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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


AUGUSTINE

(354 — 430)

 

CHRISTIAN NEOPLATONISM

Aurelius Augustinus, now known as Augustine, was born in Tagaste, near Tunis in North Africa. He studied Latin literature in Madaura and then rhetoric in Carthage. Although brought up as a Christian by his mother, he was for many years a disciple of Manichaeism, a religion which supposed there to be two ultimate principles, good and evil. He opened his own school, firstly in Carthage, where he was living with his mistress and son, and later in Rome. He had already begun to find difficulties with the Manichaean system; and after he had become a professor in Milan the influence of Neoplatonic writings and the sermons of Ambrose led him to make a complete break and convert to Christianity in 386. He tells us in his Confessions that it was on hearing a child calling "tolle, lege" ("take up and read") that prompted him to open the Letter of Paul to the Romans in the New Testament; and that this was the turning point in his return to the faith. He returned to Africa to establish a monastic community, and in 395 he was made Bishop of Hippo, where he continued to develop doctrines to combat major 'heresies'. He was never concerned to construct a systematic philosophy. Rather he sought to make use of those aspects of the thought of his predecessors which he supposed to be true in support of his own insights about God and the soul, which he claimed to know from his own direct experience or from the scriptures and teachings of the Church.

 

KNOWLEDGE/ LANGUAGE

[1] Augustine rejected scepticism, arguing that knowledge is possible [a]. He distinguished a number of stages in its acquisition [see, for example, On the Greatness of the Soul, XXIII; On the Trinity, IX]. Firstly there is sense-experience of mutable things in the world — though this does not give us certain knowledge [b]. To explain it he introduces the notions of 'corporeal sight', which refers to the changes undergone by sense organs when affected by objects, and 'spiritual sight', which refers to the having of images. (In instances of imagination, as against sense-perception, spiritual sight occurs without corporeal sight.) The rendering intelligible of sense-experience is attributable to 'intellectual sight' — the working by the reason on the data provided by the other kinds of sight. Reason also gives him memory and enables him to make judgements about physical objects in accordance with eternal and incorporeal standards [On the Trinity, X and XII] [c]. The senses can of course deceive us. However, he thinks it necessary for our practical life that we should believe sense experience to be generally reliable [Confessions, VI, vi, 7]. And even if a particular experience is non-veridical, we can be certain that we are having it [Against the Academics, III, 11] [d]. This kind of knowledge (scientia) includes also the mind's own self-consciousness — as when it perceives through its own inner experience (though the soul cannot, in its sinful condition, know itself directly); and also the many truths we can be certain about, for example, the truths of mathematics and logic [e] (such as the principle of non-contradiction, A or not-A), and other first principles [see On Free Will, II, 3; XII, 34; On the Trinity, XV, 12]. Likewise, we know in fact that we do exist: as he says, "Si fallor, sum" ("If I an deceived, I exist") [On Free Will, II, 3]; in our very doubting lies the certainty of our existence [f]. Lastly, the mind can pass to a higher form of knowledge or wisdom (sapientia) which gives us insight into eternal truth and goodness — immutable forms, ideas, moral judgements and the like [g]. Beyond this lies the possibility of a mystical knowledge of God [h]. However, it must be emphasized that Augustine was concerned primarily with the problem of how man can attain certain knowledge of eternal truths rather than with the question whether such knowledge is in fact attainable at all. Knowledge, as he understands it, is possible only within a religious framework grounded in revealed truth and love for God [i]. Reason assists man to come to faith [i], but beyond that its function must be limited to articulating and clarifying what is accepted on authority — and this means that of the Church.

A combination of sense-experience and his God-given mind also forms the basis of Augustine's account of how language is acquired. [Confessions I, VIII.] As a child he did not learn to speak simply by following the instructions of his elders. Rather, he used his memory to note the words that things were called by or the gestures or facial appearances which accompanied their use, and the ways they were put together appropriately in sentences. With practice he came to pronounce them correctly and was able to infer that they were the names of the things signified [j].

[2] Augustine tried to account for certain cognition in terms of divine illumination [see Soliloquies, sI, 1 and 8; On the Trinity, XII, 15] [a]. Just as sunlight falling on material objects renders them perceptible to the sense organs, so are the higher objects introduced into the soul illuminated and made intelligible by the 'light' of God. These ideas, which include number, goodness, and being, are immutable and eternal; and while they are not derived from experience they are not 'innate' in the strict Platonic sense [b] and do not presuppose any pre-existence of the soul. The illuminated ideas give us certainty (as against the sceptic) in our judgements about concepts derived from both the senses [b] and the inner self-consciousness [b]. Augustine, however, did not thereby suppose that men can know the mind of God 'intellectually' His view was rather that through God's illumination of the human mind it becomes capable of perceiving or 'participating' in eternal truth and the relationship of the created world to the supersensible realm [c][c].

 

RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY/ METAPHYSICS

[3] Augustine's emphasis on religious experience and on theology rather than on strictly philosophical problems accounts for the lack of any 'formal' proofs for the existence of God in his writings. His arguments, such as they are [see On Free Will II and Soliloquies I, for example], appeal firstly to his self-consciousness and awareness of eternal and necessary truths. Thus, in recognising the inferiority of the mind in the face of eternal truths, he says such truths reflect a Ground or Being which must be God [a]all-perfect, absolutely good, unchangeable, necessary, Truth itself [a][a]. Indeed, he was the first philosopher to assimilate the Greek concept of Being to the Christian God — the "I am that I am" [Exodus, 3, 14]. He also argues to the existence of the Divine eternal world from the world of impermanent physical bodies [b]. Similarly he refers to the order, beauty, and goodness of the world [c] as pointing to God as its creator [c][c], albeit inadequately; and this, he adds, will be evident to all rational men.

[4] Augustine postulated a hierarchy of created beings composed of matter and form [a]. It is rationally demonstrable that God as active intelligence has freely created both matter and form out of nothing. [see, for example, On True Religion] [b], but being omniscient he already knew what things he would actually create, species of created things being in Him as archetypal forms or ideas (rationes), that is, as models or exemplars [for example, On Ideas, II; On the Trinity, IX, 6; XII, 14] [c][c]. Augustine also refers to these ideas as eternal numbers, in that they represent proportion, order, and beauty [On Free Will, II, 8 and 13] [d]. Created bodies are then temporal numbers. And to account for the process of development he supposes that when first created bodies were in a state of potency — he calls them seminal reasons (rationes seminales) or invisible powers of things [e] — which in the course of time unfolded into the actual objects themselves [On Genesis, VI, 5]. In terms of his number theory the seminal reasons are latent numbers, while bodies are sensible or manifest numbers.

[5] What Augustine says about seminal reasons and God's omniscience gives rise to the problem of evil and human freedom. It would seem that the development of the individual formally and materially from 'seed' to actuality is a predetermined process. But Augustine stresses that man must be free to respond to God's love and ask for His grace or to reject it [a]. Yet it might be argued that man cannot really be free if God already knows in advance what choices will be made. And if God had foreseen that man would commit evil then surely He could have arranged things differently. Augustine's solution is that moral evil is not something positive but rather a privation that is, a lack of good, a falling-away from God [b] [On Free Will, I, 16; II, 19; Enchiridion 11]. As for God's foreknowledge, it belongs to His very essence and existence to 'penetrate' His creation; and a man's decision is his own decision even if God knows how that man will choose [ On Genesis, VIII, 26; On the Trinity, XV, 7].

[6] The issue of God's foreknowledge and creation of the world out of nothing also prompted Augustine to examine the concept of time. [See Confessions, XI, 14-28.] "What happened before time?" This question made no sense to him. Time itself is not like an event in time; neither is it the measure of motion by the mind. Rather it is to be understood as that which relates events. However, he also argued that time is a function — he called it a 'distention' of the mind (distentio animi), that is, it measures the mind itself not the motion of external bodies. It was created with the universe by the non-temporal eternal God [a]. Such a view, Augustine felt, could help him to understand how both the past and the future could be said to have reality rather than being reduced to a point instant.

 

PSYCHOLOGY

[7] [See On the Soul and its Origin, I; On the Immortality of the Soul, I n VI.] Augustine's view of the soul essentially follows the Platonic dualist view: it must be clearly distinguished from the corruptible matter in which it is embodied and from which it must be cleansed; but it needs the body to exercise its capacity for sensation. He also says it is immortal, and he follows Plato's arguments in the Phaedo [a]. Thus, he says, it is alive — it 'participates' in life; the principles from which life derives cannot admit a contrary; and therefore the soul must be immortal. Furthermore, in so far as the soul can apprehend the eternal ideas, it must be akin to them and hence eternal, indestructible, and divine. He also argues that the soul desires perfect happiness, which is realizable only if it never dies. Rationality is a property of human souls created individually by God (animal souls possessing only the capacity for sensation), but Augustine stresses intellect is subordinate to the free will [b] in so far as the latter is innately directed towards goodness by God .

 

ETHICS

[8] [See On the Trinity, XIII; Confessions, passim; The City of God] According to Augustine perfect happiness, the summum bonum, can be found only in the active love of God, who unifies the all the cardinal moral virtues [a]. Thus, as we might expect, he attempts to interpret the Greek notion of eudaimonia in the context of Christian theology. Virtue, the "act of living well and rightly" [CG, XIV, 9], is, for him, achieved when the free will is directed towards the love of God. Indeed this love of God [CG XII, 8]. But because of man's finitude and original sin his willing or reaching out for God, on whom he must be ultimately dependent, requires the creator's merciful assistance — the Christian concept of grace. He argues also that the human mind is able to perceive moral or practical principles with certainty, just as it can perceive theoretical truths, through God's illuminating power [b]. Augustine's ethics thus presupposes knowledge and wisdom, which is in turn possible only within a religious framework grounded in revealed truth. And it is in this context that the criterion for judging sinful man's moral worth is to be found; for what matters is not a sterile conformity to an external human law but man's willingness to attend to the interior divine law revealed in conscience and to receive God's grace Augustine thus emphasizes inner life — attitude, motivation or intention [c]. And that is why it is unwise to judge people; for there are actions which could be done with a good or bad spirit [Sermon on the Mount, 2.18]. Such actions are 'neutral' [as Aquinas calls them] [d].

 

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[9] [The City of God] Augustine's political philosophy is characterized by a distinction between the 'earthly' city and the 'heavenly' city [a] — between the City of Babylon and Jerusalem, the City of God. These are not, however, identifiable with different kinds of human society. Rather they are 'states' or 'conditions' in which citizens find themselves according to whether they follow God, who is acting through the Church, or live a life of selfishness. Man is naturally social but not political. Augustine takes a society of family units as his model; and it is in this context that man can fulfil himself as a rational and moral being. Nevertheless, political authority is needed to maintain order and secure justice, given man's fallen 'condition' [b]. Thus even a pagan state can promote a degree of justice, though Augustine makes it clear that a state can be truly just (and thus superior) only if it is founded on the moral principles exemplified by the City of God [c].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Augustine was not a systematic thinker; and, as has been seen, his philosophical speculations are subordinated to the demands of his religious commitment: faith is given primacy over reason. But within this limitation the contribution he made to medieval thought through his use of Neoplatonic concepts to articulate Christian theology was considerable. The doctrine of an inner illumination; the soul as an immaterial substance, directly created by God, and the active ruling principle of the body; the theory of the 'seminal reasons' — all were to have a powerful impact on later 'Augustinian' philosophers and to present a continuing challenge to Aristotelians and Thomists until well into the thirteenth century. They are also notions which from a strictly philosophical standpoint are open to criticism — in particular his view that the inner light is the source and test of truth. His political philosophy, the central feature of which is the distinction between the 'city of men' and the 'city of God', was likewise influential throughout the Middle Ages and in the Reformation, although it was in some respects, like his theology, pessimistic and reactionary. For other issues which need to be looked at critically one might mention the problems of free-will and evil, which are not easily reconciled with the belief in an omnipotent and omniscient God (though it is doubtful whether a satisfactory solution was provided by any other later Christian philosopher). There is also a tension between Augustine's acceptance of the Incarnation as a unique temporal event and his — admittedly speculative — notion of time as a function of the mind.

 

READING

Augustine: numerous essays and sermons; see especially De libero arbitrio (On Free Will) (389-95), Confessiones (Confessions) (c. 400), and De civitate Dei (The City of God) (413-27). English translations are available in separate editions, for example, Loeb and Penguin. See also W. Oates (ed.), Basic Writings of St Augustine; or J. Bourke (ed.), The Essential Augustine, both of which contain many of his other writings; or R. McKeon, op. cit, vol. I, ch. 1.

Studies:

Introductory

H. Chadwick, Augustine.

Advanced

C. Kirwan, Augustine.

G. O'Daly, Augustine's Philosophy of Mind.

Collections of Articles

J. M. Rist (ed.), Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized.

E. Stump and N. Kretzman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Augustine.

 

CONNECTIONS

Augustine

 

Note: Recent scholarship suggests Augustine probably was not himself acquainted directly with the writings of Plotinus but learnt of Plotinus's ideas through the Neoplatonist Marius Victorinus and /or St Ambrose. Nevertheless, references below are given to Plotinus as there is little doubt about the influence. Note also the general influence of Augustine's thought on Schleiermacher.

 

[1a] Scepticism

   Carneades

   Descartes

[1a 2b]

[1b]

 

[1b c] Knowledge — nature and acquisition; sense- experience and reason

   Plato

   Epicurus

   Plotinus

Grosseteste

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Nicholas of Cusa

   Descartes

[6a b 7b e]

[1a]

[3a]

[2a]

[6a]

[6b c]

[2a]

[1a]

[1b]

 

[1d 2b] Certainty and veridical sense experience

   Carneades

Aquinas

   Descartes

[2b]

[6b]

[2a]

 

[1e f 2b] Self-consciousness; certainty of existence of self; but sinful soul has no direct intuition of itself; certainty of truths of maths and logic

   Avicenna

Wm of Auvergne

Duns Scotus

   Descartes

Malebranche

[5c]

[3a]

[5e]

[2a]

[3b h]

 

[1g i 3a c] Higher knowledge — of truth, forms, moral judgements in Divine mind

   Plato

   Plotinus

Anselm

Abelard

Grosseteste

Albert

Nicholas of Cusa

Malebranche

[1c 7e 8b]

[1f]

[1c f]

[1b]

[2a]

[3a]

[1a]

[3b]

 

[1h 2c] Mystical knowledge of transcendent God?

   Plato

   Plotinus

Grosseteste

Albert

Bacon (Roger)

Bonaventura

Scheler

[4b 7e 8b]

[3b]

[2b]

[3c]

[2a]

[6d]

[1f]

 

[1i] Knowledge within framework of revelation, faith, love for God

   Plato

Boethius

   Ps-Dionysius

Anselm

Abelard

Wm of Auvergne

Albert

Bacon (Roger)

Bonaventura

Aquinas

   Descartes

Malebranche

Scheler

[7e 8b]

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1f]

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[3g]

[1e]

 

[1j] Ostensive theory of language acquisition Wittgenstein [2a]

 

[2a 8b] Illumination and knowledge

   Plato

   Plotinus

Abelard

Grosseteste

Wm of Auvergne

Alexander of Hales

Albert

Bacon (Roger)

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

Malebranche

[8b]

[1dl]

[3c]

[1a c 2a]

[3b c]

[3b]

[3b]

[2a]

[6c]

[6d]

[2b]

[5b]

[3e]

 

[2b] A priori knowledge and qualified 'innateness'

Plato

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Malebranche

[sec. 8]

[6f]

[2c]

[3d e]

 

[2c] Knowledge of eternal truth through God; participation

Grosseteste

Wm of Auvergne

Alexander of Hales

Albert

Bacon (Roger)

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Malebranche

Leibniz

Schleiermacher

   Scheler

[2a b]

[1e 3c]

[3a b]

[3b]

[1e]

[3b 6d]

[3b]

[3e]

[5g]

[1b]

[1f 3b]

 

[3a-c] Proofs for God's existence

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Chrysippus

   Carneades

   Boethius

Anselm

Abelard

Alexander of Hales

Bonaventura

   Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Leibniz

[4a 5g 8a]

[12f]

[3h]

[1b]

[1e]

[1b c]

[1c]

[1h 1h]

[1b]

[3g]

[1j]

[5c]

 

[3a c 4c] (Christian) God the ground of Being; goodness, beauty, and truth

   Plato

   Plotinus

Anselm

Schleiermacher

Scheler

[5b 15b]

[1a]

[1c f]

[1b]

[1f]

 

[4a] Hierarchy in Being; universal hylomorphism

   Plotinus

Albert

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Nicholas of Cusa

[1c-g]

[1g 1k]

[3c 4a]

[2a 3b]

[1h]

[2f]

 

[4b] Free creation of matter and form out of nothing by Divine Intelligence

   Plato

   Plotinus

Boethius

Abelard

Grosseteste

William of Auvergne

Alexander of Hales

Albert

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

[5a 5b d]

[1c l]

[1g]

[1d]

[1c]

[1e]

[1e g]

[1e 1f]

[2c]

[3f]

[1c f]

 

[4c] Forms as exemplars in the Divine Mind

   Plato

   Plotinus

John Scotus

Anselm

Abelard

Grosseteste

Wm of Auvergne

Alexander of Hales

Albert

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

   Ockham

Malebranche

[2c 5b d]

[1f]

[1f]

[1f]

[1d]

[1c]

[1d]

[1e]

[1h]

[2a]

[3b]

[1d]

[4d]

[3e]

 

[4d] Numbers

   Plato

   Plotinus

   Leibniz

[1d]

[1g]

[2c]

 

[4e] Seminal reasons

   Plotinus

Albert

Bacon (Roger)

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Duns Scotus

[1i]

[1f]

[1d]

[4f]

[2c]

[2h]

 

[5a] Freedom and Divine providence

   Carneades

   Plotinus

Boethius

Wm of Auvergne

Alexander of Hales

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Malebranche

[1c]

[2b]

[1h]

[1f]

[1c]

[7d]

[4a]

[2a]

 

[5b] Evil as privation

   Chrysippus

   Carneades

   Plotinus

Boethius

   Ps-Dionysius

John Scotus

Abelard

Alexander of Hales

Bonaventura

Aquinas

   Descartes

Leibniz

.[4b]

[1c]

[1l]

[1f]

[1g]

[1j]

[3a]

[1d]

[7d]

[4a]

[3i]

[5g]

 

[6a] Time and creation

   Plato

   Plotinus

Grosseteste

Wm of Auvergne

Albert

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Nicholas of Cusa

Heidegger

[5e]

[1k]

[1c]

[1g]

[1e]

[2c]

[3f]

[2j 2k]

[3d]

 

[7a; cf. 2b] Soul and body: sensation, 'purification', and immortality

   Plato

   Plotinus

Wm of Auvergne

Alexander of Hales

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Malebranche

[9b sec. 10]

[2c]

[2b-d]

[2a]

[5e]

[5a d e 5e]

[2a]

 

[7b] Soul: created by God; intellect subordinate to will

   Plato

   Plotinus

Alexander of Hales

Bonaventura

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

   Descartes

Malebranche

[5f 9a c e]

[1j]

[2a]

[5a 6c]

[5c]

[1e 2d]

[3i]

[2a]

 

[8a] Happiness in love of God, whom man is ultimately dependent on; God 'unifies' the cardinal virtues

   Plato

   Chrysippus

[representative Stoic]

   Plotinus

Boethius

Bonaventura

Malebranche

Leibniz

Schleiermacher

Scheler

[11b f g]

[6c e]

 

[3b]

[2a]

[1b 7a]

[2a 3e f]

[5g]

[2b]

[5b d]

 

[8b see 2a]      

 

[8c] Emphasis on internal attitude, motivation

   Chrysippus

Abelard

Bonaventura

Aquinas

[6d]

[3b]

[7c]

[8b]

 

[8d] Rash judgement and 'neutral' actions

Aquinas

   Duns Scotus

[8c]

[6c]

 

[9a] Political philosophy — the 'earthly' and 'heavenly' city

   Plato

   Cicero

   Machiavelli

[sec. 14]

[2f]

[1a b]

 

[9b] Man — social but non-political being; the family; authority needed for 'fallen' man

   Plato

Aquinas

   Machiavelli

[sec. 14]

[10a]

[1b]

 

[9c] Justice and God's moral principles

   Plato

Aquinas

   Machiavelli

[11c 14b]

[10b]

[1a]