Augustine: All Grown Up and Still Sinning

In Book IV, we hear about Augustine’s life from the age of 19 to 28, and he is still lost and sinning, though slowly getting better, by his account. He spends his time teaching rhetoric and writing and trying to win theatrical prizes. So, Augustine is basically living the life of an academic, and having the thoughts of an epidemic who has a fair store of academic knowledge.

He still has not found, God, which of course is what this is all leading up to, but is starting to get the hint. In part this comes with the death of dear friend who falls ill, is baptized while unconscious, and who reacts poorly to Augustine’s jokes about it when he wakes up once before he dies.

“I essayed to jest with him, as though he would jest with me at that baptism which he had received when utterly absent in mind and feeling, but had now understood that he had received. But he so shrunk from me, as from and enemy; and with a wonderful and sudden freedom bade me, as I would continue his friend, forbear such language from him. I, all astonished and amazed, suppressed all my emotions till he should grow well, and his health were strong enough for me to deal with him as I would. But he was taken away from my phrensy, that with Thee he might be preserved for my comfort; a few days after, in my absences, he was attacked again by the fever, and so departed.”

Augustine’s references to how God has spoken to him throughout his books made me begin to wonder, was he an Aristotelian or a Platonist in his approach to what is good. For Plato, the good comes from knowing the ultimate form of The Good, the ultimate, irreducible Good. Aristotle, on the other hand, says that we know the good from what we learn as we live our lives.

I thought that Augustine was an Aristotelian from the way that he wrote about how God was sending him messages through his life and through his mother, for example. This may be an atheistic read of Augustine, though, in that by assuming he is Aristotelian, it might deny the agency of God in providing humans with knowledge of the Good.

As I read book IV, I am of the opinion that he is a Platonist, in that everything humans know about what is good and right must flow from God, the source of ultimate good. Plato tells us there is an ultimate good, and for Augustine that is God.

“And what did it profit me that all of the books I could procure of the so-called liberal arts, I, the vile slave of vile affections, read by myself, and understood? And I delighted in them, but knew not whence came all that therein was true or certain. For I had my back to the light, and my face to the things enlightened; whence my face, with which I discerned the things enlightened, itself was not enlightened.”

Augustine goes on to say that all this comes from God. It all sounds very much like Plato’s allegory of the cave, where someone does not see the true things, but shadows on the wall.

I had a little help in thinking about this from my downstairs neighbor, who is a graduate student in philosophy who has studied Augustine. Her take on the question is that Augustine was an Aristotelian before his conversion, and a Platonist afterwards. I think that is the best summation I have heard.

While I understand what Augustine is trying to say, I still am slightly annoyed that his take is nothing else matters but loving God. He seems to take the world as one big God-praise machine. I think Alan Watts had it right when he said that God cares about a lot more than religion, otherwise we would have a world full of nothing but churches, monasteries, and convents.

I have to wonder, too, why the editors of the set chose this reading and put it in this place. In one part, I think the questions that come up about Aristotle and Plato are natural ones and show the flow of the Great Conversation, such as it is. But I can’t help but wonder, too, whether they also meant it as a warning that the knowledge of these books is not complete and won’t answer every question. I don’t know what Robert Maynard Hutchins’s and Mortimer J. Alder’s personal views on God and religion are, but it does seem like there is more here than just the chronological progression of the conversation. It is something to think about as readers move through the program.

Next Time: Augustine Avoids a Snare of the Devil


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