Augustine of Hippo
During this time, many a philosopher prudently kept his thoughts to himself. However, some deep thinkers appeared in those dark days. The first major philosopher of the Christian era was Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354–430). He was born and died in the last days of the Roman Empire, and he serves as a bridge between the classical and the medieval worlds.
Augustine was a pagan born in North Africa who, though a scholar and a teacher, led the life of a libertine in his misspent youth. He was not without guilt and he wrestled with his sensual nature, embracing a faith called Manichaeanism. Manichaeanism was an amalgam of Christian and Persian philosophies and emphasized the eternal struggle between good and evil. Augustine's candid autobiography,
As Augustine got a little older, Manichaeanism no longer satisfied him, and he began to study Neoplatonism, the popular rival of early Christianity. He eventually converted to Christianity, became a priest, and was ultimately installed as the Bishop of Hippo, in what is now Algeria in North Africa.
As is always the case, once a thing becomes institutionalized, it becomes stale and rigid over time. Such was the fate of Scholasticism. It would get quite a shake-up, however, and old Plato would get a revival of his own, as the Middle Ages drew to a close.
Augustine used Neoplatonic philosophy to defend, endorse, and affirm Christian theology. Philosophy and faith would be intermingled throughout the Middle Ages. Augustine attempted to explain some of the many mysteries of Christianity through the philosophies of Plato. Of course, he adapted Platonic principles to neatly fit into Christian dogma. Remember, he was operating from a faith-based starting point, and for him, the precepts of Holy Mother Church were inviolate. That was the starting point for his philosophy and not a source of speculation, rumination, or debate. Augustine sought to “Christianize” Plato, just as a future philosopher-saint, Thomas Aquinas, sought to Christianize Aristotle.
Plato spoke of the Forms, Eternal Truths, and The Good; Augustine says they all spring forth from God. More important than speculation and intellectual pursuits, there must be divine illumination. In other words, Augustine believed that real insight does not come from mankind's brainpower alone. A little divine intervention goes a long way.
God and Free Will
One of the age-old enigmas that has had theologians and laymen alike scratching their heads is this: If God is all knowing and all-powerful, how does this gibe with the notion of free will and the existence of evil in the world? If God knows in advance what people will do and allows it to happen, then God allows evil to exist and people should not be held responsible for their actions, for those actions existed in the mind of God eons before they were born.
Augustine suggests that time, as we measure it, is meaningless to God. God exists in an Eternal realm where linear time has no meaning. There is no past and no future. There is only an Eternal Present, the Big Now.
In today's hectic world, it is fashionable for the New Age sages to exhort us to “live in the moment.” People often try in vain to stay in the now. Yesterday is history, and tomorrow is a mystery, the old adage tells us. According to Augustine, this is God's natural state. Linear time is an illusion and a limitation that does not afflict God. God's infinite wisdom and omniscience has no bearing on our free will. Personal responsibility still rules in the human condition. Yet God is there to guide us if we seek Him out. Hence, we can only take partial credit when we are good and assume all the blame when we are evil.
Given his lustful youth, Augustine was keenly aware of the sins of the flesh. He was a firm believer in Original Sin. Original Sin is, of course, the unwelcome gift bestowed upon us by Adam and Eve in the Garden, as described in the Old Testament's Book of Genesis. Eve ate the apple at the prompting of that snake, Satan. Augustine, while endorsing the concept of Original Sin, has a different take on the nature of evil.
Again, the big question is this: If a perfect and perfectly good God created the world, how can such rampant naughtiness flourish? Taking a page from Plato, Augustine espoused that evil is not a diabolical force ravaging the souls of the sinful, but rather the absence of good.
Augustine, later St. Augustine, was the first Christian philosopher and theologian who sought to take the philosophy of Plato and, in essence, Christianize it to conform to Church dogma. He was a libertine in his youth and is famous for the prayer, “God grant me chastity … but not yet.”
Not every Christian agrees with this idea. Even today, depending on whom you talk to, modern Christians still maintain that Hell is either the fire-and-brimstone inferno of legend or merely the absence of God. The inability to bask in the warmth and love of God for eternity is in itself a terrifying and abysmal prospect to men and women of faith. We have the free will to embrace the light, and if we eschew its beacon and skulk in the darkness of sin and despond, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Such is the price of free will. Just as goodness is its own reward, sin is its own punishment — a descent into the maelstrom of nothingness — because, according to Augustine, sin, the absence of good, is a terrible void. The sinner is more harmed than anyone he may afflict through his actions, and it is only through God's grace that we can be saved.