Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Augustine in a Nutshell

Augustine was an extremely influential thinker, writer, philosopher and theologian. He was the man that synthesized many different elements of later Roman society, like classicism, stoicism, rationalism and Christianity. He sometimes called himself a Christian classicist, and saw no problem with combining these terms. And by doing this, he appealed to a wider group of Romans, especially the intellectuals, who finally found Christianity a rational belief that was in concert with their own interests and ideas. Augustine was passionate about God and Christianity, and expressed it with completely new methods. And yet, he went back to the past to find elements that could tie in to Christianity. By doing that, he was able to make Christianity a better fit and more comfortable for the Roman scholars. He was able to remove their objections to Christian theology. The historian Albert Outler stated, “Augustine has played a major role in every intellectual renaissance in the West since the time of Charlemagne. There are Augustinian accents in modern philosophy, and, in a sense, Augustine in the most influential contemporary theologian.”

It is no coincidence that Gregor Mendel (the geneticist) was an Augustinian scholar, as was Thomas Bradwardine the physicist. The Augustinian notion that human reason is powerful, yet susceptible to making mistakes, led to the modern concept of observational science: first, the need to independently confirm observations and replicate them; second, the identification of specific sources of experimental or observational error.

How Glorious Was It?

The political events which ended the reign of James II of England - he was overthrown in part because he was Roman Catholic, and in part because he policy toward France was seen as weakening England's global power - laid the foundation for the American Revolution a century later, and

was traditionally believed to derive much of its gloriousness from its absence of significant bloodshed, except in Ireland (which, revealingly, was not thought to count), a blessing usually put down to the fact that its central drama - the overthrow of James II, England's last Roman Catholic king - was essentially a conservative affair. According to this version of events, the replacement of James with the dual monarchy of the Dutch prince William and his wife (and James’s daughter) Mary was an easy sell, a restoration as much as a revolution, intended by a good number of its supporters to return hallowed (if sometimes fictional) English liberties to their central place in a constitution threatened by the newfangled ways of a monarch in thrall to a foreign religion and, no less sinisterly, to the absolutist ideology of

France's Louis XIV. Those who wanted to get rid of James II were revolutionaries, not in the sense that they wanted to create a new form of government, but rather in the sense that they wanted to return to an older form of government, which gave them all the rights and freedoms in the Magna Carta. James II represented an absolute monarchy instead of the constitutional monarchy which had given English citizens freedom for several centuries. The "Glorious Revolution" - as it has been known ever since - did indeed overthrow the government,

but so far as possible (even during the tricky 1688–89 hiatus) it did so in a way that was in accord with existing law — and who could object to that?

As Oxford's Andrew Stuttaford rhetorically asks. Despite the relatively low body count, the Glorious Revolution was indeed historically significant as the American Revolution which took the same intellectual path, or the French Revolution which took the opposite ideology.

Ensuring Peace Inside the Institution

Augustine is not only known as the thinker who presented Christianity to the pagan Roman society in a manner which made it intelligible, respectable, and appealing to many in that culture, but he also worked to preserve the harmony inside the infant church as it faced some of its first major debates.

Augustine was also responsible for creating some unity within the church, as rival factions and critics, threatened to splinter the church apart. Two main rivals to Augustinian Catholic Christianity were the Donatists and the Pelagians. The Pelagians were group that followed the teachings of Pelagius, a British ascetic, who believed that salvation was given through human will and effort. Pelagius believed that Adam’s ‘Original Sin’ did not taint all of mankind. He believed that humans had a good deal of freedom and autonomy. Augustine had a different belief. Augustine believed in Paul’s ideas regarding Original Sin and salvation. He believed that everyone is born with Adam’s sin, and thus deserve eternal damnation. But God, being forgiving, allows people to be saved. He believes that salvation is a gift from God. Thus, mankind has no role in determining his eternal fate. This idea became known as ‘predestination’. Augustine was firm in his beliefs. He believed that humans have free will, but it had no impact on whether they are saved. Ultimately, the teachings of Pelagius were rejected by the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D. Interestingly, the Catholic Church never adopted Augustine’s interpretation on salvation, and believed instead that salvation was a combination of faith and good works. The debate continued. However, later Protestants, like John Calvin, revived Augustine’s concept of predestination. The fact that Augustine silenced a rival and influenced Protestantism showed his great impact. No doubt, the Romans of his time took notice.

The Donatists were another group that threatened to splinter Christianity into separate sects. The Donatists, named after a Christian man named Donatus, argued that a member of the clergy that had either renounced their faith in a time of persecution, or had sinned in other ways, could not be a member of the church. Thus, they could not give out the sacraments, like the eucharist. They were worried that Christians taking part in this religious rite were not getting the benefits of it, as it was done in an improper manner. So, in essence, the question was, can a clergyman who has fallen from the church in some manner, give the sacraments? Augustine argued they still could. In fact, the debates between the Donatists and Augustine were legendary. Augustine did not relent on any of the issues. He argued persuasively and with reason. His debate with the Donatists forever changed the identity and government of the Church. The fact that he debated publicly the merits of Christianity could not help but be influential to the scholars of Rome.

Augustine's contributions to these discussions worked to sharpen the concept of "grace" - the notion that God's love for human beings is unearned, unmerited, and undeserved. God gives good things to people, not because they deserve it, but because He is generous.

The concept of "predestination" is both complex and misleading. No man can earn or choose salvation from God: man is passive in this process, and God is actively giving the salvation. But once God has given the salvation, man can become active, and choose to reject the free gift. Involved here is a fine distinction between those instances in which the human will is free, and those in which is determined. The discussions continue to this day about the exact meaning of the word "predestination."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Byron: from Scoundrel to Hero

The British poet Byron squandered his extreme popularity in a series of scandals and flamboyant displays of pure egotism. Once beloved by the reading public, his reputation was so bad that he eventually had to leave England and roamed through Italy, Switzerland, and other parts of Europe. David Pryce-Jones, a scholar at Eton and Oxford, recounts the story from that point:

Back in London, the Greek Committee was established to fight for Greece's independence from the Ottomans. Here was a more rewarding cause than anything in Italy or South America, where Byron also thought of venturing. Several of his friends were members of this committee, and they arranged for him to be their official agent in Greece, well aware of the publicity he was bound to attract. He spent a fortune on specially designed helmets and uniforms, and on the costs of the voyage. Eventually he established himself on the Greek mainland at Missolonghi, more a mud-patch than a proper town.

Byron needed a cause: his life, full of potential at the beginning, had proven empty in the pursuit of mere pleasure and in the attempt to glorify his ego. He now wanted something outside himself: something bigger than himself. He was finally ready to be in the service of something other than himself. Old habits die hard, however, and there was still plenty of swagger in his altruism.

The cause needed Byron: Greece had been attacked, invaded, and occupied by the Islamic army. The resistance was no match for the Muslim military. A famous Englishman like Byron would bring resources to their struggle for freedom.

There he subsidized Greeks and wild Albanians, irregulars who valued his money far more than freedom. He imagined himself at the head of Byron's Brigade, leading a charge and driving the Turks out. Reality overtook fantasy when he caught some sort of fever and suffered mysterious and fatal convulsions. A lonely and untimely death followed; he was only 36.

An instance of Luther's dictum that each man is simultaneously saint and sinner: Byron's effort to help the Greeks was riddled with his own flawed nature, which overflowed into the mercenaries he hired. A moral paradox: he was indeed engaged in a noble task, to help the oppressed victims; but Byron, like all humans, carried his own ethical failings with him even as he did something clearly good.

The Greek Committee and his friends were quick to build the legend that Byron had sacrificed himself in the cause of Greek independence, a hero and martyr for the sacred ideal of freedom.

And indeed, Byron was a martyr who sacrificed himself - not as he might have hoped, gallantly on a battlefield - but rather in diseased mud. Yet his efforts did indeed help the effort to relieve the Greeks from the tyranny of the Islamic military. His life, and death, helped his fellow human beings - both because of his efforts, and despite his person.

The Inner World and the Outer World

The human experience of seeking peace and meaning in life has two sides: to have inner peace is a very different thing than to have out peace. To be sure, both are good. The logic of observing the external world of appearances, whether appreciating the beauty of nature or measuring chemicals in a laboratory or analyzing the trends of world history, is different than the logic of internal reflection and meditation.

Augustine found that answers to the world were not just found outwardly in nature, but inward, in the self. “The foregoing analysis of St. Augustine’s life and philosophy has shown that the chief influence of religion was to turn his attention to the inward of subjective aspects of reality. This led him to discover and emphasize philosophical principles drawn, not from the realm of nature, but from the self,” wrote W. Wylie Spencer. This attitude really appealed to philosophers, especially Platonists. In order for Augustine to appeal theologically to people, he first had to produce a clear philosophy. And he did. He wrote a lot about many different topics. He was clear and succinct in his beliefs and arguments. His philosophy was unique and genuine. Spencer continues: “To this it may be added that the account given by St. Augustine of his search for truth and understanding confirms the judgment that original work was done in the construction of his final philosophy, but, after all, the content of his philosophical system is the surest test of originality.” Augustine’s philosophy and theology have an interesting relationship, but ultimately they supported each other. By creating this original inward-focusing philosophy, the theological system that followed was much more appealing to the intellectuals.

Adam Smith - Not for Beginners

Many students are familiar with the name Adam Smith, and have a few loose associations between that name and a concepts such as free market capitalism and economic equilibria. But he is worthy studying more closely: his nuanced writings cannot be simplified to a few bullet points on a note card. The notion that economies can be self-correcting mechanisms maintaining a sort of balance is part of a larger philosophical outlook, including perhaps Thomas Malthus and John Locke, which saw this same process of homeostasis applied to populations and politics - just as an economy keeps prices from being to high or to low through the interactions of supply and demand, so Malthus thought that populations would keep themselves at sustainable levels by means of corrective measures like wars, plagues, and famines; Locke's embrace of democracy in the form of majority rule was a mathematical averaging of political opinions, designed to keep a government from straying to far from a central balance.

This type of thinking was a response to what Smith, Locke, Malthus, and others (notably David Hume and Thomas Reid) saw as faulty attempts to theorize about political, moral, and ethical questions. Surveying the errors of various social theories, they saw, as Prof. Paul A. Rahe writes, people mistakenly thinking that

political and moral obligations have their foundation in a crass calculation regarding one's own security and material well-being, in a self-forgetting passion for the public good, or in a heroic and selfless will informed by the categorical imperative.

Such notions are both incorrect and doomed to failure, as both reason and experience show, because pure self-interest as a motivation will not sustain a society, because passion for the public good is easily fooled into destructiveness, and because the categorical imperative will instruct about what is right but cannot motivate.

Adam Smith, in place of these failed ethical frameworks, proposes something more subtle: a theory grounded

in the human capacity for sympathy and the natural human desire to garner respect and be genuinely worthy of it.

There is both a hint of selflessness and a bit of self-interest here: this mix is perhaps more realistic about human nature.

Morality is neither selfless nor what we would call selfish, but it is self-regarding. Men, as Smith understands them, are not isolated operators who calculate their interests. They make their way within civil society, and they are embedded in a social nexus in which they find that they have obligations.

Smith rejected naive utopianism, and instead looked for practical ways in which we could make the world, not perfect, but good enough to maintain a just society.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Time Before Time

Probably the first philosopher to precisely analyze the concept of time, using the tools of modern mathematics and physics, was Zeno of Elea (circa 500 B.C.) - which also makes us realize how old "modern" mathematics and physics really are! Ever since, the most brilliant philosophers have pondered the nature of time. All the great ones - Aristotle, Leibniz, Newton, Kant, Husserl - have striven to define the word "time." Augustine, writing around 400 A.D., is no exception.

Augustine systematically explained the history of man from Adam and Eve to his present. One hang-up Romans had with Christianity was that it did not seem to fit properly into the history of the world as they viewed it. Also, Christians had failed to answer some basic questions about time and creation. For example, there was an issue about what God was doing before creation. Augustine argued that time did not exist before creation. Anthony Kenny characterizes Augustine’s response to the Roman questions: “Rejecting the answer ‘Preparing hell for people who ask inquisitive questions’, Augustine responds that before heaven and earth were created, there was no time. We cannot ask what God was doing then, because there was no ‘then’ when there was no time. Equally, we cannot ask why the world was not created sooner, for before the world, there was no sooner.” Augustine believed that time was really only in the mind. While a tough concept, he gave an answer that at least satisfied some intellectuals. He also explained the history of man, from a Christian perspective. He’s able to explain all the earlier civilizations, and their role in history, and explain how all of it was in concert with Christianity. He believed that God has been with mankind since creation and Adam and Eve and could show it. It was an interpretation of time and history that Roman scholars could understand at an intellectual level.

Against a backdrop of pagan mythologies, which told stories about the tragic fates of those who ask questions, Augustine relished the idea of intellectual exploration. Instead of polytheism's mythological warning against inquisitiveness, Augustine eager engaged in mental exploration, including speculations about the nature of time.

Gender and History

Understanding one’s gender, and how one’s gender influences one’s thinking and social interactions, is of interest to philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists. We also see gender as an important topic in history. One need only think of the wars between Frederick the Great and Empress Maria-Theresa to agree, or to consider the progress which took place as the Judeo-Christian tradition removed some of the limits placed on women by earlier societies. In fact, it can be said that a necessary foundation for any society is the discovery of gender roles. Robert Lewis wrote:

After a lifetime of studying cultures and civilizations, both ancient and modern, the eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead made the following observation: “The central problem of every society is to define appropriate roles for men.” Author George Gilder adds: “Wise societies provide ample means for young men to affirm themselves without afflicting others.”

Psychologically, men are far more fragile than women. Men struggle with their identity much more than women do. Though feminists would have us believe that poor self-esteem is largely a female problem, caused primarily by social inequities, the evidence tells a different story. “Men, more than women,” says David Blankenhorn, “are culture-made.” For this reason, a cultural definition of manhood is critical.

Why would Margaret Mead, herself obviously a woman, stress that the “central” task for any society is to discover the correct roles “for men”? As an anthropologist, she had analyzed the data: the vast majority of major crimes, violent crimes, burglaries, vandalism, and graffiti are committed by men. Essentially all rapes are committed by men. Drunk driving is disproportionately male. Margaret Mead saw that men, if they do not discover their proper roles in society, are dangerous and destructive. Conversely, if men find, or are shown, the roles they ought to assume, they are productive.