Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Augustine and The Categories

Augustine’s deliverance from Manicheism brought its own intellectual problems, which focussed on how to understand the Church’s teaching regarding divine immutability. He comments that he had yet not come to see that the hinge of the matter of God’s immutability lies in his being the Creator. It is during this earlier phase that he also has an encounter with a notable philosophical work, Aristotle’s Categories.

In a way that is rather uncharacteristic of him, he notes that though Aristotle’s book was reputed to be difficult, he easily read it with understanding and without the help of anyone else.

The book seemed to me an extremely clear statement about substances, such as man, and what are in them, such as a man’s shape, what is his quality of stature, how many feet, and his relatedness, for example, whose brother he is, or where he is placed, or when he was born, or whether he is standing or sitting, or is wearing shoes or armour, or whether he is active or passive, and the innumerable things which are classified by these nine genera of which I have given some instances, or by the genus of substance itself.

The books seem to have established in his mind the presumption that the ten Aristotelian categories had universal application, embracing God himself within its categorization. And so, later on, and consistently with Aristotle’s outlook, and still manifesting the remnants of Manichean anthropomorphism, he tried to conceive God, ‘wonderfully simple and immutable’, (as Ambrose and his circle taught) as if he was a substance with temporal and even spatial location and having distinct properties, like one of Aristotle’s substances. It must be noted that in reference to the simplicity and immutability of God, Augustine was willing to appropriate the language of the Christian faith of his Christian acquaintances in Milan, appropriating their words, but still casting around for a way to understand them.

He tells us that he then thought that the beauty and greatness of God were

In you as if in a subject, as in the case of a physical body, whereas you yourself are your own magnitude and your own beauty. By contrast a body is not great and beautiful by being body; if it were less great or less beautiful it would nevertheless still be body. My conception of you was a lie, not truth, the figments of my misery, not the permanent solidity of your supreme bliss.

That is a remark made by Augustine with the benefit of hindsight, as is this. ‘I thought that you, Lord God and Truth, were like a luminous body of immense size, and myself a bit of that body. What extraordinary perversity. But that was how I was…’ Despite having rejected Manicheism he had as yet no alternative but to continue to think in terms of Aristotle’s Categories, and so to claim that God is a subject with a nature known to us through the appraisal of his various attributes or properties, just as, according to Aristotle, we understand how it is with plants and artifacts such as tables and chairs. And he continued to think like this for some time. For at the beginning of Book VII, despite some development, we find him still in essentially the same frame of mind.

Although you were not in the shape of the human body, I nevertheless felt forced to imagine something physical occupying space diffused either in the world or even through infinite space outside the world. Admittedly I thought of this as incorruptible and inviolable and unchangeable, which I set above what is corruptible, violable and changeable. But I thought that anything from which space was abstracted was non-existent, indeed absolutely nothing, not even a vacuum, as when a body is removed from a place, and the space remains evacuated of anything physical, whether earthly, watery, airy or heavenly, but is an empty space – like a mathematical concept of space without content.

We note here once again his firm adherence to the language of the Church, the language of incorruptibility, inviolability and unchangeability. If the frequency with which he used certain terms is anything to go by, it is the immutability of God, his unchangeability, that particularly impressed him about the God of the Church. But thinking of such immensity and immutability in terms of the Aristotelian categories, (which, of course, at least as Augustine understood them, when applied to God, overlapped with his old Manichean ideas), had ridiculous and therefore unacceptable metaphysical consequences, for example the consequence that an elephant’s body would contain more of the divine being than a sparrow’s. A little later he affirms that that despite these oscillations in his mind God did not allow him to be carried away in his thinking from the faith which he held, that God exists as an immutable substance and cares for humanity and judges it and has provided in Scripture a way of salvation.