Wednesday, June 24, 2009

St. Thomas Aquinas - Summa Theologiae (London: Blackfriars, 1964)

Aquinas means to show "how God's public revelation can be lodged in the reasonable discourse of men together" (44). The Summa is not a grand act of faith (like the Confessions) but rather an even-tempered demonstration of how to talk about Christian things in Aristotelian terms.

Question 1: on what sort of teaching Christian theology is and what it covers

1: While agreeing with Ecclesiasticus that "reason should not pry into things too high for human knowledge," there is a domain "above the understanding of men" needing to be studied because it has been revealed by God.
2: Aquinas distinguishes between two kinds of science: 1) sciences revealed by the innate light of intelligence (geometry), 2) sciences dependent on higher sciences (like optics, dependent on geometry). Theology is a science of this second kind, as it takes on faith principles revealed by God.
3: Despite treating objects of different classes (Creator, Angels, Creatures), theology is a single science because it looks at a plurality of phenomena through a single, divinely-revealed lens. Aquinas also draws on the fact that our senses are plural but our experience is unified as another example of how a plurality can be a unity.
4: Theology is more a contemplative science than a practical one, because it is more concerned with "the divine things that are" than "with what men do" (the domain of ethics, which is a practical science concerned with doings).
5: Theology ranks above all other sciences both theoretical and practical. It is highest theoretically because as opposed to human reason, the light of divine knowledge cannot falter. It is highest practically because it guides men to eternal happiness. If theology borrows from philosophy, it is not out of need but simply for the "greater clarification of the things it conveys."
6: Theology is the unconditionally highest of human wisdoms because "that person is called wise about any matter who there maturely considers the highest cause." It is unconditionally so because holy teaching takes its principles not from human science but from divine science, which is of a different order and the condition for the possibility of human science.
7: God is the subject of the science of theology because he is what is discussed, even though we cannot fully know him. Some think the subject-matter otherwise (symbols, works of redemption, etc.), but these are only important in their relationship to God.
8: Theology is probative once you have faith; that is, when you believe, theology is reasonable. For those who do not have faith, a preliminary set of arguments can be deployed that Aquinas thinks too are rational, but only once that person has been converted by those arguments do strictly theological arguments become rationally credible. Once again, Aquinas mentions the limited usefulness of philosophy for perceiving the truth, if incompletely, by natural reasoning.
9: It is acceptable to use metaphoric language in theology because, in the words of Dionysius, "the divine rays cannot enlighten us except wrapped up in many sacred veils." But Aquinas makes it clear that while poetry uses metaphor for delight, holy scripture uses it only for its usefulness.
10: One passage of scripture can have several senses because when God conveys what he understands all at once, it appears of necessity to us in parts and obscurely, because we do not have his understanding. Thus, all meanings are based on the literal sense in which God meant them.

Question 2: whether there is a God

1: Aquinas combats Anselm by saying that though we might know it to be true that God exists, we do not fully comprehend what this means; we can thus know that God exists without experiencing that fact as self-evident.
2: That God exists can be made evident in arguing from effects to causes, though because God and his effects are incommensurable, knowledge of God in this manner cannot be comprehensive.
3: The five ways of proving God's existence:

a. CHANGE - Anything being changed is being changed by something else, and this chain of changes assumes a first cause of change not itself being changed by anything.
b. CAUSE - Everything has a cause that is not self-produced; going back through the chain of effects we are led to a first cause.
c. NECESSITY - Some things do not exist of necessity; but if everything need not be, then once upon a time there was nothing. We are forced into supposing something which must be.
d. GRADATION - The relative scale of goodness and badness assume a superlative goodness.
e. ORDER - Things that tend toward a goal do not do so by accident (like Paley's watch indicates watchmaker).

Question 3: God's simpleness

Bodies can be changed, possess potentiality, are not totally excellent, are composed of matter and form, cannot be identified with their essence, belong to a genus, possess accidents, have parts, and enter into composition with other things. God ain't.

We are not covering Questions 4-11, but they continue asking about God's attributes, which include perfection (4), goodness (5&6), limitlessness (7), existence in things (8), unchangeableness (9), eternity (10) and oneness (11).

Question 12: how God is known by his creatures

Created minds can see the essence of God only with the aid of his grace, not by means of any likeness or image and not in the way we see normal visible things, that is, in parts, but rather all at once. Of those who are blessed enough for God to shine a light, some are greater than others. Even those who are blessed do not fully comprehend him, nor are they thereby possessed of the gift of seeing all things.

For the rest of us "mere men," though we cannot see God's essence, we can attain knowledge of him through our natural reason. When we use our reason to trace the objects of our senses back to their source rather than investigate the sensible things themselves, we can gain knowledge of God. But there is always a more perfect knowledge of God through grace. Prefiguring Kant, Aquinas distinguishes between sensing, understanding and reason; but while Kant stops at reason, Aquinas adds on top of these the grace of the divine intellect, the only lens through which to see God's essence.

Question 13: theological language

Aquinas is dealing in this section with the supposed "beyond language-ness" of God. A helpful footnote on page 69 sums up his view: "'God is good' means according to St. Thomas, that what we call goodness in creatures pre-exists in him in a higher way. Our understanding of how to use 'God is good' is a function of our understanding of goodness in creatures, but the goodness of God is not therefore a function of the goodness of creatures. In this sense 'good' as applied to God does not have contained within its meaning the goodness of the creature."

One of the consequences of this view is that we needn't abuse language to talk of God. "Good" and "wise" are not synonymous. They are used literally, even if inappropriately given that they are uttered by finite creatures. We can even speak of God in terms of temporal succession precisely because we know him through his perfections, which are temporal. But we should still understand these descriptors equivocally; "good" as it applies to creatures should be kept apart from "good" as it applies to God.

Aquinas rejects the idea that "good" and "wise" are solely negative (Maimonides) or relational (Alan of Lille) terms; these words do say what God is but imperfectly. It is thus possible to make affirmative statements about God by representing his unity by bringing together subject and predicate.

Aquinas offers his own choice for the most appropriate name for God, He who is, because a) it signifies existence itself, b) it is universal, c) it is present and not past or future.


1. COMPLEMENTARITY OF THE NATURAL AND THE SUPERNATURAL: Aquinas does not see faith and reason, the supernatural and the natural, Augustine and Aristotle maybe, as opposed but as mutually dependent. "Science remains science when suffused by revelation, just as sensation and emotion are none the worse but better off when caught up by intelligence and friendship" (101).

2. EXISTENCE AND ESSENCE: Although Aquinas is one of the first modern philosophers in that he starts from sense experience, in that he privileges existence over essence, objectivity over subjectivity, he is still a Christian philosopher: "Knowledge of God is the ultimate end of every human cognition and operation" (Copleston, p. 310). And furthermore, there is a more intimate knowledge of God to be had than one can attain in this life.

3. TRUE BUT IMPERFECT: Aquinas believed that it was possible for a "philosopher to work out a true metaphysical system without recourse to revelation," though that system would be necessarily incomplete. Resisting St. Bonaventure, who believed that one can only attain the truth in the light of faith, Aquinas makes room for Aristotle.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Proslogion - Anselm

Proslogion: In the Preface Anselm describes how the Proslogion is a sequel to an earlier work entitled Monologion. In the Monologion Anselm had given arguments for God’s existence and nature, but he was unsatisfied with the complexity of the reasoning there and hoped to give a more simple argument. He desired to give a single argument that needs nothing other than itself in order to provide a proof that 1) God exists, 2) He is the Supreme Good, 3) He depends on nothing else, 4) everything else depends on Him, 5) as well as whatever else is believed by Christian about the God’s nature. It is striking to compare the type of argument that Anselm hopes to provide with the nature of the God that he espouses. The unity and self-sufficiency of the two parallel each other.
Anselm describes the difficulty that his attempts encountered as well as the sudden, almost revelational, insight in which he struck upon the argument. This theme, that insight ultimately depends on Divine Illumination, will recur throughout the work. It bears acknowledgement that our current contrast between Belief and Reason or Understanding does not map directly on to Anselm’s categories. Even Reason or Understanding to him is dependent on Divine Illumination, which is a form of Grace.
Anselm describes his work both as an attempt at contemplating God as well as an exercise in ‘faith seeking understanding.’ Thomas Williams, in his introduction to the Proslogion and in his Stanford Encyclopedia article, stresses that ‘faith seeking understanding’ does not mean to Anselm an attempt to move from mere belief to demonstrative knowledge. Neither, according to him, does it mean that Anselm only expects his arguments to edify those that already believe. Rather, Anselm believes that his arguments could convince anyone, even the fool who does not believe in God. ‘Faith seeking understanding,’ Williams claim, just means “active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” This description certainly characterizes the devotional tone of the work. Anselm seeks God, thirsts for Him, and pursues this drive through an attempt to better understand Him.
Anselm sees his relationship with God through the lens of a Neoplatonic scheme of original closeness, falling away, and a journey or ascent of return. Initially, God, who pervades all of creation, should be readily apparent. It is only necessary for Anselm, or any man, to seek God because something has gone terribly wrong. In a standard Neoplatonic scheme, this would be the result of the distance of man from the One in the emanationist scheme, which results in the attenuating of the One’s presence. In Anselm’s case this fall is a result of sin. Anselm, like Augustine, disagrees with perfectionist non-Christian Neo-Platonism. For him too Divine Grace is necessary to enable a return to God, which he sees as arising though a better understanding of Him.
Chapter 2-4 encapsulate Anselm’s famous Ontological Argument (so named by Kant), which is the primary reason we are reading this work. I will not engage with all the different criticisms of the argument, rather I will merely provide a clearer sketch of it. Anselm argues against that Biblical Fool from Psalms: “The Fool says in heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalms 14:1; 53:1). He defines God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” The standard interpretation of the argument then proceeds as follows, though William in his SEP article gives a different interpretation:
1) Whatever is understood exists in the understanding
2) The Fool hears and understands the statement “that than which nothing greater can be thought,”
3) Therefore what the Fool understands exists in his understanding
4) It is greater to exist in reality than to exist merely in the understanding
5) Thus, if “that than which a greater cannot be thought” only existed in the understanding it would not be “that than which a greater cannot be thought” because a greater than which could be thought – the same Being existing in reality
6) Therefore, “that than which a greater cannot be thought” must exist in the understanding as well as in reality
In Chapter Three, Anselm argues that God cannot be thought not to exist. Williams focuses on this as Anselm’s true argument. He buttresses this claim by showing how Anselm focuses on it in his Reply to Gaunilo. Focusing this argument has the advantage of avoiding the claim that it is better for something to exist in reality than merely in the understanding, which Gaunilo and many others exploit to criticize Anselm’s argument. The argument goes as follows:
1) It is possible to think that something exists that cannot be thought not to exists
2) A Being that cannot be thought not to exist is greater than a Being that can be thought to exist
3) If “that than which a greater cannot be thought” can be thought to not exist, then it would not be “that than which a greater cannot be thought” because a greater than which can be thought – a Being that is not able to be thought not to exist
4) Therefore, “that than which a greater cannot be thought” cannot be thought to not exist
To make himself clear, in case we haven’t realized, Anselm remarks here that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” is God
In Chapter Four, Anselm explains how, if existence is a necessary part of the definition of God, and therefore if one thinks of God this necessarily entails his existence, the Fool could think of God only to then claim that He does not exist. Anselm answers that there are two senses of ‘thinking:’ first, merely thinking the word that signifies a thing and, second, thinking as understanding. The Fool only thought that God does not exist in the first sense. If one understands what God is in the second sense, one will, according to Anselm, understand that God must exist.
In the next few chapter Anselm uses the definition of God as “that than which a greater cannot be thought” in order to derive what he sees as God’s attributes. Additionally, he discusses the compossibility of these attributes, that is that they all can exist together in one Being. In effect, Anselm argues that God is whatever it is better to be than not to be because, if he was not, a being greater than Him could be thought – a Being which is that better Being. On this basis, Anselm argues that God is not dependent on anything, but that all things were created by Him from nothing. Additionally, He is just, truthful, and happy. This discussion is ripe for a Feminist or any other contextualist critique. Anselm has his own gender-dependent or context-dependent beliefs about what is better than what and he uses his formula in order to claim that God possess the ‘better’ attribute.
Anselm reconciles God’s incorporeality with his percipient-ness by explaining how to perceive is really just to know and does not necessarily require the medium of a body. Anselm also explains how God can both be Omnipotent and All-Good. This is seemingly a conflict because since God is All-Good He cannot do evil, which seems to impinge on God’s power. According to Anselm, the capacity to do evil is not really a power but a weakness. It is the tendency to be affected or moved by misfortune and wickedness. Thus, in fact, the capacity to do evil would actually itself impinge on God’s omnipotence. It would mean that he would be passible; He could be affected by another power.
Anselm then tries to reconcile God’s Mercy with his Impassibility. Being merciful seems to imply the tendency to be moved by compassion, however, as discussed above God’s omnipotence seems to require Him to be impassible. Anselm explains that God is only described as merciful in relation to us; this does not actually mean that God is actually moved by compassion. This argument will later be developed by Maimonides to explain all of God’s positive attributes mentioned in the Bible.
Things get very messy when Anselm tries to reconcile God’s supreme Justice with his Mercy. Justice, in the tradition Anselm is working in, means giving to each his or her due. However, mercy means sparing the wicked from the punishment that they deserve. Anselm goes down many tracks in order to try to reconcile this conflict, not all of which I fully understand. One method is that he claims that, in some way, God’s Goodness is maximized by His being good to the wicked in both punishing and sparing them. Additionally, he claims that doing good to the good and doing evil to the evil is dictated simply by Justice, but having Mercy on the wicked really shows goodness. Anselm admits that this is still mysterious though. He admits that he is confused about the interrelationships between Goodness, Justice, and Mercy. This does not, however, stop him from continuing to try to reconcile them. It is interesting that all these problems result from Anselm working in a scheme wherein Justice and Mercy and opposed to each other. There is good work being done on Justice and Mercy in the Jewish tradition. Some scholars argue that Justice and Mercy do not stand in the same tension in Rabbinic thought as in Scholastic thinking.
In Chapter Ten Anselm discusses how it can be just to both punish and spare the wicked. If one is just, it seems that the other would seem to be unjust. He claims that when God punishes the wicked it is just according to their merits, but when He spares the wicked it is just according to his goodness. He is just to Himself in doing what is fitting for a Being that is supremely good. At the end of his discussion of Justice and Mercy, Anselm seems to finally throw up his hands and embrace voluntaristic reasoning “For only what you will is just, and only what you do not will is not just” (14). Additionally, he admits that mystery of why equally wicked people receive different treatment still remains.
After concluding the discussion of the compossibility of these attributes, Anselm returns to discuss other attributes that are the result of his being “that than which a great cannot be thought.” He argues for the identity of God with His attributes. God is not dependent on anything else in order to possess his attributes. Additionally, he discusses how only God is truly unbounded by place and time.
In chapter fourteen Anselm breaks the flow of his discussion in order dwell on the tensions in his endeavor. He recapitulates what he has proved but expresses his thirst for a more intimate encounter with God. He says that it is impossible to get closer both because of the inherent weakness of the human mind and because of God’s greatness. Indeed, adding to his original definition of God as “that than which a greater cannot be thought” Anselm now claims that God is, in fact “greater than can be thought.” This as the result of the following argument:
1) It is possible to think that a Being that is greater than can be thought exists
2) If God is not that Being, then there is something greater than God
3) But that is contradictory because God is “that than a greater cannot be thought”
4) Therefore, God must be greater than can be thought
In addition to any other issues with this argument, many would question whether it is possible to think that a Being that is greater than can be thought exists. If it is greater than can be thought would it be possible to think that it exists?
Nevertheless, Anselm connects God’s being “greater then can be thought” to the verse that God dwells in “the inaccessible light.” We cannot understand God, we are blinded and dazzled by His greatness. However, Anselm claims that we cannot look at the sun itself, but we can still see its light. Similarly, we cannot fully understand God, but we can have a partial apprehension.
Anselm goes on to claim many other positive attributes for God many of them quite worldly, such as harmony, fragrance, savor, softness and beauty. Indeed, he seems to claim, foreshadowing Aquinas, that the original referent for these attributes is God himself and that worldly objects only possess them derivatively. This is in sharp contrast to Maimonides’s perspective, and Anselm’s own statements about mercy, that these attributes cannot rightly be attributed to God at all. This seems to indicate the Anselm is most concerned, as he mentions, with God impassibility when discussing mercy and is not as concerned with God incommensurability as Maimonides.
After having discussed many of God’s attributes, Anselm modifies the way that they can be applied to God by stressing one of God’s most important attributes – His Unity. God possess all of the attributes discussed above, but not as parts. Anselm insists on this because unity, according to him, is greater then plurality. This essential unity influences how God’s eternity must be understood. God’s eternity does not merely mean that he continually exists. If it did then God’s existence in the past, present, and future would in some way differ from each other, resulting in plurality, even if merely as a result of their differing temporal relationship. Rather, God is entirely outside time.
Anselm stresses that God’s eternity is greater then the eternity of other created beings. His eternity precedes their eternity because they depend on him for existence, while He does not depend on them. This comment seems to be based on Aristotle’s discussion in the Metaphysics of the various senses of Priority. God’s eternity differs from other beings’ eternity in two other ways: first, they can be thought to end, while he cannot and, second, other eternal things still exist in time, thus in the present there future is still outstanding and their past has disappeared. This is not the case with God’s eternity. Anselm then connects this discussion to debate about how to understand Biblical verses about the “age(s) of age(s).”
Anselm then comments that only God has existence in a strict and absolute sense. Other beings have contingent existence because they depend on other beings. Only God is independent of all other beings. He is not made out of parts. He is not changeable, has no beginning and cannot be thought to end. He does not have past that no longer exists or a future outstanding. Also, He is the is one supreme good
Returning to the theme of God’s unity, Anselm discusses the identity of the Persons of the Trinity. His essential argument is that, due to God’s unity, nothing different than God could come from God. Thus, the Son, the Word of Father, must be identical with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, the love shared by the Father and Son, must be identical with them.
Anselm closes with a discussion of how great the good that is found in God is. This good is the cause of all earthly goodness. He exhorts his readers to love this good, which is the source of all other goods, rather then just the subsidiary earthly good. He then discusses the exponential multiplication of happiness through goodness and love that will be found in the hereafter, a true understanding of which, however, is beyond human capacity in this world. He concludes with a prayer that God enable him to continue to add to his knowledge, love, and joy in him, if not in this life then in the next.
Gaunilo’s Reply on Behalf of the Fool: The basic argument of Gaunilo’s reply is easy to grasp, one cannot go simply and directly, as Anselm does, from conceptual to existential claims. However, Gaunilo throws up a lot of arguments in some of which the reasoning is not as easy to grasp. Charlesworth’s St. Anselm’s Proslogion is a useful aid to help cut through some of the noise and focus on the more central arguments. Essentially, there are three major arguments, but before we get to them it bears mentioning that Gaunilo restates Anselm’s argument in a slightly different manner then Anselm originally offers it. Instead of consistently discussing “that than which a greater cannot be thought” he switches in the middle of the argument to “that than which is greater than everything else.” Anselm takes issue with this change, insisting that his argument requires “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” In the process of this insistence Anselm makes some arguments that support William’s interpretation of Anselm’s argument.
Gaunilo claims that Anselm argues that “that than which a greater cannot be thought,” when heard and understood, exists in the understanding. But then, if “that than…” exists in the understanding, it must also exist in reality, since otherwise it would not be “that then which is greater than everything else” because other things would be greater than it – things that exist in reality.
Having completed his recapitulation/rendition of the argument, Gaunilo offers a number of counter-arguments. Gaunilo’s first central argument compares “that than which a greater cannot be thought” with all the various false things that can be entertained in one’s mind. He claims that Anselm has not provided a good enough argument to show why an inference from “that then which a greater cannot be thought” ’s existence in the mind to its existence in reality is justified, while an inference to the actual existence of other meaningful false concepts is not.
Next, Gaunilo undermines the extent to which God as “that then which a greater can be thought” even exists in the mind. The notion itself, as “greater than anything else,” means that it cannot be subsumed under any known genus. This seems to indicate that an understanding of it might be the mere understanding of words and not the understanding of a meaningful concept. Thus, it cannot be said to be understood and exist in the understanding. This prevents the inference from its existing in the understanding to its existing in reality from even getting started.
Finally, Gaunilo offers what will become the celebrated Lost Island Argument. In effect, he argues that Anselm’s reasoning results in an absurd conclusion. Here argues as follows:
1) “An Island than which no more excellent can be thought” can be conceived
2) This Island, therefore, exists in the understanding
3) Now since “no more excellent island can be thought” this Island must exist in reality, or else a greater Island can be thought – that same Island existing in reality
Gaunilo hopes to show that Anselm’s reasoning from concept to existence is faulty. It is never possible to argue from the fact that something can be conceived to that fact that it actually exists.
After having savaged Anselm’s major claims in Proslogion, Gaunilo parts with praise for the rest of the work. Thus, he sets an excellent example of how to write proper academic book reviews.
Anselm’s Reply to Gaunilo: Anselm begins his response to Gaunilo by restating his argument. This iteration of the argument is less similar to his comments in Ch. 2 of the Proslogion and more similar to his statements in Ch. 3. This provides the basis for William’s argument that this is his more central argument.
In this rendition there is no move from existence in the understanding to existence in reality on the basis of it being greater to exist in reality than merely in the understanding. Rather, Anselm argues that necessary existence is logically entailed in “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” Stated otherwise, that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” cannot be thought to not exist or else it would not be “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” In good Neoplatonic fashion, he argues that necessary existence is greater than contingent existence. Though Anselm does stress this version of the argument more strongly in the reply, he does sometimes fall back to the reality > understanding move.
Anselm responds to Gaunilo’s Lost Island Argument by claiming that his reasoning only works with “that than a greater cannot be thought” and “not the most excellent island” and that, therefore, Gaunilo’s attempt to show that his reasoning leads to absurd conclusions fails. According to Charlesworth this is because Anselm believes that the most excellent Island would have only relative greatness, it would be the most excellent island, while ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’ would have absolute greatness, it would be the greatest Being. Absolute greatness entails necessary existence, while the Island’s relative excellency does not.
Anselm then argues against Gaunilo’s alteration to his argument. He claims that there is a substantial difference between “that than which a greater cannot be thought” and “that than which is greater than everything else.” Anselm argues that “that which is greater than everything else” could still be thought to not exist; it could be greater than everything else but just simply not exist. In order to show that “that which is greater than everything else” has necessary existence it would be necessary to show that that “that which is greater than everything else” is “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” Once again, according to Anselm, only ‘that than which a grater cannot be thought’ has the required recursivity to entail necessary existence. Only that concept can continue to add necessary existence to any great Being that is thought.
Anselm next responds to Gaunilo’s equation of ‘that than which’’s existence in the understanding to the existence of false things that exist in the understanding. He claims that it does not bother him that all sorts of false things exist in the understanding but do not exist in reality. It is a unique feature of “that than which a greater cannot be thought” that once it is admitted to exist in the mind its actual existence is entailed. Thus, his argument gets off the ground once it is simply admitted that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” exists in the understanding regardless of the fact that many false things also exist in the understanding.
Finally, Anselm responds to the Gaunilo’s argument that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” cannot even be understood and therefore does not even exist in the understanding. Echoing his comments in the Proslogion proper, Anselm comments that, though a full understanding of God is not possible, humans are capable of a partial grasp of God’s nature. This possible by extrapolating analogical from the goods in the world that one is familiar with; God is greater than all those goods. Similarly, it is possible to grasp “that than which a greater cannot be thought” by extending all of the goods that one understands to their limit. That being said, Anselm also argues that even if the true nature of the being which is “that than which a greater which cannot be thought’ is not possible,” it still possible to understand the notion of “that than which is no greater can be thought.” It is just as understandable as the words unthinkable and ineffable (but see C.S. Peirce on the unthinkable and Proudfoot on the ineffable).
In conclusion, with good collegiality Anselm reciprocates Gaunilo’s kindness with praise of his own.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Augustine of Hippo - Peter Brown

Augustine of Hippo
Peter Brown

Augustine was born in 354 C.E. in Thagaste, a Roman colony (suffering from “egregious self-respect”) in North Africa.  At the time of his birth, the expansion and prosperity of the previous centuries was beginning to slow, with most of the income moving from the cities to the cultivation of olive trees in the countryside.  North Africa, and Roman power more generally, was in the early stages of the decline that would accelerate throughout Augustine’s life, but at the time of his birth Augustine’s surrounding culture nonetheless remained unquestionably Roman, placing the highest value on the study of Latin texts.
Though Augustine’s father Patricius was relatively poor, he was free and “civilized.”  Since classical education offered the only possible means of social advancement, he sent Augustine to school.  School was run on the “ancient Anidjar model,” focusing on very few texts in excruciating detail with attention to each word.  Unlike nearly every other major philosopher of antiquity, Augustine did not learn Greek.  Cicero, Virgil, Sallust, and Terence were the only authors read in detail.  Brown argues that this mode of reading that takes every word extremely seriously and that valued verbal ingenuity would go on to characterize Augustine’s style as a biblical critic.  
More immediately, though, Augustine’s exposure to Cicero’s Hortensius led to his decision at 19 to abandon his desire for worldly success as a lawyer to the pursuit of wisdom supporting himself as a teacher of rhetoric instead.  Raised in a Christian household, Augustine sought a specifically Christian form of wisdom but, disappointed by the Bible, he turned instead to Manichaeism.

Manichaeism was founded by Mani in Mesopotamia, who was executed in 276 CE by the Persian government.  Augustine was drawn to the religion, then a persecuted sect, by his fixation on the problem of evil.  Afraid of charging God with creating evil, the Manichees chose, instead, to create a rigid dualism, limiting God’s omnipotence by attributing evil to an opposing dark power.  Though the human world was unequivocally fallen and the source of all evil, each human had a shred of pure goodness in his soul that longed to return to and merge with the greater goodness of God.  In later years, Augustine will attribute the appeal of this philosophy to its capacity to disown any personal sense of responsibility and guilt.  Additionally, he will also condemn it for depicting good as totally passive.   
In his period as a Manichee, Augustine takes a concubine (372), sails for Rome (383), and then later Milan (384).  By the time he reaches Milan, he is mostly disillusioned by the Manichees, largely as a result of talking to Faustus, a man renowned for his learning who turned out to be completely incapable of resolving the questions Augustine had about the scientific claims of the Manichees.  

Things improve somewhat when Augustine meets Ambrose in Milan.  Ambrose had been the bishop of Milan for since 372 AD when, working as the governor of the province, he was seized by the population and forced to become their bishop.  Ambrose, though not aristocratic by birth, was an extremely political religious leader, most evident in his confrontation with local city authorities when the mother of the emperor tried to force him to give up a church for pagan use.  Ambrose gained popular support, forced the advancing troops to give up, and later built himself a basilica out of pure spite.  One can see Augustine following in Ambrose’s model later in his dealing with Donatists.
Intellectually, Ambrose was important for offering Augustine an alternative to materialism.  While Augustine had always thought within a materialist system, as with the Manichees, Ambrose suggested the existence of a purely spiritual reality.  In addition, Ambrose did much to alleviate Augustine’s worries about biblical passages by offering “spiritual” interpretations of the text.

Platonism becomes Augustine’s new philosophy of choice, both through Ambrose’s references to it in his sermons and through his gradual absorption into  social circle of Christian Platonists.  The previous century, the writings of Plato had been rediscovered, leading to a philosophical Renaissance.  Augustine received his Platonism through Plotinus (death, 270 CE), author of th Enneads and through Porphyry, his disciple, who systematized the writings of Plotinus.  Most of the Platonists in Rome were Christian, largely because of the conversion of Victorinus, a prominent pagan who later publicly converted to Christianity.  Augustine, I believe, mentions Victorinus’s conversion in the Confessions; Brown adds the information that Victorinus was the man responsible for translating many of the neo-Platonic works into Latin.
Christian Platonists believe that Platonism and Christianity dovetailed in the same conception of an otherworldly existence.  Just as Plato’s ideas existed in another world, so too did Christ say “my kingdom is not of this world.”  Similarly, both philosophies, at least as adopted by Augustine, shared the notion of the world as a decline, as an increasingly unclear and diffuse shadow emanating from the true reality of the One.  All existence is a tension between this natural tendency to fall and move away from the real and the desire to return to or regain contact with the real.  Plotinus’s universe, in sum, was a monistic one that did not admit the radical dualism of Manichaeism or their claim that evil was in anyway opposed to the good.  Rather, evil was an absence or deficiency of the good, as blindness is a lack of sight.  Evil can only be a turning away from the natural unity with the real.  The links of all of this with the Confessions  seems clear.     

Conversion and Ordination:
Augustine decided upon reading Plotinus to “convert” decisively to the philosophical life and withdraw from public affairs.  Conversion to Christianity wasn’t self-evident at this point, largely because Platonism offered the possibility that man could reach a vision of God through rational ascent, not through institutional guidance.  Nonetheless, convinced by Ambrose that the Scriptures could be a source of authority and wisdom, Augustine began reading Paul.  From here, Brown basically recapitulates Augustine’s account of conversion in The Confessions.  Suffice to say, his conversion marks a decisive break from the ideal of autonomy found in neo-Platonists.  Reason is not sufficient to lead one to truth; rather, grace is necessary.
From here, Augustine spends four years studying with friends - an ideal lifestyle, it sounds - before, one day, while visiting a friend in Hippo in 391 CE, he is shanghaied into the priesthood, in a scene I can only imagine resembled the moment in frat parties when the crowd starts shouting, “chug!”   Shortly thereafter, in 395, he is named bishop.  

The Confessions:
 Augustine writes the Confessions in 397 CE, at a point when Augustine was feeling overwhelmed and alienated by his duties as a bishop that he had assumed two years earlier.  “Confessio” has the double meaning of praising of God and accusing oneself, both senses of which Augustine obviously has in mind.  The piece straddles several different genres.  In certain respects, the piece is a very recognizable type of a neo-Platonic philosophical treatise, which addresses itself to an unknowable God and uses prayer as a vehicle for speculative inquiry.  However, Augustine’s formulation of the text as a dialogue with God breaks from this neo-platonic genre.  Similarly, Augustine lifts the notions of God’s omnipresence, the existence of a spiritual reality, and the idea of a Fall characterized by turning outward (as with the concupiscences) from Plotinus; however, redefining the Fall as a personal one, rather than simply a cosmic one, is Augustine’s own innovation.  Finally, regarding Platonism, the notion of an immeasurable inner world is also from Plotinus, but while Plotinus retains an optimistic faith in the impossibility of losing touch with God, Augustine believes our access to and perception of the divine can become obscured.
Likewise, the Confessions also holds an ambiguous relation to a Christian genre of confession.  In “African Christianity” of Augustine’s time, there existed an extremely strong tradition of seeing saints and heroes as predestined.  This comes out more fully in Augustine’s later theology, but we can can see it here in moments such as Monica’s dream.  Yet the piece also breaks with the tendency to see baptism as an absolute break with the past.  Had The Confessions been a traditional book of this genre, it would have stopped with the conversion scene in Book IX; as stands, the fact that it went on for another 3 books would have baffled the contemporary reader.  Perhaps one could read here a Freudian understanding of the past, which refuses to discard anything as lost or overcome.  In later years, Augustine would become even more adamant about the impossibility of ever overcoming human frailty and temptation, even through baptism.  In this sense, the work can be read as iconoclastic, an effort to humanize the bishops who were such unquestioned figures of power at the time.
Stylistically, Augustine’s incorporation of the Psalms in the text was new.  Content-wise, the book signals Augustine’s growing conviction that simple knowledge was not enough to overcome the power of force of habit.  The scope of what Augustine thinks the intellect can accomplish visibly declines throughout the narrative, and in his life; the inadequacy of intellectual knowledge of truth is essentially the reason he turns from Plotinus to Christianity in the text.  Instead, we need desire to motivate the will to act.      

One of the two major controversies of Augustine’s life, the Donatist affair traces back to 311 CE.  In the Persecution of Diocletian in 303 - 305, some bishops had collaborated with the authorities, handing over copies of the scriptures to be burned.  A certain sect of Christianity, which considered the Church to be exclusively a place for the righteous, believed that such an act  stripped a bishop of all ecclesiastical power and authority, making all of his actions null and void.  Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, was rumored to have been ordained by such a fallen priest, which would make his ordination invalid.  Consequently, a council of 80 bishops got together in 311, declared his ordination invalid and elected another, “pure” bishop in his place. Donatus.  The emperor Constantine supported Caecilian against Donatus and, eventually, the Catholic Church reinstated Caecilian as the bishop.  The Catholics imposed unity by force against a strong local Donatist group, but the reign of Constatine’s successor “Julian the Apostate,” brought renewed tolerance for the Donatists.
The issue at stake, particularly by Augustine’s time, was the identity of the Church.  Was it universal, a place for sinners and saints alike, or a sanctuary for the pure?  The Donatists saw themselves as something like the new Israel, and like the Chosen People of the Old Testament, they were filled with anxiety about the possibility of losing God’s favor through becoming ritually impure or violating his commandments.  The emphasis on “pure” bishops was something between a symbol of and substitution for this ideal of purity.  
When Augustine became bishop of Hippo, he was in a Catholic minority.  Yet, through a series of campaigns, catchy jingles, and legislation, he managed to get legislative support outlawing the Donatists, but not yet forcing their conversion to Catholicism.  The law was called “the edict of unity” and passed in 404.
However, in 410 Alaric sacks Rome, leading to a renewed period of toleration for the Donatists, as Rome is otherwise distracted.  After a short while, though, this toleration ends and representatives of both the Donatist and Catholic positions are summoned to Carthage to be tried by Marcellinus, a good Catholic, regarding the legitimacy of the Donatist position.  In 411, after relatively short trial, Marcellinus rules in favor of the Catholics, Augustine having saved the day, and in 412 the Edict against the Donatists is passed, allowing Augustine to ruthlessly persecute all members of the sect.        
The main points regarding the Donatist controversy is that it shows Augustine consolidating his political power, and comes at his moment of greatest enthusiasm for the alliance between Church and Empire, something that will decline in later years, particularly when Marcellinus is executed by state officials despite his intervention.  Additionally, this marks one of the moments when the Church settles on its message as a universal one, and not as another version of chosenness.

Sack of Rome and City of God:
I still don’t really know what City of God is about.  Nonetheless, the background is that with the sack of Rome, a series of Roman aristocrats fled to the provinces, including Hippo.  In reaction to their loss and anxiety, they developed a nostalgic valorization of the past, specifically through past classics.  City of God is written in what I take is an extremely pretentious literary style, with an unnecessary number of references to Cicero, as a response to the anti-Christian dialogues such aristocrats wrote.  The aim is to persuade the intelligent, cultivated pagan aristocrats of the rationality and appeal of Christianity.  
The first 10 books are devoted to critiquing and deconstructing the pagan religion, contextualizing Rome as a merely earthly city, born of a “lust for domination.”  This earthly city is contrasted with the “heavenly city.”  The citizens of heavenly Jerusalem, as opposed to those of earthly Rome, are characterized by their capacity to yearn for the beyond.  Consequently, Augustine turns to psalms, borrowing their language of love, longing, and desire.  This split reveals something of Augustine’s relation to the sack of Rome; while still convinced that Roman civilization will endure, he sees the empire nonetheless as worldly, fallen, and characterized by deep, destructive pride.  Though the sack of Rome is unfortunate, one’s true city is the City of God. 
Concomitant with the division between two cities is the split between two types of history: earthly and prophetic.  One could maybe conceive of the Augustinian earthly history as Benjamin’s mythic history.  Without the prophetic history, it would be a blank, meaningless succession of events.  However, it is punctuated by brief moments of revelation, such as the lives of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets.  This red thread shows earthly history to be dynamic, providential, and meaningful.  Prophetic history is the rupture which allows us to orient ourselves in relation to the earthly.  
Pelagian Controversy:
Pelagius was a well-connected British “servant of God,” a religious layperson in the same way Augustine had been before ordination.  Very basically, he believed God had made man for happiness and that, therefore, not only was man capable of being corrected, if only he could buck corrupt human habit, but that perfection was mandatory.  Pelagius was extremely eager to stay in good standing with the Church, believing his theology necessary to reform it.    
By this point in his career, Augustine believed very firmly in predestination.  Not only did Pelagius’s teachings contradict that, not only did they deny that all humans shared in the sin of Adam, which made their redemption by Christ necessary, they also seemed to resurrect the old Donatist mania for purity.  On a basic phenomenological level, Augustine also thought Pelagius’s noion that one could control one’s desire and remain pure hopelessly naive.  Like Freud, Augustine believed that not all desire were accessible to consciousness.  Nocturnal emissions were the case in point.  
Augustine appealed to the pope, asked these beliefs to be declared heretical and basically won, becoming in the process an international figure.

Brown reads predestination as a response to the instability of the time and, more generally, to the instability of human life.  It seems a continuation of Augustine’s anxiety about the possibility of the self being dispersed through sin and inattention to God.  Nothing could guarantee the coherence of the self except the presence of God, yet observation proved that nothing - neither baptism, nor conversion, nor desire - sufficed to keep a human sinless.  Therefore predestination acts as a guarantee that for some individuals, if not for all, a coherent self does exists, providing the possibility of hope and the strength for action.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Augustine's Confessions, Trans Henry Chadwick, OUP, 1991

SUMMARY: Augustine begins in his early years where he sought pleasure not in God but in his creatures, roaming the streets of Babylon in search of sensual folly, seeking shame for its own sake, running with the bad crowd. But despite his wild side, Augustine had many natural gifts and first became a lawyer, then a teacher of rhetoric. At some point he reads Cicero's Hortensius and devotes himself to the pursuit of wisdom, which he at first attempts to find in the Manichee religion. Augustine recounts how easy everything came to him, how reading Aristotle's Categories was like reading a children's book, but that these strengths were ultimately infirmities because they were not under God's control. Augustine moved away from Manichaenism, flirted with astrology and then slowly became more involved with the church through Ambrose. If something kept him from the church, it was that he needed the embraces of a woman to satisfy his insatiable sexual desire. Augustine came to study Neoplatonism and found a great amount of truth in the works of Plotnius and Porphyry. Through the Neoplatonic lens he inquired into the origin of evil (see first discussion topic). Finally, in a garden in Milan, Augustine broke down into a very dramatic fit of weirdness and converted when he read: "Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts" (Rom. 13: 13-14). Augustine must have been quite the wild man. Shortly after his conversion, his beloved mother dies.

This is more or less the end of his autobiographizing: Chapters X-XIII are more philosophical in nature. Chapter X is about memory: when Augustine speaks of memory, he means something like Plato's anamnesis, bringing forth what is already there, a gathering together (sounds like Heidegger). He equates memory itself with the mind, though at one point he says it is the stomach of the mind (in which case remembering is vomiting?). He then goes on to discuss the relationship of happiness and truth....the pursuit of truth, through the higher path of the mind's eternal knowledge or through the lesser path of the 5 senses, is only useful in as much as it serves happiness, which only God can truly provide. Pursuing truth for curiosity or for praise is no good.

Chapter XI is about time and eternity. Here Augustine asserts that God's eternal Word created time. The much quoted passage comes on page 230: "What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know." Augustine posits that there are not three times (past, present and future), but three modes of the present, a present past that is memory, a present present that is immediate awareness, and a present future that is expectation. Time is not dictated by the movement of physical bodies but by the way we measure it, and time's measurement is the mind itself. Time is a distension, a stretching out of the present, and our minds are what stretches it out.

There is a very good discussion of Augustine on time in Paul Ricoeurs "Time and Narrative," Chapter 1. I'll email it to you all. Ricoeur says: "Augustine's inestimable discovery is, by reducing the extension of time to the distention of the soul, to have tied this distention to the slippage that never ceases to find its way into the heart of the threefold present – between the present of the future, the present of the past, and the present of the present. In this way he sees the discordance emerge again and again out of the very concordance of the intetions of expectation, attention, and memory" (T&N, pg. 21).

In Chapter XII, Augustine talks about how we are to understand God's act of creation. The difficulty seems to revolve around how to understand God's actions outside of time, how, if time and differentiation are created only with form, to understand the existence of a formless mass. The only bit I found interesting in Chapter XIII was Augustine comparing the trinity to the threefold presence of being, knowing and willing in man. It seems an odd comparison. I gotta say, I didn't find these last two chapters so riveting.


1) Augustine on Evil: Augustine is firmly against the belief that there is an evil substance, or that there are two opposed principles of good and evil. He rather thinks of evil as a perversion of what was created good by God allowed by the indeterminacy of the created human will. Evil is not a thing but a deprivation of good, something that would not be seen as evil unless in contrast to an already existent good thing, like a disease to its host. Augustine also talks about evil as a kind of turning away from the inner, eternal Word to the outer, temporal world.

2) Family Romance: That Augustine was such a womanizer and so wholly devoted to an angelic vision of his mother is ripe for Freudian analysis. But the most amazing thing I found in the book is the following: Monica has a dream where God says to her "Where you are, there will he be also," meaning that Augustine will eventually come to the faith. But this is paraphrasing the Roman marriage rite, "Where you are, there will I be." So underneath the idea that Augustine will convert is the desire to marry him. But here's the amazing part: in Freud's "New Introductory Lectures," he describes the purpose of analysis as conquering the id with the ego, or "Wo es war, soll Ich werden," or "Where it was, there I shall be," or "Where id was, there ego shall be." Did Freud read Augustine? Did he know about the Roman marriage rite?