Augustine Project: Week Fourteen

This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.

City of God 7.33–8.13.

7.33–35. We’ve reached the end of book seven, and Augustine has waited until the end to bring out new evidence supporting his theory that polytheistic religion is actually the worship of malignant spirits.

Numa Pompilius was the legendary second king of Rome, supposedly reigning from 715 to 673 BC. The Romans had a list of contributions that each of the seven kings made to the city of Rome. Numa was supposedly a Sabine whose major contribution was the establishment of Rome’s religious institutions.

In 181 BC, some of Numa’s books on religion and philosophy were found, but the Roman Senate had them burned. Augustine relates Varro’s version of the story but provides his own interpretation. These books wouldn’t have been burned if they hadn’t revealed the truth about polytheism’s demonic origin.

It’s worth reading Livy’s account of the same event in History of Rome 40.29. Livy claims that the books looked new and sounded Pythagorean. Pythagoreanism would show them to be obvious forgeries since Pythagoras lived long after Numa. It seems that a rumor circulated at the time that Numa was a disciple of Pythagoras, even though this would be a chronological impossibility. Even so, Livy says that the books were burned because they undermined civil religion, not because they were inauthentic.

8.1–3. In book eight Augustine discusses the theology of the philosophers. According to Augustine, many philosophers were closer to the truth than Varro because they believe in a transcendent creator. He primarily concerns himself with the Platonists, but he begins the book by giving a historical survey, placing that school of thought in context.

8.2. Augustine mentions Ionian and Italian schools of philosophy. Italian philosophers, for example the Pythagoreans, were Greeks. Greeks settled much of Sicily and southern Italy, and the Romans absorbed them and Latinized them later. The Romans started to integrate these regions in the third century BC. Most of Augustine’s history lesson, however, follows Ionian philosophy since this is the tradition that would eventually give birth to Platonism.

Historians tend to lump the earliest philosophers into a category called “Pre-Socratics” because these philosophers have some common features. Most of them try to explain the universe without reference to supernatural phenomenon. One of the points of discussion was the nature of god. Is god ultimately an impersonal mindless force, as Thales posits, or is god a directing intelligence, as some later philosophers suggested?

We tend to think of philosophy as associated with Athens, but during the sixth century, the most notable philosophical thinkers lived on the coast of Asia Minor. The writings of most of these philosophers have been lost.

8.3. Augustine gives a helpful brief account of Socrates’ career. He mentions the controversy surrounding his death as well as Socrates’ habit of asking questions—the Socratic method. He suggests that Socrates is different than those who came before him because his philosophy is concerned with morality and ethics instead of what we would call natural science. Socrates can be seen as part of the movement of Sophism. Sophists received a bad reputation in Athens for accepting money to teach rhetoric, but fundamentally Sophists were concerned with distinguishing between nature and custom. The Sophists often asked whether the laws and customs of society were good laws.

Of course we can only make good guesses about what Socrates really thought since he didn’t write anything down. Most of what we know about him is filtered through the rather biased writings of his student Plato. When thinking about Socrates, it’s hard to know where Socrates ends and Plato begins.

8.4–5. Augustine will engage with the Platonists at length in this book, and he begins by providing a helpful outline of the life of Plato (d. 347 BC).

Plato suggested that the universe was the product of a transcendent god, and Augustine finds Plato’s teachings to be more similar to Christianity than the other philosophers. The problem with most other philosophers was their emphasis on materialism. Plato attempts to bridge the divide between natural science and ethics in his work. Pursuing truth will lead the philosopher into knowledge of both, and both are rooted in a transcendent god.

Though many competing philosophies existed, by the late-antique period Platonism enjoyed the status of being the most academic of the philosophies. Platonism had gone through much development in the 800 years between Plato and Augustine. Historians usually call the late-antique Platonists “Neo-Platonists” and claim that Plotinus reinvented the philosophy in the 200s AD. Plotinus added a dose of mysticism and suggested a system by which the One god emanated the universe.

8.6. Augustine gives a quick overview of some of Platonism’s teachings. In talking about natural philosophy, he references Plato’s Form Theory. Perhaps Plato’s biggest idea was the existence of the forms. The forms are the ideals or the perfect examples of any particular. What makes a chair a chair? The form of the ideal chair—“chair-ness.” Everything in the universe derives its existence from some form or other. The important point for Plato was that these forms reside outside the material world. One must keep in mind that it’s not only material things that reflect a form. This is why Augustine brings up the notion of relative beauty and intelligence. We can’t understand better and worse if there isn’t an exterior perfection in the realm of the forms.

8.7. The Platonists are the best philosophers, according to Augustine, because they realize the limited usefulness of the senses. Form Theory justifies a priori knowledge. Augustine says that empiricism—using your senses to gain understanding—can be helpful, but he notes that it can’t be fundamental. Knowledge begins in intelligence, not the senses.

8.8. Just as he did with natural and rational philosophy, Augustine finds the Platonists superior in moral philosophy. The question of moral philosophy was, “What is the good life?” As Augustine notes, this question is an integral component of Platonism; however, for many later philosophical schools this became more or less the only question. The nature of the good life had been a hotly debated topic for centuries.

Augustine suggests that the enjoyment of God constitutes the good life and that Christians and Platonists agree on this point. Of course, Christians and Platonists had widely differing opinions on the character of God and how one enjoys him. These differences make the comparison seem to be one of convenience. Essentially Augustine is saying, “At least the Platonists are better than the Epicureans.”

8.10. This chapter almost sounds like it could have been written to a 21st-century congregation. His Christian readers had probably enjoyed the last seven books of polemic, but some of them would no doubt be nervous about a discussion that takes Greco-Roman philosophy seriously. Two hundred years earlier, Tertullian, another North African, said, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Many Christians through the centuries have answered, “Nothing.” Augustine, however, tries to reassure his reader that his engagement with the Platonists will be profitable.

8.11. Augustine notes that some Christians have tried to explain similarities between Platonism and Christianity by proposing that Judaism influenced Plato. A younger Augustine endorsed this idea in De Doctrina Christiana (which is an excellent book), but the older, wiser Augustine realizes that this connection is impossible. At the end of the chapter, he still seems to wish it were true, even if he can’t bring himself to believe it.

8.12–13. Even though the Platonists believed in the One god, they also made room for lesser gods in their philosophy. Augustine draws attention to inconsistencies between polytheism and Platonism’s other ideas.

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