Clarifications and Explorations: Matter, Spirit, Evil, and Much, Much More
First, thanks to those of you who sent in questions, and thanks to Margaret for taking on reading this lecture and convening the discussion that follows. Before we begin, I can only write lectures in the first person, so in what follows “I” means Professor Nicholas Watson, not Margaret Healy-Varley. This lecture -heads- towards an account of what we might call “the problem of the material” in Augustine and other writers we have been looking at. But after reading your questions, it seems best to go back over some earlier ground first and take in some of those questions on the way. This will be a bit of a slog, possibly even actively dull, but remember Cassian’s words disciplina and ascesis in the two Conferences of Abbot Moses: to learn the Art we study here we exercise the appropriate discipline and uses ascesis to renounce desirable things that will get in our way, which in this case may include renunciation of feeling interested, at least for a while.
Part I: The Story So Far
1. So far, we have situated ourselves, in rapid succession, in three different and widely spaced moments of intellectual history: roughly the period 1250-1450 (class on Bartholomeus Anglicus, Pecock, and Aquinas); roughly the first and second centuries AD (class on the New Testament and Perpetua, with a foray into the fourth century for the Vision of Paul); and roughly the fifth and sixth centuries, where we have spent most of our time to date, and will continue to do so until we finish Boethius about a week from now.
A. In the class on the latest of these periods, the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, we were looking at western Christian culture’s developed picture of how the imagination functions physiologically and theologically for writers like Aquinas, who knew not only the tradition of earlier works we’ve been looking at but also a series of other texts on imagination, many of them related to Aristotle’s entirely incomprehensible treatise On the Soul. The most important of these texts was a commentary on Aristotle by the Moslem philosopher known to the west as Avicenna. These texts have more or less reached a consensus in seeing the imagination as a crucial link in what we could call a chain of abstraction or decorporealization, by which the information gathered through the senses can be transmitted to the mental faculties of reason and memory and to the “soul,” which these late texts see as connected to, but not the same as, those mental faculties. In this capacity, the imagination turns sense impressions into images or phantasms which are understood as non-corporeal, or as made of light, a substance which is half way between corporeal and non-corporeal for medieval thinkers. Just how this works, and what terms are used to describe it, varies from thinker to thinker, diagram to diagram, but the basic model is the same.
B. For Aquinas and the other late-period thinkers, the imagination has a second function, which is realized most obviously in dreams, but can also be connected to all sorts of important waking activities: the function of recombining images or phantasms into patterns which do not necessarily occur in the outside world. Geryon, our course mascot, is a typical product of the recombinative imagination, in that he’s made of the bodies of different animals, and is “dreamed” by Dante, at least according to Virgil. The process of “recombining” things in the imagination is often described as purely natural. But Avicenna argued that this recombinative imagination can also have a transcendent function: it can be used by divine beings to communicate with the mind in visions or dreams; and it can also intuit or grasp divine truths of its own accord. Aquinas and others worried about this argument, but partly accepted it, not least because it gave them a good theory of visions, at least of “imaginative” visions. Such visions actually take place in the part of the mind called the cellula imaginativa. Still, because this part of the mind is also part of the body, and because if it can communicate with the transcendent, it can also do so with the demonic, these thinkers tended to stress the ambiguity and suspect nature of the recombinative imagination.
C. We’re going to have a great deal to say about the recombinative imagination later on in the course, especially in relation to two key terms, fiction and experiment.
Fiction is a concept whose early development we’ll be tracing from The Romance of the Rose onwards. Like a dream, it recombines narrative and other elements to make new stories.
Experiment also recombines elements, not in this case to make stories but to study effects. Experiments and fiction in this sense are both like systematic dreams, dreams in which what is recombined is controlled, not casual, and has a specific function. In the first class, I linked fiction and experiment with the part of the mind, closely associated with imagination, known to medieval thinkers as the ingenium, a word which means ‘wit’ or ‘skill’. I noted that ingenium gives us two modern words which now feel very different but have the same intellectual underpinning: genius, a word often used of artists and writers in particular; and engineer, a word used of those who apply the results of experiments to making things in the real world. Hence my claim that the medieval imagination is responsible for just about everything that happened since. More on this topic anon.
[small pause for questions?]
2. After our one class on these late-medieval materials, we hurried back to the New Testament and to an era I described as “before imagination,” to look as a collection of texts I termed visionary, written much more than a thousand years before Aquinas.
A. These texts open up onto a world in which the idea of personal immortality is now well established, along with an idea of heaven and its opposite hell, and in which it is thus now possible to speak about the problems of this life as resolved in the next one; I mentioned the very early link between idea of immortality and ideas of justice, a word which can connote either reward or punishment. In this world, it is also possible to communicate with or journey to heaven while still in this life, and the divide between the two is not that fixed. Paul does not care much if his journey to heaven was “in the body or out of the body”; in the Book of Acts, the disciples see Christ ascend to heaven clearly “in the body”; but when the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost two chapters later, nobody sees the Spirit, whose presence is known, rather, through what happens to the disciples as they begin speaking, miraculously in tongues. Perpetua’s sufferings and coming martyrdom allows her almost to demand visions which at once lead her “up” to heaven and show her what is going to come in this life. They also settle her mind on one piece of unfinished business, the state of soul of her dead brother, who she sees first as suffering, but later as refreshed (this is one of the earliest references in Christian literature to what becomes the doctrine of purgatory, the middle place between heaven and hell also glimpsed in The Vision of Paul). So the next world, in these accounts, is near, but far, intimately accessible but mysterious, indeed often incomprehensible; sometimes a place quite different from this world (a beautiful land full of milk-bearing sheep), sometimes a mode of understanding this world, a sort of transcendent viewpoint on the present and the near future. Visionaries like Daniel and the Apostle John describe the other world in terms whose meaning is often mysterious, using a set of vivid images which are to be read symbolically, in order to show that human perception does not work in the normal way under the stressful conditions it encounters in heaven. Although many non-biblical visions have been controversial, these visionary texts matter a good deal because they invent the idea of an afterlife that has dominated western religious thought. As narrative texts involving the spiritual adventures of a protagonist, they also have at least one – and we’ll see later more than one – connection with the much later genre of fiction.
B. What these texts do not yet have is what by the fifth century had become the West’s settled understanding of the clear divide between body and soul, the divide that modern thought is still working to dis-invent. We owe this divide, which is still important in very many ways to how we think and how our culture is structured, to the impact of Neoplatonism on Christian thought of the third to sixth centuries and beyond. Defining Neoplatonism is as difficult as defining Christianity but we saw its effects in Augustine’s inability to understand Paul’s uncertainty about how he journeyed to heaven, since for Augustine knowledge is necessarily disembodied. We have spent several classes trying to absorb the implications of this fact, both in Augustine and in two other writers: Cassian, a contemporary of Augustine (both writing around 400 A.D., as the Roman Empire began its long, slow collapse); and the man we know as pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, writing under a pen name about 100 years later (and in Greek, not Latin). Remember that this is the name of the one man Paul manages to convert in the city of Athens in the Book of Acts, so the writer’s use of this name at once lays claim to something like “apostolic authority” – this man was taught by the master apostle himself – and acknowledges a connection with Greek thought – since he comes from Greece’s cultural capital, Athens. A bit like the anonymous author of The Vision of Paul, the author of the Mystical Theology thus offers us secret, esoteric wisdom (mystic originally meant secret), rather as though Paul has talked to him about what he saw in the third heaven.
C. Neoplatonic thought always reminds me of Big Bang theory, because it sees the universe as created by an explosion out from a single, central point, through a series of grades, steps, emanations, or hierarchies, which gradually grow further and further away from the central point which is God, and thus participate less and less in his perfection. (The difference is that Big Bang theory takes no interest in the “singularity” from which the cosmos is said to have emerged, which it understands as strictly ineffable, beyond all understanding because outside the “laws of science.”) God himself, or strictly his “creator” function, is Mind or Nous, his substance pure intellect (note that “substance” here means something like “essential nature,” essence). Radiating outwards, Nous gives birth, first, to various spiritual substances (in the Christian version of this, the angels in what Dionysius calls their hierarchies); next, to light, which is almost material; then to heavier matter, descending downwards from air to fire to water to earth. Humankind is a strange hybrid, mixed of material and spiritual substances, body and soul, and so has two possible fates: to sink down into the earth, like a brute animal; or to return to God, the Nous, like a spirit. There are myriad different versions of this in the various religious systems of Augustine’s day, but that’s a basic model with which he, Cassian, and Dionysius, all work.
[again, small pause for questions?]
3. Working with this very crude model of Neoplatonism for now, then, we’ve taken on, so far, several different Christian intellectual structures that follow from this model or are related to it.
A. First, this model informs the developed Christian idea of the soul and maps of the mind. In the Literal Commentary on Genesis and Confessions VII, Augustine considers the soul to be more or less the same thing as the intellect or reason, the part of the human self “made in the image of God,” as the Book of Genesis has it. Someone asked how this “image of God” theory works for Augustine. In Genesis, Adam is made in God’s image either because God is imagined as human-shaped or, conversely, because God is imagined as “breath,” since God breathes into Adam “the breath of life.” For Augustine, though, the word “image” in this context implies that the soul is a kind of copy of God, rather as one of the Platonic “ideas” has its copies in the real world, or the imagination makes “images” that capture the phenomena perceived by the senses: there’s a whole, again Neoplatonic theory of emanation behind the doctrine. Thus in another of his major works, On the Trinity, Augustine refines this idea by arguing that the “soul” consists, not just of the reason but of the memory and the will. He then suggests that these three “parts” or functions of the soul are made “in the image” of the Holy Trinity: so that the Memory is the “image” of the Father; the Reason the “image” of the Son; and the Will the “image” of the Holy Spirit. More on this later in the term, as it will turn out to be a major interest for Julian of Norwich in the fourteenth century.
The soul’s difference from the body then gives birth to a theory of the imagination which Augustine gets, more or less, from Aristotle, and which is similar in many respects to the one Aquinas develops much later on – not surprisingly, since Aquinas was much influenced by Augustine. Here, then, the imagination belongs in the middle, between material and spiritual (in rather the same way as does light), which is why it is higher than body but lower than soul, and why what happens in your imagination in dreams and visions is so ambiguous and untrustworthy, though frequently of very great interest. In Confessions VII, Augustine’s attempt to “imagine” God was like this, interesting but finally useless, since any imagined God has to be imagined inhabiting the cosmos like on of its creatures, or surrounding it like something physical, or so Augustine says.
B. Notice that, in this model, body and soul, material and spiritual, are not opposites, but degrees on a scale of being. This is why, in answer to several questions, it’s possible for these thinkers to believe in orders of being that are in the middle, made out of the same substance as the imagination: images, phantasms, and such like (we get the words fantasy and fancy from phantasm, also of course phantom, ‘ghost’). I’m not quite sure how you can get beaten up by a demon with a phantom body, as happens to Anthony, but I know there’ll be treatises on that very topic! Notice also that, in this model, the intellect or rational soul has several special characteristics.
First, it creates the world it sees (this was going to excite Coleridge in the early nineteenth century). Whereas later on Aquinas would argue that the soul thinks with images derived from the bodily senses, Augustine disagrees, since he cannot accept that the soul should be subordinate to the body in any way. Instead, he develops an idea ultimately out of Plato, that the soul creates ideas or images that correspond to things in the outside world, sending light out through the eye. Augustine does not go as far as Plato, who apparently believed that the soul sees, not things but the ideas of things, but he preserves the hierarchic model in which soul is above body. This may seem odd but has parallels in modern perception theory, which also holds that we create what we see.
Second, the intellect or soul, once it can get free of material things, is infallible, that is, it sees things as they really are. It may see more or less of the truth, but the rational soul cannot by its nature see untruly; any untruth in an intellectual vision is the result of it being less than intellectual. For Augustine, seeing and perceiving and knowing are all the same, when applied to the soul. This is why I introduced the modern word intuition, which we still use to mean “infallible” or “instinctive” knowing; before I remembered that the word goes back at least to Aquinas and possibly Augustine himself (still haven’t checked), to describe the sort of knowing the angels and souls in heaven have of each other. This may also seem odd, but links to what is still an axiom of western thought, that rational deduction, whether based on logic or on observation, can arrive at true facts.
Third, desiring knowledge, the rational soul “thirsts” to ascend to God and, in a sense, to be free of the body (more below). In other words, Augustine’s category of intellectual vision has real similarities to the earlier, biblical visions, which seem to involve not just the intellect but the whole self including, perhaps, the body. The end of Confessions VII, which describes the mind’s progress as it removes itself from the world, considers itself as an object, then uses that process to ascend beyond the self to God, is Augustine’s Neoplatonic answer to biblical visions.
C. So much for the soul. The other very large intellectual structure derived from Neoplatonism has to do, less with the soul, than with reading or interpretation (the technical term is hermeneutics). Ancient and medieval thinkers worked with sacred or authoritative texts, with a canon of works believed to be true, whether this was the works of Plato, Homer, Virgil, or the Bible. (In Christian thought, this idea of the “canon” is part of a whole theory of God’s revelation of himself to his creatures which we’ll cover in bits here and there through the semester.) These texts had a very long life as authoritative, and tended to become incomprehensible through time as a result. Some of the problems this presented were dealt with in the way this course is trying to deal with similar problems: by historicization, by understanding that meanings and contexts change. On the whole, though, ancient thought was resistant to this mode of interpretation, and preferred allegory instead. Allegory ( = “speaking other”) assumed that the literal meaning of a canonical text was just the beginning, the equivalent of the body in the Neoplatonic cosmos. Richer meanings were to be found by reading spiritually, using the intellect to interpret, for example, the crude physical symbols found in biblical visions according to a set of coherent intellectual positions. The biblical text itself, read in this way, was unfathomably rich, almost like the unfathomable richness of God: indeed anything you could derive from it allegorically might, for some ancient thinkers, be considered true.
Allegory is an immensely complex topic, and although it can sound like an arbitrary interpretative system, it does have rules. The crucial thing here is that allegory allows for an updating or reinterpretation of ancient texts and their synthesis with originally very different systems of thought. Allegory allows Augustine to interpret “in the body of out of the body” through his Neoplatonic cosmological assumptions without denying the truth of the original text. Note that allegory also tends towards the esoteric, that is, it works well in a culture that believes that canonical texts have hidden meanings and do not reveal themselves to just anyone. Note, too, that to some extent at least biblical texts ask to be allegorized or at least read symbolically; and that the New Testament sometimes uses this reading method on the Jewish Scriptures/Old Testament.
This is not to say that the apocalyptic texts from Daniel to Revelation we were reading, symbolic though their mode of expression may be, originally asked to be read in many different ways. One of you suggested, in the questions you submitted that “flexibility goes a bit against the grain of apocalypse. Apocalyptic writing doesn’t seem like it wants to be flexible, since it makes very firm truth-claims and claims to ‘rend the veil’ and show people real reality.” The questioner gives the example of the Christian interpretation of Daniel’s prophecies of the “one like a son of man” to refer to Jesus, and points out that “many people who read the text this way ... wouldn’t see themselves as “updating” Daniel’s vision, or changing its meaning to apply to their time, but rather as understanding more fully how Daniel’s Old Testament vision and the New Testament story are both part of the same reality.” This is true, of course: for the most part, allegorical reading doesn’t see itself as “updating,” but as understanding a text truly. But allegorical reading can still function to update the meanings of texts, even if this is not what people think is going on. And such reinterpretations can be hotly contested: Jewish and Christian readings of the Daniel prophecy, for example, have been at odds for two thousand years, since Jewish biblical exegesis traditionally assumes it to refer to a messiah who has not yet come, Christian exegesis to the Messiah who has. We’ll see many more examples of this updating in this course: most notably next week a twelfth-century reading of the Genesis story of Jacob’s wives and thirteen children which understands them all as symbolizing functions of the human psyche. In such a reading, our own reading habits – which are schooled by fiction and other narrative forms, and by our distance from thought systems such as Neoplatonism, to assume that the meaning of stories lies inside events and characters, in their representation of the stuff of life – will be considerably strained. Or at least, so I hope and expect.
Finally, Dionysius’s Mystical Theology can be thought of as an extension of the allegorical method. Dionysius takes the symbols used to describe God in the Bible, and the names applied to him, about whose suitability he has already written a separate treatise, the Divine Names. Divine Names is itself much interested in the way descriptions of God in the Bible can be hierarchized: so that when God is described as having an arse, in the Book of Exodus, we read this corporeal symbol allegorically; whereas when he is described as light, or love, these terms are truer of him than arse, and so our immediate approach to these terms is affirmative or catophatic, applying an understanding of the concept of light or love directly to the divine person. Mystical Theology offers an alternative, and opposite system, which insists that light and love actually name God in much the same way as does arse, since God transcends both qualities, indeed all naming. Why, then, does God call himself arse, love, and light in the Bible? What is the truth of these in a sense clearly false names for God? Dionysius’s answer is that their truth emerges when you learn to negate those names, using them systematically to think about how God transcends them. Negating the names of God in order leads the soul away from the world, using the Scriptural text, to an experience of apophasis in which what is understood about God is that he incomprehensible – although his incomprehensibility nonetheless has a shape, the silhouette of the denied names themselves.
So here we have another Neoplatonic “ascent,” a variety of visionary experience undertaken by the intellect, like Augustine’s, although the differences with Augustine are very real. (By the way, pseudo-Dionysius probably didn’t know Augustine, who wrote in Latin, and Augustine couldn’t have known pseudo-Dionysius, not only because he wrote in Greek but because he wrote eighty or so years after Augustine’s death.) One of you asks, “would it be accurate to say that, for Dionysius, the word is inferior to the concept in the same way that the image is inferior to the concept for Augustine?” I think the answer is yes, and that this is a helpful way of putting it, because in a sense what Dionysius means by “word” is similar to what Augustine means by “image,” when he’s talking about the images that exist in the imagination. The crucial difference, though, is that the words that interest Dionysius are biblical words, they are words spoken by God; whereas the images Augustine finds unhelpful and ambiguous, preferring to ascend to God using his intellect, have no such authority. So there is a sense in which Augustine thinks of himself as rejecting images in his ascent to God in Confessions VII, whereas Dionysius denies or negates the divine names. I am not too sure of the difference in practice (not least because Augustine’s account of “ascent” to God by way of an “uplifted” reason which “sees” the “light” of truth is of course stuffed with literary images, just as Dionysius’s denial of the validity of words takes place in words). But I think there’s one in theory.
4. This, then, concludes the first part of the lecture. I haven’t dealt with Cassian, but will return to him in what follows, when I’ll also give attention to Manicheism and other topics people asked about. I’ve tried to reuse most of the technical terms introduced in class so far. So far as these terms are concerned, please remember that their meanings often change over time; indeed, understadning the way this tradition of thinking through imagination, vision, and so on develops over the 1500 year period covered by the course is as important as grasping the terms themselves.
[definitely break for comments and questions here]
Part II: Is Matter Evil? Why Does It Exist? And Other Unexpected Puzzles
Second part of the lecture. First, yet more intellectual history: I’m going to attempt to give a very brief account of “the problem of matter” as this was imagined in Augustine and Cassian’s time, a time in which the more straightforward attitude to the world (the “created world” as Christianity puts it) found in the Bible and earlier Greek and Roman writings had come to seem unsatisfactory. Then we’ll move on to a renewed focus on portions of Augustine’s Literal Commentary on Genesis in order to see how some of the ideas traced here work out in practice.
1. Ancient Materialisms and Dualisms
Not everyone in the late antique world (between the second and sixth centuries) believed in God, or the idea of the spiritual, though most philosophers did. The followers of Epicurus, for example, were notorious for believing that “the spirit dies with the body,” while the afterlife was still a shadowy thing even in some Christian discourse. On the whole, though, intellectual advantage lay with the idea of the spiritual or intellectual realm as real – indeed as defining the real – more or less separate from the material universe, and ontologically superior to it. Not only did the many Neoplatonisms, and Christianity, as well as segments of Judaism, support this idea, it was compatible with other philosophical schools derived from Greece, at least broadly speaking: Stoicism, Pythagoreanism, and so on. Indeed, speaking philosophically, it came to be matter, not spirit, that was on the defensive among intellectuals of the fourth and fifth centuries (and right down to the twelfth century). Since in Neoplatonic thought matter is further from truth than spirit, the “heavy” always at a philosophical disadvantage compared to the “light,” it’s a real question why matter should have been created in the first place; just as it’s a real question why anything, including spirit itself, should have been created. Since creation occurred, a third question that raises itself is, Why is there evil?
To some extent, ancient philosophers threw up their hands at these questions, as theoretical physicists would if asked Why the Big Bang? Christianity’s official answer to the question of the creation is “grace,” that is, that God did it because he chose to do it. Christianity also affirms, largely borrowing this idea from Genesis, that the material creation is good, although not good in the way it was originally, before the introduction into the world of evil through the sin of Adam and Eve. However, one strain of ancient thought, the one that passes through Manicheism, offered a more radical solution: that God did not in fact create the material world, only the spiritual one; that the material world was, on the contrary, made by an anti-God, a fact that rendered it, not merely “fallen” but evil, evil in a way that could not be redeemed, only transcended. In this system, it was vital to resist the power of the anti-God by living, so far as possible, “in the spirit” not in the flesh, in order to help the good God in his eternal battle with his opposite number and to gain release from the flesh and thereby eternal salvation. Ascetic Christians like Cassian also believed that, by disciplining their bodies, they could help achieve a release for their spirits, a state Cassian, through Moses, calls “purity of heart.” People all over the Mediterranean at this time were practicing lives of sexual and social renunciation in the name of one or another religious or philosophical discipline: it was an age of spiritual warriors and athletes, terms that were used at the time. But Manicheans went further than others in their belief that the world they wished to renounce was not just material and heavy, but actively evil: a view Cassian and his Christian contemporaries vehemently condemned.
Much about Manicheism is obscure, because lost, but it seems to derive from an older, Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. This survives to this day as Parseeism, now mostly found in south Asia, and is the likely point of origin for the ideas of a good versus an evil God, and of spirit versus matter on which Mani, the founder of Manicheism drew. It’s important that Zoroastrianism may also had an impact on Judaism in the last centuries before Christ. Although Judaism was fiercely monotheistic and could not tolerate the idea of two Gods, it did, during those centuries, evolve a belief in an evil spirit who, in Christianity, becomes Satan, the great angel who, created good, fell from heaven through pride and was cast into hell, under the earth. Thus the Christianity Augustine and Cassian grew up with at once had a superficial affinity with Manicheism, a sort of parallel structure, and a profound series of disagreements with it. Augustine’s Christian mother Monica put up with almost all his spiritual adventures, according to the Confessions, not to mention his amorous ones, but just could not cope when he started hanging out with the Manichees.
So: we have three main systems in play around Augustine and Cassian. Central to both of them is, of course Christianity, with its belief that the whole cosmos, including matter, is “good,” although in some sense corrupted by evil. Evil is part of the material world both because demons entered the world after the fall and still enjoy a phantasmic existence here and because humans weakened their own original perfection by admitting the demonic into themselves when Adam and Eve ate the apple. Augustine considered the world as we know it to be drastically different from the “primal” state of being Adam and Eve enjoyed in paradise: where there were no seasons, no necessity of death, and no disorder of the will, i.e. where the rational soul reigned supreme in the unfallen body. This world is now gone, thanks to human and angelic sin. But evil is still infinitely weaker than goodness, Satan than God, and it is possible, with divine aid, to make one’s way through the corrupted world we now live in back to God through the kinds of heroic efforts Cassian describes through Abbot Moses, as well as by more ordinary “lay” Christian means. Indeed, there is a sense in which the corruption of the world is, spiritually speaking, an advantage, because it allows the created world to become what it is for Cassian’s heroic desert fathers: a testing ground, a place in which the struggle against evil, and the difficulty of the attempt to purify oneself, is beneficial to the soul, partly in the same way physical exercise is beneficial to the body, partly because of a belief that God will reward those who suffer for his sake in the same way he rewards martyrs like Perpetua with instant entry into heaven. In The Life of Anthony, Anthony hears a gospel reading in which Christ tells a rich young ruler that, if he wishes to be perfect, he must give away all he has and follow him. Such ideas of renunciation, combined with idea of spiritual struggle, make of the world a testing ground, a place, not exactly of bodily denial but of bodily conflict.
On one side of this system is Manicheism, which posits that matter is evil and that evil is as powerful a principle in the cosmos as goodness. You would think it had a similar view of the benefits of spiritual struggle, but in practice, because it has no positive place for the body at all, its adherents often seem to have been intellectualist and not particularly given to renunciation, except in that they abstained from sex. On the other side is Neoplatonism, which does not believe in Satan at all, and does not really believe in evil either. Evil, in Neoplatonism is what Augustine also believes it to be in theory: “the privation (or absence) of good.” As the creation emanates out from the Nous that is God, it loses goodness, becoming changeable or mutable, especially once it is involved with matter. Evil in this context is something like blindness or disorder, an effect of the distance between the material world and God. Although we’ll soon see it beautifully presented by Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy, this is both a logically and an imaginatively difficult position. Augustine helps with the imaginative side of it, perhaps not with the logical one, by arguing that Neoplatonism is right to claim that everything that exists is good because existence is a good (so that even Satan is good in so far as he exists); and right to argue that evil is almost the same as non-existence (so that Satan’s evil is the result of his being other than what he once was); but wrong to think that evil is not also an active principle, caused by a deliberate perversion of the good of the creation, first by Satan, then by humankind. Neoplatonism tends to a kind of determinism, even an impersonality, which again we’ll see in Boethius, a Christian of the late fifth century who thinks as a philosopher, not a theologian. Augustine’s and Cassian’s Christianity, with its strongly personalized idea of God inherited from the Bible and its deep interest in agency, in what human and spiritual creatures choose, works in a very different way.
Finally, on this topic of the material world and the threat of the idea that matter is evil: in modern times (from the late nineteenth century on), Christianity has often been accused of bringing Manichean dualism with it into the modern world, actually teaching that the world and its physical pleasures in particular are evil, a charge that has then sometimes been associated with Christianity’s supposed misogyny, puritanism, and violence. Augustine and St Paul are often fingered as the prime offenders. (Does this ring any bells with anyone?) Now Christianity is such a big and complex thing that everything bad you could ever say about it will somewhere be true, but in theory at least there is no ground for these charges, at least so far as the fifth century is concerned, where we’ve seen that Christianity had a weirdly positive view of the material creation, despite the strong pull of other views. One final reason for this positive view I have not mentioned and must in passing is the Christian doctrine of incarnation, the theory – still considered amazingly unlikely by non-Christian intellectuals of Augustine’s time – that Jesus was the Christ, a being both God and man, in whom divinity and humanity were at once inextricably mingled and remained absolutely separate. This theory already had a long and tortuous history by the time of Augustine and Cassian, which we must at all costs avoid talking about, but it’s worth bearing in mind in all the religious materials in this course that they belong to a religion which holds both that humanity and the world have become evil and require divine intervention to set them back on track; and that this intervention is understood to have taken the form of God’s entry into his creation, his uniting of himself with the material cosmos. The Christian doctrine of incarnation is its ultimate protection against Manichean dualism.
[Again a possible pause for comments]
2. Further and Final Thoughts on The Literal Commentary on Genesis
In closing this lecture, let’s now look back at a few moments in the Literal Commentary to see what, if anything, we’ve learned. As an anti-Manichean, reacting as deeply as he knew how against his own earlier dualistic belief that matter is evil, Augustine wants to preserve all the good he can in the created universe and the human body, as his loving account of the process of creation throughout the Literal Commentary shows. As a Christian, not a Neoplatonist -- at least, not in theory a Neoplatonist, for all the neoplatonic elements he admits into his thought -- Augustine also has to preserve the eternal as well as the temporal value of the human body. It was a major area of disagreement between Christianity and late antique Neoplatonism that, along with all its other oddities, Christianity asserted a doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and in a more shadowy way a redemption of matter, at the end of time: assertions that offended Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and Proclus, with their commitment to a different model of the whole creation’s eventual return to God, and thus to spirit. The need to separate Christianity from Neoplatonism obliges Augustine to preserve some of the materialism he finds in the New Testament’s accounts of the cosmos despite the way, as I suggested, that certain aspects of these accounts have become incomprehensible to him with the passage of three hundred years, and with the headway made into Christian thought during those three hundred years of the philosophical thinking of the Greeks, especially Plato.
Thus although Augustine begins his account of vision by simply not comprehending how Paul can have been uncertain whether he was “in the body or out of the body” -- since clearly what Paul saw was true, and clearly, for Augustine, it was also spiritual, not material -- he ends Book 12 admitting materialistic views of the other world back into his thinking, even though he stops short of imagining them in detail. One of the many chapters we did not look at yet, for example, is Chapter 32, where Augustine speculates on how far the places of punishment or peace to which the soul journeys at death might be material places. Although hell and heaven are incorporeal -- even though hell may have a spatial location, under the earth -- Augustine argues here that the spirit after death still has the likeness of a body, believing itself embodied even though this is not really true, in exactly the same way one believes erroneously in one’s own dreams. (Note that this Chapter 32 is very useful for reading Dante, who imagines the bodies of the damned in very much this way.)
It’s true that at one late point in the work (in Chapter 34), Augustine seems to restate his anti-materialist position rather clearly. This is where Paul’s “first heaven” is interpreted as corporeal vision and symbolizes “the whole corporeal heaven... all that is above the waters and the earth,” and the “second heaven” becomes “the object of spiritual vision seen in bodily likenesses,” like the “dish let down from above full of living creatures,” seen by Peter “in ecstasy” in the Book of Acts -- just so that we can be told, yet again, that Paul’s “third heaven” is free from matter, consisting of “objects seen by the mind after it has been ... separated and removed and completely carried out of the senses.” There’s little admission of the value of any materialist conception of the cosmos here.
Yet this picture of reality immediately reminds Augustine of the redemption of materiality promised by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, a redemption already implicit in his association, again following Paul, of the “third heaven” with “Paradise” at the end of Chapter 34: “If all this is true, then I believe that Paul was carried off to that third heaven and that there is a paradise which is more excellent than all others and is, if we may use the term, the paradise of paradises.” This paradise may be spiritual, but it is so richly referenced by the material paradise -- the garden of Eden, and the unfallen earth that once surrounded it -- as to gather into itself, as it were, much of the material world. Thus the last two chapters of the book ask “why must the spirits of the departed be reunited with their bodies in the resurrection, if they can be admitted to the supreme beatitude without their bodies?” (Chapter 35), trying to insist, simultaneously, on the need for the doctrine of bodily resurrection -- even to the point of admitting, a bit grudgingly, that the soul has a need for the body -- and on the completely transformed nature of post-resurrection materiality.
Perhaps the soul needs the body “because of some mysterious reason or simply because of the fact that it possesses a kind of natural appetite for managing the body,” muses Augustine; but if so, this “natural appetite” will have to be transformed in the next life, so that the body, now a “burden” and hindrance to intellectual vision, can become a “glory,” and human cognition can be truly equal with that of the angels, to whom none of this botheration is relevant (Chapter 35). Grudging this may be. Yet the very fact that a thinker, living in an age otherwise so filled with philosophical longing for the realm of spirit and distrust for the body as the early fifth century, could admit even this much, seems a testimony, not only to the gap between Augustine and the materialism of the New Testament but also to the abiding influence on him, and through him, of that materialism. In other words, Augustine may reject non-biblical apocalyptic like The Vision of Paul, but he is still influenced in crucial ways by apocalyptic thinking, with its material understanding of the cosmos.
[Before or after the questions add]. In section on Thursday, and in next Tuesday’s class, we’ll be moving on to our final text from this fascinating fifth-sixth-century period, the “join” as I said between the world of classical antiquity and the “medieval” world which followed, after the breakup of the Roman Empire, the splitting off of its eastern, Greek-speaking half into an empire of its own, run from Constantinople, and the turmoil of the western, Latin-speaking half with which the rest of our course is concerned. This text is Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written by one of the last western thinkers for several hundred years to have access to the whole range of Greek scientific and philosophical thought, a body of work he was slowly translating into Latin before his arrest and execution, the devastating event which caused him to write the Consolation. Boethius is a Christian who writes like a neoplatonic philosopher, partly because he was writing in an Italy which still had adherents to different religions and philosophies and wished to appeal to them all, partly because his life’s project of translating the Greeks into Latin seemed to him to point towards the conclusion of Neoplatonism. Here, then, we’ll come up against versions of the ideas of emanation, of order and disorder, the unchangeable God and the changeable cosmos, which I’ve been describing over the last few classes: the same versions from which later thinkers derived their understanding of ancient philosophical thought.
We’re going to have to be very succinct with this fundamental text, one of those texts which is on everyone’s list of the Great Books of the West, along with Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Comedy, and perhaps The Romance of the Rose, of the works covered in this course. Please give the work a careful read before and after section, so we can talk about its whole length on Tuesday; please also begin to think about two of its most interesting stylistic features: its use of dialogue, familiar to us from Cassian’s Conferences; and its combination of prose and verse. What is verse doing in a philosophical treatise? What is “philosophy,” that it should require one to sing? One of the few sets of terms I didn’t manage to squeeze into this long lecture from our first few classes is the distinction I mentioned lies behind Cassian, the distinction between theoria and techne, theory and practice. I suggested that Augustine’s Literal Commentary and Dionysiu’s Mystical Theology are in a sense ‘theoretical’ texts, but that Cassian’s Conferences are about how one applies religious theory to actual living, about the difficult relation between theory and practice. When we come to Boethius, then, look for the same issues. Is Boethius trying to argue something abstract? Or is he trying to perform something practical? [END THANKS SO MUCH MARGARET!!!!