Thoughts on Augustine of Hippo’s The Confessions, Books I-IX:
Augustine, it’s no surprise, relies heavily on Neo-platonic thought to critically engage both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. This raises the question of received tradition. What we might think of as “tradition” is more often than not a cultural negotiation. This isn’t a groundbreaking suggestion. But Augustine’s insistence that Neo-platonic thought, though perhaps not salvific, is a necessary or at least valid companion to Christianity appears to muddy the waters of inherited tradition. Augustine is clear on which philosophical system is “better” or “truer,” but his desire to integrate Neo-Platonism into Christianity is fascinating. Taken to its logical conclusion, there cannot be any pure or monolithic thing named, “tradition,” but rather only amalgamations of various philosophical systems. What we receive then, further down the historical line, are historically contextualized and socially located, synchronic cultural negotiations—an arrived at “truth” for a given place and time. If in Augustine’s position today, then we wouldn’t aspire to merge Neo-Platonism with Christianity—regardless of conceptual hierarchy (i.e., Christianity over Neo-Platonism)—but rather another kind of Christianity with another kind of philosophy that would, necessarily, spawn another kind of tradition. Would Augustine have difficulty with this line of reasoning? Would he, rather, push for the transcendence of an inherited Christian tradition that speaks equally across time and space? Would Augustine have been uncomfortable with the creative act of integrating new concepts, thoughts, and philosophies with an inherited or received Christian tradition? And finally, at what point does philosophical engagement stop and tradition begin and, once begun, how difficult is it to either add to or take away from an inherited tradition?