Wednesday, June 16

Part 2 — The Great Divide — St. Augustine to the Beginning of the Enlightenment



To continue the conversation, go to the "Great Divide" discussion group.


St. Augustine

St. Augustine’s theology shaped, not only the early Church’s theology, but also the overall conception of the ideal social order and the ideal government. To understand both, it is crucial to understand that the world of the eastern Mediterranean into which St. Augustine was born in the fourth century CE, and into which he matured, was deeply and powerfully influenced by the prevailing philosophy of neo-Platonism, i.e. classical Platonism translated into the idiom of Christian theology.  The meaning of that "i.e." qualification -- in what sense neo-Platonism is "neo" -- is outlined briefly below.


To understand how St. Augustine's theology profoundly shaped theological, political, and social conventions of his day, we begin with classical Platonism -- Platonism without the "neo" prefix.  In the Republic, Plato has Socrates addressing the question “What is Justice?” At least, that is the way the dialogue starts out. Eventually, the question does get resolved, but pretty anti-climatically, almost as an afterthought. For it turns out that the issue of Justice cannot be addressed without first addressing a prior question of the proper structure of the ideal society. In this, as in every other question, Plato believed and taught that an ideal society does exist in the metaphysical realm as the Form of the Just Society. Now, it is important to understand that this Form is not a mere conceptual construct that exists merely between the ears and inside the skull of the person thinking about it. For Plato, the Form of the Just Society is quite real. In fact, the Form of the Just Society is more real – infinitely more real – than any of the actual, space-time-historical societies we actually encounter in what we are accustomed to thinking of – misleadingly, to Plato – as the “real” world. For Plato, there is a hierarchy of Forms, beginning with the highest Form, the Form of the Good / True / Beautiful (the three are equivalent for Plato) and descending through a vast hierarchy of other Forms, all of which participate, to one degree or another, in the Form of the Good. (At the bottom of this hierarchy is the utterly unreal: illusions, delusions, hallucinations, mirages, etc. The phenomenal world we see around us and think of as “real” is not quite this unreal, but very close.) This "noumenal" world, this World of Forms exists in parallel with, yet is infinitely more real than, the visible, tangible world we see around us. In Platonic terms, this latter world’s very visibility and tangibility is a sure sign of the partial, provisional, contingent nature of its reality. The actual Reality can be apprehended by Reason, but never by the senses.

For Plato, the ideal society, insofar as it can ever be instantiated in space-time, is a strict social hierarchy – just as the World of Forms itself is metaphysically hierarchical – comprising three social classes: the Guardians, the Auxiliaries, and the Artisans. The Guardians – the name is somewhat misleading – are the “philosopher kings” who have been raised since infancy immersed in philosophy, the better to contemplate and to apprehend the Ideal World, in particular, the better to apprehend the ideal Form of the Just Society, and to ensure that the Ideal Society conforms to that ideal. The Guardians’ salient virtue is Reason. The Auxiliaries are the soldiers of the society, who defend the society against external threats through military prowess. The Auxiliaries’ salient virtue is passion, martial passion in particular. The Artisans comprise the class that manufactures goods, manages the economy – in general, the Artisans fix the potholes of the Ideal Society, both literally and figuratively. Their salient virtue is a concern with the material world. (The structure of the Just Society parallels the structure of the individual human soul, which, says Plato, comprises reason, passions, and appetites.) With this elaborate descriptive structure in place, Plato culminates the Republic – finally and at long last! – with an explicit definition of Justice: Justice is everyone performing the work to which she / he is suited and filling the socio-politico-economic niche to which she / he is suited and into which she / he is born. Anticlimactic as it sounds, Plato conceives of Justice as “Everyone minding their own business”. (This was the half-serious summary of Plato's theory of Justice long ago advanced by a philosophy professor of mine. It is a gross exaggeration as it stands, but it is actually pretty accurate if you understand each person's "business" -- Guardian, Auxiliary, Artisan -- to be "hard-coded" and unchangeable.) If an Auxiliary attempts to usurp the role of Guardian and be a “philosopher-king”, if an Artisan tries to be an Auxiliary, etc. – or vice versa – then an element of injustice is introduced into the Just Society:  the integrity of the socio-political hierarchy is compromised.

St. Paul

From this Platonic scheme, it is reasonable to infer that St. Augustine’s neo-Platonism was infused into his intellect, not only through the ambient culture, but also by way of St. Paul. It would probably be an overstatement and an oversimplification to say categorically that St. Paul was a Hellenistic Jew, or even a Hellenized Jew. For St. Paul made much of his background as a faithful, observant, believing Hebrew of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). But at the very least, St. Paul was an exceptionally well-educated Jew, and to be well educated in the first century CE was unavoidably to be under the sway of neo-Platonism. But, like St. Augustine, St. Paul was deeply influenced by the neo-Platonism that was basically in the cultural water and air of the eastern Mediterranean world of the early patristic era, especially among the better educated classes. We hear echoes of Plato in St. Paul’s insistence that Christians have “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (II Cor 5:1), etc., etc., etc. (Also factored into these writings was St. Paul's background as a Pharisee, who taught that, after the First Temple was destroyed, the people themselves had to be a Temple by maintaining themselves in a state of ritual purity, understood in a "Christianized" sense.) We can even hear echoes of neo-Platonic bias in St. Paul’s account of the relationship between the Law and Grace, and the neo-Platonic philosophical roots are amply evident of St. Paul’s deference to temporal authority. One could also make a reasonably good case that the New Testament’s silence on the issue of slavery reflects a similar deference toward a kind of quasi-/neo-Platonic conception of the rigidity of social classes. Neo-Platonism came to St. Augustine filtered through St. Paul.

This belief in a rigid and unalterable class structure in society, once it filtered into Christian theology via St. Augustine (and others, though St. Augustine was its chief and most influential expositor), eventually got translated into a belief in the Divine right of Kings / Queens. (To this day, Queen Elizabeth II is said to reign as Regina Dei Gratia: “Queen by the Grace of God”.) Nor was this belief confined to the actual sovereign of a nation. In feudal times, after the final collapse of the Roman Empire in the West – the Byzantine Empire would endure in the East for another dozen centuries after St. Augustine – each local lord, however small his lands and however few his knights, would be accorded quasi-divine status as having been appointed by God. This quasi-Divine status of the feudal lord, combined with St. Augustine’s preoccupation with sin, had an implication that would be important for the subsequent history of Europe: if the local lord has been appointed to his office by God, does it follow that his subjects must worship God as the lord worships and assent to his theology? This was not a problem, as long as the Catholic Church enforced theological and dogmatic unanimity over the former lands of the Roman Empire. But beginning in the 1400s and during the subsequent time of the Protestant Reformation, theological diversity plus the Divine right of kings formed an explosive mixture that resulted in well over two centuries of constant religious warfare.

The Coming of the European Enlightenment

Charles II of England

Much of the history of Europe for the thousand years after St. Augustine could be written in terms of the immovable object of the Augustinian / neo-Platonist belief in a static, because Divinely ordained, social order encountering the irresistible force of proliferating religious factions. The pristine unanimity of Augustine’s neo-Platonic vision of society could only be maintained as long as the Catholic Church was “the only game in town”. In that sense, this consensus was exceedingly fragile, and when it really began to fall apart in earnest in the 1500s and 1600s, the fall was almost certain to be violent and bloody. Such turned out to be the case. The 16th and 17th centuries saw violence and bloodshed on a scale and of an intensity that would not be equaled until the First World War. All across Europe, but especially in what would be modern-day Germany, hundreds of cities, thousands of small villages, and vast tracts of the countryside were laid waste.

That Europe emerged from that period and could rebuild a shattered civilization is due to the rise of science and exploration, especially the invention of the printing press a century or so before the religious wars got started in deadly earnest, and also to the “democratization” of theological discourse and the proliferation of Christian denominations. Both these developments gradually discredited St. Augustine’s profound distrust of Reason as a guide to truth. (A belief that likewise had to be discredited was Plato's insistence that all knowledge comes from introspection about our experience during previous lives, a teaching that was replaced by the belief that knowledge may be derived from actual, lived experience through empirical observation.) St. Augustine had taught that human Reason was so warped by sin as to make it an unreliable guide to truth, especially theological and moral truth. Instead, asserted Augustine, human beings and human societies must place themselves under the tutelage of the Bible, as interpreted authoritatively by the Church through Popes and Councils. (I say "authoritatively" instead of "infallibly" only because the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope would not be formally and officially proclaimed until the 1870s, but a de facto form of the dogma was in place and in practice centuries before. One dissented from the official teaching of the Church at peril to one's life.  Just ask Giordano Bruno.) But beginning in the 1400s and continuing through the 1500s and 1600s – the latter being the period of most intense religious warfare! – consistent theologies began to be formulated and disseminated by dissident theologians. This was also the same period of the great efflorescence of world exploration and the rise of empirical science. This was the time of Copernicus, of Galileo, of Brahe, of Kepler, of Newton, of Halley (who, using Kepler’s and Newton’s laws, predicted precisely when a great comet – that came to be known as “Halley’s Comet” – would return). It was also the same period that saw – among many other things – the invention of the telescope and of clocks that allowed ships to calculate latitude and longitude and thereby to sail out of sight of land. Over a period of time that was breathtakingly short, in historical terms, human Reason, far from being unreliable and prone to eventuate in sin, on the contrary began to seem almost invincible, when combined with a respect for empirical data and the scientific method.


Along toward the middle of the 1600s and the very early 1700s, there arose among the intelligentsia of Europe a class of philosophers and thinkers who, taking a step or two back and assessing the whole panorama of the previous thousand-plus years of history, entered into a revaluation of the entire sweep of European culture and its relationship to religion. In particular, they called into question the principle of the Divine right of kings, and began to attempt to formulate accounts of the origins of governments and social orders of a purely secular, this-worldly nature, in keeping with the new emphasis on this world of the emerging sciences, and without reference to religious doctrine or reliance upon ecclesial sanction. The two best known examples of this new secular emphasis on political theory are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who were the founders of contractarian political theory: to emerge from the “state of nature” – basically a condition of perpetual anarchy and chaos – human beings band together in solidarity and negotiate a contract whereby the will of the aggregate is embodied in a sovereign, and in a social order the society improvises according to mutual agreement. The seeds of this development are also visible in the Spanish political theorist Francisco Suarez and in the “natural rights” theory of Hugo Grotius early in the 1600s. But the contractarian accounts of Hobbes and Locke -- and a century or so later, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau -- represent the most explicit repudiation of St. Augustine’s insistence on the Divine grounds of kingly sovereignty and a corresponding insistence on the sovereignty of the people acting in concert to assert their natural rights.

Isaac Newton's "Principia"

At the beginning of the 300s, with the Roman world falling apart from within and being invaded from without, we can see, in retrospect, that the civilization of Europe – at least of Western, non-Byzantine Europe – needed the intellectual and spiritual equivalent of a cast around a broken bone. In that sense, St. Augustine and his emphasis on the neo-Platonic insistence on cast-like rigidity of various kinds – rigid socio-political structure, rigid conception of rule-based morality, rigid insistence on the fallenness of human beings and of the consequent insufficiency of Reason – was arguably necessary to preserve a measure of order and coherence. The first thousand years or so after St. Augustine was probably not a time when human beings could afford to celebrate  diversity. But with the recovery of confidence in reason, the proliferation of dissident theologies and systems of religious belief, and alternative accounts of the rise of the state, much of the rigidity was, over a period of time measured in multiple centuries, mitigated. This period of post-Augustinian renewed confidence, which arguably began in the middle 1600s after the conclusion of the great religious wars and extended well into the 19th century, came to be known as “the Enlightenment”. The principles that emerged from this period came to form the basis of the American Constitution.

James R. Cowles









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