Augustine Versus Hypatia (Part I)

For the edification of my students, and for fun, I have written some dialogues that resurrected figures from the past and allowed them to debate. I set these debates as part of programs on “The Afterlife Broadcasting Company.” I assume that the participants have become aware of intellectual developments since their day. Here I have tried to be as true to Augustine’s views as I could. We know quite a bit about Augustine but much less about Hypatia. Therefore, I have had to imaginatively reconstruct her views. Since the dialogue is rather long at over 5000 words, I have divided it into two parts so as not to try readers’ patience too much.

Moderator: Prepare for fireworks! Tonight we have in the studio Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415), philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, educator, and pagan martyr. Her opposite number is her contemporary, St. Augustine, philosopher, theologian, and Bishop of Hippo (354-430). Both of our guests tonight were citizens of the late Roman Empire, living in the days of the final collapse of the Western Empire, the topic our previous guest Mr. Gibbon wrote about so eloquently. The Roman Empire was made officially Christian by the Emperor Theodosius in 391, but pagan intellectuals and academies continued to exist, more or less tolerated for the time being. Hypatia herself was the victim of intolerance. In the year 415 she was killed…

Hypatia: Murdered. Atrociously. By a mob of Christian fanatics who had been incited by the odious Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria…

Augustine: May I ask the moderator not to spoil the discussion by permitting the injection of emotion and name-calling. I was hoping for a calm, rational exchange.

Hypatia: Did I raise my voice? That I was murdered by a mob of Christian fanatics is a plain fact that I stated in a calm, rational manner. That Patriarch Cyril was odious is, of course, a value judgment, but one I am happy to support. Indeed, his actions shocked and appalled many Christians.

Augustine: Yes, I was one of the ones shocked and appalled.

Moderator: I think that we can agree, then, that Hypatia’s murder was an atrocious and inexcusable act. However, to focus our discussion on ideas, let’s look at another area of at least potential agreement between the two of you. Hypatia, you were a neoplatonist philosopher. Augustine, you also were deeply influenced by neoplatonism. What exactly is “neoplatonism?”

Hypatia: Neoplatonism, as the name implies, is a philosophy that is based upon and arises from the metaphysical theories of Plato, particularly his theory of the Ideal Forms. As developed by neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichos, Proclus, and myself, we conceived of all of reality as an emanation from a transcendent, ineffable One that lies beyond all human categories and distinctions, and even beyond being. Reality, which flows from the One, is a hierarchical structure, with Mind as a more fundamental reality than matter, fundamental in the sense that that the order and organization of material things, their intelligible natures, are to be understood only in terms of ideal, transcendent patterns. The human is a material being, but possessed of a spiritual soul that is the pure and abiding essence of the human person. The goal of philosophy is to guide the individual soul upwards from its material prison, through a process of intellectual enlightenment, aimed at a return of the soul to its true home, the realm of mind and spirit.

Moderator. Wow. I am not sure that I understand much of that. I think, indeed, that one of our earlier guests, Aristotle, would question whether it is entirely intelligible. Nevertheless, I take it, Augustine, that your philosophical orientation is essentially in agreement?

Augustine: Yes. I think that God inspired Plato, Plotinus, and other pagan thinkers and showed them a part of the truth. They correctly perceived a reality beyond the material, but for them ultimate reality was an abstract principle, a theoretical entity that is no more personal than the modern theories about quarks and electrons. We Christians realized that the highest form of reality is a person, a being that thinks, feels, judges, decides, and plans. God can hear the prayers of even the humblest soul and is bountiful in His grace and mercy. Neoplatonism is an elitist philosophy that offers an intellectual path to salvation, one open to only the select few who have had the great good fortune to have had an elite education. Pagan intellectuals scorned Christianity as “a religion of women and slaves.” What for them was its greatest weakness was in fact its greatest strength. Salvation is not for a few privileged intellectuals but for one and all…

Hypatia: Yes, salvation is open to all—except for the myriads of human beings who, by your own doctrine, are predestined to eternal torment in hell. Your “God of mercy” has, for inexplicable reasons, created a universe in which a few are saved by irresistible and seemingly arbitrary grace, while the rest are consigned to the worst possible fate, a fate thrust upon them by “original sin” transmitted from two distant ancestors whom they never knew. I cannot think that omniscience and perfect goodness working through eternity could not have come up with a better plan than that.

Augustine: Typical! Instead of falling on your knees to thank God for his gracious salvation given through Christ, you presume to judge Him with your fallible human intellect! Much has been hidden from the “wise” such as yourself, and disclosed only to the eye of faith. It is not for us to question God’s judgments, only to defer to them and accept them humbly. I believe in order that I might understand.

Hypatia: Your incuriosity is staggering. One thing you do not have much faith in is reason. As one much later Christian, Mr. John Locke put it with admirable candor, all of you Christians follow reason until you get to something you cannot explain. You then call it a “mystery” and say that you have to accept it on faith! What you call a “mystery” I call “nonsense,” and what you call “faith” I call “credulity.” Indeed, your whole theology is an incoherent pastiche of ideas stolen from Greek philosophy and forcibly conjoined with the mythology of Hebrew religion. That is because you want two inconsistent things from this chimera you have created: You want your God to have the respectability of a metaphysical principle that will meet the rigorous standards of philosophy, yet he must also be a Zeus-like being who is enthroned in heaven like an earthly monarch, and like a human tyrant, he dispenses his favors to those who truckle to him and smites those with the courage to defy him. There is a great deal of smiting in your scriptures.

Augustine: Clearly, you have an incapacity to understand allegory. The Holy Scriptures were not written by or for philosophers, but for everyone. Therefore, they have meaning at different levels. The literal meaning speaks to the pious and humble, but the learned and wise can see a deeper and richer meaning. For instance, the beautiful story of the Prodigal Son can be understood by anyone, but the wise can see beyond its literal meaning and understand it as an allegory for the glorious plan of salvation whereby God’s supreme love justifies us despite our defiance of him. Like the Prodigal, we think we are capable of living on our own, without God or his grace and mercy. Our deepest sin is pride, superbia, the arrogance of thinking that we are sufficient for ourselves. Fools! We are so bound to sin that our choices are only sinful choices and even our intellectual powers are bound by sin. Only God can set us free. We know this to be true if we look in our own hearts. We see that we are restless and in turmoil. Tranquility eludes us, even if we are gifted with all good earthly things. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We know God by knowing ourselves and seeing in Him the final and supreme satisfaction of our yearning for truth, meaning, and beauty.

Hypatia: So, there is one revelation for hoi polloi, and another for the “wise and learned!” And who is the elitist? Worse, it is simply dishonest to dismiss every atrocity and absurdity, with which the Christian/Judaic scriptures overflow, by calling them “allegory.” The fact is, as the earlier guest Mr. Thomas Paine pointed out in his brilliant polemic The Age of Reason, the scripture of your alleged religion of love is filled with the most repugnant and degrading cruelties, and, as Mr. Paine so judiciously observed, those who worship a cruel God become cruel people. Cruel like you, Augustine. Did you or did you not say that “heretics” such as the Donatists should be forced back into the orthodox fold, by means of physical violence if necessary?

Augustine: Note that I recommended mercy and spoke against the use of the horrible tortures of the day such as the rack and red-hot irons…

Hypatia: Yes, as I recall you said that beating them with rods would do. Let’s see, was that metal rods or would mere wooden ones suffice? Yes, you were an angel of mercy.

Moderator: To prevent the discussion from devolving further into mutual recrimination, let me see if I can shift us back to a more philosophical orientation. History is irrelevant to neoplatonism. It is a metaphysic of eternal relationships between transcendent entities and between the transcendent and the material. For the neoplatonist, the material world has always existed as an eternal emanation from The One. Salvation, for the individual, is, in fact to escape the temporal and the material and involves the mystical union of the soul, purified of all earthly dross, with its ultimate source, The One. It is the “flight of the alone to the alone” as Plotinus poetically describes that mystical merging. It is a state of ineffable ecstasy that even Plotinus only experienced a few times. Indeed it may require more than one lifetime to achieve. Christianity, on the other hand, affirms certain historical occurrences as its fundamental truths. As St. Paul said (I Corinthians, chapter 15), “if Christ be not risen, our faith is in vain.” The Apostle’s Creed affirms that the world is not eternal, but was the creation of God in time. Also the incarnation, via the virgin birth, and the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ all are affirmed as actual, historical occurrences. Doesn’t Christianity, then, represent a crucial divergence from neoplatonism, and, indeed, all of Greek philosophy? Isn’t this an affirmation of the value of the world rather than a repudiation of it, as the neoplatonists recommended.

Augustine: Yes indeed. Christianity definitively repudiates the dualism of spirit and matter, and the association of all that is good with the former and all that is evil with the latter. God loves the physical universe; He created it. Most profoundly, he incarnated Himself as a physical being, the flesh-and-blood human being Jesus of Nazareth, born of a woman like any other man. Orthodoxy, in opposition to all Gnostic heresies, affirms that Christ was both fully God and fully human. In Him the divine and the human natures are perfectly combined without division or disunity. God unites his eternal nature with our earthly nature as an act of supreme love to reconcile sinners with Himself.

Moderator: But this is a point I have never understood. If God becomes incarnate as a human, then what happens to the creator and sustainer of the universe? Does he simply disappear, so that there is no longer a transcendent God but only an immanent one, one fully incorporated into the material world?

Augustine: No, this is why the doctrine of the Trinity is so vital. God the Father remains in His eternal glory. It is God the Son who is God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are not incarnated.

Moderator: So, Christians believe in three Gods?

Augustine: No! God is three persons united in one substance.

Moderator: But how do we understand this?

Hypatia: You cannot. The whole doctrine is a morass of incomprehensibility.

Augustine: What?!? You neoplatonists had your own trinity—The One, Mind (Nous) and the World-Soul.

Hypatia: We did indeed recognize three distinct realities, with The One as being the primordial reality and with Mind and the World-Soul as emanations from The One. We did not commit the gross error of uniting these into a single being of three distinct “persons”—a concept that makes no sense at all. Further, the idea of an incarnation is just as absurd. It is what a later philosopher called a gross “category mistake” to think that the divine and the fleshly can be combined. They are defined as opposites so that being one by definition excludes the other. To speak of the divine as becoming flesh makes no more sense than saying that the number seven is living next door to you or that the set of integers votes Republican.

Christianity is guilty of many intellectual sins, but putting incomprehensible metaphysical formulae at the center of a creed and then requiring, on pain of damnation, assent to the unintelligible, is its greatest offense.  To his credit, your successor, Aquinas, admitted that the doctrine of the Trinity was incomprehensible, but said that it should be accepted on faith. But you cannot accept, even  by faith, what is for you not even a concept. If I told you that you must accept, on faith, that “Twas brillig and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” what would be the content of your “belief?” How would such a “belief” differ from unbelief?

Augustine: Yet the world is full of adumbrations of the Trinity. Our very minds contain the trinity of being, knowledge, and love. We know that we are, we love that we are, and we know that we love. These three elements of our selves are distinct yet live within one consciousness and in the closest relation with one another. We see, therefore that parts of our selves can be distinct yet united into one consciousness. Our very souls mirror the triune nature of God, and that trinity of being, knowledge, and love constitutes the image of God in us.

Hypatia: Pardon me if I fail to grasp the analogy. The only human beings that are multiple persons are those who suffer from an extreme form of psychosis. Is the Christian God insane? That would explain a lot.

Augustine: Arrogance and insult are the best you can do? Allow me to point out the intellectual hypocrisy: Hypatia and the neoplatonists talk about the “One,” which is beyond all human descriptions and concepts, and so is incomprehensible. Sauce for the gander. They are the last ones who should charge Christians with incoherence.

Hypatia: Tu quoque is the best you can do? We persecute no one and threaten none with hell if they reject the idea of The One. As philosophers, we say that if you find a concept unreasonable, then by all means reject it. We disagree with other schools of philosophy, but we do not condemn them. Christians, however, display their charity by directing rancor and violence at those who split theological hairs with them. Christians violently persecuted and killed each other over whether the Son was homoiousios or homoousisos with the Father. Literally, an iota’s difference was a matter of life and death.