[X-posted from the Commentarium]
Between the ages of twenty and thirty, Augustine was torn between by four influences at odds with each other: there was the decadence and hedonism of the dying Roman empire, a curious middle-class sect of Manicheans who attempted to rationalise hedonism, the Academics and Neoplatonic philosophers who embraced skepticism, and finally the Christians.
Initially it seemed the Academics and Catholics were loosely aligned, sharing a generally common worldview, a symbiosis of ideas that would seem strange to many today outside the Church.
Though imperfectly, Neoplatonism shaped Christian theology by resolving some fundamental paradoxes, contradictions, questions, inconsistencies, etc. For example, how could one reasonably argue that the Blessed Sacrament is something it manifestly isn’t, how could one reconcile evil and suffering with a loving God, and why should one assume the existence of any deity to begin with? You’ve probably come across the ‘cosmological argument’ and the ‘argument from contingency’ already. It’s important to understand that these resolutions were ‘best guesses’, assertions made largely by necessity to explain how theology could be consistent with reality – they’re indeed based on meticulous reasoning, but since I’m not intellectually equipped to thoroughly critique philosophical arguments, I don’t take anything as true with absolute certainty. I will say, though, having skimmed through Thomas Aquinas’ writings, that some arguments seemed constrained to some extent by what the Church deemed acceptable and unacceptable conclusions.
But anyway, it wasn’t because of reason, philosophy or skepticism that Augustine became a Christian – these things only directed him from one system of belief to another as he searched for an understanding of the human condition.
So far I’ve managed to get halfway through St. Augustine’s Confessions, and have picked out some interesting ideas already.
The Problem of Evil
Though Augustine didn’t explain precisely why he began his initiation into the mysteries of the Catholic faith, his awakening and search for truth, when he was numbered among the Manicheans, came with his discovery of Cicero’s Hortensius (asserting the superiority of reason over rhetoric) and The Academics, skeptic philosophers who held that one should doubt everything:
'And as I had already read and stored up in memory many of the injunctions of the philosophers, I began to compare some of their doctrines with the tedious fables of the Manicheans; and it struck me that the probability was on the side of the philosophers[...]'
But Augustine, for roughly a decade, was pre-occupied with the question of why evil exists, for which the Manicheans already had an answer, sort of. The Manicheans believed that dualism provided the answer to the perennial question of why evil exists, and ‘that it is not we who sin, but some other nature sinned in us‘. This poses two problems: First, it implies that God must be limited in power, cannot be good, or is non-existent – objectively this isn’t necessarily false. Second, the idea that some other agency (e.g. the Devil) is responsible for one’s actions is a denial of our capacity for reason, intellect and free will. Neither explanations were palatable to The Academics.
The Catholic understanding of evil, which might have been developed by Augustine himself, is in terms of privative and positive, of evil being the absence of good. To understand why, we must first understand God and the sum of all creation being necessarily good, and therefore everything in existence must be good even if corrupted. Evil must, therefore, be a reduction or detraction from the nature of something, and could not have an existence of itself.
One could be forgiven for thinking this concept is too abstract to have any relevance to the world, but it’s not, as social teaching is predicated on it. If humans are made in God’s image, it follows that human life and human dignity are also sacred, and therefore so is the freedom of the individual. Evil would be manifested as the loss of life, the deprivation of freedom, the denial of human dignity, the absence of welfare and compassion.
But what about ‘original sin’? My own opinion (and this is a personal opinion!) is the Genesis stories began as an oral tradition when primitive humans became aware of a fundamental distinction between themselves and other species – the distinction being we have a rational soul, an intellect. Once humans became aware of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, we had the option of being guided by intellect instead of our predisposition for self-interest and gratification. I think we can establish the latter choice leads ultimately to unhappiness.
Certainly Plato and Epicurus understood there was a relationship between morality and living a good life, between hedonism and dissatisfaction. Having a morality consistent with first principles should lead one to living the best possible life.
Augustine’s Critique of Platonism
On what did Augustine base his premise that God, and by implication all existence, are good? Today the Catholic idea of God, formed largely (but not exclusively) by multiple philosophical ‘proofs’ by Thomas Aquinas, is that He is synonymous with existence, the source of reality, and there are multiple other attributes we could ascribe to Him – such as being simple, indivisible, not being contingent on anything, existing outside time and space, and unchanging.
To put it in modern language, God could be imagined as the primal substrate of reality from which quantum fields, quantum strings, or whatever happens to be fundamental, emerge – we could say that’s indivisible, keeps everything in existence and is omipresent. It’s not something that could be measured, quantified or even visualised, or proven or disproven, since our means of direct observation are limited. This, and the fact God is supernatural, means the question of its existence is outside the scope of the scientific method of reasoning. We can only conjecture about its nature in the abstract.
What did Augustine think at the time? He was initially of the materialist view that anything that can’t be observed, measured or expressed in terms of physics doesn’t exist, which first seems reasonable:
'I then held that whatever had neither length nor breadth nor density nor solidity, and did not or could not receive such dimensions, was absolutely nothing.'
The obvious counter-argument is there are examples of real things that aren’t measurable or solid: the soul, mind, consciousness and intellect exist, and the emergence of life itself is still a mystery. And for measure, I argue that our attempts to develop artificial intelligence could never result in anything other than something fundamentally and observably deterministic (PRNGs aside), no matter how complex the programming, since there is a transcendent difference between life and the imitation of it.
Anyway, Augustine soon realised the only other thing that couldn’t have dimensions or solidity was something infinite and omnipresent:
'So also I thought about [God] as stretched out through infinite space, interpenetrating the whole mass of the world, reaching out beyond in all directions, to immensity without end; so that the earth should have thee, the heaven have thee, all things have thee, and all of them be limited in thee, while thou art placed nowhere at all.'
So, Augustine envisioned God as something infinite in size, penetrating everything within the Universe and outside of it, and not being limited to any location or dimension. Elsewhere in the Confessions he uses the analogy of a sponge in the middle of a vast sea, with the sea being God and the sponge the natural world and everything within it.
The problem with this, Augustine conjectured, was that God would be more present in larger objects if that were the case, and an elephant would have more good than man. This is probably how Augustine made his conclusion for how there’s evil, since the logical answer would be that all existence is equally good, but humans have a greater potential to become corrupted.
And then Augustine went on to say of Plato’s works (carefully shortened for brevity):
'I found, not indeed in the same words, but to the selfsame effect, enforced by many and various reasons that “in the beginning was the Word [...]. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.” That which was made by him is “life, and the life was the light of men. [...]. Furthermore, I read that the soul of man, though it “bears witness to the light,” yet itself “is not the light; [...] is that true light that lights every man who comes into the world.” And further, that “he was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not."'
Augustine found much agreement between Plato’s ideas and what existed of Christian theology. In fact, he seems to have gone through Plato’s writings point-by-point, contrasting them. I think he did so – and I could be wrong on this – because Platonic philosophy might be considered a very tempting substitute for Catholicism, and he wanted to argue there were major deficiencies in the former.
Augustine’s distrust of the Manicheans was further reinforced by his meeting with Faustus, a bishop within the sect. Though Faustus spoke with impressive eloquence and was the impersonation of a highly-educated man, Augustine discovered him to be ignorant of everything but a small collection of poetry and fables.
It was the philosophers, those he called ‘The Academics’, most likely the skeptics of Plato’s Academy, who exposed Augustine to the weaknesses and lack of consistent reasoning within the sect’s doctrines, but this wasn’t quite enough for Augustine to leave the sect, as the story of Christ was little more than an irrelevant fable to him at that point.
It was shortly after arriving in Milan, and meeting with Bishop Ambrose to assess his skill in rhetoric, that Augustine abandoned the Manichean sect and began his initiation into the Church. Basically Ambrose was preaching the scriptures in an allegorical/metaphorical sense, which for some reason came as a surprise to our young protagonist:
'I had heard one or two parts of the Old Testament explained allegorically--whereas before this, when I had interpreted them literally, they had “killed” me spiritually. However, when many of these passages in those books were expounded to me thus, I came to blame my own despair for having believed that no reply could be given to those who hated and scoffed at the Law and the Prophets'
Here we have two interesting points. Firstly, that an educated man such as Augustine thought the scriptures should be read literally – this has puzzled me, given the Bible is overtly a compilation of accounts, fables, letters, (bad) poetry etc. and yes, it does contain mythology. Any given section could be interpreted literally, literarily and allegorically. Secondly, there was derision against preachers even in those days, perhaps from the same Academics who were in opposition to the Manicheans.
Ambrose’s speech was described as:
'I was delighted with the charm of his speech, which was more erudite, though less cheerful and soothing, than Faustus' style. As for subject matter, however, there could be no comparison, for the latter was wandering around in Manichean deceptions, while the former was teaching salvation most soundly.'
We have what appears to be a response to the skeptical philosophers:
'[...] if I took into account the multitude of things I had never seen, nor been present when they were enacted such as many of the events of secular history; and the numerous reports of places and cities which I had not seen; or such as my relations with many friends, or physicians, or with these men and those--that unless we should believe, we should do nothing at all in this life. Finally, I was impressed with what an unalterable assurance I believed which two people were my parents, though this was impossible for me to know otherwise than by hearsay.'
To me this seems like a pretty weak argument for going from extreme skepticism to believing anything, though I can’t imagine the Academics actually being that unsophisticated. I think the point Augustine was trying to make is that nobody, not even an empiricist, could function in the world without relying on faith, and there could be no progress in the sciences, or our understanding of the world, without basing each hypothesis on a edifice of a priori assumptions.
Come to think of it, you’ll hear it commonly said that faith is a belief with the absence of evidence, but it seems synonymous with inference based on reason. That is, you could take the most batshit crazy fundamentalist and still find logic and reason behind that person’s beliefs. It’s therefore a question of how one evaluates evidence.
I’ll leave it there for now, as this is a fairly long post and I’m only halfway through the Confessions.