Classical civilization was born in the Mediterranean basin in the eighth century BC. Classical civilization first came about in ancient Greece. Picture the Parthenon, with its ordered objective architecture and those symmetrical columns, and you have a good image of the birth of Classical civilization. Rome was a kind of pragmatic, more workable version of Greece. So when we say 'Classical Civilization' we often mean a merger of Greek culture and Roman political pragmatism. This ‘Classical Civilization’ dominated Europe for six centuries.
|St. Augustine Refuting a Heretic|
It was more than just the Roman Empire which was falling. It was classical civilization. One of the keys to Augustine’s importance is that he was both the last classical thinker, and the first really great Christian philosopher. You will find in Augustine’s theology a sort of buried Parthenon. His theology is founded on the classical principles of objectivity, unity and order.
Augustine was born in Carthage, which is in Africa. He grew up speaking Latin; he learned some Greek, but was never especially proficient at it, you budding theologians may be glad to hear. His principal schooling was in the Latin classics, such as Virgil. He became a lecturer in Rhetoric. That is, he wasn’t really trained as a philosopher; but as a public speaker. Rhetoric is the art of verbal persuasion. In 383, Augustine moved; he took up a new lectureship in Milan. In Milan, Augustine was converted to Christianity. As everyone knows, Augustine sent his girlfriend packing, and then later he himself returned to Africa.
By this time, Christian bishops were taking over the function of civic leadership. The things which Roman magistrates once had done, now were being done by Christian bishops. To act with authority, you have to understand yourself as having an authoritative status: you have to think that what you represent is important. The Roman magistrates didn’t believe that the culture of Romanitas was important, they let people call them by their first names, their oratory was not convincing, and everything went down hill. The Bishops did believe in their culture. In 395, Augustine became Bishop of an African city called Hippo. He drew on the experience of Christian community, and Christian leadership, in his writings. In the year 410, the Vis-Goths marched into Rome and the Eternal City rolled over with its feet in the air. In spiritual and in imaginative terms, it was an almost unimaginable disaster. Rome stood for everything which people had believed in for five hundred years. Some people grumbled that this was all the fault of Christians.
Bishop Augustine now sat down to write The City of God. In The City of God Augustine argues that the real abiding city, which will last forever, is the City of God. Not the Roman Empire, but the City of God is the truest form of human community. Augustine argues that the Roman Empire was just a lot of power grabbers. In the Roman Empire, Augustine argues, under a decent guise of civility, the heart of the matter was the advantage of the stronger. This is the City of man, the human city, and it is founded on love of self, egotism. On the other hand, there is the city of God. It is based on love of God. It is built on the Love of God and the love of neighbour at the expense of love of self-ego. These two loves have built the two cities which dominate world history, love of God and neighbour, which constructs the City of God, and love of self-ego, which lies at the basis of all the politics of the city of man.
Augustine believed that truth matters. In that way, he was a real old fashioned classicist. Suppose that someone comes along and tells you that you [know] nothing, that everything is an matter of opinion. Augustine says that, you can reply that, on the contrary, you know at least two certain truths. One is that you exist, because you can’t make a mistake about a thing like that unless you are around to do so. Granted this one truth, then you have two truths, that you know that you exist.
Augustine is arguing that there is at least one thing that we can be certain of: that we exist, and that we know ourselves, and love ourselves. He says: “It is beyond question..that I exist, and that I know and love that existence. In these truths there is nothing to fear from the arguments of the Academics [sophists]: what if you are mistaken? Since if I am mistaken, I am. One who does not exist, cannot be mistaken. Thus, if I am mistaken, this very fact proves that I am. ..since I must exist in order to be mistaken..it is beyond doubt that I am not mistaken in this, that I know myself as knowing. ..For, as I know myself to exist, so, also, I know this, that I know. And to these two, since I love them, I join that love as a third element of equal value to those things I know.’
Its somewhat like Julius Caesar’s tri-partite Gaul. My own self falls into three parts: my deep, memorial recognition of my self-existence, my knowledge of myself, and my love of myself. Augustine sees the tri-partite nature of the human self as an image of the Trinity, with Father, Son (word or knowledge), and Holy Spirit (or love).
So what Augustine did, as classical civilization fell all around him, was to give the West new grounds for believing in objective truth. If you are going to say anything at all is true, you must have some standard, or ground for saying so. The standard by which Augustine judges all human rationality is the Christian God, the Trinity.
Augustine defined God in terms of truth. You know that your own opinions are always changing. And you know that the world around us changes all the time - it can’t function as a ruler or standard, because it never stays still. And yet, despite all this change in our thought processes, and all of the transience and illusion in the world around us, we have some idea of objective truth. Augustine has a subjective argument for an objective reality: if you are honest and not just trying to make debating points, and if think back over your own experience, and if you reach into yourself, you know that occasionally you have some experience of truth. Somehow, the mind can know truth: it can know that two and two are four. It can somehow reach out of its own materialness, and into some transcendent realm of truth. Augustine was going to argue that the only way one could account for these experiences of truth was by reference to the existence of God. God is the eternal truth, who is outside the whole process of change, transience and decay. God is the unchanging, immutable, in a world of constantly moving goal-posts. We live in a world of changing goal - posts, and yet, amongst all the mistaken enthusiasms and rationalisations, we sometimes see the light, and on the basis of it, form a true judgement. The basis of that inner rationality, Augustine argues, is God.
Augustine’s Confessions is his most readable book. It is only about three hundred pages long and it is crazy not to read it and re-read it throughout your life. It’s one of the greatest works of Christian philosophy ever written, and one of the most accessible, because its an autobiography. It tells the very human story of Augustine’s life, his education, his intellectual search for truth, his progress through the various ‘new age’ cults which existed at that time, his ambition - to be a famous rhetoric lecturer - and his eventual conversion, in which his search for truth comes to rest in the Christian God. In the Confessions, Augustine has an inner drive, a desperate need to find out the truth about reality; but at the same time, he was not born St. Augustine. He says that, all the time that he was seeking truth, he would sort of put off the moment when Truth would start giving him orders: he says ‘I always prayed: give me poverty and chastity but not yet.’
Augustine says that he kept on and on trying to imagine what God is like and could not get beyond a material picture, a physical picture. He says that he would picture God as a sort of infinitely extending invisible fluid, and the world floating in it like a sponge in the bath. He tried and tried to get past this material idea of God, but couldn't quite do it. He was picturing God as in everything, and as everywhere, or as everything, but not as transcending everything. Then, he says, in the Confessions, ‘I read the books of the Platonists.’ And these books enabled him to envisage God as entirely transcendent. The way in which these books showed him how to envisage God as transcendent was by telling Augustine to look for God within his own soul. This is the most characteristic feature of Augustine’s theology. You can journey round the external world as far as you like, but just journeying amongst physical objects won’t take you any closer to God. You have to look for God, not outside in the external world, but inside, in your soul. Because, inside in your soul, you find a spiritual medium, a capacity for transcendence. Unlike the Platonists, Augustine didn’t think the soul is divine. But he did think the soul is spiritual, transcendent, not physical. The capacity for thought rises above brain processes; it is spiritual, transcendent. So he went ‘up’ to God, by going ‘within’, to his soul. He says in the Confessions: ‘If I am to reach Him, it must be through my soul’. The soul is like the inner door which leads to God. The external world doesn’t contain the door; the access is through the soul. Augustine is always said to have embarked on an ‘interior’ journey to God. But he didn’t think his soul was inside him, like his appendix. He thought that if, in inverted commas, you go inside the self, you are going to find an opening to the infinite. So the self in Augustine’s thought is not a closed box, like a refrigerator; the self has this openness to transcendence and infinity.
Focussing a portrait of Saint Augustine on his Confessions may seem very partial. As Joseph Ratzinger says, Augustine went through three conversions in his life. His first conversion is simply to belief in truth, to a simple Platonism or Classicism. Then there is the conversion described in The Confessions, where he gets down as far as a kind of Christian platonism (and send his girl friend packing)! But then there is the deeper conversion of the years following his return to Africa, when Augustine becomes a Bishop, and has to give up being a philosopher, and playing with ideas, to serve the wider Church. Now he writes his great commentaries, on the Psalms and other Scriptural texts, and The City of God, and De Trinitate. And it's in his years as a Bishop that Augustine engages in controversies with Pelagius and with the Donatists. All these things are much more important for his influence on Christianity, most Catholics-who-know will say, than The Confessions. All that is true. And yet. You can go out and read The Confessions in about a month, and identify with Augustine and make sense of his journey. Unless you are a professional academic theologian or a Bishop yourself, you are not going to read many of Augustine’s sermons or his commentaries on the Psalms or the thousand page City of God. You could read The Confessions and you should.
Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.
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