St. Augustine on Philosophy, Fashion, Medicine, Education, Science and History.

At the beginning of this series, we looked at Augustine’s foundation for analyzing culture: doctrine. Yesterday we looked at 6 case studies, and today we’ll examine 6 more: Philosophy, Fashion, Medicine, Education, Science and History.

     Philosophy: Augustine also spends much of his time contending with the philosophers of his day. While Augustine affirms that the writings of Cicero and Plato were part and parcel in his conversion, he ultimately rejects the value of most modern philosophy. “Some of (the philosophers), by God’s help, made great discoveries,” says Augustine, “but when left to themselves they were betrayed by human infirmity and fell into mistakes”[24]. While the Romans deified Plato, Augustine asserts that Plato is nowhere near God status, for he is not even counted among angels or Christian men[25]. He regularly quotes philosophers in support of his syllogisms, but goes on to say that philosophy leads nowhere, and the city of philosophers is “Babylon”, which means “confusion[26].” He agrees with Varro, who demonstrates that in 288 sects of philosophy, each defines the nature of “good” differently, and opposes Varro that there is any hope in finding a solution[27]. Augustine recognized that many of the philosophical debates of his day were the “wordy disputes” from which the Bible commands us to abstain[28]. For in all Augustine’s search for truth before conversion, he believed he was only departing further from God[29].

Augustine also rejects many philosophical grounds for rejecting the Bible, which he himself held in his youth. He calls it foolish to “assess all the rights and wrongs of human race by the measure of their own customs”, and compares it to a man trying to wear a helmet on his foot[30]. However, Augustine takes most philosophical questions seriously. Though he is attributed with saying, in retort to a question concerning God’s activity before time: “creating Hell for people who pry into mysteries”, he actually says the exact opposite: “For in matters of which I am ignorant I would rather admit the fact than gain credit by giving the wrong answer and making a laughing-stock of a man who asks a serious question[31].”

     Fashion: Augustine sees dress and fashion as neutral ground. While he certainly would have subscribed to the biblical command to dress modestly, this doesn’t seem to be an issue of the time. Men are called to abandon their “erroneous doctrines” in coming to Christ, “but not their dress and mode of living, which are no obstacle to religion”[32].

     Medicine: Augustine affirms the use of medicine, but is abhorred by the “cruel zeal for science” that some men show in their prying into the human anatomy. “But if these could be known,” he says, “then even the inward parts, which seem to have not beauty, would so delight us with their exquisite fitness, as to afford a profounder satisfaction to the mind[33].” So while Augustine affirms the beauty of what the anatomists seek to discover, he also is offended by the desecration of the human body in practice.

     Education: Augustine sees great value in the practical aspects of education, especially that in learning to read and write[34]. However, he mourns that he did not use his language skills to study scripture, rather than the worthless Greek poets[35]. He believed learning occurred best, not under compulsion, but in a “free spirit of curiosity,[36]” and certainly would have used this principle to guide his own teaching.

     Science: In the area of science, Augustine thought it no harm for Christians to believe false things concerning the universe, “provided that he holds no beliefs unworthy of you, O Lord, who are Creator of them all.” However, he did believe it sinful for Christians to postulate that certain scientific theories were “part and parcel of what he must believe to save his soul and in presuming to make obstinate declarations about things of which he knows nothing[37].”

     History: Finally, the thrust of St. Augustine’s “City of God” demonstrates his theory of history. History is to be seen principally as a story about God, not “the gods”. As Augustine traces the parallel stories of Egypt, Assyria and Rome with the biblical narrative, he finds a kind of perverse parallel between the Greco-Roman view of history and that of the Christian. For example, he compares the event of Jacob’s acquiring spotted sheep to the birthing of Serapis’ bull; Moses is compared to Prometheus bringing fire from heaven; the flood narratives are compared in detail as well[38]. The Christian history is the history that matters, for the secular history of the world is composed of “lying fables [that] delight impure demons[39]”, and the rest, “whether true or false, yield[s] nothing of moment to our living rightly and happily[40].”

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  1. That quote from Augustine about philosophy (“Some of (the philosophers), by God’s help, made great discoveries,” says Augustine, “but when left to themselves they were betrayed by human infirmity and fell into mistakes”) can easily be applied to schools of thought today. His insights are timeless in many ways.

    And in that last part about history I see where C.S. Lewis might have gotten his outlook on other religions and myth, that we should expect the imitations to resemble the original in many respects and be surprised if they didn’t.

    Just reading your blog makes me feel smarter, Nick. Or at least it makes my brain hurt, which may be the same thing.

  2. What I really appreciate about Augustine’s thought, Tim, is that it’s not distorted by a need to make everything black and white. He’s able to say that some things have value, but not ultimate value.

    And if reading my blog makes you feel smarter…Reading Augustine will make us all feel more stupider. I know it did me.

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