Christians 2, Philosophers 0 (Augustine, Boethius, Hypatia)

Before picking up in CoPhi today with Augustine, Boethius, and Hypatia (and “Aher” and a smidgin of Zen)

M 27/T 28 – JMH 193-216. Augustine, Boethius, Ben Abuyah, Hypatia, Zen

we’ll ponder George Santayana’s statement about preserving the “chastity of the intellect” by not surrendering it to unearned (i.e., insufficiently evidenced) beliefs. His predecessor C.S. Peirce had a related thought about the unpragmatic separation of belief from action.

Beliefs, on Peirce’s proposal, are ideas we’re prepared to act on, and

what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief… To avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous.

So let’s continue looking.

As Christopher Hitchens always liked to ask: What was God doing, for all eternity, before these storied events in the desert two millennia ago? Preparing hell?Really?*

That was Augustine‘s little joke, and he knew it’s not the best, most comforting or “Christian” answer  A lapsed Manichaean [PhDy], influenced by Plotinus, fearful of death or a punitive afterlife (and thus unable to become an Epicure and embrace happiness on earth), and famously reluctant to embrace the chastity of his Christian re-birth, Augustine confessed his initial problem with belief in the Christian God. He “had a lot of trouble with lust before and after” his conversion.

He was not the first church Father with that problem, or the last. But he he eventually overcame his unbelief by drawing rigid lines around his own protean appetites, and especially around his intellectual curiosity.  He “praised doubt as long as it does not question God,” and thus anticipated Descartes by centuries. Talk about putting Descartes before the horse, which in this context means putting God before the doubt.

That was a bad pun, but it’s a worse philosophy. There’s a lot of question-begging circularity going on here, reminiscent of the notorious Cartesian Circle around clear and distinct ideas of the divine: If resurrection is impossible it didn’t happen, but it DID happen… The outer evidence? Second-hand scripture. That’s an appeal to shaky authority at best. The inner evidence? That’s a shaky concept to begin with, but it’s probably what Augustine’s faith ultimately rests on. Seems to have been good enough to get him Sainted, but it wouldn’t have got him through his Grad School prelims in philosophy.

JMH says Augustine does not flatly reject philosophy, he just insists that it “should be used when it is useful” in complementing, not in questioning, faith. For some of us, that sounds a lot like rejection.

Like Brian, he was a bit of a Mama’s Boy. “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.” Right. He did let Paul’s more tender and attentive God woo him from the clutches of “the [neo-] Platonist books,” and set high personal standards of piety and asceticism. JMH notes,

He did not feel he was a Christian until he could give up all sex, all food beyond his barest needs, and all worldly enterprise, including his job as a teacher.

“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

Another joke. Very funny. But this is a serious moment in the history of Belief and Doubt. It’s not about the philosophic enterprise of “getting to the bottom of what’s real” but instead “trying to commit oneself to belief.” It’s the Believing is Seeing inversion again.

Augustine gave Christians the stock “free will” solution to the problem of evil they’ve rested in ever since, and their dependence on undeserved divine grace that made the world safe for Calvinist predestination: more “difficult” doctrines to complement Paul’s on the redemptive resurrection.

Augustine once thought himself happy in his Godless, hedonistic youth; and then he famously begged for more time to sow his oats and adjust to the idea of a more sedate life of “contemplative felicity.”

*Augustine doesn’t answer the riddle about God’s activities just prior to the advent of Christianity, but he does offer an interesting perspective on time and how (and when) a God would spend it: “Before the universe existed there was no time.” No God either, presumably. What would Spinoza say? And Einstein?

Augustine’s contemporary Hypatia would have found it difficult, indeed, to accept the Augustinian denial of evil as something tangibly, substantively, pernicious. Being flayed alive is surely to experience much more than mere “privation” of flesh and spirit. But it certainly underscored, and punctuated with bitter irony, her most famous statements:

To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.

Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.

EB: Hypatia’s reputation as a learned and beautiful female philosopher, combined with the dramatic details of her grisly death, have inspired the imaginations of numerous writers, resulting in works such as Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia: New Foes with an Old Face (1852).

The late Carl Sagan brought her story to life in Cosmos. And now there’s a motion picture. Maybe she’ll finally get the attention she deserves.

JMH: After Hypatia’s murder “no non-Christian in the Roman Empire actively attempted to propagate secular philosophy. By 529 CE,

the Christian emperor Justinian outlawed paganism and closed the Epicurean Garden, the Skeptic Academy, the Lyceum, and the Stoic Porch.

Christians 2, Philosophers 0. (Lions long gone.) But at least Boethius had a nice visit with Lady Philosophy before he had to go.

More on Hypatia, Boethius, Ben Abuyah here

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