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De Civitate Dei, Book VIII

November 26, 2011

Chapter 1: Plan for this Book

This chapter will deal specifically with ‘natural theology’, which means that we will need to cross swords with the most eminent of philosophers. ‘Philosopher’ means literally ‘lover of wisdom’, but not all who claim to be philosophers are actually lovers of true wisdom. Not all philosophers will be interacted with in this book but only those pertaining to theology (Augustine understands ‘theology’ to mean ‘reasoning or discussing about divinity’). Even more specifically, those thinkers will be interacted with who admit the existence of God but who think that in order to attain happiness one needs the assistance of many gods who have been appointed by this one true God. These thinkers will help one to get closer to the truth than Varro who, as was argued in the last book, confined himself to the things of this world. Platonists are among the best philosophers, but attention first needs to be paid to those philosophers who preceded Plato.


Chapters 2-8: The History and Basic Structure of Platonic Philosophy

Greek philosophy consists of two traditions: Italian (or Magna Gracia) and Ionian. The former was founded by Pythagoras of Samos who coined the name ‘philosophy’. Before him, those who looked into these questions were called sages, but Pythagoras found that too lofty of a claim and instead said that he was merely a ‘lover of wisdom’. The latter (Ionian) school was founded by Thales of Miletus. Thales was known for his ability to predict solar and lunar eclipses based on his astronomical calculations, and his most famous theory was that water is the origin of all things. His great error was to fail to ascribe the work of creation to divine operation.

What follows is a series of disciples, each springing from the previous, in the Ionian school:

  • Anaximander failed in the same manner as his mentor but offered a different conception of the universe by claiming that water was not the source of everything but that each thing had its own source.
  • Anaximenes ascribed the causes of all things to the infinite air (including the gods).
  • Anaxagoras followed him and held that a divine mind is working on infinite matter.
  • Another pupil of Anaximines’ was Diogenes who maintained that air is the primal matter from which all things derive their existence; however, he held that the divine mind participates with air to issue forth all things.
  • Archelaus held that the divine intelligence is in all particles as the active force in the universe.

All of this leads to Socrates who is reputed to have turned the whole of philosophy towards the improvement and regulation of morality. Some interpreters say that Socrates concentrated his attention on the study of physics because he was bored by the obscure investigations of philosophy during his day. Socrates held that God is the first cause of the universe, but that this cause could only be grasped by a purified intelligence. The soul was weighed-down by lusts, and so freedom from these lusts allowed the soul to contemplate the unchanging light which is the cause of all things. The many disciples of Socrates took what they fancied from his teaching. Specifically, arguments arose regarding the nature of the Final Good (summum bonum) which ensures man’s happiness: some said pleasure, some said virtue, etc.

Plato was Socrates’ best student. After the death of Socrates, Plato traveled far and wide to understand any knowledge that was offered by various schools – he went to Egypt and to the Pythagoreans in Italy. Plato pursued philosophy along two lines: practical (focus on action, establishment of moral standards) and speculative (focus on pure thought, theory of causation and nature of absolute truth) philosophy. While Socrates was excellent in the first, Plato joined to it the Pythagorean strength in the latter; his claim to fame was joining these two strands of philosophy.

Plato divided philosophy into three parts: natural philosophy (speculation), moral philosophy (action), and rational philosophy (distinguishing truth from falsehood). The latter is employed in the first two. His bearing on theological matters can be understood along these three lines as well: God as cause of existence, rule of life, and principle of reason.

First, Plato’s natural philosophy. Plato is much closer to Christianity than either poetic theology with its scandalous performances or civil theology with its unclean demons posing as gods. Only Platonists hold that God is the author of the universe, the source of the light of truth, and the bestower of happiness. Plato’s predecessors in the Ionian tradition had minds subject to the body, thus claiming that creation arose from physical causes. They were trapped by bodily senses.[1] But Platonists distinguished between the sensible (forms of material things observable by the body’s senses) and the intelligible (forms of life observable by the mind). As an example of the latter, beauty comes first in the mind aside from all mass and volume.[2] Augustine then gives a very platonized reading of Romans 1:19ff, claiming that the ideas are available to intelligence through the created, sensible world. This summarizes the physical or natural branch of philosophy in Platonic thought.

Second, Plato’s moral philosophy. This branch discusses the question of the summum bonum to which we refer all our actions. Some say this is found or derived from man’s body, some say from man’s soul, and some say from both. All of these options fail to go outside of the human person, which is exactly what we must do. All of these schools fall far short of those that found man’s ultimate good in the enjoyment of God. The closest analogy to this is the eye’s enjoyment of light.[3] Plato said that the highest good is life in accordance with virtue which is only possible with one who had the knowledge of God.

Third, Plato’s rational philosophy. The criterion of truth is not in the rational senses. Epicureans and Stoics both claim that ‘dialectic’ is to be derived from the bodily senses. Augustine thinks they ascribe a power beyond the senses in trying to draw this subtle art of rationality from the body.


Chapters 9-13: Platonist Rights and Wrongs

A Christian student confined to Christian literature may be unfamiliar with Plato, but any student will be aware of basing their thought on God as opposed to the world. Romans 1:19ff presents this.[4] Many Christians are amazed to read that Plato agrees with our doctrine in many important respects. Augustine says that earlier in his Christian life he wrote that perhaps Plato encountered Jeremiah in the midst of his travels, but he now knows that the dates do not work for this to be a possibility.

More likely is the suggestion that Plato knew the opening of the Bible, the first few verses of Genesis, perhaps by word of mouth. Plato says that in the beginning God brought together earth and fire (in place of heaven and earth). Plato said water and air were the intermediaries that effected their coming together (this interprets the statement, ‘the spirit of God soared above the waters’ – for ‘spirit’ can mean air or breath). Plato also says that the philosopher is the lover of God, a fact that shines out very clearly from the pages of the Scriptures. And most striking, Plato said God is unchanging, which is the import of God’s name, ‘I am he who is’.

Aristotle was one of Plato’s most brilliant students, though not a match in terms of literary style. Other famous followers came after both Plato and Aristotle. In Augustine’s day, the most famous Platonists were Plotinus, Iamblichus, Porphyry, and Apuleius.

Despite these well-known thinkers being worthy of the utmost admiration as natural philosophers, there are many points of difference with the Christians. One point in particular concerns the present discussion: which gods are to be worshiped? Plato said that all gods are good. If this is so, which must be true, there are no bad gods which need mollification by means of sacrifice. Plato’s opinion of the gods that demand stage-shows is well known. He thought such poets should be banished from the city. But, Platonists in Augustine’s day held Plato to be a demigod but held the gods of the shows to be true gods. How can a demigod call the gods no gods at all? Let’s let the Platonists explain. To do so, we must hear their account of the different kinds of rational souls.


Chapters 14-25: Platonism on the Three Kinds of Rational Souls

The Platonists say that there are three kinds of rational souls (in descending order): gods, demons, and humanity. The demons, who live in the air above humanity but below God, have an immortal body (like the gods, they say) and passions of the soul (like humanity). It is this latter quality that makes them delight in the theatrical shows that Romans put on for them. In other words, when Plato condemned the stage-shows, he was condemning demons and not gods. Some say that Socrates received direction from demons, but then why would Plato want the poets banned?

Indeed, the demons enjoy a superiority in regards to their bodies, but even animal bodies surpass human bodies in some respects (senses, strength, speed, etc.). The important thing is not the bodies but the moral qualities that make us superior to animals and demons. There is no comparison between a devout man’s hope and the demons’ despair. When it comes to assessing the merits of souls, we do not look merely to the place of a being among material things (its place in fire, air, water, earth), for then we would rank sea creatures above humans. In the end, ‘an inferior material body may well be the habitation of a superior soul, and an inferior soul may dwell in a superior body’ (p321).

Apuleius says that demons are mollified by gifts and give power to magicians. He says they have three qualities that they share with humans: animals, subject to passions, and rational. They share one quality with the gods: eternal. And they have one quality unique to themselves: bodies composed of air. If this is right (some of this is disputable), demons are creatures and should not be worshiped.

If we take these Platonic categories, fire and air are filled with immortal beings and earth and water with mortal beings. But then how can demons be disturbed by passions which are irrational motions of the soul? But then why would we not find these disturbances also in beasts? It is because a beast does not have rationality and thus cannot have an irrational passion. And gods cannot have passions because they are immutable and thus happy. The demons alone are eternal but unhappy! Why, then, would we subject ourselves to them? Why humble yourself before one that you would hate to resemble in your life?

Apuleius also says that demons take our prayers to the gods, since we are not properly in contact with the gods. But are the demons properly in contact with us or with the gods? Certainly not. And why would the gods receive prayers for forgiveness from the very ones who tempted and stirred the sinner into their sin? And it certainly does not say much of the holiness of God if he will have contact with a demon but not with a humble, repentant sinner! The evil of the demons is well-known, which is why their actions through sorcery are now outlawed in Rome (thanks to the Christians).

Others say that the gods need the demons because they are physically distant from humanity and do not know what is happening on earth. But this, again, makes the mistake that physical distance is the important factor when it is clearly not. What matters is the distance from goodness, and in this, a good person is closer to God than the demons are.

And it is hard to envision, in Apuleius’ model, how the demons told the gods about Plato’s statement that their theatrical performances were lewd and crass! There are one of four possibilities here: the demons hid Plato’s statements from the gods, the demons reported Plato’s statement but did not disclose their own delight in the performances, the demons disclosed Plato’s statement and that they enjoyed the theater, or the demons disclosed only the conclusion of Plato (but not the philosophical rationale) and the gods misunderstood Plato. None of these are solutions; all cause serious problems to our conception of the gods. The only solution left is the reject Apuleius’ conception of the demons. Instead of seeing that they hold a position of honor, the Scriptures report that they were cast out of heaven to a lower position.

Hermes, the Egyptians, has a slightly different conception of the gods/demons than Apuleius. He says that when men craft images, a demon attaches its spirit to the image like a soul to a body. Interestingly, Hermes says the manufacture of images was a result of his ancestors’ straying far from the truth. Would it not make sense, then, that when the true religion is brought through Jesus that the idols would again be destroyed, the error of the ancestors corrected? To his credit, Hermes predicts a time when images will no longer be worshiped. Even the demons knew that there would be a time when they would be thrown out of their seats of power on earth (Matthew 8:29). Now, indeed, because of Christ the whole earth is singing a new song to the Lord. A new holy house, a City, is being built for praise. It is the City which is filled with people formerly in captivity to demonic religion (Psalm 96). The difference between the prophetic predictions of the downfall of false gods and Hermes’ prediction was that the former was filled with joy and the latter with sadness. Hermes calls these gods ‘man-made gods’. So here is what an image is: a certain kind of man makes an image and, by some strange art, attaches a demon to it by means of the fetters of the demon’s own passions.[6] So this account of demons differs substantially from that of Apuleius, because Hermes never gives them the honor of mediators. Hermes is closer to the truth: demons are made gods by men through this impious art. In summary, Hermes gave a different place to the idols which is closer to the truth.

The only way to share in fellowship with the ‘good gods’ is not through the mediation of the demons but by sharing in a good will. Our fleshly existence does not keep us separated – only our impurity of heart can.[5]


Chapters 26-27: Pagan and Christian Cults

It is interesting to note that when Hermes predicted the downfall of the idols in Egypt, he also said that shrines and temples will be filled with tombs of dead men. Augustine thinks this is referring to the Christian martyrs. Of course, pagans take this prediction to mean that the temples once dedicated to the worship of gods is replaced by Christians who worship dead men. But we have already quoted Varro who showed that the gods are nothing more than dead men. Hermes himself says that temples are dedicated to dead men. All this goes to show that even in the day of Hermes, the temples were full of tombs and of dead men (the gods themselves!).

The Christian martyrs were those who did not fear death but gave precious and faithful testimony to their faith. As a result, the laws were changed which forbid Christianity.These martyrs have nothing in common with the offspring of Isis and Osiris, all of whom were kings. While the Egyptians deified these wicked people, Christians refuse to deify our martyrs.

Christians, of course, do not assign temples or ceremonies to martyrs. No one will ever hear a Christian priest make a sacrifice to a martyr. Rather, by renewing memory of them, we encourage ourselves to emulate their crowns and palms of victory. Thus, the acts performed at the tombs of the martyrs are not worship but acts of respect to their memory. Some do bring food to the tombs to sanctify it and then either eat it or distribute it to the poor, but this is not the practice of the better-instructed Christians.

It is clear from all of this that demons are not to be worshiped to attain blessedness after death.



My Footnotes:

[1] It is interesting to note here that Augustine is chalking-up what he perceives to be an intellectual error to what he perceives to be a deficient moral condition. Deficient morality leads to deficient understanding.

[2] Wittgensteinians and phenomenologists (w/p) are two philosophical schools or traditions that have earnestly attacked this point. They want to assert that there is a pre-cognitive experience of the world that precedes the reflection that ‘ideas’ depend upon. In other words, they want to say that the world precedes ideas, while Augustine (via Plato) is saying that ideas precede the world. Augustine is separating sense from intelligence, while w/p want to say that intelligence (as reflection on experience) depends on the sensible.

[3] This clearly draws on the Platonic myth of the man in the cave turning around and coming out of the cave into the light. Augustine’s discussion of creaturely knowledge of creation in Book XI will read Genesis 1’s “evening and morning” as describing the increasing light that dawns on one as they see creation in relation to its cause (God). It is interesting to not (like footnote [1] above) that this discussion of the knowledge of creation takes place within the context of ‘moral philosophy’ and not ‘natural philosophy’.

[4] Augustine’s Platonist readings of Scriptural texts can be incredibly creative and distant from the intent of the author (small “a”). It takes careful analysis to uncover exactly how much mileage the Platonist elements are given in each reading. In terms of Platonism in the role of Augustine’s overall thought there is general consensus that he first swallowed Platonism wholesale but then, due to his interaction with the Scriptures (especially the Incarnation and biblical eschatology), slowly subdued some of the Platonist elements to biblical thought. This whole area of the Hellenization of Christianity has been the matter of much debate and discussion down through the ages and includes numerous interpretations, narrations, and solutions.

[5] Augustine will introduce the Neoplatonic ‘scale of value’ in Book XI, but it is already at work here. What is interesting is the way in which he seems to be already revising the concept in this context. Here he seems to be saying, as he will in Books XI-XIII, that a rational being is not limited in its communion with other beings by possession of a certain kind of body. The type of body is not determinative of the type of communion – only the quality of the will is. Here, as in the previous footnote, disentangling the Platonism from streams of thought more directly and thoroughly informed by the biblical witness is not easy. Scholars disagree on these matters.

[6] This is a very inventive account of the ontology of idols. Augustine seems to take the two streams of biblical thought in full force and, yet seems to find a way to creatively weave them together. The two streams of thought are: (1) idols are nothing, (2) idols are demons. Augustine’s solution, to state it more directly here, is that idols are nothing but that a demon can attach to an idol to fulfill its passions when cajoled by a kind of magic or ‘impure art’. This account would suggest that an idol is absolutely nothing to a believer in the Lord Jesus (because his or her passions are subdued and not accessible to demonic temptation or control) while that same idol has incredible power of one susceptible to the passions of their fallen nature.


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