Jerusalem and Athens

Back when I was studying Augustine, I found that the more I learned about his view, the more it sounded like he was basically a Calvinist. Predestination, Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace; all of these themes can be found in Augustine’s thought, a thousand years before John Calvin entered the scene. But I could never be entirely sure. Some of my sources on Augustine were themselves explicitly Calvinists; might they be filtering his thought through their own? How could I disentangle Augustine’s thought from concepts that were layered on ages later? I’m still not sure, but I think the answer is that Calvin was in fact building on ideas first put for by Augustine. Augustine may not have been a Calvinist, but Calvin was an Augustinian.1

Plato gives me a similar feeling. Reading the Republic was a watershed moment in my life. It was almost a conversion moment for me, more so even than my actual conversion, which happened when I was so young that there was very little to convert. Reading through the ancient Greeks, I get the strong feeling that at last I’m getting a glimpse behind the dark glass at the real truth of things.

Greek philosophy seems so in line with Christian theology that it’s uncanny. The very word “philosophy” literally means “lover of wisdom,” which is given the highest praise throughout the Proverbs. Using only their reason, they deduced that there was a single God underlying all creation, in whom everything has its being. They held up pursuit of Truth as the highest good, something Jesus himself would certainly agree with. They were deeply concerned with living a life of virtue, and argued strenuously for it against the Sophists. In this world, they held up “friendship” as one of the greatest goods; but the concept would be better translated as “love,” which again ties back into God himself. Basically, all that is left is to identify those threads with Jesus and you’re done.

I’m hardly the first to think so, either. As early as Justin Martyr, Christians found themselves admiring and turning to the Greeks. And here we again come to Augustine. Augustine was a Platonist, and throughout his writings he merges the two systems of thought together. And that’s the catch. Do I find Plato appealing because he’s right? Or do I find him appealing because I’ve been living my whole life under systems of thought that always had him at their root?

It may not really be that important; so long as he is right the rest is really just details. I will always be grateful to and love Plato. Apologetics gave my faith a shield, but it was philosophy that gave it deep roots.

1 We are all Augustinians, at least all of us in the West.

Love and Ambition

Blaise Pascal, famed mathematician and Christian philosopher, has some Valentine’s Day thoughts for you:

The passions which are the best suited to man and include many others, are love and ambition: they have little connec-tion with each other; nevertheless they are often allied; but they mutually weaken, not to say destroy, each other. Whatever compass of mind one may have, he is capable of only one great passion; hence, when love and ambition are found together, they are only half as great as they would be if only one of them existed.

How happy is a life that begins with love and ends with ambition! If I had to choose, this is the one I should take. So long as we have ardor we are amiable; but this ardor dies out, is lost; then what a fine and noble place is left for ambition! A tumultuous life is pleasing to great minds, but those who are mediocre have no pleasure in it; they are machines everywhere. Hence when love and ambition begin and end life, we are in the happiest condition of which human nature is capable.

I shared this with two acquaintances of mine, and they both immediately objected. Purse love before ambition? Madness! Money first, love later! (Much of our society’s advice on love could be boiled down to those four words.)

They are both unmarried, so I guess they have what they wish for. It’s worth pointing out that Pascal himself was a bachelor; he may have been speaking out of regret for a path not chosen.