Friday, May 13, 2011

Augustine and the West

David Knowles begins his chapter on St. Augustine in The Evolution of Medieval Thought by noting Augustine's almost overwhelming influence not only on Medieval thought but on all Western Christendom. In fact, Knowles' judgment could, and should, be extended to Western thought as a whole in many important respects:

St Augustine, it would be generally agreed, has had a greater influence upon the history of dogma and upon religious thought and sentiment in Western Christendom than any other writer outside the canon of Scripture. (29)

Even in this day, Augustine's influence remains paramount in the West. For example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church it is Augustine and not Thomas Aquinas who is--with the exception of Scripture--the most frequently cited authority. Nor is Augustine's influence confined to religion, for the roots of most of our political and philosophical ideas in the West can be found in the various attempts to resolve the problems that Augustine bequeathed us and the implications of his thought.

Thus, almost immediately after he notes Augustine's great influence, Knowles goes on to point out what may appear at first to be a paradoxical "dark side" to Augustine's influence:

Yet, strangely enough, there is an obverse to this brilliant medallion. If Augustine was a second Bible to the dark and middle ages, he was all but the gospel of the three great heresies, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Jansenism, that absorbed so much of the mental activity of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries... Not only has his teaching on grace, free-will and predestination been pressed into service against orthodox belief, but his teaching on the Eucharist has been interpreted in a non-Catholic sense. (30)

In fact, there is no coincidence in the fact that, unlike Aquinas, Augustinian thought has been the single most fertile source of heresy throughout most of Western history. The explanation, as we have been at pains to point out, lies in Augustine's relationship to Platonism and Plato's relationship to the archaic ontology that Mircea Eliade describes in The Myth of the Eternal Return. Plato, as we have seen, essentially transformed the heavenly archetypes of archaic myth into what can best be termed an ideology. Whereas, at its best, the thought of archaic man seeks to communicate insight into the true structure of being through metaphor (myth), Plato--following in the footsteps of his Greek predecessors--attempted to use logic and dialectic to turn archaic ontology into a scientific explanation of the structure of reality. Plato's example demonstrates that this approach--which sees the Forms or Ideas (which correspond to the divine or heavenly archetypes of archaic ontology) as true reality--is a dead end. It leads inexorably to the insoluble problem of the One and the Many, as Parmenides and Heraclitus had shown before Plato's time. Simply put, if being is treated as if it were an idea or concept--if the essence or “species” is considered to be what it most real, rather than the individual--it is impossible to deduce from that idea the multiplicity of existing things that we experience. Yet while Plato demonstrated that this approach is a dead end, he could offer no convincing alternative. The difficulty is rooted in human nature, for the method of treating being as conceptual is extremely congenial to the rational human mind. It is, in fact, the way we generally "deal with" reality--through generalization.  This approach is reinforced by the success of modern science and technology, which is essentially a specialized application of this Platonic outlook--only at the margins of our experience do its limitations become apparent: science is not a study of singularities.

From a philosophical standpoint, Augustine relied almost totally on Platonic and Neoplatonic thought. As Knowles explains:

...St. Augustine, in his search for truth, had found what he believed to be a true presentation of reality in what he had read of Plato, Plotinus and Porphyry. ... In consequence, on almost all points where Scripture gave no lead, Augustine accepted from the Timaeus and Meno of Plato and the Enneads of Plotinus the explanations they gave of the intellectual problems that engaged his attention, and if a reader is in doubt as to the origin of a particular philosophical idea, he will usually find the answer in Plotinus. (32)

There was, however, a way to escape the dead end of Platonism. It was to be found in the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo. While it's true that in our ordinary experience we humans find it extremely convenient to treat existing beings as ideas or concepts, we are also quite capable of grasping that being is not an idea but an act:to think of a unicorn is perfectly possible from a conceptual standpoint, but we readily grasp that to think the general idea “unicorn” does not bring one into existence . It is that insight into reality that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo expresses. It raises the question: why something rather than nothing? Its answer is that being is most ultimately act, and the source of limited (finite) acts must be an unlimited (infinite) act of being that is beyond the grasp of conceptual knowledge--since conceptual knowledge can only be of finite things. Act must precede all that is, including Ideas; reality, existence, is not a deduction from an Idea.

As a Christian, Augustine knew that God's proper name is "being" and he also fully accepted that God creates and maintains in existence all that is. And yet, when he came to address "philosophical" issues he was unable to free himself from the influence of Platonism. Further, even his approach to specifically Christian doctrinal matters is heavily influenced by Platonic thought. Every Christian should know that reality is caused--created--not somehow derived or "emanated" from an idea, but as a Platonist Augustine saw "being" in much the same way as Parmenides, in terms of logic, as that which is "eternal and unchanging." And if God is being, all else must (logically) be non-being. In other words, he defined "being" (in typical Platonic fashion) in opposition to the ever changing "non-being" of our experience, treating both as basically conceptual entities. This is not to say that Augustine regarded "the world" as somehow non-existent, but it means that when he sought the means to express himself on these issues he fell into familiar Platonic modes of thought and expression that, if followed out logically, lead directly to those conclusions. In all this we can see the essential likeness of Augustine's conception to the heavenly and eternal archetypes of archaic ontology. Being, like the archetypes, is eternal and unchanging, as are all abstract concepts. This is the essential distinction between the One Being (God) and the Many existents--He is eternal and unchanging and they are always changing. But this conceptual approach leads straight back to the conundrums of the One and the Many: how do we derive changeable reality from the eternal and unchanging? And if the archetypes/Ideas are what is “really real” (to use Parmenides phrase) then reality as we perceive it must somehow be unreal or “non-being”: a troubling paradox, to say the least. The fact that Augustine declined to formulate a complete philosophy that could account for these problems didn't mean that these problems went away; they were simply left for those who came later to deal with.

That Augustine inhabits virtually the same intellectual and spiritual universe as Plato becomes particularly apparent when we consider Augustine's teaching on knowledge. The great problem for Augustine, as for Plato, is simply this: how can a constantly changing creature like man come up with necessarily true and, thus, eternal and unchanging knowledge--the knowledge of Ideas and their necessary relationships? Plato's answer was his Myth of Anamnesis (recollection): man in this life "recollects" the Forms or Ideas which he came to know in a prior life! As a Christian, Augustine could not accept this explanation, even as a metaphor. But he found in Plotinus the elements that he used to construct a doctrine that was--for the purposes of his thought--the structural equivalent of the Myth of Anamnesis. Augustine accepts Plato's premise: from contingent beings no necessary knowledge can be obtained. Rather than turning to the Platonic myth of a prior existence of the soul, Augustine posited divine involvement in human knowledge: man's mind is "irradiated" with the Forms or Ideas and illuminated by God so that man, while experiencing an ever changing reality--can come to know truth that is necessary and eternal. Once again we see the clear relationship between Augustine's thought (as well as Plato's) and archaic ontology. In the terms of archaic ontology, Augustine is addressing the question of how man can access the true reality of the unchanging heavenly archetypes. This was not seen as a problem in the metaphorical world of archaic ontology, but it becomes a serious problem for all who, following the Greeks, seek the basis for a scientific explanation of human knowledge by drawing upon archaic ontology. If true reality--the archetypes or Plato's forms/ideas--is not accessible to human knowledge, then the result can only be an utter skepticism. Since Augustine fully accepts all of Plato's presuppositions, he must offer some solution. While divine illumination may sound pious to an unsophisticated Christian ear, in reality Augustine's "solution" is no more supported by facts than is Plato's; it is simply a device to preserve man from the skepticism that logically follows from Platonic presuppositions. Thus, divine illumination is, for Augustine's thought, structurally equivalent to the Myth of Anamnesis for Plato.

It should come as no surprise that Augustine's doctrine of "divine illumination" is also the basis for his "proof" of God's existence. If man, who inhabits an ever changing world, has access to eternally true and immutable ideas they can only come from an eternal and unchanging Truth that is above man, and that is God--eternally unchanging self-identity, the highest and most general Idea. We can see at once that Augustine inhabits an intellectual universe that is quite foreign to that of the Israelite scriptures and certainly that of orthodox Christian thought, which focused on God as creative Being, the cause of what exists. True Platonist that he was, Augustine's focus was really on the soul:

In all considerations of Augustine's psychology and epistemology, we must bear in mind that for him, as for Plato, the soul is a complete spiritual entity 'using' a body. (36)

Again, this attitude is foreign to the worldview of the early Christian writers, for whom the human person is an intimate and complete union of body and soul, each incomplete without the other--the resurrection of Jesus demands this. Just how far Augustine's views went can be seen from the fact that he even held that the soul has a direct knowledge of itself, rather than an indirect, reflexive knowledge arising from the human person's experience of reality. It is quite impossible to imagine Jesus or any of his followers saying anything remotely like what Augustine regularly says to describe the human person, for Augustine's expression of his idea of the human person bears little resemblance to actual Christianity. Rather, it is fully in keeping with a Platonic view of the human person. Consider the two examples that Knowles offers:

I desire to have knowledge of God and the soul. Of nothing else? No, of nothing else whatsoever. (Soliloquies I, 2, n.7)
O God, always one and the same, if I know myself, I shall know Thee. (Soliloquies II. i, n.1)

Without attempting to go too deeply into the intellectual background of these brief quotes, we can say that for the orthodox Christian, our knowledge of God must come from our experience of the universe that God creates. Our knowledge of our selves, too, comes from our experience of our interaction interaction in and with that universe. And yet it is this Augustinian worldview and vision of the human person that has largely formed the intellectual history of the West.

The essential insight of archaic ontology--that the world of our experience is dependent on a reality that transcends our physical world--is valid as far as it goes and as long as it remains within the sphere of metaphor, of analogy. However, it is an insufficient basis for a theoretically sound insight into the structure of being and of the human person. Further, the use of logic and dialectic to develop an ideologization of archaic ontology necessarily entailed a view of reality that neglected both the essential character of being as act as well as the fact that being, as existing, is analogical. This insight was partially discovered by Israelite thinkers and further developed by Christians.  However, given man's rational nature he can be said to have a Platonic bias, a preference for reducing reality to general concepts that can be dealt with or manipulated by means of logic. As a result, acceptance of Platonic presuppositions is almost a guarantee that the only escape from the skepticism that is native to Platonism--short of surrender--will be by means either of brute force (fideism, the denial to reason of its rightful role) or essentially deus ex machina solutions, whether religious or secular in origin, that are structurally equivalent to Plato's Myth of Anamnesis. History shows that these attempted solutions are rightly perceived to be inadequate.

In future posts we will attempt to further explore the development of Augustinian thought in the West. It will be our contention that most of the problems that Western thinkers have experienced with man's knowledge of reality can be traced to the influence on Augustine of Plato's ideologization of the archaic ontology. We will also contend that dissatisfaction with the various "solutions" on offer was a contributing factor to the rise of modern ideologies of an anti-human tendency.


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