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The Rise of Anthropological Pessimism III

December 05, 2013 Length: 28:06

Fr. John addresses the foundations in the West of a growing pessimism about man's condition, paying particular attention to Augustine.

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Transcript Transcript

Welcome back to this episode on the rise of anthropological pessimism in the West, as we explore the origins of the Great Schism and their consequences, especially in the West, before the Renaissance. I’ve spent some time in this episode reviewing how the Greek East, during the age of the Fathers, established an optimistic anthropology which emphasized the dignity of man, bringing attention to the role played by the Incarnation, by baptism, and by man’s participation in the uncreated divine energies in elevating man, glorifying man, in his relationship with God, a relationship known as synergy, and a relationship leading to man’s deification.

In this segment of the episode, I would like now to turn to the West and to the foundation in the West of an alternative anthropology, one which led, with time, to a growing pessimism about man’s condition, a pessimism which would have a profound impact upon the Middle Ages and lead in a very direct way to the abandonment of traditional Christianity during the Renaissance. And the foundation for this anthropological pessimism can be found within the thought of St. Augustine. Augustine lived from 354 to 430 in North Africa, though he spent time also in Italy, where he encountered Ambrose of Milan and was in fact catechized and baptized by Ambrose before returning to North Africa and becoming bishop of Hippo.

Augustine’s place in the Fathers of the early Church is a controversial one, especially in the East. In the East, Orthodox Christians have long regarded Augustine with suspicion. It is interesting to note that in the immediate aftermath of Augustine’s life work, very little, if any, of Augustine’s thought and writings reached the East. It was not until the ninth century, the 800s, when Augustine was directly discussed by St. Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople, when he, Photios, raised the question of the Latin practice of the filioque. Photios, one will remember, was attacked by Pope Nicholas in the ninth century in the controversy that involved the Nicolaitan schism that I discussed in the opening anecdote to Part II of this podcast. Well, Photios was challenging the use, made by Frankish Western theologians, of Augustine during that time in their effort to advance the filioque, the clause in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Sonfilioque: “and the Son”—and I will discuss this controversy and the role of the Franks in the coming of the Great Schism in the next episode.

But in this controversy, St. Photios brought attention to Augustine and defended him as a Father of the Church and a saint. Augustine was not much read in the East even after that time, and in modern times he’s even been attacked by some Eastern theologians, particularly John Romanides in the 20th century, a Greek Orthodox priest. Romanides sees Augustine as really being, in many ways, the origin of much of what has gone wrong from an Orthodox point of view in Latin Western Christianity.

Nevertheless, Augustine was unquestionably a saint and is recognized as such within the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. In the West, Augustine raised very little controversy. In fact, Augustine has long dominated so much of the theological reflection in the West, among the early Latin Fathers or Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church, he is the greatest among others like Jerome, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome. Augustine by far outweighs all the others and dominates much of the theological reflection and tradition of Western Christianity all the way up to the present day. Protestantism, especially Calvin, will make much use also of Augustine’s thought.

So Augustine is a very important but also a controversial figure, and from an Eastern Christian point of view, one that contributed ambiguous doctrines to the life of the Church. And in this episode I would like to explore some of those doctrines that bear on the evaluation of man. As I describe Augustine’s reflection on man, we will see the origins of what can be called a kind of degradation of man, a degradation of the human person and also of the human condition, which, with time, during the course of the Middle Ages, will have a tremendous impact on the character of Western Christendom.

The first area of Augustine’s anthropology that I would like to look at concerns what’s known as grace and free will. These are topics for which Augustine is famous in Western theology. Augustine worked out his understanding of divine grace and free will partly in reaction to his own life experiences as a young man. These experiences, which led ultimately to his conversion to Christianity, are related in a book called Confessions, certainly his most famous book, and in fact one of the great accounts of the Christian life in Western civilization. We’ve actually used this book in a number of classes here at St. Katherine College.

In Confessions, Augustine describes his early life as one that was often preoccupied with lustful desires, and he brings especial attention to the power of desire in human life in that book. As a matter of fact, the very first paragraph contains within it a very famous statement by Augustine about how man is made by God to love God. It’s a beautiful statement, and this is what it is: “Thou hast made us for thyself.” Of course, he’s speaking to God here. “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.” Famous statement by Augustine in Confessions about man’s capacity for desire and love, being given by God through man’s creation in God’s image, and properly directed toward God.

However, Augustine notes that the desire given to man by God is often misplaced, and in fact all desires for things of this world rather than God, for creatures rather than the Creator, are what he calls “misplaced desire.” And this leads to a concept of desire called concupiscence. Concupiscence is often translated as “evil” desire, and it’s a desire for things that leads one into rebellion against God. It was in fact the desire of Adam and Eve in the garden for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which they were forbidden to eat of.

As a result of the power of this evil desire, this concupiscence, Augustine experienced what can be described as a kind of slavery of will to it. He was constantly fraught by an experience of inner divisions, one that he found recorded by St. Paul himself in his seventh chapter of the epistle to the Romans. That seventh chapter is repeatedly quoted by Augustine in his book, Confessions, and in Romans 7:19, Paul talks about this division of will that exists for the human being, and this is what he says: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do, but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” So this kind of division, within the human person, of will was something that really captured Augustine’s thought as he wrote Confessions, reflecting on his own early experiences in life, especially with lustful desires, and therefore he came to the conclusion that divine grace is necessary for the human will to be properly directed toward a good end, toward God and salvation.

This divine grace comes from God in a most unexpected way. In fact, he relates, Augustine does, toward the end of his Confessions, about how, after a long, long, years long struggle, inner division and struggle to do good, finally, in a garden, he had the experience of God’s divine grace coming upon him and turning his heart toward good. So this is an important part of the background, the life experience and background, to Augustine’s elaboration on grace and free will.

Another is Augustine’s disputes with Pelagius, a fourth-century Christian theologian, and disciples of Pelagius. Pelagius and his disciples were active in the West in the late 300s going into the 400s, exactly at the time when Augustine was living. And Pelagianism, which grew out of Pelagius’ and his disciples’ teachings, represented an anthropological heresy in the early Church. It is interesting because, in some ways, it parallels and makes connections to the Orthodox anthropology that had been developed by the Cappadocian Fathers and other Greek Fathers in the East. It, for instance, had a very optimistic view of man. Pelagius, in his own writings, spoke about “how great is man” and spoke about man’s condition in a very optimistic way. I can quote here, for instance, a passage from Pelagius from a letter that he wrote to a woman, describing the Christian life. This is what Pelagius wrote:

The first way to form a judgment of the goodness of human nature is from God, its Creator. He made the whole world and all the extremely good things in it. How much more excellent, then, did he make the human beings for whose sake he established everything else? The goodness of humanity was indicated even before it was created, when God prepared to form it in his image and likeness.

One will recall from the previous segments of this episode how much attention the Greek Fathers like Basil gave to the image and likeness of God in man and how the whole human life, in light of God’s Incarnation, our baptism, and the participation in the energies of God, how much of human life is lived out in acquiring that likeness to God. So Pelagius was using a vocabulary similar to the Greek Fathers, one that led him to a very high optimism about man.

When Pelagius reflected on will, human will, human free will, he also had a very optimistic view. In fact, Pelagius even claimed that men, by seeking to do good, are able to achieve righteousness through their own actions, through their own exercise of free will, and that really the whole Christian life is about the individual making a decision to do good, to seek good, to acquire righteousness according to the way righteousness is revealed in the gospels by Jesus Christ. This is what Pelagius wrote about man’s ability to claim righteousness as his own as he exercised free will in the pursuit of it.

The glory of the reasonable soul is located in precisely in its having to face a parting of the ways in its freedom to follow either path. I contend that the dignity of our nature consists entirely in this. This is the source of honor, of reward, of the praise merited by the best people. If a person could not go over to evil, he would not practice virtue in holding to the good. God decided to give rational creatures the gift of good will and the power of free choice. By making a person naturally capable of good and evil, so that he could do both, and would direct his own will to either, God arranged that what an individual actually chose would be properly his own. The good could be done voluntarily only by a creature which was also capable of evil. Therefore, the most excellent Creator decided to make us capable of both.

One will recall that when I quoted St. Basil the Great on the role of human free will in choosing good and cooperating with God in living a good, virtuous life, Basil emphasized that God gave to human beings the freedom of will so that human beings could, by God’s grace and through cooperation with God, achieve good things to their own honor and dignity and glory. Here, again, Pelagius uses a similar vocabulary in discussing human dignity, but where Pelagius broke decisively from the Greek patristic tradition was in his doctrine of what can be called autonomy, human autonomy.

Autonomy, being self-ruled—that’s literally what auto-nomy means—autonomy means being self-ruled or self-determined—one will recall that when I discussed the Greek Fathers, as much attention as they gave to human free will in cooperating with God through synergy in acquiring their salvation and entering into the life of God himself through deification, they always emphasized that man is not autonomous, that rather man is totally dependent on God and man finds his fulfillment only in divine life. This is something I quoted John Meyendorff especially on.

But for Pelagius, man is indeed autonomous and makes decisions exclusively on his own terms. He emphasized repeatedly man’s free will as a condition of autonomy. Here is a quote from the same letter:

When I have to discuss the principles of right conduct and the leading of a holy life, I usually begin by showing the strength and characteristics of human nature. By explaining what it can accomplish I encourage the soul of my hearer to the different virtues. To call a person to something he considers impossible does him no good. Hope must serve as guide and companion if we are to set out on the way to virtue. Otherwise, despair of success will kill every effort to acquire the impossible.

So for Pelagius, then, man is self-willed and autonomous in relationship to God. As a matter of fact, he had a kind of slogan he used to express this: A deo emancipatus homo est. Man is emancipated from God. Man’s free will operates independently of the divine will. How different this is [from] the synergy that represented the core of the Greek patristic understanding of man’s free will!

Pelagian anthropology, therefore, with its principle of autonomy, was a long way from traditional Christianity as it had been articulated by the Greek Fathers and their doctrine of synergy. But Augustine provided a different point of engagement with Pelagius. His point of engagement was to take the opposite view of the role of human will, and rather than speak of human autonomy, he (Augustine) developed what can be called a doctrine of heteronomy, that is to say, being ruled by another than oneself. Hetero means “another.” Heteronomy is the word that can be used to describe Augustine’s doctrine of grace and free will and the condition of man.

Man, for Augustine, possesses truly a free will, and he always formally insisted upon this principle. Nevertheless, Augustine repeatedly and overwhelmingly emphasized that that free will has been vitiated, that is to say, it has been weakened and undermined, and therefore it is functionally powerless. Man’s free will is functionally powerless. Man cannot not sin, according to Augustine in one of his famous statements: Man cannot not sin, so vitiated is his free will.

Therefore, salvation comes, for Augustine, to depend entirely upon divine intervention in the form of a kind of grace that came to be known as prevenient grace, a grace from God that precedes causally any action by a human being toward good. Prevenient grace: this is what, for Augustine, was necessary for human beings to do good. Divine grace causally activates the human will to do good. And this is understood by Augustine as a grace that’s created. It’s a very important point, that, for Augustine, God’s grace is a created thing. It’s not God himself; it is a created thing that interacts with human beings, leading them toward God, but it is not God himself.

Contrast this from the Greek patristic doctrine of grace as uncreated energies of God that really are God and that penetrate the believer and deify that believer, bringing him ever closer, ever more fully within the life of God himself. For Augustine, grace is something created and therefore in a sense separate from God’s unknowable and incommunicable essence. So Augustine developed, then, a different understanding of man’s will. Man’s will ultimately has its origin, insofar as it’s good, in God and his prevenient grace activating man’s will. Of course, there’s always another “other”—another “hetero-,” another “other”—that could activate man’s will, and that, of course, is the will of the devil. But in either case it is not man’s will but the will of another that leads man in the direction he takes in this life. Heteronomy.

Now, one final point about Augustine’s doctrine of will, of grace and free will, is a very important one. Augustine developed a doctrine that is usually called “predestination”: that God predestines those whom he has chosen as elect to save. Augustine does not develop this as fully as it will be developed later by John Calvin and his doctrine of predestination—Calvin actually drew directly from Augustine and in some ways was the most consistent theologian under Augustine’s influence during the Protestant Reformation in the West—but for the time being Augustine did elaborate to some degree a doctrine of predestination, where God has chosen a certain number of people for salvation. In fact, he even makes the statement that the number of those to be saved is set, is established by God, in advance, and that this number corresponds exactly to the number of angels who fell from God’s grace at the beginning of time.

So this doctrine of predestination goes even further than anything said so far in undermining a belief that man possesses a free will and that man can work out his salvation in cooperation with God in a condition of synergy. How far, now, has Western theology in the form of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination drifted from the Greek patristic understanding of man’s synergy!

So we have, therefore, a kind of range of variance to the Greek patristic understanding of the divine-human synergy. One of them, by Pelagius, is autonomy: man exists in an emancipated condition in relationship to God, able through the exercise of free will, on his own terms to choose the good life. And at the opposite [end of the] spectrum, Augustine, reacting to Pelagius’ doctrine of autonomy, by promoting a doctrine that we can call heteronomy, in which God is, in the end, ultimately responsible for any actions taken by man toward the good, toward salvation. Both of them distinct and very different from the Eastern Christian doctrine of synergy.

And again I can quote David Bradshaw, whom I quoted in the previous segment, as he wrote his book, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom, in his conclusion, reflecting—not only reflecting on the role of synergy among the Eastern Fathers, but bringing attentions personally, specifically, to Augustine in the development of a Western alternative to synergy. And this is what Bradshaw writes. And I’m repeating what I quoted in the previous segment of this episode.

If one were to summarize the differences between the Eastern and Western traditions in a single word, that word would be “synergy.” For the East, the highest form of communion with the divine is not primarily an intellectual act, but a sharing of life and activity. [...] It led to a tendency to think of earthly, bodily existence as capable of being taken up and subsumed within the life of God. Emphasis was placed, not on any sudden transformation at death, but on the ongoing and active appropriation of those aspects of the divine life that are open to participation. [...]

In the West, synergy played remarkably little role. Although various reasons might be conjectured for this difference, its immediate cause was the happenstance way in which Greek learning was transmitted to the West. Most of the works in which the ideal of synergy had been developed were not translated into Latin. Furthermore, even if they had been, Latin offered no terms as suitable as energeia (energy) [...] for situation the notion of synergy within a broad metaphysical context. In place of the synergistic ideal and its accompanying metaphysics, Augustine impressed upon Western thought a number of interlocking assumptions…

...all of which, according to Bradshaw, led the West gradually after the time of Augustine further and further away from the high optimistic anthropology of the Greek Fathers toward an increasingly pessimistic anthropology which saw, as he just stated in this quote I gave, man’s salvation as not something that happens now in this life, but something that only occurs after this life, in an afterlife.

Join me next time, when I continue to explore the rise of pessimistic anthropology in other doctrines of St. Augustine, such as original sin and the emphasis Augustine placed on the misery of the human condition in this world.

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