Tarnas on Agustine’s Anti-intellectualism

I own The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas.  I don’t normally read books about history except when they directly relate to religion, but this is a good book.  It covers a lot of territory and sometimes I wish the author would go more deeply into certain aspects.  Besides that minor complaint, the author does manage to capture some central streams of development.  He spends a decent amount of time on Christianity and the Roman Empire, and that is why I was looking at it recently.  

The following excerpt is about Augustine and the early Christian attitude toward science and rationality. 

pp 113-14: Moreover, in the new self-awareness of the late classical and early Christian era, most acutely epitomized in Augustine, the individual soul’s concern for its spiritual destiny was far more significant than the rational intellect’s concern with conceptual thnking or empirical study.  Faith alone in the miracle of Christ’s redemption was enough to bring the deepest saving truth to man.  Despite his erudition and appreciation for the intellectual and scientific achievement of the Greeks, Augustine proclaimed:

“When, then, the question is asked what we are to believe in regrd to religion, it is not necessary to probe into the nature of things, as was done by those whom the Greeks call physici; nor need we be in alarm lest the Christian shoud be ignorant of the force and thenumber of the elemetns; the motion, and order, and eclipses of the heavenly bodies; the form of the heavens; the species and natures of animals, plants, stones, fountains, rivers, mountains; about chronology and distances; the signs of coming storms; and a thousand other things which those philosophers either have found out, or think they have found out….  It is enough for the christian to believe that the only cause of all created things, whether heavenly or earthly, whether visible or invisible, is the goodness of the Creator, the one true God; and that nothing exists but Himself that does not derive its existence from him.”  (Enchiridion, in Augustine, Works, vol. 9, edited by M. Dods; Edinburgh (Edinburgh; Clark, 1871-77), 180-181.)

With the rise of Christianity, the already decadent state of science in the late Roman era received little encouragement for new developments.  Early Christians experienced no intellectual urgency to “save the phenomena” of this world, since the phenomenal world held no significance compared with the transcendent spiritual reality.  More precisely, the all-redeeming Christ had already saved the phenomena, so there was little need for mathematics or astronomy to perform the task.  The study of astornomy in particular, being tied to astrology and the cosmic religion of the Hellenistic era, was discouraged.  The monotheistic Hebrews had already had occasion to condemn foreign astrologers, and this attitude persisted in the Christian context.  with its planetary deities, annd aura of polytheistic paganism, and with its proneness to a determinism antithetical to both divine grace and human responsibility, astrology was officially condemned by Church councils (with Augustine especially seeing the need for confuting the astrological “mathematicians”), as a result of which it gradually declined despite its occasional theological defenders.  In the Christian view, the heavens were devoutly perceived as the expression of God’s glory and, more popularly, as the abode of God and his angels and saints, and the realm from which Christ would return at the Second Coming.

Even though this gives good context, I think Tarnas missed the heart of the matter.  Augustine didn’t prize human responsibility above all else, and not all ancient astrology was deterministic (and certainly no more deterministic than Augustine’s theology).  Early Christians were anti-intellectual (in particular towards astrology) because too much analysis would prove Christianity’s indebtedness to other religions and philosophies.

In seeming contradiction with what Augustine said in the above quote, he had also written that when the scriptures conflict with science that the believer should give authority to the latter.  But I imagine that he was mostly thinking of the Old Testament when he wrote this.  Augustine was fine with interpreting allegorically such scriptures as Genesis.  However, his scientific education was surely rather limited and I doubt he ever considered the possibility that science might one day develop so far as to demonstrate the impossibility (i.e., reasonable doubt) of dead people resurrecting and other miracles.

What I find intriguing here is how Augustine correlated Paganism with rationality, science and basically any interest in the world whatsoever.  He dismisses all of this as being irrelevant to Christianity.  This is extremely significant because to this day orthodox Christianity still has a troubled relationship with rationality and science.  The sad part here is that so many Christians over the centuries have perceived a non-existent conflict.  Augustine says that all a Christian needs to know is that all things were created by a good Creator.  Was he so clueless as to not realize that one could worship both the Creator and his Creation?  Was he utterly ignorant of the fact that some Pagans (and some Gnostic Christians) did worship both the Creator and his Creation?  I’m reminded of Augustine’s distinction between the sun and the Creator of the sun.  He was implying that Pagans hadn’t made this distinction when, for example, the Egyptians had made this precise distinction.

And this isn’t just a theological issue.  It was because Christians felt so little interest towards rationality and science that they didn’t realize the great intellectual tradition they were losing.  In fact, as Augustine wrote about this subject in 420, the Catholic Church was in the process of destroying all knowledge it could get its hands on.  How could a great intellectual like Augustine be so indifferent?  Was he so cynical about the world that he was contented to see the Church (and the whole Roman Empire with it) commit intellectual suicide?  Was he hoping this wholesale destruction would hasten the Second Coming or something?

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