(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The whole of Christian thought may be seen as variations on the essential positions of two men—Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. This contention is closely related to another—that the history of philosophy is wisely seen as variations on the work of Plato and Aristotle. It is inevitable that when religious thinkers express the content of their faith, they will use the most appropriate words, concepts, and even systems available in their culture. Consequently, Augustine was a Platonist, Thomas was an Aristotelian. Any attempt to gloss over this fundamental difference between these two leading theologians of Christendom is to pervert both.

In the thirteenth century, Thomas was very influential in establishing Aristotelian empiricism, thereby creating a momentous division between philosophy and theology. Thomas held that there were certain areas unique to each discipline, while other matters could be properly understood from either perspective. The Trinity and Incarnation, for example, could be known only through revelation; the nature of the empirical world was properly the jurisdiction of philosophy and was almost perfectly understood by Aristotle. However, God’s existence, and to a certain extent his nature, could be known either through revelation or by the processes of natural reason, operating on sense perception. Thus, natural theology was strongly defended as a legitimate discipline and a fitting handmaiden of the Catholic Church.

Plato as Inspiration

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Augustine, however, writing eight centuries before, drew his inspiration from Plato, strongly tempered by the theology of Saint Paul. For Plato, “knowledge” through the senses was inferior to intuitive knowledge, which he defined as knowledge of the essential nature of all things without which people perceive only dim shadows in a darkened cave. Augustine coupled this Platonic distrust of the senses with his preoccupation with the problem of evil and his own personal problems of morality. At first, this concern had driven him to the position of Manicheanism, a philosophy that holds to a metaphysical dualism of good and evil and to the inherent evil of matter. Disillusioned by the naïveté of this philosophy’s spokesperson, Augustine turned to Neoplatonism, finding there a suitable explanation of evil in terms of a theistic universe, intuitively understood. “I found there,” he said, “all things but one—the Logos made flesh.”

The significance of this omission rested in Augustine’s common confession with Paul: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Truth is not a matter simply of knowledge but of action; the problem is not knowing the truth but living the truth. With this awareness came Augustine’s baptism of Neoplatonism into the Christian worldview—the result has been called a complete break with all previous understandings of humankind.

“Faith Seeking Understanding”

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In opposition to the Greek philosophers, Augustine insisted that to know the truth is not necessarily to do the truth, for the essential nature of humankind is not reason but will. Human beings are so created that they have no option but to love, to orient their being to some object, principle, or person with an ultimate devotion. The supreme object willed by people characterizes their total being and endows them with presuppositions, motivations, rationale, vitality, and goal. There is no person without such a faith, “religion,” or “god.” One does not reason to such an object, but reasons from it. No one believes in the true God, the God of moral demand, unless the individual wills it; but no amount of persuasion can change an unwilling will. Since human beings are essentially self-centered, they will always will something other than the true God to be god—human beings will create god in their own image. Only when human beings are touched by divine grace can they will God alone as true center.

Consequently, there must be no severance of theology and philosophy: There can be no reasoning to faith, to truth; there can only be reasoning from faith. Only from the rightly oriented will, the mind already turned toward the redeeming God, can human beings discover truth. The keystone of Augustinianism is this—”I believe in order to understand,” or even better, theology is “faith seeking understanding.” The same applies to morality, for every “virtue” that makes no reference to God is a vice. This insistence, essentially discounted by Thomas Aquinas and the philosophers of much of the medieval period, was revived as an essential proclamation of the Protestant Reformation. Through Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, it has become an adapted tenet of existentialism.

From Apology to Theology

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

This understanding is the foundation for Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God. Augustine’s writing career was largely consumed in apologetics, in defending orthodox (Nicene) Christianity against its antagonists both within and without the Church. Occasioned by the sack of Rome in 410, The City of God arose as an answer to pagan critics who insisted that Christianity was the principal cause of the weakening of the Roman Empire. The reasons documenting this charge ranged from the religious position that avowal of the Christian God had elicited the vengeance of the true pagan gods, to the secular charge that Christian otherworldliness had undermined the internal solidarity of the empire. With a brilliant display of concerned patience, Augustine produced one of the most detailed, comprehensive, and definitive apologies ever written. Augustine not only answered major charges but also dealt with every conceivable attack. He answered the critics in terms of the Christian position and defended his answers in detail from the writings of the honored spokespeople of the empire throughout its history. Augustine’s second purpose with this work was to help Christians who had been weakened or perplexed by persecution and by the disastrous events of history.

Yet from this apology emerged what has made this not only a work of historic interest but also a classic. The City of God is one of the first attempts at a theology or philosophy...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

God, Evil, and Free Will

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The overarching problem was Providence. If God does not know what evils will occur, is he God? If he does know, is God not then either impotent or evil? Augustine answers the first question in the negative—God must have foreknowledge to be God. The problem exists only if one holds that infallible foreknowledge implies necessity. For Augustine, God can know all things without undermining free will, for the free wills themselves are included in the order of causes that God foreknows. It is God’s knowledge of a thing that gives it not only being but also its specific nature; therefore, it is the very fact of God’s knowledge of humankind’s free will that makes it free—it is known as free and not as determined. Freedom does not mean uncaused but self-caused, and it is the very self that God knows even more intimately than the self does. Consequently, God’s knowledge of a person is that the individual will sin, not that the person will be forced to sin.

In this manner, God’s immediate responsibility for evil is met. Yet there is a larger problem, for God still permits people in their freedom to do evil. The Roman Empire provided the framework for Augustine’s answer. The empire, at its beginning, was dedicated to truth, justice, and the good of humankind—it was blessed by God. However, love of liberty became love of domination, desire for virtue became intoxication for pleasure, and glory in well-doing became vaunted pride. Herein is portrayed the dilemma of humankind from the beginning. In the beginning, God created all things and continues to create, for all would relapse into nothingness if he were to withdraw his creative power. All that God created is good, yet mutable; having been created from nothing, it is absolutely dependent on God. Everything was graduated according to being, and the opposition...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

The Two Cities

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

According to Augustine, evil is misdirected love. Adam’s sin so altered the nature of humankind that the human will is incapable of redirecting itself and no longer regarding itself as center. Therefore, for most of humankind, history is simply cyclic. However, God’s foreknowledge includes not simply the fall of humankind, but God’s election of some people through grace to a redirected love. For these people, history is linear, marked at its center by Jesus Christ, moving toward consummation in eternal life. Therefore, in God’s cosmic plan, there are two histories, indicated by two cities. The existence of these cities was permitted by God to show the consequences of pride and to reveal what good can be brought from evil by...

(The entire section is 1022 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1946. Out of fifty-seven volumes in this collection of early Christian theologians, eight volumes (9, 12, 15, 22, 29, 30, 41, and 42) are devoted to Saint Augustine. Includes background and biographical material. Helps in understanding Augustine’s doctrinal views.

Augustine. Augustine: Major Writings. Edited by Benedict J. Groeshel, C.F.R. New York: Crossroad, 1995. Offers a chapter on Augustine as historian and political philosopher, emphasizing his teachings on spiritual and civic...

(The entire section is 812 words.)