Ellis Washington
August 15, 2014
On Augustine and the theocratic worldview
By Ellis Washington


Habit, if not restricted, soon becomes necessity.

~Augustine of Hippo

Biography

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the Christian philosopher and theologian is most remembered for his two classics in Christian apologetics, The Confessions and The City of God. Next to the writers of the New Testament, he is the most respected Christian writer. The greatest of the Latin Fathers of the Catholic Church, Augustine flourished during an Age in which the Roman Empire was well past its peak and was in extreme decline and yet 40 years before Augustine's birth God took what the world at that time considered a despised, persecuted "cult" to arise and caused the pagan world to bow down and adopt Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine in 312 AD. Yet, this era of Roman history was filled with excessive political upheaval as well as a pervasive religious angst. Augustine's personal spiritual battles are well-known and reveal the historical conversion from a declining pagan antiquity to the Christian Middle Ages. The Confessions chronicles key details regarding his formative years, when he struggled to control his carnal desires, eventually giving his life totally to God, and zealously strove to understand religious and philosophical principles by systematically applying them to himself and then transmitting those eternal truths to others.

Augustine was born at Tagaste (modern Souk-Ahras, Algeria) on Nov. 13, 354. His father, Patricius, converted to Christianity at the end of his life, however, Augustine's mother, Monica, was a devout Christian. In accord with the customs of the times his mother saw that Augustine receive a religious education in this religion, however, his baptism into the faith of his mother was deferred. Educated in Latin grammar and literature at Tagaste and Madaura, Augustine flourished and in 370 was sent to Carthage to study rhetoric. It was here in Carthage, while effectively following his studies, that he abandoned the Christian moral teachings of his early youth. He took a mistress, whom he lived with for 10 years, and fathered a son, Adeodatus (meaning, the God-given).

Augustine's works are far too numerous to cite by title, however, usually one writer can only have a single magnum opus, but remarkably Augustine had three: De doctrina Christiana [The Christian Doctrine] (composed in 396 with a fourth book added in 426), Confessions (400), The City of God (begun in 413 and finished about 420).

Influence of Platonism

In 383 Augustine went to Rome to teach rhetoric and later took a civic post in Milan as professor of rhetoric because his earlier students in Rome many times refused to pay their school fees when they became due. In Rome, Augustine had become aware of the intellectual skepticism of Carneades and Cicero. Like the liberals and progressives of our modern times, the skeptics of Augustine's time believed that certainty about any subject or issue was not possible and that consequently all of man's beliefs should be considered as indeterminate and unreliable.

In Milan, Augustine was greatly influenced by the sermons of the bishop Ambrose and because there were a number of philosophers who associated with him that were just as much Platonists as Christians, they considered Platonism as in accord with, and a precursor of Christianity. From reading certain Platonic writings, possibly those of Plotinus and Porphyry, and gatherings with Christian Platonists, Augustine adopted a doctrinaire Platonic worldview. These ideas supplanted in Augustine's mind his earlier Manichaean materialism. For example, the Platonic belief that evil was only a deprivation of good. Augustine's skepticism started to soften as his newly acquired convictions matured, yet, this unusual transformation was to him only a cognitive one. His final and most important step in developing his intellectual worldview would be his conversion to Christianity and the acceptance of Christ as his Lord and Savior.

Conversion to Christianity

This occurrence is chronicled in the celebrated "garden scene" in Augustine's Confessions (VII, 12). After hearing a child's voice repeating the words "Take and read," seemingly by chance Augustine opened his Bible exactly at this passage in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (13:13): "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences." Augustine then observed, "I had no wish to read further and no need. For in that instant, with the very ending of the sentence, it was as though a light of utter confidence shone in all my heart." From this epiphany to his death Augustine lived the life of an exemplary Christian, and he was baptized by Ambrose on Easter 387. In 388 Augustine returned to Tagaste and established a religious community. Ordained a priest in 391, he founded a similar community in Hippo (modern Bone, Algeria), becoming bishop there in 396. Until 430 Augustine worked incessantly on pastoral matters while writing some of the greatest theological and philosophical works known to humanity. On Aug. 28, 430, Augustine died, while Hippo was under siege by the Vandals.

Why Theocracy is infinitely better than Democracy

Augustine explains his beliefs as a theologian regarding the theories of the philosopher as related to heavenly matters. "I have not undertaken" he says, "to refute all the vain theological opinions of all the philosophers, but only of such of them as, agreeing in the belief that there is a divine nature, and that this divine nature is concerned about human affairs, do nevertheless deny that the worship of the one unchangeable God is sufficient for the obtaining of a blessed life after death, as well as at the present time." Since "Plato defined the wise man as one who imitates, knows, and loves this God, and who is rendered blessed through fellowship with Him in His own blessedness, why discuss with the other philosopher? It is evident that none come nearer to us than the Platonists."

According to Augustine, Plato, "is justly preferred to all the other philosophers of the Gentiles"; those among his followers who show "the greatest acuteness in understanding him. . . entertain such an idea of God as to admit that in Him are to be found the cause of existence, the ultimate reason for the understanding, and the end in reference to which the whole life is to be regulated." So astonishing, to his mind, are the counterparts between certain understandings voiced by Plato and the wisdom of Sacred Scripture, that Augustine is virtually motivated to believe that "Plato was no ignorant of those writings." However, he was not of the opinion to decide whether Plato had familiarity with the writings of Moses and the prophets since this inquiry was satisfied on natural law grounds – i.e., certain basic truths transcended the laws of man and were self-evident in the universe, thus accessible by human reason including the Hebrew Scriptures. "That which is known of God," the apostle had said, "has been manifested among them, for God hath manifested it to them."

Therefore since all truth belongs to God, Augustine felt justified in using or adopting any truth gleaned from the writings of Plato which is consistent with Christian faith. Likewise, Aquinas, deriving much from Aristotle, describes that "sacred doctrine makes use of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason." Sanctified theology uses the doctrines of the philosophers, he adds, "not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer." It is in this sense that Aquinas calls philosophy the handmaiden of theology.

The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), who in a former essay I severely criticized for the diabolical nature of his so-called "Hegelian dialectic" which skeptics and humanists have used to pervert logic, truth, and history via his ubiquitous – Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis paradigm. However, regarding the criticisms by many philosophers and historians of the idea of conflating Plato and Christianity, yet Hagel (no friend of Christianity) dismisses the criticism that is frequently made about the dependence of Christian theology, at least in its establishment period, on pagan ideas. "The Fathers of the Church and the Councils," he writes, "constituted the dogma; but a chief element in this constitution was supplied by the previous development of philosophy." That certain dogmas were introduced into the Christian religion through "the instrumentality of philosophy . . . is not sufficient ground for asserting that they were foreign to Christianity and had nothing to do with it. It is a matter of perfect indifference where a thing originated; the only question," Hegel insists, "is, 'Is it true in and for itself?' Many think that by pronouncing the doctrine to be Neoplatonic, they have ipso facto banished it from Christianity. Whether a Christian doctrine stands exactly thus and thus in the Bible . . . is not the only question. The Letter kills, the Spirit makes alive."

Philosophy of History

Augustine possessed a keen curiosity about historical ages and how they combine together to form a rational historical timeline, even a philosophy of history. For example, in The City of God he notably opposes mainstream Christian thought regarding the historical significance of the Roman Empire. Conventional wisdom prior to the 4th century held that Christians had certainly viewed the Roman Empire as a demonic persecutor. Nevertheless, overtime Christianity triumphed over pagan Rome went it was officially accepted in 312; the empire seem to have transitioned to become the nation for the fulfillment of the Gospels.

Three years later Augustine began his magnum opus, The City of God, where may have been influenced by the historical event of Rome being sacked by the Visigoths, led by Alaric I in 410. In Augustine's narrative, Rome differs from the Church both as a reality and as an ideal. As a reality, Rome represents of the vanities of mankind and of empires which have come and gone, of which the destiny of the Church must not be entangled with it. Rome, as a prototype, earthly city was utterly antagonistic to the ideal of the heavenly city. However, Augustine believed that a people is a "multitude of reasonable beings united by their agreement in the things that they respect" (City of God, XIX, 24). Augustine's logic put forth that the character of a society therefore is determined by the decisions of the people who comprise the city. If the choice is of selfishness as opposed to love of God, then one is in unity with the earthly city; if of God as opposed to self, then one is in unity with the heavenly city.

In contrast to Greek philosophers like Hesiod, Sophocles, Herodotus and Plato, Augustine never refers to ideals as existing since antiquity (finite) but transcendent (infinite). On the other hand, he asserts that the two ideals will only become historical realities, after the Apocalypse – the conclusion of time. At this juncture the two cities will exist in reality and distinctly. People of the heavenly city will be with God, but people of the earthly city are condemned to eternal punishment. Nevertheless, in the present, the two ideals are brought together into one historical reality. Yet Augustine declares that the inference of this new unity is that Church and State will be in essence a Cold War – an uneasy agreement between two incongruous worldviews. Augustine urges the Christian faithful to look away from Rome, to despise the worldly kingdoms of mere man with his vanities, duplicity and chaos, but instead look towards the true fulfillment of mankind's hopes – to that transcendent city, that "New Jerusalem" which will be manifested by God's sublime glory at the end of time.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 79 – Religion; Chap. 92 – Theology and Vol. 18 – Augustine.


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Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington

 

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute. He is an adjunct professor at the National Paralegal College where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, Contracts and Advanced Legal Writing... (more)

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