Augustine’s Philosophical Importance

Augustine is a hugely important figure in church history. He’s a big deal outside the church, too—in fact, he’s one of the most important figures in pure philosophy.

Here’s why.

Augustine beat Kant to his theory of subjective time

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was one of the fathers of modern philosophy. He argued, among many other things, that time doesn’t exist outside consciousness—that it’s “nothing other than the form of inner sense.” That subjective view of time has proved hugely important. Thing is, Kant wasn’t the first to think of it—Augustine, in the third century AD, came to more or less the same conclusion in book XI of the Confessions.

The problem that started it all: given the Genesis 1 account of creation, shouldn’t creation have occurred sooner—that is, as soon as possible? Augustine argues that time itself was created when the world was created; God, eternal, is exempt from linear time and all notions of before and after. It’s here that Augustine beats Kant to the punch. “What, then, is time?” he wonders. “If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” He concludes that the present is all that really exists; the past exists only as memory; the future, as expectation. Time is in and of the human mind, and that’s Kant in a nutshell.

Augustine beat Descartes to his cogito

modern-philosophy-bundleCogito, ergo sum,” wrote René Descartes (1596–1650)—“I think, therefore I am.” Descartes resolved to doubt all that could be doubted, and concluded that pretty much all sensory input is subject to skepticism. That position admits as trustworthy only the bare fact of mental existence. (By the way, Descartes later concluded that his own extreme doubt, though possible, was unreasonable—since God is good, he wouldn’t lead us astray; therefore, the senses can be trusted.) Descartes’ cogito has been enormously influential.

But Augustine, in his Soliloquia, comes to the very same conclusion:

“You, who wish to know, do you know who you are? I know it. Whence are you? I know not. Do you feel yourself single or multiple? I know not. Do you feel yourself moved? I know not. Do you know that you think? I do.” (emphasis added)

Sorry, Descartes.

Augustine incorporated and modified Platonism

ancient-philosophy-bundleFor Augustine, the writings of Plato were “the most pure and bright in all philosophy, scattering the clouds of error”—in fact, Platonism helped bring Augustine to Christianity. Through Plotinus, Augustine adopted many of Plato’s teachings:

  • Augustine’s City of God is to his City of Man what Plato’s higher plane—the plane of forms—is to our lower world.
  • Plato believed in absolute, unchanging reality; for Augustine, this made Christianity’s radical claims, which he came to later in life, easier to accept.
  • Both thinkers treated logic and faith as complementary, not opposed.

What’s really interesting is that Augustine, unlike his Platonist predecessors, adapted Platonism into new philosophy that better conforms to Scripture. Let’s return to Genesis 1, for example. For Plato, and later Aristotle, creating something from nothing was unthinkable: in the Timaeus, Plato argued that a demiurge, or creator god, sculpted the universe’s forms from some preceding primitive matter. But Genesis is explicit—God created something from nothing—and so Augustine sees no room for confusion. Before him, Christian Platonists (like Origen) tended to incorporate Plato’s thought in whole; after him, Platonism answered to Scripture.

* * *

Augustine took the philosophy of the past and modified it for emerging Christianity. He developed original philosophy that prefigured the work of many of modernity’s most important thinkers. He’s important—and so is the larger conversation he’s such a big part of.

You can get the Logos editions (in both English and Latin) of Augustine’s Confessions and Select Letters for just $32.99—for such influential thought in such a research-friendly format, that’s a steal. Likewise, Noet’s Ancient and Modern Philosophy bundles give you the essential works of Kant, Descartes, Plato, and others.

Join the conversation: pick up Augustine’s Confessions and Select Letters, the Ancient Philosophy Bundle, and the Modern Philosophy Bundle right now.

Or start studying the ultimate classical library: Noet’s immense Classical Foundations Bundle, which gives you 124 volumes spanning philosophy, history, literature, and the classics.

Then keep reading—what do philosophy and theology have to do with math?

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Written by
David Davidson
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Written by David Davidson