Tuesday, December 20, 2011

First Augustinian Exam Questions

1. Comment on Augustine’s educational background, and how it equipped him well or ill to be a preacher of the Scriptures.

Augustine's education - at least in its primary stage - was typical of the time. It was oriented to grammatical textual analysis, especially of the works of Virgil. It was in this way based on the Greek model of Isocrates, rather than on the 'substantive' education of Plato. This bias was to have profound repercussions in Augustine's late teenage years as he came to realize that form was far less important than substance. Yet this attention to the structure of language would ultimately provide an admirable technical dimension in his exegetical work: he was always conscious of the complexity of linguistic signification (semiotics, in today's language), thus, he was always aware that deviations in tense, mood, person, number, etc., were something that the divine author employed for spiritual purpose; he was disposed to consider Scriptural texts in their finest detail. On the other hand, Augustine seemed to be unaware that his preference for 'substance' over 'form' would ultimately deprive future generations of Christians from developing the same technical prowess by the moral disdain he cast upon it.

His higher education was generally oriented to the perfection of the subjects covered in his primary education, as he was trained formally in the discipline of rhetoric. This was the master-subject of the Roman elite, which crafted the bureaucrats who ran the empire. It was the intention that Augustine should ultimately rise to the rank of provincial governor, a truly impressive goal for a provincial like himself. He was well on his way to this attainment when the full-force of his higher education made itself felt. He had been exposed to philosophy with the assigned reader of Cicero's Hortensius, a work assigned, not for  sake of passing on its substantive teaching (a praise of philosophy), but in order to exhibit its formal perfection. But true appreciation for wisdom was no more a goal of the dominant education of Augustine's time than it is in ours. In Augustine's case, the matter was definitive.

The final pieces of Augustine's education were self-directed. He read as much philosophy as he could lay his hands on, a sizable task considering his limited knowledge of Greek. It was his attention to the dominant Platonistic form it took in the semi-Christian milieu of Milan that would lay the final piece in place. It was this approach which enabled him to see the 'bigger picture' of God's message in Scripture, to finally refute the Manichaean criticism of the Scriptures, and to fire his love for the Word.

(To read more on this topic, I recommend Marrou's Education in Antiquity; O'Meara's The Young Augustine; and , of course, Books 1 to 7 of Confessions, as well as his On Christian Doctrine.)

2. What does Retractations (Revisions) reveal about the evolution of Augustine’s theological understanding?

This work in a gold mine of information on the question of Augustine's intellectual development. It was written (primarily) in order to refute the Pelagians' accusations that he himself used to teach what they now teach (that man can be saved without grace, but by force of his free choice alone). A close examination of the data would indicate that, despite Augustine's change of mind on some matters respecting grace, he had always looked to the essential operation of God in the matter of enlightenment and salvation. His ideas about grace had been, yes, inconsistent and unformed, but he had never verged on Pelagianism. The most that could be said was that he held an inconsistently semi-Pelagian view that man might initiate the process of salvation by his initial act of faith, but clearly he did not picture even this initial act as unaided by grace.

In other matters, we see how Augustine's knowledge of Scripture grew over time - he admits making mistakes simply because he had defective copies of Scripture. His view about the degree of happiness (blessedness) we might enjoy in this world changed dramatically sometimes in the 390s. In general we can see how his knowledge of the Christian world at large grew as well - he becomes more aware of the writings of other great bishops - he begins to refer to their opinions more and more. He comes to treat secular thinking less and less favorably - the philosophers and the poets. This work does not in any way support the false assertions of certain scholars that Augustine became more literalistic in his approach to Scripture, or that he became more intolerant of theological debate.

(Further reading: any good preface to Retractations - New City Press or CUA Press; better yet, my some-day-to-be-released study of Retractations, entitled, "Memory and Intellectual Integrity...")

3. Comment on the literary structure of Confessions.

Although the study and debate continues, certain patterns have been generally recognized in this work.

The first distinction lies between the first autobiographical books (1-10) and the very different books 11-13. Both are studies of God's providential care of man,:the first examines Augustine's life as case in point; books 11-13 the world as a whole.

Next, we can recognize the structure of Books 1-10. They are primarily governed by something that can be referred to as a 'chiasm,' one that develops 1 John 2:16's assertion that sin develops along the lines of the lust of the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life. That these are the sins of his own life is developed respectively in books 2, 3 and 4; their amelioration in 6, 7, and 8; with 5 as the sort of watershed.

Books 11-13 are each dedicated or devoted to a Person of the Blessed Trinity.

Associations with Virgil's Aeneid have been made, as have - more lately - associations with Gregory Nazianzus' autobiographical poems.

The paradigm of the Prodigal Son and of the expulsion from the Garden are dominant (note the function of trees and fruit in the narrative), but we can also detect the general structure of Job as well. Books 1-2 especially draw on the Tower of Babel story.

Each book has its own literally structure as well.

(Further reading: Anne-Marie Kotze, Augustine's Confessions: Communicative Purpose and Audience, O'Donnell, St. Augustine's Confessions: A Commentary)

4. Comment upon Augustine’s relation to the concept ‘nature.’

I take this question in two senses - human nature specifically, and the Aristotelian category of 'nature' in general. These are related topics, of course, since the matter of man's state in this world is a case of a nature exhibiting changeability or stability.

In general, does Augustine speak about natures? The well-known passage in Confessions where he talks about Aristotle's categories is a point about God's transcendence of any category. In principle he seems to be suggesting that things other than God can be categorized, and that sounds like 'nature'-type language. However, this is not to suggest that he does anything other than acknowledge the fact. His Genesis commentaries seem to do no more than this too. The reason for this is that he does not see the concept as especially useful, since he did not see things as things on account of their possession of specific, concrete natures, but on account of their relationship to God.

Really, he is only interested in two natures - that of God and that of man. One could go one step further and talk about his interest in the nature of Christ, but that is not nature in the Aristotelian sense, because it is a special case of two natures combined into one.

The divine nature was the preoccupation of the most intensive speculations of his youth. It is the focus of his life with the Manichaeans and the whole question of evil.

Human nature is the characteristically Augustinian preoccupation. He is the Christian psychologist par excellence. His view came about as a result of his intense bewonderment at the human condition - his experience of suffering, of unhappiness. This aporia is manifest on every page of Confessions. An illustration of how his consideration of nature is non-Aristotelian lies in his discussion of the change brought about in man by Original Sin. The dramatic shift he describes seems to push to the limits any sense of nature as philosophically informative precisely insofar as it is a stable category. It might not be a coincidence that Aquinas, who thinks along the lines of Aristotelian categories, does not describe the Fall in such radical terms. What was human nature meant to be? This is one of Augustine's most interesting topics of discussion. He describes something more than Stioc apathy in the prelapsarian Adam, as well as in the perfected human nature of Christ. He delineates the perfected emotional life of these as well.

(Further reading: nature per se: Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine; human nature specifically: any endless number of writings devoted to his doctrine of grace, such as Burn's The Development of Augustine's Doctrine of Operative Grace..., or more generally (though I haven't read it yet), Peter Burnell's The Augustinian Person)

5. Comment on Augustine’s relation to other Fathers of the Church, both those contemporary with him and those that preceded him.

Although Augustine was an extremely original thinker, he did owe a profound debt to the Church, and would have insisted that this was so. Augustine's originality was due to three factors most of all. In their order of importance: 1) The introspective tenor of his thought: like Plato he knew that the truth lay within him. 2) His African setting constituted a sort of exile from the mainstreams intellectual life in Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, Caesarea, Rome and Milan. 3) His relative lack of competence in Greek inhibited his absorption of Greek theological writing.

His debts could be summarized as follows, roughly in their order of importance.

Ambrose of Milan. Through whom he was exposed to the Alexandrian mode of scriptural exegesis, which constituted a pivotal moment in his intellectual conversion to Christianity. This tradition was more or less derived from its greatest practitioner, Origen. Ambrose's influence, or we might say Origen's, was also passed on through Ambrose's successor to the See of Milan, his close friend, Simplicius.

Athanasius. It was his most famous work, The Life of Anthony, that profoundly influenced Augustine, convincing him that true holiness was a fruit of the Christian (not Manichaean) Church.

Tychonius (the Donatist). His rules for the interpretation of Scripture were integrated almost wholesale into his On Christian Doctrine.

Tertullian. The founder of Latin theology was of huge theological consequence in the West, and especially in Africa. Tertullian influenced Cyprian who was the saint above all saints to African Christians.

Jerome. His long-standing but intermittant exchange of letters with him exposed Augustine to the finer points of the problems associated with biblical manuscripts and the issues of translation. Augustine derived from Jerome some general impression of the broader ecclesial setting but not as much as he had hoped.

Marius Victorinus. Perhaps very influential on Augustine, although the latter is fairly tight-lipped on this when it comes to specifics. In lieu of this we should limit his influence to providing an example of the fruits of Platonic Christianity in general and in the doctrine of the Trinity specifically.

Hilary. Doctrine of the Trinity, especially contra the Arians.

John Chrysostom. He seems to have read several (many?) of his homilies, although specific influence cannot be detected.

Cappadocians. (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus). Doctrine of the Trinity, doctrine of the Holy Spirit especially (Basil) and doctrine of Creation (Basil). These were later influences, merely augmentations to an already formed doctrine.

Epiphanius (the heresiologist), for general characterisitcs of doctrinal history.

Eusebius? May have been exposed to his Church History.

Various African theologians, especially Orosius on the history of the Donatists.

(Further reading: not sure... perhaps Chapters 2 and 3 of my some-day-to-be-finished book on Augustine's Christology)

6. How does the ‘Church’ appear in the writings we have studied?

The Church figured very prominently in his post-Italian works (c. 390+). Previous to that, however, one would not be wrong to observe its minimal appearance. What explains that? Most likely it is due to the fact that Augustine was interpreting the ascent to wisdom along the lines of the individualistic conception of the philosophers. He makes it clear that he originally thought wisdom to be the possession of the very few only. Although there was a communal dimension in the early works, eg. the Cassiciacum Dialogues, these were conceived along the lines of the operation of God through contemplation and not through sacramental graces. Sometime early on in his Catholic life he realized that the Church was itself a great source of grace, not merely because it was the deposit of truth (the possessor of the divine Scriptrues), but because it was a itself God's favoured spiritual vehicle. Did this change come about as a consequence of his experience of daily Christian life (in Africa) or was it amore the result of an interior evolution of understanding how God works in the world? Likely both. In terms of the latter, it seems that he drew the conclusion that the graces he had received which led him to the Catholic Church were the proper possession of that Church.

Augustine's mature writings which we studied (including various works contra Pelagius, Confessions, Retractations) reveal his conviction that the Church was a tradition possessing resources by which it could detect and avoid heresy, and, moreover, lead all men to the truth of God. He came to identify all the acts of God as acts directed at the Church. He began to realize that the Church was itself a part of the revelation, a part of the point of God's revelation: membership in it was necessary for peace in the world, for truth and love to reign. Just as baptism was necessary for sanctification and salvation, so was the Church ultimately. Although the power of the sacraments might extend outside of the visible bounds of the Church, it was as such unnatural and called out for integration into the full reality of Christian life in the Church. It is interesting how a humbler view of human potential corresponded to a more 'democratic' view of wisdom as the common possession of the whole Body of Christ.

(Further reading: Grabowski, The Church: An Introduction to the Theology of Saint Augustine; Alexander, Augustine's Early Theory of the Church)

7. Augustine’s greatest work is __________________. Why?

Obviously, there is no right answer to this question. The front contenders would be Confessions, On Christian Doctrine, On the Trinity and City of God. Some would offer his Literal Commentary on Genesis, his Tractates on the Gospel of John, or his Ennarations on the Psalms. I would be apt to list Confessions, On the Trinity and Tractates on John as my favourites. If I had to pick one and argue for its preeminence, I would likely chose either Trinity or Confessions... third, Tractates on John.

Arguing for one of them - any of them - one would want to indicates the grounds for its (1) literary greatness, (2) its philosophical / theological greatness, (3) its originality and / or importance for the future and / or how it perfects an established genre.

The essential problem is that Augustine's genius was present in all of the above-listed books. They are all greater than all the works of any men before and after. They cannot compete with each other. Which is greater Michaelangelo's Pieta or his Moses? They both display the full excellence of their maker, and admit of no other comparisons.

Trinity perfected a genre, and Thomas could do little more than re-copy it.

Confessions invented a genre and 1600 years has proferred no comparisons.

Tractates on John is theological excellence.

On Christian Doctrine can only be integrated by subsequent authors; it can never be ignored.

8. Describe St. Thomas’ theological relationship with St. Augustine.

For this one I think that I will simply cut and paste sections of the two lectures with which I concluded the course, entitled, "The Augustinian Legacy I and II." I have not edited these lectures yet. They are a little obscure in the absence of the lecturer's adnotations.

Ontological Break

St. Thomas’ distaste for the ontological proof says a lot about the significance of the shift between a thoroughly Platonic metaphysic in Anselm and Thomas’ own Augustinian-Aristotelian hybrid. Thomas might have seen existence as something other than as participation per se; he credits ‘nature’ with some metaphysical relevance in and of itself. But Augustine could never have seen a nature as anything other than a type of participation, wholly reducible to the divine will’s dispensation, that is, as having no ontological stability of its own to speak of. This process by which Platonic participationism was replaced by an Aristotelian-inspired metaphysic that included a formal separation between the realms of heaven and earth has been referred to as the ‘ontological split’. The Augustinian notion that things on earth can only be given adequate account as oriented to God was replaced by a desire to account for things with a purely natural profile. What Thomas’ role was in this is debated. People like Duns Scotus and Ockham are implicated, but it would be a mistake to gloss over Thomas' contribution as well. Does not Thomas ultimately attempt to operate in two parallel spheres – one represented by Augustine and one by Aristotle – with the latter becoming the dominant one in the realm of philosophy and the former relegated to the sphere of mysticism? Augustine understood reality as fundamentally mystical; to cordon it off to a special realm of discourse called spiritual theology is to fundamentally compromise its original nature in Augsutine's hands.

St. Thomas the Augustianian?

Nevertheless, we can account almost statistically for the Augustinianism of the Summa Theologica. One would be able to roughly divide up the treatises of the Summa into those primarily indebted to Aristotle and to Augustine. The important first question on sacred doctrine is essentially Augustinian, whereas Q. 2 on the existence of God is more Aristotelian. The treatises on the Trinity and on Creation and Divine Government of the world are Augustinian, but the treatise on Man (qq. 75-102) is Aristotelian. The Tertia Pars and the Supplementum are thoroughly Augustinian. Of course, these deal primarily with the sacraments, and even though it is true and important that Aquinas is now treating of the sacraments according to the Aristotelian categories of form and matter, the substance of his thinking is Augustinian and owes basically nothing here to anyone else, least of all Aristotle. It is the Pars Secunda in which the importance of the relationship comes to a fore. This is the largest section of the Summa, which is divided into two parts. The first treats of the internal and external causes of human acts, the second the kinds of human acts, i.e., virtues and vices. The first part is framed by two essentially Augustine considerations – that on the end of man and that on grace; the remainder is for the most part dominated by Aristotle, with the exception of questions 68-70 on the gifts (68), beatitudes (69) and fruits of the Holy Ghost (70), and the discussion of the Old and New Testament Laws. In other words of the1a IIae’s 114 questions, questions, qq. 6-97 are dominated by Aristotle. Yet quantity is not quality, that is to say, importance, and, thus, there has been much debate over the true character of Thomas’ thinking. It is not so easy to parcel out between these two sources the Second Part of the Second Part. Although the treatise on the virtues is devoted to the theological virtues first and only afterwards to the cardinal, it would be crude and clumsy to say that the former was Augustinian and the later Aristotelian. Here I think the question comes down to this: do we see in the 2a 2ae a system of worldly prudence or an unworldly system ever conscious of the eschaton?

Truly, Augustine is at heart otherworldly: is Aquinas? I define ‘otherworldly’ as following an ethical system that is oriented not to a successful outcome in the world, but to salvation in the next. Aristotle’s is defined by the later. Thomas seems to want to hold on to both. Is this essentially Christian or essentially paradoxical? In 1a 2ae, 1.5 Aquinas tells us that man has only one last end and it is God. Yet this does not solve the question necessarily. We must consider how strongly Aquinas associates happiness in this world with the attainment of it in the next. Or, we must see how consistent a philosopher he is in regard to this assertion. In other words, it is hard being unworldly when you spend all your time thinking about maximizing happiness in it. Does Aquinas do this? It should be noted that the 1a 2ae is the more important of the two parts of the Second Part. The 2a 2ae is a mere working out the principles specified in the 1a 2ae. In this sense, I think we can take the Second as a mere academic exercise and not a reflection of his primary concern. He is not a worldly philosopher, he just looks like one. He believes in the benefit that this exercise can bring others.

In sum, the more important parts of the Summa are indebted to Augustine, not Aristotle.

Yet, in a way, although he wrote in the 13th Century, in accounting for Aquinas’ Augustinianism we are jumping almost to a phase outside of the attention of today’s lecture. For, Aquinas did not begin to personify Catholic theology until the Counter Reformation. Our attention would be better spent examining Peter Lombard’s writings. We can easily say that here he is even more thoroughly Augustinian than Aquinas. For instance, Lombard based his famous Sentences – the textbook of theology from the 12th to the 16th century – on the division Augustine makes in On Christian Doctrine, between things and signs, and quotes him far more than any other author.


Contrary to the force of certain ideologies, mankind did not begin to think in the Renaissance. The thought of the Middle Ages, especially of those various earlier so-called Renaissances of the 9th and the 12th centuries, produced so many variations of Christian theology as to make any univocal commitment to Augustine merely a partial fact. We have seen how greatly Thomas began to differ from the thought of the ancient master. Thomas attempted to hold doctrines together that, even if they were not intrinsically opposed, were forced apart by the movement of philosophical progress. Yet right beside Thomas’ elaborate, intricate commitment to Aristotle’s moralism sat his almost slavish adhesion to Augustine grace doctrine. In the hands of a lesser man – such as the great poet but weak theologian, Petrarch, these two looks absurdly oriented. There are times when the doctrines of such great masters seem to drift out of the range of what can be comprehended by mere mortals. Thomas believed he could examine natures in themselves and yet preserve Augustine’s theocentric universe. Was this an instance of genius or of an exotericSumma Theologica is, and, indeed, perhaps just as faithfully,  so is the Divine Comedy. It seemed so natural to translate Augustine’s “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” into Dante’s “In His will is our peace,” and to find in these equivalent expressions, not only spiritual comfort, but metaphysical direction. These lovely expressions cannot but seem to modern man just that, lovely expressions, bereft of any possibility of real or scientific meaning. But to Augustine, to Aquinas, these expressions evoked better than any other the very essence of the world itself.

            But as for original sin, what was it that had made the doctrine plausible that had then from the world’s stage? To Augustine the doctrine of original sin was as straight-forward and more patently obvious than anything else he had ever taught. Nature cried out that man was defective; Plato and Plotinus had agreed; most of all, the Scriptures and a significant element of the Christian tradition agreed that it was so. It was a doctrine so obvious, so certain to Augustine. He believed it before he had canonical reason to. His commitment to the promises of philosophy was based upon a prior recognition that life lacked something seriously and fundamentally. Did the thousand years that followed him recognize that it was true only because Augustine had said so? Was the material reality of daily life in the Middle Ages so bleak as to make any argument to the contrary seem silly, and yet by the 14th Century on so markedly better, easier, and lighter, as to tip the scales of judgment firmly to the other side, endowing man universally with a hope for happiness in the here-and-now by the strength of his own intellect and will alone? Perhaps the forces behind the shift from a worldview which took the Fall to be commonsense to one that no longer did were not cultural forces at all, but ideological ones? Was this the long-term consequence of the introduction of Aristotle into the West, and with him that whole range of Ancient Roman and Greek thinkers with him who did not think as Augustine had? Truly, the thinkers of the Renaissance humanistic movement were directed by such un-Augustinian sources. Initially these Renaissance thinkers would maintain that there was no disparity between the wisdom of the Ancient philosophers and that of the Christian theologians. Yet in time these intellectuals became used to sophisticated forms of thinking that were not Augustinian in sympathy, departing quite significantly from even the Thomistic Augustinianism that they had initially accepted. But we cannot – no one can – exhaustively chart all of the vertices of Western thought; it is fairer to simply describe what has arisen in turn, from one moment to the next.


Can we say that today we have arrived at a new synthesis, away from the Augustinian simply to the Augustinian-Thomism that Newman referred to? By no means. This moment finds us in transition, and the sources numbered as authorities are far too numerous to be so easily summed-up. Currently the Church is very excitedly studying the knowledge of all the Fathers of the Church, and in this way places them, it seems, on an equal footing with Augustine. I am sure that this will be a short-lived parity.

(Further reading: Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine & The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy & “The Idea of Philosophy in St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas”;  De Lubac, Augustinianism and The Mystery of the Supernatural; Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vv. 3 & 4; Harnack, History of Dogma, vv. 6 & 7)

No comments:

Post a Comment