If you believe what you like in the gospels and reject what you do not like, it is not the gospel you believe but yourself.
Archive for the ‘augustine’ Category
Origen (185-254) was a Christian intellectual from Alexandria. He influenced Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Bernard and others. His allegorical interpretation of scripture, though out of favour now, deeply influenced the West in the years from 600 to 1200.
Alexandria of the 200s produced two great thinkers: Origen and the Greek philosopher Plotinus. They produced the two great roads to the truth that men of the Roman Empire followed in the 200s and 300s. Augustine followed both roads in the early 400s and showed how they were the same road.
Origen had a good Greek education. He tried to make Christian and Greek thinking into one system but failed. His mistake was to treat Greek thinking as a set of truths, not as a way of thinking.
It was partly in “De principiis” that Origen tried to make the two systems into one:
- Eternity of creation: it is without beginning or end. God can create and destroy, but he cannot exist without a creation.
- Free will: God made angels, stars, demons and men all equal to each other. They became unequal through what they did with their free will.
- Matter: All spiritual beings have a material nature, even angels. But some, like men, are more material than others.
- Universal salvation: If you are not saved in this life, your soul will be brought back for another chance. Because the universe lasts for ever even the demons will be saved.
Origen was not a heretic – all this was within the limits of Christian thinking in the Alexandria of his day. But the book got a bad name when heretics later used it to justify teachings that opposed the Church.
The emperor Justinian pushed to have Origen condemned. He had political reasons of his own, but “De principiis” made it easy for the Church to do it. That is why he is not considered to be a saint.
He fell out of favour in the Greek east in the 600s but the Latin west continued to read him. Not “De principiis”, but his books about the Bible. Of the few books that existed then in the West many were by Origen. They stood like a lighthouse to the Bible.
Origen said the entire Bible is true, but not necessarily our interpretation of it. Some passages just have a straight sense, some only have an allegorical sense, where the Bible speaks in figures, and some passages have both senses.
For example, the wood of Noah’s ark stands for the wood of the Cross of Christ. The lamb’s blood the Jews put on their door frames on the night of the first Passover foreshadows the saving blood of Christ. These were real events in history but God used them as figures of what was to come.
Origen’s New Testament included:
- Acts of Paul
- 1 Clement
- Shepherd of Hermas
- 2 Peter
- 2 John
- 3 John
The books of the New Testament were still not fixed till the 300s.
written: 45 BC
After Julius Caesar was killed, Cicero retired to his estate in the country to write. There he wrote “On Divination”. It records a discussion he had at the time with his brother Quintus about whether divination is true: do the gods tell us about the future through oracles, visions, astrology, prophets, the flight of birds and so on?
Quintus argues the Stoic position: divination works.
Cicero argues the opposite: it does not work. Diviners are right only through mere chance, not through any true knowledge.
His arguments sound like what someone today would say, yet Cicero still believes in the old Roman gods. He makes that plain. He just does not think that the gods would tell us things in such a roundabout way. In art and science we already have all that we need to know to live in this world.
Quintus says that if the gods exist, then they would tell us about the future. As it happens, they do: through divination. Therefore the gods do exist.
Quintus points out that men in all times and countries have believed in divination. Not only that, but it somehow works, though Quintus himself has no idea how. He gives many striking examples from history and even quotes Cicero’s own words in support.
Quintus’s argument takes up the first half of the book. It all sounds good. But then in the second half Cicero shows all the holes in it:
- Just because most men believe something does not make it true. As philosophers we must argue from reason, not from the opinions of shopkeepers.
- You give examples of where divination works, but not where divination fails, as it does most of the time.
- All men believe in divination, but they do not at all
agree on what this or that sign means. There is no body of proven knowledge common to all nations.
- You say divination is built up by observations down through the ages. Is that so? Where is the proof of that? When observation leads to provable knowledge it becomes part of an art or science. It is no longer left to divination.
He uses the two twins argument against astrology. And on it goes.
Though most present-day readers will agree with him, Cicero’s own argument is also weak. Quintus gives in and never argues against it. I will have to fill in for him:
The holes in Cicero’s argument:
- Cicero doubts divination because Quintus does not know how it happens. Should I doubt Cicero can think because he does not know how the mind works?
- Cicero does a lot of supposing about how gods act and think and uses this to show that divination is unlikely. Yet he assumes that the gods think just like man. In fact, just like one man: Cicero!
This last argument, the-gods-agree-with-me argument, is still being used against religion 2000 years later.
Epicurus (341-270 BC) of Athens founded the Epicurean school of Greek philosophy, one of the five great school of ancient times. Its glory days ran from about 300 BC to 200 AD. It taught that the world is nothing more than matter in motion, that things happen by chance – not even the gods are in control. To live well in such a world and have peace of mind, one must avoid pain and seek pleasure.
Although the Epicureans later got a bad name as immoral pleasure seekers, Epicurus himself lived very simply as an example to his followers. He lived in a house in a garden where he taught his followers. His school was therefore called the Garden. It stood there in Athens from 310 BC to 529 AD.
Epicurus said that the aim of life was peace of mind. To attain it you must seek pleasure and avoid pain according to the following principles:
- Fear no god: Gods exists, yes, but they want to live in peace. They do not care about us. The universe is ruled not by gods but by matter, motion and chance.
- Do not care about death: it does not hurt, you will not even know you are dead! You will be gone, even your soul. There is no hell to fear.
- The good is easy to get: Man does not need much – he can live on “water and barley cakes.”
- The bad is easily endured: if sickness or pain is horrible it is short-lived. If it is long-lasting, it is bearable.
Epicurus was against suicide because it goes against the fourth principle. Some later Epicureans, however, were for it.
For Epicurus there is no such thing as morals, as right and wrong – just pleasure and pain. Not just those of the flesh, but, even more important, those of the mind.
To attain peace of mind it helps to be just, prudent and honourable. So does friendship. Family and political affairs, on the other hand, do not.
The Stoics also sought peace of mind, but looked for it in duty, not pleasure.
Epicurus’s physics was based on the atoms of Democritus. Democritus said that everything was made up of atoms: very small bits of matter – too small to see and too small to cut up into smaller parts. They are uncreated and eternal.
The universe is just atoms moving about. To some degree they follow the rules of physics, but there is also an element of chance as well. There is certainly no divine design or purpose to it all.
Epicurus said that even the gods were made of atoms. While his universe does not require gods, either to create it or rule it, he believed they existed because it is a universal belief among mankind. Gods should be worshipped out of respect not fear.
Famous Epicureans: Cassius, Lucretius, Lucian, Lorenzo Valla, Gassendi, Thomas Jefferson.
Influenced by Epicurean thought: Virgil, Horace, Locke, Boyle, Newton.
Against it: Cicero, Plutarch, Origen and Augustine.
Plato (429-374 BC) founded the Academy, one of the five schools of Greek philosophy. Through Augustine it became the one that most influenced the West from 400 till 1250. From 1250 to 1650 Aristotle, through the work of Aquinas, became more important.
Plato and Aristotle together laid the foundation of philosophy in the West.
Unlike Aristotle, Plato trusted mind and reason over the senses.
Plato was taught by Socrates, who turned Greek philosophy from questions of nature to questions about man. That is why so much of Plato is about virtue, justice and law.
Plato wanted to create the perfect society. He wrote about it in his book the “Republic”.
In the “Republic” a philosopher-king rules through a military made up of both men and women who have their property and children in common and their lovers chosen, it seems, by lot. The good of society is put above the good of the individual. Homer and other great works are rewritten to serve the needs of the state since, as they stand, they will ruin the young with the wrong ideas. Rulers tell “noble lies” to their subjects for the good of society.
In the course of telling us about his perfect society – which Plato does to find out the true nature of justice – he tells us along the way about the nature of man and of reality.
For Plato man is an immortal soul put in a mortal, material, corruptible body. Man is born neither good nor evil — he is whatever his education has made him. So the key to creating the perfect society is education. He who controls education controls the future. That is why Homer has to be rewritten.
After death the soul goes through the river Lethe where it forgets everything. It then enters a new body.
Plato’s picture of reality is given in his story of the cave. We are like men living in a cave who only see shadows on the wall. We think that is real life. We cannot see what is causing the shadows much less the light.
And so what we see about us is only a shadow of a higher reality, which Plato called the Forms or Ideas – the things causing the shadows.
For example, when we see horses, they are mere shadows or imperfect instances of the true Horse, which is idea or form of horseness in all its purity.
This is called idealism. It speaks to our sense that there is something beautiful and pure at the root of this very imperfect world.
Plato wrote his books in the form of dialogues or discussions. This is because Socrates taught by close questioning to test ideas and seek definitions.
Plato’s dialogues discuss the deepest questions of life:
- The Republic: What is justice? What is real?
- Parmenides: What is being and nothingness?
- Theatetus: What is language?
- Timaeus: How the world put together?
- Phaedo: Is the sould immortal?
- Symposium: What is love?
And so on.
The Bible (1200 BC – 150 AD) is the holy book of the Jews and Christians, who regard it as the Word of God. The word Bible comes from the Greek “ta biblia”, which means “the books”. The Bible is made up of books, some in Hebrew, some in Greek, written from the time of Moses till the time of Christ’s apostles, his first followers.
Before 1900 it was commonly called “Holy Scripture”. This comes from the time of Jesus when it was called “the law, the prophets and the writings” or just “the writings” for short. This became scriptura in Latin and “scripture” in English. But “Holy Scripture” can mean the holy writings of any religion.
Christians call the Jewish Bible the “Old Testament” and the books they added to it the “New Testament”.
Muslims believe the Bible is a holy book, but that it has been corrupted by man and so cannot be trusted. Instead of the Bible they follow their own holy book, the Koran, which has what the angel Gabriel told Muhammad.
For Jews the heart of the Bible are the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, called the Law or the Torah. These lay out the Law of Moses that God gave to him to give to the Jews. It includes not just the Ten Commandments but hundreds of other laws that follow, such as what not to eat.
The other books of the Jewish Bible exist only to understand the Law. But when Jews want to understand the Law, especially how it applies to everyday life, they turn not so much to other books of the Bible but to the Talmud.
The Talmud contains the teachings about the Law that were passed down by word of mouth through the generations. It was not written down till the 700s.
The Jewish Bible was translated into Greek for the Library of Alexandria centuries before Christ. It is called the Septuagint. By the time of Jesus Christ this was the Bible that most Jews read: it was in Greek, which by then was more widely known among Jews than Hebrew. In those days Hebrew was a dead language.
When Jesus and Paul quote the Bible, it is almost always in the words of the Septuagint. It is the Septuagint that Christians read in the following centuries.
The Septuagint has some books the Jews later removed from their Bibles. Those books are called the Apocrypha. Catholic and Orthodox Christians still have them in their Bibles, Protestants do not.
Christians read the Jewish Bible not for the Law, which mostly does not apply to them, but for the prophecies about Christ. They also read it for the Book of Psalms and to learn more about God.
For Christians the heart of the Bible are the four gospels, the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They tell about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The New Testament also has the writings of the apostles, the first followers of Jesus.
- Jesus Christ
- Library of Alexandria
If I could go back in time I would like to see Augustine’s library. When the Vandals burned down his town of Hippo in 430, by some miracle his library was saved. His books were sent to Italy soon after. I do not know what happened to them after that.
Even though his library is long gone, we can still get a sense of what was in it (apart from his own works) by the books and authors he mentions in his writings.
Here are the authors he mentions at least five times in the “Confessions” and the “City of God”, his two greatest and most general works. Those in colour are also in the Loeb Library and so are easy to get – the green ones in Greek and English, and the red ones in Latin and English. The numbers are for the number of mentions:
1000+ LXX, NT 149 Plato 131 Varro 85 Cicero 71 Porphyry 40 Virgil 39 Apuleius 31 Sallust 24 Cato 14 Homer 13 Ambrose 11 Plotinus, Labeo 10 Thales 9 Victorinus, Pythagoras 7 Jerome, Epicurus, Seneca 6 Hermes Trismegistus, Hippocrates, Eusebius, Terence, Anaximenes 5 Origen, Manichaeus
Augustine did not know Greek. He read Plato as translated into Latin by Victorinus.
Augustine got most of his Roman history from Sallust and most of his knowledge of Roman religion from Varro. What he knows of Roman law comes from Labeo.
If you read the authors that both Loeb and the Augustine libraries have, it would be hard to go wrong since you would avoid the individual tastes of either. But for myself I trust Augustine far more than Loeb: he lived back then and was a great mind.
So which books of these authors did he have? That is harder to say. These are the ones that I have seen him refer to (those that are in the Loeb Library I marked with stars):
- Scripture: Septuagint, Vulgate
- Plato: Timaeus*, Republic*, Gorgias*, Protagoras*
- Varro: Antiquitatum rerum humanarum et divinarum, De philosophia, Of the race of the Roman people
- Cicero: Hortensius, Academica*, De Republica*, De divinatione*, De natura deorum*, Tusculan questions*, De finibus*, Timaeus (translated from Plato), Orator*
- Porphyry: Epistle to Anebo, De regressu animae, De philosophia ex oraculis
- Virgil: Aeneid*, Georgics*, Eclogues*
- Apuleius: De mundo, Concerning the God of Socrates, The Golden Ass*
- Sallust: his Roman history
- Homer: Iliad*, Odyssey*
- Plotinus: Enneads*
- Victorinus: works of Plato translated
- Jerome: Chronicles, On Daniel
- Seneca: Against superstitions
- Hermes Trismegistus:
- Eusebius: Chronicles*
- Terence: The Eunuch*, Andria*
- Origen: De principiis
It still needs work. I am going to look through his other writings to see if I can find more books. If I do, I will add them here.
Yes, this is my reading list in the making.
In the meantime I am reading the Church Fathers, in case you did not already figure that one out: Athanasius, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa (who I am reading now), Cyprian and Basil. And Augustine (his book on the Trinity).
Last year I read Augustine’s “Confessions” and his “City of God” – something I do every ten years or so – in addition to some of his other works. That is how I started the list above.
- City of God – search it online. Might be able to find other books that Augustine refers to in its excellent footnotes.
- The Anglo-Saxon Library – I am not the first person to wonder about Augustine’s library – so have St Posidius, Altaner and Scheele. The last two have each written a book on the subject!!
- St Augustine
- Loeb Library
- The Abagond Library
- Cicero: De divinatione
- Plotinus: Enneads
In his six Enneads Plotinus explains life, the universe and everything.
If you want to question everything you ever believed read this book.
If you want to understand God or religion better, whether you are a believer or not, read this book. Plotinus himself was not a follower of Christ or Muhammad, but of Plato. Yet because he influenced Christian and Muslim thinkers, like Augustine, reading Plotinus helps you to understand those faiths better.
The West today is building a world view based on materialism, but this book made me see that it could just as well be done the other way around: it could be based on idealism, where Plato’s Ideas, not the material world, is the base reality. Plotinus shows how in his six Enneads.
Whether you go for his idealism or not, Plotinus is great because he takes apart and questions ideas like matter, knowledge, being and God. What he writes about matter and God is very good, even if you do not agree with him. He does go soft-headed sometimes, but he really does want to understand the nature of things and not settle for the easy answers we all heard in school. Where most are content to leave God as a name on a brass doorplate – “Creator of the Universe” – Plotinus really really wants to understand God. In detail. In depth. It is wonderful.
You know, most philosophers, like your father, will answer your question with a bit of arch wording and then have that smile on their face. Plotinus is not like that. It is wonderful!
Be aware that because he thinks so differently from the way we do, sometimes you have to read a passage several times before you get it. But in the end you will be happy you did not give up.
Some of what he says:
Plotinus said that the highest reality was the Idea of One which, it turns out, is the same as the Idea of Good. Christians and Muslims will recognise this as God.
The universe is a side effect of the emanations of the Good. It is not an act of will of the Good but just a natural side effect. The universe emanates from the Good like light shines from the sun. The sun is not about making light for us, but it is a side effect of its nature. So with the universe and the Good.
At each stage the emanations get weaker so that the farther away you get from the Good, the less perfect creation becomes. The Good emanates the ideas, which in leads to spirit which in turn leads to matter. In this way Plotinus is able to explain how something so perfect as the Good can create an imperfect world.
And what about us? We are part spirit but also part matter. But there is hope: Plotinus says that through self-control, philosophy (of course), contemplation and mysticism we can return step by step to the One. Very Gnostic, that. As a philosopher Plotinus loved reason, but he placed mysticism above reason as a shortcut to knowing the One.
Plotinus (205-270) was the last great philosopher in the West who believed in the old gods. He founded a new school of philosophy, which we call Neoplatonism. He wrote about his philosophy in his six Enneads. Even though his school of thought only lasted for 300 years and he is barely heard of today, his influence has been great because of the Christian and Muslim thinkers who read him, like Augustine.
Some of what Plotinus believed:
- The universe is eternal – without beginning, without end.
- Reincarnation: the soul is eternal and goes from body to body.
- Many gods exists, but there is also one God Almighty.
- Stars are alive and have minds.
- The purpose of life is virtue to free the soul from the body.
- Providence: the gods act for our benefit.
- Idealism: our world is an imperfect picture of the perfect world of Ideas.
- Astrology: the stars influence our fate.
He was born in Egypt and went to Alexandria to learn philosophy. In 242 he went with the Roman army to Persia, where he learned about Persian and Indian thought. Two years later he came to Rome where he founded his school. It was not just a place of thought and argument: his disciples gave up their wealth and dedicated themselves to contemplation. This was a century before Christians did the same.
In 250, having developed his philosophy of Neoplatonism, he wrote about it in the six Enneads. He explains the world based not on materialism, as we do, but idealism, where Plato’s Ideas were the base reality And among those ideas the starting point of everything is the One, which is the same thing as the Good. Christians and Muslims will recognise this as God.
Plotinus saw creation as an emanation from the Good, like light shining from the sun. The farther something was from the Good, the less spiritual and the more material it became. This allowed him to account for the ruined beauty of the universe without recourse to the dualism of the Gnostics or the Fall and original sin of the Catholics.
Plotinus was not a Christian, but some of his disciples were Gnostics, so he was familiar with their errors:
- As the “sons of God”, Christians thought they were as better than gods and stars. This made them seek pleasure instead of virtue and think only of themselves.
- Dualism: They hated the body and the world, seeing the world as dark and unjust. Clearly they did not understand Plato!
- They saw illness as a spiritual affair that could be cured by the right words.
- They believed they could influence God by words and songs.
Plotinus had to spend time showing his Christian disciples how badly they misunderstood Plato. In the process both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism influenced one another.