Saint Augustine

25 January 2008

What an interesting philosopher he turned out to be!  And an interesting man, too.  Set aside his historical importance --- the fact that he above all others brought together the Greek and Hebrew aspects of Christianity, that his work against the heresies of Arianism, Pelagianism and Manicheanism was tireless and  and that, as many think, he is responsible for many of the more unfortunate aspects of Christianity, such as the low status of women, the negative attitude towards sex and other enjoyable bodily appetites, and the harsh doctrine of original sin.  Just read him as a person with one great philosophical skill: he knows how to get puzzled by things, and then thinks hard about what to say about them.

Augustine's mother, Saint Monica, was a Christian, and wanted him to become one.  When he got an involuntary erection as a teenager in the public baths, she was mortified.  His father wasn't  Christian, and took pride in his son's precocious erection.  So Augustine started life somewhat conflicted.  He spent the first part of his life as  a Manichean, much to his mother's distress.  He led a successful life as a teacher of Rhetoric, ending up with an important position in Milan, the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire in those days (4th and 5th centuries).  Monica followed him, nagging him to become a Christian, without effect.  He had a mistress, enjoyed sex, and was famous and influential.

His reluctance to please his mother and become a Christian stemmed from his philosophical bent.  He took the problem of Evil quite seriously (even before he came to regard his own healthy appetites as part of the problem), and thought that the Manichean solution, that God wasn't omnipotent, but had to battle ceaselessly with the forces of Evil, the earth being a main battleground, was intellectually preferable.

But eventually, as a result of continued pressure from Saint Monica, exposure to Saint Ambrose in Milan, and disappointing interactions with the leading Manichean intellectuals (and perhaps some intervention by the Holy Ghost), Augustine became a Christian.  He decided that he would not only be a Christian, but a priest, which meant celibacy; hence, his famous prayer, "Lord give me chastity and continence, but not yet."

Once fully converted, he returned to Africa, became Bishop of Hippo, and became the leading intellectual in Christendom, writing tirelessly, fighting the big heresies of Arianism, Pelagianism,  Manichenism, and Donostianism.  Arianism had already been declared a heresy at Constantine's Council of Nicea in 325.  Arians thought that Jesus was a created being, not identical with God; the Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus and God are of the same substance, which usually in philosophy means one and the same thing.  The Trinitarian Doctrine, that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one being, makes little sense as far as I can see, and is the reason Moslems, among others, have doubts about Christianity being a monotheistic religion.

Pelagius was a British Monk who read Augustine's Confessions and was shocked at what he found.  Pelagius has the sort of straightforward idea that we have free-will; we can freely choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing, and we are punished or rewarded accordingly.  Augustine said that this was true of Adam, but since his sin we have not had the power to the right thing, except by dint of God's Grace.  The good news is that if we ask for his Grace, we get it.  However, since it seems that asking for his Grace is an instance of doing the right thing, how comforting is this?  Augustine's view of original sin, free-will, grace, and the like became orthodoxy, although the Catholic Church didn't push the point.  His view appealed to Luther, and other Prostestant "reformers", and became the basis of PreDestination and a number of other things most modern protestants would rather forget.

Manicheanism was the religion that Augustine bought into in the first part of his life.  It's founder, Mani, conceived of himself as some kind of Christian.  It was outlawed, reviled, discredited and so on time and time again through early Christianity, but kept cropping up.

Augustine's rejection of Manicheanism meant that he had to come up with an alternative account of Evil, and his efforts to do so, which are detailed in his Confessions, are influential among Christian theologians to this day.  The main components are:

  • The Big Picture Argument.  Just because something considered in isolation seems vile, disgusting, stupid, and the like, doesn't mean that it is evil.  For it might be a necessary part of the virtue, beauty, or intelligence of the larger whole of which it is a part.  Agatha Christie novels always have a murder in them, which is sort of ugly in isolation, but without the murder, how interesting would the whole mystery be?  (This isn't Augustine's example).
  • The Free-will Defense.  God thought that a world with Free Agents in it would be better than one without.  He could have had a world with virtuous automatons, who did just what he programmed them to do.  But what a bore that would be.  And if one of those automatons loved Him, what would that mean?  So he created a world with Free Beings in it, even though he realized that by doing so, inevitably some would choose to do evil things.  Hence, as an instance of the Big Picture point, the best of all possible worlds, because it contains freedom, also contains evil
  • Angels, Devils, and Natural Evil.  When we think of free creatures, we naturally think of humans, who certainly do their share of evil deeds.  But not all evil seems to stem from human action.  How about cancer?  And the suffering of innocent animals?  And earthquakes.  However, Augustine thought that there were a lot of other free creatures creating havoc.
  • Pride.  This all suggests that God has some plan, such that, if we could see it, we could see that this is, in spite of the genocide of Indians, the Holocaust, cancer, war, pestilence, and so on, the best of all possible worlds.  If we could see the Big Picture, all would fall into place.  But who can see such a picture?  But to expect to see the Big Picture is to commit the sin of pride.  God is infinite, we are finite, very finite, so we shouldn't expect to figure out what He might have had in mind.

These are, as far as I can see, the basic elements of Augustine's "theodicy" --- a theodicy is basically a solution to the problem of evil.  These basic elements are the basis of all subsequent theodicies that I've ever seen.

A cynic might say that it's a good thing that Christianity is so implausible (at least, superficially considered), otherwise Saint Augustine's intellect wouldn't have been challenged, and he wouldn't have produced so much thoughtful, truly interesting philsophy, full of distinctions and insights.

The Donostian Heresy, by the way, had to do with whether we could know that a priest really was a priest.  Donotists said we really couldn't.  Suppose his lineage goes back through some priest that had forsaken his faith, perhaps under Roman torture.  Augustine defended the practical answer, from the Church's point of view: a priest is a priest even if some priest in the succession of priests that led to his being a priest committed some terrible sin.  Fighting this particular heresy, as far as I know, didn't provoke Augustine to come  up with any very fecund philosphical ideas.  But perhaps it shows his practical side.

 

Comments (14)


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Guest

Saturday, January 26, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

Thanks for the summary of Saint Augustine. I have

Thanks for the summary of Saint Augustine. I have always wondered how Saint Augustine handled Christian millennialism. I assume that many of the Christian sects at his time were ?fundamentalist? in the modern sense of the word; focused on the second coming end days; adamant that their symbolic universe absolutely, perfectly mapped reality; believing that they had a direct, personal relationship to God like the Anabaptists.
Did he try to defocus the emphasis on the second coming? And religious over- enthusiasm?
Does he ever mention the word fanaticism --- those pagan cults that ?believed too intensely?

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Guest

Saturday, January 26, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

So, I'm writing about St Augustine. After ignorin

So, I'm writing about St Augustine. After ignoring him for years and years as a professional philosopher, I found myself stuck with him. I found him to be intelligent- gads, who'd have guessed? Terribly sexist, of course, and like all Christians he hates sex- how I generalize away here! And he actually believed in that Trinity stuff, which I find completely foolish. Um, he even wrote a book about that, De Trinitate. No, I haven't read it- don't I get broadmindedness points for deigning to read him at all? But I mean to say, I'm a good contemporary intellectual type, despise what every bien pensant assumes Christianity to be, and so on, and I'm sure that Augustine's being African must be somehow related to celebrating diversity; but that doesn't mean I'm actually going to take him _seriously_.

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Guest

Sunday, January 27, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

Augustine?s mission, together with the other ear

Augustine?s mission, together with the other early religious ?pioneers,? appears to boil down to mainly establishing a distinction between religion and superstition. The question seems relatively settled these days. In today?s much-discussed ?influence of religion in (U.S.) politics?, there?s probably little worry about political influences arising from generally agreed superstition. But what if one should look at the question again in the modern age. Religion and superstition both appear to share identical commonalities, from a basis in the preternatural to a certain amount of ?faith? in their respective essentials. Religionists continue to argue that there is a special or remarkable history that supports their religious tenets. Claims of ?miraculous? occurrences are still often cited, as compared to what?s declared as bogus quackery proffered by the superstitious. For example, there is the ?miracle of life?, which judging from the vehemence exhibited by the creationist movement, seems to be the principal if not exclusive modern apology for certain religions. It?s also maintained that religion is ?more logical? than superstition; albeit in the absence of a well-established set of theoretical postulates now considered absolutely mandatory in mathematics or physics (although some solid practical ones could be of value, e.g., a most persuasive premise in the minds of world leaders in arms race deliberations is mutually assured destruction. However, most religions have always tended to see issues first in terms of doctrinal principles, to which empirical data is accommodated only when considered necessary). In short, the maintained distinction between religion and superstition continues to come down to claims arising from their ancestral stories, and arguments based largely on idiomatic beliefs like ?inerrancy of immutable writings?, or a most curious proposition heard recently on talk-radio: ?less slaughter in religious wars than in secular wars? (before weapons of mass destruction that is!!). This also happens to be the kind of thinking used for establishing primacy among the legion of competing or alternative religions that have materialized since Augustine.
In view of the above it?s ?tempting? to substitute the word ?superstition? for ?religion? and see what happens. I say do it in all cases where religion influences or exercises power. When humans go about their irresistible impulse to quash and dominate one another, there could at least be an attempt to base this on some sort of logical rationale instead of ?inspired? mandates coming from spirits (egad). But, speaking of logical premises, to the extent the golden-rule is promulgated by a religion ? you?d better believe it!!
In all this, I must admit to being entirely amazed and mystified by the human ability for conscious intervention in nature that is quite apart from the operation of impersonal physics, something well out of Augustine?s ken. Among the manifold examples is the incidental capability to do acts of kindness or to wage torture and killing. Note well that however one might prefer things to be, physics (including the biophysics of natural selection) allows no alternative to the rules of the game of life. In contrast to anything Augustine could have remotely imagined, the universe is seen to follow fixed and often surprising laws. As a consequence, in addition to being inescapably stuck with the reality of the natural system, including its unwelcome ramifications, we discover that our very existence itself depends on the universe being precisely what it is. And so it happens that even in the quantum world, I too, like Augustine in his world, can only imagine a preternatural ?big picture? as at least default alternative to equally as mysterious Karma in order to somehow render correct all the absurdities in the game of life. Which says that the post Augustinian enlightenment can be summarized pretty much now as then: No choice but to do what you can and hope for the best!

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, February 1, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

When will you post this episode for download? I o

When will you post this episode for download? I only caught the last 20 minutes on a replay recently and I'm very eager to hear the whole show! Great topic!

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

Without an understanding of the theory of evolutio

Without an understanding of the theory of evolution, an explanation of mankind's evil nature and tendencies towards tribal warfare and all of it's bad consequences was answerable by Augustine's Doctrine of Original Sin and redemption by grace. In today's world we rail against human social evil which takes the forms of sexism, bigotry, racism and class suppression which very much reflects a need for some redemption.
Likewise without Einstein's theory of how matter emerges from energy and some unknown; Augustine's Trinity Doctrine of an invisible God becoming a human being still united with his invisible self has incredible parallels.
All of the time modern theists and atheists are arguing in abstract terms about the existence and/or non-existence of a GOD, the thing they all actually share is an argument about the origin of their own minds.
Or may we say that, "the joke's on us".

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, February 6, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

There are other conceptions of deity than the

There are other conceptions of deity than the
old man in the sky--or the Old Testament's jealous
and often vindictive entity.
There is God identified with pure being, as with
Brahman in Yoga, or similarly in the sermons of the German Medieval Catholic priest, Meister Eckhardt. Eckhardt said that one must "completely leave creatures(the material)" in order to experience God and that in the highest experience we are as one with God.
To unchanging Being, some add Love, Peace, and an absolute completeness from which nothing is missing. Indeed Ramana Maharshi, the Indian sage, said that the reason that satisfaction of desires is pleasurable is that the goading desire ceases and the true peace of pure Being is given a chance to shine--until another desire shows up to obscure it.

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Guest

Wednesday, February 6, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

In Christianity we can say that St Paul, St August

In Christianity we can say that St Paul, St Augustine, Matthew, Luke, Mark, John and Peter are the "Buddhas" who connect the human mind with the divine essence through the Gospels and New Testament Books. Jesus is essentially the human who is "other than" or he is the person who conflicts with the Human "I" or self which is our subconscious where we hold our belief states and cultural rules etc. WE can say our subconscious is the "darker part" of our consciousness or the consciousness which is ruled by the "Prince of Darkness".

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 21, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

Looks like many of their minds have been programme

Looks like many of their minds have been programmed for a third and fourth world war.
Population is driven towards equilibrium.
Nature creates a balance between various races and species.
We are the same yet differnt.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, March 4, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

(This is not the right forum, but...) It's a littl

(This is not the right forum, but...) It's a little disappointing that one must pay to play here (here being the podcasts--I can't tune in). How that limits your audience! Preventing a person from stumbling upon your great show! It's proven time and again that popular radio shows do better to make their podcasts available for free (e.g. This American Life), increasing their popularity and ultimately financial backing. How badly is public radio hurting in your neck of the woods?
Sorry to interrupt the conversation on Augustine, an interesting one.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 22, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

So, I'm writing about St Augustine. After ignoring

So, I'm writing about St Augustine. After ignoring him for years and years as a professional philosopher, I found myself stuck with him. I found him to be intelligent- gads, who'd have guessed?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 17, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

I've lost my admiration for the man. Augustine is

I've lost my admiration for the man. Augustine is sooverrated. He is derivative, having written his entire City of God over the transcript of Cicero's Republic. Thanks to him, that very important document was lost until the 19th century. To this day, we don't have the full version, not having been able to recover it all. If you ask me, Cicero is the underrated philosopher here.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Is it just me, or does O'Donnell sound just like t

Is it just me, or does O'Donnell sound just like the Simpsons' Rev. Timothy Lovejoy at times? Just sayin'.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I've lost my admiration for the man. Augustine is

I've lost my admiration for the man. Augustine is sooverrated. He is derivative, having written his entire City of God over the transcript of Cicero's Republic. Thanks to him, that very important document was lost until the 19th century. To this day, we don't have the full version, not having been able to recover it all. If you ask me, Cicero is the underrated philosopher here.

 
 
 

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