Monday, December 2, 2013


Teaching ancient philosophy this semester, I finally read through Augustine's Confessions entire and was very impressed.  Like him, I spent a great deal of time as a young(er) man trying to find some good that was not also evil.  Like him, I came late to the realization that this sort of thing is not of this world.  Like him, I still love telling stories, but I no longer read them as materially true, simply true, arguably true.  Matter is always false, it seems to me, the only thing falser being the mind that pretends to understand how this is not so. ("You think matter is evil, but I have discovered how it is good!  I have transcended material limits to see clearly and precisely how the Good exists objective and absolute!"  I am not interested in understanding God, for I now know that this is impossible.)

Here are some rambling reflections regarding my journey (to which I may add as time goes on: I just didn't want these particular ramblings to vanish into the void as quickly as most of my Internet ramblings).

Teaching chapters 7-9 of the Confessions, wherein Augustine discusses how Platonism leads him to Christianity) has led me to a possible positive aspect of Academic philosophy (i.e. Platonism, a philosophy which values the immaterial over the material, contemplation over application). As practised by people like Augustine (not people like Dion, remembered in Plato's Seventh Letter), this philosophy exists to inhibit controlling actions rather than inform them. The "skeptical" Academy (which arose after Plato and Dion and the rest) earned its name by undermining positive arguments (arguments for action, e.g. the arguments offered by "Socrates" in the Republic or the Athenian stranger in the Laws). It made "the Good" something immaterial and only imperfectly accessible to humanity (which finds itself cumbered by matter, inherently unable to understand immaterial reality with the precision necessary to play God). Augustine approaches God much as these guys approach the Good--as mystery of reason whose rationality exists (as other schools of thought deny) fundamentally outside human ability to understand, predict, or control in any way. We can be grateful for blessings and suffer through punishments, but we cannot know that either is bad for our character: the punishment (even when it is fatal to us) should be counted a blessing from God. We should not court it--or blessings--and we should not take pride or shame in it. We should accept with grace whatever God gives, seeking to control things as little as possible (specifically by avoiding "public life"--Augustine retires as a professor of rhetoric to become a Christian in company with several close friends; being bishop was an accident, it seems, and does not appear anywhere as part of his program for goodness). Looking back over his professional and religious career (as a heretic on the fringes of Catholicism), Augustine sees his persistent effort to make his ideas material as sin. He wanted to concretize good and evil, to quantify them rationally and then conduct a just measurement that would yield material virtue (the Good in some particular material form). Reading Platonist literature of the time (he is vague, but I might try looking at Plotinus) convinced him that this was wrong-headed (that the Good is not that kind of good). Reflecting on the reality that one can read Plato either to be a fragilista (when we apply the dialogues literally to life, e.g. trying to create a society like Kallipolis) or something different (when we see him as pointing up the impossibility of such projects, e.g. Socrates' repeated remarks in the Republic that his experiment is one that would never be practicable) reminds me of the quote from Heraclitus (earlier than Plato): "The way up and the way down are the same." How one reads Plato is more important than what Plato says.

Above I said, "We cannot know that punishment or reward is good for our character."  This is probably not what Augustine would say.  He would say we can always know that whatever happens to us is for our good, even when we cannot see how. He would affirm that we should not judge others for their outcomes (condemning the failures or worshipping the successes)--preferring instead to see both as the grace of God (who exists outside our ability to comprehend, though we can perceive his existence if we try).

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