In Boise this week, we’ve had an inversion, where the clouds get trapped in the valley over the city and don’t move out as they normally would. This means days of gray skies and no view of the sun or the mountains. All the air just gets stuck and the pollution can get bad. It can make you forget the mountains. This inversion has reminded me of the work of Charles Taylor, as translated for my impatient mind by James KA Smith in How (Not) to be Secular. Smith says that our Modern world has forgotten transcendence and the supernatural and now seeks only natural ends because we are natural beings. The Premodern world knew that there was a divine world above us and in which we live and move and have our being. In the Modern world, it’s hard to even believe that transcendence exists. In a world where transcendence exists, it gives direction and purpose and in it, humanity finds its highest good. If there is nothing that transcends humanity, then humanity should find it ends and highest good within itself – or maybe it can define meanings and ends and goods for itself.
There are philosophers that seek humanity’s highest good among the needs of the body, and others who seek it among the needs of the mind. They look at human nature and its best to determine the highest good that humanity should be seeking. Natural ends for natural beings. That’s fine, Augustine suggests, but both Christians and Platonists seek higher ends and greater goods. Augustine praises the Platonists for seeing that humanity’s highest good is found in God: “Plato asserted that the highest good is to live according to virtue; that only he can do this who has knowledge of God and imitates Him; and that this is the only cause of happiness.” And so, philosophers should be those who love God: “to practice philosophy is to love God, whose nature is incorporeal. Hence, it certainly follows that he who studies wisdom – that is, the philosopher – will be happy when he begins to enjoy God.” Happiness, enjoyment, humanity’s highest good – all these are not found in natural ends but in God alone. Plato and his followers have seen the world in its proper structure and directed it toward its proper ends.
That said, Augustine is no simple Platonist. In chapters 8-9, he praises Plato as initiating the greatest school of philosophy; in chapter 10, he says that the most uneducated Christian will agree with Plato on lots of things but will know the one true God who is revealed in Christ, whom Plato did not know. Augustine wants to focus his attention on Platonism because it comes nearest to Christianity, but it is not Christianity itself.
Yesterday, just for a bit, the cloud cover broke and we saw the sun and the mountains and we were reminded that something greater and higher than us is here. This Advent, He is coming to us. Breaking through the inversion and revealing our good and end to us, reminding us to find our life in Him.