Who doesn’t love the number 7? There are 7 deadly sins, 7 cardinal virtues, 7 wonders of the ancient world. There are 7 heavens, 7 seals – in fact, in the science-fiction world of John’s “Revelation” there are 7 everything. There were 7 planets in the ancient sky, 7 colors in a rainbow, 7 labors of Hercules. Not to mention 7 days in the week, 7 musical notes, 7 bones in the face, 7 holes in the head, 7 things we can remember at one time.
And don’t forget those 7 amazing little Dwarfs, “The Magnificent Seven” and, most refreshing of all, 7-Up.
Numbers matter to Platonists. If we believe – as good Platonists should – that the real metaphysical oomph lies beyond the wall of sense, the Truth takes on a very abstract feel. It’s not messy; it’s more clean than life. Wherever Truth is, God is there also, the essence of everything in its most essential Form, and also numbers.
Which is why, I think, when Augustine finally comes face-to-face, mano-a-mano with the Big Hombre himself, Senor G-O-D, it’s in Book 7 (or, as he would say, Liber VII). Here’s my reconstruction:
Milan, Italy – 385 A.D. – A Room
Augustine, worried-looking, pondering the Neo-Platonists, thumb-worn codices of Porphyry and Plotinus scattered about, begins to try to find God using reason alone. He starts with what he can understand and moves along, step by step, to higher levels of abstraction until, for a moment … [spoiler alert].
He says: “I was drawn toward you by your beauty but swiftly dragged away from you by my own weight.” (C VII:17)
Like Paul, Augustine saw us all as having two natures, almost dual personalities: one is all too human, an addict of this and that; the other is called to God. They are generally engaged in Civil War. That’s life.
So in Milan, he tries to move beyond his body because “the perishable body weighs down the soul.” How? “I was fully persuaded,” he says, “that your invisible reality is plainly to be understood through created things” – emphasis on “understood.” Using reason to find God.
He tells us he went “by stages.” Thinking his way from the senses to the body to what he called “the soul” that registers sense impressions … on to the power of reason, which is what is playing this little game of Augustine’s … and yet, sadly, “even reason acknowledged itself to be subject to change.” (C VII:17)
Everything changes. Heraclitus was right: you can’t step into the same river twice. Even philosophers change their minds. First loves take you to the prom and dump you, then tell their mom to tell you they’re not home when you call, even though you know for a fact they’re upstairs right then having sex with some asshole. We are all dying women scrambling up a collapsing wall of rock.
Yet, Augustine fought on. Even acknowledging that his reason was flawed, he sensed a “light” that “cried out unhesitatingly that the Unchangeable is better than anything liable to change.” In other words, even his changeable reason perceives something else that does not change. Here’s the key phrase:
“Unless it [i.e., Augustine’s reason] had in some fashion recognized Immutability, it could never with such certainty have judged it superior to things that change.” (p139)
Spoiler: He sees God, although only for “a flash.” Within a year, he converts to Christianity and begins his career as the greatest theologian ever.
Where are we now? Let’s point out the similarity to the exercise of our old friend Anselm, six centuries later. He too believed he could abstract his way to God. He too tried to think his way from mutable to immutable, imperfect to perfect.
He, too, ended up believing he had “proved” the existence of God by answering the question: “Where does the idea of perfection even come from, guys? Who gives it to us?”