Wednesday, December 02, 2009

An Excursion into the Thought of St Augustine

Jaume Huguet (Around 1412-92)
The Consecration of Saint Augustine.
From the high altarpiece, dedicated to Saint Augustine, in the church of Sant Agustí Vell in Barcelona, seat of the Tanners' Guild
Around 1466-75
Tempera on wood
272 x 200 cm (with frame)
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Henry Chadwick KBE (23 June 1920 – 17 June 2008) was a British academic and Church of England clergyman. A former Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford — and as such also head of Christ Church, Oxford — he also served as Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, becoming the first person in four centuries to have headed a college at both universities.

A leading historian of the early church, Chadwick was appointed Regius Professor at both the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

He was a noted supporter of improved relations with the Roman Catholic Church, and a leading member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).

Writing in an obituary for The Guardian, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote, "'The Anglican church,' it was said, 'may not have a Pope, but it does have Henry Chadwick.'" and further described him as an "aristocrat among Anglican scholars".

He treasured a stole given to him by the pope, and this was placed on his coffin during his funeral at Christ Church on 25 June 2008.

Professor Henry Chadwick's review of Augustine by John M. Rist was published in the TLS of March 24, 1995.

The book being reviewed was John M. Rist, Augustine, Ancient thought baptized, 334pp. Cambridge University Press. £40     0 521 46084 0.

It is a model of what a book review should be. It also illustrates the great knowledge of Chadwick about Augustine. He had written extensively on St Augustine and had written a translation of Augustine`s Confessions.

Here is the review:

"Of the millions of words dictated by the gifted Latin-speaking Christian, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430), the majority survive for us to read, and of those the most important are translated into modern European tongues.

Although he had a Christian mother, his father being baptized only on his death-bed, there was virtually no Christian or biblical content to his education. Nor did his schooling actually train him in the methods and questions of philosophers. So moments of amateurishness creep in by inevitable consequence.

His main training was in Latin literature and oratory. Cicero, Virgil, Terence and Sallust he came to know virtually by heart, and his pages, sometimes even his sermons, can offer unmarked reminiscences of good turns of phrase. God, he once avowed, had endowed him with a fine memory and with fluency in expressing his meaning. He was disowning any merit for these gifts.

His love of great prose and poetry enriched his facility in the art of public speaking, and he moved through a succession of teaching posts at Carthage, Rome and finally Milan. Contemporaries thought him a born teacher. He characteristically thought it doubtful whether anyone learns eloquence by being lectured on the subject. But this was the way in which until the age of thirty-two or thirty-three he earned his bread.

Augustine could understand rather more Greek than he sometimes wanted to admit. But most of what he knew about the classical philosophers came from Latin writers, especially Cicero.

His first encounter with philosophical questions came when he was eighteen, as a student at Carthage. He then read a now lost dialogue by Cicero, entitled Hortensius: an exhortation on the necessity of some philosophical studies not only for persons holding public office always inclined to think such questions too abstract for their immediate necessities but even for all thoughtful people. In this dialogue, Cicero observed that everybody is in search of happiness, and that philosophical considerations have a bearing on the empirical fact that the majority of the human race look for it in places which bring disillusion: notably in power, honour, wealth and sex.

The force of the argument overwhelmed the young man, and it even moved him to pick up some bits of the Bible, but it all felt like lead in his hand. He was repelled by the morality of the Israelite patriarchs and by in-consistent Gospel genealogies.

The effect of reading Cicero was to impel Augustine into the theosophy of Mani, whose mythology explained evil by the weakness of a well-intentioned Creator, and whose ascetic morality regarded alcohol, meat-eating and procreation with a frown of disapproval.

There was paradox in this turning towards the Manichees. The young man's sexual drive had already led him to follow the then common social pattern of taking a concubine who came from the lower haunts of Carthage, intended to be his partner until such time as he was ready to marry and establish a family. And from his successes in coming top of the class, he had become aware that if he could get to know influential people and somehow acquire money, a promising secular career could be open to him.

He dreamt of becoming governor of a minor province, the kind of post to which a high literary culture was in that age thought appropriate. Appointment to a professorship at Milan, where the Western Emperor, Valentinian, resided, brought him proximity to powerful court officials and rich senators.

But public office was a matter of purchase, so he needed a rich wife. His mother found him an heiress. With mutual pain, his concubine of almost fifteen years, who had (by mistake) given him a son whose abilities were a source of paternal pride went home to Carthage. But the proposed marriage was abandoned, in consequence of a religious crisis and Augustine's subsequent renunciation of all secular ambitions, which made him of no interest to prospective in-laws.

About the time of his move to Milan, he was losing confidence in Mani's fantastic mythology, and simultaneously passing into agnosticism probably in the sense that he did not see how the human mind could attain certainty in most important matters, rather than in the sense that he felt sure the human mind could not achieve confidence in these things.

Some of the arguments originally deployed by ancient sceptics against Stoic materialism long remained with him; as a bishop, he often found fellow believers more sure about, for example, the end of the world than he thought they ought to be, and the famous treatment of the mystery of time in the Confessions is laced with sceptical echoes. Slowly he began to argue himself out of doubt about the possibility of actually knowing things.

One of the factors that destroyed his trust in the philosophy of the Manichees was their wonderfully improbable explanation of eclipses as caused by sun or moon veiling their sight from the bloody cosmic battles between good and evil powers in heaven. Ancient astronomers had very different accounts of these impressive phenomena.

Augustine observed (was he the first person to do so?) that the methods of natural scientists, who correctly assume this world to be one of mathematical order and rationality, are vindicated by their power to make correct predictions, such as of the day and hour when eclipses are to come about.

It also occurred to Augustine to say: If I think, at least I must be alive since otherwise I could not doubt. "Even if mistaken in my thinking, I exist." He often repeated this striking partial anticipation of Descartes. He also repeated the argument of Plato's Phaedo that to say, with the sceptics, that the best attainable level of knowledge is verisimilitude actually assumes that somewhere truth (or truths) exist, since otherwise one could never identify a proposition as having a resemblance to it.

With the universal ancient axiom that philosophy is about the discovery of happiness, Augustine could also argue that if no truth is really attainable, a primal condition for the attainment of happiness is unfulfilled, and a moral paralysis will ensue.

The problem of evil and its reconciliation with belief in a providential order were primary issues for the Manichees, and did not leave Augustine's mind when he ceased to attend their conventicle. But in his own time the dominant philosophy in both Greek East and Latin West was Neoplatonism. At about the time of his birth, a fellow-African had made Latin versions of Aristotle's Categories and of some texts by Plotinus and Porphyry.

At Milan, Augustine was recruited in-to a group which studied the Neoplatonic philo-sophy and introduced him to Plotinus, probably also to some of Porphyry. He was converted to the Platonic view that the evils in human experience are the consequence of wrong free choices, rather than a flaw in the created order for which the divine Creator is to be held responsible; moreover, in mysterious ways providence can transform evil for beneficent ends. "God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to allow evil to exist." This transformist view was reinforced by elements from the old Stoics, who thought one should exercise one's free will by an inner power of decision, and by realizing that good and evil are not in the body, or external things, but only in the soul, and its moral virtue.

The reading of Plotinus on the divine beauty fired him with longing for mystical experience in a vision of the eternal and changeless realm of pure being where things do not "become". They are.

John M. Rist has a respected place among historians of ancient philosophy, and has written clear-headed books about several of the classical schools. Augustine: Ancient thought baptized turns Professor Rist's searchlight towards the use and transformation of themes in classical Greek philosophy that resulted from these concerns of Augustine's. The outcome is likely to be reckoned by readers to rank as Rist's best book so far: the sheer magnitude of the subject and the contemporaneity of some of the issues have evoked a book to match. He knows his way not only about Plato, the Stoics, Aristotle and Epicurus, but also the prodigious output of Augustine himself.

Except in regard to work on logic (a subject in which Augustine was particularly interested and on which he wrote a handbook for students), Rist is more hesitant than many would think necessary about the influence of Porphyry, and is also inclined to doubt whether Augustine was familiar with more than a very few of the Enneads of Plotinus.

The point is, however, marginal to his argument, which centres on the way in which conversion to Christianity both stimulated Augustine's philosophical concerns and led him to modify and criticize classical positions.

By coincidence (Augustine liked cataloguing coincidences in his life, in a manner which illustrates his deep disbelief in chance), during his professorship at Milan, the contemporary Bishop there, Ambrose, himself a former provincial governor of senatorial standing, was not only a fine orator in the pulpit but also an admirer of much in the writings of Plotinus and Porphyry, which he could read in Greek without difficulty.

Sermons at the cathedral impressed the sceptical professor not only by their polished Latin but by their intellectual content, very different from the kind of stuff he had once heard at his agricultural home town in what is now eastern Algeria. The gross and highly unsymbolic understanding of Holy Scripture heard in the pulpits of rural Numidia was far from Ambrose's philosophical interpretation, especially in homilies on awkward Israelite patriarchs or on the Psalms. Moreover, the exquisite and haunting Psalm chants were important to an ear with a considerable feeling for music. Augustine began to think his mother, Monica's faith could conceivably be true after all.

Although he had surprisingly little personal contact with Ambrose during his time at Milan, the Christianized Platonism he was hearing from the Bishop's sermons persuaded him that, while the Neoplatonism to which he had already been converted was teaching him much truth, it was incomplete. As he put it, the Platonists profoundly discerned the goal of human nature and destiny, but the Christians knew better the pilgrim path by which one might actually get there.

To his own astonishment and that of others, he began to find an author capable of speaking to his condition in the apostle Paul and his Letter to the Romans, and in July of the year 386 he found himself driven into a corner, suddenly liberated by the impact of a child's voice ("Tolle lege") over the garden wall, when nothing could have been further from the child's concern than healing a professor's sick soul. The die was cast.

Augustine decided to offer his name for baptism by Ambrose the following Easter, together with his natural son, a close friend and pupil from his home town and a group of other migrant Africans. This involved also the decision to abandon marriage and his secular ambitions as professor of literature and oratory. The shift in the structure of his thinking was very gradual. There was no blinding light on his road to Damascus, and between the before and after of his "conversion" there was much continuity. But now Plotinus' aspiration of "a flight of the alone to the Alone" began to be replaced by love of neighbour, and therefore by a wish to gather a community of like-minded ascetic friends, with a merging of Platonic and Christian ideals.

At Ostia, waiting for a safe passage to North Africa that was delayed by civil war, Augustine buried Monica, his mother.

Three years after returning home to the farm in Numidia, while on a visit to the coastal town of Hippo Regius (today Annaba), much against his will he found himself coerced into accepting ordination as a priest, and four or five years later was pressed to become Bishop.

Controversy surrounded that, most of what he did and a fair proportion of what he wrote. The big books leaving a permanent mark on Western thinking about the nature and sources of the self, about the inscrutable mystery of divine providence in human history and even about the fragmentary capacity of the human mind, made in God's image to comprehend, by serious and sustained introspection, something of the triadic being of the Creator that is, the Confessions, The City of God and The Trinity were all written not in a tranquil institute for advanced study but under the intense stress of episcopal cares.

In these works, without exception, there is a strong presence of Platonic and Stoic language, especially in the discussions of ethics, logic and the reconciling of trust in divine providence with the outrage of evil. Many of the principal philosophical questions discussed in Augustine's pages are there because the issues were raised by problems for faith, and for the rational understanding of faith, now called theology.

One major area to which he was impelled to give much thought was that of the meaning and reference of words. His decision to accept initiation into the Church brought him face to face with the Bible, which was to the Christian community a major vehicle for calling humanity to obedience to the divine will and to peace and justice. Its books contained many words.

Had the authors not been inspired, he would say, they would have maintained silence. Words had been the subject of a long-running debate between Stoics and Epicureans: what relation do they have (a) to propositions and, beyond them, (b) to realities? One can see the meaning of a proposition without also having to agree that it is directly informative about things perceptible in this world. With the moves in this intricate game of intellectual chess Augustine was very familiar.

Platonism and Christian faith combined to make him ask how one can get from meaning to reality. As John Rist puts it, Stoic logicians were content to say, "If there is smoke, there is fire." Augustine longed to know the additional fact that there are in actuality some fires, not merely that the hypothetical condition imposes an inference. Doubts about the meaningfulness of propositions were inherent in the sceptical books which for a time he had avidly read. From religious experience he came to see that by deep intuition human beings can know what is incapable of being expressed in words. With Plotinus, he could exclaim that a lover will know what he is talking about.

How do we come to have an innate power to recognize truth, beauty and justice?

Plato had explained this phenomenon by the notion that learning is a dim recollection of truths already known during an existence preceding this life. Augustine, in some rapport with Plotinus on this point, wanted to drop the notion of recollection (or anamnesis) in favour of divine illumination bringing direct intuition.

Perhaps because as a believer he learnt to attach high value to the sacraments, he was particularly interested in non-verbal communication. There is not much in Edmund Leach's book Culture and Communication (1976) which Augustine did not know.

We understand what someone means to tell us not necessarily so much by the words used as by the tone of voice, the gestures and actions invested with informative or performative meaning. This master of words was willing to concede their high utility, but was also emphatic about their in-adequacy and acutely conscious of the gap between everyday usage (consuetudo loquendi) and precise logical statement. And then how constantly people misunderstand one another, or are simply deceived by mendacity a failing to which "human beings devote the maximum of ingenuity".

Augustine knew that because meanings are determined by the customary usage of a community, the same words can carry different overtones in separate societies.

Furthermore, there is the language barrier. We learn our first language by effortless listening to parents and nurses and are then astonished to find a second language altogether more painful to acquire. In The City of God, Augustine observed that two human beings ignorant of each other's tongue find it easier to communicate with a dog.

But even when language is shared, we are ambiguous not merely to others but often to ourselves. "I am a question to myself." And because of our flawed human nature, the inheritance of the old Adam, full clarity is unattainable in this life. Only in heaven will there be mutual understanding in which we are transparent to one another. Nevertheless, under the conditions of this world, inhabited by human beings whose most intoxicating passion is a lust for power and domination, the multiplicity of languages is not without merit. For if there were a single verbal currency, it would then become easier to achieve a dangerous concentration of power in a single authority.

This surprising reflection coheres with Augustine's well-known scepticism about the beneficence and efficiency of the vast Roman empire, which in his view would be better replaced by a multiplicity of nation states.

Controversy between Stoics and sceptics provided a backcloth for Augustine's discussions of the relation between faith and understanding. This is apparent when we meet sentences such as "There are things we do not believe until we understand, and other things we do not understand until we believe." Faith is related to authority, whether in the divine gift of Holy Scripture or in the consensus of believers. But, for Augustine, divine authority is never contrary to the amazing gift of reasoning power. To a correspondent on the island of Minorca, who wrote elevating the submission of faith above all secular reason, he sharply replied, "Love reason very highly." Yet "to believe is to love", and faith is intimately linked to hope and love as three steps on a spiritual ladder.

Nevertheless, we experience corrupt loves that need to be corrected, often by fear. To our faults in this life, divine discipline is in all circumstances remedial and therapeutic, never merely retributive. A symptom of the parlous state of the human condition is the absurdity of pride.

Another is the irrationality and imperviousness to rational deliberation characteristic of the sexual impulse, originally implanted by a beneficent Creator and a source of "supreme pleasure" to Adam and Eve, but since the Fall brought low to mere lust and animality, from which the consent of husband and wife to produce a family rescues it with transforming and sublime effect.

Can human beings really achieve pure goodness of will and intention?

Aristotle commented on weakness of will as a common, not necessarily universal, phenomenon. Augustine felt that this understated the case. One may succeed in resisting temptation this week, or this year, but still be aware that next week, or next year, one may lapse. At this point, the apostle's language about the divided will (Romans 7) had an influence. So too did Paul's language about the general experience of frustration attaching to all beings in this created order of things (Romans 8).

Augustine would write an autobiography of a very peculiar kind in his Confessions, composed in the four or five years after he had become Bishop, and with an undercurrent of rebuttal to critics who judged him an unsuitable clergyman. A prose poem in form, addressed to God rather than humanity, the sense of destitution without divine light and grace, the self-awareness of a heart for ever unquiet without relation to the soul's Maker, illustrates the grander macrocosm of a transient created world, subject to the successiveness of time. This frustration is exacerbated by the human desire to be master of one's own destiny in defiant independence of God (a theme on which Plotinus too had similar things to say).

"Humanity is a social creature by nature, but by corruption how antisocial!" Antisocial activities can be partly restrained through the institutions of society. Without law (and Augustine knew something about Roman law), society disintegrates. The institution of marriage takes the natural bond of husband and wife to produce the seed-corn of "the city". A tract entitled "The Good of Marriage" he devoted largely to a silent refutation of the imprudently negative language used by his elder contemporary, Jerome, the unangelic doctor. Augustine's abandonment of Manichaean notions forbade him to think femininity a stamp of inferiority in the eyes of God. The elusive Latin term concupiscentia passed through various shades of meaning in his writings. Its treatment is akin to language used by Stoics about propatheia, something that makes a suggestion to the mind but which is less than surrender to passion. Only actual consent to a downward pull becomes "sin".

Augustine frequently protested how much he disliked being regarded as an authoritative provider of solutions rather than an asker of questions. At the same time, he confessed to a weakness for self-justification.

John Rist's final chapter reviews areas where a modern believer will be critical. It is not possible today to apply Augustine's methods of interpretation to the Bible. His controversy with Pelagius (the earliest British writer whose works survive) made his account of divine mercy and judgment arbitrary. Perhaps, above all, his rhetorical skill at forming sharp epigrammatic phrases tempted him to offer an "either /or" where one would think "both/ and" nearer the truth."