Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume IV/Manichaean Controversy/Introductory Essay/Augustin and the Manichaeans
Chapter IX.—Augustin and the Manichæans.
In the preceding Chapter we have given in Augustin’s own words some account of the process by which he became ensnared in Manichæan error. In reading Augustin’s account of his experience among the Manichæans, we can not escape the conviction that he was never wholly a Manichæan, that he never surrendered himself absolutely to the system. He held it rather as a matter of opinion than as a matter of heart-attachment. Doubtless the fact that he continued to occupy himself with rhetorical and philosophical studies prevented his complete enthrallment. His mind was not naturally of an Oriental cast, and the study of the hard, common-sense philosophy of Aristotle, and of the Eclecticism of Cicero, could hardly have failed to make him more or less conscious of the absurdity of Manichæism. The influence of scientific studies on his mind is very manifest from Confessions, Book V. ch. 3, where he compares the accurate astronomical knowledge with which he had become acquainted, with the absurd cosmological fancies of Faustus, the great Manichæan teacher who appeared at Carthage in Augustin’s twenty-ninth year. "Many truths, however, concerning the creation did I retain from these men [the philosophers], and the cause appeared to confirm calculations, the succession of seasons, and the visible manifestations of the stars; and I compared them with the sayings of Manichæus, who in his frenzy has written most extensively on these subjects, but discovered not any account either of the solstices, or the equinoxes, the eclipses of the luminaries, or anything of the kind I had learned in the books of secular philosophy. But therein I was ordered to believe, and yet it corresponded not with those rules acknowledged by calculation and by our light, but was far different."
From this time Augustin’s faith was shaken, and he was soon able to throw off completely the yoke that had become too grievous to be borne. But to reject Manichæism was not necessarily to become an orthodox Christian. Augustin finds himself still greatly perplexed about the nature of God and the origin of evil, problems the somewhat plausible Manichæan solutions of which had ensnared him. It was through Platonism, or rather Neo-Platonism, that he was led to more just and satisfying views, and through Platonism, along with other influences, he was enabled at last to find peace in the bosom of the Catholic church. "And Thou, willing to show me how Thou ‘resistest the proud, but givest grace unto the humble,’ and by how great an act of mercy Thou hadst pointed out to men the path of humility, in that ‘Thy Word was made flesh and dwelt among men,’—Thou procuredst for me, by the instrumentality of one inflated with monstrous pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read not indeed in the same words but to the self-same effect, enforced by many and divers reasons, that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made.’" In other words, Augustin thought that he discerned complete harmony between the prologue of John’s gospel and the teachings of the Platonists, and in this teaching, thus corroborated, he found the solution of the problem that had caused him such anguish of soul. In this connection Augustin points out in some detail the features that Platonism and Christianity have in common. Thus Neo-Platonism, not blindly followed, but adapted to his Christian purpose, became not only a means of deliverance to Augustin himself, but a mighty weapon for the combating of Manichæan error.
Neo-Platonism enters so largely and influentially into Augustin’s polemics against Manichæism that it will be apposite here to inquire into the extent and the nature of Augustin’s dependence on this system of thought. Much has been written on this subject, especially by German and French scholars. A brief statement of some of the more important points of contact is all that is allowable in an essay like this. Premising, therefore, that Platonism essentially influenced the entire circle of Augustin’s theological and philosophical thinking, let us first examine the Neo-Platonic and Augustinian conceptions of God. With Augustin God is absolutely simple and immutable, incomprehensible by men in their present state of existence, exalted above all human powers of thought or expression. All things may be said of God, and yet nothing worthily; God is honored more by reverential silence than by any human voice. He is better known by not being known; it is easier to say what He is not, than what He is. God is wanting in qualities; has no variety and multitude of properties and attributes; is absolutely simple. By no means is God to be called substance, for the word substance pertains to a certain accident; nor is it allowable to think of Him as composed of substance and of accidents. Divine qualities are therefore purely subjective. There is no discrimination in God of substance and accidents, of potency and act, of matter and form, of universal and singular, of superior and inferior. To know, to will, to do, to be, are in God equivalent and identical. Eternity itself is the substance of God, which has nothing mutable, nothing past, nothing future. God makes new things, without being Himself new, unchangeable He makes changeable things, He always works and always rests. The changes that take place in the world do not fall in the will of God, but solely in the things moved by God. God changes them out of His unchangeable counsel. For nearly every one of these statements an almost exact parallel can be pointed out in the writings of Plotinus, the Neo-Platonic writer with whom Augustin was most conversant. It would be easy to point out that Augustin here goes to a dangerous extreme, and narrowly escapes fatalism on the one hand, and denial of the true personality of God on the other. But the effectiveness of this type of teaching against Manichæism is what chiefly interests us in this connection. Readers of the following treatises will have no difficulty in seeing for themselves how confidently and with what telling effect Augustin employs this view of God against the crudities of Manichæism, which thought of God as mutable, as capable of being successfully assailed by evil, as rent asunder, as suffering miserable contamination and imprisonment by mixture with matter, as painfully struggling for freedom, as suffering with the suffering of plants and animals, as liberated by their decay and by the digestive operations of the faithful, etc., etc.
Again, while still a Manichæan Augustin had thought and written much about beauty. On this point also, the throwing off of Manichæism and the adoption of a Platonizing Christianity brought about a revolution in his conceptions. The exactness with which he has followed Plotinus in his ideas of the beauty of God and of his creatures is remarkable. This we could fully illustrate by the citation of parallel passages. But we must content ourselves with remarking that Augustin himself acknowledged his indebtedness, and that his idea of beauty was an important factor in his polemics against Manichæism. According to Augustin (and Plotinus) God is the most beautiful and splendid of all beings. He is the beauty of all beauties; all the beautiful things that are the objects of our vision and love He Himself made. If these are beautiful what is He? All beauty is from the highest beauty, which is God. Augustin follows Plato and Plotinus even in neglecting the distinction between the good and the beautiful. The idea of Divine beauty Augustin applies to Christ also. He speaks of Him as beautiful God, beautiful Word with God, beautiful on earth, beautiful in the womb, beautiful in the hands of his parents, beautiful in miracles, beautiful in being scourged, beautiful when inciting to life, beautiful when not caring for death, beautiful when laying down his life, beautiful when taking it up again, beautiful in the sepulchre, beautiful in Heaven. The beauty of the creation, which is simply a reflection of the beauty of God, is not even disturbed by evil or sin. Beauty is with Augustin (and the Platonists) a comprehensive term, and is almost equivalent to perfect harmony or symmetry of parts, perfect adaptation of beings to the ends for which they exist.
It is patent that this view of the beauty of God and His creation is diametrically opposed to the crude conceptions of Mani, with reference to the disorder of the universe, a disorder not confined even to the Kingdom of Darkness, but invading the Realm of light itself. So also Augustin’s Platonizing views of the creation must be taken into consideration in judging of his attitude towards Manichæism. It goes without saying that from Augustin’s theological point of view, to account for creation is a matter of grave difficulty. How can there be a relation between the infinite and the finite? Any substantial connection is unthinkable. The only thing left is a relation of causality. The finite, according to Plotinus, is an accident, an image and shadow of God. It is constituted, established, sustained, and nourished by the Divine potency, and is therefore absolutely dependent upon God. The power that flows from God permeates each and every finite thing. God as one, whole, and indivisible, is perpetually present with his eternal process, to everything, everywhere. When Augustin teaches that God of his own free will, subject to no necessity, by His own Word created the world out of nothing, this statement might be taken in connection with his view of the absolute simplicity of God and the consequent denial of distinction between being, willing, doing, etc. The easiest way to get over the difficulty involved in creation was to maintain the simultaneous creation of all things. The six days of creation in Genesis are an accommodation to human modes of thinking. In some expressions Augustin approaches the Platonic doctrine of the ideal or archetypal world. Finite things, so far as they exist, are essence, i.e., God; so far as they are not essence they do not exist at all. Thus the distinction between God and the world is almost obliterated. Again, whatever is finite and derivative is subject to negation or nothingness. Thus he goes along with Plato and Plotinus to the verge of denying the reality of derived existence, and so narrowly escapes pantheism.
It is easy to see how effectively this conception of creation might be employed against the Manichæan notion of the creation as something forced upon God by the powers of evil, and as a mere expedient for the gradual liberation of his imprisoned elements. The Manichæan limitation of God and his domain by the bordering Kingdom of Darkness, was in sheer opposition to Augustin’s view of the indivisibility of God and his presence as a whole everywhere and always. Augustin’s theory that nature or essence, as far as it has existence is God, is quite the antithesis of Mani’s dualism, especially of his supposition that the Kingdom of Darkness is essentially and wholly evil. Augustin argued that even the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Darkness, and the King of Darkness himself, according to Mani’s own representations, are good so far as they have essence or nature, and evil only so far as they are non-existent.
With Augustin’s Platonizing view of creation is closely connected his theory of evil and his doctrine of divine providence. Evil with him, as with the Platonists, has no substantial existence. It is only privation of good. It is wanting in essence, substance, truth,—is in short mere negation, and so cannot have God for its efficient cause or author, or be referred to God. God would not have permitted evil unless by His own supreme power he had been able to make good use of it. He attempts, with some success, to show the advantages of the permission of evil in the world. God made all things good from the angels of heaven to the lowest beasts and herbs of the earth. Augustin delighted, with the Platonists, in dwelling upon the goodness of nature as shown in the animal and vegetable worlds, as well as in the great cosmical phenomena. Each creature of God has its place, some a higher, some a lower, but all so far as they conform to the idea of their creation, or to their nature, are good. So far as they fall short of this idea they are evil.
This principle Augustin applied with great force to the confutation of the Manichæan view of the substantiality and permanence of evil. This may be regarded as the central point in Augustin’s controversies with the Manichæans. He evidently felt that the Manichæan view of evil was the citadel of their system, and he never wearied of assailing it. It would be beyond the scope of the present essay to inquire whether and how far Augustin himself became involved in error, in his efforts to dislodge the Manichæans. Far less satisfactory than his confutation of the fundamental principles of the Manichæan system were his answers to the Manichæan cavils against the Old Testament. If we may judge from the prominence given in the extant literature to the Old Testament question, this must have been the favorite point of attack with the Manichæans. The importance of the questions raised and the necessity of answering them was fully recognized by Augustin. His principal reliance is the allegorical or typological method of interpretation. It would be hard to find examples of more perverse allegorizing than Augustin’s Anti-Manichæan treatises furnish. It will not be needful to adduce instances here, as readers of the treatises will discover them in abundance. Nothing more wearisome and disgusting in Biblical interpretation can well be conceived of than certain sections of The Reply to Faustus, the Manichæan. Yet Augustin did not fail entirely to recognize the distinction between Old Testament times and New, and he even suggests the theory "that God could in a former age and to a people of a lower moral standard, give commands to do actions, which we should think it wrong to do now.… There was a certain inward want, an unenlightenment, a rudeness of moral conception, in those to whom such commands were given; otherwise they would not have been given. God would not have given a command to slaughter a whole nation to an enlightened people."
Yet with all the defects of Augustin’s polemics against the Manichæans, they seem to have been adapted to the needs of the time. Well does Canon Mozley declare Augustin to have been "the most marvellous controversial phenomenon which the whole history of the Church from first to last presents.… Armed with superabundant facility of expression,—so that he himself observes that one who had written so much must have a good deal to answer for,—he was able to hammer any point of view which he wanted, and which was desirable as a counteracting one to a pervading heresy, with endless repetition upon the ear of the Church; at the same time varying the forms of speech sufficiently to please and enliven." Certainly he was one of the greatest debaters of any age. He doubtless deserves the credit of completely checking the progress of Manichæism in the West, and of causing its gradual but almost complete overthrow. His arguments were probably more effective in guarding Christians against perversion by Manichæan proselytizers, than in converting those that were already ensnared by Manichæan error. Other controversies of a completely different character, especially the Pelagian, caused Augustin to look to other aspects of truth and so led to certain modifications in his own statements, nay led him on some occasions to the verge of Manichæan error itself. But we are chiefly interested at present in knowing that his earnest efforts against the Manichæans from A.D. 388, the year of his baptism, to A.D. 405, were not in vain.
- Confessions, Book. VII. ch. 9, vol. 1. p. 108, of the present series.
- See G. Loesche: De Augustino Plotinizante in Doctrina de Deo Disserenda, Jenæ, 1880. Also, Dorner: Augustinus, Zeller, Ueberweg, Ritter, and Erdmann: Histories of Philosophy, sections on Augustin and Neo-Platonism.
- See J. B. Mozley’s Ruling Ideas in Early Ages, art. The Manichæans and the Jewish Fathers. The sentence quoted above is Mozley’s.
- For an account of the controversies in which Augustin was engaged with the Manichæans, and for the chronological order of the Anti-Manichæan treatises, see the Preface of the Edinburgh editor. Cf. Bindemann, on the various controversies, in his Der h. Augustinus, passim. See also, a good chronological list of St. Augustin’s works in Cunningham: St. Austin, p. 277 sq.