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The Medieval Mind
Augustine of Hippo
Christian Platonism & The Birth of the 'Middle Ages'


'God and the soul, that is what I desire to know.
Nothing more? Nothing whatever.'

[carpaccio painting]
 

  • Aurelius Augustinius in Brief:

    • 1 of the most influential Christian philosophers

    • foundational to Christian thought for 1000 yrs.

    • wrote 118 theological treatises
       

    • 2 important literary works:

      • Confessions- greatest spiritual biography ever?

      • City of God- the first 'philosophy of history.'
         

    • an inspiration to...
       

    • his life:

    • Born 354 AD in North Africa.

      • father, Patricius, baptized on his deathbed.

      • mother, Monica, devoutly Christian & now a saint.

      • parents sent him to Carthage in 370 (only 16 years old) to study rhetoric.

      • he did so, when he wasn't studying women.

        • took a mistress (for 10 yrs), and fathered a son by her.
           

    • always an intellectual, he flirted with various philosophical systems:

      • most importantly, Manichaeism.

        • dualistic, a good/spiritual world and evil/physical world in constant conflict.

          • spirit/soul is good, flesh is evil.

          • [met Faustus, famous Manichean, found him arrogant & ignorant...shades of Socrates?]
             

      • By 384, Augustine was a skeptical professor of rhetoric (a sophist?) in Milan.

        • befriended by St. Ambrose (bishop), but unwilling to convert.

        • His famous prayer:

          • 'Grant me chastity and continence,
            but not yet.'
             

      • Neoplatonism

        • mystical evolution of Platonism w/some Aristotle, rep. by Plotinus (and Porphyry).

        • Augustine turned inward, seeking Truth in the spiritual.
           

        • Turned to the writings of St. Paul

        • after learning that Victorinus had been baptized-

          • translator of Neoplatonists

          • & what was known of Aristotle
             

    • Augustine was baptized Easter 387

      • by St. Ambrose

    • left Milan and returned to Africa

    • Became bishop of Hippo in 396.
       

    • His two most important works:

      • Confessions (400)

      • City of God (426)
         

    • Augustine's Thought:

      • Heavily influenced by Plato & Neoplatonism

      • A basic principle:

        • all philosophical ideas either bring the soul closer to or further from God.
           

      • saw religious perspective as a 'first principle' for understanding all aspects of reality.

        • distinctions like reason vs. revelation; philosophy vs. theology, etc. do not exist.
           

      • The will, not reason, is primary; and love motivates all action.

        • the entirety of the universe is the result of God's free and sovereign will.

        • everything human is explained by will.

          • will does not follow intellect, rather, the opposite.

          • will is free, but moved by what it chooses to love.
             

        • The problem is this: Since the 'Fall,'

          • the will is turned away from God;

        • love is pulled in the wrong direction-

          • towards love of self and world, and away from God.

        • the effect is comprehensive. It corrupts:

          • our ethics

          • our pursuit of knowledge

          • the course of history.
             

        • so epistemology has a practical purpose-

          • it helps to weed out theories of knowledge that lead away from God

          • to be clear about what truth is, is to be closer to its Author.
             

        • By Augustine's time, Plato's Academy was a center of skepticism, asserting 2 theses:

          • (1) nothing can be known

          • (2) ascent should be given to nothing.
             

        • but not a total relativism- Neoplatonic skeptics saw the journey to truth as having more value than the destination.
           

        • Augustine said NO: You cannot know truth, be wise or happy, unless you attain what you seek to possess.
           

      • he sought to refute skepticism:

        • (1) Skeptics claim we cannot know anything to be true.

        • (2) To deny that we can know the truth requires a definition of truth.

        • (3) the definition is either true or false.

          • (4) if true, then the skeptic knows something to be true (refuting 1).

          • (5) if false, then it is useless for defending skepticism.
             

      • furthermore, Augustine notes that certain of Aristotle's laws are self-evidently true:

        • like the law of non-contradiction.

        • w/o such laws, how could skepticism even be articulated?
           

      • Consider: 'either the skeptics' definition is true or false.'

        • Is this true or false?
           

      • What about mathematical truth?

        • can we know 5x5=25  w/ certainty?
           

      • Sense experience?

        • true, so long as we do not over-interpret.

        • if I see a stick that appears bent in water,

          • not an illusion, that is how it appears.

          • but reason must interpret the data of the senses b/4 conclusions are drawn.

             

      • Amazingly, Augustine drew Descartes' conclusion about the self 1200 years prior,

        • that doubt leads to certainty of self:
           

      • [For, we are, and we know that we are, and we love to be and to know that we are...In the face of these truths, the quibbles of the skeptics lose their force. If they say, 'What if you are mistaken?' well, if I am mistaken, I am. For, if one does not exist, he can by no means be mistaken...I am most certainly not mistaken in knowing that I am. Nor, as a consequence, am I mistaken in knowing that I know. For just as I know that I am, I also know that I know. And when I love both to be and to know, then I add to the things I know a third and equally importantly knowledge, the fact that I love. (City of God, emphasis mine)]
         

    • to summarize:

      • if we can know any propositions with certainty,

      • then universal skepticism is false,

      • and the search for further truth is both reasonable and desirable.
         

    • Like Plato, Augustine was dualistic-

      • Separated sense experience and intellect into different realms-

        • sense experience relies on intellect for interpretation

        • intellect does so by means of eternal principles that reside w/in the self or soul.

          • math points to the existence of this other realm.
             

        • but ethics falls w/in it as well.

        • claims there are certain principles we all share, so they are objective-

          • 'we should live justly'

          • 'the worse is subordinate to the better'

          • 'equals should be compared w/ equals'

          • 'to each should be given his own'
             

        • How do we know them?

          • [for Plato, illuminated by the Good]

          • for Augustine, 'divine light'-

            • the mind must be enlightened by God

            • [universal, not mystical; even atheists are enlightened by Him.]
               

      • Faith & Reason

        • reason does not work w/o faith.

          • if it did, faith would be unnecessary, and

          • reason would be self-sufficient.

          • also, this treats intellect as morally neutral,

            • as an instrument for processing data.

          • for Augustine, reason is a function of the whole person,

            • affected by our hearts, passions, and faith.
               

      • Put simply:

        •  a person whose will is directed towards selfishness [cheating on his wife and his taxes, blathering on about how morality is a cultural construct, etc.] would not find an argument for God's existence compelling, no matter how reasonable.
           

      • The divine light illumines the mind, but how much of it we see depends upon the heart.
         

    • An example of Augustine's Christian Platonism:

      • In Confessions, he interprets the Genesis creation story as a Platonic allegory:

        • all created things are forms + matter.
           

        • BUT...God's creation is a free act, born of the desire to share his goodness w/creatures.

        • ...the forms are the mind of God; they don't exist independently.

        • ...creation is ex nihilo, otherwise the matter used in creation itself needs a creator.

        • ...God placed 'seminal reasons' in the world- the rational 'seeds' that would become future created things.

          • ensures that God is always the primary cause; nothing left to nature.

             

        • Most importantly: God created time.

          • some asked, 'What was God doing before he created?'

          • some answered, 'Preparing hell for those who ask questions like that.'
             

        • Augustine answered both:

        • God did not 'wait around' until the right 'time' to create-

          • God created both the world and time.

          • time is change [it is defined by changes in things] and relational

          • to say God created at a certain time suggests a change in God-

            • and what would the perfect change into?
               

      • Predestination vs. Free Will

      • An analogy: Every morning, we say the pledge of allegiance.

        • We hold the whole pledge in mind-

        • as we speak it, some words become past,

        • some are held in memory, waiting to be said,

        • and we anticipate the words to come.
           

      • Also w/ God:

        • every moment in time [past, present, future] is eternally present to God, who is beyond time.

        • If God sees every choice we make, are we free in making them?
           

      • Augustine said YES:

        • God simply knows the choices we will freely make-

          • his position is debated to this day...
             

    • Evil

      • if God is omnipotent and perfectly good, why so much suffering and evil?

        • Essentially, evil is a perversion of Good, not a separate entity (Manichaeism)

      • Three points:

        • (1) some evil things are 'instrumental means' of achieving good-

          • a vaccination

          • pains in this world that make us long for the life to come
             

        • (2) evil does not exist independently, it is a privation or absence of good-

          • as a shadow is the absence of light.

          • b/c no created thing matches the perfection of the creator,

          • the world exhibits varying degrees of imperfection,

          • but when we experience evil, an act of faith is required to see how it fits into the 'beauty of the total pattern.'
             

        • (3) natural evil (earthquakes, tsunamis) is only apparently so,

          • only moral evil is genuine,

          • and it is a product of human will.

          • 'Adam' (the 'first man') is responsible.
             

        • We achieve moral freedom (from sin) by God's grace...

          • but grace directs the will, not vice-versa.
             

          • So: A will turned to God does NOT receive grace...

          • rather: grace enables the will to turn to God.
             

          • God grants grace to some, not to others.

          • Why? Not b/c of merit,

            • then some would deserve it, a source of 'pride.'
               

          • Is it unjust to grant (unmerited) grace to some and not others...?
             

    • A Philosophy of History

      • Augustine was 1st to suggest that history had an overall purpose & pattern-

        • the typical Greco-Roman view of history was cyclical (like seasons).

           

    • [STOP HERE]

    • Died in 430, after the Barbarians had sacked Rome, and Hippo was on the verge of falling.

       

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