Category Archives: Platonism

Reimagining the Past

Augustine’s litany of woe near the end of his endless masterpiece has a careful purpose — it’s the City of Man opposed to his City of God. All those poisons and hailstorms and treachery and legal issues he lists that beset us in life are not simply an invitation to suicide: they’re solid marketing for something else:

“From this hell upon earth [i.e., our lives!] there is no escape, save through the grace of the Saviour Christ, our God and Lord.” (XXI: Ch 22)

Early Christians were in the odd position of having to make actual life seem worse than a disease because what they were preaching was better than a cure. Once Easter happened (or was thought to have happened), everything had to be filtered through it.

Early Christians were something like a wife who suddenly suspects her husband is having an affair … frantically sifting through a shared past, reinterpreting formerly idle events (weight loss, new haircut, smile) as sinister proof of a crime. For the early believers to think God himself came down to Earth to fix things then — ergo, case closed, doh! — things down here must be a lot worse than we thought!

Augustine’s City of God is the spouse’s witch hunt. Again and again, in a devastating, systematic way, he piles fact upon fact into a carapace of undeniable power with a single apologetic aim: to demonstrate not just the superiority but the absolute existential necessity for dying in Christ to be raised up again in the Kingdom of God.

A couple examples:

  • Original Sin — Jews didn’t make a big deal out of Adam and Eve. Genesis was a story of origins, from which we move on. To justify Christ’s coming to save us, Augustine had to reinterpret Genesis as an absolutely fatal diagnosis.
  • Jewish Law — A lot of the Hebrew Bible, of course, is concerned with the Law, and Jewish theology is Law-based, from Mishna to Talmud. What is Law? A set of rules about how to live in this world now, right? Early Christians were not so concerned about now as they were with later (post-Salvation). So they ejected most of the Law.
  • Platonism — Augustine was a Platonist, which is to Apocalypticism as a marathon is to a sprint. Platonists aren’t dualists: they respect this world as basically okay. But it’s nothing nearly so perfect as the ideal, supernatural realm — i.e., the City of God.

The theme here is:

Life in the Kingdom of God = Good

Life on Earth = Bad

Christians are notoriously challenged by three things: sex, getting along with one another, and feeling guilt-free.

Thanks to Augustine, we’re never entirely comfortable right here, right now.

Book 7

Where's God? Huh?

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?”

Who?

I Confess!

Good morning, girls! Feel like a joke? I thought so: “How can you tell Jesus was Italian?”

What's for dinner?

“How?”

“Because he lived at home until he was thirty, never had a real job … and his mother thought he walked on water!”

Hah! ROTFLMAO, right? Giggles.

So we started this God Project Dot Net a month ago describing the Celebrity Pagan Philosopher Death Match: Plato vs. Aristotle. I’m telling you, girls, this fight goes on to this day. It defines the terms in which we talk about God. Compliment a creation scientist: call her an Aristotelian.

With Anselm, we’re strictly Platonic. He was explicit in using reason alone to talk about God, which explains why he does not:

  1. cite a lot of scripture
  2. refer much to things he’s observed in the world

The first (1) is because he was trying to defend the rationality of Christianity. Citing scripture doesn’t help here, because it’s a source outside the mind. Same with (2), which he wouldn’t do anyway because he was a Platonist: he thought Truth was very, very tepidly represented down here on Earth. To see God, we have to look beyond the things that change, the flawed and the ugly, and everything that moves.

Which brings us – at last! – to Augustine. Quick fan moment: Augustine is the Man. He rocks and he rolls. Real is how he keeps it, day by day. Fan moment over.

His father was a pagan, his mother Monica a Christian helicopter parent. (Thus the joke above.) He lived six centuries before Anselm, around the year 400, and saw the end of the Roman Empire. Although he lived most of his life in present-day Algeria, he went to college in Italy and was a professor for a time in Milan.
It was in Milan he had the experience that reminds me so much of Anselm, who certainly knew his Augustine. This experience is described in Book VII of Augustine’s supersonic autobiography, “The Confessions.”

Now, can you tell I spent years failing to be a successful screenwriter? That I wrote action movies, horror films and TV pilot spec scripts that amounted to a hillock of unrecycled paper in a box? Most common comment: this story’s too convoluted, guy. Keep it simple; keep it moving.

Here’s, like, five times I promised I’d get to Augustine’s meditation on the Essence of God and where are we? Older.

It’s like life, right? Plans get made and broken; promises appear and disappear. Everything changes, and not always for the worse. I feel like God, if he exists, wouldn’t be so random, right? Less zig-zag; more stay-stay.

Hey! That’s what Augustine thought too. If we ever get there.

Clarifying the Obvious

Happy Monday, Seekers!

Snowstorm

The God Project Dot Net World HQ

Let’s start with a clarification. By calling this a Clarification – as opposed, say, to a Correction – I’m trying to imply without saying it out loud that what follows is a point that, in my infectious enthusiasm for the Truth, I may have passed over too lightly on my way to yet more brilliant observations. I’m implying, had I only stopped for breath in my recitation of mind-blowing truths, I might have expounded a tad more on a certain item for those of you in the back row who were tweeting at the time.

So here I am about to clarify the obvious for the people. (By the way, this is one theory about why Anselm’s reply to Gaunilo is so disappointing: he left out the parts of his “Proof” he considered obvious, not realizing that Gaunilo wasn’t getting it.)

Yet I just learned this last night, while walking my dog through a snowdrift so intimidating it scared even her, a Bernese mountain dog: Kant himself created the phrase “ontological argument” to describe these Proofs of Anselm, Descartes, Leibniz, et al. And Kant did not know Anselm’s argument directly: he argued against Descartes. Clear? Good.

Now we were talking about Anselm’s Credo of “Faith seeking understanding.” He’s a believer trying to show that faith is compatible with reason. He’s not a modern dude trying to convince a busload of atheists there is a God. That’s a totally different Project.

Here’s the thing, again: Anselm defines God as That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought (TTWNGCBT) … and proceeds to show how those who have TTWNGCBT in their minds can not fail to see that It exists. In the form of a dialogue, it might go:

ANSELM: Imagine God.

FOOL: Got it.

ANSELM: Can you fail to see that It exists?

FOOL: Actually, yes.

ANSELM: Imagine God.

FOOL: Got it. Wow. Really amazing. Still doesn’t exist, bro.

ANSELM: Imagine God.

It’s a strange argument. Anselm is saying if we really, truly have TTWNGCBT playing on the small screen of our minds then … we can see It MUST exist. We can’t imagine an imaginary God, if we are imagining God.

The Fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” She can imagine whatever she wants, there still ain’t no God. Anselm says: “Imagine God.” This is not the scientific method. Gaunilo and Kant saw it as absurd – a way to conjure up anything we want, like some computer-animated fantasy.

But Anselm isn’t conjuring up just Anything, is he? He’s making claims about Everything: that is, God. There’s an ultimacy in this God that’s complete: It is anything and everything. The Source of all, unchanging, entire, outside of time and space, the perfection of perfections, love and truth Itself.

Another way to put his argument – one less offensive to us moderns – is: “If we think about the concept of ‘Perfection’ long enough, we will realize that we are thinking about something that is, in some way, real.”

We’ll see when we get to Augustine, Platonists like Anselm were fond of looking at the good things in our world and imagining the better things to which they seem to point. We could argue this is pure mysticism, meditating ourselves into a subjective state of believing things no one else can see. Anselm would not agree. He would say: anyone who meditates on this topic ends up in the same place: it is not subjective. It is true.

Augustine describes a similar maybe-mystical experience in Book VII of “The Confessions.” Can we wait?

* Highly Recommended: Medieval arguments for the existence of God are described with greater eloquence and authority by Prof. Thomas Williams in this incredible audio course. Grade: 5 snowballs out of 5!

Why Atheists and Fundamentalists Can’t Communicate

The reason is Aristotle. Stay with me here.

Let’s get them out on the mat: Plato v. Aristotle – Celebrity Pagan Philosopher Deathmatch

How do we know anything? We’re trying to answer the Ultimate Question, after all. So we should pause to consider just where our evidence is coming from.

In one corner, Aristotle made the sensible claim that all knowledge comes through our senses. Period. And when we come up with “categories” – as we like to do, being Meaning Making Machines – that is, when we organize all these sense impressions into groups of things that we can put a name to – when we do this, what we’re doing mentally is combining all the different versions our senses have experienced into a kind of average.

So my concept of “car” or “sedan” or “Little Red Corvette” is a mish-mash of all the particular versions I’ve seen or read about or heard in my life.

This sounds very sensible to modern people because without knowing it most of us are Aristotelian epistemologists.

Then there’s Plato. He comes out swinging from the opposite corner. He sees the world and everything in it as a shadow or copy of the really real, an invisible realm. Learning is a process of remembering and not discovering the so-called Forms, or prototypes, of things. And what’s really amazing – startling, outrageous, even – is that Platonists claim these Forms are not only more real than what we can see but that – outrage and calumny – they exist.

That is, they’re not pieces in some giant mental game played by pinheaded brain warriors. They are real things. That we can’t see.

We might call this distinction Ancient; we might call it academic. But it’s still very much with us. I think it’s at the heart of why so-called Liberal Atheists and Evangelicals just don’t understand one another.

The Pagan Deathmatch gives us two ways to check into that cabana called reality. One is to look around, keep it real, and say, “I get it.” The other is to find some source of information about what’s really real, to mistrust our senses and trust, say, our intuitions, or the Scofield Bible.

Who’s right? Nobody knows.