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De Civitate Dei, Book IX

November 26, 2011

Chapters 1-3: Are there Good Demons?

Platonists hold that the demons are intermediaries between the gods and humanity.  But do they hold any distinctions among demons? Apuleius says in no uncertain terms that demons are agitated by raging seas and storms of passion. (If so, they are below wise men who fight such disturbances, though never free from them completely in this life.) Further understanding of the passions is necessary before moving forward in answering this question.


Chapters 4-6: The Passions

Two opinions are found among the philosophers about the nature of passion. Platonists and Aristotelians say that passions befall even wise men, though they keep them in check through intellect. Stoics, however, say that such passions cannot befall a wise man. But Augustine thinks that these views are identical; the problem is only that the two groups are using different words, though arguing for essentially the exact same position.

Augustine recounts the story about the Stoic who was on a ship that almost sank. The passengers realized that this Stoic looked pale and afraid. One passenger later asked him why, seeing that his belief was that his soul would not be disturbed at all by passions. The Stoic said that there are ‘fantasies’ which are terrors that come upon one so quickly that the mind cannot subdue them for the first few moments. The important thing, the Stoic explained, was the consent or refusal of the mind to such a disturbance – this is what is within human control. On this account, there is no difference between the Stoics and the other philosophers on the subject of passions or disturbances: both sides champion the mind and reason against the tyranny of the passions.

We will not look at what the Scriptures teach about passions at this point. In general, they teach that the mind is subject to God and the passions to the mind. The question then becomes now whether the soul is disturbed but why. The Scriptures also promote compassion, something that the Stoics call a vice. In substance, however, they are saying a similar thing to the Christians. They claim that compassion is proper as long as it does not disturb the mind.

So are our experiences of emotions part of the disability of this life? It is clear that the angels and God, though Scripture uses passionate language about them at times, are not subject to disturbances like humans are. However, it is clear that the demons do experience such passions.


Chapters 7-17: The Platonist Doctrine of Demons

But perhaps it is only the evil class of demons who experience passions. Though the poets ascribed many passionate moments to gods, the Platonists were clear that these passions only mark the lives of demons and not gods. It is helpful to remember Apuleius’ (Platonic) definition of the demons: animals by species, liable to passions in soul, capable of reason in mind, bodies composed of air, and eternal in life-span. But it is notable that this definition makes no connection to good men as opposed to bad. When he defines humanity, he includes a means of distinguishing good from bad, namely, wisdom. So it is evident that he did not distinguish in this way among the demons, and it is evident that the demons are like gods in body but do not possess wisdom like good men.

But here is a problem. If the demons have access to the gods because they have the same body, that means that spiritual communion is based on the body and not the soul. More properly, the Platonists should claim that the demons are inverted: their bodies are higher than humanity’s and thus closer to the gods but their souls are fallen like those of humanity. Truly, the demons are upside down! Their soul should rule their body, and thus their soul should commune with the gods. Plotinus noted that the demons, because they were created with eternal bodies, are trapped and cannot experience freedom in death like humans can. [1] “As it is, not only does the wretchedness of their soul prevent them from being happier than men; they are even more miserable than men because they are chained to the body for all eternity” (p355). The upshot of this is that demons are demons in perpetuity.

Apuleius also teaches that human souls become lares if they lived good lives and become either lumenures or larvae; those who were in the middle are called di manes. The evil will then consider that they can continue their evil after death. Apuleius says that the word eudaimones refers to good souls (eu daimon) which are demons. But we must dig further into Apuleius’ descriptions to see if this fleshes out. While the gods are distinguished by being eternally happy, the demons are eternally miserable. This eternal misery is that they are susceptible to passions for all eternity. How then could demons be correctly called eudaimones? Then who are the eudaimones who are between humanity and gods? This being is Jesus Christ, the One who is both human and divine. The final conclusion of the Platonic doctrine of demons is that demons are polluted by men rather than men by demons. We must reject this.


Chapters 18-23: Demons in the Christian Understanding

Far from helping us on the way to God, demons distract and divert us. They are jealous of the cure that is offered us but not them. The idea of advancing by means of the higher bodily quality of demons is wrong, because it is by our souls that we approach God. But some are claiming that our ‘angels’ are the same as Platonic ‘good demons’. We must address this point.

In the Scriptures, the word ‘demon’ is always about unclean spirits, never about good ones. Augustine quotes Plato in saying that the Greek word ‘demon’ comes from the root word ‘knowledge’. And 1 Corinthians 8:1 says that knowledge puffs-up but that love builds-up. Surely demons have the knowledge of Jesus as the Christ (Mark 1:24). While the demons are puffed-up with knowledge about temporal things, the angels despise all below God and yet know all things below him better on account of their knowledge of Him.

Whether the Platonists call the angels ‘gods’ or not is not of ultimate concern to Augustine. After all, the Scriptures refer to good men as ‘gods’ sometimes (especially in the Psalms), but this is more safe than calling an angel ‘god’ since it might actually win our affections by its superiority to us.

The final point to make is that the Scriptures teach us that the angels make announcements of God’s will to us. But the Platonists say that the demons do this – certainly we must depart at this point.



My Footnotes:

[1] This links-up with the long-standing debate over the salvation of angels. This is my first time to hear Augustine’s position on this, so it is quite an interesting take. Again, one is faced with the difficulty of deciphering what (if any) part of his argument is relevant outside a context of Platonic thought.


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