- The City of God by Augustine of Hippo


Context

Neoplatonism

This was the dominant philosophy among the Greco-Romans from the 3rd century to the Arab empire in the 7th century. It offered a comprehensive theory of the universe and the place of the individual in it. It was a great synthesis of the Hellenistic tradition until then (except for  Epicureanism which it rejected). It was also an idealistic philosophy that believed in the domination of the mind (nous) over matter. Its second principle was monistic and argued that there is a single cause, considered divine, that could explain everything. This principle is belived to be a conscious Being.

Plotinus (204-270) is considered to be the founder of Neoplatonism. Egyptian, he studied in Alexandria, and he moved to Rome around 245 where he founded his philosophical school. Neoplatonism was so successful that at the end of the Roman Empire Christians were taught it in Alexandria and studied it in Athens, Constantinople, Baghdad, and other centres.

When Hypatia was born in 370, Alexandria's intellectual life had ideological problems. The Roman empire was converting to Christianity, and the leaders of this religion tended to view mathematics and science as heresies or works of the devil. Hypatia studied in Athens and Italy. On returning to Alexandria she taught mathematics and philosophy at the Museion. Her classes became intellectual discussions of science and philosophy. Her most significant work that has come down to us was a Commentary on Diophantus, the father of algebra. He probably worked with Theon who revised and improved the Elements of Euclid.

Hypatia subscribed to Neoplatonic philosophy. There was a rivalry between the neo-Platonist schools of Athens (which emphasized magic) and Alexandria (based on mathematics). As a pagan, scientist, and political influencer, Hypatia was in a dangerous place because of growing Christian power. In 412 Cyril, an intense anti-Platonist, was promoted to the post of Patriarch of Alexandria. Three years later Hypatia was attacked and killed by a crowd in the middle of the street. Her death marked the end of Platonism teaching in Alexandria and throughout the Roman Empire. It was replaced by Christianity. Augustine of Hippo worked to reconcile the Neoplatonic tradition with Christianity.

Christian philosophy

Augustine of Hippo was born in 354 in Tagaste (Algeria), a provincial Roman city. His Berber parents were Catholic, but Augustine left the church to follow the Manichean credo.

He was converted through his friendship with Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, whose cleverly rhetorical sermons convinced Augustine to return to Catholicism. His book Confessions is the account of his conversion. 

He embraced Neoplatonism through reading Plotinus and his goal became the synthesis of Neoplatonism and Christianity. The main questions he posed were :

- What is the relationship between an infinite God and his finite creation? It is not a temporal or spatial relationship, but between Creator and creation.

- The problem of evil. How can a God of goodness have created evil in the world? According to Augustine, evil does not exist in itself, as the Manicheans maintained, but is the deprivation of goodness.

However, Platonism cannot lead to salvation, according to Augustine, because it does not accept the mediation of Christ.

In 388 he returned to Tagasta and founded a monastery where he became famous for his sermons and his fight against the Manicheans. In 391 he was ordained a priest and 5 years later coadjutor to the Bishop of Hippo. Upon entering the bishopric, he fought against the heresies of Donatism and Pelagianism.

The Sack of Rome took place in 410. The Vandals plundered Rome and a rumour spread that it was the fault of Christianity because it had denied sacrifices to the pagan gods and that the empire should return to its traditional gods. Augustine began composing The City of God in 413 and spent the rest of his life writing this defence of Christianity, a total of 22 books. The treatise argues that God had destroyed the city of man (Rome) to prepare humanity for the city of God (Heaven). Augustine died in 430 with the Vandals at the gates of Hippo.

Summary

Augustine finds truth in Platonism which views God as the ultimate reality. However, despite recognising One God Platonists reject the Incarnation of Christ. Augustine analyses Platonism's positive and negative points and tackles the problem of their non recognition of Christ as mediator. Platonists disdain the body but Augustine argues that Christ's Incarnation synthesises divinity and mortality and redeems the body rejected by Platonism.

The main metaphor is the heavenly city of God which has a dual nature. It is earthly since it is a community of believers who submit to the will of God and show divine compassion in the world. It also exists in the life to come where no pagan spirit can take you.

Books 1-10 criticise the pagan religious system drawing arguments from the pre-Christian history of Rome which Augustine portrays as disastrous, full of plagues, murders and tragedies. He inquires why the pagan gods were not of more help then. He scorns pagan ritual as theatrical, hypocritical and immoral. These shows are so shameful that even the pagan gods would not want them. He contrasts the pantheon of Roman gods, full of scandalous behaviours and immorality with Christian ethics and a better afterlife which enable them to endure even the sack of the city.

- Book 1 argues that misfortune happens to everyone and Christianity is not to blame.

- Books 2 and 3 show that the fall of Rome is not unique since the city had suffered calamities before even while the pagan gods were being worshipped, yet they did nothing to save it. He points out that Romans had weakened because of their own moral and spiritual corruption.

- Book 4 puts forwards another view. Augustine argues that Rome had endured for centuries because it was the will of God, not due to the pagan gods who were immoral.

- Book 5 addresses the concept of pagan fate. Augustine contends that God had rewarded the ancient Romans for their virtuous lives although they did not worship him.

"1. That the cause of the Roman empire, and of all kingdoms, is neither fortuitous nor consists in the position of the stars.

The cause, then, of the greatness of the Roman empire is neither fortuitous nor fatal, according to the judgment or opinion of those who call those things fortuitous which either have no causes, or such causes as do not proceed from some intelligible order, and those things fatal which happen independently of the will of God and man, by the necessity of a certain order. In a word, human kingdoms are established by divine providence. And if any one attributes their existence to fate, because he calls the will or the power of God itself by the name of fate, let him keep his opinion, but correct his language. For why does he not say at first what he will say afterwards, when some one shall put the question to him, What he means by fate? For when men hear that word, according to the ordinary use of the language, they simply understand by it the virtue of that particular position of the stars which may exist at the time when any one is born or conceived, which some separate altogether from the will of God, whilst others affirm that this also is dependent on that will. But those who are of opinion that, apart from the will of God, the stars determine what we shall do, or what good things we shall possess, or what evils we shall suffer, must be refused a hearing by all, not only by those who hold the true religion, but by those who wish to be the worshippers of any gods whatsoever, even false gods. For what does this opinion really amount to but this, that no god whatever is to be worshipped or prayed to? Against these, however, our present disputation is not intended to be directed, but against those who, in defence of those whom they think to be gods, oppose the Christian religion. They, however, who make the position of the stars depend on the divine will, and in a manner decree what character each man shall have, and what good or evil shall happen to him, if they think that these same stars have that power conferred upon them by the supreme power of God, in order that they may determine these things according to their will, do a great injury to the celestial sphere, in whose most brilliant senate, and most splendid senate-house, as it were, they suppose that wicked deeds are decreed to be done,—such deeds as that if any terrestrial state should decree them, it would be condemned to overthrow by the decree of the whole human race. What judgment, then, is left to God concerning the deeds of men, who is Lord both of the stars and of men, when to these deeds a celestial necessity is attributed? Or, if they do not say that the stars, though they have indeed received a certain power from God, who is supreme, determine those things according to their own discretion, but simply that His commands are fulfilled by them instrumentally in the application and enforcing of such necessities, are we thus to think concerning God even what it seemed unworthy that we should think concerning the will of the stars? But, if the stars are said rather to signify these things than to effect them, so that that position of the stars is, as it were, a kind of speech predicting, not causing future things,—for this has been the opinion of men of no ordinary learning,—certainly the mathematicians are not wont so to speak, saying, for example, Mars in such or such a position signifies a homicide, but makes a homicide. But, nevertheless, though we grant that they do not speak as they ought, and that we ought to accept as the proper form of speech that employed by the philosophers in predicting those things which they think they discover in the position of the stars, how comes it that they have never been able to assign any cause why, in the life of twins, in their actions, in the events which befall them, in their professions, arts, honours, and other things pertaining to human life, also in their very death, there is often so great a difference, that, as far as these things are concerned, many entire strangers are more like them than they are like each other, though separated at birth by the smallest interval of time, but at conception generated by the same act of copulation, and at the same moment?" (Book 5)

Books 11-22 describe the doctrine of the two cities > earthly and heavenly.

- Books 11-13 relate how the Bible inspired Augustine to use the City as a metaphor.

- Books 14-17 spell out the prehistory of the City of heaven starting at Genesis through to Solomon.

- Book 18 mirrors the previous topic showing the prehistory of the City on earth from Abraham to the Prophets.

- Book 19 foretells the ends of the two cities and describes the nature of supreme Good. He indicates that the peace and happiness of the heavenly city can be experienced on earth.

- Books 20-22 explain the Last Judgement and its references in the Bible.

- Book 22 relates the end of the city of God which will usher in eternal happiness and immortality.

"3. Of the promise of eternal blessedness to the saints, and everlasting punishment to the wicked.

Wherefore, not to mention many other instances besides, as we now see in Christ the fulfilment of that which God promised to Abraham when He said, "In thy seed shall all nations be blessed,"[966] so this also shall be fulfilled which He promised to the same race, when He said by the prophet, "They that are in their sepulchres shall rise again;"[967] and also, "There shall be a new heaven and a new earth: and the former shall not be mentioned, nor come into mind; but they shall find joy and rejoicing in it: for I will make Jerusalem a rejoicing, and my people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people, and the voice of weeping shall[Pg 476] be no more heard in her."[968] And by another prophet He uttered the same prediction: "At that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. And many of them that sleep in the dust" (or, as some interpret it, "in the mound") "of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt."[969] And in another place by the same prophet: "The saints of the Most High shall take the kingdom, and shall possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever."[970] And a little after he says, "His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom."[971] Other prophecies referring to the same subject I have advanced in the twentieth book, and others still which I have not advanced are found written in the same Scriptures; and these predictions shall be fulfilled, as those also have been which unbelieving men supposed would be frustrate. For it is the same God who promised both, and predicted that both would come to pass,—the God whom the pagan deities tremble before, as even Porphyry, the noblest of pagan philosophers, testifies." (Book 22)

Analysis

The Confessions were a theology of self and The City of God is a theology of social history.

Augustine applies theological analysis to history beginning with the Creation, then political States (The City of the World) leading to the kingdom of God (The City of God) which is the completion of The Confessions where self progressed to completeness in God. In the same way society will complete itself in the realm of God.

Together with a theological history the author builds a social philosophy where ethics and politics unite in divine revelation. Here he disagrees with Plato stating that scriptures teach us the highest good and evil and the purpose of human life.

There are 4 basic elements in his social history of The City of God : the church, the state, The City of Heaven and the City of the World.
- The church is a divine establishment which will lead humanity to eternal goodness, God.
- The state follows the ethics of politics and the mind to build a political community.
- The City of the World is destined to those who will receive eternal damnation.
- The City of Heaven is for those predestined to salvation.
From this structure Augustine draws his theory of justice which comes from the proper sharing of things needed for life which God distributes freely such as air, water and light. Humanity must follow the City of Heaven to respect the natural order and so achieve peace.

The City of God is proposed as a challenge to society which must choose which city it wants to be part of. Augustine marks out the choices. He concludes that the purpose of history is to follow out God´s plan by filling the City of Heaven with virtuous citizens. Within this great plan the fall of Rome pales into insignificance.


Themes

Manicheanism

The cult of Manicheanism began in North Africa in the 3rd century A.D. It was a combination of Christian and Zoroastrian beliefs which taught that reality was a battle between the two forces goodness with a God who wants to eliminate suffering and Satan who causes the affliction. Manicheanism believed that all matter including the human body is the product of Satan and so evil, while the soul is made of light. Satan is the ultimate responsible for evil and misfortune.

Augustine adhered to Manichean beliefs during his student days but finally departed the cult because he believed humans have free will and so can cause suffering in the world. He subsequently moved to accept the tenets of Neoplatonism developed by Plotinus, a follower of Plato.

Neoplatonism

Plotinus (204-270 A.D.) reshaped the philosophy of Plato into a system of thought called Neoplatonism. Plotinus explained evil using Plato's separation between the physical world of changeable matter and the ideal world of imperishable Forms. The physical world is not knowable because it changes, true knowledge lies in the perfect Forms of which the sensory world is only a copy.

The Neoplatonists made use of this distinction to explain the difference between body and soul. The body is the root of evil and the soul aspires to live in the realm of ideal Forms. Augustine found in Plotinus the idea that humans are not subject to evil but rather cause their own evils. However, he disagreed with Neoplatonists in the true nature of humans which he saw as body and soul together. Humans bring down affliction on themselves through actively choosing the corruptible physical world rather than the spiritual Forms. He proposes free will as the root of evil since we can choose it through actions and words. He later evolved his concepts to include the idea that we cannot really understand why suffering exists because we cannot comprehend the mind of God.


The Problem of Evil

The question of evil in the world touched Augustine personally. He lived in times when the stable Roman Empire was falling apart, he lost his mother, then his son and also his mistress. His belief in God depended on answering questions about suffering in the world.

The author approaches the problem of evil from the philosophical bases of Manicheanism and Neoplatonism. He links evil and free will. Humans freely chose their actions and evil is a result of some of these choices. Natural evils are included in the scheme because they are viewed as evil by humanity. Disease, for instance, spreads because humans allow themselves to step into harm's way. Later Augustine offered a more theological explanation saying that what appears to us to be evil may not be in the eyes of God so we should not judge God's judgement. 

"6. What the cause of the blessedness of the good angels is, and what the cause of the misery of the wicked.

Thus the true cause of the blessedness of the good angels is found to be this, that they cleave to Him who supremely is. And if we ask the cause of the misery of the bad, it occurs to us, and not unreasonably, that they are miserable because they have forsaken Him who supremely is, and have turned to themselves who have no such essence. And this vice, what else is it called than pride? For "pride is the beginning of sin."[525] They were unwilling, then, to preserve their strength for God; and as adherence to God was the condition of their enjoying an ampler being, they diminished it by preferring themselves to Him. This was the first defect, and the first impoverishment, and the first flaw of their nature, which was created, not indeed supremely existent, but finding its blessedness in the enjoyment of the Supreme Being; whilst by abandoning Him it should become, not indeed no nature at all, but a nature with a less ample existence, and therefore wretched." (Book 12)

Knowledge

Augustine sought to demonstrate that certainty is philosophically possible. He first argued that acceptance of probability implicitly we assume that certainty exists since 'probably true' implies that certain truth exists. No truth means no probability. His second argument is to say that happiness is the result of acquired wisdom. To state that wisdom in unattainable is to say that happiness is impossible. The third argument Augustine uses is that of the senses. He insists that they are dependable and that the mind can comprehend independently of sensory information so it must be even more reliable than the senses. As a final point the author affirms that our mental states are beyond doubt since we know we are thinking. Even if we say we are being deceived this deception proves that we exist.





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