Book VII: Augustine Gradually Extricated from His Errors

In Book VII, Augustine has come to believe in God, but he struggles with understanding the spiritual world. It seems to me that Augustine is working with an almost childlike conception of God in that he wants to know where God is in the world, and he wants to know where evil comes from. Augustine also talks about the need for faith to be tested.

In trying to find where God exists, Augustine first conceives of him being in everything in the world, and in proportion. So, an elephant has more of God than a sparrow. He realizes that God is immutable and so cannot be divided in such a way. It is interesting that Augustine mentions reading books written by Platonists. As we have discussed before, Platonism thinks in terms of an ultimate good. It is a philosophy that thinks in terms of ultimate forms, which fits right in, or perhaps informs, Augustine’s idea of God.

Allow me to take a detour here for a minute. Augustine conducts what may be the first twins study in history. In studies in human heredity and to determine the difference between nature and nurture, scientists often compare twins that have been separated at birth to see how much of what happens in life is due to their genes (nature) and how much is due to their environment (nurture). When he considers astrology, he notes that people born at the same time, under the same sign, can have very different lives. He compares Esau and Jacob from the Bible and says that astrology should have predicted that they ended up in the same kind of life. But even though they were born under the same astrological conditions, their lives turned out very differently.

The most interesting part of this book is when Augustine inquires into the source of evil. How could God, who is good, create anything that is evil? This is a question I imagine every thoughtful person has asked himself or herself if they have thought about God and the world with any serious reflection.

Augustine provides an interesting answer that I am not sure I am entirely satisfied with, but it makes me think all the same. The answer he provides is that nothing is evil.

“And to Thee is nothing whatsoever evil: yea, not only to Thee, but also to Thy creation as a whole, because there is nothing without, which may break in, and corrupt that order which Thou hast appointed it. But in the parts thereof some thins, because unharmonising with other some, are accounted evil: whereas those very things harmonise with others, and are good; and in themselves are good. And all these things which harmonise not together, do yet with the inferior part, which we call Earth, having its own cloudy and windy sky harmonising with it. Far be it then that I should say, ‘These things should not be’….”

So, in considering this, Augustine says that all things that God has created are good, but when things get out of harmony, due to free will, then things become evil. “And I enquired what iniquity was, and found it to be no substance, but the perversion of the will, turned aside from Thee, O God, the Supreme, towards these lower things, and casting out its bowels, and pulled up outwardly.”

Given some of the evil things that we have seen in history, it makes me wonder whether or not bad things happening is as simple as things being out of harmony with nature. But at the same time, I have heard it suggested that there is a place for everything. So, for instance, a person who enjoys causing pain would make a good surgeon or physical therapist, where that urge could be channeled into something good. I don’t know how much I believe it, but it is the most extreme example for this idea that comes to mind.

Augustine seems to accept the idea that some evil must exist and may even be necessary for those seeking God. He seems to have the idea that untested faith is not truly faith at all. “For the rejection of heretics makes the tenets of Thy Church and sound doctrine to stand out more clearly. For there must also be heresies that the approved may be manifest among the weak.”

He also writes “Thou therefore willedst that I should fall, before I studied Thy scriptures, that it might be imprinted on my memory how I was affected by them; and that afterwards when my spirits were tamed through Thy books, and my wounds touched by Thy healing fingers, I might discern between presumption and confession; between presumption and confession; between those who saw whither they were to go, yet saw not the way, and the way that leadeth not to behold only but to dwell in the beatific country. “

He says that he learned that he cannot just obtain the truth by reading philosophy books.

It is interesting to consider the idea that going through the disharmony, sinning, going astray leads to better faith in the end. But I think this is really more a discussion of the possibility of redemption. Augustine does not simultaneously discount the faith of his mother, who did not go through the same trials and tribulations. Of course, one does wonder whether Augustine, who accuses himself of terrible sins, is trying to argue for his ultimate redemption.

Augustine works from the idea that the spiritual world is not only completely separate, but also knowable. It is an optimistic viewpoint, but that seems to be a movement of faith. It is a Platonist movement of faith, but a movement of faith all the same.

Next Time: Book VIII – Augustine Goes Through the Struggle of Conversion


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