Philosophy Theology

Augustine’s City of God, X: Understanding Augustine’s “Dialectic”

Augustine is sometimes seen as the father of dialectical philosophy and theology in the Christian tradition. While there is already an inkling of dialectical thought throughout the Bible, and the New Testament letters—especially Paul—it is Augustine’s City of God that begins the most robust effort at understanding this so-called dialectic of light and darkness, sin and sanctification, Election and Damnation, city of man and city of God.

A Portrait of Unity

“For God would never have created any, I do not say angel, but even man, whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing, the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses.”[i] Part of Augustine’s understanding of dialectical thought is that it is all unitive. There is no dualism in City of God though there appears, at face value, a dualism running through the text (the same could be said for the Bible). Instead, Augustine makes clear that true sovereignty and wisdom, knowledge, is shown through the appearances of “oppositions.”

For example, one would not know true beauty without the contrast to beauty: ugliness. The same goes for good and evil. One would not know good without evil, its dialectical opposite. The same for holiness and sin, justice and injustice, light and darkness, you name it. Take, for example, light and darkness. Without darkness one would not necessarily know what light truly is, or what beauty there is in light. It isn’t until darkness falls that the majesty of light is truly, and totally, revealed. It is with darkness that the want for light sets in. Moreover, in the darkness the slightest flickering of light is even more illuminating and powerful when surrounded by a mass of darkness, “For as a beauty of a picture is increased by well-managed shadows, so, to the eye that has skill to discern it, the universe is beautified even by sinners, though, considered by themselves, their deformity is a sad blemish.”[ii]

Being visual creatures, Augustine notes, “As, then, these oppositions of contraries lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries, arranged, as it were, by an eloquence not of words, but of things.”[iii] The dialectic that Augustine develops is not so much one with language, though there is that, but in corporeality, phenomenology, and in things. And the most beautiful thing, the ultimate thing, is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For it is in Christ’s person, his action, his sacrifice, that his love is magnified and shown to all the world and the beautiful plan and work of salvation is consummated—which is something far, far, far greater than to have lived in Eden for eternity. “For before the foundation of the world God chose to rescue these from the power of darkness, and to translate them into the kingdom of the Son of His love, as the apostle says.”[iv] This belief is retained even in the Catholic and Orthodox Liturgies, especially at Easter, where the choirs chant, “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

Augustine’s power of contrasts seems rather self-explanatory once people begin to examine it. To be left in a world of isolated oneness means we would never truly know or understanding—we would, like Adam and Eve, be naked but not realize it. For Augustine, contrasts also, and always, magnify the good, true, and beautiful to a greater level and extent than without their contrasts. For if all men were “good” it would become a bland and boring sameness. With evil manifested, through the negation of the good, suddenly the good stands out in greater contrast with its opposite magnifying the good.

This dialectic, of course, most famously plays out between the two cities we have just covered. “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt of God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far contempt of self.  In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord.  The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of good conscience.”[v] The city of man is ruled by pride, or self-centeredness which cuts it off from others and, as such, cuts itself off from true love. The city of God is ruled by love, or self-giving love (both agape and eros) to others under and through the love of God. In this contrast of one city glorying in itself and the other city glorying in the love of God, the love of God shines ever brighter from this contrast. Furthermore, there are two Jerusalems, a fleshly or carnal Jerusalem and a spiritual or heavenly Jerusalem.

Properly speaking, Augustine’s dialectic is not one of dualism. All things, as he stated, is done from God’s sovereignty and omnipotence. Everything goes together in totality, like that grand portrait which contains in it light and darkness but which from the darkness illuminates the lighted aspects ever-more. The contrasts, or opposites, in Augustine’s thought is not a contest of two radically opposed, or differentiated, forces leading to sublation of each other. Rather, the contrast exists to magnify the good, true, and beautiful. It exists to magnify God’s beauty, God’s glory, and God’s majesty—it exists to have brought into the world, and history, the Son of God in incarnate form which was the greatest act of beauty and light in the history of the world which was precipitated by the darkness of sad sinners so as to rescue them.

We see, then, in the “dialectic” of Augustine a unitive or a superseding “dialectic.” The dark exists to give greater contrast with the light which it is attached to, and with, in the totality of the universe. Earthly Jerusalem prefigures the Heavenly Jerusalem which it points to and is made manifest with the Coming of Christ. Thus, Augustine’s dialectic is not a Platonic or Eastern dialectic of dualistic opposition but a unitive portrait of multiplicity; but it would be wrong to confuse the multiplicity as singular since everything exists as part of the whole.

[i] See City of God, 11.18.

[ii] Ibid., 11.23.

[iii] Ibid., 11.18.

[iv] Ibid., 20.7.

[v] Ibid., 14.28.


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