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Augustine: Excellence Consists in Renouncing What Is Bodily/Desire (I.E., the Flesh) and Embracing the Immateriality and Goodness of God as Ultimately Real

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Augustine stands as the last patristic and the first medieval father of Western Christianity. He gathered together and conserved all the main motifs of Latin Christianity from Tertullian to Ambrose; he appropriated the heritage of Nicene orthodoxy; he was a Chalcedonian before Chalcedon -- and he drew all this into an unsystematic synthesis which is still our best mirror of the heart and mind of the Christian community in the Roman Empire. More than this, he freely received and deliberately reconsecrated the religious philosophy of the Greco-Roman world to a new apologetic use in maintaining the intelligibility of the Christian proclamation. Yet, even in his role as summator of tradition, he was no mere eclectic. The center of his "system" is in the Holy Scriptures, as they ordered and moved his heart and mind. It was in Scripture that, first and last, Augustine found the focus of his religious authority.

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The first major medieval philosopher was Augustine (354–430), who emphasized attaining knowledge through divine illumination and achieving moral goodness by loving God. The details of his life are openly laid out in his autobiography, titled Confessions, which even today is considered a classic of world literature. He was born in the North African region of Tagaste to a devout Christian mother and pagan father. For much of his youth, his middle-class parents' greatest concern was affording a university education for him. Once having attained this difficult goal, learning rhetoric at Carthage, Augustine's zeal for studying theology became his driving force. But first came a period of trying out life's alternatives. To his mother’s great displeasure, he became entrenched in a new Persian religion called Manichaeism and then joined a group of Neoplatonists. In both cases he sought to understand how evil could exist in a world that was created by a good God. The Manichaean explanation was that the material world is inherently evil, but through special knowledge from God we can rise above it. Neoplatonists argued that evil results from the physical world being so far removed from God, and thus absent from his goodness. For fifteen years he lived with a woman and fathered a son; but when his mother eventually convinced him to marry properly, he left his mistress. While awaiting his bride-to-be's coming of age, he took up with yet another woman and prayed his famous prayer, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." But his marriage to either woman never transpired. While teaching rhetoric in the city of Milan, he attended sermons of the Bishop of that region, which gradually led to his Christian conversion. Returning to North Africa, he was drafted into the priesthood by the locals for his popular preaching, and later became their bishop, devoting the rest of his life to writing and preaching in that region. Augustine died at 75, as invading barbarian armies were tearing down the city walls of Hippo. Augustine’s literary output was enormous, and he may be the most prolific writer of the ancient world. His most famous writings are his Confessions and The City of God. While only a couple of his shorter works are devoted exclusively to philosophy, most notably Against the Academics and On Free Choice, many of his compositions are interspersed with philosophical content, and from these a complex system emerges. The starting point for Augustine’s philosophy is his stance on the relation between faith and reason. We’ve seen that there are two ways of approaching this: first, Tertullian’s faith-only position, and, second, Clement's view that reason by itself can go a long way in establishing religious truths independently of faith. Augustine struck a middle ground between the two, advocating a position that he called “faith seeking understanding.” His inspiration for this was a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” On this view, reason by itself is not good enough to give us proper religious knowledge; instead, we have to begin with faith to set us in the right direction and, once we believe in God through faith, we can seek to understand the foundations of our belief through reason.

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Noverim te, noverim me: "I would know you [God], I would know myself." Augustine wrote these words in one of his earliest works, but they retained their force throughout his lifetime. The irrefutable solipsism of self confronted with the absolute reality of God, the wholly other: all of Augustine's thought moves between those two poles (Verheijen, 1949). But those poles were not far distant from one another, with vast uncharted territory between. Rather, they were elements of an intimate personal relationship destined for permanent and indissoluble union. To treat God and self as two different things is to introduce the fatal distinction that the serpent taught to Eve. The relation between creator and creature is totally different from that which obtains between any two created things in the material world. Each created object participates in a complex world of material objects from which God seems far away. But the creator is equidistant from all creatures--equally close to all. Theologians write about God dispassionately and objectively, in serene detachment, but in doing so avail themselves of a compendious device that runs the risk of negating the truth of all they say. Christian theology only succeeds when the believer sees that the story of all creation ("macrotheology") and the private history of the soul ("microtheology") are identical. Differences between the two are flaws of perception, not defects inherent in things. Saints do not have to be taught this identity, for theology realized is holiness. But even saints, when they are theologians, often find it hard to embody their intuition in their works. For Augustine, the crisis came early in life. Despite his reputation as a self-revelatory writer, he left behind little direct testimony about the condition of his soul at different times, but we can see that the first years of his episcopacy were a time of trial (Atkinson). He had managed the transformation from virtual pagan to devout Christian with reasonable equanimity. The map for that conversion was clear enough and commonly followed. Even his elevation to the priesthood in the church of Hippo had brought with it few fresh anxieties. But the final elevation to the bishopric seems to have unsteadied Augustine a bit. The transition was accompanied by some jibing from outside--suspicions of his Manichean past, rumor of an illicit connection with a married woman, jealousy from some less-educated African churchmen toward this well-educated outsider rising too rapidly to the top. Those things, however, must have been only the surface disturbances. Augustine was more deeply troubled by the implications of his new office. Who was he to stand in such a place of eminence, with so many people depending on him? He was still a sinner, but somehow he was also the conduit of divine grace bringing redemption to other sinners. Now a preacher, he needed to be preached to himself, but there was no one to do that. He had to stand alone before the people of Hippo each week and proclaim God's word. How could the expectations of these people not drive him to despair? Two literary answers came out of this personal crisis. The first was perfectly theological, detached, and serious: Christian Doctrine was begun, and carried out through most of the third book, in the year or so after his elevation to the bishopric. In it, as we have seen, Augustine sketched dispassionately the nature of the Christian message and the mechanism of its proclamation to the world. It was a handbook for others who would preach, but it was a personal statement of intent as well. How do I preach, he asked himself? Christian Doctrine was the answer. But it was an incomplete answer, in more ways than one. At about this time, he turned instead to writing the Confessions.

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Summing up, Augustine identified being human with being the kind of creature who is able to love. The fullness of human existence is found in loving well. Loss is painful because every loss is double: there is the loss itself and how that loss changes our identity. When we lose something we do not love, there is no pain, no grief. Loving properly unites the lover and the beloved into a new thing without the original things being obliterated. The Confessions was novel in that it was the first western autobiography. In it, Augustine not only chronicles the events that happened in his life but uses them to define the meaning of his life up to that point. He uses narrative to articulate what was important and why. The loss narratives serve to show how his self-identity was stripped away in preparation for his conversion; he had to die to himself before he could come alive in fullness to God. A key insight found in The Confessions is that our identities are established in narrative form and are created relationally through what we love. Meaning is made through the stories we tell ourselves about who we love and how.

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M. Verheijen, Eloquentia Pedisequa (Nijmegen, 1949)

M. Atkinson, Plotinus, Ennead V.1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)

Augustine, Confessiones 10.1.1-10.4.6," Augustiniana 29(1979) 280-303

E.P. Meijering, Augustin über Schöpfung, Ewigkeit und Zeit (Leiden: Brill, 1979)

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Augustine: Excellence Consists in Renouncing What Is Bodily/Desire (I.E., the Flesh) and Embracing the Immateriality and Goodness of God as Ultimately Real
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