The genius of Augustine


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I recent posts about Augustine, there is much speculation, but what strikes me (sadly) is its superficiality when it comes to the actual philosophy and orthodoxy of the African Doctor. Again and again I am presented with arguments which rely as much on the ignorance of the audience with regard to its subject, as it does the wildest speculations of someone preaching to the converted — often the most outrageous statements made without a shred of proof or philosophical verification, and to those who know something of the issue, are often seen as perjurative and offensive.

If nothing else, one is asked to witness an old and respected friend being slandered, and obliged to say nothing is defence of 'fair play'.

The following is paraphrased from Augustine and Personality, by Paul Henry, SJ, St Augustine Lecture series, Villanova University, 1959.

In the history of the Western philosophical tradition, Saint Augustine of Hippo stands as the first to analyse of the philosophical and psychological concepts of 'the person' as a corporate rather than composite being — an entity in its own right.

Though considered philosophically a Platonist (his last recorded dying words were a quotation from the Enneads of Plotinus), the natural allies of Christianity, animae christianae naturaliter, it was not Plato but Aristotle (commonly denounced as a purveyor of heresy) upon which he built his argument, and here is a clear instance of Augustine’s independence of mind, and a boldness and audacity, living proof that his orthodoxy is linked, not with servility, but with creative thinking.

Augustine's doctrine was framed in the light of an authentic interpretation of Christian revelation, which challened the contemporary thinking of his peers. Augustine’s intuition and genius was instrumental in substituting Psyche for Kosmos as the fundamental analogy whereby to understand and express, so far as possible, the inner life of God, and, as Saint Thomas was later to observe, even the doctrine of Creation.

In his theological reflections on the Divine Persons, St Augustine provided Western thought, and even the secularized Western thought of a later epoch, with a philosophy of the human person. With person as a corporate and not a fragmentary and composite being, one can develop a doctrine of moral responsibility and freedom of the will.

The Greeks had no word for “person,” just as they had no word for “literature” as such; they had terms only for its various subdivisions, such as epic, drama, poetry, comedy and tragedy. Neither had they a word for “history,” for in Greek istoria (historia) from which our term `history’ is derived, signifies more accurately a minute and exact description of facts, concerning nature or man, than it does what we call history, that is, the linking of human events into a pattern. Nor did they have a distinct word for what we call `creation,’ taken in its philosophical and religious sense. We know that the Greeks had no doctrine of creation, whether of eternal or temporal duration, since both for Plato and Aristotle and also the Stoics, matter was regarded as uncreated; the sole possible exception, as noted above, with some qualification, is Plotinus.

It was the genius of the Jews who envisaged creation as the first act of man’s destiny and history. In this Augustine drew an intimate connection, unknown to the Greeks, between creativity, historicity and personality. In Augustine these are all linked in his synthesis of the relations of God and man.

In Aristotle, as Friedrich von Hügel observes, there is "a conflict between the general, which is alone supposed to be fully true, and the particular, which is alone supposed to be fully real. And we are thus left with an insufficient apprehension of the inexhaustibleness of all Reality, of its indefinite apprehensiveness, but ever inadequate apprehensiveness. And above all, both a cause and effect of all this, we find here only a slight and intermittent hold upon the one great fact and force of personality in both God and man."

Mother Mary Clark observes “that Aristotle did not give us an explicit notion of the meaning and grandeur of freedom is to recognize that he has not fully elaborated the notion of person although he faithfully describes some aspects of its functioning.” Aristotle does, however, point to the fact that a person is an intellectual being, endowed with intelligence and will, but this does not sufficiently define person as Christians understand the term.

Consider for a moment the expression of the human person in Asiatic, Greek, and Christian medieval art. In the Ancient Near East, statues represent man essentially in terms of a function- as a king or a warrior or a servant. They are depicted as men but primarily as functions. For the Greeks, man is essentially an Idea, a harmony of perfect proportions, a canon of beauty, around which they fashioned their architecture.

The Romans had prepared the way when Rome declared the word 'persona' as defining a being subject of rights and duties.

Perhaps the one Greek word that comes closest to expressing the idea of person is the pronoun auto — he, he himself, in Latin ipse. No other word approaches our notion of person. When the Christian Church had to find words to refer to a Divine Person or to Divine Persons, it began a process of redefinition, of transposition, and an enrichment in meaning. 'Pprosopon, a mask, was was elevated to designate a Divine Person, but not in any sense modalist. The other word hypostasis represents anything which subsists, but was and is still inadequate — Basil the Great and Athanasius both proclaimed one ousia, one hypostasis, whereas Origen and the Gregories proclaim one ousai, three hypostases.

Although the Nicaea-Constantinople Creed defined the full divinity and equality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it did not yet employ the word “person.” If the term hypostasis (a subsistent individual) was used, it was still in 325 and 380 a synonym for essence, or substance, or nature. In the New Testament, written in Greek, there is no distinct word for "person."

In Hebrew the idea of person is expressed in the term living being — nefesh chayah — and The Lord God appears to be endowed with human qualities, such as wrath, repentance and jealousy. These existential categories suggest or certainly mean something – at least the I-Thou relationship – and are difficult to combine and reconcile with Greek and philosophical reflective thinking on the Immutability of the One with He whom Scripture addresses as the Living God.

It is questionable whether any philosophy – left to its own devices – would have developed a concept of man as a unique and existing personality. What is evident is the emergence of Eastern and pre-Christian Hellenic models in New Age philosophies which reduces man once again to a being without foundation.

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Dear Thomas,

Here's something I found in the lecture "The Need for Understanding the

"One of those who struggled out of the character of that period toward an
understanding of Christianity is to be seen in Augustine. In this Augustine
we see a spirit who could no longer understand the ancient form of the
conception of nature. You know that Augustine is said to have been a
Manichean. Augustine narrates this himself. But all that lies back of these
things can no longer be rightly seen through by means of external thinking.
What Augustine called Manicheanism, what is called at present the teaching of Mani, is only the degenerate outcome of an ancient teaching which conceived the Spirit only as creative and knew no difference between matter and spirit. No spirit was existent that did not create and what it created was seen by the human being as matter. Just as little conception did these ancient times have of mere matter; on the contrary, spirit existed in everything. This was something that Augustine could not understand. What Gnosis understood, and what was no longer understood later; what our own period does not at all understand, - this is true: no matter exists of itself; this was known by the Manicheans and they beheld the descent of Christ in the light of this view. Augustine could no longer make anything out of this; the time had passed, the possibility of making anything out of it, because the documents had been destroyed and the ancient clairvoyance had been blotted out.

"Thus Augustine, after long intense superhuman struggle arrived at the
decision that he could not of himself attain to truth, but must adjust
himself to what the Catholic church prescribed as truth: to submit himself
to the authority of the Catholic church. And this mood - consider it at
first as a mood - remained, contained alive especially for the reason that
thinking became ever more abstract. In reality it was only slowly and
gradually that thinking was disabled."