Saint Augustine and Michel De Montaigneís Approach

Chinese scholars abandoned the idea of a Supreme Being with personal and creative properties. No rational author of nature existed in their universe; consequently, the objects they meticulously described did not follow universal principles…In the absence of a compelling need for the notion of general laws – thoughts, in the mind of God, so to speak – little or no search was made for them.

In other words, according to the author of this citation, Edward Osborne Wilson, although the Chinese excelled in developing many technological innovations, such as magnetic compasses and rockets, their failure to develop a scientific corpus that explored natureís phenomena was caused by their lack of belief in natureís unity. Wilson does not confine his argument to Chinese pagan culture. He argues that even the Greeks, who advanced in logic, philosophy, geometry and astronomy, ultimately made no discoveries of natureís general laws because of their pagan beliefs. While I do not know enough to challenge or defend Wilsonís hypothesis intelligently, I nonetheless find Wilsonís proposal fascinating because one of the implications of Wilsonís assertion that monotheistic pantheism might have sparked general scientific exploration is that theologians might have to reconcile our complex universe, with its seemingly infinite and sometimes pernicious forces, with one God.

Indeed, much of Saint Augustineís philosophical writings in The Confessions are an attempt to resolve one of the principal problems engendered by stating God exists within nature; namely, if everything derives from God how can anything be corrupt? He eloquently addresses the problem in book 7 in regards to evilís source:
Who put this power in me and implanted in me this seed of bitterness, when all of me was created by my very kind God? If the devil was responsible, where did the devil himself come from? And if even he began as a good angel and became evil by a perversion of the will, how does the evil by which he became devil originate in him, when an angel is wholly made by a creator who is pure goodness?

Augustineís ensuing answer to this conundrum was not merely academic; in his early years, he adopted a philosophy that solved this problem but resulted in him being branded a heretic. Augustine initially believed God is ìinfinite in all respects but one, namely the mass of evil opposed to you.î Accordingly, ìit is not we who sin but some alien nature which sins in us.î His most interesting disclosure about this matter is the motivation that led him to adopt this philosophy – ìit is better to believe that you (God) had created no evil than to believe that the nature of evil came from you (God).î

Augustineís later advances a different equation that, by creating a hierarchy of good, circumvents the aforementioned problem (the source of corruption in Godís handiwork). The system is rooted in two tenets. First, ìthat things which are liable to be corrupted are goodî because ìif there were no good in them, there would be nothing capable of being corrupted.î Second, ìif they (objects) were to be deprived of all good, they (objects) would not exist at all.î Therefore, evil, according to Augustine, is ìthe privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being.î In reality, pure ìevil does not exist at all.î Conversely, God, the ìsupreme good,î is incorruptible and is existentially complete. ìAll things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good (some existence).î Certain things are considered evil, but in reality are intrinsically good, because of a conflict of interest with other elements. For example, fire is often associated with evil because it is incompatible with water.

However, according to Augustineís doctrine, fireís existential reality implies that it is good. Thus, fire is not evil, but rather, like all objects other than God, suffers from a privation of some other good. Augustine concludes ìit was made clear to me that you made all things good, and there are absolutely no substances which you did not make but you did not make all things equal.î
Augustine is unfazed by the seeming contradictions in his philosophy; for example, if God is immutable and he originally authored the Mosaic Law, how can anyone believe in The New Testament? Augustine offers a deceptively simple answer. The Old Testament was appropriate in its historical settings, but The New Testament is more germane to todayís reality. Both books, however, contain elements of Godís immutability. His answer is telling. Augustine does not deny that our universe is mutable and seemingly chaotic. In fact, it is that reality that allows Christian doctrine to usurp Judaismís doctrine as truth. Nevertheless, ultimately, opposing forces, like The New Testament and The Old Testament, that our suggestive of a chaotic universe are merely illusionary. Augustineís philosophy, in my opinion, successfully reconciles God with a mutable and sometimes corrupt universe.

Michel de Montaigne, author of Essays, is not a theologian and is therefore less concerned than Augustine with advancing a philosophy that reveals the universeís unity. That aim, writes Montaigne, is too ambitious: ìI leave it to artists- and I do not know whether they will succeed in so perplexed, so detailed, and so risky a task- to marshal this infinite variety of appearances into companies.

î Montaigne is not necessarily denying Augustineís objective reality, but rather presciently notes that even if things have an objective state ìwhen they enter into us the mind cuts them into its own conceptions.î Men, he writes, ìnever present things just as they are but twist them and disguise them to conform to the point of view from which they have seen them.î To attain credible knowledge, ìwe need a very truthful man, or one so ignorant that he has no material from which to construct false theories and make them credible: a man wedded to no idea.î It is into the latter category that Montaigne places himself; ìI surpass the most faithful historians in scrupulous reverence for truth.î Into the former category (those who twist facts to fit their preconceived notions) he places theologians and philosophers.

î Montaigne argues that to truly give an accurate account of a subject it would need to be studied at all moments in time under different circumstances. Since it is impossible for philosophers and theologians to observe all of reality at all time moments in time, it is impossible for them to give comprehensive accounts of any phenomena.

In fact, Montaigne writes that were it not for this last issue ìI (Montaigne) should not be making essays, but coming to conclusions.î That not being the case, Montaigne chooses to present his ìthoughts disjointedly article by article in the book as something that cannot be expressed all at once and as a whole.î In other words, since Montaigne cannot experience reality holistically he feels qualified only to write observations of narrow subjects in relatively short essays. The subject that he does observe continuously and therefore feels most qualified to document is himself: ìI study myself more than any other subject ñ this my metaphysics, this is my physics.î This is not a coincidence. Montaigne believes that our own individuality is the area most deserving of study. It is in this area of study that Montaigne finds in himself ìsuch an infinite depth and variety that the sole fruit of his (my) study is to make me feel how much he has to learn.î Montaigne believes that ìthe fact that everyone appears so decided and self-satisfied, that everyone thinks he understands himself well enough shows that nobody knows anything about himself.

î All of Montaigneís essays that I read draw mainly from the well of his own personal experience and introspection. For instance, he writes that he learned to study his friendsí expressions and to discern their inward inclinations by seeing in their expressions emotions he at one time experienced.

According to Montaigne, the aim of our existence is not to compose books or win battles, but to compose our character in an ordered and tranquil manner. ìThe man who knows how to enjoy his existence as he ought,î writes Montaigne, ìhas attained to an absolute perfection, like that of the gods.î Like Socrates before him, Montaigne believes that pleasures of the mind are preferred to those of the body because ìthose of the mind have more strength, stability, ease, variety, and dignity.î Yet, ìthis pleasure by no mean stands alone ñ it merely stands first.î In addition, Montaigne (like Socrates) believes that ìtemperance is the moderator, not the enemy of pleasure,î while ìexcess is the bane of pleasure.

î  It would be relatively easy and perhaps valid to postulate that Augustine and Montaigne are binary opposites. For example, Augustine seeks resolution with our surrounding medium, while Montaigne seeks internal resolution. Similarly, while the central element in Montaigneís philosophy is reason, the locus of Augustineís universe is God. Augustine rejects physical pleasure as emptiness that distracts us from experiencing the ìsupreme good,î as opposed to Montaigne who believes that it is ìjust as wrong to reject natural pleasures as to set too much store by them.

î  Despite these examples and many others that I have omitted that suggest that Montaigne and Augustine could not be more different, I nonetheless believe that under a closer inspection they are philosophically similar. As a theologian, Augustineís primary aim is to explain how corruptive forces can exist in nature if God is present there as well. Though, in my opinion, he succeeds in that endeavor, he nonetheless concludes, like Montaigne, that the world does contain incongruous forces. Furthermore, Augustine, like Montaigne, believes that manís principal aim in life should be the pursuit of true pleasure. For Augustine, true pleasure is a life dedicated to the ìsupreme good,î God. Montaigne, a self-declared libertine, probably viscerally rejects that argument.

Montaigne believes that ìit is a wrong against that great and omnipotent giver to refuse, nullify, or spoil her gift.î According to Montaigne, we must not only take advantage of Godís greatest gift to us, reason, but also enjoy the worldís secondary pleasures, physical pleasures. In conclusion, both Montaigne and Augustine agree that the world is often incongruous. Furthermore, they agree that people should try to maximize their happiness. Their many disagreements lie in the specifics of their approach.

In my opinion, the most significant difference between Augustine and Montaigne is in methodology. Augustineís deductive method of reasoning, whereby one begins the argument by making generalizations, is passe and, in my opinion, obsolete. I suspect that if Augustineís all encompassing philosophy where written today it would probably not even be perused briefly by any university professor. Montaigneís philosophy, on the other hand, seems more modern because it employs the inductive reasoning process, the process currently in use by academicians, which confines itself to very specific issues. Indeed, we are in the age of the specificity. Doctors, after getting their general practitioners license, usually spend an additional few years learning a subspecialty. History professors, such as President Bushís Foreign Policy Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, are experts on a very narrow slice of history.

Furthermore, the inductive reasoning process and its specificity have helped rid us of many of our prior misconceptions about the universe. The celestial bodies are no longer believed to consist of a quintessent ìfifth element.î Nuclear astrophysicists provide a very non-mystical description of starsí inner processes-even their birth and death. The earth is no longer believed to be at the universeís core, and man is now known to consist of DNA like other animals.

If we are willing to apply Edward Osborne Wilsonís pantheistic model to our own society, one might argue that our current fixation with the micro-inductive analysis suggests that perhaps we no longer appreciate universal principals and are therefore returning towards a pagan conception of the world. While I agree with Wilsonís hypothesis with reservations, I would reject such an application of his hypothesis. Most Americans today have a monotheistic conception of God. In general, I believe we share Montaigneís monotheistic conception of the universe: namely, ìthe more simply one entrusts oneself to nature, the more wisely one does soî , and ìthe goodness and capacity of a governor (God) should discharge us wholly and completely from any concern about his government (nature).

î We have an appreciation of generalizations, but as we mature we become aware of its limitations ñ that ìthe conclusions we seek to draw from the likeness of events are unreliable because events are always unlike.î Still, it would be an egregious error, in my opinion, to dismiss Augustine and the deductive process because, in the words of Montaigne, ìanything that is divided into minute grains becomes confused.î As I continue on my journey through this multifaceted universe, I can only achieve pleasure, the ultimate aim for both Montaigne and Augustine, by somehow managing to bridge Montaigneís unorganized universe with Augustineís fundamentally unified one. It is in that vein that I find both Michel de Montaigne and Saint Augustine relevant to my life and others as well.

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