Thoughts on Augustine’s Ethics

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Window of St. Augustine...
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For ethics class – we are given assignments to read, and I write freely – free thought, or whatever you call it:

First thoughts? Ahhh… patriarchy, superstition and hope. But, naivety as well.  Here is a man who condemns as unpeaceful the appointment of kings, with no man given dominion over another, ideally. He knows that the Heavenly City is ‘sojourning’ in the world. And yet, he still has the father as king over the household. I note his use of demons wherein we may use other words. And, to count peace as such a thing? Naivety. I’m not sure peace is the ideal state to attain to. Of course, his naivety may be a subjective response between his present state and his former life of hedonism. Or it may be that I am too cynical to believe that peace comes from anything by certainty, and certainty has produced nothing by trouble for some. Also, I don’t like his suggested end of the wicked, but I am sure that that is more theological rather than personal. I do, however, like his notion that only in the “consummation of history” will the City of God reign freely; however, as stated above, I’m not sure we wait until it happens, passively allowing what is not-right to go on in the name of “not yet.” For hope, I think that Augustine sees an end to the warfare of this life, when we are reunited with God.

I note that he writes “the peace of the good life” when speaking about the blessedness which comes from doing God’s will. He writes that “our peace shall be so perfect and so great as to admit of neither improvement nor increase.” I tend to think that he sees the world in too much black and white. Is peace absolute perfection? But, he uses the term “eternal life” instead of “peace” when I would use “life everlasting”. I agree that it is about a certain quality “over there”. Maybe peace is not such a bad term.

He is correct, in his estimation of humanity – that we all seek some sort of peace, even if that peace is different from the “natural order”. I am not sure, though, that peace is “an ordered obedience” to God (13) as it was Christ who brought us peace with the Father, and calls us to obedience in Faith. I think that he sees Peace as the end of all conflict, but I’m not sure that this is the biblical view of peace. If Christ has brought peace, and we sin, do we undo what Christ has done? Of course, Augustine may be speaking only of the eschatological peace, but wasn’t Paul as well? I have to wonder if Augustine did not have a tortured mind, in which on some days, he came to one pole and on other, another pole, in so much to say that Augustine’s mental state is one which we might see differently today.

I really like and may even agree with his four cardinal virtues and his description of their offices, albeit with restrictions on such things as temperance. I agree that the “restraining and quieting of passions” is necessary in serving God and seeking the good life but to go as far as “scorn all bodily delights” is going beyond the mean. However, given Augustine’s background, perhaps this was his way, but hardly helpful for everyone. This is obviously something that matters to him, as he gives it a great deal of time; however, I think that temperance should be tempered by prudence instead of what appears to be an outright rejection of the good of temporal things. I have to wonder if his rejection of “theological or metaphysical dualism” contributed to this black and white view. But to this, I look at 19 which allows that only the teachings of the false teachers must change if they convert. Augustine, then, must have look at orthodoxy as a saving work unto itself.

Interesting is his view on the Devil, again perhaps influenced by this lack of dualism, and of course, a more plain sense reading of developed Christian theology. He notes that the devil is not at peace, although he was created good. “Hence not even the nature of the Devil himself is evil” and attributes the evil of the Devil to perversion. And of course, the sinner is punished for evil acts, something God didn’t create. To me, this is Augustine’s way of applying punishment, especially of the eternal sort, to the person, without affording that God may be using evil, or sin, to effect his overall plan. This idea of misdirection, as well, seems to me to be Augustine’s rationalization of evil, giving God all power, except in directing our wills. Further, there is the “falling away” aspect of the human soul which leads to sin. How is it, then, that God could allow this to happen? This, I think, leads him to obligation and God’s foreknowledge. How much of a broken heart would Augustine’s God have to be able to see a swath of humanity fall into hell and be powerless to stop it?

I detest Augustine’s advocacy of coercion on heretics, being such a one myself. I like his Just War theories, although I feel that the best use of Just War is akin to Sun Tzu. His view on wealth is not surprising and should be tempered only slightly, else we alleviate poverty as a work. I like this understanding of ‘People,’ but it leads me to question the idea of patriotism, among other unifying things. Of course, if I were to examine this understanding next to, say, the phrase “people of God,” I find that Augustine’s definition seemingly putting the unification, or the calling out there of, of persons into People on the people, removing it from God’s creation of the group. Of course, I think he is speaking more about the false notion of the Roman Commonwealth. But, if not, his last few lines in chapter 24 are sufficient to understand that God does not rule where he is not loved, and where God is not loved, injustice and a host of sins prevail.

I am afraid of tackling Augustine, because I feel that I do not fully know his influences. There is the reaction against his former life, both secular and religious, as well as the reactions to his present state, the sack of Rome. But, in that, I still find in Augustine great value and merit, and perhaps, later, I’ll come to appreciate him much more than I do now.

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