HIST 210: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000

Lecture 4

 - The Christian Roman Empire


The emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity brought  change to the Roman Empire as its population gradually abandoned the old religions in favor of Christianity. The reign of Julian the Apostate, a nephew of Constantine, saw the last serious attempt to restore civic polytheism as the official religion.  The Christian church of the fourth century was divided, however, by two serious heresies: Arianism and Donatism.  Religious dissent led to the intervention of the emperors at church councils and elsewhere. Professor Freedman then introduces St. Augustine’s Confessions, including an overview of Platonism.

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The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000

HIST 210 - Lecture 4 - The Christian Roman Empire

Chapter 1: Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Freedman: Good morning. Questions or problems?

So today, this week, we begin to talk more seriously about religion. And I remind you, we’re talking about Christianity in particular not because of its spiritual teachings, exactly, but we’re interested in the Church as a power and as a power dealing with, allied to, but different from the Roman Empire. Everything changes with the conversion of Constantine. The Church becomes first tolerated, then official, and then finally the sole legal religion, except for Judaism, by order of the Emperor Theodosius the Great in 393.

On the other hand, in order to understand the Church as a power or the politics of this period, we do have to understand the doctrine, because people fought over doctrine. And as you’ve seen in the Jones reading, they invoked the emperor’s intervention. This is not a question as might be what you would expect today of a religion split about various problems of dogma solving those problems itself or splitting off into two factions.

The questions over the relationship between the persons of the Trinity, Arianism, or the nature of priestly office, Donatism, provoked right from the year of Constantine’s conversion, 312, divisive fights. And they’re only the first. I urge you to have fun with heresies. Heresies are neat. Professor Carlos Eire is teaching a freshman seminar, I believe. Is it not called “Basic Heresies.” What is it?

Student: “Essential Heresies.”

Professor Paul Freedman: “Essential Heresies.” Yes, even better. And I don’t know of any quiz shows where you can demonstrate expertise on this, but there ought to be. Or there ought to be sites on the Internet where you can get a perfect score. We’re only touching the surface, the proverbial tip of the iceberg, to use a cliché.

There are lots of heresies. There’s a lot of division in the church. Why not just say, “Hey, you believe that the Father is superior to the Son, and I believe that they’re coequal. So what? ” That’s so 2011. Or actually, it’s so 2000. Because we ought to be used to religious doctrines having military or other kinds of violent effects.

So I’m not going to have to justify for you the fact that we’re spending some time on religion, I hope. But if you do want me to, just remind me what the rationale is. If your roommates are bothering you because you’re quizzing them about the relation between the persons of the Trinity, have them email me or set up an appointment, and I’ll explain why it’s important. I’d be glad to do this as a public service. Or my Facebook page, whatever.

This is a situation created by Constantine. We’ve seen Constantine’s fairly long reign transform the Roman Empire. We emphasized the creation of the city of Constantinople as a second capital and the favor shown towards the church, so that when Constantine died in 337, 40%, 50%, a large percentage of the Empire’s population was Christian. When he died, the Roman Empire seemed to have been restored to its former glory.

That chapter that begins the reading for today in Brown’s World of Late Antiquity is entitled, “A World Restored.” And he emphasizes this because, traditionally, historians saw the fourth century through the lens of the sack of Rome in 410 as a period of decline. In 410, as we will discuss next week, the city of Rome was pillaged and partly burned by the Visigoths, a–I hate to use the word “tribe,” but don’t tell anybody–tribe of barbarians who had entered the Empire across the Danube and the Balkans.

This was a cataclysmic event, and it ushered in successive crises in the Western Empire that would lead to its collapse. This weakness of the Western Empire is partly military, partly political, and partly internal, a result of weaknesses, of instability, culture, and the economy. It’s always hard to say why empires fall in some absolute sense, even though we can see in retrospect the signs of their decline.

One of the signs Brown talks about in the reading for today fairly extensively, and that is the inequality among the rich and poor grows. On the other hand, this is a period of inequality, but also social mobility. There are a lot of paths open to barbarians, even. In this period, barbarians become important figures in the Roman army. And indeed, the army is a path of upward social mobility, a very important one.

In general, as I’ve said, between 337 and 410, between the death of Constantine and the sack of Rome, people did not see themselves as living in a period of decline. They did see themselves as living in a period of real change, the most dramatic of which was the movement towards Christianity. And the most dramatic example of that movement is the reign of the Emperor Julian.

I’ve given you a handout that shows the emperors of this period. Notice that some of them reign in the East, some in the West, and then some, usually briefly, reunify the empire. We’re in a transitional period ushered in by Diocletian when the Empire is sometimes divided and sometimes not. With the death of Theodosius in 395, the third-to-last of those emperors on the list, he had been sole emperor for three years. With his death and the division of the Empire between his son Honorius, ruling from Ravenna–the Western capital now, in what’s now northern Italy–and Arcadius, ruling from Constantinople, from that point on, we can really speak of two different emperors. And almost always, there were two emperors until the collapse of the Western Empire in the late fifth century. Questions at this point?

Chapter 2: Julian the Apostate [00:08:09]

So the reign of Julian the Apostate– “Apostate” because he was born as a Christian and tried to restore the traditional Roman religion– 360 to 363. His failure shows the weakness of what we can call paganism or traditional Roman religion. By this time, Christianity was too big to roll back. Julian tried. He tried to reestablish the temples. He tried to reestablish the vigor of the cults of the gods. He was an eclectic worshiper of many different gods, but he also was a philosopher.

He is a wonderful, if sad, example of an intellectual in power. Very few of these emperors were what would be called intellectual in the sense–many of them were cultivated,they liked the equivalent of classical music and art. But Marcus Aurelius is a philosopher, and Julian at least is a would-be philosopher. He had a beard. He studied in Athens.

He was very unsuccessful, though. People did not follow his doctrines. He was a very good military leader. His troops, when he was on the Rhine frontier in what’s now France and Germany, were extremely loyal to him. But as emperor, not only did the church oppose him, but many of his own followers did. He died in an unsuccessful campaign against the Persians of perhaps murdered–unclear. But with his defeat, the end of civic polytheism, of that traditional urban, upper-class worship of the Olympian gods was in permanent eclipse.

The decree of the Emperor Theodosius that I referred to already of 393 proclaiming Christianity the only legal religion, except for a small space allowed for Judaism, did not really mean that everybody in the Empire was a practicing Christian. The two groups [correction:  most significant group] that would be outside of that definition are the people of the countryside, a very large number of people who would either continue their traditional polytheistic local worship of local gods or assimilate that worship to Christianity.

We’re going to be talking a lot about saints in a couple of weeks. On some obvious level, which I don’t want to exaggerate but which is nevertheless there, the saints–and there are many of them–they are holy figures. They’re not gods, but they’re more powerful than human beings. The saints are a kind of substitute for polytheism. We’ll talk about why and how that works.

The other class that tended to resist Christianity to the last was the very upper stratum of the Roman senatorial elite–the people who were the most cultivated adherents of the traditional religion–and philosophers, people who followed Plato, for example, known as the Platonists. And we’re going to come to them, because they’re very important for Augustine’s Confessions.

Constantine was succeeded by his sons. After two of the sons died, Constantius ruled alone. Constantius assured that he would rule alone by massacring most of his family. Julian was one of only two that he allowed to survive, and he shouldn’t have, because Julian overthrew him. This is brass-knuckle politics, I guess.

Chapter 3: Essential Heresies: Arianism and Donatism [00:12:17]

The chief preoccupations of these rulers of the fourth century were the same as when we started out: the Persian threat on the eastern frontier, the barbarian threat on the Rhine-Danube frontier. But there are also other problems that the third-century emperors had not faced, and these are religious problems. They are, in particular, Arianism and Donatism. And we’ve seen a little bit about these from the reading about Constantine for the first assignment, but let’s go over this.

Arianism. Please remember that with a “y”, this takes on a completely different meaning. Aryan is this discredited racial theory identified, but not invented by, Nazism. Arian with an “i” is a follower of Arius. Arius was a priest from Alexandria influenced by ideas from Plato about the absolute and unknowable nature of God. Any religion, but Christianity in particular, has a problem: If you make God too absolute and unapproachable, then why does he care about us? If you make Him too approachable, then how is he powerful enough to transcend the world?

Platonism–that is, the philosophy of followers of Plato–emphasizes the absolute, emphasizes the inferiority of what we can understand with our eyes, with our other senses, and the superiority of the spiritual. The reason the spiritual is superior to the material in Platonism and in Buddhism and in many other philosophies is that the material is mortal, rots, dies, passes away.

The problem for many people, not just people in the modern world, is that the material is right here, and the spiritual is hard to apprehend or prove. But most people who think about it most of the time in history agree that the spiritual is superior, because it is immortal. Therefore, those who emphasize the spiritual emphasize this kind of unknowability, the mystery, the not-easy-to-apprehend-ness of the supernatural.

For Platonists and for Arians, God was placed infinitely high above us. Now, Christianity has as its great strength, in many respects–just speaking of the power of ideas–the fact that God becomes man. Christ is incarnated; that means he becomes flesh. This is not a common religious idea. Mohammed is not God. He is a messenger. In Judaism, there are prophets, but they are not made of the same substance as God. There are religions in which a holy man becomes supernatural–a lot of religions of the East.

But in Christianity, Christ is God. God is manifested in three forms–the Trinity–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Arianism says that Christ is essentially different from God the Father in some fundamental way, that Christ was created by God as a way of interacting with the world.

If you have studied Plato or were in DS and remember some of those key concepts, in Platonism, there’s the One, and then there’s the Demiurge. The Demiurge is this hard-working guy or hard-working force, whatever you want to call it, who interacts between the divine and the material. He’s divine, all right, but he creates things. He’s the one who is out there creating the spirit as well as matter, creating the world and the universe, indeed, as we know it, while the One is at rest.

So similarly in Arianism, Christ is the one who’s intervening on Earth, indeed, sacrificing Himself for humanity. God the Father remains in heaven. This is not what Christianity most of the time teaches. Christianity or the Orthodox or Catholic view is that Christ and God are of the same substance. The Arians therefore are subordinationists. They subordinate Christ to God.

A convenient way of remembering them is their tagline: “There was a time when Christ was not.” It’s a supernatural, metaphysical time, but God made Christ. This goes against the creed enacted at Nicaea, which to this day is the standard confession of faith of Christian denominations. The Nicene Creed, as it is known, says that all persons of the Trinity are eternal, co-eternal. God did not create Christ.

Now, Arianism appealed to people partly because they worried about the Trinity. The Trinity could be denounced by anti-Christians as actually three gods. How could God be both one and three? Also, people who worried about the physicality of Christ–Christ becomes flesh, dies, suffers–how can God be God if he dies and suffers?

Arianism, you have to take seriously as something that is not just troubling the intellectuals. It is not just something for people with a lot of time and leisure on their hands. It’s not for philosophy majors. It’s not even for religious studies majors. It’s not even for the Roman equivalent of college graduates. The barbarians–and I deliberately avoid calling them the German barbarians–but the first barbarians to convert to this religion were more or less–and as time goes, on historians emphasize less–but more or less Germanic tribes.

The missionaries who converted them were Arians in the mid-fourth century, which is the high tide of Arianism in the Roman Empire. When the German tribes or the barbarian tribes entered the Empire beginning in the 370s, Arianism was all but over within the Empire. The Council of Nicaea in the 320s and the Council of Constantinople in 381 pretty much defined Arianism as a heresy, and by 381, it was on the run in the Empire. But ironically, the new rulers of the West would be mostly Arians well into the fifth and, in some cases, sixth centuries.

Donatism, or the Donatists. The Donatists–here we’re not dealing with doctrine or metaphysical questions of the relationship of the persons of the Trinity. We’re dealing with the nature of the priesthood, hence the nature of the church. It’s a question of the office or the man.

If it turns out that I do not have a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, or indeed that I am an impostor, that somehow I tricked the Yale computer, have been showing up here, teaching History 210, and am just some random guy–like the guy who is obsessed with the New York City transit and has gotten various passes to get in to drive trains and maintenance yards and stuff like that–if I turn out to be like that, you will nevertheless get credit for this course, I assure you. Because Yale, as an official body, is the one who grants your degree, gives you credits, and they were responsible for hiring me.

So if I’ve imposed a fraud on them, you nevertheless receive credit. You don’t have to do a background search of me. You don’t have to find out about how many pets I have or my credit status or my mortgage, because you rely on Yale to do that.

Think of this then in terms of the priesthood. If it turns out that the priest is not a nice guy–and alas, that happens–or a sinner–or what the Donatists really cared about was he had buckled under threat of torture or the reality of torture during the persecution of Diocletian and had, say, burned the scripture or renounced Christianity–if your priest is bad, is your baby baptized? That’s what Donatism is about, and Donatism answers, no. No. It depends on the virtue of the officiate.

You can’t have a priest who was what they called a traditor. Traditor is an interesting Latin word, T-R-A-D-I-T-O-R, because it means both “tradition”–or is the root of the word “tradition,” but also of “traitor.” It’s the handing down or handing over of something, the giving up of something. So one can speak of the handing down of–our family has cranberry sauce with slivered almonds, that’s our tradition–or handing over state secrets, military strategy, or the scripture to the authorities.

The Donatists accused priests who had or they believed had capitulated to Roman persecutorial pressure in the last years of Diocletian. They branded them as traitors, and they said that they could not perform legitimate sacraments. Therefore you, in North Africa, where the Donatists were strong, you as an ordinary Christian had better do a background check on your priest, because your marriage is illegitimate, your baby is going to hell, your whole participation in the church is, as it were, short-circuited by this defect.

Worse than that, supposing your priest is just fine–in fact, supposing it’s 330 AD and your priest wasn’t even born during the reign of Diocletian, but the guy who consecrated him, the bishop who anointed him was a traditor, or maybe that bishop was not, but he was anointed–it’s like Christmas tree lights, at least the Christmas tree lights that I have, the analog ones. They’re little bulbs, and if one of them goes, the whole string goes. If one is defective–the proverbial bad apple rotting out the entire barrel.

But the problem with that is that you can’t organize a church on that basis, you can’t organize a body spread from one corner of the world to another, unless you believe that the church will guarantee the sanctity of the individual minister. The office, the fact that the guy is a priest, has to be more important than the man, or else you can only have local communities. You can only trust, if you’re a Donatist, somebody you grew up with and a community stable enough where you’re confident of the ancestry.

Donatism lends itself to what we call “sectarianism.” A sect is a small, tightly cohesive group. It does not lend itself to a church that is universal, big, massive. And it also doubts that the church itself has the power to overcome the defects of its members.

Chapter 4: Essential Heresies 2: Manicheanism [00:26:04]

Now, Manicheans are not exactly a heresy, but they appear in the Confessions, and they’re very important. So since we’re doing doctrinal ideas, Manicheanism is a teaching about good and evil that can be applied to other religions besides Christianity. Manicheanism basically says that good and evil have a real existence. There is a war in the universe between a good god and an evil one. And this may be applied outside of Christianity or within Christianity.

And within Christianity, the evil god is the devil, or according to the Manicheans of this period that Augustine for a while joined, the god of the Old Testament. Jehovah is the evil god, and the god of the New Testament, the Christian god, is the good one. Jehovah is the one who smites a lot of people. Jehovah is the creator god, because the Manicheans believed that matter is evil and is the source of evil. Spirit is good. The Christian god created spirit. Human beings are imprisoned in the body, and they have to figure out a way to liberate themselves from the dominion of the evil god. Vegetarianism, for a start, avoiding flesh.

But salvation means casting off the flesh. How is this different from Christianity? And doesn’t this sound to you like regular old Christianity, mistrust of the flesh? The devil is identified with sexual desire or physicality, generally. Manicheanism is very useful as an explanation of evil. And this may not be something that keeps you up at night, but it will at some point, intermittently.

Where does evil come from? Why is there so much evil in the world? Why, if God is good, is there evil in the world? Sure, some of that may just be to test you–you lose your job or your business fails, but you’ll get a better one–but that’s not the same as horrible infant birth disabilities, or the death of people by starvation in the thousands, or choose your evil thing.

Why does this happen? One explanation is that God didn’t cause it. There’s another god. What’s the problem with that? Why is Manicheanism not a bigger–I mean, in a way, it is. But you will travel far to meet anyone who says they’re a Manichean.

Student: They think God’s not omnipotent.

Professor Paul Freedman: Yeah, first of all, then God’s not all powerful, and so then how is He God? And then instinctively, what’s another problem, maybe, with it? I could say, so what? God is limited. You know, he’s trying. Anybody else have a sense of the moral problem of saying, the devil made me do it?

Student: It takes away self–

Professor Paul Freedman: It takes away individual responsibility. I didn’t cheat those investors. The devil cheated them. I didn’t mug that Ezra Stiles student. The devil did. Anyway, this is a debate. I’m not asking you to take sides, but notice in the Confessions the attitude of Augustine towards his Manichean experience.

Chapter 5: Roman Emperors and Christian Heresies [00:30:06]

So the fourth century is a time of ideas circulating around as Christianity starts to define itself. This would merely be a chapter of the history of ideas, were it not that the Roman emperors had to intervene to settle many of these issues. So just forgive me if I am beating a dead horse, but heresy is important because of its impact in shaping the church through controversy and because it fell to the emperor to try to resolve heresy. And thus marks the beginning of a merger of church and state in a way that would become characteristic of the entire Middle Ages.

The other thing to remark is that the emperor did not have a lot of success with this, almost ever. It’s very frustrating for an emperor who can get someone killed immediately. All he’s got to do is say, “You dropped that lark’s tongue pie.Take him away and kill him.” But he can’t seem to do this with heretics, partly because heretics love persecution. It just toughens them.

So you have the Prefect of Africa writing to Jones [correction:  to Constantine as you’ve read in the jones book] and saying that this bishop in North Africa, Caecilian, has been attacked as a traditor. And Constantine does what emperors usually do, they appoint local judges as experts. They say, go and have a hearing and find out what’s going on, and make a recommendation to me. He makes a recommendation telling the Donatists to go home and shut up. They don’t. They appeal to the emperor. The emperor says, “Go home and shut up.” And they don’t. They defy the emperor himself. They go back to North Africa, and they continue preaching against traitors.

Constantine, why does he intervene? Why didn’t he just say, the hell with you– pretty literally– or, it’s a matter of opinion, or, this doesn’t get at the core the faith?

Student: He’s afraid of upsetting God.

Professor Paul Freedman: Yeah. He’s afraid of upsetting God. Remember, we said that Constantine was not much of a philosopher, not much of a contemplative. He had won a battle with the favor of the Christian God. Now the Christian God– he was the companion of the Christian God. The Christian God has him by the hand. If the church starts dissolving into quarreling factions, God is going to be angry, and his favor will cease. We have to take the ruler’s anxiety about religious unity seriously. So he changes his policy several times.

Remember, we’re talking about a guy who was able to defeat all his military rivals, sent Licinius running through Asia Minor, caught and executed him. A man of tremendous capabilities. Nevertheless, dealing with these peasants and poor townspeople and, from his point of view, riff-raff who were strong in North Africa, he couldn’t get them to obey him.

Sometimes he tried compromise, then persecution, then just saying, nobody can discuss this. And none of this worked. Not only did this not work, but now Arianism came to preoccupy him. And you can see in his letters, there’s a kind of, “OMG, I didn’t realize what I was signing up for,” tone to it.

At first he was anti-Arian, pretty totally. He saw it as a denial of Christianity. If Christianity by its very name is that Christ is God, then Arianism would seem to be antithetical to that fundamental thing. So after defeating Licinius, he learned more about Arianism, which was strong in the East, and his first reaction was maybe your reaction, or certainly the reaction of anybody who’s more interested in power, politics, this world. He considered it over-subtle, philosophical, and ultimately trivial.

But he couldn’t get rid of it. He couldn’t get rid of it, and now, instead of appointing judges, he summoned a council of the bishops of the Empire, what later would be called an ecumenical council–“ecumenical” meaning worldwide–a universal council, which met in the city of Nicaea, not right across the Bosphorus, but more or less–there’s an “a” in there sometimes–more or less in the western part of Asia Minor. And it met in 325.

At this first ecumenical council–the last ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, by the way, was in the 1960s, the early 1960s under Pope John–and this ecumenical council was summoned by the emperor, and the emperor was in the room and in certain respects presided, intervened, took sides. He was very deferential to the bishops. He is not a bishop, after all. He is not a priest. He does not have the sacramental orders, but nevertheless, he was, or attempted to be, the boss of this conference.

And it came up with a formula, a definition of the creed, what every Christian must believe, saying that God and Christ are of the same essence, but different persons. God and Christ and the Holy Ghost, who’s not really at issue yet–there will be a heresy involving the Holy Ghost, but not until the end the course–they are the same essence, but different persons. Same essence–the Greek word is homoousios. Christ was begotten by the Father, but not made by Him. That’s a tough one. That’s a tough one. He was begotten by the Father, but not in time. There wasn’t three minutes after creation.

Does someone want to go out and see what that noise is? Or is it coming from outside, and we’re hopeless? Thank you.

Arius gave a kind of equivocal acceptance of this arrangement, but the Bishop of Alexandria refused to accept Arius back into communion. In other words, the Nicene Creed defined orthodoxy, but fighting raged for about 50 years over the relationship between Christ and God the Father.

Constantine kept on changing his mind. Again, the poor guy only wanted unity. He wanted this to go away so that God would favor him. He died more or less an Arian. He came to believe that the Arian moderate position was the best. This is partly because of the absolute intransigence of the Bishop of Alexandria–the Archbishop of Alexandria, Athanasius. Athanasius would then later be a saint, considered the upholder of the orthodox line.

So Constantine was baptized just before he died. In this era, usually, baptism was supposed to mean that you embraced Christianity totally. It’s Augustine, particularly, who’s responsible for infant baptism. Infant baptism then means you enter the Christian community, but for sure you’re going to sin. The understanding in the 330s was more, as a baptized Christian, I am no longer a sinner.

So if you were in an office like Constantine, where you are shedding blood, giving judgments, leading troops, you would wait until your death-bed moment before getting baptized. So he would be baptized on his deathbed by an Arian priest. What’s the danger of this, parenthetically?

Student: That you die unbaptized.

Professor Paul Freedman: Die unbaptized, right. The proverbial bus hitting you on the street or sudden death of another sort. And we’re going to talk–I’m sure this is going to be one of the things you will remember with pleasure–but briefly about sin, why people sin, and the interaction of good and evil in human beings. Indeed, we’re going to start very soon, because it’s all over the Confessions.

Chapter 6: Introduction to St. Augustine’s Confessions [00:40:33]

Let me give you a little bit of orientation towards the Confessions, which I hope you will read as much as possible. Why are we reading this very personal and autobiographical work? First of all, it is a classic. How many of you, may I ask, have already read it?A certain number. It is an autobiography, which makes it very unusual. It’s an intimate autobiography. It’s not just highlights of my career or my resume. He talks about anxieties, desires, doubts. It is, therefore, a portrait of the mentality of a thinking person in the ancient world.

We get a better idea of the life of the spirit than from many other, most other, almost any other source. It shows the fluidity of the religious scene in the late Roman Empire. His father is a pagan. His mother is a Christian. He is first a Platonist, sort of, then a Manichean, then a Christian Platonist, and then a more fervent Christian.

So it shows some of the religious and philosophical options of this era. In doing so, we do come across important and lasting ideas of the Western tradition about evil, sin, body, and soul. We also are looking at the impact of Christianity on the Roman Empire and the relationship between Christianity and classical culture.

Some things to keep in mind as you’re reading this. The book is uniquely self-revealing for its time. On the other hand, it doesn’t tell us a lot of stuff we’d like to know. More time is spent going over a youthful prank involving stealing pears from an orchard than on Augustine’s concubine. Concubine: a woman that you’re not married to who’s like a subordinate with whom you have a sexual relation. And indeed, he would have a child. Pears, Book II, towards the end, pay a lot of attention to that.

The book has a lot of prayers, quotations from scripture. It’s very Biblically infused. Don’t be put off by that, because the book is a confession. “Confession” has two meanings in this era. One is its meaning now, the way we usually use it, confession of sin. But it’s also a confession of praise. I confess God, meaning I acknowledge God’s power, and I praise Him.

Chapter 7:Platonism [00:43:51]

Finally, I just want to go over Platonists, because he both admires the Platonists, feels that they saved him from the Manicheans, but ultimately comes to doubt them. This is described fairly well in Brown, beginning on page 73. But let me just take a few minutes to discuss this.

Platonism or Neoplatonism, it’s the same thing. Neoplatonism is a religious Platonism. It differs from Plato and his dialogues by being a little bit more mystical in the sense of focused on the One, trying to apprehend the One, and less interested in the city, the state, or the kinds of worldly problems that Plato dealt with.

Platonism asserts the superiority of the spirit and the inferiority of matter. But unlike Manicheanism, which basically says that matter is evil and spirit is good, for the Platonists, everything is good. Everything is good, but there are inferior goods. So matter is not evil in itself. It’s just inferior. Where evil comes from is the preference of the inferior to the superior, the preference of the material manifestation to the spiritual.

So to take the most famous example–because we still have this little funny vestigial notion of so-called Platonic love–love of a sexual sort is not evil in Platonism. What is evil is assuming that that’s all there is and not referring it to a higher spiritual, nonmaterial kind of love. Wealth is not bad, but the preference of wealth over spiritual things is bad. Here again, as we spoke at the beginning of the lecture, it’s important to emphasize the superiority of the spiritual over the material, because the spiritual is eternal. Evil comes from not realizing the superiority of the material–of the spiritual, excuse me–or not acting on it, acting as if the material is all there is.

In Platonism, evil is a falling away, or a turning of your vision, to evoke the cave metaphor. It is a misperception, and it’s the result of poor education. If you educate people to the superiority of the spiritual, they will throw off their evil ways. The reason people misbehave, kill each other, oppress each other, is that they don’t know any better, and if you teach them, they’ll reform.

Keep that in mind as we turn to Augustine and see what he thinks about it. He adores the Platonists because they’re intellectuals. He admires them because they rescued him from the trap of Manichean dualism–that is, good versus evil, just simple forces. Platonism is an explanation of evil, but for Augustine, it’s not a sufficient explanation. And that will form part of the subject matter of our next talk.

So I’ll see you on Wednesday. Oh, and Wednesday, you’ll get the paper topics for the first paper, which is due October 10. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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