It’s about to get interesting. In book 8 (or books 8-10), Augustine will take up what he calls “natural theology”, or the theology of the philosophers. He has been dealing with the theologies of the poets, playwrights, and civilians of Rome – with “mythical theology” and “civil theology”. Now, he will look at what the philosophers have to say about God and about how He should be worshipped. We have already mentioned that Augustine is interested in Platonic philosophy, and in these books, he will deal more extensively with Plato. Through chapters 1-3, he only looks at a bit of the history of philosophy, but we will get his fuller interactions over the next few weeks.
In today’s reading, we see that philosophy dealt with the source of the world and how it developed (does everything come from air or from water? is there a divine source to everything? how does that divine source work? can we even answer these kinds of questions?). With Socrates, we finally get something that looks a bit more like the philosophy that we know now as philosophy. Socrates deals with morals. Augustine suggests a couple of reasons as to why Socrates is interested in morals – maybe Socrates was “weary of obscure and uncertain things”, or maybe he thought that only a cleansed mind and soul could discover answers to ultimate questions. In any case, Socrates leaves a legacy of looking at “those moral questions which have to do with the supreme good by which man is made happy.” I think one could argue that the history of philosophy since Socrates is a history of wrestling with the questions around the supreme good and how people can reach it. In that sense, the goals of philosophy and religion are basically the same: both (properly) deal with questions of ultimate significance and both look at how humanity might achieve its final purposes.
I read a book last year that assumed that philosophy and religion were essentially different and then showed how humanity can achieve something like happiness without God. I could never get over the premise – to me, philosophy is a religious pursuit. If we are seeking something like happiness or the final destiny of humankind, then religious answers are already on the table. Like Augustine, Alisdair MacIntyre does not try to separate the two and comes up with basically religious answers to philosophical questions. His groundbreaking work After Virtue argued that our culture has lost the ability to even argue about moral questions because we have lost a common understanding and then language around the supreme good. Philosophy has largely failed, or been so badly divided that our culture is no longer able to engage in moral or political discourse (and this book came out in 1981, well before the complete mess we are in today). We need a tradition, a community engaged in a set of practices, to help us to work though those ultimate questions and to see something like a supreme good. Yes! says the Christian. We need the Church – the community of God’s people engaged in the practices of worship and the sacraments – to give us any sense for what our supreme good should be and what set of ethics can help to get us there. Philosophy needs God, and religion needs philosophy.