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Augustine’s Choice: The Lord of Light or the Light of the Lord?

Charles Natoli considers whether St Augustine had any better reason to convert to Christianity than remain a Manichean.

“It was fortunate that St. Augustine, who was so well versed in all the arts of controversy, abandoned Manicheism; for he would have been well able to remove its grossest errors and to make the rest of it a system that, in his hands, would have left the orthodox at a loss.”

Pierre Bayle, Critical and Historical Dictionary, ‘Manicheans’

In On the Usefulness of Believing, his final work as a layman, we find Augustine still engaged with the Manichean faith he had left five years before. In an aside, he queries the critique of Manicheism he has just been making: “But why do I not reply to myself that these elegant and delightful similitudes, and censures of this kind, can be poured out wittily and smartly by any adversary against anyone who teaches anything?” Let’s therefore have done with metaphor-mongering and charge-flinging, he continues, so that “matter may clash with matter, cause with cause, and reason with reason.” (Ch 3.) But in the clash of reason with reason, what if either side can avail itself of essentially the same arguments? In particular we may ask with respect to Augustine’s conversion from Manicheism to Christianity whether the type of objection he used to fell the old belief would have felled the new; or if the safeguards Augustine used to defend the new belief would have also protected the old one from refutation. After all, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

As is well known, the young Augustine found the Old Testament to be a stone of stumbling (Confessions 3.5). He found its style quite lacking in the nobility of Cicero, and he was sorely vexed by many passages which, taken literally, he couldn’t find fitting or true. It was not until St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, taught him to interpret the Old Testament allegorically that his objections to it fell away (5.14).

While a Manichee, Augustine also found grave fault with the Manichean scriptures for speaking poorly, not to say falsely, of corporeal things such as the heavenly bodies (Confessions 5.5). Indeed, mere astronomers seemed to know more about them! But why could not the offending passages in the Manichee scriptures have been intellectually rehabilitated in the same way as their fellows in the Old Testament – by allegorical, figurative interpretation? Couldn’t Augustine have said, “Mani’s text is intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go?” After all, Augustine was quite willing to show the Christian Scriptures some indulgence on the score of literal accuracy in matters astronomical. In controversy with Felix the Manichee he says: “it is not written in the Gospel that the Lord said: I send you the Paraclete who will teach you the courses of the sun and the moon. For he wished to make Christians, not mathematicians” (Against Felix, 1.10). Is this sort of argument methodological good faith, or mere special pleading?

The Manichees and Augustine

When Augustine was young, Manicheism was at its zenith in North Africa. Though widespread in high circles, it had the allure of the exotic and avant-garde – a kind of Cool New Thing, if you will. Moreover, by being outrageously demanding, the sect dispensed an oblique form of flattery that can have a powerful appeal to the young and talented. By insisting that salvation could be won only through the most heroic asceticism and renunciation – on the face of it, a gospel little likely to appeal to the young or to anyone! – it implied that its faithful were a corps d’élite capable of storming such heights.

Though preached as the fulfillment of earlier revelations, and though its founder claimed to be the Paraclete promised by Jesus, Manicheism is better understood as a religion in its own right rather than merely a Christian heresy. Its founder, Mani, the Babylonian ‘apostle of light’, spread it tirelessly far and wide until his execution by the Persians in 277 CE.

Though in the West Manicheism quickly dimmed after its high noon in Augustine’s youth, in the East it met with much longer success, spreading east along the Silk Road and south as far as the South China Sea. It was powerfully entrenched in the western Chinese kingdom of the Uighurs until the ninth and tenth centuries, when it declined under pressure from Buddhism. Remnants of it endured there until the thirteenth century, when they perished in the conquests of Genghis Khan. In the Middle Ages, Manicheism’s core beliefs were preached by the Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathars. The latter flourished greatly, especially in the south of France, until they perished in the fires of the Inquisition and in a twenty-year Crusade summoned by Pope Innocent III. Perhaps a million Cathars died in all. There is even a small Neo-Manichean movement in America today.

Manicheism’s principal features included a good/evil dualism even more rigid than that of Zoroastrianism; a remarkably severe asceticism for those who would practice it fully; and a canon of holy scriptures including texts composed by the founder. In colorful, extravagant and sometimes obscene myths Manichees portrayed the world as a battleground between two coequal forces, the Lords of Light and Darkness. As the result of an invasion of the Lord of Light’s realm by minions of the Archon of Darkness, in man as indeed in all material things bits of Light are trapped in the foul embrace of matter, itself a stuff of Darkness. Salvation therefore consists in the liberation of our Light and its return to the realm of the Lord of Light. This can only come to pass through a rigorously ascetic lifestyle founded on knowledge (after gnosis cf gnosticism) of our condition’s origins and nature.

Augustine, the child of a pagan father and a devoutly Christian mother, became a Manichean ‘auditor’ at about the age of nineteen (c.373 AD). As a mere auditor, a ‘hearer’, he was dispensed from the most extreme rigors mandated for its small elite of full practitioners. The latter, called the ‘perfect’ (perfecti) or the ‘chosen’ (electi), were forbidden procreation, along with all other sexual activity, professional careers, material possessions, and rich foods such as meat and wine. They were forbidden to engage in the cultivation and preparation even of such foods as were approved, eg figs, thought to contain a goodly part of the divine light entombed in matter everywhere.

By 384, Augustine, now the newly-appointed professor of rhetoric in the imperial city of Milan, had become dissatisfied with Manicheism, and he became a catechumen [doctrine learner] in the Catholic Church. There may have been a bit of policy in his becoming a catechumen, for a strain of Christianity had the vigorous patronage of the emperor. Yet although at this time Augustine’s Manichean moorings were loosening, he was as yet not wholly satisfied with Christianity either. But by August of 386 he had irrevocably converted to the Christian faith as he had learned to interpret it from Ambrose. What chiefly impelled him to quit the old faith for the new?

From The Archon of Light To The Light of God

Augustine tells us that he originally became a Manichee, and persisted in the sect for nine years (actually it was nearly eleven), because the Manichees promised him reasons in lieu of faith. But, as he says in On the Usefulness of Believing, it was also reason which kept him from committing himself completely to Manicheism. When even the celebrated and long-awaited teacher Faustus of Milevis was unable to resolve his problems with Manichean doctrine, Augustine began to have grave doubts that the Manichees’ epistemological promissory note would ever be paid off.

Like his literal-minded objections to the sect’s astronomy, some of the other reasons he gives for abandoning the religion of Mani are also two-edged swords that in his hands seem to cut but one way. For example, Augustine was scandalized at the immorality of some of the Manichean perfecti. What are those who should be dead to lust and revolted at the mere thought of procreation doing whistling, or whinnying like stallions, at shapely women? Is this how the true faith bears fruit in its elect? But in later Christian writers the subject of bogus sanctity among the Church’s elite is a commonplace. For example, in the Decameron, Boccaccio tells of a Jew visiting Rome who sees at first hand the flagrant immorality of the Church hierarchy and decides to convert! He infers that only divine providence could be responsible for preserving a Church whose holy ones were so unholy. Later Montaigne will tell a like story in the early pages of the Apology for Raymond Sebond: while on crusade St Louis (King Louis IX of France), knowing too well the flagrant iniquities of the princes of the Church, powerfully discourages a newly converted Tartar king from visiting the Pope and his prelates. Louis is terrified lest the convert’s desire to find inspiration in His Holiness should backfire. But not to worry. When the Tartar king does visit Rome, he too concludes that nothing less than the miraculous power of God could have preserved the Christian sheepfold under such shepherds. We may fairly suppose that immorality among the Christian elite was also not unknown to Augustine. Yet he never refers to such failings with a “by their fruits ye shall know them” aspersion on the faith.

Augustine taxes the Manichees with characterizing God in a way unworthy of divinity. For the substance of God (Light) has become entangled with, and hence corrupted by, matter, the foul substance of evil (Confessions 3.10). But in the same work he will mention a special case of this very problem that would seem to tell against Christians. Did not their doctrine of the Incarnation mean that God, because born in the flesh, would be defiled by flesh (5.10)? Though Christians, unlike Manichees, were not compelled to view matter as inherently foul, nonetheless for God to take on flesh is to stoop indeed. In fact, this will later be used to argue that His love and mercy must be without stint or limit.

Manichee dietary injunctions would have the faithful eat as much of the substance of the Lord of Light at their ritual meals as they could – for example, by consuming figs. Augustine finds this not only an unworthy characterization of divinity but an absurd one. He ridicules the Manichees’ consumption of figs and consequent belching forth bits of God (3.10). To understand how this would strike a pious Manichee, a Christian need only imagine similar witticisms at the expense of the Christian ritual meal in the communion, where the substance of the Lord is held to be consumed by the faithful.

Similarly, at the time that he was wobbling in his Manichean orbit, Augustine’s cardinal objection to Christian teaching lay in the apparent failure of Scripture to speak fittingly of God and His elect. For example, how could some Old Testament patriarchs enjoy the highest divine favor notwithstanding their unbridled concupiscence? Seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines indeed! For shame, Solomon! But on his arriving in Milan he began to attend the sermons of Ambrose, in which the Old Testament was expounded as edifying allegory . There remained one intellectual stone of stumbling: “if I were only able to conceive a spiritual substance... But this I was unable to do.” (5.14) But when he became able to conceive how a substance might be immaterial – an accomplishment whose first inspiration came from Ambrose, although its consummation derived from Neoplatonism – then nothing stood between Augustine and Christianity but his self-will. His defiance was famously finally vanquished by the “voice as of a child” calling to him in the garden, bidding him “Take up and read” and the piercingly apt words of Scripture on which his eyes focused:

“I grabbed it, opened it and read in silence that chapter on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in strife and envying; but put you on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh and its lusts.” Nor did I wish to read further, nor was there need. Indeed immediately I reached the end of this sentence all shadows of doubt fled away as if before a tranquil light that infused my heart.” (Confessions 8.12).

Yet even here we find Augustine showing partiality. Earlier in the Confessions he told us how his faith in astrology was sapped by an old and disillusioned former practitioner: “When I enquired of him why it was true that so many of the things that they [the astrologers] foretold turned out to be true, he answered... that the power of chance... brings this about. If a man consults at random the pages of some poet who sings and thinks of things far different, a verse often appears that is wonderfully appropriate to the business at hand. It is not to be marveled at, then if... there should be uttered, not by art but by chance, something relevant to the affairs and deeds of the questioner.” (4.3) Yet the possibility that his alighting on an appropriate text in the garden could be mere chance is not entertained for a moment. Would a more equitable reasoner not have entertained this possibility? Indeed, as a natural rather than a supernatural explanation, is it not inherently more likely, as Hume would later argue?

On Geese That Are Swans

In the event, Augustine became a Christian. But might he have remained a Manichee with as good reason? Might he not have triumphantly defended his old creed, had he chosen to employ the resources with which he chose to defend the new – particularly by allegorical interpretation of troublesome texts?

On the face of it there is no reason why not. His strongest objections to Manichee dogma – false accounts of the heavenly bodies and vexing descriptions of God and evil as corporeal masses – could have been construed as figures implying a plethora of more exalted meanings. When explaining Old Testament descriptions of the heavens, Augustine is very willing to understand them figuratively so that they may not contradict each other. Is the sky a skin or a vaulted chamber? “Perhaps both of these, skin and vault, can be understood figuratively; how both could be true literally must be looked into, however” (On Genesis According to the Letter, 2.9). It would seem manifestly ad hoc for Augustine to restrict the saving device of allegorical interpretation to Christian texts.

But perhaps this is mere seeming. For was allegorical interpretation an option open to orthodox Manichees, or was it an article of faith for them that the revelation of Mani must be understood literally? Augustine tells us this was indeed the case:

“You preach especially that Mani came last for this reason: not to speak in figures but to explain them, so that having unlocked the figures of the ancients by his narrations and the clear light of his arguments he should be hidden by no figures. You add this reason for his presumption, that clearly the ancients who saw, spoke, or enacted figures knew that he would come last and that by him all would be explained. He however, knowing that no one would come after him, wove no allegorical obscurities into his teaching.” (Against Faustus 15.6)

But what was Augustine’s own view of the matter? This is the point at issue when it comes to analyzing his decision to forego allegorical interpretation of Manicheism. It seems to have been rather different. Thus, of the Manichees’ chief teaching he will say, “I thought that they hid something great with veils that at some time to come they would open” (On the Blessed Life 1.4). In short, while a Manichee, Augustine was effectively ‘travelling in hope’, thinking the very crux of its teaching to be but a figure which would later be unriddled to reveal a more exalted meaning. Thus, whether or not an unimpeachably orthodox Manichee could expand his creed allegorically, it seems clear Augustine felt that he could. But it is also clear that for him Manicheism never fulfilled its promise of providing clear reasons. It was so little given to philosophical argument, so little ‘scientific’ even in a wide sense, that modern scholars join its ancient detractors in remarking on it. We can see that Augustine came to a like conclusion from his complaints as a Christian that Manicheism was a childish superstition; that its doctrine shed no light, but was itself a darkness; and that he had believed, not in men who taught, but in men who ordered obedience (On the Blessed Life, 1.4).

And yet, as a determined and resourceful exegete, could Augustine not have read something refined and exalted even into the ‘childish superstition’ of Mani? After all, is it not a boast of the New Testament writers that the Gospel seems folly to the wise, and that the Lord resists the proud (cf James 4.6)? Why should not the Gospel of Mani be likewise?

There is an old saying that wryly renders the idea of self-deluded partiality – as in the case, say, of doting parents whose unbridled fondness beguiles them into thinking their unexceptional spawn to be matchless paragons: “They thought all their geese were swans.” Was Christianity Augustine’s goose that he thought was a swan?

The Heart Has Its Reasons

On the whole, I think not. So far as reasoning is concerned, Augustine might indeed have shored up his belief in Manicheism had he been determined to do so – had he, in fact, chosen to defend it with the vigor with which he later repulsed attacks on Catholic orthodoxy. But he felt, and seems to have seen, that reason is more than reasoning; and his determination to defend to the utmost Christian but not Manichee belief can be seen as quite rational in a large, though perhaps troubling, sense.

What decided Augustine upon Christianity was, more than anything, the conviction of certainty that it alone bestowed on him – or better, on his ‘heart’. For Augustine, as for the Biblical authors and Pascal, the heart is profoundly intellective: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.” And for Augustine it was Christian belief alone that came to have a force of conviction, an effulgent certainty, which left his heart nothing more to desire – a phenomenon of the kind that Nietzsche would later call ‘proof by power’.

Augustine is explicit that complete certainty is what he always sought, even during his brief flirtation with Academic skepticism. Of that time he says:

“I held back my heart from all assent, fearing to fall headlong, and I perished all the more from the suspense [of judgment]. So that I should be certain, I wished to be made as sure of the things I could not see as I was certain that seven and three make ten.” (Confessions 6.4; cf 5.14).

This is the criterion – or should we say the longing? – that finally found fulfillment in the garden.

Perhaps Augustine’s rejection of Manicheism was indeed seconded by the bar his concubinage would have opposed to his being numbered among its elect. But be this as it may, clearly the Manichean Lord of Light – the passive victim of a surprise attack by the Archons of Darkness, mutable, his substance torn asunder, contaminated, made prisoner in matter – is far too weak to command the passionate worship Augustine longed to give, or to function as guarantor for the kind of certainty he craved.

Perhaps the greatest question, not only for Augustine in his context, but for would-be knowers in any domain, is one that though usually unspoken, is always in the background: who or what “will hold the heart and make it stand still?” (Confessions 11.11). That is, when do you know that you know? When is conviction no longer provisional – no longer subject to correction by future experience or reflection? When does one reach the point where the prospect of trading up to a better way of thinking no longer presents itself? When does belief leave the dock and, once and for all, assume the judge’s chair?

Need we say that Augustine was well aware of the problem of delusive certainty? This state is much to be feared, inasmuch as it not only deceives us, but by quelling all desire for future searching, leaves us ‘immutably confirmed in error’, to use a Scholastic phrase. As Augustine says to Honoratus, a friend from his student days who became a Manichee under his urging, “Nothing is more easy, my dearest friend, than for one to not only say, but to think, that he has found out the truth.” (On the Usefulness of Believing, 1). So by what right can Augustine be certain of his own certainty? (The question is especially acute in the case of a Christian certainty which holds our intellects to have been darkened by original sin.) Non-delusive certainty can only come from a Light that, once seen, makes itself inexorably known for what it is. In its effulgence it cannot be mistaken for anything else, nor anything else for it. It is quite simply unique:

“I entered deep within myself and I saw by the soul’s eye… an unchangeable Light above that same eye of my soul, above my mind… It was above because It made me, and I was below because I had been made by It. Aand who knows It knows eternity... . And you cried out from afar: I am who am. And I heard as one who listens in the heart. Nor was there anything on account of which I might doubt. And it would have been easier to doubt that I am alive…” (Confessions 7.10).

This could be understood as an earthly analogue of the certainty felt by the blessed in Heaven in the Beatific vision. Without such a certainty, even they could be gnawed by doubt and fearful that, though they think they see God, in reality, mocking infernal powers are beguiling them with a soon-to-be-lifted illusion (think Descartes’ evil demon).

Of course, one can say that all of this is just too ingenuous, even if charmingly so, and itself fraught with the gravest peril of unending self-delusion. But conversely, how can we not take as good epistemological coin a certainty so overwhelming that it leaves no room at all for doubt – a certainty of which we could say “it would have been easier to doubt that I am alive”?

At the end of the day, those things we cannot but believe will inevitably pass for what we ought to believe. With due respect to Descartes, our rationality will consist in arguing and proceeding from those things of whose truth we are irresistibly convinced, and not only from those things any rational being might be compelled to grant under all conditions. (Keep in mind, too, that our conceptions of the latter will be inescapably conditioned by the former.) And so, when Augustine took his stand for God and Providence, foreshadowing Luther’s “Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise!” he was simply acknowledging that these were the overwhelmingly evident interpretations of the text of the world in his sight. To deny them would have been to say that he did not see things as in fact he did see them – that is, to lie. Or, rather, to deny his conclusions would have been to feign that he was not Augustine but another, someone whose inner eye saw otherwise.

So notwithstanding first appearances, it was by no means an arbitrary, irrational choice Augustine made between Manicheism and Christianity. The former always left his heart with doubts, and the latter conferred a certainty which left his heart nothing more to desire. Let us even suppose that he did not come into possession of pristine and primordial Truth, but rather embraced the worst of illusions – one that will brook no denial. (Luther’s concluding “God help me, amen!” is a prudent last safeguard on the brink of such an epistemological precipice.) Even so, his manner of proceeding was a profoundly reasonable one. For our reason, like the rest of our humanity, is part and parcel not of an ideal world, but of what the French call le monde comme il va – a world whose bedrock is unanswerable brute fact. Augustine pays implicit homage to this when he thinks and acts in accordance with a view that, illusion or no, is bound up in our very selves: that which wholly satisfies the heart is Truth alone.

© Charles Natoli 2009

Charles Natoli is head of Philosophy and Classical Studies at St John Fisher College, Rochester, NY. He is the author of Nietzsche and Pascal on Christianity (1985) and Fire in the Dark: Essays on Pascal’s Pensées and Provinciales (2005).

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