The third chapter in Augustine: A Collection of Critical Essays ed. R. A. Markus (New York: Doubleday, 1972) is titled “St. Augustine on Signs”, written by Markus himself (whom we introduced earlier, and whose book Saeculum we previously summarized). Originally appearing in Phronesis in 1957, it is a curious blend of historical and constructive work — beginning with the historical, then eventually threading in the constructive strands (highlighting roads Augustine suggested, but neglected to travel — I will largely ignore these in this post). The De Magistro (“The Teacher”), De Doctrina Christiana (“On Christian Teaching”), and De Trinitate (“On the Trinity”) are the three works of Augustine’s focused on by Markus here. Continue reading
The Neoplatonic understanding of reality is that the world and each thing in the world is an ontological procession or exit from the One-beyond-being –that is, the super-essential Good or Beauty– into difference and multiplicity (the One generating first Intellect, Intellect generating Soul, etc.), and that each thing returns or reverts to what it is an expression of, and participates in, by way of its own unity, its own nature. Proceeding is often likened to a fall, and reversion to an ascent. Insofar as anything exists, it remains within the generative cause from which it proceeds, no matter how far it exits into multiplicity.
In his Confessions, the parable of the prodigal son plays a central role – not only as a means of figuratively summarizing Augustine’s understanding of his own life, but as expressive of the procession or exit of the whole world; yet Augustine stresses the element of falling in the whole procedure: we fall, and are wasted in the fall; we exit, but do not return; like the prodigal, we exit and exit and exit: we go off in a far country, wasting our native dignity, and do not wake up to return to ourselves, our right minds, and remember the Good of our native homeland, God.
The way that Augustine reads his life within this mirror of this parable, and the way that he gathers up his memories in thanksgiving to God so as not to abandon them within the dissolution of the exit, are exemplary of the way that he seeks to unify his own life by gathering himself back to his essential unity and his native homeland, or rather, to seek the hidden unity being wrought by God in the wasteland of his fractured self.
We shall aim first to outline some elements of the procession and reversion in Plotinus, the reasons Plotinus gives for the soul’s fall, the means of its return, and a major disagreement within the tradition of pagan Athenian Neoplatonism that takes its cue from Plotinus. It will then look at the same themes in Augustine’s Confessions, to place the same themes of that work’s narrative in its philosophical context. Continue reading
Across cultures and traditions, across temporal and national epochs, people express a desire for perfect unity, simplicity, and integration. Not everyone, of course — and yet the desire cannot be brushed off as peculiar to a tradition or a time period. The expression is colored by a number of cultural features, and so the metaphors used for this unification and simplification vary from mostly natural imagery (Daoism) to mostly political imagery (Christianity). The predominant metaphors are important, and weight a tradition in a certain way. Traditions can overlap, of course, and the boundaries between them are not always quite as neat as either cultural taxidermists or identity politickers would like; and yet, the desire for unification remains. Nor is it simply a desire: in (neo-)Platonism, Daoism and Christianity (to offer three examples), the ethical drive for unification is connected with both cosmological speculation about the characteristic features of the world as a whole and ontological reflection on the nature of being itself. Specifically within the Christian tradition, the desire for unity, and the accomplishment of unity, is tightly connected to Christology.
The imagery of God as a king at war against the agents of injustice, chaos, and death surrounds all Christology. Because of this, there is an inescapable political element to Christian models of the unification of the person; a sloppy reading of this can lead to some very unethical social, religious and political positions. Here I will trace the twin themes of integration and unification in Mark, which signal the health that is found in redemption (itself a loaded economic, political and military term for liberated captives), and a return from an unnatural slavery under dark powers. I will occasionally ask about the consequences of this political language, sometimes with regard to the pursuit of unification in non-Christian traditions. Does the non-frustrated pursuit of integration in non-Christian traditions indicate that Christology is superfluous to this project? What does Christology assume about the good, about the world, and about reality? Continue reading