Augustine on God

Like many students, Augustine wondered what benefit his studies had been.  He had mastered Aristotle’s Ten Categories but this knowledge did not bring him any closer to the truth he desired.  Augustine thought that most who read and taught on the Ten Categories did so out of vanity and not out of a sincere desire to discover the truth.  He eventually came to the opinion that the mastery of Aristotle’s Ten Categories actually led him further from the truth because through them he came to believe that everything that existed could somehow “be comprehended under the ten categories” and that there was no essential difference between himself and god.

So what good did this do me? I thought that you, Lord God and Truth, were like a luminous body of immense size and myself a bit of that body.  What extraordinary perversity!  (IV.xvi.31)

Augustine did not see any alternative to this pantheistic view of god for he was as yet unacquainted with the God worshiped by the Christians.  Although his mother was a Christian, he had come under the influence of Manichean teachers who taught him that the God revealed in the Old Testament had a human form and that the Old Testament contained laws belonging to a barbaric age.

…and it was as if some sharp intelligence were persuading me to consent to the stupid deceivers [Manichean teachers] when they asked me: ‘Where does evil come from?  and is God confined within a corporeal form?  has he hair and nails?  and can those be considered righteous who had several wives at the same time and killed people and offered animals in sacrifice?  In my ignorance I was disturbed by these questions…

What changed Augustine’s mind?  Augustine said that it came through the teaching of Ambrose of Milan who opened the Scripture to him.  He learned from Ambrose that the God revealed in the Bible was not anything like what his Manichean teachers had taught him.  In particular, Augustine was struck by the truth that God exists apart from nature and is not to be found in one of Aristotle’s ten categories!

I was unaware of the existence of another reality, that which truly is…  (III.vii.12)

Augustine on Faith and Reason

In his Confessions, Augustine tells how he became suspicious of the appeal to reason made by the Manichee’s.  In turn, he became more open to the possibility that not everything could be proven rationally.   Augustine writes,

I thought it more modest and not in the least misleading to be told by the Church to believe what could not be demonstrated – whether that was because a demonstration existed but could not be understood by all or whether the matter was not open to rational proof – rather than from the Manichees to have a rash promise of knowledge with mockery of mere belief, and then afterwards to be ordered to believe many fabulous and absurd myths impossible to prove true.  (Confessions VI.7)

Modern man mocks faith and believes the promises of science.  But these same mockers end up believing many “fabulous and absurd myths impossible to prove true.”  ie. the theory of how the first DNA molecule evolved from the primordial soup; or the multiverse theory that has been proposed to account for the fine tuning of our own particular universe for conscious life.   Sometimes the modern Scientist looks a lot like the ancient Manichee.


Now, as individuals differ greatly from each other, in intelligence, sagacity, energy, perseverance, skill, habits of industry and economy, physical power, position and opportunity, – the necessary effect of leaving all free to exert themselves to better their condition, must be a corresponding inequality between those who may possess these qualities and advantages in a high degree, those who me be deficient in them.  The only means by which this result can be prevented are, either to impose such restrictions on the exertions of those who may possess them in a high degree, as well place them on a level with those who do not; or to deprive them of the fruits of their exertions.  But to impose such restriction some them would be destructive of liberty, – while, to deprive them of the fruits of their exertions, would be to destroy the desire of bettering their condition.  It is , indeed, this inequality of condition between the front and rear ranks, in the march of progress, which gives so strong an impulse to the former to maintain their position, and to the latter to press forward into their files.  This gives to progress its greatest impulse.  To force the front rank back to the rear, or attempt to push forward the rear into line with the front, by the interposition of the government, would put an end to the impulse, and effectually arrest the march of progress.

Calhoun opposed the leveling of society because nature has not made all men equal.   (Or to summarize Burke: ‘All me are equal before God but they are equal in no other way.’)  He feared that a simple majority would begin to vote against the interests of minorities (ie. southern farmers).  Although the South and its plantations were the first to suffer oppression from a voting bloc, they would not be the last. In a remarkably perceptive statement, Calhoun believed that industrial workers would eventually face the same fate as the southern farmer.

After we are exhausted, the contest will be between the capitalists and the operatives [workers]; for into these two classes it must, ultimately, divide society.  The issue of the struggle here must be the same as it has been in Europe.  Under the operation of the system, wages must sink more rapidly than the prices of the necessaries of life, till the portion of the products of their labor left to them, will be barely sufficient to preserve existence.  For the present, the pressure is on our section.”  (John Calhoun, 1828)

Calhoun wrote two decades before Marx and Engels but he perceived some of the same problems inherent in an industrialized, capitalist society.  But Calhoun did not believe that a classless society was possible or desirable.  Instead, he sought to protect each group’s interests from a ‘simple majority’ through the Constitution.  Western society never bought into Marx’s Utopian ideals but neither did it adopt Calhoun’s conservatism.  It chose instead to be ruled by ‘the Calculators’.  This is the legacy of the Benthamites, of whom Coleridge writes,

It is this accursed practice of forever considering only what seems expedient for the occasion, disjoined from all principle or enlarged systems of action, of never listening to the true and unerring impulses of our better nature, which has led the colder-hearted men to the study of political economy, which has turned our Parliament into a real committee of public safety.  In it is all power vested; and in a few years we shall either be governed by an aristocracy, or what is still more likely, by a contemptible democratical oligarcy of glib economists, compared to which the worst form of aristocracy would be a blessing.  -Coleridge’s Table Talk – (cited by Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind)

Surprisingly, for me at least, even J.M Keynes recognized how badly Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy has served the West:

I do now regard [Benthamism] as the worm which has been gnawing at the insides of modern civilization and is responsible for its present moral decay.  We used to regard the Christians as the enemy, because they appeared as the representatives of tradition, convention, and hocus-pocus.  In truth it was the Benthamite calculus, based on over-valuation of the economic criterion, which was destroying the quality of the popular ideal.

Coleridge worried about an “oligarchy of glib economists” and Keynes thought that there was an “over-valuation of the economic criterion”.    They were right.  Today, our monetary and fiscal policy is entirely dictated by the markets.  Who cares who the next president or prime minister is so long as central banks have the power to print money at will and lend it to investment ‘banks’ without cost.  This perverse situation would not have arisen if a powerful oligarchy had not been able to buy the votes of a ‘simple majority’, as Calhoun fore saw.

Source: The Conservative Mind, by Russel Kirk

Isaiah on Foreign Alliances

Just noticed an interesting parallel between two historical episodes in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah warned both kings Ahaz and Hezekiah against making foreign alliances. Ahaz rejected Isaiah’s warning explicitly whereas it is not as clear where Hezekiah stood in relation to the prophet in the days leading up to the Assyrian invasion.  Hezekiah would eventually come around, but only after Egypt proved to be every bit as unreliable as the prophet foretold. The Egyptian army was defeated on the coastal plains.  Jerusalem was up to her neck in the raging Flood (Is. 8:6-8), “like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain” (Is. 30:17), “like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.” (Isa. 1:8b ESV)

Hezekiah and the Covenant with Egypt (Is 30:1-14) Ahaz and the Covenant with Assyria (Is. 8:12-20)
Futility of foreign alliances Egypt’s help is worthless and empty; therefore I have called her “Rahab who sits still.” (Isa. 30:7 ESV) “Do not call conspiracy (or “alliance”) all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. (Isa. 8:12-13 ESV)
The prophet’s testimony inscribed in a book And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever. (Isa. 30:8 ESV) Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Isa. 8:16-18 ESV)
The rejection of the prophet For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the LORD; who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” (Isa. 30:9-11 ESV) And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. (Isa. 8:19-20 ESV)