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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.

- Augustine

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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
  • Barnabas
  • Didache
  • Shepherd of Hermas

but not:

  • James
  • 2 Peter
  • 2 John
  • 3 John

The books of the New Testament were still not fixed till the 300s.

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written: 45 BC
read: 2007

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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The good is easy to get: Man does not need much – he can live on “water and barley cakes.”
  4. 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.

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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.

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Bible

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.

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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):

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.

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