The not-so-saintly Augustine

Augustine was so strongly influenced by Pagan thought that he was practically incapable of writing about Christianity without referring to it.  His thinking was shaped by several Pagan traditions and he ended up fitting Christianity into the mould of these concepts.  He wasn’t unusual in this.  In the fourth century, many of the classically trained Pagans converted to Catholicism.  Essentially, the educated elite went where ever the power was.  The beginning of the fourth century saw the legalization of Christianity and the end of the fourth century saw Catholicism made the state religion.  It makes me wonder to what extent these conversions were motivated by a desire for political positioning.  In particular, I wonder this about Augustine.

Something about Augustine’s conversion feels disingenuous.  I’ve been studying his writings a bit.  There is one thing that isn’t clear.  Did his ideas develop or did he merely change his argument as the ideological debate shifted?  When you take into account the entirety of his thinking, it fundamentally isn’t really that different from his Pagan education.  He just couched it in Christian terminology.  So, what was the point of his conversion?

As Augustine used Neo-Platonism against Manichaeism, so he uses Stoicism against Academic skepticism and Epicureanism.  However, his use of pagan thought was only situational and opportunist.  He used whatever argument that was convenient to his apologetics, his heresiological polemics.  He conveniently ignored, for instance, that Neo-Platonism had been previously used against Christianity.  Once a particular Pagan argument was no longer useful for his vision of orthodoxy, he drops it claiming that Christianity doesn’t need any Pagan philosophy to justify it.  But if that was true, then he wouldn’t use Pagan philosophy at all.

He got mired in this conundrum because he was trained in Pagan philosophy first.  Paganism was the hermeneutic lense by which he came to appreciate Christianity, and it took him many years to notice the deep conflicts.  But it was too late.  His thinking had already become too enmeshed with Paganism… and, for that matter, all of Christianity had become too enmenshed in Paganism.  If you were to take the Paganism out of Christianity, there wouldn’t be much left.

The question is to what extent that Augustine even cared.  He was trained in rhetorical and legal studies.  Maybe he saw the entire situation with the eye of a politician.  Maybe Christianity was just convenient.  The writing was on the wall in that it was obvious that Paganism was in dire straits.  Augustine very conveniently converted right before Theodosius I started his persecution of the Pagans.  It was the perfect time to politcally position oneself within the new Catholic regime.  The Church was looking for classically trained philosophers to create propaganda.

He made two statements that undermine the validity of his theological claims.  He said he wouldn’t believe in the Christian theology if the Church didn’t demand it of him.  It was his understanding that faith was simply dogmat enforced with political power, and God’s grace was when the Church didn’t see you as heretic.  The other thing he said was that it was acceptable to lie and deceive for the greater purposes of the Church, and this view was actually common amongst the Church Fathers.  This fit into his own theology.  He used philosophy for apologetic ends, but he didn’t trust rationality.  He didn’t believe people were fundamentally rational as people didn’t have the freewill to make rational choices.  People needed to be brought into the fold by any means necessary.  This also included oppression and persecution which he supported.  Augustine even went over the head of a Pope to the Emperor in order to make sure one of his opponents wasn’t accepted back into the Church, and this led to that person being the first Christian officially killed by the Catholic Church.  Augustine was a shrewd politician no doubt.

Was Augustine always this cynical?  Obviously, he had a cynical streak as he was attracted to the Gnostic dualism of Manichaeism.  He turned away from N. African Catholicism to Manichaeism partly because of his desire for rational answers.  However, supposedly he turned away from Manichaeism to Neo-Platonism because of a desire for rational answers beyond scriptual limitations.  The Manichaeans used rationality to study scripture and probably for apologetics as well.  Maybe this, along with rhetoric education, was where he got his taste for apologetics.  But was there a struggle in him at this time?  Did he see rationality as potentially being used for the purpose of discovering truth?  It would seem so as Neo-Platonism satisfied his intellect, but I suspect that his mother’s simplistic faith nagged at his intellectual side (especially as it was his promiscuous Pagan father who had encouraged his intellectual studies).

Whether or not there were political ambitions, maybe his conversion was genuine.  Maybe at first he thought he could bridge these divisions within himself.  Maybe Christianity suggested a unifying answer could be attained.  He could embrace his mother’s simplistic faith; he could keep the dualism, determinism, and apologeticism of Manichaeism; and he could satisfy his intellect with Neo-Platonism.  The famous bishop Ambrose emodied much of this for him, the prototypical zealous Christian trained in Classical thought.

However, there was the added bonus of being offered political position within the growing Church.  His time as a teacher may have given him a taste of being in a role of respect where he could influence others.  More than a theologian or even an apologist, maybe he was most fit for the role of politician.  With his education, he had great command of language both written and spoken.  I get the sense that he didn’t just want something to believe in.  Moreso, he wanted something to fight for.  And, in the Christianized Empire, theological debates were fights with big risks and big rewards.  Ambrose probably fed Augustine’s political ambitions as Ambrose was in the middle of many political conflicts about orthodoxy.

It’s very interesting that Augustine felt he had so little control over his own behavior, but acted in such a forceful manner that he was able to influence the behavior of others.  It must have bolstered his self-confidence (and ego) that he had the ear of popes and emperors.  Being involved in political intrigue led to real world results of people being oppressed, persecuted, and killed.  This must’ve contributed to his grim view of human nature and of the Church’s political role.

Despite his intellectual acumen, Augustine had become somewhat of an anti-intellectual in the latter part of his life.  He was ultimately a rhetoritician rather than a philosopher per se.  Maybe it’s his rhetoric training that is the commonality between his tendencies towards rationality and apologetics.  The purpose of rhetoric is to convince.  A true philosopher such as Socrates disliked sophistry but Augustine seems to have embraced it.

Still, I wonder whether there was a time during his Neo-Platonic phase when he genuinely felt a love for truth above mere debate.  Was there a time in his life where he actually thought he could know God?  I get the sense that the Manichaeans may have believed this, and the fact that he was a Manicahean for almost a decade would suggest he at least hoped to know God in a way that his mind and heart could be unified.  But he seemed to have lost this hope somewhere along the way.  He came to believe that his mind had to be sacrificed in order to know God.

I have a theory that maybe his sacrifice of his mind was self-defense.  He found himself in a religion that didn’t truly respect the intellect, and he was trapped.  The problem was that at that point he had become fully committed to Christianity and his whole sense of identity was at stake.  In fact, to turn away from the faith would be to turn away from the fond memories of his own mother.  It was with her that he had the spiritual experience that led him to conversion in the first place.  And where else was there to turn?  Unlike when he was a Pagan before, it was now dangerous to be anything other than Catholic.  To leave the Church would’ve meant giving up his prestige and wealth, his power and influence.  Plus, on a psychological level, he had spent so many years rationalizing it to himself.  How could he give it up now?  It was easier to betray his own intellectual honesty.  Besides, this latter betrayal came slowly in small increments.  He probably hardly noticed that he had lost his love of truth.

I’m not sure whether to feel pity for him or judgment.  His use of his great mind for the purposes of oppression and persecution is utterly horrifying.  He was capable of such deep insight that it’s just sad that he wasted it on political propgandizing.  And to think how many people were tortured and killed according to the justification of his beautiful writing.

2 thoughts on “The not-so-saintly Augustine

  1. In case anyone wishes to criticize my criticism of Augustine, feel free. I’m not attached to my opinions here. In all honesty, I’m not expert on Augustine. It’s only been recently that I’ve looked more deeply into his life and ideas. I’m at the moment undecided about my final analysis of Augustine. He seems a slippery person to get a hold of, and I find it quite confusing in my attempt to figure out what he actually believed.

  2. I was considering why I felt so critical of Augustine. I think it might be because I expected a lot from him. He is considered one of the greatest theologians of Christianity and he is considered a major influence on all later thought in Western culture.

    Instead, with research, I discover an apologist and I really don’t like apologists… in particular the kind that support oppression and persecution. I figured I’d disagree with him a fair amount, but I was hoping for some more deep insight. I actually resonate a bit with his pessimistic sensibilities, yet I don’t get the sense that he sticks closely enough to this insight and instead uses it to support church doctrine.

    I guess I was expecting a more coherent and well articulated theological system. But I could hardly even distinguish between his personal beliefs and public statements. I’m left with doubts as to who he really was when not playing his official role. Or had he become entirely identified with his official role?

    It’s possible I haven’t given him enough of a chance. I’ll read more of his work to see if I can discover some spiritual wisdom that goes beyond dogmatic rhetoric.

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