St. Augustine On The Eternal

Despite the wide-ranging topics in which he engages, Augustine’s thought is determined by one essential theme: The of interplay of two opposites, or as he would have it, seeing the eternal in the temporal.

But he has not neglected the one for the other, for he understands that the temporal is meaningless without the eternal, and vice versa, just as the body has no purpose without the soul, so human society cannot be free and just without the model of the City of Heaven.

It is precisely when eternity and mortality meet that truth can be discerned, and this truth has various definitions. For a person it means the discovery of one’s soul, which leads to happiness in the deepest sense. For society it means the embodiment of peace and justice, where equality is held supreme.

But Augustine is first and foremost a theologian; he has a purpose in mind; his philosophy is not merely speculative thought, but it serves a religious end. He is interested in knowing God and uncovering His plan for redemption through the use of reason. In other words, Augustine believes in order to understand, and understands in order to believe.

The interplay of eternity and temporality mirrors the relationship between a human being and God. Thus, in the Confessions Augustine describes the chaos that ensues when a person does not recognize the coherence of God’s plan.

Our lives are filled with unpredictability and uncertainty; we never know when death will strike, or when tragedy or hardship will destroy the stability we have built. His point is to show that history is neither autonomous nor independent, and the laws of cause and effect cannot lead to particular goals or ends. Rather, history only makes sense when it is placed within the context of eternity, that is, the unfolding of God’s grand scheme of things.

As is typical of Augustine, he begins with the particular and proceeds to the universal, as he does in the Confessions wherein he gives first an autobiographical account, from which he draws forth universal truths, and in The City of God he begins with the fall of Rome and proceeds to the eternity of the City of Heaven, in that the true Rome is not in Italy, but it is the heavenly Rome, which can never fall.

The theme of contending opposites no doubt harks back to his Manichean days, when he believed that the world was a battleground between two powerful forces, one good and the other evil, But after his conversion, Augustine takes this doctrine of opposites and transforms it.

He suggests that heaven and earth may well have contending and contrasting forces, yet from these two extremes, a person may choose the middle point between the two, which is the best course; and such is the process of virtue, which is the ability to make the best choice.

However, such a choice is not only a question of choosing between two extremes, for rationality is involved, which guides us to the rightness of a thing, which is also truth, which is also goodness and beauty.

Without the assistance of reason, Augustine reminds us, even virtue becomes a vice, since it is only pure excess. This is a crucial point in his philosophy, because he suggests that without ethics, virtue is nothing more than extreme belief, which exists for its own end and has no clear, or rather good, end.

Thus, to seek virtue, without any reference to God, is nothing more than arrogance, or as Augustine states, paraphrasing Aristotle, that a human being is not the best thing in the world. It is the soul that animates the body, and thus the soul is linked to the reality that lies outside the body.

Consequently, virtue properly belongs to the City of Heaven, and not to the City of the World. When we say we are being virtuous but have no perception of God, we are taking that which properly does not belong to us or the earth and forcing it to do our bidding, rather than using virtue to lead us to goodness and to beauty.

Therefore, virtue without God is nothing more ambition and pride, which were the very states that Augustine was in the beginning of the Confessions, when his life had no room for the City of Heaven.

When Augustine speaks of opposites, he does so not simply to draw attention to their nature, or to their machinations in our lives and in our world. Instead, he has a bigger and more philosophical purpose than either the Manicheans or the Neoplatonists, who were engaged in a similar process of thought. Augustine takes he argument to a wider, higher level by suggesting that despite this pull of opposites, harmony is possible, in the embrace of God’s love through Christ.

Without this love, the Manicheans are right, and creation is nothing more than a grand chess game between Good and Evil, with move followed by countermove; the end result of this game never to be known.

And without this love, the Neoplatonists are forever caught in the web of doubt, since the world is nothing more than corruption and change and impermanence, and we being of this world cannot ever perceive that which is perfect, permanent and eternal.

Augustine overcomes both these extremes by suggesting that we must seek to imitate and emulate that which is perfect, and once we have gained this understanding, we must seek to implement what we have learned upon this earth, so that all our actions, thoughts and concerns mirror that which exists in the City of Heaven. Therefore,

Augustine teaches not only the pursuit of spirituality, but also the striving for justice, peace, truth, goodness and harmony, which are all the result of love. In effect, it is love that must forever mark human life, and define it. Here, then, is the beginning and end of Augustine’s philosophy.


The photo shows, “St Augustine” by Philippe de Champaigne, painted in 1645-1650.

On Humanism And Its Importance

The essential idea, or philosophy, that defined the Renaissance was humanism, which placed great emphasis on human values and life. In this spirit, all those things that made the world beautiful and happy were actively pursued, such as language, art, music, science and ideas.

Humanism drew its models and its inspiration from ancient Rome and Greece, and emphasized the joys that were to be found in this life. This was contrary to the earlier (medieval) view that said that this world was to be ignored in order to gain life hereafter.

It was Pico della Mirandola, who best summarized humanism when he stated: “nothing is more wonderful than man.” He also emphasized the importance of the individual whom he defined as “the intermediary between creatures, the intimate of higher beings and the king of lower beings, the interpreter of nature by the sharpness of his senses, by the questing curiosity of his reason, and by the light of his intelligence.”

This new way of looking at things found its perfect vehicle in the discovery of the movable type, or the printing press, since books were suddenly available and helped in the spread of education and knowledge.

Therefore, some fifty years after Gutenberg published his Bible, there were more books printed than had been copied by hand a thousand years before.

Humanism also encouraged interest in the affairs of world, which gave confidence to men and women in themselves – since the individual was seen as a person able to do and achieve he or she desired.

As a result, it was humanism that allowed Renaissance poets, painters, architects, musicians, writers, thinkers, explorers and even politicians to thrive and prosper. For example, painters studied geometry, optics, and anatomy, which

allowed them to create paintings that were three-dimensional – just as our eyes see the world around us. And significantly they rendered the human body not as a thing to be ashamed of, but as an intimate part of nature – and therefore beautiful.

Humanism also gave women an active social and political role. For the first time, we see strong women emerging, such as Queen Elizabeth in England, Catherine de’ Medici who became a regent in France, Marguerite of Navarre the famous author from France, and in Italy there were Beatrice and Isabella d’Este and Caterina Sforza who were important patrons of culture.

There was also progress in science as a result of humanism. Previously, in medieval times, the stress was on understanding symbolism and heavenly visions.

Humanism demanded instead that the world be carefully studied and the laws of nature be minutely observed. This new way of looking at things is exemplified by Nicolas Copernicus, who revolutionized science when he stated that the sun was the center of a vast solar system and that the earth was merely one of the many planets that circled the sun. This was not new, as the Greeks knew this already, but it was restated.

The Church’s objection to Galileo was not because of his science, but because he wanted to say that science alone had all the answers. Here the Church was far better at humanism than Galileo.


It was humanism that allowed a close scrutiny of the Church as well, which had become a powerful political institution, and in which the clergy was busy gathering wealth and land, rather than looking after the spiritual well-being of people.

Consequently, this led to the Reformation, which was started by Martin Luther (1483-1546), who rejected the central authority of the Church and the mediation of the pope and the priests. Luther stressed that any individual, by reading the Bible for himself or herself, could interpret the word of God, without the help of a priest – and the individual could find the ways of God through his or her own efforts.

Lastly, it was humanism that made the Renaissance truly an age of discovery, since it taught that human beings could achieve all things. Thus, the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias (ca. 1450-1500) sailed to the Southern tip of Africa, and his fellow countryman Vasco da Gama (ca. 1469-1525) made the first trip by sea to India.

And in the same spirit, Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, and Ferdinand Magellan (ca. 1480-1521) circumnavigated the entire globe. Similarly, Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) explored and conquered Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1478-1541) conquered Peru. During this time, the English, the French, and the Dutch were settling along the Atlantic coast of North America.

Whenever we speak of the Renaissance, we are also speaking of a very powerful idea, which said that people were infinitely full of great potential, and it was this idea that fueled the achievements of this unique time in history. This is the core of humanism – and this also is the core of Christianity.


History? Who Cares!

It is curious that history in our day and age is in a state of paradox. On the one hand, we have professional history, which is specialized, and therefore highly sophisticated; and on the other, we have popular history (historical knowledge possessed by the ordinary members of society) which is shallow and superficial at best.

There are various reasons for this paradox (cultural, economic and political expectations), but the chief one is that we as a culture have chosen to side-line the importance of history, because we view the past as inherently backwards and not worth bothering about.

We have taken on this view because we like to believe that we are far better than the past. For us, history serves only to enforce a self-congratulatory view of ourselves.

This is a dangerous view to possess for several reasons.

First, it means that we perpetually sit in judgment of the past so that we might the more easily pat ourselves on the back for being so much better than all those benighted souls that lived before our time; and so when we look at history all we do is search for examples that will highlight our own superiority.

Second, we have been struck by historical amnesia, because we have lost all sense of how it is that we came to live in a society and culture that we all value and want to be a part of.

Why do we cherish discovery and invention? What things guarantee our happiness, our prosperity, and our personal ambitions?

If we cannot answer these questions, can we actually believe that these important values will continue into the future, in our society?

Such questions are not philosophical, anthropological, sociological, or even psychological – they are deeply historical. If we no longer understand these questions, we certainly cannot answer them.

Indeed, without history, we only possess atomized, personal experiences, which are tentative and incomplete at the best of times – and hardly valuable enough to build an entire society on.

Third, when we view ourselves as somehow better than the past we overtly state that we do not know how to change things. Indeed, how can we change anything if we do not understand anything?

By not comprehending the nature of our society, we are forced to abandon control to those who actually have an understanding of things.

In effect, because of ignorance our minds are easily hijacked.

If we do not know history, we have no knowledge of ourselves. If we do not know ourselves, how can we know what is good for society?

Humans are uniquely and thoroughly historical creatures. Humans cannot live without history. We need it, just as much as much we need to eat and to sleep.

We forever talk about ourselves; what has happened to us, where we come from; we concern ourselves with causes; we believe change to be inherently good; we are constantly seeking ways to make ourselves and our society better. We set standards for our politicians, for our institutions, for our charities and welfare organizations.

All of these concerns are about building the good society – and therefore, all of these concerns stem from our history.

It is only because of certain and specific historical ideas that we are who we are.

In turn, history becomes the desire to comprehend who and what we are. History gives us a deeper knowledge of what we can and cannot do. And it is by juxtaposing our abilities with our inabilities that we come to understand ourselves.

Thus, history is a record of human abilities and inabilities. It is a record of the human pursuit of self-knowledge. It is a record of humans living in community.

So, why bother with history? For one simple reason. So we can all define and then build the good society – without being told what that society should be by politicians, or those who think that they know better than we do ourselves.

We must know the strengths and weaknesses of our society, which is called a “liberal democracy.” We need to constantly rediscover, individually and as a community, those historical processes which have led us to create the society we enjoy and cherish.

Why? Because it is only through such a rediscovery that we come to understand how we must maintain and constantly revivify our society so that it may continue to guarantee to us and to others both freedom and happiness.

This is also why we cannot live without history – for how can we imagine how we shall live if we have no comprehension, or knowledge, of our own liberty and our own happiness?

History depends on two things in order to be known: material culture and intellectual culture. The former consists of all objects created by human beings, from a brick to a fortress, from a pot to a marble statue.

Intellectual culture, on the other hand, is the residue of ideas that people living in a community leave behind; and ideas can only properly be left behind in written form.

In the absence of writing, history can only remain guess-work, because getting inside the head of an ancient man or a woman is impossible by way of a brick or a pot or a building.

Things are functional; they are created to facilitate daily life. Ideas are structural; they organize and give meaning to our lives.

History becomes possible only when we have both material remains and intellectual residue, because in order to live happy and meaningful lives, people need both material things and ideas.

Therefore, history is not merely a record of all the things made by people – it is also a record of all the ideas of people who lived before us, because ideas contain not only a worldview, but also morality and philosophy. Humanity disappears if it has no morality or philosophy to live by.

And as a result, history is the best attempt at retelling what happened in the past. But because it is only a “best attempt” – and never a complete version – history needs to be constantly studied and understood in the light of new discoveries both of objects and ideas.

Since writing is so very recent, knowing the history of preliterate ancient societies is very problematic. The best we can do is look at the material remains they have left behind and construct some kind of narrative that will explain what went on.

In other words, we have to add our own ideas on to the objects that are left behind. A case in point is the Indus Valley civilization.

Here we have an entire city, and a rather sophisticated one at that, and we have lots of pots and tools and jewelry – all those things that these people needed for their ordinary lives. There is even evidence of writing, which is known as the Indus Valley script – but we cannot read it.

And because we cannot read it, we can never know what kind of people these ancient Indians were, which also means that we cannot ever understand the nature, importance, or even influence of this civilization by the Indus River.

It would be like trying to explain the entire game of hockey sometime in the distant future when all that remains is a puck.

Without intellectual culture, objects are always surrounded by an impenetrable mystery.

For this reason, history is divided into two areas. There is history proper, which is the known past as reconstructed from both material and intellectual cultures.

And then there is prehistory, the preliterate past of humanity, from which only objects survive. It is only by studying these objects that we are able to construct some kind of account of what might have happened. And the best thing that these objects tell us is that human beings were using and creating technology.

This is the reason for the convenient terms we use when talking about the preliterate past, or prehistory. Thus, first, there was the Stone Age, which is divided into early, middle, and new, that is Paleolithic, Mesolithic (or Epipaleolithic) and Neolithic. In the Paleolithic period humans began to flake stones into points or edges to make hunting or cutting tools. This era covers a vast swath of time, from 2.5 millions years ago (back to the time of the first hominids) down to about 12,000 B.C.

Next comes the Mesolithic, or Epipaleolithic, period (from about 12,000 B.C. to about 9,000 to 6,000 B.C.) when humans learned to grind stone into tools; and also we have the first evidence of farming.

Lastly, there is the Neolithic age (from about 9500 B.C. to 3000 B.C.), during which humans became engaged in full-blown farming and domestication of animals.

Still dependent on technology, historians have constructed a consequent set of chronologies, which take into account mankind’s discovery of metallurgy, namely, copper, bronze, and iron. Thus, the Bronze Age follows the Neolithic era, and this is dated to around 3300 B.C. to about 1200 B.C.

Thereafter, we have the Iron Age, when humans discovered and used iron; it lasted from about 1200 B.C. to about 800 B.C. in most of Eurasia.

It is in-between the Bronze and Iron Ages that intellectual culture starts to become evident, which allows us to know and understand the past in a clearer and more cohesive or historical manner.

The term “civilization” thus is very specific and precise. It means “life in a city.” This is a very important definition, because for many long millennia humans did not live in cities. They were content to be hunters-and-gatherers, or lived a nomadic life.

City life means a stronger and more clearly defined sense of community, by which we mean that people live differently in cities than they do as nomads or as hunters-and-gatherers.

City life requires specialized labor, a food supply secured by agriculture, animal husbandry and trade, maintenance of infrastructure, organized religion (the earliest beginnings of what we call literature and the arts), laws, a system of defense, and politics.

In effect, civilization needs writing in order to stay organized; records have to be kept in order to categorize the economy; gods have be to made happy in temples on a regular basis, which leads to the creation of a calendar; kings need to make laws to keep the city running properly and smoothly, so that daily life is properly systematized.

Therefore, a civilization cannot help but produce “history,” which is the record of human activity and human thought.

If we continue being amnesiacs when it comes to the past, if we continue to view ourselves as far superior than people who lived a hundred or more years ago, we will always fall victim to oppression, because we will have no capacity for understanding how to sustain the good society.

Without history, we are easily led by those who control power structures, such as politicians or the captains of industry. How? Because without history, we have no ideas upon which to formulate good questions.

And if we have not developed the ability to ask good questions, we can only mindlessly accept what is handed to us.

Without questions, we become mindless – and it is mindlessness that creates and then strengthens despotism of the worst kind.

To paraphrase the words of Jacques Maritain – how shall we be good when we are standing on nothing?


The photo shows, “Ruins of a Doric Temple,” by Hubert Robert, painted in 1783.

Speaking Of Arcadia

I know your minde, and I will satisfie it: neyther will I doo it like a niggardly answerer, going no further then the boundes of the question, but I will discouer vnto you, aswell that wherein my knowledge is common with others, as that which by extraordinarie means is deliuered vnto me: knowing so much in you, though not long acquainted, that I shall find your eares faithfull treasurers.

These are the words of Kalandar, as he begins to describe a magical land called “Arcadia,” in Sir Philip Sidney’s pastoral romance, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.

The curious history and literary merit of this nearly euphuistic piece of writing (though Sidney might well object to such a summation) are easily and widely known and it would be tedious to launch into a discussion of the same.

However, there is an aspect of this work that has been overlooked, which may be expressed thus: In Sidney’s work, “Arcadia” is a trope for discourse, for conversation, for dialogue.

The post-classical Latin root of the term, “discourse” holds significance here: discursus, “to run hither and thither,” and even “to traverse.” Of course, a conversation without the courage to surmount the ramparts of diverse and opposing thought is little more than self-absorption.

And Kallandar is mindful of this need for courage, as he promises to speak about the wondrous land of Arcadia in an elaborately discursive manner, traversing the full extent of his subject, running up and down the length and breadth of it: “neyther will I doo it like a niggardly answerer, going no further then the boundes of the question.”

But discourse must also have occasion, a place, a centrality, a location, a space. What kind of conversation can possibly exist in a barren landscape – other than one of survival, of complaint? Is it any wonder that the best conversations are had not in the “rag and bone shop” of the office (to borrow from Yeats) – but in those spaces where we seek ease and relaxation (a pub, a café, a restaurant, or out amidst the bright expanse of nature), well-ensconced in the happy company of friends.

Is it not through conversation that we slowly discover the secret architecture of the soul, to paraphrase Paul Valéry?

All these things, is Arcadia, the land fully imagined – for how can we speak if we cannot dream? A conversation is not about necessity, the utterance of needs – rather, it is about love and loss, hope and expectation, desire and disappointment; all those things that make us human.

It is not our skills, our jobs which define us – it is our dreams alone that complete us.

Arcadia, therefore, as an idea, a place where creativity exists, where the heart and soul are nurtured, and where the delight of being fully human extends outwards to become joyful freedom: “for never does the heavenly fire [the soul, or the heart] consent to be imprisoned,” Friedrich Hölderlin reminds us.

Of course, it was Virgil in his Eclogues, who first discerned the intimate connection between an imagined landscape and mankind’s capacity to delight in its own humanity (the idylls of Theocritus are far too self-contained to be seen as proper blueprints for what Virgil accomplishes).

Thus, Virgil’s Arcadia is a place where elegant ideas hold sway, where refined emotions guide desire, and where esthetic expression is next to godliness. The famous words: “Man shall not live by bread alone,” cannot now be avoided.

There is a painting in the Louvre, entitled, “Les bergers d’Arcadie.” It is by Nicolas Poussin, and it shows a group (three shepherds and one shepherdess), all peering in wonderment, at a crumbling tomb they have chanced upon in their bucolic setting.

One of the shepherds is on his knee, tracing out, with his forefinger, a phrase nearly effaced by time. His shadow is cast upon the letters, making them difficult to read (perhaps so that we, like the shepherd, might make an effort to see the writing on the brief wall of the tomb).

This is a clever quotation by Poussin, for it is a subtle reference to Belshazzar’s feast in the book of Daniel, a subject painted by Poussin’s contemporary, Rembrandt. In fact, both these paintings were done in the 1630s.

But the phrase is, of course, also legible to the shepherds, and it has thrown the pastoral group into a reverie, as they seek to unravel its import: “et in Arcadia ego” – and I too in Arcadia.

Much scholarly ink has been spilt in explanation of these four simple Latin words. Do they refer to death, having been written on a tomb? A memento mori – that death persists even in idyllic settings? Or do they refer to the occupant of the tomb who is to be found in paradise.

And to give conspiracy theory its due (a malaise that has direly infected contemporary society, perhaps because said society has chosen to abandon wisdom), Dan Brown and his ilk would read these words as an encoded message left behind by an agent of the Priory of Sion (hapless Poussin being such agent) – the correct sense of the Latin be damned! But the less said about such inanities, the better.

These four simple Latin words tell a greater truth: “and I too in Arcadia” – how can eternity be known without death? And how can any conversation continue that is not also conversant with the ideas of those long gone?

Only in Arcadia, the imagined land, can the dead and the living speak together – and therefore Arcadia is humankind’s dialogue with eternity, wherein beauty is the visible manifestation of harmony, which may be named as reason.

Perhaps the enigmatic phrase suggests completion, as do we all: “et in Arcadia ego quoniam colloquo – “and I too am in Arcadia because I converse.”

A wonder-filled, truthfully spoken word is a faithful treasure to all those who have ears to hear.


The photo shows, “Les bergers d’Arcadie,” painted sometime in 1637 or 1638, by Nicolas Poussin.