Monday, August 29, 2005

Platonic Good

I quote the following to show the exact parallels between Augustine's concept of the Good and Platonic Good. The only difference is that with Augustine, the absolute good is the Christian God.

From The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnas:

“Plato’s mentor, Socrates, had sought to know what was common to all virtuous acts, so that he could evaluate how one should govern one’s conduct in life. He reasoned that if one wishes to choose the actions that are good, one must know what “good” is, apart from any specific circumstances. To evaluate one thing as “better” than another assumes the evidence of an absolute good with which the two relative goods can be compared. Otherwise, the word “good” would be only a word whose meaning had to stable basis in reality, and human morality would lack a serious foundation.”

- p7.

"For Plato then, the great task facing the philosopher was to emerge from the cave of ephemeral shadows and bring his darkened mind back into the archtypical light, the true source of being. When speaking of this higher reality, Plato repeatedly linked light, truth, and goodness. In the Republic, he described the Idea of the Good as being to the intellible realm what the sun is to the invisible realm: in the same way that the sun allows objects of the visible world to grow and be visible, so does the Good grant to all objects of reason their existence and their intelligibility. The philosopher's attainment of virtue consists in his discovering that luminous knowledge which brings harmony between the human soul and the cosmic order of archtypes, an order governed and illuminated by the supreme Idea of the Good."

- p42.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Book VII comment - Augustine as Creationist

I am aware that some 25-30 years ago, a Dominican, an errant priest-theologian named Fox tried to lead a trend to try and force a split in Catholic thinking between creationist and redemptionist theology. Fox proclaimed the former and condemned the latter, especially condemning Augustine as a redemptorist. However, the truth is that orthodox theology is both creationist and redemptorist, and Augustine is equally creationist and redempionist. These past chapters and the following ones show Augustine as an uninhibited and exhuberant creationist.

Book VII, Chapter 13 - goodness and praise of all creation

This is a beautiful, one paragraph meditation and praise on the goodness of creation that needs to be read rather than summarized by me. He quotes what I assume is one of the Psalms. Perhaps some reader could tell me which one?

The final phrases were interesting: “…I realized that, while higher things are certainly better than lower things, all things together are better then the higher things by themselves.” This reminded me strongly of I Corinthians 12, verses, approximately 11-31. Paul was talking about the church not nature; yet, the closeness of the analogy is eerie.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Book VII, Chapter 12 -- the good

This was a difficult chapter to dissect.

Augustine’s conclusion is that everything God has created is good. Using the Platonic idea of good, he applies complex, intricate logic to the Manichaean ideas of corruption and incorruptibility, and good and evil, and forges them into a Christianity form.

It seems that previously Augustine had thought that good could only be had in the extreme—that something could only be classified as good if it were all good. Anything the least bit tainted by corruption or suffering is classified as evil. Moreover, the only good is the supreme good which is God alone, implying that we are all inherently evil and therefore doomed (oh - unless of course you are one of the Manichean Elect!).

Augustine’s revised, Christian understanding of evil and suffering is that it is an absence of the good. It seems to me that this is not too different from the Manichean idea that evil is a substance that contaminates the good. However, where the Manicheans tend to view God and evil as equals, Augustine’s new view of God is consistent with the Book of Genesis—all powerful and all knowing. Moreover, unlike the Manichean God who is a passive, Augustine positions God to be an active participant and controller of the universe.

Here is an excellent quote from Book VII, Chapter 8: “Inside me your good was working on me to make me restless until you should become clear and certain to my inward sight. Through the hidden hand of your healing art my swelling abated and from day to day the troubled and clouded sight of my mind grew better through the stinging ointment of a healthy sorrow.” Instead of the good but passive Manichean God becoming increasingly contaminated by an evil substance, we have the active Christian God transforming fallen human nature back into its original state of good.

One can link the ideas of Augustine on corruptibility, incorruptibility, and the good to many ideas in theology, especially of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption.

From my own experience, I think that in class rooms and sermons, when good is spoken of, it is used in the context of moral good. I feel that there is an inadequate emphasis on the concept and meaning of inherent good.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Book VII, Chapter 11

"It is good then for me to hold fast unto God; because if I do not remain in Him, I shall not be able to remain in myself. But He, remaining in Himself, renews all things. And thou art my Lord, since Thou standest not in need of my goodness"

- that about sums things up.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Book VII, Chapter 10, conclusion

"I am the food of grown men. Grow and you shall feed upon me. And you will not, as with the food of the body, change me into yourself, but you will be changed into me." And I learned that Thou, for iniquity, chastenest man and Thou madest my soul to consume away like a spider." And I said, "Is truth therefore nothing because it is not extended through any kind of space, whether finite or infinite?" And from far away you cried out to me, "I am that I am." And I heard, as one hears things in the heart, and there was no longer any reason at all for me to doubt. I would sooner doubt my own existence than the existence of that truth which is clearly seen being understood by those things which are made."

Book VII, Chapter 10

That Augustine was a mystic is another one of those things that is so blatantly obvious that it is easy to overlook, again, like not seeing the forest for the trees.

Augustine states that the Platonists knew some truths that Christians knew, but they had nothing to say of humility nor had knowledge of the Son of God. Augustine uses a very interesting and important contrast that makes an allusion to Plato’s Cave. He describes his anguished search for the cause of evil, realizes that God has started to teach him inwardly and says, “And so My Helper, you have set me free from those chains.” After stating what he has learned of humility and Jesus, he says, “I was admonished by all this to return to my own self, and, with you to guide me, I entered into the innermost part of myself, and I was able to do this because you were my helper.” He has contrasted his own soul to Plato’s Cave, not as a jungle of ignorance, darkness, and slavery, but to a place of wisdom, light, and freedom.

Augustine felt admonished to return to his innermost self, which he describes with images from the Plato’s Cave: “I entered and saw with my soul’s eye (such as it was) an unchangeable light shining above the eye of my soul and above my mind. It was not the ordinary light which is visible to all flesh, nor sometimes of the same sort, only bigger, as though it might be our ordinary light shining much, much more brightly and filling everything with its greatness.” (I am leaving several sentences out here.) And then, “And you beat back the weakness of my sight, blazing upon me with your rays…” (If you haven’t read the allegory/parable of the Cave in Plato’s Republic, by all means do so. It is a foundational for understanding Western Civilization. ) At the conclusion of the passage, Augustine comes to the most definitive belief is the existence and nature of God, that those who feed upon God will become like God, and those who are wicked will perish.

Book VII, Chapters 7-9

“It was pleasing in your site to reform my deformity.”

In a state emotional turmoil, Augustine continues his search for the cause of evil. “What agonies I suffered, what groans, my God came from my heart in its labor?” He goes on, “And you were listening, though I did not know it.” After describing his anguished soul-searching, he says, “Inside me, your good was working on me to make me restless until you should become clear and certain to my inward sight. Through the hidden hand of your healing art my swelling abated and from day to day the troubled and clouded sight of my mind grew better through the stinging ointment of a healthy sorrow.” What I observe in these and subsequent passages is that Augustine was searching for something; yet, God, inwardly was slowly teaching him the things that God wanted him to learn, the things that are important to God, the things that Augustine needed to save his soul.

Firstly, Augustine learns humility. He also expresses comes a deep understanding of the Incarnation, its profound humility, and that Jesus, as the Son of God, beholds our lowliness and trouble, and forgives all our sins.

I think this is an example of how, when we pray for something, the answer we look for is not always the one we get. And look at the results! I think that often, God uses our pain and anguish to teach us more important things. As one who likes to think that God always answers prayer, the lesson is to try hard to find the spiritual truth, or to see how God is shaping us, from whatever painful situation we have experienced. Often, these can be very hard lessons.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Book VII, Chapter 6

Augustine does not say this explicitly, but astrology was a very important part of Manichean belief, as well as part of the beliefs of many other people at the time. I learned it from T.V., on EWTN, from the show titled, Fathers of the Church. Augustine explains how it became proved to him that astrology was without merit. Some of Augustine’s friends were critical in convincing him—Nebridius, Vindicianus, and Firminus. Ultimately, he became convinced of astrology’s uselessness after observing the life of two babies that were born at exactly the same time and of the life of twins, and seeing how radically different their life histories were.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Book VII, Chapters 2-5

Augustine had a great desire to understand the cause of evil in the world. After he rejected the Manichean ideas about the nature of God and the existence of evil and having accepted the Christian concept of an incorruptible and unchanging God, Augustine is anew driven to find an explanation for the cause of evil. Augustine is aware of the Christian understanding (at the time) of the cause of evil--free will and God’s just punishment, but says he can’t grasp it clearly. After examining the problem of evil anew, from different angles, he fails to come to a conclusion: “These were the kind of thoughts which I turned over and over in my unhappy heart, a heart overburdened with those biting cares that came from my fear of death and my failure to discover the truth.” Augustine concludes,” Yet the faith of your Christ, our Lord and Savior, professed in the Catholic Church, remained steadfastly fixed in my heart, even though it was on many points still unformed and swerving from the right rule of doctrine. But, nevertheless, my mind did not abandon it, but rather drank more and more deeply of it every day.”

Note that Augustine cites faith in Jesus, as he did at the end of Book V, at the time he decided to become a Catechumen.

Note again that with Augustine the movement of his heart precedes his search for intellectual understanding. Moreover, he is propelled to integrate his heart and intellect--“Faith seeking understanding.”

On minor note, I had previously though that the concept of evil originating from free will originated with Augustine. Obviously, it pre-dated him. Augustine must have merely canonized the idea. It seems also to be an example of a belief originating from the grassroots—from the bottom up rather than the top-down, within the church.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Book VII, Chapter 2

Augstine presents an argument against the Manichaes that had been presented to him by his friend Nebridius. For Augustine, this was the decisive and final argument with which to reject them. As with most of Augustine's spiritual development, his emotional drive (antipathy of the Manichaes) precedes his intellectual resolution (intellectual rejection of Manichaen doctrine). Indeed, it is the emotional energy and desire--the restless heart-- that pushes him on to intellectual formation.

According to the Manichaes, at least some part of God can become contaminated by evil; yet, God is incorruptible, which makes the Manichaen assertation a contradiction. I follow Nebridius's argument, but it may require more knowledge than I have, to understand the internals of the argument in depth.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Book VII, Chapter I

Book VII is a long, complex exploration of the understanding of God.

Augustine’s emotional turmoil seems to have lessened somewhat, but of course, his intellectual search continues as aggressively as ever. By default, or not having anything better to replace it, he adheres to the Catholic understanding of God. Apart from believing that God does not have a human form, Augustine does not know how to think of God. He does believe that what cannot be corrupted is superior to what can be corrupted, and what doesn’t change is superior to what can be changed. Augustine still thinks of God as a physical substance that permeates the universe.

Note that although not yet a Christian, Augustine has begun a process of purgation. The chapter begins, “Now, my evil, abominable youth was a thing of the past." Some of this is simply attributable to maturity: "I was growing into manhood , and the older I was the more discernable was the emptiness of my mind. I was unable to form an idea of any kind of substance other than what my eyes are accustomed to see." " A little later he says, "My heart cried out passionately against all the phantoms I had believed in, and with this one blow I tried to beat away from the eye of my mind all those swarms of uncleanness which were buzzing around it." This is only an after thought, an he does not go into detail. By uncleanness, he may be refering to pagan concepts of God, but I am not sure.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Augustine for a New Age

- an 8/1/05 review in the New York Times of a new biography of Augustine, by Jame J. O'Donnell.