Augustine: The Most Influential of All Christian Philosophers

As the adherents of the world’s largest religious tradition spend the next month or so preparing for their celebration of the resurrection of their Lord, the time is as good as any for Christians (and everyone else) to acquaint, or reacquaint, themselves with Saint Augustine (354-430 AD), unquestionably among the most influential of Christian thinkers to have ever lived, and a philosopher of distinction in his own right.

Indeed, an education in the history of ideas that constitutes Western civilization is woefully inadequate if it omits mention of Augustine, a North African bishop of the city of Hippo who stood at the intersection of late antiquity and the beginning of the medieval era.

Augustine was at once a prolific writer as well as a master of the Roman oratorical tradition. From the time that he was a youth, Augustine was a student of rhetoric, and while he could read, speak, and write Latin fluently, the man who would become a Christian saint admits to having found Greek formidable. At least in part, though, this was because of Augustine’s own rebellious nature. In his Confessions, Augustine recalls his teacher’s readiness to resort to beating those of his students who made mistakes during their study of the Greek language. Because of the man’s penchant for corporeal punishment, the young Augustine refused to apply himself.

Confessions Augustine Best Price: $8.40 Buy New $11.55 (as of 03:30 UTC - Details) Augustine’s rebelliousness would remain a constant in his life until, after much debauchery, including fathering a child out of wedlock and embracing heretical philosophies, he turned his whole self over to Christ and became a priest, a decision that would not only fundamentally transform Augustine, but the civilization that we have come to know, for Augustine’s contributions to the development of the theology of his civilization’s religion are immeasurable.

Reality & Knowledge

From early on in Christian history, debate raged between thinkers over what, if any, place the pagan philosophers had within Christianity.  Some maintained that the Greeks had nothing to contribute to Christian theology (As Tertullian memorably put it, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”).  Others, like Augustine, held that from the pagans, or at least some of them, like Plato, Christians could gain insights into their own faith.

With this end in mind, Augustine turned to Plato, the philosopher par excellence, in his estimation. Because of the extent to which he utilized Plato’s ideas in the service of developing and systematizing Christian theology, it has been said that Augustine “baptized” the ancient Greek into the faith.

Plato was a rationalist: Knowledge, as opposed to belief or opinion, is rooted in reason; sense-experience could never supply genuine knowledge.

For Plato, what we know are “Ideas,” or “Forms,” or “Essences.”  Ideas are universals.  Some examples: Humanity is the Essence or Form of every particular individual human being; Beauty is the Essence or Form of every particular individual beautiful thing; Justice is the Essence or Form of every particular individual instance of justice.

It is the universal that makes the particular the kind of particular that it is.  For some philosophers, and for many non-philosophers too, universals are just names, categories that human beings invent for classificatory purposes. Not so for Plato. Universals, for Plato, are not only real; universals are more real than sensible particular things.

In fact, ultimately, universals are maximally real, while the things of sense, though not unreal, nevertheless lack full being inasmuch as they are passing away.

Plato, then, is what’s known as an “ultra-realist,” for universals, for him, aren’t just real. They subsist in their own independent ontological realm, and they are held together, as it were, by the most fundamental or primary of all of the universals: the Form of the Good.

Augustine endorsed both Plato’s rationalism as well as his stance on universals. Yet needless to say, the pagan’s views were revised in the light of the Saint’s Christian qualifications. For example, knowledge, Augustine insisted, should be sought not for purely theoretical purposes, but for the sake of achieving beatitude, happiness.  And beatitude is nothing more or less than union with God.

As for Plato’s Forms, in Augustine’s thought they become ideas in the mind of God, or the “Divine Ideas.”  Augustine writes: “The ideas are certain archetypal forms or stable and immutable essences of things, which have not themselves been formed but, existing eternally and without change, are contained in the divine intelligence.”

It’s not that human beings, in knowing the Divine Ideas, penetrate into the far reaches of the mind of God.  In order to head off this objection, which Augustine as much as any Christian would have regarded as blasphemous, the Saint introduced the concept of “Illumination”:

God is like the sun.  Just as the sun provides us with sight and makes the things of sense seen, so God illuminates the mind by providing it with its own intelligible perception of the Ideas, the stuff of knowledge.

Augustine moved Plato’s Universals from their separate transcendental realm into the Mind of God, it’s true. Yet he also used our knowledge of these universal ideas and principles in order to establish the existence of God.  Augustine reasoned thus:

Just as the mutability of the human imagination reflects the mutability of its basis, i.e. the human mind, and just as sense impressions of corporeal objects are mutable because of the mutability of the objects themselves, so the immutability of eternal, necessary, and immutable truths must reflect the immutability of their ground—which can only be God.

One needn’t endorse Augustine’s ultra-realism or his doctrine of Divine Ideas in order to appreciate the thrust of his reasoning here. All of us are aware of some eternal, necessary, immutable truths.  Mathematical statements like 3+2=5, for instance, most of us accept as universally and invariably true.  The principle of contradiction (the principle that a thing can’t be and not be in the same respect at the same time), the most basic law of all thought, is universally and necessarily true. Yet such principles and propositions, such ideas, though readily grasped by and regulative of the human mind, obviously can’t spring from the latter, for they are of a fundamentally different character than that of the finite human mind. But, as ideas, they must belong to some mind.

Thus, these timeless ideas point to a timeless Mind as their ground.

And this timeless Mind, it should go without saying, is the Mind of God.

Free Will & the Problem of Evil

KJV Holy Bible, Standa... Best Price: $18.50 Buy New $14.99 (as of 03:50 UTC - Details) Even among Christians, many still seem to be utterly unaware of how to respond to that which is undoubtedly the most formidable of all objections to theism.  The problem of evil (alternately known as “the problem of pain” or “suffering”) is the philosophical or theological problem of reconciling belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God with the presence of evil in the world.

After all, if God is all-powerful, then He must be able to stop evil, and if He is all-good or all-loving, then He must want to stop evil.  Since, then, evil exists, it follows that there can’t be an all-powerful and all-loving God.  This is how the problem has been formulated.

Augustine’s solution, commonly known as the “free-will defense,” remains the most intuitively appealing of all such solutions:

It is not God who is responsible for the evil in the world, the Saint insisted, but human beings. Everything that God created is good just insofar as each thing exists, for being, serving as it does as the basis for all good-making properties, is a good itself.  Whatever has being has “positive reality.”  Now, evil, though real, has “negative reality.”  It’s crucial to grasp that the terms “good,” “positive,” and “negative,” in this context, are not being used primarily in a moral but in an ontological or metaphysical sense.  As a Christian, Augustine accepted without qualification the Genesis creation account of a God who upon bringing the world into being ex nihilo (from nothingness or nonbeing) declared His work good.

Since all beings derive their being from the Supreme Being, all beings, insofar as they exist, are good.

Now, the freedom of the will with which God endowed human beings is a good.  God, in His eternal desire to share Himself with human beings, the only beings who He made in His own image and of whom He wants to make adopted sons and daughters, blessed people with the freedom to accept His offer of friendship.

God, you see, being Love itself, can’t force persons to love Him. Every loving relationship between persons derives its special character from the fact that each person freely embraces the other.  Love presupposes freedom.  Puppets and robots can’t love.

However, the freedom to accept God’s invitation to friendship necessarily implies the freedom to reject it.  Each time a person disobeys God, he shifts his will from the Godward trajectory for which it was designed to the ego-centric track that is the legacy of original sin. Every act of disobedience is a turning away of the human will from its ground and creator.  Augustine’s analysis is rich with spatial imagery: When a will is obedient to God, then it is oriented inward and ascending upward.  When it is disobedient, though, it is focused outward and descending downward.

The point is this: Evil is of negative reality inasmuch as it is a corruption of a good will.  Evil is the absence of goodness, just as silence is the absence of sound, darkness the absence of light, and coldness the absence of heat. Evil is not, then, a creature, much less the creation of God.

So, it is not God who is responsible for evil, but human beings who decided to use the freedom that God has given them for wicked purposes. Evil is not a strength; it is a weakness, a deficiency.

Political Philosophy

Augustine’s The City of God is a magisterial work in which the author articulates his views on a variety of topics, among which is that of politics.  It is here that Augustine identifies what he presents as being the only two types of human association: the “city” of God—what Augustine also refers to as the “heavenly” or “celestial” city—and “the city of man,” or the “earthly city.”

Underneath the rich diversity of manners and customs of the planet’s peoples, ultimately, there are just these two types of human societies. Yet as long as this world of ours remains, “these two cities” will be “‘entangled’…and intermixed until the last judgment” separates them from one another.

Augustine explains that these two cities “have been formed by the two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”

Put another way, the City of Man, or the Earthly City, “glories in itself,” while the City of God glories “in the Lord” (150).

There is still another way of characterizing the difference between the two cities. The City of Man is composed “of those who wish to live after the flesh,” while the City of God is comprised “of those who wish to live after the spirit [.]”

Although Augustine clearly thought that the City of God is superior to the City of Man, and while he conceded that it’s filled with its share of miseries, he did not believe that the latter was totally depraved.  Peace—what Augustine refers to as “the tranquility of order”—is the end of all types of association, the greatest of all human goods. The City of Man, political life, aims at and succeeds in obtaining the peace that is proper to its nature, a peace that consists in “well-ordered concord” among citizens.

And since the City of God is a “pilgrim” on earth, making its way through the earthly city, it needs the City of Man for the satisfaction of its basic necessaries.

The earthly city, though, insures its own ruin, however, when it either elevates earthy goods above the goods of heaven or fails to recognize altogether that there even are heavenly goods.

If the citizens of the earthly city “neglect the better things of the heavenly city, which are secured by eternal victory and peace never-ending, and so inordinately covet these present good things that they believe them to be the only desirable things, or love them better than those things which are believed to be better—if this be so, then it is necessary that misery follow and ever increase [.]” (151). KJV, Pew Bible, Large ... Thomas Nelson Best Price: $9.95 Buy New $10.66 (as of 03:15 UTC - Details)

As Augustine’s analysis makes clear, the Saint makes two far-reaching contributions to Western political thought.

Firstly, he insists upon a sharp distinction between “Church and State,” the realms of faith and politics.

Secondly, exactly because of this distinction, it follows for Augustine that, contra those philosophers and theorists who assign to rulers the ability to inaugurate utopias of one sort or another, the City of Man cannot be engaged in the enterprise of perfecting men’s souls.  As Augustine writes: “But the peace which we enjoy in this life, whether common to all or peculiar to ourselves, is rather the solace of our misery than the positive enjoyment of felicity.”

He adds: “Our very righteousness, too, though true in so far as it has respect to the true good, is yet in this life of such a kind that it consists rather in the remission of sins than in the perfecting of virtues.”

Augustine here locates himself solidly within the tradition of St. Paul, who in the Book of Romans makes it clear that the secular authorities are to be obeyed because they have been ordained to wield the sword against criminals and the wicked.

Here is another critical respect in which Augustine the Christian parts ways with Plato the pagan.  Though Plato was more likely than not merely entertaining for theoretical purposes the utopian fantasy of his ideal political society when he composed his Republic, it would have been anathema to Augustine to have even theorized about such a thing, for true justice, for the Saint, could be had only after the City of God has been separated from this Earthly city and brought into the eternal Republic of Christ.

This is a reminder of their vocation of which American Christians in the 21st century are in much need.