Religious scholar and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) produced works, principally his Confessions and his City of God, that are classics in both the philosophy of religion and Christian doctrine. Born in Algeria, he studied in Carthage, Rome and Milan before returning to North Africa to found a monastery. He was made Bishop of Hippo Regius in 395. At the heart of Augustine’s philosophy is the belief that only through faith can wisdom be attained. He saw both philosophy and religion as quests for the same thing, namely truth, but with the former inferior to the latter in this pursuit. The philosopher without faith could never attain to the ultimate truth, which for Augustine was beatitude, or ‘the enjoying of truth.’ Although reason alone could attain to some truths, Augustine maintained that rational thought was the servant of faith.
One of Augustine’s favourite texts, quoted from [the prophet] Isaiah, held that “unless thou believe thou shalt not understand.” One must believe in order to acquire understanding. This idea of Augustine’s was not mere slavish following of Christian doctrine. Indeed, in his youth he had renounced religion, finding the Scriptures intellectually unsatisfying. It was his aim, after his conversion to Christianity in his early thirties, to show how reason could prove the tenets of faith. This was the idea that informed his philosophy.
Augustine’s use of reason to justify the doctrines of faith is best known, famously or infamously depending on one’s point of view, for putting down the so-called ‘Pelagian heresy.’ Pelagius had questioned the notion of original sin, and further held, in accordance with the notion of free will, that when a person does good they do so from the virtue of their own moral character. As a result they are rewarded in heaven. Augustine found this doctrine subversive and distasteful. He argued, following the Epistle of St Paul, that all men are born in sin. Redemption is only possible by the grace of God regardless of our actions on earth. Adam, in taking the apple [Richard: The Bible doesn’t say ‘an apple’ but ‘the fruit’] had condemned himself and all of mankind to damnation. Our only salvation lies in repentance, but this does not guarantee that we will be chosen to go to heaven and not to hell.
Augustine’s arguments, later revived by John Calvin and eventually abandoned by the Catholic Church, are skilled rationalisations of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. But nowhere does he question the assumptions of the Epistle, concentrating instead on drawing out the logical conclusions of the Scripture.
In more recent times, Augustine’s Confessions received attention from Ludwig Wittgenstein, not for its religious or even philosophical pronouncements, but for the way in which Augustine describes the learning of language:
“When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all people: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes…. Thus as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and… I used these signs to express my own desires” (Confessions, I. 8).
At the beginning of his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein famously called this common-place conception ‘the Augustinian picture of language.’ Much of the rest of the Investigations is a successful repudiation of the Augustinian conception of language. [Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Augustine Documentary (2015)’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nz7C0Kr9OA]
Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)