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Monday, February 27, 2017

Guest Post: The Warnings In St. Augustine’s City Of God Are Relevant To America Today - Part I

St. Augustine of Hippo
By Gary L. Morella

By common consent St. Augustine is one of the giants of the Latin Church.  His life is an inspiration to all those in danger of succumbing to the grave sin of despair because his example is one of going from despair, the work of the devil, to ecstasy, the work of the God.  Nowhere is this transformation better manifested than in his monumental work, the City of God, wherein he contrasts the struggle for our souls being waged by the forces of Perfect Good, God Almighty, against the forces of consummate evil, in particular, the “evil one.”

Greek philosophy as it spread out influenced the early generations of Christians. In fact, Plato was the dominant philosophical figure for much of the Middle Ages. Augustine was a Christian Platonist.  He was enamored with Plato to the extent that he recognized that Plato arrived at some Christian truths unaided by grace or revelation.  St. Thomas Aquinas had this to say about Augustine as a Platonist.


Whenever Augustine, who was imbued with the doctrines of the Platonists, found in their teaching anything consistent with faith, he adopted it; and those things which he found contrary to faith, he amended. [See Aquinas ST, Part I, Q. 84, a. 5.]

In the City of God Augustine confronts Roman claims that the difficulties, which the empire is experiencing, are traceable to the abandonment of pagan religions, i.e., the problem is a fledgling but flourishing Christianity.  He finds this pagan view to be wanting and completely refutes the contention that Christianity, not paganism, is the source of the empire’s misfortunes.  In Book VIII he gives a history of philosophy showing his Platonic roots.   With respect to the central Platonic doctrine, the Ideas, Augustine, in a famous text (83 Diverse Questions, Q. 46), gave an interpretation of the Ideas that was very influential.  His view was that the Ideas are the creative patterns according to which God produces creatures.  An analogy is the shipbuilder who finally realizes in matter, the materials of his shipbuilding, the form that he originally envisioned, the design of his ship. 

Augustine goes on in Q. 46 to say that the concept of Ideas is absolutely essential, and that no believer can reject them, which causes astonishment.  Again, however, the Ideas that we’re talking about are not the classic Ideas of Plato but rather Augustine’s understanding of the Ideas in accord with the aforementioned quote of Aquinas.  What Augustine is saying is that if you reject the Ideas, you’re, in effect, saying that when God created the world, He didn’t know what He was doing. We know that this is not the case per the introduction to the Gospel of John.  So the Ideas, for Augustine, become patterns for creation with their locus being the Word, the Logos, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity Who was with God, and Who was God from the beginning.  Thus, the intelligibility of creation emanating from God via the Logos defines Augustine’s understanding of the Ideas, which for him are Divine Ideas unlike what Plato took them to be.  Augustine alters the Platonic Ideas in this sense and, as such, they play a tremendous role in medieval theology. 

Augustine’s Platonism defined the intellectual life of the Christian West for centuries.  However, it would be a mistake to infer that Augustine or other Christians were uncritical followers of Plato, e.g., the suggestion that the soul had pre-existed in the body had to be rejected by Christians, i.e., Plato’s contention that the soul had an antecedent existence is contrary to Christianity where the soul is the form of the body, integral to it, as the body is to the soul by allowing for sensory particulars to be later abstracted by universals via a required sensory interaction that is critical to intelligibility. This criticism, which will be subsequently discussed, is very evident in the City of God.  It is the Christian view that soul and body were destined for each other eternally, i.e., married, not divorced where the soul seeks refuge from the prison of the body in a Platonic sense.  The former is reinforced by the best example possible, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, without which, there would be no Christianity.

Augustine’s philosophy was Christocentric in that he established that words alone could not generate knowledge, albeit they are the instruments of the teacher.  The learner doesn’t want to know what the teacher knows, but rather he wants to know it himself.  What is the cause of the activity of learning if not the teacher, the human teacher that is?  Augustine answers in the words of the Gospel of Matthew, “You have but one teacher, Christ.”  This verse becomes his motto.

Thus, for Augustine, sensible things cannot be the adequate causes of the Ideas, which are not sensible as words too are sensible things.  There must be a commensurate cause of thinking, of learning, and that cause is Christ alone, the Teacher teaching within the soul.  Augustine here is not dismissing the necessity for sensory interaction, but rather explicitly defining the Ultimate Cause for man’s intellective ability.  Augustine didn’t mean that Christ literally conveys knowledge to the soul, which would border closely on Plato’s classic formulation of the Ideas that he rejected, but rather that there is, in the human soul, a spark of divinity given that we’re made in the image and likeness of God, which makes our intellectual knowledge possible. The cognitive capacity that we have naturally is what’s in us that is most divine.  We have the capacity to learn because we’re most like God in this.  What this says is that sensible singulars are not sufficient to explain intellection, which isn’t a sensible or material process in itself.  Plato’s transcendent Ideas supplied the adequate object, and were the sole cause of human intellectual knowledge for him, residing exclusively in a pre-existent soul longing for freedom from the body. Augustine, however, realized that these Ideas were intrinsic to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity Who always existed and became Christ Incarnate, possessing both Divine and human natures with the emphasis on the latter to reinforce the importance with which God held the body. Augustine’ s use of participation pertaining to the Ideas is his understanding of them as a light in the soul, which is a participation in the light that is the Word, caused by the Word.  This is a light that illumines not just the soul but also the body because the soul is the form of the body, without which the body ceases to exist – a soul destined to return to the body for eternity because that is God’s Divine plan.  That said, Augustine’s favorite way of arriving at God didn’t consist of looking at things around us, but retiring within the soul in a contemplative fashion.

Go not abroad but enter into yourself: truth dwells in the inner man; and if you should find your nature mutable, transcend yourself. [See On True Religion, 39, 72.]

We return now to what was Augustine’s intent with the City of God with the unifying theme that there are only two cities possible for populating, the city of man and the city of God.  It is our choice as to which city wherein we will dwell, an “either-or” choice to be sure, since it will define our eternity.  Augustine tells us that the first ten books are the refutation of the attacks against the Christian religion.  They are followed by twelve books in which the focus is on the positive account of Christianity.  It is there that the origin of the two cities is discussed along with their respective histories and, ultimately, their final end.

The origin of the city of man is self-love in contempt of God, as opposed to the city of God whose origin is the love of God in contempt of oneself.  The former seeks the glory of man; the latter seeks the glory of God.  Living in one city or the other, given the clear aforementioned choice, is not etched in stone in this life.  Augustine’s Confessions are testimony to this fact as he changed his city of abode when he saw the Light of Christ.  It is the final accounting that will be made in an eschatological sense, the final judgment, which is important.  However, it must be recognized that our final end depends on our final place of abode in this life, which has only two cities.  And since we cannot be sure of the place, circumstances, or time of our final end, when death comes like a thief in the night, and we’re facing our Maker, it would behoove us to make a prudent choice as to which city we want to be living in, given the eternal consequences staring at us. In short, we must practice living naturally in the here-and-now for our supernatural home in the here-after.  If our practice is characterized by self-love and contempt for God in this life, we should not be surprised when we discover that our landlord for eternity is the devil whose contempt for God knew no bounds.  Many souls who awoke to what for them was a normal natural day on September 11, 2001, before that day ended, had to give an account to their Creator as to which of Augustine’s cities they chose to live in.

It was Augustine’s intent not only to show the woeful inadequacies of the pagan religion in the City of God but also to emphasize the perfection of Christianity.  The City of God became, perhaps, his most influential work. 

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