Augustine and the Logos

The most important aspect of Christianity is not actually its proclamation that there is a God, for the philosophers before Christianity (Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, and Parmenides, etc.) all asserted that there had to be one God.  It isn’t even the so-called “dying and rising” narrative that many comparative mythologists center in on concerning the death and resurrection of Christ (which is misunderstood because people misunderstand the most important proclamation in Christianity).  Rather, it is codified and systematic explanation of the Logos.  This is, after all, the starting point of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”

Logos can be translated as reason, wisdom, or speech.  The simplest explanation to this passage is that the Logos (Christ) is the Wisdom that emanates from Divine Truth (the Father) and rationally orders the world by decree.  And while we’re on the topic, the Holy Spirit is Love.  Thus, we also see the simplest understanding of the Trinity in Christianity is that the Godhead is a composite pluralism – or hypostatic union – of truth, wisdom/reason, and love.

Christian doctrine affirms the following – which was best explained in Book XIII of Augustine’s Confessions – that the Logos is the principle by which the world was created (Gen 1:1, Jn. 1:1-3).  What that means is that the world is rationally ordered, everything in the world is rationally, and as Augustine explains by recognizing the Trinity at the very beginning of Genesis, the world is made in love, wisdom, and truth.  This also leads to the necessary corollary that truth in things (matter) can be understood by the thinking mind (the soul).  This is how Christianity managed to synthesize the epistemologies of Plato and Plotinus (classical rationalism) with Aristotle (classical empiricism).  Augustine explained this is in fuller detail in another one of his classic works, De Doctrina Christiana, and is remembered as the “doctrine of things and signs” for the language he used in asserting all things in nature are also signs (notice the plurality) that, when properly understood, point you to truth.

I

“In the beginning was the Logos” is, frankly, the pillar that Christianity rests on.  It follows the old epistemological debates from Greek philosophy between the foundationalists (of some stripe) against the sophists and nihilists.  Christianity affirms from the very beginning of time that truth is embedded into the universe since all creation emanates from the Logos.  The universe was, then, created in wisdom for wisdom, in truth for truth, and in order for order.  This means that nature has a natural order to it.  More importantly, we can come to know this natural order through observing nature with our reason.  This is the heart of Augustine’s epistemological doctrine of things and signs.

For Augustine, all things exist in nature exist in hylomorphic composition – not merely as things in itself – but also as signs.  This is also related to Augustine’s broader commentary on the nature of human society.  He instinctively knows that humans, as “rational animals,” seek to find meaning in things.  Hence, all things become signs of an ideal or Transcendent concept.  Some things become a sign of beauty.  Some things become a sign for courage.  Some things become a sign for power.  And so on and so forth.  Humans use things as signs for something and propagate them into their societies to convey that message to the people and influence their consciences to see the sign as whatever is meant to be reflected in the thing.  Augustine argues that this was the original project of Pagan philosophy (trying to understand things as signs and propagate those signs into society), and contrary to what most might think, Augustine believes that the Pagans got a lot right (while still not getting everything right).  As such, the Christian is to inherit whatever the Pagans got right, because that is a reflection of not only their humanism, but also their reasoning.  All persons possess the capacity of reasoning, because all persons are imago Dei – to which the principal aspect of this is humanity’s capacity for reasoning.

Things take on a deeper meaning through their becoming signs of a higher ideal.  They are thus propagated into society to convey this meaning to the public, which stimulates the public mind into becoming a reflective mind.  The person reflects upon the thing that is a sign of beauty, and in this reflection, begins the neo-Platonic reflection of intellectualization – the wanting to come to understand the nature of the ideal.  Additionally, Augustine divides signs into symbolic (allegorical) and literal (concrete) signs.  One shouldn’t confuse symbolic signs for literal signs, just as one shouldn’t confuse literal signs for symbolic signs.  Although we must also know that “literal” doesn’t just mean concrete, there is a “literal” truth that is expressed in the symbolic too but can only be expressed through the symbolic.

According to Augustine, this helps us to understand what things are to be enjoyed, and what things are to be used toward some greater fulfillment or enjoyment.  Some things are to be enjoyed for what they represent and symbolize.  Other things are to be used for what they can bring to us in the process of being used.  Ultimately, Augustine argues all things in nature are signs of the Logos, and that the Logos is the ultimate thing to be enjoyed.  As such, all things take on deeper significance in having become signs means that they are signs that are supposed to direct one to the Logos as the ultimate thing to be enjoyed.

Here, we begin to see Augustine’s larger epistemological project – how it is a synthesized combination of neo-Platonic rationalism (signs and thinking) and Aristotelian empiricism (things exist in nature and need to be properly understood by reason).  This is only possible, again, because the creation is rationally ordered from Logos.  There is an ordered reason to all existence.   Interestingly Augustine, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew when discussing the three magi (three wise men), notes that they were the first to properly understand the logos – the magi had this special honor.  Importantly, Augustine notes how they were astronomers, that is, studiers of the stars.  They understood the pattern and order to the universe of stars which led them to the incarnate Logos.  Augustine’s commentary here is important to understand his epistemology.  Reason without knowledge of the concrete misses the mark, for it would be formless and void.  Likewise, just because one observes and experiences something, doesn’t mean they understand it.  This requires a cultivation of reason.  Everything works together in a harmony – which is reflected in Augustine’s understanding of human anthropology as we looked at in this post.

Augustine, then, rejects the Platonic conception of mind over matter, and he equally rejects the reductionist monism of matter over mind.  Rather, it is mind in harmony with matter – that is, reason understanding what it observes and experiences, and observation and experiencing pointing one toward the Logos.  For Augustine there is truth, but just because there is truth doesn’t mean people will come to know that truth.  And just because people don’t come to know this truth, doesn’t mean truth does not exist as postmodernists like to claim.

II

The other aspect of Logos is communicative truth.  According to Augustine, Logos is also to be experienced in the senses.  Hence the necessity of speech and rhetoric as an integral aspect of what it means to be human and imago Dei.  Augustine gives much commentary on the nature of rhetoric – after all, he was a professor of grammar and rhetoric as a teenager at Carthage, and was the Imperial Professor of Rhetoric in Rome before becoming a member of the Christian clergy.  This goes back to his allegorization of creation.  God speaks, or decrees, order through the Logos.  The Logos, which is the Word, speaks and forms the world through speech.  Order comes about through dialogue.  As imago Dei, humans have this ability to form order from chaos because this power has been granted to us.  In other words, truth – once known – becomes a stabilizing and ordering force that directs the passions (which are good) to it in order to fulfill human desires.

This returns us to the notion that within the relations of the Trinity, that the Holy Spirit represents the love of God.  As Augustine writes, “That, therefore, was first to be spoken of over which He might be borne; and then He, whom it was not meet to mention otherwise than as having been borne.”  Spoken truth is the highest embodiment of truth.  To know truth is nice, but it somewhat wasteful unless when speaks that truth to others because humans are naturally social and communitarian beings.  Truth brings us closer to the Logos because Truth embodies the nature of the Logos.

Contrary to what most think, the concept of “Free speech” is not a liberal principle.  In fact, none of the classical liberals think it is a “natural right.”  However, in Augustine, speech is a natural right because it is a natural aspect of what it means to be a human.  The purpose of rhetoric, language, and speech, according to Augustine, serves either two masters: slavery or truth (“and the truth shall set you free”).  What Augustine means by this is that speech, language, and rhetoric is either crafted to enslave humans and make them subservient by ensnaring rationality and corrupting it for deviant ends, or speech, language, and rhetoric are utilized in a dialogue in a dialectic manner that lead us closer to the truth.  Any limitation, then, of speech, is a potential limitation on coming to understand truth.  As Augustine says, the purpose of lying and the constriction of language are aimed at preventing the advancement of knowledge, which is directly antagonistic to the very nature of the Logos and creation, “For the Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole earth, and that which contains all things has knowledge of the voice.”  Lying, ignorance, and claiming things to be that which they are not, is the epitome of falsity (out of ignorance) and sophistry (deliberately), and neither advance us toward truth.  Truth, for Augustine, demands the absolute commitment of the mind.  The “voice of God” is the voice of moral reason within you, the moral “law written on the hearts of men” calling rational animals into union with Wisdom

Thus, we see the other aspect of why the Logos is important in Augustine’s philosophy.  Not only does it mean that the world is rationally ordered, and that we can come to know this order, it also means we have the ability to communicate this truth with each other.  The “knowledge of the voice,” and “was first to be spoken of over,” indicates, for Augustine, the other aspect of Logos as communicative truth which is integrally related to his doctrine of things and signs.  Without “in the beginning was the Logos” means that the world would be meaningless, truth impossible, and speech having no other possible purpose than enslavement.  The entire tradition of communicative language theory that maintains that language is meant to bring human together to fulfill their inner desires as well as coming together in truth is false.  (This tradition of communicative language is also found in Aristotle, though it reaches a far more systematized form in Christianity’s conceptualization of the Logos.)

III

Reason, then, is the most important principle of nature.  It is the most important principle of existence.  This does not mean that there are no other principles of nature or existence, for there are in Augustine, but it is simply the recognition that without reason, love, truth, desire, etc. would be disjointed and “out of order.”  Because reason is an ordering force.  It is the Logos that orders creation from chaos.  It is the Logos that allows us to understand the world we live in.  It is the Logos that allows us to understand ourselves and our desires.  It is the Logos that allows us to order our knowledge and desires to their end.

This returns us back to the so-called “dying and rising” narrative of Christ.  As Augustine says, the most important literal sign to this story is that Truth, or Reason, which is what Christ is, cannot be defeated or contained.  The crucifixion of the Word is the attempt to destroy reason and order in the world.  But this failed.  Reason cannot be contained to a grave, and neither can it be sublated from existence.  The resurrection of the Word of God also, and most importantly, represents the resurrection of Reason and Wisdom; this is why Truth and Love (the Holy Spirit) is what follows the Resurrection at Pentecost.  Truth now permeates into the Christian community, and they are tasked with proclaiming, or speaking, this truth to others.  This is important to understand as to why Catholics and Orthodox do not believe in the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura.  Implicitly, the principle of Sola Scriptura denies Christ as the Word.  It makes a collection of books (Bible = books) into the Word, but the Word is Christ – and even the Bible testifies to this at the beginning of John’s Gospel.  As Augustine writes, “Who is Christ if not the Word of God: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God? This Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  In a way, when certain Protestants claim Catholics “don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God,” they are right – Catholics believe that Christ is the Word of God.  (And this true of the Orthodox too, and technically true of confessional Protestantism (e.g. Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed) as well.)

Just as the Word gave rise and order to creation, the Word cannot be sublated or contained by a “rebellious” creation.  The Word is more powerful than death itself.  Death couldn’t hold back the Truth.  We immediately recognize that the “death and resurrection” narrative in Christianity is something entirely different than the familiar dying and rising stories of Near Eastern religions (which symbolized the truths of the cycles of the seasons).  Again, as Augustine wrote, “death is not the last word.”  Readers of the Biblical stories will no doubt remember that Paul says that one’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.  This is to say that the body is the house of Truth.  When one is baptized, one is baptized “in the name of the Father (Truth), the Son (Wisdom), and the Holy Spirit (Love).”  Humans possess Truth because Truth is what followed from the Resurrection of the Word which is the equally the resurrection of reason after the attempt to kill reason.  The communication of Truth is the final epoch to the Christian drama.

Augustine, in his commentary on Paul’s epistles, notes that Resurrection is about re-integration of reason with desire in the human body, which is captured in the essence of the Resurrection of the Word.  It is the renewal of the mind, which is the soul, of the human body that helps restore the imago Dei.  That is, the re-harmonization of body and mind with the reason needed to re-integrate our divided selves.

This is why there is no such thing as “conversion” in Catholic and Orthodox teachings – or at least not how we, following the Reformation, think of that term “conversion.”  There is no “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” in Augustine’s theological philosophy.  There is only re-orientation back to the Logos (Word) – to know Wisdom itself.  Such a person who is orienting their reason back to the source of Reason is essentially being a Christian for Augustine – this is why one is “received” into the Church rather than “converted into the faith.”  That reorientation is the reintegration or restoration of the imago Dei.  This is why Augustine writes in one of his letters that “It is remarkable how God dwells in those who do not yet know him.”  Such people have, though not fully comprehending the fullness of what they’ve done, reoriented themselves back to the Logos.  As Augustine says in De Trinitate, “wisdom is the same as the Word ([Logos]), and being Word is the same as being wisdom, the same being power; so that power, wisdom, and Word are all the same.”  The Logos, the “voice of God,” for Augustine, is the voice of Reason within all persons as imago Dei that leads to knowledge, the ordering of our lives, and the communication of truth.  Logos is the centerpiece of civilization.

Finally, we see that Christianity’s epistemology is strongly foundationalist because of the proclamation that “in the beginning was the Logos.”  Christianity also eschews all forms of postmodernism and social constructivist epistemologies for the obvious reason that it would be a denial of the order of nature through the Logos.  But, through Augustine, we equally see the importance of the pluralism of knowledge, which itself stems from the Triune Godhead.  Pure rationalism doesn’t understand the material world (this is part of the problem with Gnosticism and Manicheanism), just as pure empiricism misses all the signs pointing back to the ultimate thing to be enjoyed: Logos.  This is why Logos is alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.  Cardinal Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) summarized it best more recently, “Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the ‘Logos,’ from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.”

 

Reading:

St. Augustine, De Trinitate (On the Trinity)

________, De Doctrina Christiana (Teaching Christianity)

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