Augustine Project Week Nineteen

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 10.27–11.5.

10.27–28. Augustine continues this section in which he addresses Porphyry directly.

Augustine accuses Porphyry of intellectual snobbishness. Magic and the rituals of Paganism are not true religion, but Porphyry said that they were good enough for those people who didn’t have a philosophical inclination. Since devotion to philosophy needs a certain kind of mind in possession of leisure, most people will never really have access to God. The poor and lowly will remain ignorant because they cannot afford to attain wisdom.

Augustine argues that Christianity is different. God in the glory of his wisdom uses the humble and foolish things of this world. Christ himself appeared in a lowly manner and died a most ignoble death. These things were difficult for the intellectual Platonists to accept.

A bit of editorializing: Often when writing about the early church people will talk about the gulf between the intellectual bishops and the popular piety of their congregations. Supposedly bishops wrote philosophically nuanced treatises on doctrine, while their parishioners created a syncretic version of Christianity that maintained some of their Pagan practices. This conception is wrong. Christianity has always been an intellectual religion of the humble. Bishops led their congregations; they did not abandon them to superstition like Porphyry abandoned the average man. End of editorial.

Augustine mentions Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, claiming that one could read it as referring to Christ. Virgil wrote the Eclogues during the civil wars that followed Julius Caesar’s assassination. In the Fourth Eclogue Virgil prophesies the birth of a divine son who would bring about a Golden Age for Rome. The historical identity of this son is up for debate, but I believe it refers to Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, even though Octavian was already born. By the fourth century, it had become common for Christians to read this poem as a reference to Christ.

10.29. Augustine asks Porphyry, who has been dead for more than a century, why he could not accept Christ’s incarnation. As Augustine notes, it’s too late to change Porphyry’s mind, but maybe this exercise will change the mind of some of his followers.

The incarnation is the greatest instance of grace in which God reveals himself to humans. So why do these Platonists reject this revelation? Augustine suggests a number of objections to the incarnation, but then shows how each can be overcome.

The biggest objection is probably the Platonic idea that the human soul needs to escape the body because the body weighs it down. The corruptible body weighs down the eternal soul. Augustine cites examples from the philosophers themselves in an attempt to show that not all bodies are corruptible.

Augustine thinks the fundamental reason that the philosophers reject Christ is because the philosophers are proud and Christ is humble. Of course pride isn’t just a problem of the philosophers. Augustine reminds his wider audience about exalting the wisdom of this world over the wisdom of God.

10.30–31. Augustine shows that Porphyry had modified Plato’s teachings at a number of points. Augustine wonders why Porphyry couldn’t continue to modify his Platonism so as to make room for the incarnation.

Plato believed in the eternality of the soul and a form of reincarnation. Souls always existed and cannot be destroyed; therefore, the number of souls is fixed. Since the world keeps going, souls must continually be reborn into new bodies. According to Augustine, Porphyry limited the soul’s rebirth to human bodies, no animals. I think Porphyry might be more nuanced here, but he differs from Plato who doesn’t seem to have any restrictions on the soul’s rebirth. Porphyry also posited that the soul might make a final escape from the cycle of death and rebirth. Of course Augustine thinks that Porphyry is still in error, but he thinks Porphyry is less wrong than Plato was.

One reason the Platonists go wrong is because they begin with a faulty premise. They start with the idea that the human soul is eternal. Augustine attempts to call the rationale of this premise into question.

10.32. In this final chapter of the first part of the book, Augustine attempts to make a transition. He’s spent the last ten books critiquing Greco-Roman religion and philosophy. He will now turn to offering the Christian worldview as an alternative.

Augustine begins this chapter with a line from Porphyry in which Porphyry supposes that there must exist some universal path of liberation for the soul. Porphyry says that he hasn’t quite found it yet.

Augustine proclaims that a universal path for the soul’s liberation does exist. Christ is the one way for all nations. Augustine supposes that Porphyry must have dismissed Christianity as a viable option because while Porphyry was alive the state still persecuted Christians. Porphyry witnessed the Decian persecution (250) and the Valerian persecution (253), and there’s a possibility that he lived to see the beginnings of the Great Persecution of Diocletian in 303.

History confirms that Christ is the universal way for liberation. This is an important point for Augustine. Christianity, unlike Platonism, is not the product of rational speculation. Christianity is the product of God working among men through historical events, and these historical, temporal events point to eternal, spiritual realities. The spiritual reality is confirmed by the miracles and prophecies that attended the events.

At the end of this chapter, Augustine previews what lies ahead—the history of the City of God, purification of the soul, judgment, and resurrection.

11.1. Augustine introduces the second half of City of God in which he promises to discuss the origin of the two cities, their development, and their destinies. Don’t think of Augustine as having turned a corner. Rather he’s traveling around a very long arc. Many of the themes that he discussed in the last few books will continue to pop up. He does not completely abandon repudiation of Paganism for explanation of Christianity in this second half of City of God, but his trajectory has changed.

Augustine justifies his terminology of “city of God” by appealing to a number of Psalms. “Kingdom of God” would probably have been a more natural term to use considering its prominence in the New Testament, but perhaps “city of God” contrasts better with Rome. The Latin West didn’t really think of the Roman Empire as a kingdom, even though that’s what it was.

11.2–3. Augustine begins his discussion with epistemology or “how we know what we know.” This passage gets a little confusing. Human beings can understand truth because we have a rational mind, which is a part of being made in the image of God. Augustine claims that anytime we grasp a truth, God revealed that truth to us. It isn’t that God told us the truth through words. God speaks through the truth itself, and we recognize it as truth because we have minds made in his image. The philosophers from book eight have access to some truths in this way.

Even though we have minds made in God’s image, these minds have been weakened by sin. That’s why the philosophers can only partially comprehend truth. Christ’s mediation is necessary to teach us the truth that our minds are too weak to see. Christ teaches by the prophets, by the apostles, and by his own mouth. Augustine is making the distinction between general and special revelation.

Some people say things like, “I only believe what I can see with my own eyes.” Augustine attacks this sentiment, pointing out that we all use the testimony of others when we think about truth because no one can see everything. Everyone decides how much trust to put in the testimony of others based on how much authority those witnesses have. Augustine argues that the Bible, inspired by Christ, is of the utmost authority.

11.4–5. Augustine decides to begin at the beginning, so he defends the idea that the universe was created at a particular point in time.

The intellectuals at the time tended to believe that the universe was eternal. The Epicureans, who didn’t believe in any God, promoted an eternal cycle of the universe growing and declining. Other philosophers who did believe in God were uncomfortable saying that God created at a particular point in time because that would mean God would have to change. They thought it more pious to believe in an eternally created universe.

Augustine doesn’t have anything to say to the materialist Epicureans, but to those philosophers who do believe in God, Augustine says that the idea of the soul’s ability to attain happiness destroys the idea of the eternal fixed universe.

These philosophical questions about the size and age of the universe sound almost current. Up until the twentieth century most scientists assumed the universe was fixed and eternal. The Big Bang Theory demolished that conception of the universe convincing everyone that the universe is expanding and that it began at a particular point in time. Philosophy and physics aren’t really that far apart.

One thought on “Augustine Project Week Nineteen

  1. Thanks so much for leading this year-long read through of City of God. Though I’ve fallen behind in my reading and am trying to play catch up, I’ve benefited from your posts and your summaries have been helpful.

    I’ve been blogging through my reading too, but in a much more selective, maybe even devotional way. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on my latest reflections from 10.29.

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