Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Augustine in Context

Augustine was born in Northern Africa in 354 AD. His birthplace of Thagaste, a city 200 miles from the coast of the Mediterranean, was firmly within the borders of Rome’s vast empire. This area was rich in ethnic and religious diversity, and for many centuries, it thrived. But by the mid-fourth century, the Roman Empire, including the area around Thagaste, was in decline. There were significant economic and social problems, intensified by a military that no longer could manage all of its borders. During this era of constant change, Christianity was gaining momentum. Christianity had become a legal religion in 313 with Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, but it wasn’t until 393 that Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire. During most of Augustine’s life, then, Christians were a legal but embattled and oppressed minority group. Before Augustine, Christianity had appealed mainly to the lower classes, even women and slaves, with a promise of eternal life and equality, at least at the spiritual level. But Christianity was not popular with the elite and educated classes in Rome. Many powerful Romans believed it a religion of pacifists and the weak. There were already serious divisive issues that threatened to splinter the church. Moreover, Christianity was perceived as failing to appeal to the intellect. Augustine will be the philosopher who shows it to be otherwise. Why was Augustine able to show Christianity to be appealing to the educated classes of Roman society? Augustine was able to rephrase the concepts of Christian theology into the wordings of Classical philosophy. The original formulations of Christian thought were cast in the setting of Hebrew wisdom literature, which was mystifying to the Roman reader. Augustine recast the Jewish wisdom of Jesus and New Testament into clear Roman-style thoughts, passionate discourse, and succinct logic. Although controversial, he was enormously influential and brought unity to the church. Augustine revealed what Hebrew literary style had kept hidden from Roman eyes: that Christianity met the moral and intellectual needs of man.

He became known as Augustine of Hippo, because he worked mainly in that town. It is only a few miles from Thagaste.

Augustine had a classical education. He studied the writings of classical figures like Vergil, Cicero and Plato. He wrote his letters and books in polished Latin style.

He expressed Christian concepts in the language of Platonic philosophy. Augustine believed Platonic dualism and Christianity have a clear link. He presented his own version of Plato’s Theory of Ideas (The Ideas exist within God). He formulated a Christian Neo-Platonism.

Augustine was an early scholastic, or more accurately a proto-Scholastic, in the sense that he reconciled human reason with Christian faith. When Scholasticism flourishes, centuries after Augustine, there will be a conflict between the Augustinian Scholastics, influenced by Platonism, the Thomist Scholastics, influenced by Aquinas’s study of Aristotle.

Augustine systematically explained the history of man from Adam and Eve to the present. He is one of the earliest philosophers to understand the connection between philosophy and history, and to develop a philosophy of history. He had a clear and well-argued vision of time. In exploring the nature of time, he not only explored the philosophy of history, but also the connections between philosophy and physics. Augustine’s view of history and time incorporated all of mankind.

He examined both similarities and contrasts between Cicero’s stoicism and Christianity. He didn’t like all aspects of stoicism, but could see a tie between Natural Law and God’s universality. Some aspects of morality were similar.

He was constantly on a quest for truth and self-examination. He turned religion into an inward and subjective journey, not with answers found in nature, but within the self. His autobiographical writings are self-critical.

Augustine created unity within the church when rivals like the Donatists and Palagians threatened to separate the church. In resolving these conflicts, he organized logical principles still used today by philosophers.

In 410, Rome was sacked by Visigoths. Many Romans blamed the increasing popularity of Christianity for their misfortunes. He creates, in the City of God, a clear rationale as to why Christians should still be faithful despite the horrors they were experiencing: both from external invaders and from their fellow Romans who made the Christians into scapegoats regarding the invasions. He also demonstrated that the Visigoths attacks in Rome were not caused by the new faith, but that the attacks might have been worse if not for the moderating presence of the belief.