Confessions Book 7

[For links to the rest of this series, click here.]

Book 7 breaks from the narrative to unfold the intellectual evolution of Augustine the catechumen. In it, he retells his journey from Manichaeism to astrology to Platonism to the Scriptures. Along the way he received some notions and rejected others, but only in the Scriptures did he find the fullness of knowledge. The nature of God and the origin of evil are two mysteries which drove his questioning. In the Platonic books he found the rudiments of a solution to both problems.

With help from the Platonic (actually Neoplatonic) books, likely translated (and notated?) by the Christian philosopher Marius Victorinus, Augustine is able to put together an ontology — a system of thought explaining being and beings: their nature, categories, and relations — that adequately solves his problems concerning God and evil. In this Christian Neoplatonism, God is conceived not simply as a being, but as pure Being, Truth, and Good. Since he dwells “above” any mere beings, he cannot be changed or hurt by them in any way. Thus, he alone is eternal, unchangeable, incorruptible.

God creates beings, finite creatures which are good but not Good. Thus, whatever other distinctions might be made, the central distinction is always between the Creator and the creature, the sustainer and the things sustained. In Augustine’s hierarchy, some created things (particularly intellectual realities) are higher (more good) than others. The lower things, however, are not bad, but simply less good, as one might describe the difference between a gallon and a quart of milk. This does open the door to an objection: why create the lower goods at all? Wouldn’t creation be more good if all the lower goods were instead higher goods? For example, if people are superior goods compared to frogs, then wouldn’t making all the frogs into people make the universe more good? Wouldn’t changing all the quarts of milk into gallons give you more milk?

Augustine himself struggled with this objection, but eventually came to answer that “all things are good in the sense that taken individually they are good, and all things taken together are very good” (xii.18). That is, different created things, being finite, serve complementary purposes. A thing is”harmonious not only with its place but with its time” (xv.21), such that the viper and the worm, for instance, fit the lower part of the earth in which they dwell (xvi.22). One can then imagine creation as a Renaissance painting with a captivating focal point, man. Yet, that focal point exists only because the lines from the periphery draw the eye to it. The sum effect of the masterpiece is caused not by the equality, but by the inequality of the parts. Later medieval philosophy with some help from Aristotle would develop this into the principle of plenitude, the idea that Being must refract through all the levels of being, filling each one like a tiered fountain overflows each level until it reaches the lowest. (See The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis for a fuller sketch of the medieval model.)

The advantage of this ontological model is the ability to affirm without reservation that God is Good and that all created things are good. The Manichees suggested that evil is an eternal principle within the creation; “they thought it more acceptable to say your substance suffers evil than that their own substance actively does evil” (iii.4). Rather, Augustine understands evil as no thing at all, a gap in the hierarchy of being or the darkness in chiaroscuro. “I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, towards inferior things, rejecting its own inner life and swelling with external matter” (xvi.22). The problem of evil is an ethical, not structural, problem; its origin is in the will and its cure is humble confession.

Often, the question has been asked whether Augustine is a Neoplatonist. The proper question is whether Augustine’s neo-Platonism conquers his Christianity or vice versa. In most respects, I conclude that Christ reigns triumphant over Plotinus in Augustine’s thought. Even while giving credit to the books of Plato for many of his ideas, he is diligent to underscore their inadequacy. “I was puffed up with knowledge. Where was the charity which builds on the foundation of humility which is Christ Jesus? When would the Platonist books have taught me that?” Augustine believes that God allowed him to read those books first in order to discover their shortcomings, so that he would have respect for the uniqueness of the Scriptures (xx.26-xxi.27). Of Christ, contrition, salvation, and the Spirit, the Platonic books know nothing; they, though, are the things our souls yearn to know.

Published in: on November 8, 2010 at 10:09 am  Leave a Comment  

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