Augustine was born in North Africa in 354 A.D. His father was a pagan, but his mother was a devoit Christian. In his early years he questioned the Christian belief that God is both all-powerful and all-good. He could not understand how an all-good God could make such conflict and evil in the world. So he turned away from popular Christianity towards the Manichaean doctrine that the principle powers of good and evil are completely separate and eternally in conflict, which is reflected in the conflict of our soul between good and evil. Yet he eventually abandoned this philosophy, because he came to the conclusion that blaming one's inner conflict on outside forces does nothing to really solve the conflict. So this time he turned to the views of Skepticism, a critical philosophy that questions or doubts any so-called knowledge.
When thirty he moved to Milan to teach rhetoric, where he met Bishop Ambrose who reinspired in him the Christain faith and also acquanted him with the writings of Plato and Plotinus. In Plotinus he found a complete rational system explaining the universal levels of Being, and in Christianity he found inner resolve and peace from his on-going struggle between his sexual desires and his spiritual quest.
Augustine combines neo-platonic thought with the basic beliefs of Christianity, believing that both teachings hold keys to the Truth, and he shows fine insight and reasoning in his writing. So Augustine adds Christian faith and doctrine to the platonic philosophy of reason, adding that man's salvation was not possible without God's grace and the intercession of Christ. Most influential for Augustine seems to be Plotinus’s imagery of God as Light or as the Sun radiating light. Here, Augustine gains the insight that God illuminates minds to the Truth, and that the closer one is to God the closer one is to Illumination and Goodness.
Over many centuries the cosmological explanations of Augustine were accepted and revered by Christian authorities, and although much of Plotinus is obviously embedded in Augustine’s writings, Plotinus was rejected for implying pantheism and most other forms of neo- platonism were considered heretical. The pseudo-Dionysius inspired the thoughts of many Christian mystics but was still regarded as too pantheistic and too mystical for the authoritative Church.
Abandoning his earlier Skeptic position, Augustine now insisted that a universal knowledge is attainable with absolute certainty. He claimed that the senses can give us knowledge, but in a lesser form of certainty in contrast to the absolute certainty attained by an intuitive illumination inspired by God's grace. Sense knowledge depends on two poles: the particular objects sensed and the human sense organs. The objects are continually changing and the sense organs are often unreliable, both of which lessen the certainty of sense knowledge.
The higher value of the senses is in how they help bring about a contemplation of the necessary eternal Forms, the greater abstract Ideas such as beauty, goodness and mathematical truths. These non-material and independent Forms are necessary for the mind to make right judgements about life and values. So knowledge moves upward from sensed things to the higher levels of truth, the highest Truth being the absolute certainty of God. Yet higher knowledge is not just for the philosophical mind. It also effects us personally. Knowledge of eternal truths give us lasting peace, while sensual knowledge or sensual experience can give only temporary pleasure.
But of concern for Augustine was how any knowledge of eternal truths is even possible. He did not accept Plato's theory of recollecting innate ideas, as the explanation for a higher knowledge of truth. Neither did he accept Aristotle's theory of the intellect abstracting universal ideas from particular things. Augustine seems to suggest a mode of abstraction from particular things, since sense knowledge leads the mind to higher knowledge, but the actual attainment of higher knowledge is finally brought about by illumination, similar to the sun illuminating this otherwise dark world. So just as our sight is dependent on the sunlight, our higher knowledge of mind is dependent on illumination or light from God. He also calls this the Light of Eternal Reason, illuminating the immutable Truths. Though according to this theory, it would seem that the immutable Truths are already innate in our minds, only awaiting illumination, for he does not say that God transmits these higher ideas to a blank mind. Or it could be that the true Ideas are illuminated for us to see, like forms illuminated in the sky.
Most important to Augustine was that God is the ultimate cause for an illuminated mind or the attainment of the Highest Truths. This then explained how our limited, imperfect mind could possibly know the eternal Truths. Man can use reason without God, but just reason without God’s illumination is insufficient in the attainment of final Truth. In Augustine’s view, unless God Himself reveals the eternal Truths and Attributes of His Being, it would not be possible for our finite minds to grasp such things.
For the pure neo-platonists this act of grace bestowed by God isn’t really necessary for the explanation of true knowledge; because in their view, God and the eternal Ideas are not fully separate from man but are the very essence or inner truth of man, so any illumination and revelation is merely like awakening to what is already here, or in other words, man’s mind is already within God’s Mind, so mind is simply awakening to its greater dimension. Augustine believed that eternal Truths exist as super-realities independent of [and prior to] the world, as did Plato, but that these truths are unknowable without God’s illumination.
Becoming a Bishop in the Faith, Augustine also argued against popular heresies, such as Pelagius's teaching that man has the natural capacity to achieve virtue without God’s help. That is, Pelagius argued the humanist position believed by many, that man can achieve goodness by his own nature and without God, which suggests that man does not need God for salvation and that there isn’t any original sin of man’s nature keeping him back from being completely good. But for the Christians, original sin and the need for God’s help seemed complimentary and necessary.
Augustine still brings out a neo-platonic tone in his thinking. He says that God is the highest Truth Itself, transcending the human being and human mind, yet reflected to a lesser degree in man's mind and being. Man is an existing being, while God is Being itself, and Being Itself must be prior to existence. And since there can be only One Being, nothing could have any being without the Absolute Being, and man must be participating in God's Being. God is "I Am That I Am," the essential Self, as was revealed to Moses. God is independently Self-existent, the Perfect Being and the Highest Being "That than which nothing more excellent or more sublime exists." God is the ultimate Being and ultimate Truth. In God there is no change, for His Perfection is eternal, and in God there is no limited extension of space nor limitation of time, for God is throughout all space and time. His essence is to Be, to Know, and to Act. So our own being comes from God's Being, our knowing comes from God's Knowing, and creation comes from God's Action. And all things are finite reflections of God's Thought, though not in perfect reflection.
Yet Augustine makes a sharp distinction between God and creation. God definitely transcends all creation, while for Plotinus creation is an extension of God’s Being. In other words, for Augustine God is more distinctly transcendent from creation. God is Creator and Cause of creation, and God wills creation into being rather than creation being a necessary outcome of God. His view is also different from Plato’s view that the Creator God molds creation from pre-existing Forms into pre-existing space; for Augustine argues that God invents the Forms of good and creation out of His perfectly good Reason. God thinks creation into being; or, creation comes from God’s perfect thought. In the beginning there is nothing but God, and God brings into existence what never existed before.
It seems important to Augustine and Christians, though, that God creates the world and manifests His Will. Yet this poses the problem of explaining man’s free will. For if God Decides or Wills things to be, then how can man be making free decisions and thus be responsible for his better or worse actions? Or another question might be, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, then how come there is so much harm and suffering in His created world? These were the most perplexing problems for the Christian view.
Augustine explains that God creates all possibilities for how things can be, and likewise, God already knows all the possible ways that creation can be. So from God there are possible ways of being and possible actions, but God gives us free-will to make our own choices. He gives us possible actions, possible decisions. In a sense, then, our choices are not predetermined, though God must know what choices we will make. He is all-knowing, so nothing could really be suprising to God, even though our free-will seems to act spontaneously and unpredictably. So God lets us make our own choices as to what possibiliites we manifest, yet He already knows all that will happen.
Some later philosophers argued that it is a logical contradiction to say that all happenings in time are pre-known by God the all-Knowing, while also claiming that we have free will to choose how we will act, for if our decisions and actions are already known in advance - then there must be predestination. That is, everything would be set up in advance, if it were true that everything is known in advance. But then if everything is already set up, then how could there really be free decisions or free will? How can we truly say that actions are freely chosen by man, if these actions are already predestined?
But is this an impelling argument, proving a contradiction between free-will and God’s Omniscience? Is it logically necessary that everything must be set up in advance if known in advance? It seems that our eventual actions could be known from a dimension outside of time, or before time itself, yet still be undetermined in the realm of time. In other words, our actions could be freely determined by our own will, while God simply knows our choices but does not determine these Himself. God just stands beyond time in His Knowing. God would just know how the whole story unfolds, or what we freely choose to do. The one could say that everything will be what it will be, but if this is the meaning of predestination then it’s an empty tautology.
So if God merely sees what happens after the fact, then this doesn’t suggest necessarily that man did not freely determine those facts. Thus the attacking argument makes a confusion in its relation between pre-knowledge and pre-destination, wrongly reasoning that an all-knowing of what shall pass is an implication that actions are predetermined in a way that negates man’s determination. But man could freely determine his actions, while God simply knows what will be determined (or what has been determined, if He stands outside of time). So it seems logically possible that God could be all-knowing while also allowing freedom of action.
Or is it contradictory to claim that God knows all that will be, but is not really responsible for the final outcome, when it is bad? It could be that God is like a wise parent who knows certain mistakes that will be made by his children, yet allowing these mistakes to be made. I don’t see any contradiction here. But then, we might question how God could be loving if He allows bad decisions that cause suffering. Here, Augustine would argue that freedom is an ultimate act of love bestowed on His children, which also allows for the possibility of His children to freely choose God over evil, or the reverse.
It might even be argued that a fully determined world would be boring for God. That is, if God pre-determined who would do good and who would do bad, not allowing for any freedom, then it all seems a boring absurdity. Of course it could also be argued that if God eternally knows what will be, even if not determining this by Himself, this too would be a bore, an eternal bore. Why not suppose, then, that God just knows things in sequential time and is surprised by our undetermined actions and the very process of creation unfolding? Maybe He makes bets to Himself, or enjoys figuring the odds? The problem here is that God would not be all-knowing. Of course many have argued that God could not be all-powerful if He allowed free choice. But here, Augustine would probably say that God is all-powerful in His capacity to determine things, but with love He decides not to determine. Or maybe God intervenes whenever He feels a pressing need, like if we were headed for massive disaster, but for the most part He allows things to unfold somewhat unpredictably. This would make Him all-powerful yet wise in His bestowed compassion, and it would go along with His decision to send His Son to save us. These are just speculations. Now returning to Augustine.
Augustine systematically explains the divine reality and then imperfections in man’s decisions and actions. All of God's attributes, such as wisdom, love, goodness and power, are single in His One Being, though separate perfect attributes in the next descending level which is Mind. So far, this sounds like Plotinus. In the next descending level, the human being, these divine attributes are less than perfect or less than full. That is, man has the potential to realise and reflect God's perfect attributes, to a more or less degree. This intimately relates man and God, though man is limited in his mental capacity to realise God's true attributes and limited in his capacity of being to reflect these attributes. Realisation of an attribute must logically come before the capacity to be this, just as knowledge must preceed virtue, so God must illuminate His own attributes for us to realise these and then manifest them as much as we can. Some people manifest God's attributes more than others, because God's attributes are more illuminated in them than in others. Yet all beings are to some degree a reflection of God's wisdom and goodness, as there is at least a little bit of light in everybody.
As for apparent evil and conflict in the world, Augustine maintained that these things merely show a lack of God's Being, a lack of divine Light, or a lack of wisdom and goodness, rather than possessing some actual evil power. As with Plotinus, evil is not an independent contending force against God, but is a lack of God or good in the world. Philosophically, evil is only a relative concept, for it does not actually exist as a real power or Form. In other words, what we call evil is merely a lack of Godliness or good, just as ignorance is just a lack of intelligence, rather than being something real in itself. This is one way to explain apparent evil in God's world if God is All-good. The Church authorities mostly accepted this view, though some of the fringe sects held to a belief in the substantial power of evil and demonic forces contending with God’s Will.
So how can there be a lack of God/good in the world? Because people ignore God, they get too involved in sensuous-material things, and they fail to worship and have faith in God. Evil has no real existence or being in itself, but is merely a property ascribed to those people and actions that severly lack in God's goodness. God gave us freedom to either attain the illumination of goodness or turn away from Him by not partaking of His goodness. Therefore, it is possible that some people, or some actions, might totally lack in goodness, or have so little goodness that it is imperceptable. These people or actions, lacking so much in goodness, would then be exemples of what we call evil.
For Augustine, goodness is deeply related to wisdom, as a wise man is a good man, and a good man is a wise man. This logically connects sin and evil to a lack of both goodness and wisdom. But Augustine does not agree with Plato that evil is simply a manifestation of ignorance, or that good behavior always follows from knowledge of what is good. An evil man is not necessarily ignorant of what is good, for he may well know what is good and not good, but choose to do what is not good. The evil man may thus have knowledge of right and wrong, though he is not wise by his choice. In other words, one can have knowledge of right and wrong, but still lack wisdom by choosing the evil alternative over the good. The truly wise man is thus a good man.
Evil or sin is a voluntary choice, a possibility of free-will. At any moment in any circumstance we always have at least two alternatives from which to choose, one being the good or better choice, and the other being the bad. But even if we rightly choose the good, we do not have the spiritual power to act by our choice without God's grace. This shows Augustine’s insight that we may have knowledge of good and even choose or want to do good, but still we may lack the will-power to manifest our choice. So virtuous action and behavior is not forthcoming without God's grace, helping our will.
Though one might question, it seems, why God would ever deny His help to those choosing to do good. I mean, Augustine admits that some people choose good but are not able to carry it out, while others do carry out their good choice with God’s help; so why would God help one choice for good while ignoring another? Did the one person do something that the other did not, in order to gain God’s grace?
If God is all-good and impartially just, it doesn’t seem right that God gives grace to some rather than others, without some non-arbitrary reason for which the people are responsbile. If God does not arbitrarily choose that only a select people fulfill good, while others do not, or predestin this, then it must be that people themselves are responsible for good and bad actions, hence responsible in some way for the evocation, or not, of God’s help in manifesting good. So if good actions are finally dependent on God’s help, and if man is ultimately to blame for non-good actions, then God should find some condition in the very choices of a man that becomes the reason for Him helping some and not others. It would even seem that some effective divine law is involved here, such as the extra need for faith in God and the humility to accept His help, along with right knowledge of the good and a free choice towards good. Then, after fulfilling these requirements for God’s grace, it would seem that good action will necessarily follow from good knowledge and good choice.
So in summary of Augustine’s view, virtuous acts require a knowledge of what is good and a freely made decision to do what is known to be good, along with the grace of God illuminating the knowledge of good and also empowering the person to take action according to their right choice. God does not force us to do good, but He does give us knowledge of the good and helps us achieve the good when we so choose it and have the religious humility to accept God's help. The laws of good, thus, are permament in God's mind and knowable by man, but the fulfillment of these divine-moral laws depends on man's choice and God's grace.
The eternal laws of good come from the reason and will of God. God decides what is good by His wise reason, which makes the Christian God different from the Stoic Logos who doesn't actually choose laws of good but rather is the law or reason itself. It’s also different from Plotinus who views God as being the Good itself, rather than deciding what shall be good. The Christian God is also different from Plotinus's concept of God as the One emanating itself through all levels of creation. Plotinus had said that God the One diffuses itself throughout creation because of its natural necessity to overflow, making the world a diffused but infused extension of God. That is, creation is out of God’s own Being. But Augustine insists that God created the world out of nothing, ex nihilo, by His free will. And although Augustine suggests that the world and man may in some cases reflect God's Being to some limited degree; God stands apart from this world and acts upon it as a loving Father.
For Plotinus everything has some degree of goodness, though much may lack in this goodness. But Augustine says that man may choose evil over good, or that he may ignore the good; thus, some acts may completely lack in goodness. So in making a subtle comparison, Augustine’s emphasis on our possible free choosing of non-good (or say evil) suggests that not all things necessarily have any good in them, while Plotinus seems over-optimistic in suggesting that everything is at least partly good. If man can possibly choose a bad path, rather than a good path, then this admits of an evil alternative with no good in it. If man can, with free-will, act very badly without good, then it follows that evils can exist in the world. These evils may be regarded as a lack of the good, This suggests that things and actions can be completely without God/good, or completely without light.
So the Augustine-Christian view seems more realistic to how things are, because Augustine accounts for evils by his emphasis on free-will. The Plotinus view often seems far too deterministic or mechanical, as though everything from very good to very bad were by necessity of God’s Being, and that everything has at least some light in it. It is hard to see how certain terrible human actions hold any light or good at all, which is why we generally call them evil. One gets a sense that Plotinus is ignoring greater problems in the world and his philosophy often seems too lofty, while Augustine seems more human and one feels that he is struggling to account for man’s waywardness from goodness.
Yet Augustine follows Plotinus’ reasoning that evil is not an actual power in itself, not some independent super-power contending with God, but rather the result of a deficiency of good. For Plotinus, the non-good manifestations are ultimately explained by the natural tendency of material things to wander away from the divine Intelligence that is working to manifest rational order. This explains evil as the result of chaotic tendencies in creation itself, rather resulting from a power outside of God’s creation. Augustine accepts the general theory from Plotinus that evils simply result from deficiencies of spiritual Light and Intelligence, yet Augustine’s view of evil seems less theoretical and more ever-present or part of our daily struggle.
Free will is a major theme for Augustine, and even God has free will, so his view is far from being deterministic. Plotinus’ view seems more deterministic, or that things occur by a natural necessity or universal law. Yet even Plotinus accepts that freedom is at play, or that a human free-will is responsible for our moral and spiritual differences, and responsible for the ascents and descents of the human soul. So Plotinus cannot rightly be called a complete determinist, since he affirms the free-will whenever the question comes up. But the system of Plotinus needs more explanatory work in the synthesis of free-will with universal necessity, though I think that free-will can be a significant aspect of Plotinus’s system without some of the more problematic aspects of Christian philosophy.
Augustine also had a theory of how species are created by God and how they maintain their form and intelligence. He explains that God implanted in matter various seminal principles to guide the growth of living things. These are like formative seeds, in matter itself, waiting for their right time to actualize into living species. With its own distinctive pattern each seed holds certain potentials or causal powers. Each kind of living body holds its own distinct kind of seed or principle, like its distinct soul-intelligence; so the actual form of a manifest thing will depend on its unique kind of soul-seed. The unique seeds enable distinct species to grow and continue in their same pattern or form, as each embodiment is an actualization of the seed or seminal principle within it.
God implanted these seeds into matter in the beginning of time as He created the world. This is part of Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis. So all seeds of potential already exist in living things, and all things are the actualization of these original seeds of potential. Accordingly, all species were created at once, though as seeds of potential rather than being immediately fully formed, and they each fulfill their own potentiality in their destined sequence of time. This theory, obviously inspired by Aristotle, helped people accept the story of Genesis, as many people had found it hard to imagine how all plant and animal species could have been created all at once in the very beginnings of the world itself. Because this theory allows for the possibility of species to manifest in different time frames, rather than appear all at once, and any new appearances can then be explained as actualizations of the potentials already inherent in creation from the beginnings of time.
Augustine’s Christian view of salvation is that we are saved and go to God’s heaven, if we accept Christ as our Savior and live a good life according to God’s Laws as known by a combination of higher reason and God’s Grace. We can become better people, more good and a better reflection of God’s perfection; but unlike certain mystical interpretations of Plotinus, we cannot become actual reflections of God Himself. Plotinus seems to suggest that we, as an extension of God, could return directly to God, to merge once again with God without any separation and enjoy God’s perfect knowledge and goodness.
While in Augustine’s view, we can be evermore good and become as God wishes us to be according to His decided Laws of goodness, but we cannot ever become God. We can become ever closer to the perfect Form of man, as thought by God, but we cannot ever become God or actually experience God. Thus, Augustine shows a clearer distinction between God and the potentials of man.
Augustine logically distinguished the eternal-divine ethical laws decided by God, from mere secular laws defined by man. The divine law commanded by God and known by moral men is called natural law, which is disclosed to us through revelation and reason. These natural-divine moral laws are exemplified by Christ in His love for God and love for all people, which we should follow. Augustine says that the political state ought to make its secular laws in accordance with natural law, and the state should follow these divinely commanded principles of justice. And since part of natural law is man's natural relation to God, which the Christian faith realizes and teaches, it follows that the state should make decisions in accordance with the Church.
But Augustine believed that any state or group of persons will not necessarily follow the laws of God, so he distinguished between those who love God and those who only love themselves and the world. The former he called the City of God, and the latter he called the City of the World. Yet this is not merely a difference between church and state, since not all in the church truly love God and not all outside of the church merely love themselves and the world. Augustine also defined a grand vision for the world, a great destiny, when all of the world will be the City of God. But this will be fulfilled at some future date, when the love of God finally reigns.
Augustine unfolds a psychological theory regarding man’s ultimate happiness and his spiritual relation with God. He agrees with Aristotle that man naturally seeks happiness, but Augustine argues that a naturally fulfilled happiness is insufficient without a fulfilling conscious relation to God. It is fine to fulfill one's natural potentials for excellence in a well-balanced life, as Aristotle recommended, but one should not neglect what is of ultimate importance - that is God. So man cannot actually achieve complete happiness without a loving relation with God and right relation with others. .
Nature is not the first cause of man, but God is, so natural fulfillments without any relation to God can never produce complete happiness. Man's relation to God is part of man's true reality, whether the person realizes it or not, so no person can find complete happiness without God, for we are incomplete without God. In fact, the natural desire for happiness has its roots in a spiritual need for happiness in God. Final happiness can only be achieved when we realize our relation to God and fulfill our function in this relation by loving and serving God with all our heart. So complete happiness is finally achieved when we find our happiness in God, in loving and serving Him.
Besides man's natural quest for happiness, which is actually rooted in a spiritual need, there is also in man a natural instinct to love. Love and happiness are naturally related. To love is to move beyond our separateness and come into an intimate relation with another. Our affection moves outward and we are drawn closer to who or what we love. To love is natural in man, but again, this natural love has its original cause in our spiritual need to love God. A person loves because of their sense of incompleteness, so our incompleteness or separation from God is the underlying cause of all types of loving. So as Augustine views human psychology, our natural need and tendency to love is essentially our need to be free from our feeling of separateness and come into an intimate relation or even union with another. Yet this very need, or natural tendency, is actually rooted in our deeper spiritual need to end our separation from God and enter into an intimate relation with God.
Augustine does not, though, condemn the more ordinary love of objects, persons, or even oneself. All possible objects of love can provide at least some degree of satisfaction, just not ultimate happiness. Yet why are people so often miserable and unhappy, with so many objects of love?
Augustine points out that love itself, or the natural tendency to love, is not the problem. Love does not produce unhappiness; rather, attachment and expectation can produce unhappiness. So, the problems which seem to stem from love are really caused by our attachment to temporal objects of love, as well as our expectation for temporal objects to continue. Therefore, problems and disappointments are practically innevitable, if we hold too much love expectation and attachment to temporal and changing objects or people. It is foolish to expect more from something, or someone, than it can provide. The solution to the problem is then simple. Love without attachment and expectation, and even better, love what is eternal and unchanging, namely God. Only from God can we expect a lasting happiness and satisfaction, because only God is eternally here to love.
Augustine further explains how dissatisfactions stem from misplaced expectations. Humans have various needs, each connected to a potential satisfaction; so logically, the fulfillment of one kind of need will not satisfy another kind of need. We should not expect mere objects to satisfy our need to love people, and nor should we expect people to satisfy our need to love God. So our problems involving love result from a disordered love, when we expect more of something than it can possibly provide, and this is the significant reason for most human problems. Thus, since we have a deeper need for an intimate relation with God, this special need cannot be satisfied by mere objects or other persons. Only a voluntary relation with God can satisfy our deepest spiritual need and make happiness complete.