Tag Archives: Augustine


For 30 years or longer I have been trying to figure out what makes skepticism, indifference and atheism plausible and belief in God difficult for some people.  I am sure there are many reasons and the relative strength of each varies from person to person. But one stands out to me. The external, physical/material world seems so real to us that we have a hard time imagining anything real that is not also external and material. This sentiment is expressed by a saying making the rounds on Facebook: “I worship nature. Don’t laugh. At least I can prove it exists.” I laughed anyway.

During his early adulthood, under the instruction of the Manicheans, Augustine of Hippo also experienced this difficulty:

When I wanted to think of my God, I knew of no way of doing so except as a physical mass. Nor did I think anything existed which was not material. That was the principle and almost sole cause of my inevitable error. ..If I had been able to conceive of spiritual substance, at once all their imagined inventions would have collapsed and my mind would have rejected them. But I could not [Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (Oxford 1991), pp. 85, 89].

And speaking of the philosophers of his day, who focused on external appearances, Augustine says,

They can foresee a future eclipse of the Sun but do not perceive their own eclipse in the present. For they do not in a religious spirit investigate the source of the intelligence with which they research into these matters (Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 74)

Baron Holbach, author of The System of Nature (1770) and patron of Paris’s atheist and freethinking community, attempted to explain the whole world and every event within it in material terms. His fundamental assumption seems to be that the true nature of things is revealed only in empirical experience. Empirical experience works by physical contact between our bodies and other bodies. We know things only in their external relationships to us and other things. Reality consists exclusively of external bodies set in relation to other external bodies. Holbach then interprets all our internal experience, which we do not experience empirically through the senses, in keeping with his external view of knowledge. We know that our minds, ideas and concepts possess no reality beyond the physical forces that bring them about. God is a creation of the human imagination, which itself is a product of the motions of matter.

As you can see, Holbach falls into an error similar to the one Augustine complained the Manicheans made, that is, that reality can be known truly only as external bodies and the images that represent them. Augustine saw through this error when he realized that we have internal access to reality as well as external access. Limiting knowledge of reality to how things appear from an external viewpoint severely limits and greatly distorts our understanding of the world. Holbach, the Manicheans and the nature worshiper mentioned above forget that the internal power by which we know the external world also knows itself and all its contents. And the mind knows itself and its contents not by physical contact with external surfaces but by knowing itself directly. Inside the world of the mind, nothing is external and material. Nothing takes up space or weighs anything. Nothing breaks down into smaller material bits.

In Augustine’s view, the Manicheans, and by extension Holbach and all metaphysical materialists, should have given priority to the knowledge gained by our mind’s experience of itself. Privileging an external point of view makes an inferior, indirect and obscure access to reality the judge of a superior, clear and direct access. It dismisses our sense of certainty that our minds are real and possess freedom and causal power over our bodies in favor of an analogy drawn from our external observation of the interaction of assumedly mindless bodies. It rejects our internal experience of immaterial ideas, logical laws, concepts and relations and forces them into the pattern we derive from external observation, that is, they must be material bodies externally related to each other, despite our invincible inclination to believe otherwise.

What a difference there is between the two systems (Atheism and Christian Theism)! Christian theism asserts that the appearance of humanity and all that goes with it—mind, reason, freedom, self-consciousness, moral intuition, and all that is made possible by them—reveals the true nature of the ultimate reality behind all appearances better than the externality, unintelligibility, inertness, and mindlessness of matter. And this truth comes to light in our experience within ourselves of ourselves and in fellowship with other human beings. The idea of matter is derived from sense experience’s discovery of opacity and obscurity in its vision of the world in contrast to the clarity of ideas and the self-identity and self-transparency of the mind in its act of thinking and self-reflection. Atheism (at least the most common contemporary forms) views the mindless externality of matter as disclosing the true nature of what we wrongly think we know on the uniquely human level: mind, qualities, freedom, consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, intelligibility and moral intuition.

Here is a stark choice. Both views make knowledge claims. One must choose. But the irony is that in choosing materialism I give revelatory priority to something I know externally, obscurely and indirectly over what I know directly and clearly by virtue of the process of thinking. I assert that the ultimate and underlying reality from which thinking, ideas and concepts derive is itself unthinking, obscure and unthinkable. Don’t miss this: ironically, if not in complete self-contradiction, materialism is a theory that conceives and thinks of thinking and concepts as secondary qualities derivative of matter, which is the complete absence of mind and intelligibility! According to their theory, the very power (mind) and its instruments (ideas and concepts) by which materialists formulate, defend and explain the philosophy of materialism, need to be resolved into their (material) components in order to get a clear idea of what they really are. What an absurdity! Mind and the idea of ideas are obscure and complex whereas the idea of matter is simple and clear? Of course the idea of matter is simple and clear but the idea of matter is in the mind. But matter itself is defined by being external to the mind and obscure to the eye of the mind. So, in the theory of materialism I am basing my understanding of all reality on something that can be known only as unknowable and obscure. Surely there is some kind of incoherence here!

But everything changes if with Augustine we give priority to internal experience. The way we know our minds and their contents becomes the model for our knowledge of the external world. We experience the world not only as external, material and obscure but also as internal, ideal and transparent. Through our senses we receive into our minds information (not simply dumb physical impacts) embodied in the world. This information becomes internal to our minds; only then do we possess knowledge of the “external” world. Assuming that this information truly exists in the world apart from the work of our minds, we can ask from where it came. Or, since we know from our internal experience the creative and shaping power of mind and ideas, we can ask about the nature of the Mind that thinks and creates the world I experience as intelligible but not as the product of my or any human mind.

The apostle Paul was not making idle conversation with the Athenians when he quoted the Cretan philosopher Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Unlike the young Augustine, Holbach and today’s nature worshiper, Paul looked around at the world and saw in everything the marks of the divine Mind, and he felt surrounded, indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of the living God. Our task, Paul says is to “seek him and perhaps find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). And it helps to begin your search in the right place.

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part 2)

 In Part 1, we reflected on our restless search for something that can make us supremely happy. We concluded that since our capacity for good things is virtually infinite only an infinite and eternal Good can satisfy our longing and bring unsurpassable happiness to us. Today I want to reflect with you on the concept of happiness and how happiness is related to the life of faith to which we are called by the gospel.

Let’s begin with another thought from Augustine: “For if I put the question to anyone whether he prefers to find joy in the truth or in falsehood, he does not hesitate to say that he prefers the truth, just as he does not hesitate to say that he wants to be happy. The happy life is joy based on truth” (10.23; trans. Chadwick, p. 199). In these densely packed sentences Augustine connects happiness with truth. Because it runs against the modern subjective understanding of happiness (E.g., “Ignorance is bliss!” “Happiness is just a state of mind.”), this connection alone could occupy our minds for weeks! I see four possible combinations here. One can find happiness in truth or in falsehood. Or one can find unhappiness in truth or in falsehood:

1. Happiness/Truth

2. Happiness/Falsehood

3. Unhappiness/Truth

4. Unhappiness/Falsehood.

No one wants to be unhappy, so the last two (3 and 4) are undesirable for that reason alone. Hence Augustine’s discussion focuses on the first two possibilities. But a happiness based on falsehood will sooner or later be revealed as a false happiness. For the light of truth will ultimately dispel falsehood and the happiness based on it. Only happiness based on truth will last. To grasp what Augustine says we need to think about two aspects of happiness, the one subjective and the other objective.

In ordinary usage happiness refers to a positive mental state. Happiness keeps company with such words as pleasant, comfortable, content, peaceful, joy, cheerful, blessedness, felicity and delight. We are inclined to think of happiness as a subjective state of mind in which the dominant feeling is a sense of well being. We don’t usually include in its definition the external conditions and goods that promote happiness; nevertheless it does not follow that the existence and quality happiness are unrelated to objective reality.

Ancient Stoic philosophers classified the passions of the soul into four categories: desire, fear, delight and distress. Desire relates to an object as a possible good whereas fear relates to an object as a possible source of harm. Delight experiences an object as good. But distress experiences an object as harmful. (The Stoics considered all four of these states as negative and strove to achieve a state of mind beyond passion, but we will ignore this fact.) As we can see, the Stoics understood the four basic emotional states as involving rational judgments about an object’s goodness or badness.

I believe the Stoics are correct that the passions exist in relation to an object, or more precisely, a mental representation of an object; a passion’s relation to its object is not completely irrational or totally mechanical. And because their existence and qualities rely on rational judgments, passions can be well founded or misguided. It is easy to see that we may judge something to be good when it is bad or bad when it is good. We may find something delightful in the moment but harmful in the end or distressful in the moment but helpful in the end. Happiness, considered as a subjective state, can be well founded or misguided, true or false.

Now let’s return to Augustine’s definition of happiness: “The happy life is joy based on truth.” Augustine wants us to seek true happiness, happiness of the highest quality and of the longest duration. This quality of happiness can be found only in union with God, the perfect and eternal source of all finite goods. In this life, we do not yet experience irrevocable and imperturbable union with God. While God possesses us in perfect knowledge and presence, we possess God only in faith and hope. In so far as it can be experienced in this life, true happiness is joy based on the apprehension of faith and the anticipation of hope.

But how does this work in the conditions of life? To be continued…

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part One)

In Augustine’s Confessions, book 10, the great theologian/bishop struggles to articulate his search for God in words understandable to his readers: “How then am I to seek for you? When I seek for you my God, my quest is for the happy life” (10.20; trans. Chadwick). Many people do not understand why we should seek God with all our heart, but everyone wants to be happy even if they have never been truly happy. Human beings feel their need for something they are missing, but they do not have a clear idea of what it is. Hence life is an endless quest for that thing.

Augustine describes the natural course of the quest in this way: first we seek the missing thing among the things around us. We explore the range of the five senses in hope that they will unite us with the good thing we seek. In effect, we ask natural objects, “Are you what I am seeking?” They reply, “No, we cannot give you the happy life you seek; for we too are finite and mortal.” The plants and animals, the rivers and mountains, the sun, moon, stars and planets say, “We are not your God. God made us. You must go further and higher.”

Augustine, then, turns inward to his mind, to his reasoning power, memory and imagination. There he finds a power much greater than nature displays. The mind can contain the universe with room to spare. It can conceive of infinite universes and imagine whole worlds that do not exist. It contains immaterial logical laws, numbers and principles, and it can judge all the data coming from the senses, naming each thing and judging its nature and qualities. It distinguishes between true and false, good and bad. The mind can think about itself, explore itself, remember itself and move itself. It can even think about itself thinking about itself! Augustine finds himself astounded: “Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity. And this is mind, this is myself. What then am I my God? What is my nature?” (10.17; trans. Chadwick).

In his wonder at the extent and power of the mind, he comes face to face with his inability to grasp himself. The mind can grasp any finite thing and surpass it; but it cannot grasp itself. The mind cannot get beyond itself to see clearly its origin and limit; yet it knows that it did not create itself or endow itself with its powers. Nor can the mind see clearly in the external world or within itself the thing it has been seeking all of its life. It does not find there the good thing that brings the search to an end and produces unsurpassable happiness.

Everyone seeks happiness but not everyone seeks it in the right place or understands that no finite thing or unending series of finite things can bring the search to a successful end. For the human mind can surround and surpass any finite thing. Whatever its beauty and power to entice and please, we can imagine something more, something better. Emptiness and dissatisfaction always accompany that infinite restlessness that is human nature. Hardly have we attained and possessed the good thing we sought until we are looking beyond, over and around it. “I am not what you were seeking,” it says even as we embrace it in the first delightful moment.

Let me say it again, happiness cannot be attained by coming to possess any finite thing, and seeking happiness in an unending series of finite things will eventually produce exhaustion and boredom. The emptiness we feel and the dissatisfaction that drives us onward can be filled and ended only by a Good that contains every possible good simultaneously. It must be infinitely good so that nothing better or more can be imagined or conceived; otherwise we will again be looking over, around and beyond it for something better or something more.  It must be present all at once lest our dissatisfaction and emptiness plague us forever.

What is this infinite and concentrated Good? Who is greater than the mind? “God” is the only fitting word to name this infinite good. Apart from God, I see no hope that human nature can be fulfilled, that we will find that for which we have been seeking all our lives. If there is no such Good, if happiness is just an ever-receding illusion, if there is nothing at all that can fill up the human heart, then human nature has been lying to us and the universe is guilty of false advertising; and human beings are misfits and anomalies and human existence is an absurdity.

But I do not believe that human existence is an absurdity; nor is human nature a liar. Hence I will not give up my search for “the happy life” or the only Good capable of bringing my search to a happy end.

More to come…

Thinking and Thoughtfulness: Part 3 Introspection


Introspection is also an important operation of reason and a necessary prelude to thoughtfulness. It attempts to look within our inner consciousness to see it apart from our relationship to external objects. Introspection works to isolate, observe and relate distinct feelings, moods, memories, ideas and values in the mind or soul. Perhaps Augustine’s Confessions does not conform exactly to my definition of introspection–which I admit is rather radical and “pure”–but it does provide an excellent example of the inward-turned eye that sorts and sifts motive from motive and feeling from feeling seeking deeper self-knowledge. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, though narcissistic and dripping with self-pity, also displays an astounding inward awareness that is quite instructive about what we can learn from introspection.

Without introspection our consciousness would be engulfed by wave after wave of sensation or lost in abstractions of thought. Socrates’ observation that “the unexamined life is not worth living” comes to mind here. Apart from some introspection there is no self-knowledge and without self-knowledge we could not distinguish between the life we freely enact and events that merely happen in, to or through us.

Notice how introspection relates to common sense and scientific thought.  In distinction from common sense, introspection isolates the self from external relations by ignoring the external causes of internal experience. In analogy to science, it treats relations within the self like science treats relations among things external to the self. It wants to see its feelings and moods, beliefs and ideas and their interrelationships undistorted by their external relations. Whereas science wants to escape the distorting influence of internal subjectivity on our knowledge of external things, introspection wants to escape the clouding influence of external things on awareness of our internal condition. If science risks self-deception by ignoring the influence of the subjective on our knowledge of the external world, introspection risks self-deception by thinking it can isolate our internal subjectivity from the external world.

Introspection alone cannot lead to complete self-understanding because the self exists only in relation to the not-self, to the external world of people, nature and things. Nonetheless, introspection is valuable because we cannot think everything at once. We cannot think about the self in itself and its relation to external objects and the characteristics of the objects in themselves in one thought at one time. To achieve greater understanding we must move back and forth between part and whole, inside and outside, self and other to grasp all dimensions of something…even if that something is us.

To be continued…

Next time we will think about thoughtfulness itself…I promise.