A brief history of philosophy, part 3: Augustine reconciles Christianity with Plato

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Posted May 31 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

Augustine (354-430) was a bridge between the classical world and the medieval, Christian world. He reconciled Christianity with Plato, and his immaterial world of forms – a much easier task than reconciling Aristotle, with his scientific outlook and emphasis on reason. Reconciliation with Aristotle would have to wait until Thomas Aquinas, 900 years later.

After Aristotle came the Stoics, Skeptics, Cynics, Epicureans and Neoplatonists, but no dominant worldview in the West until Christianity. The Stoics certainly contributed to the coming Christian preeminence; they taught indifference to this world – to be ‘stoical’ was to endure the pains of this life and to focus on the soul and the divine.

After Jesus’s death, it didn’t look too promising for Christians. They endured persecution with the optimistic belief that Jesus’s second coming would be in their lifetime. When several generations had passed with no sign of him, and with the persecution getting worse, they began to put more emphasis on the afterlife than on this one. This life was pretty horrible for them, after all. Neoplatonism was strong at this time, and remember that Plato had taught that the eternal world of forms was more real than this world. In this respect, Christianity and Neoplatonism rubbed along quite nicely.

Augustine (354-430)

By the time of Augustine, the good news for Christians was that Christianity had been adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine in 313, beating off competition from Manicheanism and Neoplatonism. But the bad news was that Roman civilisation was about to be totally destroyed by barbarian (bearded) invaders from what is now Germany. The leading Christian thinker of his time, Augustine clung to Plato and his belief in the importance of the eternal (heavenly) world of forms. And why not – the future looked pretty bleak in the real world. In his seminal work, City of God, he paved the way for the Christian domination of the medieval world, with its embrace of Plato, and its emphasis on the divine world, rather than this one.

Augustine placed Plato’s world of forms in the mind of God. He also recognised that in such difficult circumstances, the church had to enforce its doctrine extremely firmly to avoid splits and to stay strong. The barbarians were converted, and the church was set to dominate for a thousand years, with torture and death awaiting anyone tempted to question the church doctrine. Worldliness and nature were seen as unimportant, or in some cases (e.g. sex), damaging to the soul. It was important to relinquish the pleasures of the flesh to achieve salvation in the all-important afterlife.

Augustine reconciled Plato with Christianity, and kept the spirit of the ancient world alive – just. Plato and Christianity got along just fine, with Plato’s immutable ideal world representing the divine. Augustine was from North Africa, and in North Africa and the Middle East (unlike in Europe), they managed to hold on to the ideas of the ancient philosophers, because of the huge libraries in Alexandria and Baghdad. Christianity became an amalgam of Jewish and Greek thought.

But Christianity is not philosophy. You weren’t supposed to use your intellect, you were just supposed to read the Bible. Plato was the link with the classical world, but only through his world of forms – not in his praise for the intellect and critical thought. But if Plato was acceptable, Aristotle, with his emphasis on worldly understanding, was not. Hence the Dark Ages – philosophy gave way to myth again. Trying to understand the universe is a long game. We’ve only just started to scratch the surface. It’s understandable that, faced with interminable ignorance, people often give in to faith, and stop thinking altogether. Intellectual enquiry was discouraged. They weren’t trying to convince anyone with their arguments – they would just torture and kill you if you disagreed with them, in the same way that the first Christians had been tortured and killed by people who believed something different from them.

Augustine was originally a Manichaean (Manichaeism represented serious competition for Christianity – the West could have had a Manichaean history if things had been slightly different), but when Rome adopted Christianity and started to persecute them, he converted to Christianity – it was the clever thing to do. And later, he persecuted Manichaeians himself. I’m not sure how anyone could conclude that he was a saintly man from this, but saint he is. However, goodness isn’t what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about influence, and Augustine’s influence on the course of history was huge. For example, his distinction between miracles and magic (miracles good, magic bad) was the basis for Christian persecution of pagans and witch-burning.

He was also (as he wrote in his Confessions) a womaniser and a drinker in his youth, and he said: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”which is just funny, rather than nasty. I do find it difficult to feel sympathetic towards Augustine however, but he kept Plato alive, and so was essential in preparing the ground for the Renaissance, and therefore for the world we know now. I’m not saying that that was a good thing – just that the world would have been very different without him.

Finally, Augustine was critical of the Roman Empire – comparing it to Babylon – stealing other people’s land to add to the imperial, worldly glory. He also looked down on individual worldly ambition within this system. However, he saw the value of a strong state in enforcing laws and establishing peace, to give people the space to contemplate and worship, rather than just trying to survive. In this way, he anticipated Hobbes.

Next: Aquinas reconciles Christianity with Aristotle.