows of other sources, or has thoughts about this famous phrase, by all means speak up.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    My various references on liturgical history seem to concur that the specific “world/flesh/devil” triad in that order was an innovation of the first English-language liturgical texts in the 1540’s* and weren’t direct Englishings of prior Latin texts. But bits and pieces of the concept are much older. Consider this 19th-century translation of something by St. Ambrose of Milan (who was a guru to Augustine): “Ambrose recalls the baptismal promises and the witnesses in whose presence they were made. After this the Holy of holies was unbarred to thee, thou didst enter the shrine of regeneration; remember what thou wast asked, recollect what thou didst answer. Thou didst renounce the devil and his works, the world and its luxury and pleasures. Thy answer is kept, not in the tomb of the dead, but in the book of the living.” Note FWIW that Augustine has a different order: flesh/world/devil almost seems more logical, but we are used to what we are used to. Although in the 1549 order for baptism, the candidate renounces the devil, the world, and the flesh, in that order.

    *The 1544 first draft of the Great Litany (“Letany” in the orthography then-used) has “From all fornycacion and all deadly synne, and from all the deceiptes of the worlde, the fleshe, and the devill: Good lorde deliver us.”

  2. Barbara Corsair says

    The Brepols page for S. Wenzel, “The Three Enemies of Man”. It gives the DOI. Verbum sap!

    Wenzel attributes the establishment of the topos to Jean de Fécamp and Jean l’Homme de Dieu, abbot of Fruttuaria and apparently the author of Tractatus de ordine vitae, once attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux.

    Buona Pasqua!

  3. Here is Wenzel.

    Howard’s Three Temptations: Medieval Man in Search of the World, of about the same time, is there, too, though I don’t think it gives any more specific answers.

  4. Howard’s Three Temptations are different: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, from 1 John 2:16: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.”

  5. Oh, yes, quite right. I should have been more clear, sorry.

    But Howard’s work covers the ground broadly as well. For example,

    The familiar phrase “the world, the flesh, and the devil” is cousin to this idea: it names the sources of suggestion.

    As to the question raised here of Augustine’s ideas and sources, after mentioning mystery religion and Hellenistic philosophy,

    Writers of the period were fond of making conventionalized lists of vices and virtues and were devoted to the threefold form.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    There’s a potentially interesting-sounding 1999 book by Clifford Davidson entitled “Baptism, the Three Enemies and T.S. Eliot,” where I surmise (hamstrung by the limitations of snippet view) that the “Three Enemies” are in fact the W, the F & the D, and that the point is to draw attention to specifically medieval antecedents in Eliot’s work/worldview.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    And here’s a discussion in Russian (“мир, плоть и дьявол”) although it seems largely/entirely to be translated from stuff in the English wiki article and not address any independent history of the phrase in Slavic sources:,_the_flesh,_and_the_devil

  8. jack morava says

    A lateral association brings,_Sand_and_Stars

    somehow to mind…

  9. It’s interesting, though probably theologically insignificant, that the third enemy occasions some variety. Besides mundus caro et diabolus, there is the metrical mundus caro dæmonia / diversa movent prœlia, ascribed to Adam of St. Victor, and first found, per Wenzel, in Godfrey of St. Victor. As well as the rearranged, serpens antiquus, caro lubrica, mundus iniquus.

  10. Do any non-anglophone Protestant traditions preserve this triad? It ought not to appeal to sola scriptura denominations.

  11. @me

    I see Luther wrote “Sed caro mea, mundus et diabolus non permittunt fidem esse perfectam.”

    OTOH that en.wikipedia page has no de.wikipedia version.

  12. David Marjanović says

    I’ve never encountered this or any similar triad in German, but I don’t have any Protestant background.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    There is a Latin concordance of the Weimar edition of Luthers Collected Works.

    Following the link, you see he uses the phrase in a discussion of death being transcended/defeated by faith in the resurrection:

    “…Ita intueris, quantum bonum operata est mors? Quare tremitis, quare timetis eam? Iam terribilis non est, sed conculeata est, contempta est.” Et infra: “Neque enim iam amara est mors, & somno enim nihil distat.” Unde et apostolus Paulus ubique effuso gaudio predicat resurreccionem Christi, quod per eam et lex et peccatum et mors et infernus et diabolus, mundus et caro, omnia superata sunt omnibus, qui credunt in eum et invocant eum.

    He even throws in another triad (group of 4 things)– (lex et) peccatum, mors et infernus. Other uses of caro seem to indicate it was for Luther part of a system of opposed opposites locked in eternal struggle (body-spirit, heaven-hell, etc.).

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