St. Augustine of Hippo


On this date in 430 St. Augustine of Hippo died (born 354).

Yesterday we quoted Frye on Hegel from his student essay written in 1933, “The Augustinian Interpretation of History.”  That essay is a good place to start today too.  In the essay, by the way, Frye cites a quote from Hegel that might be kept in mind: “We learn from history that we never learn anything from history” (CW 3, 193).

First then, for Augustine, the political problem, the collapse of the Roman Empire.  It was easy to accuse the upstart religion to which Augustine belonged of having caused the downfall, and the first ten books [of The City of God] are taken up with defending the Christians and attacking the pagans.  For our present thesis this is important in clearing the ground for the doctrine of the two cities.  The immediate, obvious opposition Augustine had to contend with was that of paganism and Christianity; not until that was outlined could the theory of the two cities follow.  The latter is an abstract conception of some difficulty, and to introduce it at the outset would upset what balance the book still retains.  Although it is not deliberately a philosophy of history, but an apologetic, the germ is there.  Almost at once Augustine outlines the essential change that the coming of Christianity has made in the world.  Christianity is not responsible for the fall of Rome (I, i), in the sense that the Romans have failed through deserting the gods that could have helped her.  These same gods lost Troy (I, iii); how should they preserve Rome?  On the other hand, Christianity has brought an entirely new note of gentleness: Rome’s Christian conquerors spared her to an extent which Rome herself never practiced toward her foes (I,ii).  In the ancient world there was no idea of anything else than the most brutal revenge in warfare (I, iv).  No, the cause of the Roman defeat lay in herself (II), in her essential weakness and wickedness.  Her empire, allotted to her as a reward for certain terrestrial virtues (V), such as justice, temperance, courage, and so on–on which Augustine dwells with much enthusiasm–has been forfeited by her vice. (CW 3, 200)

From “Pistis and Mythos“:

The Augustinian vision of the church arising out of the chaos of history is a revolutionary view of history, but one which sees secular authority as fulfilled by spiritual authority.

Beginning with Hegel and Marx we get an immanent or donkey’s-carrot view of history which sees history as containing within itself a counterhistorical force which is actually the real, though concealed, historical process.  This is hitched on to some future epiphany, whether a classless society or the manifestation of God.

The contrast of Augustinian and Hegelian views is part of a larger shift in thought.  Man lives in two worlds, the world given him by nature, and the world of culture or civilization he constructs.  Down to about the eighteenth century, God was thought of as taking charge of the order of nature and also as the creator of the forms of human civilization (the city and the garden), hence the two worlds could not be separated.

For the last two centuries religious thought has been shifting to the world constructed by man, and away from the given world of the physical environment.

In the Bible human history (Weltsgeschichte) makes no sense; only Heilsgeschichte [salvation history] makes sense, but Heilsgeschichte is a counterhistorical process concealed within the rise and fall of empires, and cannot be described in historical language.  In contemporary terms it might be defined as the positive or genuine human activity, as distinct from making war and feeding parasites, which goes in the direction of the spiritual transformation of man, symbolized in Christianity by the Resurrection. (CW 4, 7)

From The Double Vision:

We may talk about a beginning and an end to time, but we cannot realize such things in our imaginations.  Whether we speak of a creation by God which began in time (that is, our experience of time) or of a big bang many billions of years ago, the human mind cannot help thinking that there must have been time “before” that.  St. Augustine was bothered by this question, which he raises several times, notably in a famous passage in the Confessions, where in effect he answers the question, “What was God doing before creation?” by saying, “Preparing a hell for those who ask such a question.”  If we were to guess at the repressed elements in the saint’s mind when he wrote this, they might well have run something like this: If you ask God what happened before time, you embarrass God, who probably won’t know either, and as God hates to be embarrassed, you are risking a good deal by asking.  (CW 4, 199)

There is certainly a demonic state of being, but it appears to be really an intensification of the human one.  Conceivably the divine state is too, or, at least, progress in human love might be thought to bring us to the point of identity with God.  Traditional Christianity tends rather to follow the view, which goes back to Augustine at least, that the advance of the spirit, wherever it leads, certainly makes us more authentically human.  (ibid., 232)

From the “Third Book” Notebooks:

The Roman intellectuals of the later Empire said that gods were imaginative creations of man.  Hence there was no limit to their creation: every phenomenon that repeated itself could be deified.   Hence the catalogue satire in St. Augustine.  One could raise the question of psychological archetypes: what gods “exist” in the sense of being projected mental states?  This is Blake’s preoccupation.  There is an interesting analogy with saints in Catholicism.  When the Pope says that St. George & St. Christopher never existed, that is a question, or could be, of historical fact.  But when he goes on to say that it’s all right to venerate them even if they never existed, that raises some very complex epistemological problems.  Surely once the distinction between divine revelation and human imagination, and the corresponding contrast in what they create, is given up, traditional Christianity pretty well goes down the drain, and you can no longer ignore the challenge of Blake’s identification of the two.  (CW 9, 238-9)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ERROR: si-captcha.php plugin: GD image support not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them to enable GD image support for PHP.

ERROR: si-captcha.php plugin: imagepng function not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them to enable imagepng for PHP.