Augustine was born to a pagan father and a Christian mother, so it seems appropriate that he would ultimately function as a merger between pagan philosophy and Christian thought. Augustine was a searcher of truth and his life up to the point of his conversion to Christianity shows a man who sought knowledge for the practical purpose of finding happiness. He was an avid reader of Virgil and Cicero, the latter serving as a crucial influence on his earliest beliefs. According to Augustine, Cicero’s influence gave him a passion for “the paradigmatically Hellenistic pursuit of a wisdom that transcended and blurred the boundaries of what are now viewed as the separate spheres of philosophy, religion, and psychology.” Also, Augustine’s time spent among the Manicheans left him with a strong sense of dualism, the struggle between good and evil, but Augustine eventually left the Manicheans because they failed to give him enough rigorous details or a complete explanation of their beliefs. Augustine was searching for the truth and was eventually convinced by the Platonizing influence of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, as well as other books by the Platonists, to find truth in Christianity. The ideas of Neo-Platonism allowed for Augustine to fully embrace Christianity as intellectually satisfying. Augustine’s ideas would continually develop as he gained access to scripture texts over time. What we would today call “books of the bible” only peaked Augustine’s interest at first, but through the interpretation of the Platonists they would command the greatest influence over his writings towards the end of his life.
Augustine and Dualism
Before Augustine converted to Christianity he was influenced by Manichaeism, which taught of, “a doctrine of two principles, the forces of light and darkness, of good and evil, that are eternally engaged in battle over the soul of each person and over the world itself.” Dualism focuses on the dichotomy of good and evil, and in City of God, Augustine describes these two forces as the supreme good and the supreme evil. The ends of these two forces are thus the “final good” and the “final evil”. The final good is when good is perfected and exists fully, the final evil is when it produces the greatest harm. Augustine’s City of God, the spiritual community as opposed to a City of Man which is a political community, saw “that eternal life is the supreme good and eternal death the supreme evil” both of which occur after death and can also be interpreted as Heaven and Hell. Augustine believed that human beings had free will, in that they had a choice between good and evil, but the nature of mankind would ultimately choose evil without submitting themselves to God. Values of the pagan philosophers such as Virtue and Education where not assured paths to happiness as Plato and Aristotle argued, and Augustine continually makes an effort in City of God to discredit Roman and Greek values. He argues for faith over philosophy, saying, “Because they do not see this happiness (the supreme good), the philosophers refuse to believe in it, but struggle to fabricate for themselves in this life an utterly false happiness through a virtue as dishonest as it is proud.”
Augustine and Neo-Platonism
The books of the Platonists argue for a reality with a fundamental divide between the physical realm of the senses, and the spiritual realm of the intellect. This is not to be confused with dualism as there is not a dichotomy of Physical\Spiritual, but rather the Platonists see reality fixated on a hierarchical structure beginning with absolute unity and progressively unfolding through various stages of increasing plurality and multiplicity. This vision of reality culminates with the lowest realm, that is isolated and fragmented into the objects of the senses, or the physical realm. For Augustine the highest source or plane on this representation of reality is God, “the unchanging point which unifies all that comes after and below within an abiding and providentially-ordained rational hierarchy” Augustine drew distinctions between the realm of the physical and the intelligible. The former was the private realm of the senses which was isolated and full of transitory objects, but the latter was a public realm open to all that contained abiding realities. For Augustine, the physical realm was subjected to the force of time, while the intelligible realm was eternal. The intelligible realm, with God as its source, promised a relief from the anxiety caused by the realm of the senses.
Augustine differs from Platonist thought on several points; what Platonists refer to as The One, what Augustine sees as God, is “itself of such absolute unity and transcendence that, strictly speaking, it defies all predication and is itself beyond Being and Goodness.” Augustine would disagree as he believed that the nature of God is close to that of the soul, thus having God be beyond the scope of being and goodness would create too much of a distance between God and the human soul. This would also contradict his belief that reason can act as a bridge to God. The other distinction that should be made; according to Neoplatonists, “the relation of the ultimate principle to all that comes below is usually presented in terms of a sempiternal process of necessary emanations whereby lower stages constantly flow from the higher.” This is a problem for Augustine as he believes in a clear distinction between creator and creation, thus implying that the lower realm of the sense derives from the intelligible realm, and not God, would be an impossibility. It may seem that Augustine was particular as to what aspects of Neo-Platonism would be applied to Christianity, but we must understand that scripture texts would always trump over philosophy. As Augustine gained more access to these texts throughout his life, his ideas would more align with them.
Free Will and Determinism
Augustine’s view on human will and its relationship to salvation changed throughout the course of his writings. In the beginning he held a more optimistic view that reason could be a pathway to salvation, and that as rational beings, humans have the ability to choose good over evil. The idea that reason could bring one happiness is a staple of pagan philosophic thought. Both Plato and Aristotle would agree that we find happiness through the application of reason. Our free will to choose good or evil is what makes people morally responsible for their actions. Augustine, while at once giving credence to free will, also believes that we cannot find happiness by use of will alone. Salvation can only be found through God. This is where Augustine and the pagan Philosophers would disagree. As Augustine’s writing progressed, he would take a less optimist view on human agency as he would argue that God has the foreknowledge of our choices, and that a preordain and small number of souls where selected to be saved by divine grace alone, and not through the use of free will. Despite this proto-predestination that Augustine believed in, he still held that our moral choices gave us the burden of responsibility for our actions. Without the grace of God, we are free to choose our actions, but only free to choose a sinful life.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy- St. Augustine.
- Michael L. Morgan, Classics of Moral and Political Theory, 5th Edition. (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.)