City of God, Book 8: Close, but no Cigar

In Book Eight Augustine leaves behind his discussion of the religion of the theatre and the temple, of the people on the street, and focuses his attention on “they who profess to be ‘lovers of wisdom'”. If wisdom is identified with God, then these men are lovers of God, but, contends Augustine, not everything that goes by the name ‘wisdom’ is true wisdom – and “the thing designated by the name is not found in all those who boast of the name [philosopher].”

Augustine limits his attention to those who admit the existence of a Divinity but contend the worship of one God is not enough to secure eternal felicity. They suppose many gods, established by the One God, are to be worshiped. These philosophers are better and closer to the truth than Varo (dialogue partner in early books on the gods), but still wide of the mark. Specifically, Augustine shows respect for Plato and the Platonists, choosing them as the best representatives to engage.

Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was the first to turn “the whole of philosophy towards the improvement and regulation of morality,” believing that only the purified soul could comprehend the eternal, Supreme cause, i.e. the One Supreme God. His focus on ethics aroused the ire of his Athenian community who condemned him to death, only to revere him later. Plato supplemented the teaching of Socrates with the teachings of other learned men, traveling to Italy and Egypt to learn from renowned thinkers.

Plato, on Augustine’s accounting, divided philosophy into three fields: moral philosophy (ethics), speculative philosophy (contemplation of things), and rational philosophy (determining truth from falsehood). Augustin concedes that it is exceedingly difficult to discover Plato’s opinions on a given topic as he shares in Socrates’ habit of “concealing his knowledge.” There are places in which Plato seems to support true religion, but other places where his opinions seems to be in opposition to it. Yet, Augustine chooses to converse with Plato because there are “none who come nearer to us than the Platonists.”

In the sphere of the speculative, Platonists understand that “no material object can be God, and for that reason they raised their eyes above all material objects in their search for God.” Moreover, they look for a God who is immutable, uncreated, and underived (as well as living, intelligent, and happy). Regarding rationale philosophy, the Platonists have shown their preeminence. And in moral philosophy,

“Plato defines the Sovereign Good as the life in accordance with virtue; and he declared that this was possible only for one who had the knowledge of God and who strove to imitate him; this was the sole condition of happiness…Now this Sovereign Good, according to Plato, is God. And that is why he will have it that the true philosopher is a lover of God.”

Augustine acknowledges the apostles warning to be on guard against philosophy and teaching based on the “elemental principles of this world.” But, he asserts that this teaching does not preclude learning from all philosophers, as the apostle also acknowledges that God has revealed to men his nature and attributes through the created order and conscience. Moreover, Paul quotes from philosophers in some of his letters. Plato is so close to Christians in his conception of God that some have speculated he may have been in Egypt at the same time as Jeremiah and learned of the Hebrew God from Jeremiah. Augustine rejects this possibility (the dates do not align), but entertains the notion that maybe Plato read Jeremiah through an interpreter while in Egypt.

Unfortunately, while the Platonists share a true conception of the One God, they nonetheless countenance polytheism. Plato believes all the gods are morally good and thus deserving of worship, placing him at odds with most who believe the bad gods are “mollified by sacrifice to prevent them from doing harm.” This section is incredibly interesting because Augustine acknowledges the Roman gods are “something” and powerful. He asks,

“But then, who are the gods who like the stage shows and demand that those spectacles should be included in divine ceremonies…The power wielded by those gods prove their existence; their taste in entertainment unmistakably reveals their wickedness.”

These gods worshiped in the stage shows are not gods, but demons. Platonists distinguish three types of rationale souls – gods in the heavens, man on earth, and demons in the air between. The demons, like the gods, are immortal, but like men they are given to passions. Why are these demons worshiped? Augustine exposes the inconsistency of worshiping those beings whose actions (lying, debauchery, violence, etc.) we decry.

But, the reply comes, they are needed as mediators between gods and men. Some contend that God in heaven is too far removed from the affairs of men to know without the aide of mediators what is happening on earth and that it is improper for gods to be in contact with men. So the demons mediate. But Augustine asks, do the demons tell the gods about their lewd ceremonies and rituals? If so, did the gods approve? If not, then what else are the demons not telling the gods? And if the demons are hiding it from the gods, do the gods not know when they are being deceived? Any why is it more appropriate for the gods to be in contact with evil demons than with man? Augustine concludes, not surprisingly, that demons should not be worshiped.

Hermes, the Egyptian philosopher, looked ahead to a time when the worship of gods/idols would be outlawed in Egypt. Augustine considers this a bit of inspired prophecy, but prophecy that gets entangled with demonic deception. Hermes acknowledges that idols worshiped in Egypt are man made, not God made, through a “technique of attaching invisible spirits [demons] to material bodies.” While Hermes acknowledges they are man made and sees a time when the worship of the idols/gods/demons will be abolished, he laments this development. What Hermes bemoans, the prophets of Israel and the apostles of the church celebrate!

Two things from Book Eight stood out to me. First, I appreciate Augustine’s willingness to acknowledge truth from philosophers who aren’t Christian and to accept that God has revealed himself generally through creation and conscience. Common grace is the basis for ongoing conversations with non Christians, and Augustine is a great model.

Secondly, I learn from Augustine not to shy away from pointing out the demonic influence on other systems of thought and other religions. I’ve commented on this before, but in our current context, we have reached out and been incredibly affirming of other religions, being quick to point out our areas of commonality. This is good so long as we recognize the demonic deceptions that keep other from seeing what God has revealed in Christ.