Augustine and Dante on Sin, Virtue, and Agency
“Here I saw people more numerous than before, onone side and the other, with great cries rollingweights by the force of their chests” (Inferno 7.25-27)”The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill man’s heart. We have to imagine Sisyphus happy.”—Albert Camus, The Myth of SisyphusIn Confessions, Saint Augustine defines sin as alienation from God. Dante, too, affirms this conception in Inferno. But whereas Augustine tends to emphasize the negative aspects of human freedom—it triggered the Fall and distanced man from God—Dante practices a discerning syncretism. Probing beyond Augustinian ideas, he defends the possibility of human virtue divorced from God. In Inferno, extraordinary characters like Ulysses exemplify this possibility, displaying a uniquely human grandeur. In essence, Dante retains the Augustinian framework but proceeds to poeticize the heroic potential that arises from free will, delineating its power for good and its ability to partly redeem souls languishing in damnation.Augustine renders nearly all judgment relative to an omnipotent God. Such a worldview manifests itself in almost all his rhetoric: “Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself?” (I.v ). Because God is the “one and only good,” the world of Confessions lies along the axis between the corrupted man and the perfect deity. For man to live virtuously, God must enter man, and man must accept God. Only through divine grace can man come to embrace the Lord. And only through this holy embrace can the state of sin, natural to man, be overwhelmed. The universe of Inferno has a secular ambience in contrast to Confessions. Dante refrains from addressing God in an apostrophe every second stanza. The divine remains restrained to rhetorical flourishes like “God’s art” (21.16). Though the godly design of Hell remains implicit at every level and step, God himself does not appear. The great chain of being evinced in the second canto, connecting Virgil to Beatrice to Lucia to the Virgin Mary and finally to God, further expresses this immense chasm between man and deity.This celestial silence serves at least two functions. First, it reinforces the concept found in Confessions that a great distance exists between the creator and the created, especially sinners. That God shows himself not in the depths of Cocytus makes sense, for the sinners there are physically as well as spiritually far from God. Second, and more significantly, the near absence of an omnipotent deity provides greater elbowroom for human action and thought, allowing Dante to develop a humanistic perspective on will and virtue. Before an exposition of this candle is possible, one must examine the views of Augustine on free will and sin. In reference to his incident with the pears, Augustine recalls that “criminality was the piquant sauce” (II.vi ). In other words, he sinned for the sake of sinning. Because of this motivation, Augustine portrays his crime as a recapitulation of the Fall: “I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself” (II.iv ). In eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam chose the ability to determine his own actions. Augustine’s crime, too, was an assertion of his own will without need for divine guidance. And he loved the self-destruction because it, paradoxically, was also self-creation; a thrill derived from the feeling of agency.Given such an experience with his own free will in youth, the pessimistic attitude that Augustine develops in adulthood is understandable. Although free will implies neither good nor less good, Augustine focuses on its ability to bring about the latter and take mankind farther from God. He disparages human agency as “making an assertion of possessing a dim resemblance to omnipotence” (II.vi ). For Augustine, Adam before the Fall lived in perfect innocence and happiness under a divine plan. It was only through free choice that he became tainted.In addressing the other half of the equation, about whether agency can create virtue, Augustine posits that no virtue can exist outside of worshipping God. He states, “The soul fornicates…when it is turned away from you and seeks outside you the pure and clear intentions which are not to be found except by returning to you. In their perverted way all humanity imitates you” (II.vi ). Thus, seeking any humanistic definition of virtue will forever be futile. In the Augustinian universe, man’s distance from God bars him from exercising an independent will to virtue, the doing of which might resemble perfect divinity. Though men may attempt to imitate the virtues of God, they merely pervert themselves and their secular institutions. Of these men Augustine states, “[T]hey put themselves at a distance from you and exalt themselves against you” (II.vi ). In other words, though humans attempt to imitate godly virtue, this attempt ironically takes them farther from God and in actuality renders them less likely to receive divine grace.Augustine provides at least two reasons for why such mortal pretensions to virtue must fail. First, though Augustine does not deny the limited dignity of human moral striving, what he calls the “urge to self-assertion” (II.v ), he argues that such progress can never even approach the greatness of God. As an imitation (II.vi ) of infinite goodness, progress ultimately rings hollow. Thus, to wholly immerse oneself in the mechanisms of the world would be to lose sight of the end for the means: “We abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law” (II.v ). As such, Augustine exhorts repeatedly that one must humble oneself before God, for the true path to goodness lies not within the lone soul or the collective effort of the world, but through the benevolence of the Lord. Second, Augustine sees humans as essentially not capable of being heroic or virtuous by themselves. Providing ample evidence of his antagonism toward human self-sufficiency, Augustine asserts that “[n]o one who considers his frailty would dare to attribute to his own strength his chastity and innocence” (II.vii ). Augustine condemns the frailty of human will and man’s extreme vulnerability to the toxicity of worldly ideas. He then praises the overwhelming grace of God in saving a wretch like man. Such a contrast represents the Augustinian perspective. Man cannot rely on his own strength to achieve chastity and innocence. For such virtues are beyond his lowly reach and only exist through God. Now that the Augustinian view of free will and sin has been sketched, the contrasting presentations in Inferno can be related. One locality that especially clashes with Confessions is Limbo, the resting place of humans that “did not sin” (Inferno 4.34), whose only fault was the lack of baptism, gateway to the faith (4.36). Dante grapples with the problem of whether to condemn the pagans for their lack of belief in the Christian God or praise these “people of great worth” (4.44) for their virtues and achievements in the arts and sciences. That he places them in Limbo and states through Virgil that they did not sin marks a significant departure from the teachings of Augustine, who clearly writes that the soul fornicates when not focused on God (II.vi ). It seems evident that Augustine would consider paganism a form of fornication.Dante, however, does not construe paganism as sinful fornication. Because the pagans came before Christianity, it was impossible to have known and adored God (4.37-8), and therefore their fornication was partially excusable because they did not will it. Dante, like Augustine, seems to conceive of sin as inherently related to free will. Unlike Augustine, he seems to grant more recognition to the possibility of virtue in the absence of knowing God. Dante, in declaring Limbo free of sin, must believe that these spirits are paragons despite their secular existences. Only because they did not receive baptism does Dante not place them in a higher realm. But baptism seems almost a technicality, not a justification for damnation. Thus, Dante does not place these souls in Hell proper. Limbo, the realm between that of the saved and that of the damned, seems to radically represent a space for a humanistic construction of virtue. Dante expresses admiration for the grandeur of such a construction. He describes a meadow of fresh green reminiscent of the Virgilian Elysium, populated by “people with slow, grave eyes and great authority in their countenances” (4.112-3). He enthuses, “I am still exalted within myself at the sight” (4.119-20). The nobility of these great spirits comes across in the poetry. Dante must lift (4.130) his brow to find himself in the company of Socrates and Plato, who, according to him, still receive honor (4.133-4). A dimension of human will and virtue, independent of God, finds expression in Limbo. Souls seem larger than life, proud like ancient supermen. Dante portrays humans that display self-sufficiency, clearness in purpose, and lucidity in intelligence. Though they stand apart from God, their portrayal almost suggests that they do not need Him. The caveat, though, is that they live without hope, in desire (4.41-42). Augustine would not treat such a depiction of Limbo with deference. He would likely re-emphasize the Fall from which sprung Original Sin; man was displaced into a region of dissimilarity from God, into a time after the Golden Age. The salvation of man lies only in submission and humility before God: “Let not man say ‘What is this? Why is that?’ Let him not say it, let him not say it; for he is man” (VII.vi ). So much for Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, or Ptolemy (4.137-142). For man to ask why and where was for him to pretend to omnipotence– to pretend to be God. In the mind of Augustine, only in God would all things be made clear. This polemic against any liberal construction of man sees additional force in Augustine’s attack on the Neoplatonists, whom he accuses of not learning to possess a “contrite and humble spirit” (VII.xxi ). Furthermore, human wisdom and virtue are forever limited, as Augustine proves by citing 1 Corinthians 4:7: “For what has he which he has not received?” (VII.xxi ). In his epistemology, Augustine regards divine revelation as central, for what can be concealed from the wise can nevertheless be revealed to the babe (VII.xxi ). Just as Dante and Augustine differ on the damnation of the Paganists, so the two thinkers part on views of human agency. Augustine’s Confessions scorns the idea of an intransigent human will, portraying it as barely strong enough to beg for divine assistance to bolster it. Monica, perhaps the most virtuous paragon of all, is the “servant of your servants” (IX.ix ), her principal virtues being devotion and patience, not independence. Augustine also rejects the Socratic conception of man, who has the power to do only good provided he has true knowledge of good and evil: “By now I was indeed quite sure about [the truth]. Yet I was still bound down to the earth” (VIII.v ). Strength seems only to be associated with people who resolve to approach God, suggesting strength is granted by the grace of the Lord. For example, Victorinus proclaims his faith with “ringing assurance” (VIII.ii ). On the other hand, the pagan friends of the young, converted Roman officials are portrayed as “dragging their hearts along the ground” (VIII.vi ). Strength is consistently associated with those who convert to or practice Christianity, but this strength appears to only endure insofar as one has faith and obedience in God. Other supposed leaders, like Faustus (V.vii ), are shown to be incompetent and possess limited knowledge. Dante seems less willing than Augustine to ascribe the fruits of pagan thought and action to a false, proud wisdom. While Augustine puts man in a congenital state of sin, Dante explicitly recognizes the pagans as great souled and free of sin. It is unclear whether Dante rejects Original Sin, but he certainly rejects the vision of man as intrinsically weak and limited. The Italian poet ascribes to man his own kind of virtue, one that depends not on a static state of similarity or dissimilarity, but a dynamic direction of arts, science and progress. Dante even ascribes this direction to himself when he walks “as far as the light” (4.103) among the illustrious “company of six” (4.148). In associating with these poets, Dante seeks to elevate, not denigrate, himself.Dante ultimately equates virtue in man with the struggle for the heights, perhaps demonstrated most poignantly in the figure of Ulysses in Canto 26. For Ulysses, nothing “could conquer within me the ardor that I had to / gain experience of the world and of human vices and / worth” (26.97-9). He continues, “Consider your sowing: you were not made to live / like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge” (26.118-9). The extreme poetic beauty of these lines reflects Dante’s wonder at the glorious strength of the speaker. The beauty lies not so much in a sterile perfection, but in the ardor to gain experience. In other words, a special human beauty comes from the struggle for improvement and progress, a struggle only possible in the face of limitations, away from God. Ulysses did not need God in life and does not humble himself before Him in death; he represents the antithesis to the Augustinian conception of human frailty.Ultimately, the interplay between Augustine and Dante manifests itself in how they independently address the problem of evil. Augustine familiarly argues that weak human understanding cannot comprehend that all that exists must be good, and that what we perceive as good in isolation is very good as a totality (VII.xii ). Furthermore, human agency cannot prevent a slide from good to less good without the protection of the Lord. This approach destroys evil but also demeans human virtue. For man cannot be perfect like God—he exists always in sin. To save himself, man must seek the Lord. When Augustine makes his premises clear, his position becomes very rational. Dante breaks out from this restrictive conception of sin by incorporating the classical idea that virtue exists in the struggle for the heights. A human will guided by reason and virtue has meaning despite its imperfections. In also addressing the better half of the free will equation, Dante fuses the sin-centered theology of Confessions and the Hellenic humanism of Ulysses in a creative and balanced manner.
The Journey In Literature
From its beginnings, literature has been characterized to a remarkable degree by narratives and images of journeys. What gets many texts started and what keeps them going is very commonly a journey of some sort. However, these journeys are not always simple physical journeys from one place to another. Writers often use journeys as metaphorical representations of life itself. In one way or another, journey metaphors enable writers to express notions of chance and choice, discovery and departure, and search and struggle. As the critic Stephen Hutchinson so clearly puts it, “the journey is a universal, yet diverse metaphor that reveals a great deal about how writers in different places, times, and persuasions characterize themselves and the very world that they live in” (Hutchinson 72). Accordingly, great writers such as Homer, Miguel De Cervantes, St. Augustine, and John Bunyan, have all characterized life as a journey in many of their great works. For example, while Homer’s Odyssey and Cervantes’ Don Quixote examine life through metaphorical journeys of circular departure and return, Augustine and Bunyan represent life through journeys of a much more linear and progressive nature.Through and throughout telling the tale of The Odyssey, Homer reveals and examines a life in which Gods are like men and men are like Gods, a life that affords choice but guarantees fate, a life that has no price tags but in which nothing is free of charge. Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaka after the Trojan War consists of many small adventures, and by examining any one of his adventures along the way, one can come to understand Odysseus’ journey as a whole, and the journey of life itself as it seen through the eyes of Homer. For example, the installment involving the Kyclops in Book IX of The Odyssey is one such revealing episode of Odysseus’ journey. After Odysseus defeats the Kyclops and finally reveals his true name, the Kyclops realizes that fate has been fulfilled:”Now comes the weird [Fate, destiny] upon me, spoken of old.A wizard, grand and wondrous, lived her—Telemos,a son of Eurymos; great length of dayshe had in wizardry among the Kyklopes,and these things he foretold for time to come:my great eye lost, and at Odysseus’ hands.” (Homer IX.531-536)This passage clearly reveals that some of Odysseus’ journey is predestined, however, that is not to say that his entire journey is completely fated. Throughout the poem, Homer makes it clear that Odysseus and his men can and do make their own choices throughout their odyssey, and they are also clearly subject to the consequences of those choices.For example, before they meet the Kyclops, Zeus raised a storm against Odysseus and his men in response to their piratical raid of Ismaros, a storm that carries them to the land of the Lotos Eaters and subsequently to the land of the Kyclops. Therefore, since Odysseus and his men meet the Kyclops as a direct result of their actions, but are also destined to defeat the Kyclops, they seem to somehow participate in their fate. Throughout the entire poem, Homer seems to be illustrating this complicated interaction between choice and fate. Throughout their entire journey, Odysseus and his men actually participate in a kind of envolving, fluid fate that is based on choice, consequence, and the will of the Gods. Throughout his journey, Odysseus and his men may choose how to walk on a certain path, but it is the Gods who choose what path they are on. Like most journeys in great literature, The Odyssey is a journey that undoubtedly represents the journey of life. The greatness of The Odyssey is found in its grayness. Nothing is black and white. Through Odysseus’ journey home, Homer presents life in all of its mystery. A complicated life in which choice lies within fate, and fate lies within choice, a life in which there is no simple answers.Miguel Cervantes also examines life through a similar metaphorical journey in his most famous novel, Don Quixote. Although most of Cervantes’ novels coincide from beginning to end with journeys, Don Quixote is clearly the most memorable of them all. As one of the best-known fictional characters ever created, Don Quixote embodies a noble quest for a romantic ideal in a corrupt and fallen world and as Cervantes narrates Quixote’s knightly expedition, he continually juxtaposes chivalry and modernity, and by doing so, he reveals life in all of its confusion and complexity. While the novel is full of metaphorically loaded scenes, Don Quixote’s battle with windmills is perhaps the most unforgettable and representative scenes of the entire novel. As Don Quixote mistakes a field of windmills for an army of giants in the following passage, his confusion between the everyday and the legendary could not be more apparent:At this point they caught sight of thirty or forty windmills which were standing on the plain there, and no sooner had Don Quixote laid eyes upon them than he turned to his squire and said, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we could have wished; for you see there before you, friend Sancho Panza, some thirty or more lawless giants with whom I mean to do battle…” (Cervantes 1208)Throughout his entire journey, Don Quixote ridiculously romanticizes the real in this manner, and as his journey progresses, it becomes clear that the chivalric world of the past is gone forever. Cervantes’ juxtaposition of romanticism and modernity parodies every aspect of knighthood and chivalric romance, demonstrating once and for all that European society had changed irrevocably since the age of knights and castles. However, through Don Quixote’s journey, Cervantes not only parodies medieval life, he also calls the values and realities of modern life into question. At last, when Don Quixote is defeated at the end of the novel, he finally returns to the reality of life as usual. At the end of his journey, Don Quixote arrives where he started, but now knows that place for the very first time.St. Augustine’s Confessions is yet another narration of a metaphorical journey. However, instead of using a fictional odyssey to represent real life, Augustine uses real life as a metaphorical representation of a spiritual odyssey. Although Augustine’s Confessions is an autobiographical account of his early life and conversion to Christianity, it is also much more. It is an intricately woven piece of literature in which Augustine highlights certain episodes of his life with subtle biblical allusion (Foreman 9). For example, in Book II of his Confessions, the pear tree episode clearly parallels the Genesis account of original sin: “We carried off an immense load of pears, not to eat—for we barely tasted them before throwing them to the hogs. Our only pleasure in doing it was that it was forbidden” (Augustine 623). When reading of forbidden fruit in a garden, one cannot help but to think of the Garden of Eden. Accordingly, numerous critics argue that Augustine includes this episode because it corresponds to the archetypal experience of Adam and Eve in the garden of Genesis and to its tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Leigh 79, Mallard 30). The pear tree in the orchard of Augustine’s neighbor in every sense is also his personal tree of knowledge in a less than Edenic garden. Creatively aligning himself with the sin of Adam and Eve is but one way that Augustine presents his life as a recapitulation of Christian history. From his stealing of forbidden fruit, to his acceptance of grace in a garden, the real life journey of Augustine’s Confessions continually parallels Christian history. He is even thirty-three years old at the time of his conversion—The very same age Christ was when he was crucified. St. Augustine found universality in the journey of his life. He believed that the real life escapades of his life fully represented a journey that we must all make, a spiritual journey back to God, a journey that can only be completed through the grace of God.John Bunyan’s allegorical novel The Pilgrims Progress tells the tale of a very similar journey and both works share the very same theological underpinnings. The basic metaphor of Bunyan’s allegory is simple and familiar. The objects and characters that the pilgrim Christian encounters are homely and commonplace but they are also charged with spiritual significance as Bunyan charts the pattern of puritan conversion. As the critic Philip Edwards argues, Christian’s journeys marks the progressive attainment of spiritual understanding but also strongly emphasizes the danger of losing ones way (Edwards 116). St. Augustine’s journey does also stress the difficulty and confusion involved in the Christian odyssey back to God, but Bunyan clearly presents that journey in an even darker light. Christian’s journey is a perilous adventure in which Christian encounters giants, wild beasts, and bottomless pits. For Bunyan and for countless other believers, this difficult journey represents the narrow path to god that every Christian hopes to travel to the end.Each one of these texts is a complicated masterpiece, and this analysis is clearly but one simple way of wrestling them down to our level. Their exploration of the journey ranges from the unknown to the everyday world as each one of these writers show how much is possible within the limits of human life, a life that is anything but ordinary.Works CitedAugustine, St. Confessions. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: Fifth Continental Edition. New York: Norton & Company, 1987. 617-633.Bunyan, John. The Pilgrims Progress. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987.Cervantes, Miguel De. Don Quixote. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: Fifth Continental Edition. New York: Norton & Company, 1987. 1181-1321.Edwards, Philip. “The Journey in The Pilgrims Progress.” The Pilgrims Progress: Critical and Historical Views. Ed. Vincent Newey. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1980. 11-117.Forman, Robert J. Augustine and the Making of a Christian Literature: Classical Tradition and Augustinian Aesthetics. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.Homer. The Odyssey. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: Fifth Continental Edition. New York: Norton & Company, 1987. 172-227.Hutchinson, Steven. Cervantine Journeys. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.Leigh, David J. “Augustine’s Confessions as a Circular Journey.” Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea. LX.236 (1985): 73-88.Mallard, William. Language and Love: Introducing Augustine’s Religious Thought Through the Confessions Story. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.
The Impossibility of Evil Without Ignorance and the Progression Toward Good
As society’s rules and ideals have changed over time, so have their definitions of evil been completely revolutionized. While today evil is something morally wrong, a violation of some universal law, it was not always seen in the same light. St. Augustine and Plato both characterized evil as simply an absence of good. Since both men equated good with wisdom, evil, the absence of good, was akin to ignorance, the absence of wisdom. In their books, Confessions and Symposium, both Augustine and Plato support the idea that evil is only possible through ignorance. They explain the transition from evil and ignorance to good and wisdom as a progression toward fulfillment, and once a higher level of understanding is reached, it becomes obvious that evil had never been necessary in the quest for what is ultimately sought, happiness.In Confessions, Augustine equates God with truth. The only way to find the truth is to find God, and the two are so intertwined that it is difficult to distinguish between them. “No one can tell me the truth of it except my God, who enlightens my mind and dispels its shadows,” (52). Ultimately the two become one entity, and Augustine realizes, in retrospect, that he was searching for both at the same time. “…you [God], who truly are the Truth…” “Truth! Truth! How the very marrow of my soul within me yearned for it…” (60).It might be argued that Augustine knew what he was doing when he sinned as a young man. He says on page fifty that he knew it was wrong, but he did not know why he did it (“Could I enjoy doing wrong for no other reason than that it was wrong?”). There lies the ignorance. If he had really sat down and reflected upon his desires, really discovered himself and, at the same time, God, he would have realized that the sin would not make him happy. He says many times that he was ignorant, that he lacked the truth, that he had to learn how to love God. These are not statements of a wise man, but rather of one who did not know the harm of what he did. Once he found God and became a Christian, he stopped sinning. The closer he got to God and the truth, the wiser he became, and the wiser he became, the less he sinned. It was only because he did not realize the pain and guilt his sins would cause him to suffer later on in life that he committed them. Had he known, he would never have deviated from Christianity in the first place and saved himself a great deal of hardship. Instead he underwent a great deal of study and questioning to arrive at the point of salvation. “So, step by step, my thoughts moved on from the consideration of material things to the soul, which perceives things through the senses of the body, and then to the soul’s inner power, to which the bodily senses communicate external facts,” (151). Only then did he understand the harmful nature of sin and evil enough to be able to give it up.In Plato’s Symposium we see a similar progression. Diotima asserts that beauty and knowledge are synonymous, and that love is simply a life-long journey in search of beauty and wisdom. Obtaining these things for ourselves is the first step. The second step is passing them on to someone else. We achieve immortality by teaching wise and beautiful things, good things, to others. Since everyone’s ultimate goal is this immortality, this glory, no one can possibly do evil unless they are too ignorant to realize what it is they search. On page 49 (ln204A) she says, “For what’s especially difficult about being ignorant is that you are content with yourself, even though you’re neither beautiful and good nor intelligent.” Ignorant people do evil because they do not realize that they could do better.It might seem, initially, that Alcibiades’s actions in the years following the Symposium might refute this idea; he was wise and still committed great sin when he defaced the statues of the gods and abandoned Athens, but Socrates makes some comments during Alcibiades’s speech that indicate that Alcibiades really had no concept of wisdom or good, that he was relying on Socrates on blind faith. The wisdom of his youth was not his own but simply an imitation of a man he revered. He wanted what Socrates had, even though he did not truly understand the nature of that thing (wisdom). He showed how ignorant he was when he proposed a trade, wisdom for sex. If he had been wise, he would not have need to offer sex to Socrates in exchange for wisdom he already had, and, he would have realized that it was an unfair exchange. In response, Socrates says, “[Alcibiades] you offer me the merest appearance of beauty, and in return you want the thing itself, gold in exchange for bronze,'” (pg70, ln218E) and “The mind’s sight becomes sharp only when the body’s eyes go past their prime,” (pg71, ln219A). Socrates knew that Alcibiades was ignorant if no one else did. Alcibiades did not want to be ignorant, but desire alone was not enough to make him wise and protect him from the harm of evil.In another of Plato’s works, The Menos, Socrates says “…those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them [evils]; but they desire what they suppose to be goods, although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be goods, they really desire goods?” (203). It is against man’s nature to desire anything that is not in his best interest, and his best interest, according to Augustine and Plato, is always the good. In Augustine’s case, best interest was not sinning and being a faithful follower of God to avoid guilt and the wrath of God. Once one knew about the glory of heaven, it was impossible to turn away from it. In Plato’s case, anyone who could clearly see the immortality they desired would never do evil. Evil was detrimental to immortality and to the person.But it is necessary to realize that neither Plato nor Augustine arrived at the truth all at once. As we progress, we begin to see the truth. We always wanted happiness, but we do cannot know what will bring us happiness without wisdom. Rather than one earth-shattering insight, we undergo a series of epiphanies, almost like gradually waking up. Every little while we wake up a little more, arriving at a whole new plateau of reality. With each plateau we understand a little more clearly, but we realize that we are still not fully awake. With each revelation, each epiphany, we see a little more of the big picture. We see the harm we inflict upon ourselves when we do evil things, and we begin to realize what evil is. Evil may not seem to be the same thing, depending upon one’s level of truth.Both Plato and Augustine said that this search for truth was a lifelong journey. Diotima talked of love of bodies, then beauty in general, then souls, then knowledge, ending in a cosmic love. The last stage is not something we can ever reach, but we must keep journeying toward it. Augustine’s personal progression toward Christianity was similar. He first realized that something was lacking and began to search. He found that a series of things were not at all what he needed, then found Christianity. He did not accept it immediately, but instead studied it and took it as his own, bit by bit. Finally he became a Christian, but because he is human and on earth, he is still imperfect. He still sins. He still studies, hoping to learn more. It is part of the never-ending progression of knowledge and good. No one, according to Diotima and Augustine, can ever be completely good.And so understanding the nature of our journey is a huge step to reaching our destination. We search for happiness, and the knowledge we gain in the search causes us to leave behind our evil. This progression can be seen clearly in Confessions and Symposium, but it can also be seen today. Wisdom, good, and happiness must be actively sought, even if we can never fully possess them.BibliographySaint Augustine. Confessions. Trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin Classics, 1961.Plato. Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamas & Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989.Plato. Menos.
Structuring Good and Evil
Saint Augustine dwells upon the nature and origin of evil throughout his Confessions. Morality is an inextricable part of religion and religious doctrine, but the question seems to hold some greater weight for him beyond the teachings of the church. The question of evil “depressed and suffocated” him, perplexed him and lead him into a series of thought experiments and spatial restructurings of the world around him (114). St. Augustine restructured the world in order to find evil – the mass or the machination – within it. For all the acclaim he later received for his abstract thought, he was instinctually a concrete, spatial thinker. Therefore, the problem of location of evil, or, similarly, of its origin, most plagued him. “Why then have I the power to will evil and reject good? . . . Why put this power in me and implanted in me this seed of bitterness, when all of me was created by my very kind God?” (114) These are questions common to many philosophers and theologians across the years. However, Augustine, who proposes a series of answers throughout the first half of this work, ultimately arrives at an answer which satisfies him.Saint Augustine first constructs a spatial explanation for evil while exploring the sins of his instructors. These, he says, were men who considered the morality of their actions to be irrelevant, but rather who considered nothing shameful which could be spoken of gracefully. Augustine, of course, takes issue with this, saying that in behaving so, his teachers have turned away from God. “To be far from [God’s] face is to be in the darkness of passion,” he explains (20). This statement is an accessible one: the metaphor between sin and darkness, and conversely between light and the divine, is ubiquitous in the Christian tradition. However, even as he makes this claim, he backs off of it, saying, “one does not go far away from you or return to you by walking or by any movement through space” (20).Clearly, then, the physicality implied in this relationship is only a metaphor for an emotional or spiritual position. Augustine seems to have no other way of explicating this emotional distance, however, since even in the Biblical story he quotes as evidence – that of the prodigal son – the sinning man has made a physical as well as a spiritual departure from his “father”. While he places no literal caveats on this idea, Augustine fails to seem entirely convinced by it, a tone underlined by the plea found at the beginning of the following paragraph: “Look, Lord God, look with patience as you always do” (21). He has only begun to explore this idea.The second of Saint Augustine’s speculations as to the nature of evil is much less spatial. It arises from a contemplation of his youth, and, perhaps because of this, is hardly as universal a definition of sin or evil as the one which preceded it. Here, Augustine says that his “sin consisted in this, that [he] sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in [himself] and other created beings” (22-3). The problem is simply that Augustine has mistaken the earthly for the divine. Misunderstanding this division, and thereby misunderstanding the very nature of the divine, is a problem prefigured many times in Christian theology. In the Book of Job, for instance, Job’s friends purport a fictitious knowledge of his evils. Since Augustine’s is a sin based on a fundamental misapprehension, it is unsurprising that he says that it “plunged [him] into miseries, confusions, and errors” (23). This is a sin that begets other sins. When the fundamental tenets of a belief system are flawed, all of the ensuing trivia replicates those flaws, if subtly.What is wanting in this new paradigm for sin, however, is some sort of locale for evil. For lack of a more specific definition of evil, these statements begin to suggest that everything which presents the appearance of being good but which is not God is evil. Thankfully, Saint Augustine returns to this idea just pages later, in the next chapter. Here, he bemoans his confused state: “If only someone could have imposed restraint on my disorder. That would have transformed to good purpose the fleeting experiences of beauty in these lowest of things” (25). Patently, now, the evil is not in the things themselves, but Augustine has relocated it. He has named as the sin itself the disorder and confusion that he had previously believed to be simply the base of the sin. This, then, presents us with a system in which good can be salvaged from the world only through the “restraint” of religious conviction.Augustine’s next idea begins to show increasing shades of complexity. The passage in which he describes it reads in a rather disjointed manner, as though it is treating a vast network of ideas with extreme brevity. Although he introduces it at length, the first crucial premise he advances is this: “Since in virtue I loved peace and in vice I hated discord, I noted that in virtue there is unity, in vice a kind of division” (67). Therefore, all virtuous acts will possess, or create some sort of “unity,” sameness, or harmony. In what he calls “the unity,” Saint Augustine senses truth, beauty, and rationality, but above all, good. These are similar words, and similarly structured, to the ones he uses to talk about the nature of God. Perhaps, then, within this system, good acts are committed wholly within God: motivated from within, completed within, and effectual within.On the contrary, since Augustine perceives good an evil as diametric opposites, he asserts that all sinful acts can be characterized by “discord” or “division.” In these very divisions, Augustine says, “there was some substance of irrational life and the nature of supreme evil” (67). For the first time, he assigns some physical matter, as well as a haphazard consciousness, to the abstract idea of evil. This can be read as an example of Augustine’s growing frustration as a satisfactory solution to the problem eludes him. Because he cannot explain evil, lending it both a medium of its own and a devious consciousness with which to play its tricks allows it to effectively defy explanation. In the meantime, its very fractured, inexplicable nature fits neatly into the meta-system he has constructed, where good is unified and its opposite is not. To his credit, Augustine, at the time of his writing, finds this argument false, saying that “I did not know nor had I learnt that evil is not a substance, nor is our mind the supreme and unchangeable good” (67). This is likely the reason that he doesn’t explicate it any further.Perhaps he simply doesn’t feel as though he needs to, given that he spends a great deal of time on a related idea. From the very beginning of the text, Saint Augustine suggests a variety of physical forms for God. Some of his suggestions have a lovely insightful quality: “We cannot think that you are given coherence by vessels full of you, because even if they were to be broken, you would not be split,” he says, to refute the idea that the earth itself is a vessel, poured full of God-liquid (4). At other times, Augustine assigns God an engineer’s role in the spatial world: he is called the “Maker,” and in Him “are the constant causes of inconstant things” (67, 7). Augustine would love to understand God on a physical level, but the three-dimensional realm has no patience with the contradictory statements typically used to discuss the divine: “Never new, never old,” Augustine says of God, “always active, always in repose” (5). When one talks in terms of concrete spaces, there is little room for ambiguity, since they are full or empty, dark and hollow or blazing with some sort of divine light. Ultimately, Saint Augustine condemns the idea of imagining God as any sort of physical form. Nonetheless, imagining God’s physicality occupies him through much of the Confessions, and the products of this thought correspond to yet another of his suggestions on the nature of good and evil.”When I wanted to think of my God,” Augustine explains, “I knew of no way of doing so except as a physical mass. Nor did I think anything existed which is not material . . . For the same reason I also believed that evil is a kind of material substance.” Specifically, he saw good and evil as two “infinite” masses, though the evil mass was “rather smaller.” These he saw as “subtle physical [entities] diffused through space” (85). One could conjecture that, intentionally or unintentionally, ambient atmospheric morality would be absorbed into the general goings-on. Presumably, then, the morality of a thing could be judged by an instrument which would measure relative quantities of good and evil mass within it. St. Augustine acknowledges how preposterous these claims sound. He believes that the flaws in this and his other arguments arise from a flawed conceptualization of the nature of the relationship between God and the universe. The universe he imagined, permeated entirely by God, precluded the existence of evil, since all things permeated by and created by God, he intuited, would be good.Neoplatonism leads Saint Augustine to one of his final errant conceptualizations of good and evil. Here, the incorruptible, immune, and immutable become synonymous with the good and holy, whereas the corruptible, susceptible to injury, and mutable are inferior, or evil. He comes to this conclusion by comparing God with man: if God is both totally good and totally incorruptible, then man, who is not totally good, must be to some extent corruptible. It is interesting to note that, following Platonic logic more closely, “God” would become a concept relegated to the world of ideas, a spatial position which would have posed a serious challenge to Augustine, had he chosen to address it. As to this and the more intricate justification of his argument, Augustine passes it over, saying “I did not know why and how, [but] it was clear to me and certain” (111). Having formulated it, he attempts to use this system of good and evil to purify himself, and, equating the heart with the pure and the mind with the susceptible, succeeds only momentarily in banishing the impure thoughts of his mind. Ultimately, he disregards the argument when it fails to provide a sufficient explanation of God’s physical location (111).Each of Saint Augustine’s hypotheses represented a clever approach to a problem that, it seemed, was ultimately without a solution. Evil could have no location in a world which was entirely of God. However, Augustine was finally able to relinquish his intuitively spatial thought at least momentarily, and it was this transgression of his nature that finally gave him the solution for which he had been searching. In that fateful moment, he seized upon an idea that functions perfectly within his paradigm: God is good, His creations are good, and only when good things are incongruous is there a need for the concept of evil. Here, intuition seems to work in Augustine’s favor: take the system in which it is good for a person to eat, and good for a person to retain property which he or she has earned. These two goods become incongruous when, in order for a person to eat, they must take food from another person, who has earned it. It then becomes necessary for something in the system – namely, the theft – to be denoted as evil. Augustine’s presentation of this idea transcends mere confidence, however. With the self-assurance granted him by his religious conviction, he states this idea as if it were incontrovertible fact. Having come upon what he considers the truth, he dismisses the rest of his suggestions as simple indiscretions, ideas tossed out on the admittedly tortured playground of his youth.
Gardens in Confessions and Decameron
She told him about…country sounds and country smells and of how fresh and clean everything in the country is. She said that heought to live there and that if he did, he would find that all his troubles were city troubles.-Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)Rural areas in Western literature are pure and good, going back the to the Garden of Eden in Genesis. They represent spirituality, beauty, and often an escape from the troubles of a sinful world. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, citizens of Florence escape their plague-ridden city for the solitude and safety of the countryside. In Saint Augustine’s Confessions, the narrator has his most significant spiritual awakening in a garden in Milan.At the beginning of The Decameron, Boccaccio describes the plague occurring in Florence:Large quantities of refuse were cleared out of the city byofficials specially appointed for the purpose, all sick personswere forbidden entry, and numerous instructions were issued forsafeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail. (I. Intro)This passage describes the vast presence of sin in the city. “Officials” can be interpreted to mean clergymen, “sick persons” can mean criminals, and “numerous instructions” can mean the work of the church. “All to no avail,” however, signifies the continued presence of sin and ugliness in the city despite the efforts of the church.Several young citizens of Florence, however, meet in a church and then physically leave it, in a jaunt to the countryside, which is, importantly, “some distance away from any road.” (I. Intro) There, The young men and their fair companions sauntered slowly througha garden, conversing on pleasant topics, weaving fair garlandsfor each other from the leaves of various trees, and singingsongs of love. (I. Intro)Words like “fair,” “pleasant,” and especially “love” stand in stark contrast to the earlier descriptions of Florence. The vision of “young men and their fair companions” conversing is one that is pure and chaste, somewhat pre-lapsarian. Emphasis is placed on the natural aspects by the mention of “garden,” “garlands,” and “leaves of various trees.” In the introduction to the Third Day, the new garden they arrive in is directly compared to the Garden of Eden:They all began to maintain that if Paradise were constructed onearth, it was inconceivable that it could take any other form,nor could they imagine any way in which the garden’s beauty couldpossibly be enhanced. In this passage, Boccaccio appears to be stating that Paradise is indeed attainable on earth, and that the countryside is the manifestation of human perfection. The beauty found in the description of the garden seems almost impossibly perfect, but Boccaccio argues that it is real.The perfect garden is even created without the aid of God in Fifth Story of Day 10. In this story, Dianora asks Ansaldo for a May garden in January, which she believes is impossible. Ansaldo, however, enlists the aid of a magician, who creates “one of the fairest gardens that anyone had ever seen, with plants and trees and fruits of every conceivable kind.” The description is almost exactly the gardens in the framing narrative. The creation of a garden without divine intervention again demonstrates Boccaccio’s religious skepticism, which pervades his lusty text. While the characters in The Decameron are able to exist in the garden that symbolizes human perfection without ruining it, Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, fails to do so. In Book II, Augustine steals a pear from a tree in a vineyard:The fruit which we stole was beautiful because it was your creation, most beautiful of all Beings, maker of all things, thegood God, God the highest good and my true good.Augustine, a human, damages God’s creation; like Adam and Eve in Genesis, he is unable to live without sin. Also, Augustine places emphasis on the fact that he did not act alone but under the encouragement of others, showing the negative effects that humans often have upon one another, similar to the impact of the serpent on Adam and Eve. Unlike Boccaccio’s description of the garden, Augustine emphasizes the beauty of the pear not by describing the pear itself but by describing the pear as a work of God. Here we see Saint Augustine’s strong religious beliefs as opposed to Boccaccio’s belief that humans can function well on their own.Later in Confessions, Augustine finds himself in a horrible state of religious confusion. Where he is living, however, there is a garden:The tumult of my heart took me out into the garden where no onecould interfere with the burning struggle with myself in which Iwas engaged, until the matter could be settled. (VIII. Vii (19))Augustine does not take himself to the garden, but rather is led more metaphysically by “the tumult of [his] heart.” The solitude of the garden is emphasized: “We sat down as far as we could from the buildings.” (VIII. Vii 19)) Only away from the sins of other humans will Augustine be able to make any spiritual breakthrough. Alypius is present, but he is not a negative influence. The “burning struggle” describes the pain and anguish caused by sin, and the difficulty of breaking away from sin. Augustine tries to use his will to break away, but is unable. He finally is able to experience conversion when he hears a voice telling him to “pick up and read.” (VIII. Xi. (29)) He reads the word of the Lord, and again comes to the conclusion that the sins of the common (city-dwelling) people are what have been preventing him from attaining perfection:’Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism andindecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord JesusChrist and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.'(Rom. 13: 13-14) (VIII. Xi. (29))The countryside is the only place that can be perfect and the only place where humans can possibly hope to achieve perfection, because it is there that they can be with God’s creation and away from the negative influence of others.
Saint Augustine’s Reconciliation of Faith and Intellect
All Christians desire to be closer to God, and ultimately, to be with Him after death. But how does one grow closer to God? There are two possible answers to this question. The simplest answer is that all one needs to do is have faith in the words of the Bible. But for many, faith alone does not seem enough. They feel the need to understand God. What can their beliefs mean without understanding? So, again, the question: Should one follow God’s word with blind faith, or should one use reason and intellect to better understand one’s creator? Saint Augustine, a great Catholic saint, struggled with this very same question. On the surface, The Confessions is the story of one man whose spiritual journey leads him from the depths of sin and sexual appetite to the life of a devout Christian. However, aside from his struggle with lust, Saint Augustine wrestles with another issue, one which lies just under the surface of his narration. Like other Christians, he yearns to be close to God, but as he searches for the method to reach this goal, the conflict between his Biblical and Platonic beliefs comes to a head. Though Plato may not seem directly applicable at first, there are many parallels between Plato’s “Good” and the Christian God. However, while the Bible suggests that one can only grow closer to God through faith alone, Plato says that one can only grow closer to the Good by using philosophy, an act of the intellect. Throughout The Confessions, Saint Augustine wavers between these two, seemingly opposing ideas, but, in the end, he is able to reconcile this problem of intellect and faith.Christian teaching offers faith as the single most important means to drawing closer to God. Early in the text, Saint Augustine says that “The Church demanded that certain things should be believed even though they could not be proved, for if they could be proved, not all men could understand the proof, and some could not be proved at all” (6, 5). To the church, proof and understanding do not have any importance whatsoever. Three main principles form the foundation of the Church. First, there is the belief in the almighty God, creator of heaven and earth. Secondly, they believe that Jesus, who was God incarnate, was born of a virgin to die on the cross in order to conquer hell and ascend into heaven, thus redeeming the souls of all men. Lastly, there is the promise that good Christians will be rewarded by eternal life in heaven with God. These beliefs cannot be supported or proved with the perceived laws of the world that we live in. Therefore, because these things are seemingly supernatural, faith has become the single most important characteristic of Christianity.One book in the Bible is devoted almost entirely to the idea of faith. In the book of Job, Job becomes the subject of a bet between God and Satan. Satan claims that Job, one of God’s faithful servants, only lives a “blameless” life because God protects him from harm. To prove Satan wrong, God allows him to destroy Job’s children, servants, and animals, and, later, curse Job with boils. When Job’s friends come to see him, they try to explain Job’s condition. Presuming to know God’s motives, they claim that it is God’s punishment for Job. Eliphaz asks, “isn’t your wickedness great?” (Job 22:5). He tells Job, “That’s why snares are round about you” (Job 22:10). They believe that they can understand God’s ways, and that only Job’s own actions can be responsible for his misfortune. Instead of attempting to use reason, Job recognizes that he cannot understand God, and points out to Eliphaz and the others that they cannot either by saying, “Whence then comes wisdom? Where is the place of understanding? Seeing it is hidden from the eyes of all living… Destruction and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’ God understands its way, and He knows its place” (Job 28:20-23). By saying this, Job not only points out that God is the true keeper of wisdom and understanding, but he also suggests the consequences of attempting to gain true wisdom. Only fallacies can be found, and ultimately the seeker will be led to “Destruction and Death.”The book of Job also gives a clear picture of God’s view in this matter. As Job and his friends debate, God comes down in a cloud and says to Eliphaz, “My wrath is kindled against you, and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me the thing that is right as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). God is angered at Eliphaz because he has misrepresented Him. Only Job recognizes that God’s wisdom is not to be understood by men; and, as his friends are punished for presuming to understand God, Job is awarded for being faithful.Faith is also greatly emphasized in the gospels, especially in the book of Matthew. Jesus speaks often of faith throughout this gospel, and makes it clear that it is the most important part of a good Christian life. When angry at the cities that did not repent after experiencing his miracles, Jesus says “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25). In this speech, Jesus draws a clear distinction between the innocence and simplicity of children, and the men that are thought to be “wise and understanding.” Even though they are men who seek wisdom and understanding, they miss the truth that Jesus preaches about. By praising God for giving the truth to children, Jesus suggests that the truth is either unattainable or hard to understand among those that are seeking it. The only right way to receive the truth is by accepting it as given directly by God. Jesus also illustrates how faith brings men closer to God, saying, “if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed…nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). By using the image of a mustard seed, he illustrates how even a small amount of faith brings one closer to God, such that God’s strength will be with him. This faith is the source of one’s connection to God.Saint Augustine offers evidence of the importance of faith in one of his confessions by illustrating how, without faith, it is impossible to be close to God. When talking about his misery and pain after losing his best friend, Saint Augustine says, “I knew, Lord, that I ought to offer [my soul] up to you, for you would heal it. But this I would not do, nor could I…It was not you that I believed in, but some empty figment…and if I tried to find in it a place to rest my burden, there was nothing there to uphold it” (4, 7). God was not with him to guide him through his troubles or give him strength for his suffering because Saint Augustine did not truly have faith in him. Saint Augustine suggests that had he had faith in God, God would have taken his burden from him and given him relief.Even though faith is very important to Saint Augustine, he is still, by nature, an inquisitive man. At times, however, his curiosity and desire to understand God seem to him like a curse. This is most evident in book 10, when Saint Augustine introduces a kind of paradox after explaining his search for an answer to the question “…what is my God?” (10, 6). He says, “The animals, both great and small, are aware of it1, but they cannot inquire into its meaning because they are not guided by reason… Man, on the other hand, can question nature. He is able to catch sight of God’s invisible nature through his creatures, but his love of these material things is too great” (10, 6). Men have the ability to reason, which sets them apart from animals. This allows them to get a glimpse of God by looking to nature and questioning it. However, animals simply know that God is the higher power, and that he is found “above us” (10, 6). They do not question this because, for them, there is no need for greater understanding. Humans, on the other hand, because of the power to reason, and their inquisitive minds, search for a better understanding of God. But, in so doing, they can become too focused on the material world which will, in the end, keep them from knowing Him.The Bible answers the question of intellect directly. For example, from the very beginning of human existence in the Bible, it is condemned as the devil’s means of driving men away from God. In Genesis, after God has created Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden of Eden, he gives them all of his creation, save one thing – knowledge. He instructs Adam to eat from any tree “but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). God does not tell them why he has commanded them not to eat from this tree, but he expects them to do as he says even without explanation. Their role is obey him without question. However, Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent who encourages them to eat from this tree, saying, “God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). The snake explains to them that they will not die, but gain understanding from the tree. To be like God is too tempting for them to resist, so they eat the fruit and bring upon themselves God’s anger. It is the desire to gain knowledge and understanding that leads to man’s banishment from paradise and the introduction of pain and death in the world.This Biblical influence is apparent in The Confessions when Saint Augustine points out the uselessness, and even the danger, of the intellect. One example of this is in Book 5, when Saint Augustine is still with the Manichees. Speaking of the scientists he says, “their thoughts could reach far enough to form a judgment about the world around them, though they found no trace of him who is Master of it” (5, 3). Here, Saint Augustine points out that even though these scientists claim to understand the world around them, they miss the most basic and important fact: that God exists and is master of it all. Their intellect brings them no closer to God than someone who does not understand science at all. Saint Augustine even suggests that understanding science has no importance at all. After all, knowing God is most important to him. As an illustration of this point, he says that “A man who knows that he owns a tree and thanks [God] for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator” (5, 4). In this passage, the tree can be interpreted as representing all things that God has given – the whole of creation as well as His word. Whether Saint Augustine is simply referring to a tree as the representation of God’s earthly creation, or whether he is referring to God’s word, the point is clear: it is not important to use science to understand what God has created. The only way to be closer to God is to faithfully accept His gift, and praise Him for it.More than merely thinking it useless, at one point, Saint Augustine calls inquisitiveness an outright sin. He says, “in addition to our bodily appetites, which… lead to our ruin… the mind is also subject to a certain propensity to use the sense of the body… for the satisfaction of its own inquisitiveness” (10, 35). Here he likens curiosity to the sins of the body, but even states that it is “more dangerous than these” (10, 35). This thirst for knowledge and understanding, like the bodily indulgences, is a sin to be avoided. Saint Augustine explains that “curiosity… invades our religion, for we put God to the test” (10, 35), suggesting that giving in to this temptation only leads men away from God.Though Saint Augustine appears to believe that the use of the intellect is wrong, his actions show how he continues to struggle with the issue. Being naturally inquisitive, he has a hard time simply accepting everything on faith alone. While discussing mathematics, Saint Augustine says:I compared it all with the teaching of Manes, who had written a great deal on these subjects… But in his writings I could find no reasonable explanation of the solstices and the equinoxes or of eclipses and similar phenomena such as I had read about in the books written by secular scientists. Yet I was supposed to believe what he had written, although it was entirely at variance and out of keeping with the principles of mathematics and the evidence of my own eyes (5, 3).This passage hints at Saint Augustine’s frustration, as what he is supposed to believe does not fit with the evidence that is clear to him. He prefers to agree with the mathematicians because they provide solid evidence, whereas the religious “scientist” is unable to persuade him because his explanations are not “reasonable” and he provides no real proof. Mathematics makes use of concrete concepts which Saint Augustine can understand by using reason, but he confesses that “I wanted to be equally sure about everything else, both material things for which I could not vouch by my own senses, and spiritual things of which I could form no idea” (6, 4). In order to truly believe in them, Saint Augustine desires spiritual concepts to be as accessible through reason as mathematics.Saint Augustine’s attachment to mathematics is evidence of his Platonic influence. In order to better understand this influence, it is helpful to step back and take a look at the order of the universe in Plato’s mind. Plato does not personify it as Christians do, but he does believe in one thing which is the focal point of the universe. He identifies this as “the Good.” In Platonic theory, the universe is divided into two parts: the physical world, which is always changing, and the world of the forms, which are the true, unchanging models which the objects in the physical world only reflect. In this metaphysical world of the forms, it is the Good in which all other forms participate. Similar to the Christian God, to Plato, the Good is the source of all things. Humans, constrained by their physical bodies, can only perceive the things around them in the physical world through their bodily senses. However, because the soul must experience its surroundings through the body, it does not get a true picture of the universe. It can only experience the changing world, which in the end, separates it from the true forms. Mathematical thought is quite different from the sensory perceptions of the body. Plato says that mathematicians “make use of visible shapes and objects and subject them to analysis. At the same time, however, they consider them only as images of the originals…in all cases the originals are their concern and not the figures they draw” (Republic, 510d-510e). Because it focuses on the mental concepts, not on their physical representations, Plato claims that mathematics serves as a kind of steppingstone.This link to the forms is important to Plato because, to him, understanding the forms should be the goal of all men. In Plato’s mind, some men live bad lives, and when they die, they are punished for living unjustly. On the other hand, some men live just lives, and because of their good behavior are given the chance to choose another life. Both classes of men, however, fail to put focus on the forms, concentrating instead on the physical world. A smaller and completely separate class of men live their lives only to understand the truth of the forms. These men are called philosophers. Plato says, “And of these such as have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live thereafter altogether without bodies, and reach habitations even more beautiful” (Phaedo, 114c). By living as a philosopher and separating one’s soul from the pollution of the body, one can achieve the ultimate reward after death. The soul is set free and exists among the forms, therefore attaining the ultimate goal of being one with the Good.Instead of dismissing the intellect altogether, as the Bible does, Plato claims that, used properly, the intellect is the only way to become a true philosopher, and thus, understand the Good. He does, however, contest the use of intellect solely for physical investigation. To Plato, one must live to separate oneself from the material and changing world. Only then can one grasp the concepts of philosophy. The process by which one can get past the physical world to understand the forms is called the dialectic. The dialectic is a rational discourse between two or more people in response to a question or preconceived idea. Plato further explains the dialectic within the dialogues of the Republic. For example, he says, “Then dialectic remains the only intellectual process whose method is that of dissecting hypotheses and ascending to first principles in order to obtain valid knowledge” (Republic, 533c-533d). By making intelligent arguments, the participants are able to cast off the limitations of the physical world and work together toward understanding true knowledge of the forms. When discussing the importance of philosophy among the guardians, Plato says, “Even when the soul’s eye is sunk in the muddy pit of barbarism, the dialectic will gently release it and draw it upward, calling upon the studies we recently examined to support its work of conversion” (Republic, 533d). Here, he underscores the power of the dialectic. The barbarism that he refers to is the completely uncomprehending soul of one who is rooted in the material world. By using one’s intellect, however, through the dialectic, the soul can rise up from the false images of the physical world to understand the true forms, and eventually, understand the Good.Plato’s influence on Saint Augustine begins to become even more clear as Saint Augustine looks into the Bible for deeper meanings. In Book 6, Saint Augustine describes the Bible as having “plain language and simple style [which] make it accessible to everyone, and yet it absorbs the attention of the learned. By this means it gathers all men in the wide sweep of its net, and some pass safely through the narrow mesh and come to you” (6, 5). He suggests that, while the Bible satisfies the needs of some men with its straightforward stories on the surface of its pages, for other men, like Saint Augustine, who yearn for a greater understanding of God, there are deeper meanings to be found with the intellect. Like Plato’s philosophers, Saint Augustine even suggests that those men who find the deeper meanings will ultimately be closer to God than those who do not. By questioning the Bible to search for that deeper meaning, Saint Augustine shows that, like Plato, he believes in using his intellect in a dialectic fashion to get past preconceived ideas and come to a better understanding of God and his creation.Saint Augustine is, indeed, strongly influenced by Plato’s ideas. Plato does not, however, have all the answers that Saint Augustine needs. What is missing from Platonic thought is faith. Because Saint Augustine is a Christian, he cannot, and does not, dismiss the value of faith. Instead, where Plato emphasizes a discourse between men, Saint Augustine turns to God for guidance. Because God is omniscient, Saint Augustine believes that He is the only source of true knowledge, and therefore, one cannot find the truth while relying on other men. One must put his questions to God. He believes that one can understand the truth, but only by putting faith in God to guide him in his search.In fact, Confessions itself is an example of this “dialectic” with God. Throughout the text, Saint Augustine refers to God in the second person, using “You”, which shows that he is, in fact, addressing God directly, and Confessions is therefore Saint Augustine’s dialogue with God. After elaborating on his past sins, Saint Augustine poses many questions to God about His creation. All throughout Book 11, he asks to better understand God’s mysteries. For example, he asks, “Let me hear and understand the meaning of the words: In the Beginning you made heaven and earth” (11, 3). Though the Church would like Christians to accept the words of Genesis as truth in the simplest form in which they are presented, Saint Augustine questions them, and wants to understand them more deeply as Moses understood them. He confesses, “My mind is burning to solve this intricate puzzle” (11, 22). His questions are followed by long discourse with himself where he suggests possible arguments in an attempt to find the truth. For example, Books 12 and 13 are dedicated entirely to possible meanings of the words in Genesis. Instead of relying solely on himself to find the answer, however, putting faith in God he asks, “Through Christ I beseech you, do not keep it hidden away but make it clear to me. Let your mercy give me light” (11, 22).Because the teachings of the Church and those of Plato set faith and intellect as opposites, people struggle by denying one or the other in their attempts to become closer to God. Saint Augustine, however, shows that faith and intellect can work hand-in-hand to reach this end. In fact, he suggests that this is the best way. Faith and the Bible form the foundation of the search for truth, but Saint Augustine suggests that one should perform a kind of internal dialectic in order to gain knowledge by posing questions to God. Though these questions are not answered directly by Him, Saint Augustine believes that one can ultimately, through one’s own intellect and faith in God’s guidance, be led to the truth, and thus, become closer to Him.
Augustine with a Twist: The Similarities and Differences of the Political and Theological Ideas of Augustine and Luther
Martin Luther, one of the foremost leaders of the Protestant Reformation, sought to reject much of the doctrine and authority of the Catholic Church, yet many of his theological and political ideas are extremely reflective of the Catholic luminary St. Augustine. While major differences do exist between Augustine and Luther in some areas, especially the areas of the authority of kings and nobles over peasants and slaves, most of Luther’s arguments can be linked to Augustine’s in some way or another. Some areas in which the two men greatly agree include their thoughts on the existence of false Christians (i.e. sinners who masquerade under the title of Christians), and their assertions that wars bring unnecessary misery to life. Even though each author discusses these themes in different ways and for different reasons, including different aspects and examples of the idea, the premises for each author’s arguments on these ideas are similar. Some topics written upon by Luther that are somewhat, though not entirely, similar to Augustine’s ideas include Luther’s assertions that true Christians do not necessitate temporal law yet thrive in it, and Luther’s insistence that man must abide by both temporal and heavenly authority in order to survive the human life and reach salvation in the eternal life.One of the greatest parallels between Augustine’s beliefs and Luther’s writings is Luther’s echo of Augustine’s assertion that “there are false Christians within the Church” (I:35). Luther agrees on this point and further embellishes this theme by adding “The world and its masses will always be Un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name. Christians are few and far between” (Hillerbrand, 48). The two author’s differ, however, in their methods of settling the problem of Christian imposters. Augustine acknowledges the incapability of man to always discriminate the true from the imposters and believes that those sinners who craftily label themselves Christian will only be separated from the true Christians on judgement day (I:35). Luther sees the difficulty in determining the true Christians as one reason for the necessity for both human and divine law. It is interesting to note that neither author quotes Scripture supporting their assertions that fake Christians exist; this suggests that both Augustine and Luther came to these conclusions through their life experiences rather than by their interpretations of Scripture.Another topic upon which Augustine and Luther decidedly agree upon is the necessity to avoid war, however, both authors handle this subject in different ways. Augustine asserts that “Peace is the instinctive aim of all creatures, and is even the ultimate purpose of war” and that “there is no man who does not wish for peace” (XIX:12). Augustine makes the distinction, however, between seemly peace and real peace when he states “the peace of the unjust, compared with the peace of the just, is not worthy even of the name of peace”. Augustine Christianizes his statements on temporal peace when he concludes that “God created all things in supreme wisdom and ordered them in perfect justice” (XIX:13) and that man can achieve peace by following God’s orders such as “love thy neighbor” (XIX:14).Augustine’s statements on peace are congruent with both the actions and writings of Luther, most specifically in his Friendly Admonition to Peace Concerning the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants. Firstly, as stated in Mackenson’s introduction, this writing is Luther’s “appeal to peace” (Hillerbrand 67) in order that “if any misfortune or disaster come out of the matter, it may not be blamed on me because of my silence” (Hillerbrand, 68). In his plea for peace To the Princes and Lords Luther uses both the tactics of impending hell and gentle persuasion to persuade the nobles to gain peace with the peasants. He reminds the nobility of the passage from Psalms “He poureth contempt upon princes” (Hillerbrand 69) and advises them “You will lose nothing in kindness; and even though you were to lose something, it can afterwards come back to you ten times over in peace, while in conflict you may, perhaps, lose both life and goods” (Hillerbrand, 71). In To the Peasants Luther greatly narrows Augustine’s idea that peace is the natural goal of man by claiming that peace is a uniquely Christian goal. This is demonstrated by Luther’s claim that if neither the peasants nor the nobility allow themselves to be instructed and live at peace, neither side is Christian (Hillerbrand, 78).Augustine and Luther’s interpretations on temporal law vary slightly from one another, with Augustine’s beliefs reflected by the passage from Corinthians “The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law” (XIII:5) and Luther’s resonating in the passage from the first book of Timothy “The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless” (Hillerbrand, 46). Augustine argues that the law itself is a temptation, that the very restriction of a deed is a reason that some perform it. In this way, some who might not ordinarily commit sins may be swayed to commit them because of the stronger temptation, or as Augustine writes “when the love of righteousness is not strong enough to overcome the sinful desire by the delight it affords” (XIII:5). Luther bypasses the question of whether the law can be taken to bad account by the wicked in his writings; there is little need for Luther to consider whether laws enhance the temptation of the wicked to violate them, because Luther believes that laws are not made for true Christians anyway. He writes “If all the world were composed of real Christians, that is, true believers, there would be no need or benefits from prince, king, sword, or law” (Hillerbrand 46).There is a similar contrast between Augustine and Luther’s interpretations of man’s obediency to temporal law. Augustine states plainly “when man lives by the standard of man’ and not by the standard of God’, he is like the Devil” (XIV:4). Augustine clarifies that even though man comes from God, who is all good, he can live falsely, as in not living in a godlike manner, for “Falsehood consists in not living in the way for which he was created” (XIV:4). Luther however, in distinguishing the two options of lifestyles (to live by a heavenly government or by a temporal one) grants that the heavenly one is best, but he also adds that the temporal government is necessary: “Both must be permitted to remain; the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds. Neither one is sufficient in the world without the other” (Hillerbrand, 48). In this way, Luther takes Augustine’s condemnation of temporal lifestyle to another level; while Luther admits that it would be best if the Christians of the world could live in peace without laws, like sheep, he admits that given the wolves or Non-Christians of the world would quickly devour them (Hillerbrand, 48). Augustine does not make this distinction, possibly because of his beliefs such as “When starvation killed…it snatched [the Christians] away from the evils of this life, as disease rescues men from the sufferings of the body” (I:11).One substantial difference between the theological and political thoughts of Augustine and Luther is each author’s unique interpretation of the authority between kings and nobles and their respective peasants and slaves. Augustine takes a rather surprising turn on this subject when he uses a passage in Genesis to back his claim that “[God] did not wish the rational being, made in his own image, to have dominion over any but irrational creatures, not man over man…That is why we do not hear of a slave anywhere in the Scriptures until Noah…punished his son…that son deserved this name because of his misdeed, not because of his nature…” (XIX:15). Augustine goes on to clarify, however, that slavery can only happen “by the judgement of God”. Therefore Augustine is stating that man is not meant to be enslaved, but God is just when He gives man a life of slavery. Furthermore, Augustine states, “Everyone who commits sin is sin’s slave”, and thereby somewhat justifies slavery as a sin which will cause the master to be a slave because the master practices slavery.Luther, on the other hand, spares no time in his tract On Governmental Authority in quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authority, for there is no authority except from God; the authority which everywhere exists has been ordained by God. He then who resists the governing authority resists the ordinance of God, and he who resists God’s ordinance will incur judgment” (Hillerbrand, 44). As mentioned in Hillerbrand’s introduction to Twelve Articles “The Protestant Reformation…seemed to be tailor made for the peasants” (Hillerbrand 63). As Mackenson states in his introduction to Admonition to Peace, however, “Luther left little doubt that he disapproved of the peasant’s marshaling of scriptural arguments in support of their economic and social goals…Luther rejected the use of the gospel to sustain secular demands, and insisted that the laws of society must provide the answer for social amelioration (Hillerbrand, 67).In conclusion, the similarities and differences in the theological and political thought of Augustine and Luther are caused by the correspondences and variances in the ways that each author interprets Scripture. Both authors never question the truth of the Scripture, yet it is obvious that the passages of the Bible can be construed to form two opposing political/theological views. The differences in these views reflect the differences of political motivation of each author. It is ironic that Luther, who was trying to sever himself from the Catholic Church should echo so many of Augustine’s teachings, yet it makes sense, for each author is defending an interpretation of Christianity from an outside existing force (the Romans for Augustine, the Catholics for Luther). Furthermore, when Augustine wrote City of God, the Catholic Church had not yet become the elaborate and corrupt political system, full of the “blind bishops and mad priests and monks whose hearts are hardened” (Hillerbrand, 68) of which Luther writes. It follows that in many cases the basic premises for Luther’s writings are the same as Augustine’s; it could be said that Luther is Augustine with a twist.
Defining a Happy Life
Throughout time, countless people have sought to understand what the good life is and how to achieve it. One such person is Saint Augustine, who details in Confessions his path to achieving the good life through God. Throughout the book, Augustine seeks to attain the good life, however, he must first discover what it means. After much searching, he eventually does this, only to realize that it is not enough to simply know what the good life is. While in a garden in Milan, he learns that achieving the happy life does not come without great struggle. This struggle must happen because a person must strive to better themselves, be wholeheartedly willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the happy life, and undergo great internal conflict.
In order to attain the good life, a person must first know what it is. Although different people may have different beliefs of what the happy life truly is, Augustine’s belief is very clear. To Augustine, “the happy life is joy based on the truth” (Augustine 199). He believes that in order to achieve a happy and fulfilling life, a person must achieve joy through the truth. However, a person seeking the good life through Augustine’s definition must also know what they believe the truth to be. Augustine struggled for most of his life before his conversion to find not only what he believed the good life to be, but even after he developed his definition of the good life, he struggled to discover what he believed the truth to be. However, he eventually came to realize that for him, the truth was his faith in God. Therefore, Augustine views faith as his pathway to the good life. However, he also learned that this cannot come without significant struggle. Augustine believes that these trials were out of his power; the trials he underwent, the long path to his conversion were all predestined by God. However, whether God wanted Augustine to endure and struggle for his faith or it was entirely caused by Augustine himself, it does not change the fact that in order to achieve the happy life, Augustine had to undergo great turmoil. Whether there is a higher power who intends for a person to struggle or they have autonomy over their path, their struggle will always be trying, which is what will lead them to the truth and therefore the happy life.
Despite knowing that his path to a happy life lay in putting his faith in God, Augustine is unable to achieve this goal for a long time. He learns later in his life while in Milan that he must not only know the path to God, but he must also struggle to follow it. One such struggle is the constant endeavor to better oneself in order to be ready for the happy life. Augustine’s goal for self-betterment is to convert to Christianity and be of sufficiently strong moral character to be close to God. Prior to his conversion at the garden, Augustine knew that his path to the good life lay in Christianity, yet he did not convert because he was not pure enough, on one occasion praying to God “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet” (Augustine 145). Augustine wanted to convert to Christianity eventually because he knew that it was the right thing to do, but at the time he was not a sufficiently moral person because he did not wish to be chaste or continent. Yet while at Milan, after years of personal betterment and effort, he becomes sufficiently moral and he is okay with being chaste because he knows that it is the right thing to do, and doing the right thing is now more important to him than the satisfaction of his carnal pleasures. Prior to this, he was strong enough to resist temptation, but he only had a vague desire to do so. However, it was not until the Garden in Milan that he became sufficiently pure to truly value virtues such as chastity above all else, and he truly desired to be the most moral person that he could. This is a severe struggle because Augustine must change his priorities and improve his character. However, by improving his character, Augustine is brought closer to god and therefore closer to attaining the happy life.
In order to achieve the good life, a person must not only struggle with self-betterment but they must also struggle with their will. They must ensure not only that their will is to pursue the happy life, but also that their will and desires align with it. Prior to his conversion in the garden, Augustine is not fully devoted to Christianity, which is why he did not convert prior to this despite believing Christianity to be right. He “had not seen any certainty by which to direct [his] course” so he did not choose a course for fear of being wrong (Augustine 145). Therefore, he spent a lot of time struggling with discerning what the correct course is when he could have already been living what he deemed to be the happy life if he had wholeheartedly devoted himself to becoming a Christian. Then, while in the Milanian garden he fully devoted himself to his endeavor and committed to being baptized. Although he did not begin to live the happy life right at that moment, it taught him that in order to live that life one day he had to struggle with his devotion in order to become fully committed to his path to the happy life.
Augustine’s conversion was not easy for him; in fact, it was quite hard and trying. This is because he had to struggle with a great deal of personal turmoil during his conversion in the garden. While questioning his beliefs just prior to converting, Augustine was “distressed not only in mind but also in appearance” causing him to leave his discussion with his friends and flee to the garden in search of clarity (Augustine 146). While in the garden, Augustine tore his hair, struck his forehead, and was eventually brought to tears while trying to determine the right course of action when he finally opened the book of the apostle, leading to his conversion (Augustine 153). These physical actions manifest the internal turmoil and struggle he underwent not just in the garden, but also throughout his life in pursuit of the happy life. He ripped out his hair and beat himself in the head out of severe frustration caused by his inability to find the good life or christianity. This taught him that internal conflict and struggle is necessary to find the path to the happy life, as the anguish he was enduring is what caused him to open his bible, thus leading to his conversion.
This event, Augustine’s conversion in the garden, is therefore crucial to the understanding of the happy life because it showed Augustine what he needed to do in order to achieve the happy life. He viewed the happy life to be “joy based on truth”, the truth being his belief in God, therefore he believed that he could attain the happy life by achieving happiness through his relationship with God. For this reason, his conversion to Christianity is very important to his understanding of how to achieve the happy life. The experience taught him that pain and struggle can sometimes simply be a path to the good life and joy, therefore allowing him to understand that if he is able to struggle and fight through any issues he may be having, it may allow him to be happier in the long run.
Augustine’s conversion to Christianity is already a crucial point in his life because religious conversions are significant parts of a person’s life, but this also taught him more about how to achieve the happy life and that struggle is sometimes necessary. However, Augustine’s definition of the happy life is not necessarily universal, so some people’s definition of the happy life may differ from his or their truth may be something other than faith in God. Despite this, Augustine’s lessons from the garden regarding the happy life also apply to other definitions of the happy life, because achieving the happy life will never be easy and will require struggle, but it will also always aid in the pursuit of the happy life.
Argument Against Augustine
In Augustine’s Confessions, he has an internal conflict about his hesitation to convert to Christianity. He claims to disagree with the Manichean ways and beliefs, and lists his reasons why in several passages. The subject of these passages is about will, specifically complete and incomplete wills. However, one of his arguments about this concept makes it apparent that he is influenced by Manichean ideas. In Augustine’s second passage, he clearly states that there are two wills, complete and incomplete. By doing so, he is subtly showing that he is influenced the Manichean theory of two wills. Augustine’s first argument begins in section 20, starting with his hesitation to convert and comparing it to a man’s physical lack of strength. He then introduces his position on wills. He proclaims that it is easy for the body to obey the soul and to obey the soul’s will. On the other hand, it is not as easy for the soul to obey itself and it’s wills. Augustine thinks that this is because his will was not whole, and if it was whole he would not be pondering it still, he would have just done it already, similar to how his body moves without hesitation.
In section 21, Augustine goes forward with his claim that they mind commands the body, yet when the mind commands the mind it struggles to obey. He reasons this by explaining how the body can so easily obey the mind’s will, making it hardly even distinguishable as a will. Augustine argues that this is because the will is only there while it is being done. The moving of a hand and the converting to Christianity are the same will, but the body moving the hand is barely noticed as a will because it is too easy, it is a routine thing. Furthermore, if the mind does not command a will, it is because the will was not whole. The will commands the will to exist. If this command is incomplete, the will does not happen, and therefore was never a will. On the other hand, if a will were complete, it would no longer have a command to exist, and therefore the will would not exist at all. This is the reason why Augustine believes the Manicheans are wrong, and that there is no ‘monstrous’ split between willing and unwilling. However, Augustine then says that there two wills, and both are incomplete. They separate because one has what the other lacks.
In the next section, 22, he explains his reasoning for why the Manicheans are evil, and that they are far away from God due to their arrogance. Augustine proceeds with his argument, which is that the wills can not divide into two separate wills, because they are both incomplete and that makes them identical. Augustine then explains his belief that the self which proposes the will is the same self that is unwilling; not two separate minds, but the same. To be neither willing nor unwilling is to be in conflict with yourself. Augustine ends this section with his understanding that it is not his fault for being willing and unwilling at the same time, but it is a punishment for being a son of Adam, the original sinner.
Augustine continues this into section 23. This section starts with Augustine advancing his disagreement with the Manicheans. His claim is that if the wills are separated due to indecision, there would be many more wills than just two. He challenges the validity of being lead by a good will or a bad will, questioning that both of these directions could be bad wills. He questions how a will can be divided into good and bad, if it is the same will? Augustine finishes this section by subtly admitting he is choosing to convert to Christianity, by calling it the true view of the soul and because in Christianity there is the belief of a single soul, not multiple souls or multiple minds that come from split wills.
In section 24, the last of Augustine’s arguments, regards his opinion of the multiple split wills. Arguing with the Manicheans, he claims again that both wills can be bad and there can be many more than just two directions of these wills. He reasons this by restating that a person has only one mind, the wills can not be separated. When Augustine states that there are two wills in section twenty-one he contradicts his argument against the Manicheans, which goes to subtly show that his views are influenced by the Manicheans. Throughout all five sections, Augustine argues that there is only one will. Yet he boldly states that the Manicheans are evil and far from God from thinking there is a split will. Augustine says that a split will would mean there are two opposite wills, and two wills would mean there is two minds. His argument is that everyone has only one mind, so it is impossible that there can be two opposite wills. However, Augustine completely contradicts himself at the end of section twenty-one where he clearly states “So there are two wills.” Although his approach is not exactly the same as the Manicheans, this statement makes it very apparent that their concept of two wills influenced Augustine’s position. Augustine does not exactly agree with the split, opposite, wills, but he is influenced because he does still believe there are two separate wills of complete and incomplete.
Augustine placed this case in the midst of his conversation about his hesitation to convert to Christianity. He strategically inserted it here to illustrate how thought-provoking and tough this decision is for him. He is so lost that he is philosophically thinking about why he can not make a decision as easily as he can move his hand. This causes him to ponder on the different wills, which brings him to the conclusion that all wills are incomplete, otherwise they are not wills at all. Another reason he placed these sections here is to explain to the readers that only the incomplete will wills, thus all wills are incomplete. The last probable reason is to describe to the readers where the conflict of willing and unwillingness comes from. Augustine had come to the conclusion that it is a punishment from the original sinner, Adam.
While rejecting the Manichean positions, it is clear that Augustine chooses to convert and not to stay with the ‘arrogant’ and ‘evil’ Manichean beliefs. His interpretation of wills clearly express that it was distressing for him to decide to convert. For example; he explains the conflict between willing and unwilling as a punishment due to Adam’s sins. On the other hand, he does put a lot of thought into arguing with the simplest of Manichean beliefs, their idea of split wills, and use even that against them. This fact alone makes it clear that Augustine had an incomplete will to convert to Christianity.
Language and the Path to Conversion
In St. Augustine’s Confessions, language was necessary on Augustine’s path to conversion, but also caused him to deviate from the same path. By being able to speak and read, Augustine first learned about God, while his final conversion in the garden at Milan involved hearing a child chanting and reading a passage from the Bible. On his path to God, however, language presented a trap for Augustine, when early on, he was unable to look past the physical words in the Bible that were merely representational of God. This brings up the issue of how language can be both helpful and harmful when one is trying to understand God. Language is necessary on the path to conversion, but the use of external words must be combined with internal perception through self-discovery in order to overcome the obstacles that language presents.
Language was a necessary factor in Augustine’s path to conversion. Through language, Augustine was able to enter into “the stormy society of human life” (Augustine 11) and learn about God from other humans and books. Learning how to speak allowed him to interact with humans and develop faith by following the examples of those around him. As a young boy, Augustine was already a believer of God, like his mother and most of his household (Augustine 14). He was able to develop this early foundation for living a faithful life because of interaction with others. Language also allowed Augustine to read the Bible. At this point, the same factor that had led Augustine towards God, led him astray. His focus on language, rather than the internal meaning of the Bible, caused him to be attracted to the Manichees and the way they spoke about God. Augustine was missing internal perception, something necessary to understand God, which was why language became an obstacle on his journey to conversion.
Although language was necessary for Augustine to learn about God, it also presented an obstacle because language is merely representational. When Augustine first read the Bible, he was unable to look beyond the physical words on the page. He thought the Bible unworthy compared to the works of Cicero and noted that his “inflated conceit shunned the Bible’s restraint, and [his] gaze never penetrated its inwardness” (Augustine 40). Augustine was not satisfied with the Bible because he thought the words on the pages were too simple for him, when in reality, he was too concerned with the words rather than what the words meant. The problem with language is that it is inherently distancing, because it is merely a representation of something. For Augustine, this meant that taking the Bible literally in his first reading distanced him from God. Similar to when Augustine first learned to speak and used words as signs of his wishes (Augustine 11), the Bible is a representation or a “sign” of God. Words are not the actual wishes they are describing, just like the Bible is not actually God. Augustine was not satisfied with his first reading of the Bible because he was unable to look beyond the words that were only representative of God.
Language is also harmful because it can hide the fact that something is devoid of truth. Augustine was again distanced from God through language by trying to understand God through the Manichees. He was attracted to the Manichees for their “slick-talk, very earthly-minded and loquacious”, and it is only much later that he realized their hearts were empty of truth (Augustine 40). Even though the words coming out of their mouths sounded good to Augustine, they did nothing more than mask the Manichees’ poor understanding of God. Their words were representing something that was false and presented a trap for Augustine, who at the time, did not know that they were misrepresenting God. Language as an obstacle to imitating God became more apparent with the arrival of Faustus, who was known as “a great trap of the devil” because of his smooth talk (Augustine 73). It is interesting that Faustus’ use of language here is being compared to the devil, because the Manichees’ use of language is something that distanced Augustine from God. Faustus is seen as one of the most respectable Manichees, but it is his fancy words that earn him this reputation, not his understanding of God.
Even when words are truly representational of God, language alone is not enough to understand him. In order to imitate God, one must turn inward, but language is an external, so the two must be reconciled. Augustine witnessed Ambrose reconciling both the inward and outward when he saw him reading silently. When Ambrose read, “his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent” (Augustine 92). Ambrose still processed the words on the page, but his heart is what allowed him to understand God. His silence showed that the physical words on the page were not the most important aspect of what he was reading. Since words are representational, they are not enough for one to come to a full understanding of God. Ambrose’s eyes are what saw the external, the words representing God, but it was his heart that was able to move past representation and sense what was internal, namely God.
Like Ambrose, Augustine was later able to reconcile external language and internal perception, but only near the end of his long journey towards full conversion. Augustine’s final conversion involved reading a passage from the Bible. He read one sentence and did not need to read any further because it was as if “a light of relief from anxiety flooded into [his] heart” and all his doubts were dispelled (Augustine 153). Like in the case with Ambrose, it was Augustine’s heart that was most affected by language. This marked a transformation in the way Augustine understood words as a way to reach God. When he first read the Bible, he could not penetrate deep into the meaning of the text and failed to understand God from it. This caused much doubting in Augustine, as he tried to find a different way to understand the Bible. After a long intellectual journey, Augustine was finally able to turn towards God because he learned that he needed to return into himself and see with his soul’s eye rather than his physical eyes (Augustine 123). Understanding God as a transcendent light that cannot be perceived by bodily senses was what allowed him to read the Bible passage in the garden and experience his final conversion. Since God cannot be experienced through any of the bodily senses, he must be reached through internal means of the heart, mind, and soul.
The internal perception that is necessary to understand the meaning behind language must also involve knowing oneself. The scene in the garden was a pivotal moment in Augustine’s journey. Yet it was the child chanting and the short passage in the Bible, both involving the use of language, that brought about his final conversion. Previously, language had caused Augustine to distance himself from God, but throughout his journey, he was able to learn more about himself. Right before reading the Bible passage, Augustine contemplated why his soul still refused to convert even though there was no excuse for it not to (Augustine 146). He discovered the inner struggle going on within him and his self-examination was interrupted the sound of a child chanting (Augustine 152). The chant was merely words, but Augustine understood it as a sign from God. He was able to understand it in that way because he had been deeply contemplating about himself and his internal struggles. Knowing himself better allowed him to know God better, and this caused Augustine to interpret both the chant and the Bible passage on a spiritual level.
On Augustine’ path to conversion, language posed an issue, because it helped him towards God but also presented obstacles as well. Language allowed Augustine to first learn about God as a young boy, and later experience his final conversion when he read the Bible passage in the garden. Augustine’s focus on language, however, also caused him to shun the Bible’s restraint and turn towards to Manichees, rather than God. This issue of language being both necessary and problematic can be reconciled by combining both the need for language and turning inwards through self-discovery, as demonstrated by Ambrose and his silent reading and Augustine during his final conversion. It is interesting that Augustine addressed God directly when he wrote Confessions, since God already knew all of Augustine’s sins. Even though writing out his confessions involved the use of language, it did not bring him away from God. By physically writing out his confessions, however, Augustine was representing himself through words. This activity of writing his confessions allowed Augustine to better know himself, and in better knowing himself, he was able to get closer to God.