St. Augustine, A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

St. Augustine, A Perspective

Who was he? He was a man who had a life of drunkenness and lust in his early and young days. (354-430) His mother was a devout Christian crying daily for what her son had become. Once in a garden he heard a child’s voice who said, read. Augustine opened the Bible near him and read it. He was converted to Christianity right away. He made his mother very happy before she died. Mother’s prayers were finally answered.

He became a religious scholar and a great thinker. He created wonderful master pieces like his own ‘Confessions’ and ‘City of God’, which are classics in both the philosophy of region and Christian doctrine. (We’re using the work called ‘philosophy 100 Essential thinkers by Philip Stokes, page 45) He was born in Algeria in North Africa. He studied in Carthage, Rome and Milan. He finally returned to North Africa to establish a monastery. He became Bishop of Hippo Regius in 395.

The central theme of St. Augustine’s philosophy is that only by faith can wisdom be achieved. Both philosophy and religion are searching for truth. Augustine, however, thought philosophy was of a lower status than religion. Philosophy without an element of faith is unable to achieve the ultimate truth. What is this truth to Augustine? He called it beatitude, or ‘the enjoying of truth’. Even though reason by itself can reach some truths, but rational endeavor was subservient to faith. But was Augustine referring to Kant’s pure reason or perhaps modern rationalism? I personally believe Augustine was not talking about the Intellect within us. Reason is a descended reality from the Intellect. The Intellect is lower than the One in Plotinus’ hierarchy of being. Augustine was a firm believer in what he read in ‘Isaiah’, ‘Unless thou believe thou shall not understand’. However, blind faith or child like belief cannot help us in this search either. Why does Augustine give priority to faith? What if we gain faith by understanding? In his youth he rejected religion and didn’t find the scriptures intellectually fulfilling. After his conversion, nevertheless, he used reason to prove the articles of faith put out by the Church Fathers a century ago. I believe it was the use of the Intellect that helped him understand the reality of faith. Did Augustine ever think that the Church Fathers could have been wrong in Nicene Creed creation? Being a Neo-Platonist he could have objected to the Holy Trinity in which God the Father, God the son, and God the Holy Spirit were put on the same level.

Who was Pelagius (360?-420)? He was an English monk and theologian who resided in Rome (The Random House, Biographical Dictionary) Apparently he was against the original sin, which had been rejected by the Jewish community too. St. Augustine argued against him for his view on this matter. The ‘Pelagian heresy’ was a great issue for Augustine. Pelagius had questioned the idea of original sin. He maintained that when somebody does a good thing, he acts from the virtue of his own moral character given his free will. Consequently, he will be in heaven. This sounded very much like an Aristotelian position. For some reason Augustine was not comfortable with Pelagius’ argument. Going back to the time of Socrates, it was Glaucon, the older brother of Plato, who believed we’re not good deep in our beings. Think for a moment that Augustine was a Neo-Platonist philosopher but with a position similar to Glaucon. Plato believed we’re all good in our natures. Augustine followed St. Paul’s ‘Epistle’ and argued that all human beings are born in sin as if he was talking about in  water delivery of a baby, except the fact that here water is sin. St. Paul could have just said we’re all potentially inclined towards good and bad.  

I’m not a psychologist to psychoanalyze Augustine after 1600 years. But nonetheless, we cannot forget his past as a sinner. It sounds like the original sin idea was a form of justification for all his behaviors in his life up to the age of 30. Even his determinism, which was based on the story of Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament, falls on the same place as his determinism based on the original sin. When the young boy feels guilty for sitting on a bench conversing with a girl, the clergy tells him, don’t worry so much we’re all driven towards evil acts (The Persian movie Marmulak) the original sin for Augustine was more of a justification for all his past sins. But what happens to our moral responsibilities? Here I intend to agree more with Pelagius than Augustine.

In this dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon Plato is trying to show this point exactly. For God, past, present, and future is one moment. There’s no before and after. Time element is totally immaterial. Therefore, determinism is out of the window. With holding to the original sin, however, Augustine falls into determinism again. Mother you cannot blame me for what I have done in the past, because we’re all born in sin, as St. Paul said, Augustine addressing his mother (not a quotation) Mother after all Adam and Eve sinned while they were in Paradise. So I cannot be morally responsible for my actions, because I’m determined. But Augustine believed in free will at the same time. Did he not see this obvious contradiction? What he trying to have his cake and eat too?  Mother after all only God is able to redeem us with his grace regardless of what we have done in this world. God’s Grace is a gift to us and we cannot earn it. In other words, it is not based on meritocracy.

I don’t know what you think of me? I don’t even think about you boy. Don’t forget we’re all driven to do the wrong things in our life (Marmulak) do not blame yourself. Augustine argued that Adam and Eve condemned themselves and the rest of mankind to damnation. Repentance is our only salvation but there’s no guarantee we’ll be elected to enter heaven and not hell. Even though a faithful believer in Christianity, his mother tells him, son let us not forget that Adam didn’t choose to be created. So blaming him for what they did in Paradise is not fair. He was only part divine and not absolutely divine. In other words, he was created weak when it came to temptation. Therefore, instead of worrying about the original sin we should ask God why we were expected to resist the temptation when we’re created to be only half divine. We’re determined to be free to choose. If the story of creation were true, we were determined by God Himself to be excused for what we did. The question then is, why punish us for disobeying Him? Why did God throw us out of the Paradise?  Are we supposed to understand these stories literally? Philo, the Jewish philosopher of the first century believed we should take these stories symbolically, metaphorically, and allegorically.

Let us go beyond the personal God and gods and focus philosophically on the Ultimate Being, which is absolute. This world is relative and becoming. Absolute Reality cannot be absolute unless it is able to create the world of relativity. It is like the sun extending out its rays. We’re relative and just because we’re so it doesn’t mean we’re morally at fault. You might argue that the Ultimate Being is not the Ultimate Reality, which is beyond any duality even absolute and relative. We’re in the world of possibilities and for the Ultimate Being to be perfect it has to generate the world of contingencies. This Ultimate Being is called necessary Being, namely, it cannot not be, it must be.

The late French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) once said, “We’re condemned to be free”. Perhaps he was right. Once we’re here created by God, we’re determined. When we’re given the choice to either eat or not to eat from the fruits of that tree, we’re given the freedom we’re talking about. However, the interesting question is, can we still call this true freedom? The answer obviously is, ‘NO’. This is only a relative freedom or horizontal freedom. The only true freedom, which is vertical is the one granted by God to either love Him or hate Him. In reality we’re not completely free. There’s no absolute freedom in this world. We’re subject to changes all around us. We’re like the numbered balls in a lotto plastic globe being thrown around once it starts to turn. We have free will but it is limited. As long as we’re not free and determined at the same time and in the same relation, there’s no contradiction. Nonetheless, we’re determined from one point of view and free from another. Someone might say perhaps our choices are also determined? The answer is very simple, if our choices were also determined, then being free has no meaning.

In Charles Dickens (1812-70) Scrooge was given a choice to go ether right or left. He decided to choose the right way. But focusing on the original sin, Augustine felt into determinism. In the first one God determines who He would grant His Grace, way ahead of time forgetting that past, present, and future were not the stages God would operate on. For the Hindus time was an illusion. Thus, determinism is off the table here. In the second type original sin becomes an excuse for the sins Augustine had committed prior to his conversion. Later on he   became the bishop of Hippo and the father of Western Christianity. When St. Paul said all humans are born in sin he was not speaking on behalf of Jesus. Jesus was a Jew and didn’t believe in the original sin. Who did Paul learn this from? May be he had learned it from the Greeks. May be he learned it from Glaucon, who believed we all have evil nature.

However, we’re all born with the potential of either sin or not sin. We can either move to the left or right. Bodies were not frown upon in Judaism. It is possible Paul was under the influence of Plato when he began denigrating bodies and enjoyment of bodily pleasures. Before conversion Augustine seems to have appreciated the beauty of the bodies created by God. Human body is by far the most beautiful among all living creatures. After all Jesus had a bodily resurrection. In Eastern philosophy body is never put down. In meditation body is very important. In Manichaeanism and Platonism body was not treated with respect it deserved. Augustine abandoned the former though he picked the latter in Neo-Platonism founded by Plotinus. From his ‘Confession’ we learn he admired beautiful bodies. Perhaps he would have left those women he had relation with long time ago, if he had not found them beautiful. He didn’t necessarily have to have had sexual relationship with them. He could have admired them like a painter, bees and humming birds. He must have believed that God looked at His creation and said it was good. I’m sorry that Ludwig Wittgenstein (9881-1975), the Austrian philosopher only worried about what Augustine wrote concerning the learning of language, called it ‘the Augustinian picture of language’. It is very much possible that Augustine was never understood before the conversion. It is also possible that Paul was deeply influenced by Plato’s philosophy. This was one way Plato’s ideas entered Christianity. May be what Augustine heard was not what he was to read after he opened the Bible. He was perhaps more concerned to please his mother before she died. The beautiful naked body of Jesus was in front of him as he read the down grading of bodies. Jews, I believe, were never ashamed of their bodies. Why all of a sudden Paul sees the bodies as the tools of temptations.

They say Augustine switched from what he had believed to what Paul believed. Why did Augustine go from one extreme to another? He had studied Aristotle’s ethics of balance. Therefore, it is possible he had never abandoned his philosophy of beauty or aesthetics. To please the status quo, that is, his mother and the Pope, he accepted the norm including the Holy Trinity and Jesus being fully man and fully God; however deep down he had an insight into the reality of Christ. Admiring beautiful bodies was not limited to women’s bodies. He probably saw beauty in man’s bodies too. Who knows what went through the mind of this great thinker. Look at the statue of David by Michael Angelo and many others in the Vatican. The painting of the naked bodies of Adam and Eve is another manifestation of human bodies. Was he gay? From his interest in women, we don’t think so. Was he bisexual? Given the historical records, there’s no evidence to make us feel he had other sexual orientations.   We’re talking about almost 1600 years ago when things were so different from the time we live. We can judge him morally and be happy we have something on him. But was Marry Magdalene really committing adultery? How do we know the truth? We can just assume that Jesus knew about it. We live in the realm of opinions and perceptions not true knowledge, according to Plato. I believe we don’t spiritually qualify to know who St. Augustine was or any other great personalities in history for that matter. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that he was a great intellectual giant and a remarkable religious personality the like of whom the world has never seen before. He became the Father of Western Christianity and was claimed by both the Catholics and Protestants. Gradually St. Thomas Aquinas was regarded as the great figure among the former and St. Augustine was recognized as the great saint for the latter. St. Augustine’s determinism continued its journey to the United States of America till at one point it stopped and freedom was born again. Freedom became the foundation of American Democracy, which exists to this day.