Augustine on Time
Augustine on Reincarnation

Complex reactions to The City of God, Books XI & XII

Augustine believes that the beauty of the universe requires evil.  Here is a sampling of one presentation of that idea:

For God would never have created any, I do not say angel, but even man, whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses.

We who live post-Hiter especially find this idea reprehensible and such a deity unworthy of worship or the description of "good" or "loving."

An interesting, pluralistic (of sorts) hermeneutic:

Accordingly, though the obscurity of the divine word has certainly this advantage, that it causes many opinions about the truth to be started and discussed, each reader seeing some fresh meaning in it, yet, whatever is said to be meant by an obscure passage should be either confirmed by the testimony of obvious facts, or should be asserted in other and less ambiguous texts.

On the relation between the Trinity and the city of God:

In this, too, is hte origin, the enlightenment, the blessedness of hte holy city which is above among the holy angels.  For if we inquire whence it is, God created it; or whence its wisdom, God illumined it; or whence its blessedness, God is its bliss.  It has its form by subsisting in Him; its enlightenment by contemplating Him; its joy by abiding in Him.  It is; it sees; it loves.  In God's eternity is its life; in God's truth its light; in God's goodness its joy.

Beautiful words and phrases, I think.  But I also have no idea what this means.

Order abides when everything is true to its nature:

All natures, then, inasmuch as they are, and have therefore a rank and species of their own, and a kind of internal harmony, are certainly good.  And when they are in the places assigned to them by the order of their nature, they preserve such being as they have received.

This hierarchy of being was one of the more deadly, influential ideas in Western thought.  I don't think it originates with Augustine, and was more fully developed by other writers.  There is also some hint of the natural law philosophy of Thomas, which is Aristotlean in basis.

But this idea of order and disorder does set up an interesting and also influential idea of Augustine's, that we sin when we engaged in disordered love, when we love something out of proportion to its place--e. g. desiring another personal sexually more than we desire the contemplation of God. 

This leads further to his idea that the will does not freely choose to err, but when it errs, it is deficient of being (remember that being is equated with perfection and goodness).  Here are some excerpts:

How, then, can a good thing be the efficient cuase of an evil will? . . .  Therefore it is not an inferior thing which has made the will evil, but it is itself which has become so by wickedly and inordinately desiring an inferior thing. . . .  Let no one, therefore, look for an efficient cause of the evil will; for it is not efficient, but deficient, as the will itself is not an effecting of something, but a defect.  For defection from that which supremely is, to that which has less of being--this is to begin to have an evil will. . . .  the defection of the will is evil, because it is contrary to the order of nature, and an abandonment of that which has supreme being for that which has less.

 The opposite of this is a good being, "the more being they have, and the more good they do, the more they have efficient causes."  If you want to gain in freedom, then develop more goodness and more being.  Freedom is not the lack of restraint, but the development of one's own character.

I must say, that while I reject the metaphysics, particularly the hierarcy of being, upon which this ethics is developed, I still find it compelling.  There is something to these ideas of disordered desire, a deficient will, and freedom.  

In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan writes that over time domesticated apples in the United States, particularly Red Delicious, have lost their flavour.  And they’ve done so because our domestication of them has robbed them of their necessary wildness.  In our effort to provide the perfect apple, we’ve robbed it of some of its necessary vitality.

One source of the problem was “a pinched modern idea of what constitutes sweetness.”  100 years ago, sugar, for the very first time, was readily available, and sweetness became limited to sugariness.  He writes, “in a culture of easy sweetness, apples now had to compete with every other kind of sugary snack food in the supermarket.”  What had happened, according to Pollan, is that a “complex desire had become a mere craving.”

I love that final phrase of Pollan's (I preached on desire and used this illustration last December), and it resonates with Augustine, I think.

Finally, Augustine on the doctrine of double predestination, which I despise:

In this first man, who was created in the beginning, there was laid the foundation, not indeed evidently, but in God's foreknowledge, of these two cities or societies, so far as regards the human race.  For from that man all men were to be derived--some of them to be associated with the good angels in their reward, others with the wicked in punishment; all being ordered by the secret yet just judgement of God.  For since it is written, "All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth," neither can His grace be unjust, nor His justice cruel.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.