Skip to main content

Greek Philosophy

Augustine of Hippo

By Augustine of Hippo, Greek Philosophy, Predestination
Augustine of Hippo, fresco by Botticelli 
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a contemporary of Hypatia and the Patriarch Cyril. Originally a Manichaean, his conversion to Christianity was for many centuries regarded by clerics as a triumph over the supposed evil of dualism. The followers of Mani reaped violent opposition and infamy.

Augustine is sometimes described as a Christian philosopher. Bertrand Russell admitted him into a famous canon of Western philosophy, alongside Ambrose, Jerome, Aquinas, and others (Russell 1946:344ff). Augustine himself clearly viewed philosophy as having a secondary status to revelation. His outlook is complicated by the doctrine of predestination.

He was born in the Numidian town of Thagaste, in what later became Algeria. His middle class father was a pagan and his mother a Christian. At the age of seventeen he moved to Carthage, for further education in Latin literature; he acquired a long-term concubine and became a pedagogue in the classical mode. When he read Cicero’s Hortensius in 373, he was inspired by an exhortation to philosophy. However, he did not become a Stoic or a Platonist, but instead converted to the Manichaean religion, becoming a “Hearer” for about nine years.

Still a pagan, he moved to Italy in 383, becoming a professor of rhetoric at Milan. The preaching of Bishop Ambrose now caught his attention; Ambrose made borrowings from Plotinus in his sermons used for the episcopal cause. Circa 386, Augustine obtained some books on Neoplatonism which are known to have exercised a strong influence upon him; he understated this matter in his influential Confessions.

According to Peter Brown,  Augustine “seems to have deliberately dwarfed the number of the [Neoplatonist] books he had received and the time which he took to absorb them” (Brown 2000:94). Those books apparently included many treatises of Plotinus in a Latin translation by Victorinus. Augustine did not read Greek, and himself wrote in Latin. Certain deductions are relevant. The Confessions “were patently the work of a Neo-Platonic philosopher” (ibid:165). Yet “Plotinus never gossiped with the One as Augustine gossips in the Confessions” (ibid:167, citing E. R. Dodds in the Hibbert Jnl).

“The emotional tone of the Confessions strikes any modern reader” (ibid:170). In contrast, the Enneads of Plotinus present discursive themes, including very brief personal recollections of a unio mystica, in a language lacking emotional contours. There is no such event in Augustine’s autobiography. “Where Plotinus is full of quiet confidence, Augustine felt precarious” (ibid:178).

The Confessions is a document emphasising the triumph of Christianity, being composed after the author became a bishop. Some readers are critical of submerged factors and rhetorical flourishes. Augustine did not become a convert to Christianity until 386, and was baptised by Ambrose the following year. In 391 Augustine was ordained a priest at Hippo (near Thagaste), thereafter becoming a preacher and worsting the local Manichaeans. Four years later he became the bishop of Hippo. In this action he bypassed the routine of the monastery at Hippo associated with him; that monastery itself became increasingly ecclesiastical.

Augustine did not want a simple contemplative life but instead an officious role in church affairs. He daily arbitrated in lawsuits and vehemently campaigned against the rival Christian Donatists. The professor of rhetoric had become a Catholic missionary. Significantly, Bishop Augustine “decided that he would never reach the fulfilment that he first thought was promised to him by a Christian Platonism: he would never impose a victory of mind over body in himself, he would never achieve the rapt contemplation of the ideal philosopher” (Brown 2000:147).

The government increasingly imposed restrictions on the African Donatists. Augustine eventually agreed with other bishops that the imperial policy of coercion was justified. In 412, the Emperor Honorius proscribed Donatism, exiled Donatist clergy, and confiscated Donatist property. The Catholic cause was triumphant.

Augustine was  in conflict, not merely with Platonism, but with Roman aristocrats who assumed an intellectual superiority via their familiarity with classical heritages. In The City of God (De Civitate Dei), composed in his last years, Augustine opposed Roman paganism, then such a strong rival of Christianity.

Augustine was responding to the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410. More specifically, to a pagan argument that the disaster was due to abandoning the gods in favour of Christianity. Augustine retorted that the gods did not save Rome. The pagan gods gain the maligned stature of devils in Augustine’s version, failing to communicate any moral teaching. Obscenities in pagan rites are appropriately criticised. However, “the influence of Roman rhetoric… can be seen in almost every paragraph that he wrote, and in many an argument that he used” (J. O’Meara, intro. to The City of God, Bettenson trans., p. xxii).

The City of God awards deference to Plato, and secondarily to Aristotle. These philosophers are nevertheless criticised  for endorsing the gods. The Platonists were the pagans nearest to Christianity, Augustine approvingly asserted; Plotinus here benefited from the association with Plato. However, the Platonists are rebuked for refusing to acknowledge Christ, who here denotes the universal route to salvation. Porphyry shares in this denunciation, though the disciple of Plotinus is praised for his opposition to theurgy, as relayed in the Letter to Anebo – “in which, while appearing to ask for advice and information, he exposes this blasphemous art of magic and overthrows it” (The City of God, Bettenson trans, p. 386).

Augustine cited the Neoplatonist contention: “No doctrine has yet been established to form the teaching of a philosophical sect, which offers a universal way for the liberation of the soul” (ibid:421). In contrast, Augustine’s doctrine was declaredly universal, and did not tolerate objections; for example, Porphyry’s belief in reincarnation was opposed.

The dogmatism of Augustine was demonstrated in his unrelenting attack on Pelagius and the latter’s supporters. He employed his rhetorical skills and episcopal position to achieve condemnation of the victims as heretics. Pelagius was a Christian from Britain, appearing in Rome during the late fourth century, gaining repute as an ascetic and moral reformer. Pelagius dismissed the doctrine of original sin and taught freewill, believing that individual moral effort produced virtue. This outlook conflicted with Augustine’s version of the doctrine of grace. Pelagius believed that Augustine had distorted this theme by creating a dogma of predestination.
Augustine’s determination to destroy his opponent and all that he stood for hardened into an obsession…. it was he [Augustine] who continued the witch-hunt into the far corners of the Empire by ensuring that there would be no area of the Church in which Pelagius and his friends might be able to find asylum. (Rees  1988:130)
Augustine has been considered a harbinger of the medieval Inquisition. He insisted upon the doctrine of predestination,  related to the concept of Adam’s original sin. In his view, baptised Christians were the elect, while all other humans were damned by God’s choice. “We are left with the harsh but seemingly inescapable conclusion that they [the non-elect] are not recipients of God’s mercy and so are condemned to eternal damnation for a sin which they did not themselves commit but of which, nevertheless, they are held to be guilty, a conclusion which Augustine’s remorseless logic does not permit him to mitigate even for children dying unbaptised” (Rees 1988:41).

This theological contrivance facilitated the concept of everlasting torment in hell. The dogma of the damned was employed as justification for the torture and burning of innumerable heretics from the twelfth century onwards, a trend culminating in the Spanish Inquisition, which targeted Muslims and Jews. Barbarian Europe lasted for a very long time. 

Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. H. Bettenson (London: Penguin, 1984).
——–Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 1991).
Bonner, Gerald, St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963; revised edn, 2002).
Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber, 1967; second edn, 2000).
——–The Rise of Western Christendom (second edn, Oxford, 2003).
Chadwick, Henry, Augustine of Hippo: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Dyson, R. W., ed., The City of God Against the Pagans (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Rees, B. R., Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1988).
Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1946).

Kevin R.D. Shepherd
September 20th 2012

ENTRY no. 46

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Eric Voegelin

By Ancient Israel, Gnosticism, Greek Philosophy, Philosophy of History
Eric Voegelin

A political philosopher, Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) has the reputation of being a philosopher of history. His magnum opus Order and History is regarded as comprising an early phase (the first three volumes) and a later phase (the last two volumes).

Eric Hermann Wilhelm Voegelin was born in Cologne and subsequently educated at Vienna, where he gained a doctorate in political science. His professorial role at the University of Vienna was terminated in 1938, because he resisted association with the Nazi cause of Adolf Hitler. He had written two books criticising the Nazi “master race” theory. Voegelin narrowly escaped the Gestapo, who were very disapproving of dissidents.

Fleeing with his wife to America, he continued an academic role, becoming an American citizen in 1944. He became a professor of political science at Louisiana State University, which continues to honour his memory (see also  The Voegelin Enigma).

During the 1940s, his outlook moved at a tangent to the history of political ideas, in which he had written extensively. His new orientation involved a form of existentialism, in reaction to Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Voegelin’s existentialism was very unusual, exhibiting a Platonist complexion, further associated with a Christian background. Hence my description in terms of an existential Christian Platonism. However, he did mute certain Christianising tendencies in his later years.

Voegelin is also unusual for his linguistic affinities. He learned both Greek and Hebrew, acquisitions by no means common amongst philosophers. He was thus able to read Plato in the original, while studying the Old Testament in depth.

By the 1950s, he had developed a theme of rediscovering the philosophical quest via an experiential mode, meaning that philosophy was not just a format of ideas but an existential process of experience. He also railed against the influence of positivism and scientism. Voegelin became noted as a critic of modernity. These tendencies became controversial. His enduring opposition to Fascism was accompanied by a strong reaction to both G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, not to mention various other modern exponents. Voegelin classified all these figures under the generalising term of Gnosticism. His idiom is considered by some analysts to comprise an extreme usage of that word, perhaps reflecting to some extent his Christian upbringing.

The first volume of Order and History afforded a coverage of ancient Israel. This version of Biblical events drew upon scholarly sources available by the 1950s. Many of those are now outdated. Since that time, archaeology has uncovered numerous details formerly unknown. This development led to a basic rift between differing approaches to the Old Testament. What emerges today is that the Hebrew Bible is basically a late post-exilic composition, including some earlier components much debated.

Voegelin argued that the ancient Israelites did not progress to the “noetic differentiation” in process amongst the Greeks. The presumedly “compact” nature of the Israelite experience of spiritual life was here viewed as preventing the development of philosophy, which for Voegelin, involved “the explicit experience of divine presence as an ordering force within the individual psyche of the philosopher” (quote from Christian neoexistentialist). However, intrinsic existence would always remain a mystery, he believed. In this context he stressed resort to the language of myth.

Some attention was given by Voegelin to the Israelite prophets. The books attributed to prophetic entities like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are the focus of detailed scholarship. How far such texts represent the entities named is an elusive matter. They were cast in the form of a post-exilic Jewish understanding, in the early centuries BCE, though earlier themes and content may intervene.

In volume two of Order and History, the author surveys trends in early Greek literature and philosophy; he analyses features of the polis or city-state. Voegelin continues this treatment in volume three, devoted to Plato and Aristotle. A fairly detailed version of Greek events does emerge, quite distinctive in certain respects, with room for disagreement on some points. See Voegelin and Plato.

From Homer to Aristotle, Voegelin pursued his favoured themes attendant upon the key feature of order in the soul or psyche. This leitmotif was purportedly evolved by philosophers in opposition to the political activities of the polis. The philosophical process could not be institutionalised like the rival, being dependent upon individual contributions and achievements. In this way, Voegelin counters conventional conceptions of philosophy as an “intellectual” activity concerned with mere ideas and arguments.

He clearly preferred Plato to Aristotle, while attempting to give the Stagirite a due credit. Voegelin celebrated Plato’s Dialogues and the attention given to philosophical mythic formulation. He analyses the Timaeus, the Republic, and the Laws, all of these works demanding a more than casual attention from the modern reader. The contrasting, or complementary, bios theoretikos of Aristotle also gains profile.

So far Voegelin had inserted a number of Christianising comments, leading some readers to expect a culminating coverage of Christianity in terms of the desired order. Yet in volume four, published in 1974, the author frustrated those assumptions. He admitted to encountering a problem in his conception of history. Voegelin now viewed a linear time scheme as an error. Proliferating researches were revealing the complexity of world history. Even New Testament scholarship was adopting new criteria. Voegelin learned with dismay that the Gospel of John was now considered to exhibit Gnostic tendencies.

The rigidity attaching to orthodox Christian ideas of Gnosticism was substantial until the late twentieth century. Discovered in 1945, the Nag Hammadi texts challenged some entrenched notions, giving scholars a far more accurate idea of early Gnostic beliefs, which circulated amongst different groupings. Translations did not become readily accessible until the 1970s, when Voegelin had already formulated his basic outlook. The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Leiden, 1977) made available the “Coptic Gnostic library.”

The tendency of Voegelin, to use Gnosticism as a blanket term for modern ideological trends, is discrepant to some contemporary readers. Both Hegel and Marx were designated as Gnostics by the existential Christian Platonist. Hegel was a Protestant Christian; the iconoclastic atheist Karl Marx does not equate with Gnostics of the Roman era. Hegel’s “science of logic” affords a contrast to the “neo-Thomist” deliberations of Voegelin. However, both of these exponents can be considered philosophers of history. See Voegelin and Gnosticism.

Voegelin’s “non-linear” tangent touched upon Pauline Christianity, while ranging into differing eras of world religion. He found some Eastern religions defective in comparison to (Greek) philosophy. He tended to favour some religious phraseology of Thomas Aquinas, the neo-Aristotelian with a strong Dominican profile. In contrast, Joachim of Fiore and Siger of Brabant were two of the many stigmatised “Gnostics” in the neo-existential panorama.

The relatively brief volume five (curtailed in size by the author’s death) was subtitled In Search of Order. Hegel is again one of the ingredients, apparently regarded by Voegelin as the major modern predecessor and rival.


Trepanier, Lee,  and Steven F. McGuire, eds., Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition (University of Missouri Press, 2011).

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History (5 vols, Louisiana State University, 1956-87).

———The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1952; repr. 1987).

———Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Vol. 6), ed. David Walsh (University of Missouri Press, 2002).

Webb, Eugene,  Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History (University of Washington Press, 1981).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd (2011, slightly modified 2020)

ENTRY no. 40

Copyright © 2020 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.