Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Book VIII, Chapter 1 - beginning of Chapter 6

Augustine begins with praise and thanksgiving for mercies done to him. Torn by conflict, Augustine goes to talk with Simplicianus who had been a mentor to Ambrose. Simplicianus was glad that Augustine had not fallen sway to certain of the philosophers and was glad for his keen interest in the Platonist's writings, of which Simplicianus says God and his Word were every where implied. Augustine wanted to be a Christian but wanted some direction on how to go about doing that. Simplicianus tells him the story of a one time pagan professor of rhetoric, Victorinus, who became a Christian. Inspired by the story, Augustine became on fire to be like him.

Augustine is still with his mistress but completely conflicted over it: “But I was still closely bound by my need of woman. Not that the apostle forbade me to marry, although he might recommend something better, his great wish being that all men should be as he was.” Augustine lets slip what I suspect is the real reason he chose not to marry: "I was tired out and wasted away with knawing anxieties, because I was compelled to put up with all sorts of things which I did not want simply because they were inseparable from that state of living with a wife to which I was utterly and entirely bound."

The allusions to Plato’s cave continue. “I was held back not by fetters put on me by someone else, but by the iron bondage of my own will. The enemy held my will and made a chain out of it. From a perverse will came lust, and slavery to lust became a habit, and the habit, being constantly yielded to, became a necessity. These were like links, hanging each to each (which is why I called it a chain), and they held me fast in a hard slavery.”

He is torn by conflict: “So my two wills, one old, one new, one carnal, one spiritual were in conflict, and they wasted by soul by their discord.”

And more allusions to Plato’s cave: “I shall tell and confess to your name how it was that you freed me from the bondage of my desire for sex, in which I was so closely fettered, and from my slavery to the affairs of this world.”

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Augustine Alters the Platonic Understanding of Ultimate Reality

"The status of the transcendent Ideas, so central to the Platonic tradition and widely recognized by the pagan intelligentsia, was now significantly altered. Augustine agreed with Plato that the Ideas constituted the stable and unchangeable forms of all things and provided a solid epistemological basis for human knowledge. But he pointed out that Plato lacked an adequate doctrine of creation to explain the participation of particulars in the Ideas. (Plato's creator, the Demiurge of the Timaeus, was not an omnipotent supreme being, since the chaotic world of becoming upon which he imposed the Ideas already existed, as did the Ideas themselves; nor was he omnipotent vis-a-vis ananke, the errant cause.) Augustine therefore argued that Plato's conception could be fulfilled by the Judaeo-Christian revelation of the supreme Creator, who freely wills the creation into existence ex nihilo, yet who does so in accordance with the seminal ordering patterns established by the primordial Ideas residing in the Divine Mind. Augustine identified the Ideas as the collective expression of God’s Word, the Logos, and viewed all archtypes as contained within and expressive of the being of Christ.”

- The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnas. p106

Anyone who is interested in Augustine’s role in the history of Philosophy should read the section in the above book titled, The Conversion of the Pagan Mind. I find the author to be exceptionally thorough, clear and concise.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Book VII, Chapters 14-21, understanding God plus mystical experiences

Augustine continues to describe his ever increasing understanding of the omnipresent, omnipotent, good God, especially the aspect of God’s being as it includes all of creation. Augustine describes mystical experiences that seem to coincide with and reinforce his new understanding.

Note that God is still a substance, although a supreme substance. Perhaps I’m scrutinizing the language too much, but it still sounds half-Manichean. A word like entity would seem more neutral than substance. I’m also a little surprised that given how Platonic Augustine is at this point that he doesn’t use a noun that is more abstract or intangible. Substance sounds so physical. But then again, we must admit how Manichean Augustine’s thinking was.

Augustine describes wickedness as a turning away from God, the supreme substance, towards lower things. Augustine tells us that he was swept away by the beauty of God, but that he fell back to lower things, having been pulled down by carnal weight. Yet he retains the memory of these mystical unions with God.

Although a Catechumen, Augustine is not yet a Christian. He could not appreciate and love God to the fullest yet until he had embraced Christ. There had been a school (informal school) of neo-Platonic intellectuals in Milan at the time with which Augustine had studied and been influenced by. He had read a number of books of Platonic (includes neo-Platonic) philosophy. At this point his image of Jesus was of one possessing the highest wisdom, sort of a neo-Platonic philosopher-hero. Augustine notes as a point of criticism, that the Platonists lacked some of the Christian virtues, especially charity and humility. I do not know if his comments about Christian virtue were written in hindsight or if he felt this way at this point in his life.

Finally, Augustine is seized by the writings of St. Paul who Augustine says expresses everything that he found true in Platonism.