Home
Up

AUGUSTINE AND THE EMERGENCE OF WESTERN CHRISTIANITY

It is at this point in our narrative that we can introduce Augustine because his autobiography, that is, his confessions, is a story that reflects within itself the strong drive for truth and the struggle for understanding that characterized the late Roman empire. First, Augustine's mother was Christian and his father was a pagan. He had almost a fanatic devotion to truth. He devoted his life until his conversion in a search for a source of truth. His first route was through Manichaeism, a sect that showed strong Persian Zoroastrianism influences. Manichaeism, like Zoroastrianism, had two gods, one evil and the other good. He rejected this sect and later wrote strong condemnations of it. His conversion to Christianity began when bishop Ambrose told him the story of Victoreenus.

Victoreenus was a Neo-Platonist who had converted to Christianity. While he taught neo-Platonism, he kept his Christianity secret. He also attempted to combine the two by making the absolute the Christian triune god and pointing out that the Neo-Platonist idea of the soul trapped in the body was equivalent to the Christian concept of the fall. This caused Augustine to read Neo-Platonist authors and led to his conversion to Christianity.

Christianity solved Augustine's basic problem, a source of truth, that is, through revelation. From that point on the direction of his philosophy was determined by one fundamental attitude he expressed as, "Faith seeking understanding." One underlying concept that places Augustinian teachings into the biblical rather than the Greek sphere was that because the soul of man has fallen due to the sin of Adam, man cannot do good on his own. He can do so only through grace from God. As you probably realize very little of Hellenistic philosophy is in contradiction to Christian faith, on the other hand, Christianity brought to Hellenistic philosophy an acceptable source of truth.

Augustine was born at Tagaste (In what is now called Algeria) in 354. At the age of 18 reading Cicero's Hortensius impelled him to seek wisdom, but Christianity failed him. He said at that time that the Judeo-Christian doctrine made God responsible for the existence of evil. It was his discovery of neo-Platonism that gave him the inspiration to solve this problem. Plotinian thought made two concepts possible that made Christianity more philosophically acceptable. The first was the existence of a spiritual reality, and the second was that the presence of evil can be reconciled with the doctrine of divine creation. Evil, according to Plotinus, was not a positive thing but a privation. In the Plotinian sense caused by the material of the body obscuring the light of truth from the entrapped soul. Moral evil for example, is a privation of the right order of the will in the same way that a physical evil like blindness is a privation of a physical property, in this case sight. Since these are privations they are not positive things thus were not created by God.

Augustine was primarily a theologian yet he is still considered the greatest philosopher of his day. Most of his philosophizing was in response to heretical attacks on Christianity. What he taught was that man's desire for happiness is the ground for philosophy. From the time of his conversion he believed that the search for wisdom reached its goal in Christianity.

Thus, he interpreted philosophy as the pursuit of happiness in the knowledge of God. In his attack on the Academicians who said that it is impossible that we can know anything to be true, he said that If I think and can be deceived then I exist. The often quoted problem of the reliability of the senses, the oar that appears bent in the water, he answered quite simply. If I say that the oar when partially immersed in the water appears bent then what I am saying is true. On the other hand, if I say the oar is really bent then I am going beyond the testimony of sense.

But what of statements like mathematical propositions that appear to be universally true and yet are not derived through the senses. He said that we see a tree because it is there to be seen, it is part of the sensual world around us. Eternal truths are also there, they are part of an intelligible world of truth. We grasp them intuitively. They are part of an intelligible world of truth that reveals itself as grounded on absolute truth itself, God. He said that if the human imagination and its products reflect the changeable human mind, eternal truths reflect the existence of an eternal being.

The answer to how these truths could be recognized by the human mind came from both his Manachae and his neo-platonist background. Plotinus represented the whole process of creation as a process of radiation like the diffusion of light from its ultimate source. When a man turns from the comparative darkness of a soul entrapped in matter to the sphere of eternal truth and of spiritual reality, he turns towards the light and is illuminated. What Augustine called "divine light" is the light that illuminates every man who comes into this world. The eternal truths (platonic forms) exist in the divine mind. Man needs this divine illumination in order to recognize these truths because it is through divine illumination that we can recognize the immutability, necessity, and unchanging nature of eternal truths.

AUGUSTINE'S THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE.

Since a great deal of Augustine's theory of knowledge was formed as a reaction to the Academic skeptics of the late Hellenic period, he was primarily concerned with two areas. The first was whether it is possible at all to have knowledge. The second was how knowledge is actually acquired. The academics maintained that knowledge was impossible. Augustine answered that even if what our senses perceive is mere appearance, we are at lest certain that we do perceive. In addition, mathematical and rational truths apply even to appearances. Finally, he said that the skeptic provides his own refutation for he who doubts knows at least that he doubts. Therefore, doubt is unacceptable as an absolute principle. As a result knowledge must be possible.

But not only must we know that knowledge is possible, we must know as well how it is acquired. Like the ancients before him, Augustine wasn't interested only in knowledge of sensible and perishable things, he was equally interested in knowledge of eternal and immutable realities. He was led by his platonic readings to the existence of an intelligible world where these eternal realities could be found. However, his faith led him to search for a source of reality other than in a world existing on its own. He taught that they existed in the mind of God. As you may recall, Plato required a preexisting soul as a messenger between the world of the forms and the sensible world. Augustine's answer to the problem of how these realities are communicated to the human mind is called his doctrine of divine illumination.

And hence that noble philosopher Plato endeavored to persuade us that the souls of men lived even before they bared these bodies; and that hence those things which are learnt are rather remembered, as having been known already, than taken into knowledge as things new . . . But we ought rather to believe, that the intellectual mind is so formed in its nature as to see those things, which by the disposition of the creator are subjoined to things intelligible in a natural order, by a sort of incorporeal light of a unique kind; as the eye of the flesh sees things adjacent to itself in this bodily light, of which light it is made to be receptive, and adapted to it.

That does not mean that the human mind is capable of knowing eternal truths through the data of the senses. Nor does it simply mean that the mind sees eternal truth because they are illuminated by God. The illumination by god occurs when God places in the human mind the power of intuition, which is the capacity to develop a knowledge of ideas that exist eternally in God himself.

THE EXISTENCE OF GOD

As with most Christians, Augustine found no need to develop a logical proof of the existence of God. The argument he turned to when the question came up involved the existence of truth. As the argument went, the human mind perceives immutable truths that can neither be changed nor doubted. This leads to the certainty that there must be perfect truth, a truth that not only our mind, but all of the minds in the universe could never have created. The source of this absolute truth is God. Augustine concluded from this that man, as a limited and contingent being, must fall into absurdity if he fails to affirm the existence of an infinite and necessary reality. Though this does not prove beyond doubt the existence of God, He maintained that this does make the existence of God a manifest reality.

CREATION

In any philosophical controversy involving Christians we must keep in mind that these controversies never involve the truth of scripture. Such philosophical controversies involve reasoned explanations concerning what has been revealed in the scriptures. Thus, Augustine's description of creation was rejected by many later Christian scholars for philosophical reasons. For example, one problem that plagued medieval scholars concerned certain implications of the creation of the universe by God. Augustine put the argument this way. If God had made the universe out of his own substance, his work would be divine. It would not be a true creation. At the same time God did not make the universe out of some so-called amorphous matter that existed from eternity, as some philosophers (for example the Milesians) claim. Therefore, he must have created the universe out of nothing. Scripture said that the earth was without form and void. Thus God did not make matter first and form later, he created them simultaneously.

God knew before he created the world all that he was to create because all things have existed eternally in the divine mind. He said that the exemplary ideas that led to the existence of each thing created existed in the second person of the blessed trinity. They were created through a free decision from God. To solve the problem of whether all things were made at once, or were created at successive stages, (a problem sometimes brought out by a difference between creation as described in Genesis and that described in Ecclesiastics) he introduced the idea of seminal causes. These are principles of development created during the first day of creation but only allowed to mature later. In other words God created everything at once but not all were manifested at the same time. This brought out the problem of time, that is, at creation did God create time or not. He said that God must have created time for otherwise not only God but time would be eternal.

EVIL

The problem of evil was particularly important for Augustine for two reasons. First, because the existence of evil in a creation of a perfect God seems illogical. This was one of the reasons why he originally turned to Manichaeism. However, the Manicheans solved the problem with the use of two Gods, one necessarily evil and the other necessarily good. As it turned out, since this assumed a starting point with two eternally antagonistic principles, Augustine realized that it led to an absurdity. Therefore he said that whatever exists was created by God. But does this mean that God created evil? . He said no. Evil is not a nature, not something good. It is not a creature. All that exists is good for there is a certain order, a certain beauty and measure in everything. Some things simply do not have as great a measure of good as some others. At the same time, they are all good with a goodness that is proper to their own existence. Evil is then not something, it is a withdrawing from God. This brings us to the problem of free will.

FREE WILL

There is no such thing as a naturally evil being. All being is created by God and thus is good. Evil is a corruption of good. Its origin can only be attributed to a being that is good in itself even though it is capable of doing evil. Only thus can we claim that God is the creator of all things yet not the author of evil. God gave free will to Adam, it is one characteristic of a rational being. Thus rational being is an intermediate good, it can decide to do what is good as well as what is evil. Neither us nor God can determine that a man is good unless the man through his own actions could be otherwise. If this were not so then a person would not be good, or evil, or somewhere between, he would just be. He could no more be moral than a stone or a tree could. thus, he maintained that it is free will that makes man what he is. It is not an evil in itself for it is a gift from God.

If man is good, and if he would not be able to act rightly except by willing to do so, he ought to have free will because without it he would not be able to act rightly. Because he also sins through having free will, we are not to believe that God gave it to him for that purpose. It is, therefore, a sufficient reason why he ought to have been given it, that without it man could not live aright.

Free will, from an Augustinian point of view, though necessary if man is to be good, is not always a good. We are always free to choose from among many alternatives. However, and this is a very fundamentally important assumption of all Christianity from Augustine on including the great protestant theologians, all are sinful. Among the options open to man are many alternatives for sinning but no options not to sin. This leads to his teaching on grace and predestination. Adam, he said, could do good because he had help. But, since he lost that help, his descendants are under the bondage of sin. In order for a person to attain salvation it is necessary that grace act in them. Without grace no man can approach God.

He operates, therefore, without us, in order that we may will; but when we will, and so will that we may act, he cooperates with us. We can, however, ourselves do nothing to effect good works of piety without Him either working that we may will, or co-working when we will.

Grace does not oppose free will. It does not force man to make a decision. God, through his grace boosts the will so that the will itself, without any coercion, will desire the good. It is the grace of God cooperating with a man's will that leads the man toward salvation. But until a man receives his first grace, through baptism, and then perseveres toward God, he has no opportunity for salvation. Not only that but the gift of grace, being a free act of God, results in the predestination of some to salvation. All men are part of the "mass of damnation." The elect are pulled out of this mass. Those who remain behind do so by reason of their own sins. His object is to make God primary in the act of salvation. A number of philosophers have commented on the implications of this approach, saying that if man cannot do good without grace and if grace is offered only to the elect, then men who are not chosen cannot be blamed for sinning. They have no other choice. Most of the opposition to this policy was based on the idea that Jesus brought salvation to all men, not just to an elect few.

Of course as philosophers we are not concerned with the theological implications of the above, only on their relation to the development of reasoned thought during the middle ages. Augustine began with the fundamental assumption that in order to be effective grace must be a gift freely given by God while at the same time the decision to accept it must be a step freely taken by man. Any modification of Augustine's theory of grace faces the danger of violating this assumption

Augustine's purpose, in his own words, was that of "faith seeking understanding." Therefore, since he was convinced that truth lay entirely in the scriptures, his philosophical developments were applied to scriptural truths only in order to make them more understandable as they applied to everyday life. Thus, when we call Augustine "platonic" what we mean is that he applied Platonist approaches to truths developed in scriptural study and thus produced a Platonist Christian theology. Since most, though not all, of Augustine's ideas were incorporated into medieval Christian thought, much of the philosophical controversy that occurred during the middle ages dealt with explaining Christianity from an Augustinian-Platonic point of view. Therefore it is necessary that we do understand those points of Augustine's theology that became important to philosophical speculation during the period from his death until the thirteenth century Aristotelian revival.

There are many more philosophical concepts that could be brought out in an in-depth study of Augustine, but for our purposes these points are of primary importance. First, the Platonic-idealistic nature of his view of reality, and second, his underlying assumption of the truths revealed in scripture and the value of philosophy in understanding these truths, or as he put it, "Faith seeking understanding" because these will be the cornerstone of our examination of the changes that took place during the medieval period. Augustine died even as the Vandals were sacking Rome and the empire was falling apart.