Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Chalcedonian Glance at Platonism and Augustine on Human Nature

In The Civilization of the Middle Ages (1993), Norman Cantor tells us that the “most influential philosophical system in the ancient world…was Platonism” (14). Everyone who was anyone had to understand, if not embrace, this dominant Olympian way of thinking. According to it, “ignorance was the cause of evil and…properly educated men would exercise their rational faculties and do good” (75).

Platonists, then, believed that human beings were potentially good by nature. They would do good if they only knew what it was. A few people learned how to think rationally, discern and affirm what was good and, by doing so, actually become good.

From a Chalcedonian point of view, this way of thinking is flawed. Every human is both wholly Olympian as well as wholly Christian. Our wholly Olympian personality wholly devotes itself to false yet destructive Olympian gods of power. If we properly educate our wholly Olympian minds, we simply become polished scoundrels.

In other words, education itself does not weaken or transform any Olympian personality. One may become a scientist, physician, lawyer, tycoon, or even a philosopher and still remain a stinker.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), as a brilliant well-read Olympian and teacher of rhetoric, was a master of Platonism. After his conversion to Christianity, this uniquely qualified him to compare Platonism with the biblical witness to Jesus.

Augustine rightly rejected the Platonist understanding of human nature. People “may know what is [75] right, he said, but something prevents them from acting rightly” (75-6).

Augustine’s alternative? “Evil, immorality, wretchedness, and violence are defects of the will, not the intellect…Men know that selfishness and hatred are wrong, but they cannot escape from their ‘carnal will,’ or love of self” (76). “Spiritual will never triumphs over carnal will unless God helps” (76).

Platonists understood evil in the world as resulting from an ignorant mind defectively guiding an otherwise good personality. Once properly educated, that mind would become good as well, discern what was good, and then that good would be done by one’s wholly good personality.

In mild but more realistic contrast, Augustine understood evil in the world as resulting from an Olympian will defectively desiring to attain its own self-centered goals at the expense of others. He also rightly recognized that we humans are stuck with a dominant carnal or Olympian will without God’s grace or freely given and liberating love.

While Augustine improved on Platonism by recognizing that we don’t always do the good we know, he committed the same deeper mistake. He attributed the evil that we do to a defective part of an otherwise Christian personality. Fix that self-centered Olympian will, and our personality becomes wholly Christian.

The Chalcedonian Formula tells us that we each have both a wholly Christian personality and a wholly Olympian one without mixture. Both Platonists and Augustine mix the two. Both believe we all have a predominantly Christian (good) personality that would know as well as will the good if it were not for an Olympian (evil) mind (Platonists) or an Olympian will (Augustine).

If we use the Chalcedonian Formula, and refuse to understand human nature as a mixture of Christian and Olympian elements, we may discern a meaningful alternative to both Platonists and Augustine.

We each have a wholly Olympian personality. It is structured in terms of six false yet destructive gods of power. Our Olympian mind understands good and evil in terms of our self-centered lust for power in service to those gods. Good is what helps us to gain power; evil, what prevents that or causes us to lose it. Contrary to Augustine, our Olympian mind doesn’t think that selfishness and hatred are wrong.

According to the Olympian worldview, other people are simply means to our ends. They are good only as long as they are useful. Otherwise they are nothing. Our Olympian will exerts itself to gain power. Our Olympian heart feels positively happy when we succeed regardless of the consequences for others.

We each have a wholly Christian personality. It is structured in terms of Jesus Christ. Our Christian mind understands good and evil in terms of witnessing to him. Good is sharing his light, love, and life with others; evil, adding to the darkness, cold, and death around us.

According to this Christian point of view, the Christian personality of every human being makes them unique, precious, and irreplaceable witnesses to Jesus just like we are. It makes them ends in themselves. Our Christian will exerts itself to share Christ’s light, love, and life. Our Christian heart feels positively happy when we succeed for their good and Christ’s glory.

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.