- CRITTER TALK
Augustine believed in the infallibility of God’s word:
“Scripture…gives no false information.” (City of God, XV1, 9.)
He was a firm believer in the literal truth of the creation story, strongly advocated infant baptism, papal supremacy and belief in Mary’s purity, (because she was a perpetual virgin) and taught that sinful people would be punished in hell. These are all key Catholic concepts.
He thought people were constantly attracted toward material things and pleasures, which he labeled as evil. We still hear echoes of this from contemporary preachers who claim that wayward youths only achieve a false happiness by chasing sex or drinking too much.
He was one of the first to preach about purgatory, a holding pen where sinful, but not really sinful Christians will find themselves after death, where fire might wash them free of sin. For centuries afterwards the popery procured vast profits by selling indulgences to let loose souls from purgatory. The living, filled with anxiety for their deceased relations, paid the church so their loved one would move more quickly through to heaven. What a profitable scam! With a credulous populace, it was a license to print money.
Augustine believed that war was acceptable under certain conditions. Firstly, it must occur for a good and fair purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power. Secondly, a properly instituted authority such as the state must wage it. Thirdly, love must be a central motive even in the midst of violence. In my opinion, these ideas make Christianity dangerous, as they justify the oppression of others “for their own good.”
He thought the most important part of the mind was not the intellect (or reason) but the will. He claimed the highest ideals were virtue and the worship of God. He was another key Christian source of negative attitudes about sex, stigmatizing it as sin. His own libido caused him much emotional pain. He wrote:
“Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of man downwards as the caress of a woman and that physical intercourse which is part of marriage” (Soliloquies 1,10.)
He thought masturbation was a grave sin. He lauded celibacy and virginity as being close to perfection. These ideas compromised reproduction, and the coffers of his church, so he made an exception. Passionless intercourse within marriage for the procreation of children became permissible, though was still a “venial” sin. No long term issue then, as it could be paid for in purgatory.
Like most of the church fathers, he was a misogynist. In his “Confessions,” chapter IX, he praised his uptight Christian mother’s complete subordination to her violent husband. He wrote:
“The woman together with the man is the image of God, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned as a helpmate, which pertains to her alone, she is not the image of God: however, in what pertains to man alone, is the image of God just as fully and completely as he is joined with the woman into one.” (De Trinitate, 12.7.10.)
Augustine’s main philosophical rival was a sensible priest named Pelagius (c. 354 CE – c. 420/440 CE). He was well educated, fluent in both Greek and Latin, and learned in theology. He considered the concept of original sin, as probably invented by Paul and promoted by Augustine, as appalling nonsense.
The Catholic Encyclopedia claims Augustine was:
“a philosophical and theological genius of the first order, dominating, like a pyramid, antiquity and the succeeding ages. Compared with the great philosophers of past centuries and modern times, he is the equal of them all; among theologians he is undeniably the first, and such has been his influence that none of the Fathers, Scholastics, or Reformers has surpassed it.”
High praise indeed! Yet this sounds like an apology for all other church theologians. The author is conceding there’s not a single theologian other than Augustine whose intellect can compare with great philosophers past and present. That doesn’t say much for the school of theology. Is Augustine thought a greater theologian than Paul, who more or less invented Christian theology? I wonder if this wording will be changed in future editions.
There’s no doubt he was highly influential. Whether he was a great philosopher is more controversial. How could someone who relied so heavily on scripture rather than rational thought, be taken seriously?
He was adamant the earth was no more than six thousand years old:
“They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not yet 6,000 years have passed…” (City of God, Bk. xii, Chapter 10.)
Science has proven the great philosopher’s “sacred writings” wrong. He was writing in the fourth century, and he didn’t know any better, but he was bone-headed about it, and derided anyone who didn’t believe the creation story:
“For as it is not yet 6,000 years since the first man, who is called Adam, are not those to be ridiculed rather than refuted who try to persuade us of anything regarding a space of time so different from, so contrary to, the ascertained truth?” (City of God, Bk xviii, Chapter 40.)
His “ascertained truth” was the Old Testament, which was wrong about the age of the earth by a factor of close to a million!
Although many Greek philosophers from Pythagorus on had held that the earth was round, and Augustine had heard the theory, he was adamant it was flat and inhabited on the upper side only:
“As to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men who are on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, is on no ground credible.” (City of God, Chapter xvi.)
This “towering figure of early Christianity” claimed:
“I was already Bishop of Hippo, when I went into Ethiopia with some servants of Christ there to preach the Gospel. In this country we saw many men and women without heads, who had two great eyes in their breasts; and in countries still more southly, we saw people who had but one eye in their foreheads.” (Sermones, xxxiii.)
The great doctor invented his own biological facts:
“Frogs are produced from the earth, not propagated by male and female parents” (City of God, Chapter xvi) and:
“There are in Cappadocia mares which are impregnated by the wind, and their foals live only three years” (City of God, Chapter xxi.)
This number one theologian attempted to explain how people could survive fire in hell without being consumed, and wrote two chapters in City of God, on the topic, the first entitled
“Whether it is Possible for Bodies to last Forever in Burning Fire,” and the second
“Examples from Nature Proving That Bodies May Remain Unconsumed and Alive in Fire.”
This highly influential intellect thought demons caused disease:
“All diseases of Christians are to be ascribed to these demons; chiefly do they torment fresh-baptized Christians, yea, even the guiltless new-born infant” (De Divinatione Daemonorum, Chapter 3.)
I know some superstitious people today who still attribute illnesses to demons.
This “great pyramid of learning” pondered over
“…whether angels, inasmuch as they are spirits, could have bodily intercourse with women?” ( City of God, book xv, Chapter 23.)
After much deliberation over an entirely imaginary subject, he concluded that they can and do, and that he had proof:
“Many proven instances, that Sylvans and Fauns, who are commonly called ‘Incubi,’ had often made wicked assaults upon women, and satisfied their lusts upon them: and that certain devils, called Duses by the Gauls, are constantly attempting and effecting this impurity.” (City of God, book xv, chapter 23.)
Augustine devoted two whole treatises to the topic of lying (a topic he knew a lot about.) The first of these, ‘De mendacio‘ (‘On Lying,’) written in 395 CE, discussed the pros and cons of lying. Of the eight kinds of lie that he identified, (each with several sub-types) he excused ‘jocular’ lies, was ‘uncertain’ about others, (depending on motive and the likelihood of being believed) and questioned the morality of the remainder. The second, ‘Contra mendacium‘ written in 422 CE, cautioned the brethren as follows.
“One never errs more safely, methinks, than when one errs by too much loving the truth, and too much rejecting of falsehood.” (St Augustine, Retractations, Book I.) He’d evidently thought long and hard before gracing his readers with this conclusion, yet frequently failed to follow his own advice.
This “philosophical genius” wrote:
“I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not influence me to do so.” (Against the letter of Mani 5,6.) He thought “the Gospel” wasn’t believable, but that the church knew better. Today the Vatican claims Augustine was their number one authority. The two ideas produce a classic circular argument.
He derided the value of critical thought.
“There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity…It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.” (Confessions.)
This comment denigrates scientific investigation; an attitude that is, in fact, the antithesis of good philosophy.
Augustine was a reasonably intelligent man, although his great rival Pelagius was far more sensible. His teachings on original sin, women and sex were despicable. He claimed to be an authority on history and scientific subjects he knew very little about, and invented facts to fill in the gaps. He wasn’t honest enough to admit the deficiencies of his religion.
The secular world has, over the last few hundred years, loosened the grip Augustine’s unhealthy teachings have had on Western thinking. We should all be grateful for that.