Ordering the Soul: Augustine’s Manifold Legacy

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 27, 1988, pp. 426-430. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


For Langdon Gilkey, Augustine of Hippo was not just a great classical mind, but a seminal theologian (and philosopher) whose work has influenced much of western thought to the present. His legacy forms the groundwork for many contemporary disciplines including psychology, history, political science, natural science and epistemology, as well as all of Roman Catholic theology.

Augustine of Hippo was converted to Christianity just over 1,600 years ago. Except perhaps for Paul, he is of unsurpassed importance for the entire Western Christian church; and, surprisingly, he is almost equally significant for understanding the entirety of subsequent Western culture.

The element of surprise derives from the fact that Augustine is, in many ways, a distant figure. After all, he was not a medieval Christian -- even an early medieval Christian -- but a member of the preceding culture: the classical world of Rome, whose formative principles derived from the even earlier Hellenic or Greek culture. He wrote, thought and especially spoke as a cultured Roman; he was a teacher of rhetoric and a leading candidate for high Roman honors in that role. His was the last great classical mind.

Amid the shifting intellectual and spiritual currents of his time he was an intellectual, a mild bon vivant, an early yuppie interested in advancement and fame, and an earnest "seeker" of intellectual wisdom and personal wholeness. Like not a few other serious 30-year-olds, he passed into and out of many of the important philosophical and religious options then available ---Manichaeism, Skepticism, Platonism -- all the while aware of the powerful presence of Christianity. (The empire had officially become Christian 60 years earlier, his mother was Christian, and many serious seekers were becoming Christian.)

Despite his external success, Augustine found his inner life breaking down. He felt in desperate need of rescue. Even when he was intellectually satisfied, and believed his mind was able to see the truth, he found that his will could not will the truth he saw -- he could not by his will control his will.

Rescue came in his conversion, and in his immersion in a quite different stream of spiritual and intellectual influences: the grace he found in the Christian church, the truth he adopted through its tradition, and the life of discipline (the Law) he embraced as a serious convert, priest and, later, bishop. His breakdown amid the variety of Roman alternatives was cured by the new Christian alternative, his intellectual doubts as a late antique philosopher were resolved by Hebrew and Christian truth, his dissatisfaction with professional advancement in Rome was rechanneled into an enthusiasm for the new society of the ecclesia.

Breakdown and rescue constituted not only an inward saga for Augustine but the story of the cultural epoch that spanned his life. At Adrianople in 375, two decades after his birth (354), Gothic tribes entered the imperial regions in force, in 410 Alaric sacked Rome, to the terror and the horror of all; in 428, two years before he died, the Vandals surrounded and besieged Hippo, and in 476 the last remnant of the Western Empire at Ravenna left Italy entirely and moved east to Constantinople. Militarily, politically and economically, imperial Rome collapsed. It, too, needed rescuing by new spiritual, moral and intellectual forces, and by a new uniting and empowering community. These came, however slowly, from the small Christian church. Its truth, its law, its community and its grace guided and empowered the new medieval world, which united the inheritance from Greece and Rome with new biblical and catholic forms.

Augustine, with an astounding sensitivity and self-awareness, powerfully expressed both the breakdown and the rescue of classical culture. Hence, appropriately, it was in the terms of his own synthesis of classical and biblical forms that the new edifice of culture was established and continually reformed -- four, five, six, even seven centuries later. Augustine's life and thought became a symbol of the union of classical culture and Hebrew-Christian religion. What transpired inwardly in him and was expressed by him was on a different scale embodied in the development of medieval culture.

It is impossible even to conceive of medieval Catholicism without its Augustinian beginning. Augustine's massive footprints are everywhere (80 per cent of Thomas Aquinas's references to "the fathers" are to Augustine). Augustine's understanding of the ecclesia as a sacramental community in whom Christ is, despite the blemishes of the worldly institution, eternally and effectively present, dominated the medieval period. So did his understanding of intellect as incapable of full truth unless grounded in divine revelation. Credo ut intelligam, believe in order that you may understand, was the motto of most medieval philosophy and theology, even of late scholasticism.

Significant, too, was Augustine's conviction that the soul is refashioned by the graces resident in the community of Christ. By itself the soul loves itself and the world; and the "power of love is such that what the mind has long and lovingly thought over will stick to it like glue" (On the Trinity). As gravity carries a stone downward, so the love of the world carries the soul down, losing God, itself and its neighbor. But in grace God's love can flood the soul with a different love, caritas, enabling it to rise again, find itself and God and become what it really seeks to be. Through humility, faith, obedience and love, a Christian can live in time and yet hope for eternity. The image of the Christian as a humble pilgrim on earth, seeking above all to incarnate love, is a gift of Augustine's vision.

Strangely enough, it is also impossible to understand the Reformation without understanding Augustine. He is specifically cited in Reformation arguments, especially by Calvin, and both Luther and Calvin recognized that the themes they emphasized as the essential gospel had been stressed earlier by Augustine: the universality and depth of the problem of sin; the consequent incapacity of even the "best" persons to follow the law commanding inward love, the possibility of salvation -- of escaping condemnation and of gaining blessedness -- through God's grace alone. No one can come to God with any merits or any claims, thus all righteousness and so every basis for hope are from God alone. This was Augustine's great case against the Pelagians; quite naturally it became the central Reformation argument against the compromises, the relative means and the "spiritual barter system" of the late medieval church.

I am sure that Augustine would have urged the "Protestants, " as he did the Donatists, to stay inside the one Mystical Body of Christ so as not to break the bonds of unity in Christ. Nevertheless, generations of Protestants (until the rise of liberalism) have with good reason regarded Augustine as almost "one of us," and have read him in that way, as have the neo-orthodox. (However, Thomist Catholics since 1860 have also had equally good reason to read Augustine as a brilliant but not quite reliable and mature precursor to Thomas.)

The strangest aspect of Augustine's significance is that he can also be called the first modern spirit, one of the founders of modern Western consciousness. Can the bishop of Hippo, the establisher of orthodox dogma and ecclesial authority, really be linked with Machiavelli, Newton, Descartes, Gibbon, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Marx and Darwin, to name a few shapers of the modern spirit? Indeed he can -- because modern consciousness has important roots in the culture that preceded the Renaissance and the rise of modern science, as well as the rise of historical consciousness. Important presuppositions of modern culture, which were only latent in medieval culture, can be discerned in Augustine.

To begin with, his thought gave priority to self-consciousness. For him, not only certainty and truth but even more, the sense of reality and of value were established through self-consciousness. This approach has engendered a number of fundamental features of modern Western life: its critical spirit; its emphasis on free assent-, its focus on the self as constructing its world and legislating its own values, and hence all the various modes of personal, sociological and historical relativism. Attention to self-consciousness has also established the certainty of the self's reality, of the person's intrinsic and ultimate value, and the almost infinite possibilities latent in each self.

What exactly has Augustine to do with this inheritance? In his search for truth, Augustine was genuinely troubled by the Skeptics' arguments that one can be certain of nothing, and that careful thinking in no way provides a reliable guide to a wiser life. Here the Platonists, especially Plotinus, came to his rescue. Turn inside, they said, away from the variable senses and the ambiguities of the world, and you will discover what you cannot doubt, namely the changeless and universal Truth present to but above the fickle mind -- the truth of mathematics, of beauty and of good and evil. Augustine frequently used this argument, but gave it a new twist. In turning inward, he says, I find that I am, that I know that I am, and that I delight in that being and that knowing. This knowledge I cannot doubt: for if I doubt, then I am, I know that I am, and I delight in that. At least, then, I know one truth: that I doubt, and that in doubting I am. And so knowing a truth, I cannot doubt Truth.

Here Platonism is brought down to earth, to the level of the existing self and one's self-awareness. In Augustine a new consciousness takes shape, one that finds the originating and firm center of certainty in the self-awareness of the self as existing, thinking and willing.

One result of this new self-consciousness was a new concentration on the relation of the self to God. Christian doctrine had heretofore concerned itself largely with the cosmic drama of creation, fall, incarnation and rescue, and had only briefly touched on the career of the soul or the self in relation to that drama. Augustine made the self's journey into sin and then grace through the leading of providence the great new theme. He focused on what can be known, and known of God, by "nature," without faith and grace, and what can be known with them; on what the bondage of the will actually means in experience; and, as we have noted, on the effects of grace on our willing, loving and knowing. These psychological and behavioral concerns dominate Western theology from then on.

Behind these concerns was a new sense of the reality and importance of the historical self -- its career over time and in community, the way its memory and expectation unite time into a present, its anxiety and guilt, and its hope of healing. This concentration on the historical self, though later shorn of the emphasis on the self's relation to God, has been fundamental to Western philosophy, politics, literature and psychology.

A second major Augustinian element in modern consciousness, clearly connected with this concentration on the historical self, is the confidence that time is real, linear (its moments unrepeatable), and going somewhere; i.e., it is potentially and even increasingly filled with meaningful content. The modem West's two important ideologies, those of liberal progress and Marxist revolution, both reflect and depend upon these assumptions about time. Such assumptions began, of course, in Hebrew culture and were continued, more as presuppositions than explicit affirmations, in the New Testament. But it was Augustine who first elaborated them carefully and, just as important, who first applied the Christian symbols of the cosmic drama -- creation, fall, incarnation, ecclesia and eschatological end -- to the structure and meaning of history, particularly of the history of the rise and fall of empires. It is widely recognized that Augustine was the first speculative philosopher of history: the first to envisage a unified interpretation of all of history.

Since, however, his interpretation set God's power, and will in the very center of history, and since he saw secular empires as stumbling inexorably through sin, rather than as representing progressive steps toward modernity, he was regarded until the mid-20th century as too archaic to be of help. His characterization of the world as aiming for justice but creating injustice, as seeking peace but failing because it is our peace we seek (the world's peace, he said, is only a lull in a continuing conflict for power), was regarded as too pessimistic: "the typical gloom of a premodern, prescientific and pretechnological mind. "

As realistic as any moral realist in political and international affairs, Augustine yet insisted that an inordinate self-interest leads to self-destruction, as the evidence clearly shows. Therefore, moral norms, while never incarnated easily in history, still represent its inexorable structure; defiance of them by the great empires leads to destruction. Hence these norms are illustrated, rather than disproved, in history's turmoils -- specifically, of course, in the fall of Rome.

On the face of it, these points seem as relevant to America's current travails as they were to Rome's fall and certainly more so than either the utopianism of much modern political theory, or its opposite: a frankly self-interested perspective concerned only with national interests and national security. For Augustine, to seek for security alone is to banish the possibility of its appearance, and hence to increase the very insecurity we are intent on avoiding.

In Augustine's epoch the cyclical understanding of time was still common. Events, it was thought, endlessly repeat themselves so that no historical occurrence is in any way definitive; all will pass away, and all will again return. On a more immediate level, events were determined by Fate, Tyche and Fortuna; what happens to us is determined by transpersonal forces far beyond our control -- by "principalities and powers," by the stars, by demonic powers. This was an increasingly popular view in the political chaos of the late Hellenistic age.

But to moderns who believe that history is progress, a sense of the cycles of history and of the workings of fate seems bizarre and naive, barely worthy of intellectual argument. As a result, to them Augustine's powerful answer to these nightmares has appeared irrelevant.

Augustine said that God had created time along with a moving world; time is, therefore, not a power over God but an instrument in the divine hand. Thus while time and history as creaturely can become corrupted -- an arena of sin as well as of "nature," of injustice and conflict as well as of justice and peace, nevertheless through the divine power and grace, history contains a meaning for those within it. Through grace and the love that accompanies it, humans can, not only participate in the historical ecclesia that represents the beginnings (only the beginnings!) of an eternal community, but in being made perfect through grace they may hope for eternal participation in that community with God. As the Mystical Body of Christ in which truth and grace dwell, the ecclesia represents the thread of transcendent meaning that runs through the moments of time.

Why was Augustine so sure that time is irreversible, is moving to a permanent and unassailable fulfillment? He pointed to two events in time in which eternity dwells, so to speak -- events which cannot be subject to the cycles of time. One is each believer's experience of salvation and the promise of new life. If this " new- creation" were to be undone in the future, then experience and promise are both delusions -- but we know this not to be the case. The other is the life and death of Christ. "Once he died for our sins, and with that he dieth not again -- nor do we." Eternity has entered time in incarnation and in grace; time is thus held firm, as it were, and made decisive by the presence of eternity, and directed toward its goal. Hence time has meaning for all those who relate their moments to eternity in this way.

Moderns have found Augustine's transcendent basis for temporal meaning incredible, and have believed instead that time is meaningful because the human powers of science, reason and morals will progressively lead toward a perfection that cannot be lost. Now that this modern affirmation itself appears illusory, perhaps even a presumptuous myth, time seems unanchored, unstopped and undirected. Seeing temporal sequence falling apart or careening heedlessly toward a demonic apocalypse, we realize that we, even we, may not have understood the possibilities and pitfalls of history as well as did Augustine.

We have seen that the modern emphases on persons and their own past and future, on self-consciousness and self-awareness as the beginning of understanding, on a linear time and a hopeful history all begin with Augustine. Many of his deepest insights have in recent times come to the fore, including the notion that loving and willing are the basis of true knowledge ("we can know only that which we love") and that all thought depends on presuppositions (credo ut intelligam). Clearly, much in the fields of depth and personality psychology, in the new philosophy of science and in hermeneutics, can in this sense be termed Augustinian.

At the same time, moderns have jettisoned (not merely mislaid) a vast amount of Augustine's legacy. One of his most frequently quoted remarks, "Only two things will I seek to know, God and the soul, the soul and God (from the Soliloquies), is frequently cited to show the absurdity of such religious priorities, and to suggest that this emphasis on the irrelevant or the unreal prompted civilization's descent into the darkest ages. Only with the late medieval period's renewed interest in the external world, in the laws of the natural world and in control over the forces of nature did civilization get back on track. This is the role most of the children of Augustine would assign to him, insofar as they "believe in history" and insofar as they understand (from him) the meaningfulness of time.

Also problematic for moderns is Augustine's conviction that all knowledge begins within. To know the soul is, paradoxically, to know the possibility of a world outside the soul, for here lie the conditions of knowledge and so of science itself. Modern empiricism, on the other hand, which locates the possibilities of science in the brain (as if the brain and its patterns of order were not also in part a construction of the scientist's mind), precisely reverses this: the outside world known by the senses is alone the seat of what is -- if anything is -- universal, objective, real and certain. What is "inside," in self-awareness, is only subjectivity and so illusion, projection, at best mere preference.

Furthermore, what transpires within the soul determines for Augustine the way human powers are used. To "know thyself" is the first order of cognitive business, for to know the order of the soul, and through that knowledge to achieve control of one's life, is wisdom. Here Augustine is "Greek - -and though we like to think we continue that latter tradition, we do not. To us, knowledge of the soul and its order is important only for those afflicted with neuroses; our first order of business is knowledge of the external world, and thus the power to control that world.

Augustine disagreed. Knowledge of the world, unless ruled by knowledge and control of the self, in the end means self-destruction. For our unordered soul is filled with unlimited striving (concupiscence) for the world, striving, which can dominate not only the world but, even more, the self, the same self that through reason rules the world. Unless the self knows itself, and unless it loves something more than the world and itself, the self will, to be sure, rule the world, but it will itself be governed and driven by the spiritual hunger we call greed, the desire to possess and enjoy infinite abundance. In this situation both world and self are destroyed. On this point, Augustine seems more modern than many modern theorists of learning. For, in the end, knowledge of the soul seems crucial for preserving both nature and ourselves.

In Augustine, all things point to God because all things depend on God: self, mind, will, order, time, history, fulfillment. God is in all things as the source of their being, as the power behind and within their power, and as the order that regulates them. Augustine said: I am, I know that I am, and I delight in my being and my knowing. I am, I know, I love. Correspondingly, I know that my being depends on Eternal Being; that my truth is a dim reflection of the divine light that shines within, and that my loving is God's love present in the heart. God, therefore, is eternity, truth and love, the ground of all temporal being, its order and its goodness. As each creature is, knows and wills in dependence on God, so its good is to cleave in love to God, to know God and to be in God. Without God, all that is quickly becomes nothing, all order disorder, all temporality a vanishing present, and all love conflict. Augustine is God-centered; our world is not. Yet his diagnosis of the need for God, as for the soul, seems far more credible today than much that is written today about today.