Caritas The Augustinian Synthesis of Biblical Agape and Hellenistic Eros

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The person in the West who more than any other synthesized the Hellenistic heritage of eros with the biblical proclamation of agape was St. Augustine (354-430). His intellectual and spiritual journey from pagan philosopher and rhetorician to Christian priest and then bishop entailed profound reflection and writing upon his Greco-Roman heritage and the religious options of his day. His writings - autobiographical reflection, biblical studies, polemical works against rival religions and perceived heresies, creative theologizing on major topics, his numerous sermons and writings on pastoral care, and his end of life revisions - are too vast to even list here. We can only note selected aspects of his contributions to the history of the idea of love, and hope readers will be stimulated to pursue further readings.

No other theologian has been as influential upon the West as Augustine. He marked the theological-spiritual course for the church up to the modern period. Biographically a person of pagan and Christian culture, and profoundly influenced by both Greco-Roman culture and biblical faith, Augustine is often the lightning rod for the perennial theological and philosophical controversies over whether Western Christianity is a cultural synthesis or a cultural syncretism of its double origin in Greek and biblical religious views. If Christianity is to be characterized as a religion of love, is it eros or agape, or is it both?

Nygren asserted that ''Augustine's view of love has exercised by far the greatest influence in the whole history of the

Christian idea of love____Ever since his time the meaning of

Christian love has generally been expressed in the categories he created, and even the emotional quality which it bears is largely due to him.'' Likewise, O'Donovan argues ''Until more detailed research proves otherwise, we must make the supposition that Augustine is responsible not only for the currency of 'self-love' in the theology of the West but also for the predominance of the 'summary' [i.e., the two-fold commandment to love] in Western Christian ethics.'' Nygren, among others, attributes Augustine's influence not only to his genius but to his context of living ''on the frontier of two separate religious worlds, those of Hellenistic Eros and primitive Christian Agape.''

Aurelius Augustinus was born in Thagaste (in contemporary Algeria), a provincial bourgeois milieu. His father was a pagan and his mother, Monica, was a devout Christian. Augustine lived in a time of great political and social crisis. By the time of his death while bishop of Hippo Regius, a small North African seaport and Roman military post, the city was under siege by the Vandals. Aleric's Visigoths had pillaged Rome and shaken the Roman world to its foundations in 410, the symbolic date for the end of the Roman Empire in the West.

Augustine lived in an afflicted society that appeared to be rushing pell-mell toward disintegration. ''Eternal Rome'' was collapsing as it faced perpetual warfare with barbarian war bands in the north and the challenge of Persia in the east. Taxation skyrocketed to finance the military; the poor were victimized by horrendous inflation; and the rich sought refuge in unparalleled accumulations of property. To add insult to injury for the Christians, the charge arose that all these disasters were the consequence of the abandonment of the traditional gods of the empire. In response to this pagan charge, Augustine wrote his famous theology of history, The City of God.

Augustine's family, though not rich, was free and he was bright. His father, Patricius, a minor official, perceived that economic advancement was through a classical education, and thus he scraped together the means for Augustine to gain such an education with its emphasis upon rhetoric. Patricius' ambition for his son coupled with Augustine's intelligence (he has been compared to Plato and Aristotle!) led to prestigious positions as a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage (376-383), Rome (383-384), and then Milan (384) where he was appointed to the municipal chair of rhetoric with its potential of further rise in prestige and power. A Roman citizen, Augustine's mother-tongue was Latin; he also had a modest acquaintance with Greek. Hence his vocabulary for love consisted of the Latin terms amor, caritas, and dilectio. Petre notes that Augustine tends to use caritas and dilectio as equivalents of the Greek agape while amor retains more of the Platonic sense of eros. His astounding mastery of the Greek philosophers came from Latin translations, his engagement with the intellectual circles of Milan that were pervaded by Platonism, and his exposure to a Christianized Plotinianism through bishop Ambrose of Milan. Furthermore, various forms of ''Platonism'' had infused the intellectual culture of the day in which Augustine avidly participated.

His mother, Monica, however was convinced through a dream that in spite of Augustine's quest for academic advancement he would be converted to Christianity. She followed

Augustine relentlessly in pursuit of her vision of his conversion. Augustine himself seems to have realized that her devouring love had an element of ''unspiritual desire'' in it for in his Confessions he wrote: ''She loved to have me with her, as is the way with mothers, but far more than most mothers.'' Monica's dream was realized when Augustine was converted to Christianity in 386, the year before her death.

The first decades of Augustine's personal life were marked by his ambition, achievement, and entering into a quasi-marital relationship with his concubine. Concubinage was viewed as a socially sanctioned alternative to marriage when class disparity between the partners precluded a legal marriage according to Roman law. The relationship began when Augustine was studying in Carthage at the age of 17. Little is known about his mistress. They had a son, Adeodatus (''Given by God''), and lived together for the next 17 years. Apparently Augustine's mother, among others, urged him to put his mistress aside and contract a legal marriage with a woman of his class in order to advance his career. Monica argued that once Augustine was legally married, and then was baptized, he would be cleansed of his old relationship. The lack of sources for these events has contributed to the scholarly controversies over them. Fifteen years later in his Confessions, Augustine wrote: ''[M]y mistress being torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, my heart, which clung to her, was racked, and wounded, and bleeding. And she went back to Africa, making a vow unto Thee [God] never to know another man, leaving me with my natural son with her.'' Unwilling to wait for the proposed legal marriage, Augustine, as he says, ''a slave to lust,'' found another mistress. Yet even years later, the pain of separation was still raw: ''Nor was that wound of mine as yet cured which had been caused by the separation from my former mistress, but after inflammation and most acute anguish it mortified, and the pain become numbed, but more desperate.'' Soon after the dismissal of his mistress he also suffered the loss by death of his mother, his son, and two of his closest friends. It has been suggested that the rending of these relationships contributed to his developing conviction that God's love is the only safe love.

Insight into Augustine's development is provided by his Confessions, written between 397 and 401, after becoming a priest. Augustine felt he had to assess himself, and he did this by interpreting his past life as it led to his conversion. The Confessions are Augustine's effort to find himself. His conversion alone was not enough to sustain him. He had to work through his emotions regarding the death of his mother, for example, and reached the conclusion that the idealized figure who had haunted his youth was finally just an ordinary person, a sinner like himself. Augustine could have cut himself off from his past - a not unusual reaction to a conversion experience. Instead he called on his memory to understand his present. He dealt specifically with his feelings in relation to his personal growth and the nature of human motivation. Hence his account of stealing a pear is his paradigm for the sinful human condition. One would think that a cosmopolitan person like Augustine could have come up with a more lurid example! But, as he noted, it was not the pear he wanted to enjoy, but rather ''the theft for its own sake, and the sin.'' He ''derived pleasure from the deed simply because it was forbidden.'' He recalled how in his pagan life he had enjoyed crying at the theater, but had no reaction to the news of his father's death. In his reflections Augustine set the tone that would permeate medieval culture and theology up to the Reformation period and in many respects up to today. That tone is introspection.

Introspective self-scrutiny, seen in the Confessions, reflects the soul's longing for God, a longing to return to its maker, a longing experienced as restlessness, a pressing sense that in all things there lies something beyond, something that calls to God. The sense of not being at home in the world, the sense of alienation is fundamental to Augustine. But of course it is not unique to him or to Christianity. It is the Hellenistic tension between the transient and the permanent, the temporal and the eternal. It is what Plato expressed in the longing to escape the shadows of the cave and enter the sunshine of the intelligible world. It is the goal of immortality expressed in Plato's Symposium. It is even more clearly expressed in the writings of Plotinus whose writings reflecting Plato and Aristotle influenced Augustine. Van Fleteren in his article, ''Ascent of the Soul,'' notes that in antiquity ''ascent of the soul proceeds from the sensible world to the interior self and then to God. This motif underlies most of Augustine's early works, and two of his three major works, Confessiones and De Trinitate.'' Before his conversion Augustine had immersed himself in Hellenistic philosophy, and toward the end of his life in his major work, The City of God, he affirmed that Platonists excelled all other philosophers in logic and ethics. He relates in his Confessions that he had achieved intellectual ascent to the top of the Platonic ''ladder of love'' and saw ''that which is.'' But in Augustine the longing for and ascent to God is transposed from human restlessness to a response to God's love and condescension; it is, in the opening lines of the Confessions, the movement of the Holy Spirit in the human heart: ''for you have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you.'' Later in the Confessions, he notes the difference between Platonic ascent and Christian ascent. The former is drawn upward by that erotic gravitational force, itself unmoved, that we saw earlier in Aristotle, or the draw of the Beautiful as we saw in Diotima's speech in the Symposium. The latter ascent is made possible by God's prior descent in Christ. In a famous line in the Confessions, that echoes Aristotle's theory that bodies gravitate to their places due to their weight,

Augustine says ''my weight is my love.'' His Christian twist on Aristotle is that God's gift of love inflames him and thus like fire he is borne upward.

Divine Providence had led Augustine, he says, to ''certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in the same words, but to the selfsame effect,... that, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.'' What Augustine did not find in the Platonists was ''that the Word became flesh and lived among us'' (John 1:14). For Augustine, the Incarnation makes possible human ascent to God. Salvation, then, is not a human achievement but the gift of God's love. The realization of the Platonic eros depends upon the gift of agape through God's Incarnation.

Augustine's pre-conversion search for philosophical certainty was aided by his discovery of Neoplatonism. Instead of the forces of good and evil, Neoplatonism spoke of being and nonbeing. In this schema, evil is seen as a defect, a lack of being. Persons are pulled downward or direct their attention downward away from being toward nonbeing, and therefore are not what they ought to be. But as attractive as this philosophy was intellectually for Augustine, he was unable to put it into practice. Neoplatonism showed him the good, but did not enable him to reach it. He wondered how Christian monks, who to him did not appear very bright, could control themselves, but he with all his publicly acclaimed brilliance could not. The strict early Christian sexual ethic remained a stumbling block to Augustine's conversion. Yet Platonic thought helped prepare him for acceptance of the gospel. It was, Augustine says, God's design that he read the Platonists before the Scriptures.

The other major influence was the church in the person of Ambrose of Milan, a brilliant rhetorician who had embraced Christianity and then been acclaimed bishop.

Ambrose exhibited in his own person to Augustine that he did not have to sacrifice his intellect to become a Christian. Ambrose's Platonic worldview and his use of allegory in interpreting Scripture overcame Augustine's view that the Bible was inferior literature to the Latin classics. A further impetus to conversion was the story recounted by his countryman, Ponticianus, of the conversion of two of his friends on reading Athanasius's Life of St. Antony.

In his Confessions, Augustine recounts his conversion as a highly emotional event. He withdrew into his garden and flung himself down under a fig tree weeping for release from the anger and judgment of God, and heard a child chanting ''Take up and read; take up and read.'' Interpreting this as a divine command, he opened the Bible and read the first passage he saw, Romans 13:13-14: ''Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.'' Instantly his gloom and doubt vanished.

Augustine's contributions to Western theology and church history are legion. Most noteworthy is his grounding Christian faith in the concept of love. He attempted to subsume Christianity as a whole under the aspect of love, from the doctrine of the Trinity to service to the neighbor. The key biblical passage is 1 John 4:8: ''God is love'' (Deus dilectio est). In On the Trinity, Augustine introduces chapter 8 with the assertion that ''he who loves his brother, loves God; because he loves love itself, which is of God, and is God.'' He continues:

Embrace the love of God, and by love embrace God____[B]egin from that which is nearest us,... our brother. And listen how greatly the Apostle John commends brotherly love:...'' Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God. He that loves not, knows not God; for God is love.'' And this passage declares sufficiently and plainly, that this same brotherly love itself (for that is brotherly love by which we love each other) is set forth by so great authority, not only to be from God, but also to be God. When, therefore, we love our brother from love, we love our brother from God; neither can it be that we do not love above all else that same love by which we love our brother: whence it may be gathered that these two commandments cannot exist unless interchangeably. For since ''God is love,'' he who loves love certainly loves God; but he must needs love love, who loves his brother. . . . [A]nd we love ourselves so much the more, the more we love God.

Augustine's point is that the first realization of love to God is authentic love to the neighbor. Christianity is purely and simply the religion of love. Again, that love is not an abstraction, a pursuit of an idea, but expresses itself in love for the needy as seen for example in Augustine's use of church property to support the poor and exhortations to end their misery. Augustine articulated this motif so powerfully that it became axiomatic for Roman Catholic and much of Protestant theology to affirm Christianity is a religion of love.

As noted earlier, Augustine used the Latin caritas for Christian love. Caritas is the word from which we get ''charity.'' The English ''charity,'' however is too weak to convey Augustine's sense of caritas as ''grace,'' ''favor,'' ''love,'' and ''benevolence.'' Caritas in Augustine's sense is primarily love to God made possible because God first loved humankind. Love to God is the central virtue; all other virtues are expressions of it. With this theological orientation Augustine is free from all legalistic ethics. Only love is enjoined upon the Christian; where love is, no other requirements are necessary. Hence, Augustine's famous ethical injunction: ''Love God and do what you will.'' Caritas is the root of all that is good; its opposite, the root of all that is evil, is cupiditas, the word from which we get ''cupidity'' and also ''Cupid,'' the Roman god of love. Cupiditas has the sense of passionate desire, lust and wrongful appetite. Both caritas and cupiditas are terms for love. The difference between them is that caritas is directed to the sole true and real possibility for happiness, God; whereas cupiditas is (mis)directed toward things assumed to provide happiness but which are only transient. Both terms refer to ''love'' but are polar opposites - caritas ascends to God, Being itself; and cupiditas descends to inferior beings and then in its continual descent it reaches nothingness, nonbeing. Augustine's fundamental assumption - gained from his acquaintance with Neoplatonism - is that all love is acquisitive or an appetite. That is, persons desire what they believe will fulfill them. In short, Augustine perceives that the eudaemo-nism - the drive for self-fulfillment - of ancient philosophy has apologetic value. That is, the pagan question of how one may attain happiness is answered by the gospel proclamation that God's love is an imperishable gift. Everyone wants to be happy. By linking love closely to the desire for happiness, Augustine finds it possible to regard love as the most elementary of all manifestations of human life. There is no one who does not seek his or her happiness. For Augustine this is synonymous with the claim that there is no one who does not love; and that a person ''is'' what he or she loves. Here is the foundation for both the theology of ordered love that will develop in medieval scholasticism and the drive to union with God expressed by medieval mystics.

Equally important for Augustine is the awareness that no one is truly happy who lives in fear of losing the object or source of happiness. Once again, he sees the answer to the crisis of philosophical and existential anxiety in the gospel that caritas will not fail because it is God's grasp of the person rather than vice-versa. In this regard Harrison notes that one of Augustine's favorite texts is Romans 5:5: ''God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.''

Anything may be perceived as an object of good for me - thus even in evil the person loves nothing other than what he or she thinks is his or her good. In The City of God, Augustine writes:

When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly when inordinately. It is this which some one has briefly said in these verses in praise of the Creator: ''These are Thine, they are good, because thou art good who did create them. There is in them nothing of ours, unless the sin we commit when we forget the order of things, and instead of Thee love that which Thou hast made.''

The fact that persons neglect the order of creation is due to the fall and sin, not the Creator. Creatures, being incomplete due to fall, always desire their completeness. Thus, to Augustine, self-love and the love of God must coincide. Persons always seek their own happiness, their own good; self-love seeks what is good for the self. If that good is sought in the creation rather than the Creator, it is self-deception, delusional. That love is inordinate, that is, disordered love. Only by loving God may we truly learn to love ourselves. We shall see that this is also the point made centuries later by Bernard of Clairvaux. In On the Trinity, Augustine states: ''The man who knows how to love himself, loves God; while the man who does not love God, though he retains the love of self which belongs to his nature, may yet properly be said to hate himself, when he does what is contrary to his own good. . . . It is therefore a fearful delusion, by which, though all men desire their own advantage, so many do what only works their ruin.''

This leads to consideration of the opposition between loves, between caritas and cupiditas. Cupiditas is sin because it is misdirected or disordered love; it is love directed to inferior objects which can never fulfill us; it is curved down toward the earth rather than upward toward God. God is above us, and thus we are to direct our love upward toward the good that is God. Earthly goods confuse us, and drag our love downwards toward them. Cupiditas then is the search for the good, which while good, is nevertheless incapable of providing final satisfaction. The difference between caritas and cupiditas is not the way love is expressed but the object of the love. Caritas is directed to the ultimate; cupiditas mistakes the penultimate for the ultimate. Here again we see the influence of Neopla-tonism with its view that humans are incomplete and that therefore all human desires and strivings are directed to the attainment and possession of goods and values to overcome the recognized lack of being and therefore to perfect oneself. Being itself is the highest good; to turn away from the highest good, from Being, is to turn toward non-being. Augustine was thus using Hellenistic philosophy to express to his audience the biblical view that sin is not just breaking rules or laws but breaking relationships by turning away from God and the neighbor, breaking the chain of being. Since only God is the highest good, the immutable good, only God can give persons complete fulfillment. When love is directed to lower goods in the search for fulfillment it then becomes idolatrous, it mistakes the creature for the Creator; by loving perishable goods, sin is a turn or perversion toward privation and death. In his Enchiridion Augustine concludes: ''[L]ust [cupiditas] diminishes as love [caritas] grows, till the latter grows to such a height that it can grow no higher here. For 'greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends' [John 15:13]. Who then can tell how great love shall be in the future world, where there shall be no lust for it to restrain and conquer?

For that will be the perfection of health when there shall be no struggle with death.''

The distinction between true and false love raises the question of Augustine's understanding of the creation. He rejected Manichaeism, an attractive rival religion of his day, with its radical dualism of the opposition of good and evil, spirit and matter that led to denigration of the material world. Augustine affirmed the goodness of creation because it is God's creation. Hence love of the creation is not in itself sin if this love is rightly understood. He clarified this by making a distinction between enjoyment (frui) and use (uti). Frui is the love that ''enjoys'' its object, whereas uti is the love that ''uses'' its object. The analogy Augustine used to illustrate this distinction is that of a voyage to our homeland. The ship is ''used'' as a means to get us to our home that we ''enjoy.'' The ever-present temptation is that the voyage may so appeal to us that we forget home and enjoy the trip to the extent that it becomes an end in itself. The distinction between the love that ''uses'' and the love that ''enjoys'' raises another question that is more fraught for contemporary life than it was for Augustine: ecology. Certainly Augustine cannot be indicted for modern ecological destruction, but ideas such as the lesser goods of creation are for ''use'' not ''enjoyment'' do have consequences. When the right attitude to the world is to ''use'' it as a means to ascend to God, there may arise a ''forgetfulness'' of the goodness of creation and the world may lose its meaning as God's world. It may be argued that that was not Augustine's intention for he himself had vigorously rejected the dualistic anti-materialism of Manichaeism. His intent, briefly stated, appears in On Christian Doctrine: ''[T]he whole temporal dispensation was made by divine Providence for our salvation. We should use it, not with an abiding but with a transitory love and delight... so that we love those things by which we are carried along for the sake of that toward which we are carried.'' Burnaby in his essay ''Amor in St. Augustine'' elaborates: ''What Augustine frankly and thankfully recognizes is that God's goodness has so ordered his creation that the life which gives itself in love to God and neighbor is not and never can be a life lost. 'When you love him, you will be where your being is secure (ibi eris, ubi non peris).' '' Rist (Augustine) writes: ''Augustinian grace has come to perform the role of Platonic eros; the difference is that grace is unambiguously divine, no mere daimon, but the Holy Spirit; and the fact that love is God entails that it is omnipresent.''

The earthly city is not the true home of the Christian, but rather the vehicle (''the ship'') for our travel to our true home in the heavenly city. The world, our earthly city, is given as a means and vehicle for our return to God; it is to be used not enjoyed. The world, if enjoyed, drags us down and away from God. In The City of God, Augustine wrote: ''Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.'' According to Daniel Day Williams, Augustine has bought into the Platonic metaphysic of a hierarchy of being with Being itself (the Highest Good) as immutable as well as absolute. The consequence is to relegate all other being to various positions in the great chain of being, characterized by transience and incompleteness. Since love of God is love of the immutable, every other love has a lesser place in Augustine's system of values. The issue in the succeeding history of Western Christendom became whether this disjuncture is spiritualized toward an ascetic otherworldliness or understood as the critical perspective for life in this world. One major aspect of the Augustinian heritage was an emphasis upon Christians as pilgrims in an alien land. In Augustine we find the themes of pilgrimage and alienation that become so influential in Western Christendom and culture. The motif of ascent to God will be illustrated in art and literature by images of the ladder to heaven. To be sure, Augustine emphasized that human ascent to God depends first of all upon God's descent to humankind; the descent of Christ enables human ascent to God.

D. W. Robertson concisely summarizes Augustine's contribution:

At the heart of medieval Christianity is the doctrine of Charity Since this doctrine has extremely broad implications, it cannot be expressed satisfactorily in a few words, but for convenience we may use the classic formulation included in the De doctrina Christiana of St. Augustine: ''Charity is called the movement of the soul to the enjoyment of God for his own sake, and that of the neighbor for the sake of God; cupidity on the other hand is the movement of soul to the enjoyment of self and the neighbor and whatever pleases the body not for the sake of God.'' The opposite of Charity, as St. Augustine describes it is cupidity, the love of any creature, including one's self, for its own sake. These two loves, Charity and cupidity, are the two poles of medieval Christian scale of values. For St. Augustine and for his successors among medieval exegetes, the whole aim of Scripture is to promote Charity and to condemn cupidity. . . .

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  • Alfredino
    What does augustine mean by 'caritas'?
    7 months ago
  • nicla
    How is augustine influenced by greco roman culture?
    5 months ago
  • Mustafa
    What is caritas and cupiditas?
    5 months ago

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