The Philosophy of St. Augustine

Augustine (AD 354-430) was born in Thagaste and died in Hippo, both places in North Africa. Intellectually he straddles the gap between the philosophers of ancient Greece and those of medieval Christian Europe; he lived through the decline of the Roman Empire, which led to the Dark Ages. The eventual historical outcome in the eleventh century was the increased dominance of Christianity. Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a Christian, but initially he did not accept the faith and adopted Manichaeanism, which embodied some elements of Christianity among elements from other religions . At the age of seventeen he became a student of the University of Carthage where he became a teacher of rhetoric and, while there, lived a life of extravagant pleasure-including sexual pleasure-which was to contrast starkly with his later monkish life. In AD 383 he moved to teach in Rome; following financial problems, he accepted a teaching post in Milan, where he greatly augmented his knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy, in particular Neoplatonism. In Milan he was impressed by the teachings of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan.

maxresdefaultAugustine converted to Christianity in AD 386, and was baptized the following year. He was then determined to enter the Church and renounced worldly pleasures. Initially Augustine found no difficulty in reconciling the dominant intellectual position of his day, Neoplatonism, with the demands of Christian scripture; later he began to see greater problems in reconciling their basic concepts. He soon founded his own monastic community in Thagaste; but this lasted only a couple of years through hi s being forced into the Catholic priesthood. Augustine eventually became Bishop of Hippo in AD 396. He never left North Africa for the last thirty-nine years of his life . In AD 410, Rome was sacked by the Goths; in 429 the Vandals crossed to North Africa from Spain and laid siege to Hippo; Augustine died in 430, aged seventy -five, a short time before Hippo fell .

The character of Augustine’s thought is distinctly religious, rather than purely philosophical; the discussion of certain philosophical problems is not that of the disinterested academic, but has the overriding purpose of identifying the path to the attainment of blessedness or beatitude. This does not mean that what is true is crudely identified with whatever makes one happy; it is rather the other way around: knowledge of truths will make one happy. It is assumed that the wise man and the happy man are one, and knowledge of truths is part of the attainment of wisdom. The question  of whether we can know truths is generally assumed to be answered positively; the chief question is how we can attain that knowledge. The overall religious purpose is twofold: first, to show how we can become closer to God; secondly, to emphasize the importance of God by showing how everything is closely dependent on God.

A problem of particular concern to Augustine is how we come to know the universal necessary eternal truths described by Plato and the Neoplatonists. First, however, Augustine sets about demolishing the sceptic who asserts that no knowledge at all is possible. He points to a range of things we clearly know to be true, which the sceptic cannot possibly deny. He is not aiming to use these known truths as the axiomatic foundation of the rest of knowledge, rather, if any of the examples are admitted as known truths, then knowledge is possible, and the absolute sceptic refuted.

(a) We know the law of non-contradiction, whereby if something is true, it cannot also be the case at the same time that the opposite is true .

(b) I know that I exist. ” If I err, I exist” (“Si faIlor, sum“). This anticipates Descartescogito; but it is not used in the same way; Augustine is not concerned to use it to prove the existence of the external world.

(c) Appearances cannot in themselves be false; I know infallibly what my subjective experiences are, how things appear to me: my “seemings” . I can know infallibly what seems to be the case; it is my judgement, which goes beyond what seems to be the case, which introduces the possibility of falsehoods.

(d) We clearly, even from the sceptic’s point of view, have the capacity to doubt; so we know at lea st one truth: there is doubting.

(e) We obviously know with certainty mathematical and geometrical truths.

(f) We do not just know abstract principles, we also know real existences. We know that we exist, that we are alive, and that we understand these facts. Augustine points out that even if our experience is really a dream, we nevertheless still know we were alive. We are also conscious that we will certain things.

These bulwarks against scepticism are in one way or another derived from introspection independently of the errors of the senses.

st-augustine-2-1-3-1Augustine does not dismiss the senses as wholly deceptive. From the fact that we can sometimes err in our sense-based judgements (for example if we judge that a stick which appears bent in the water really is bent), and can on any particular occasion err, it does not follow that the senses cannot ever support true beliefs. That the sens es deliver truths less certain than those of mathematics does not mean the sens es do not deliver truths at all. However, Augustine supports the Platonic view that the lack of certainty and the relativity of judgement (the same thing can appear different to different people) that beset the senses make the objects of sense not suitable objects for true knowledge or knowledge proper. The true objects of knowledge-the truths we can know with greatest certainty-are truths that are universal, necessary, and eternal ; this is the highest form of knowledge, and sensory knowledge the lowest. This means that these eternal truths have to be found within the mind independently of sensory experience.

The problem arises of how eternal truths and our knowledge of eternal truths are to be accounted for. The sensible world does not provide us with the required immutable concepts and truths; the human mind or soul, although immortal , is also temporal and mutable . Augustine agrees with Plato that , just as transient truths are accounted for by the mutable objects of the sensible world, so universal necessary eternal truths are accounted for by their being truths about eternal and immutable real objects . Moreover, these eternal objects, and the truths concerning the relations of the concepts of these objects, are independent of the human mind; they are truths that we discover, which we cannot alter, and which are thereby objective and common to all capable of reasoning. Such objectsimmaterial impersonal essences-referred to by Plato as Forms, are identified by Augustine as ideas in the eternal, immutable mind of God-they are the content of the divine mind. Such divine ideas provide both truly objective fixed concepts and necessary truths by being the objects of necessary judgements. Augustine, like Plato, ha s no facility to account for the necessity of some truths which does not involve realism, requiring there to be eternal objects to which those truths correspond; he is unable to account for such necessary truths merely on the basis of the logical relations between concepts, but thinks that such truths require eternal objects which the eternal truths are true of eternally.

Such necessary truths are available to us in the areas of mathematics and geometry, but they are also possible in moral and aesthetic judgements. The divine ideas provide perfect objects for the concepts of number and geometrical forms; they also provide objective standards for moral judgements concerning good and evil, and aesthetic judgements concerning what is, or is not, beautiful. We do not find perfect unity in our experience (we always find things with parts which are thereby both one and many); we do not find absolute goodness or evil or perfect beauty in our experience. We do not find these things in themselves exemplified in the sensible world; but nor are they mere constructions of the human mind. Rather, the divine ideas in God’s mind are the absolute eternal standards by which all else is judged, and which are assumed in our judgements.

The problem remains of how such eternal truths are accessible to the non-eternal human mind. We have certainly been granted reason by which we are able to form true or false judgements not derivable from sense-experience. But reason alone is not enough to account for our knowledge of eternal truths . The human mind, in seeking eternal truths, is seeking something beyond, and superior to, the mutable and temporal mind, and to know such truths we need help. Such help emanates from God in the form of “divine illumination”; and as an illuminator God is present in us as He is present in all things. All knowledge in Augustine is seen as a form of seeing. Just as the senses see independent objects when they are illuminated by the sun, so reason or intellect “sees” eternal truths when illuminated by the divine light. This does not mean that in apprehending eternal truths we have direct access to God’s nature-that is possible only after death, if at all. We do not intellectually see God or the mind of God when we know eternal truths. It is unclear whether the illumination implants the concepts constituting necessary truths in our minds, or whether it simply enables us to recognize which judgements are eternal and necessary-it could indeed function in both ways. Perhaps the best interpretation is to say that God does not directly infuse our minds with the absolute concepts which constitute eternal truths, rather such concepts are latent in the mind as copies of the archetypes in God’s mind; divine illumination enables us to see intellectually which are the eternal and necessary truths that are latent in our souls, and so to recognize them as eternal and necessary. The latent concepts, and the eternal truths connecting them, are in memoria; in this way ideas can be in the mind without the mind being aware of those ideas. This accords with our use of “memory” only in that it refers to ideas that can be in the mind without our being always aware of them; it refers in Augustine, most importantly, to the a priori content of minds, which is not literally a remembrance of things past. Nevertheless the theory is close to Plato’s account of our possessing a priori knowledge through reminiscence.

Lippi_Filippo_Fra-ZZZ-Vision_of_St_AugustineEternal truths are, of course, independent of and irrefutable by sense-experience. So the true objects of knowledge are objective eternal objects which depend on there being ontologically appropriate eternal objects in the divine mind. Knowledge of eternal truths is granted by a combination of natural human reason and supernatural divine illumination. To benefit from such illumination we have to turn towards God. This precludes the possibility of making a distinction between natural reason and divine faith, for both are always needed and mixed in the search for knowledge. This again emphasizes the dependence of all things on God, in this case our capacity to know eternal necessary truths. The immateriality of the soul and its superiority to the body mean that Augustine has great difficulty accounting for perceptions through the corporeal organs. The superior nature of the soul’s mode of existence involves the view that it cannot be affected by the inferior corporeal organs. At fir st he suggests that the mind use s the sens e organs as a tool. Later he tries to account for our awareness of changes in our corporeal senses by the mind attending to or noticing such changes; but it is difficult to see how, in this case , some causal influence of the corporeal sense organs on the mind can be avoided.

Augustine uses the existence of eternal truths as proof of the existence of God. Leibniz in the seventeenth century presents a similar argument. The argument starts by getting one to admit that there are eternal truths-immutable necessary truths, forced on human beings. The only way to account for there being such necessary inescapable truths is their objective existence as truths in an eternal mind. We serve and are closer to God in so far as we contemplate eternal ideas in the mind of God. This, however, is not all that is required; we also need a spiritual purification-goodness in order to approach God.

Source: Shand, John. Philosophy And Philosophers: An Introduction To Western Philosophy. Routledge, 1993. Print.


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