Saturday, November 14, 2020

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Saint Augustine


Sandro Botticelli - Saint Augustine 1480
As discussed in our previous essay, the early Church owed a significant debt to Greek philosophy in framing the theology of Christianity in a manner that could be more easily understood and palatable to the gentile community throughout the Roman empire. However, this was far from a seamless, unproblematic integration. The discrepancies in world views between Christianity and Greek philosophy were profound and primarily metaphysical. For Christianity as with Judaism the cosmos was created by God ex-nihilo, that is to say out of nothing. This was completely at odds with the original Platonic conception which followed Greek myth and religious precedent that matter had always existed as something substantially separate from God. Plato held that the cosmos was created ex-materia, the application of eternal Forms to pre-existing matter to imbue it with pattern and order. Stoic philosophy likewise had an influence on early Christianity; however, their metaphysics also departed significantly, although in a different direction. The Stoics held that God and Nature, the spiritual and physical world were merely two aspects of one reality. The Stoic cosmos was ex-deo, out of the very nature of God and identical with it. 

In time, Neoplatonism shifted slightly closer to Stoicism anticipating a panentheistic position which posited that from an initial outpouring of the divine there resulted the formation of intermediate states of being rising from an informed physical creation toward a World-Soul and Nous, culminating in the ultimate, unchanging One that exists outside of the hierarchy altogether. Further complicating the picture were Gnostic metaphysical conceptions that had penetrated both Judaism and Christianity. Gnostic dualism held that matter was entirely evil, a creation of the kingdom of darkness by the Demiurge and stood opposed in eternal conflict with the Great Father of the kingdom of light. Augustine of Hippo was raised Christian; however, upon adulthood he opted for Manicheism, an heretical Gnostic sect in which he participated for nearly a decade. Later disillusionment and opportunity led him to study Neoplatonism in Milan and ultimately back to Christianity. Augustine thus benefited from the ideal upbringing and education to salvage and reintegrate into Christianity what value he had encountered within the pagan and heretical views prevalent in the 4th century. The incredible work of synthesis undertaken by Saint Augustine would establish truth, beauty, and goodness as a tightly bound trinity that would deeply imprint the subsequent development of Christianity and Western culture.

The Good and Augustinian Metaphysics

Manichaean Bodhisattva Jesus
One of the issues that Augustine found unsatisfactory as an acolyte of Manicheism was its dualistic ontology that held there were two opposing realms of eternal being: a realm of the good, light, and reason contraposed against the realm of evil, darkness, and matter. In this scheme humans were the internally divided progeny of these warring factions, a soul and spark of the light entrapped in the darkness of an inherently evil body. There was no hope of an eventual vindication of good over evil. The best one could do was practise a life of strict asceticism waiting for one's divine spark to be relieved of and thereby saved from its diseased, mortal flesh. 

Augustine found that things improved slightly when he undertook his study of the Neoplatonic metaphysics of Plotinus. There remained two similar realms of eternal being: God and matter. However, matter was not considered inherently evil, just disorganised. By contrast, God was the Form of all Forms, the Good. What emanated from God were the Forms, eternal archetypes that ordered all existence, spiritual and material. To the extent that matter participated in the Forms, to that degree matter was good. Natural evil was nothing more than a deprivation, perversion, or corruption of goodness and formality, thus held no independent existence. Plotinus went on to relate another view of evil on moral grounds. Human beings were described as sitting at the nexus between material existence and the imbuement of form; as such they are able to choose between two orientations along the hierarchy of being. The higher orientation would lead to the pursuit of a life of reason, a cultivation of the active intellect that contemplates the eternal Forms, ultimately seeking reunion with the Good. Conversely, the lower path is to abandon oneself to the passions, a life of materials pursuits, seeking fulfillment of desires, and embodied pleasures. 

Much of this Neoplatonic view was considered worthy of salvage by Augustine upon his conversion to Christianity. However, a number of adjustments would have to be made to arrive at a respectable synthesis. What could be received unreservedly was that God was synonymous with the Good and the source of all goodness. However, unlike the Greek conception, for a Christian matter was not a pre-existent, distinct substance that God had later given form, rather God informed matter in the act of His creation and saw that "it was very good." The Neoplatonists conceived of God as perfect, complete, timeless, and unchanging. Beings such as the Logos, the World-Soul, down to human beings and the material cosmos were all emanations of the divine and they found these intermediary beings necessary in explaining how change was possible. Nevertheless, for Augustine it was unacceptable that Christ as the Logos or the Holy Ghost were different from God, or even similar to God. Augustine's Christianity demanded that they be of the very same essence of God, wholly good, not inferior beings on an hierarchy. 

“How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time, but eternity.”

For the Neoplatonists, God was changeless and outside the realm of time. Time was seen as limiting and perspectival, the ever changing image of the eternal Forms. Augustine wanted to agree that God was perfect in the Platonic sense yet his approach was slightly adjusted to account for God's appearing as the Creator and active in the material world of particulars. Augustine presents time as something coming into existence with the creation of the cosmos. God's omniscience means that all of our time is present to Him at once similar to a great leap of intuition that we may experience. Augustine relates that how we experience time ourselves gives an intimation of this perspective. For example, our view of the past is nothing more than a memory we experience in the present. Similarly, our conjecture of the future is nothing more than a present anticipation. Human beings thus phenomenally exist in an everlasting present. Augustine extrapolates this describing God as having a static, present image of time on a cosmic, eternal scale, and in a perfect manner. This is arguably not an entirely satisfactory explanation in the face of further scrutiny yet it is an undeniably significantly imaginative leap forward.

Truth, Light and Epistemology

"Where I found truth, there found I my God, who is the truth itself."

The aforementioned differences between Neoplatonic and Christian metaphysics have implications for their respective theories of knowledge. For the Neoplatonists, human intellect was the spiritual aspect of man, a residue of the very emanation of the divine. Therefore access to the truth was innate, straightforwardly an act of remembrance of one's previous existence. The means for distinguishing truth and falsehood was dialectical, a vigorous application of reason to argument. A tempered asceticism was likewise encouraged as the body was materially tied to a location whereas pleasures withdrew one's focus to the immediacy of sensation. Reason was to cultivate and exercise the civic virtues of temperance, prudence, courage, and justice in order to restrain the passions so that the intellectual practise of dialectic might proceed unfettered, the mind freed to travel temporally in recollection and spatially in imagination. The ultimate goal of dialectic was direct access to the transcendent truths of the Forms, reunification with the One, and the elimination of independent being.

Of course, for Augustine the idea that any aspect of human beings was consubstantial with the divine was necessarily rejected. Man was created by God like everything else. The soul may be incorporeal yet it has no pre-history, there is no pre-existence from which it can remember anything. Truth was therefore posited as something to be learned as an act of will rather than remembered as the exercise of intellect. Augustine strongly associated Truth with the manifestation of the Logos, God as the source of all Form. Augustine modifies the Neoplatonist concept of the emanating logoi spermatikoi to describe the Logos' rationes seminales, 'seeds of reason' that were implanted in the creation, subsequently ordering its development, each according to its kind. Likewise, Plato's eternal Forms that seemed to posses their own being independent of God were reenvisioned as the rationes aeternae, eternal ideas in the mind of the Logos. While God's truths were on the one hand immanent, directly observable in nature through the action of the rationes seminales, how could mortal man catch sight of the rationes aeternae, eternal ideas in the mind of God?

The answer Augustine provides is direct illumination of the human mind by the Logos. Jesus had indeed told his followers that he was "the light of the world." This light however is not truth in and of itself, rather it enables the truth to be seen. Furthermore, there is exertion required on the part of individual, the mind's eye must look, there must be an active effort to know. Although Augustine acknowledges that some truth has been revealed through revelation, the general illumination of the Logos has always been available to all of mankind. This conveniently accounted for why Plato and many of the pagan philosophers had uncovered so many truths. These men had put forth strenuous efforts to exercise their power of reason and the Logos had in turn illumined their vision. Hence, the existence of logical truths such as the law of non-contradiction (a thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect) as well as the law of self-existence that Augustine himself expressed thus: "Si fallor, sum" (If I am mistaken, I am.) Moreover, this justified the study of such pagan philosophies for in the final analysis "all truth is God's truth" wheresoever it may be found.

Beauty and an Ethic of Love

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

The Conversion of Saint Augustine, Fra Angelico 1435

With those words Augustine opens his Confessions, an autobiographical account of his personal and philosophical journey leading to his conversion to Christianity. In Christianity Augustine finds what was lacking, although not entirely absent from Platonic philosophy: an ethic of Love. While Plato placed an heavy emphasis on reason and the intellect he did stress the importance of love when discussing beauty where he differentiates between the love of sensible things below and the more important love of their Form above. So for example, the sensible love for the harmony of a particular music or the agreeableness of a young maiden might serve as a path for the soul's ascension to a principled love of the transcendental form of Beauty in and of itself. Neoplatonism expands on this view illustrating beauty as a composite form, a well-ordered arrangement revealed in the proportion, harmony, and symmetry of the parts as they relate to a united whole. This compositional perspective would play a large aesthetic role in the reemergence of all things Classical during the Renaissance.

Augustine saw in Christianity that salvation did not come from what we know, rather from what we love. Love is a virtue not of the intellect but the will. Love is what motivates us and he describes it thus: "Since love grows within you, so beauty grows. For love is the beauty of the soul." Similar to Plato he distinguishes between a love of temporal, material things below (cupiditas), and the spiritual love for things eternal (caritas). Likewise, the beauty of the rationes seminales is revealed in the hierarchical arrangement and order of nature where everything has its place, where even the natural 'evils' inherent to mortality, decay, and death lead to a renewal of life thus serving the greater good and pointing to the realm above. God's creation is good, our senses exist to appreciate the beauty of nature, music, literature, etc. It is after all a love for truth that spurs us on to find the unity between the good and the beautiful in God as is manifest in the creation. Augustine goes on to redefine the Greek cardinal virtues in a Christian ethic of Love:

"I hold virtue to be nothing else than perfect love of God...that temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it."

Augustine's ethic of Love and its related cardinal virtues have acted as a guiding light for Christianity for 1,600 years. With it Augustine redeems the material, temporal, sensual life as being worthy of our contemplation and even love for it is in earthly goods we find the Good; in diverse truths we are directed to the Truth; in sensual beauties we are led to Beauty; in the harmony, order, and unity of form we are led inextricably to the One and what draws us forward is Love.

In our next essay we'll see the reemergent influence of Aristotle and its own influence upon Christianity via the medieval school of philosophy, Scholasticism and its most influential thinker, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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