Augustine Project Week Sixteen

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 9.1–15.

9.1–3. Augustine continues his critique of Platonism and its conception of demons in this book. At the time, people had a hierarchical view of the universe, with earth at the center. Demons, being in the air, were naturally viewed as “higher.” Augustine is being subversive with his suggestion that one’s worth is dependent on virtue rather than position in the vertical hierarchy.

9.4–5. Augustine has been discussing the role of demonic passions and emotions, and here he makes a short digression on emotions more generally. Are wise men subject to emotions? He looks at the Stoic and Peripatetic ideas and concludes that their differences are semantic. Augustine decides that both schools teach that a wise man can experience emotion, but he will not let his reason be subject to it.

This idea opens up the door to a more Christian philosophy. Emotions are not the problem for the Christian. The problem comes if one does not respond to emotions properly. Augustine points out that both anger and compassion can be righteously manifested. Christians must imitate God and his angels.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that Augustine hasn’t been playing fair with his terminology. When the Platonists say that demons are subject to passions, Augustine takes that idea and runs with it, conceiving of the demons as being slaves to their emotions. Here he defends God and his angels who also experience emotions. His argument about demons really isn’t about their emotions, it’s really about the theatrical plays and he’s making his terminology fit what he’s experienced in the theater.

9.6–8. Apuleius offers a morally neutral definition of these demons who serve as mediators. Augustine claims that when the Platonists combine this definition with the stories of the poets, we see that the demons aren’t really morally neutral. They are demonic, in the Christian sense of the word.

The demons have a defective mind, affected by passions, but so do humans. Their one advantage is a bodily eternality, which Augustine actually thinks is a weakness when coupled with a defective mind.

9.9–12. Augustine looks at the differences between humans, demons, and gods in the Platonist system. The demons are more wretched than humans, he says, because they are chained to their bodies for eternity.

The Platonists taught that the body weighed down the human soul, and death could be seen as a good thing because it freed the soul from its captivity. The demons, however, have eternal bodies of air. The Platonists probably considered it unnecessary for them to be freed from these bodies, since they were of higher quality. Augustine’s point is that even if their bodies are of higher quality, their souls are still defective. These high-quality bodies aren’t doing them any good. Actually, they are doing them bad. Beautiful chains that are eternal are actually worse than ugly chains that are temporary.

Augustine wants us to think of the demons as being eternally chained. This will dovetail nicely when he starts promoting the Christian view of demonic activity later in the book. Christ has won the victory and the Devil and his demons are bound.

9.13–15. Augustine’s style of argument should be familiar by now. He covers the same topic multiple times. In this passage he again writes about the problems with thinking that demons can serve as mediators. This habit of circling back around to the same topic has pedagogical value. Teachers will tell you that you have to say something at least three times. Each time Augustine circles back around to a topic, he adds a news perspective or detail.

Here he doesn’t just tear down; he begins to build up. He critiques the idea that demons could be satisfactory mediators, and then he asks who could serve as a better mediator. He posits that a man with a mortal body and a happy soul should be better equipped to mediate than a demon with an immortal body and a wretched soul.

In 9.14 it sounds like he has described the philosopher, but in the next chapter he argues that Christ, the God-Man, is the only good mediator. Christ shared in our mortality, but he possesses an eternally blessed spirit.

Augustine turns Platonic mediation on its head. Platonism advocated an ascent to God, an ascent which included demonic mediation. Augustine says that one cannot ascend to God. God has condescended to humans in the person of Christ.

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