By the end of Book 7 Augustine is approaching intellectual rapprochement with Christianity. He is convinced of the intellectual superiority of Christianity, and has decided to accept Christian beliefs. But, very paradoxically, he comes to this conclusion by reading, not Christian Scripture, but pagan philosophy. (Probably because Christian scriptures are so bankrupt and contradictory that he could not convince himself of it.) More specifically, he came to Christianity by reading what he calls “the Platonist philosophers.”
He never took Christianity seriously, he says, before listening to St. Ambrose preach. Before that, he only knew about Christian beliefs through a Manichean lens, which proved to have been a very biased lens after listening to Ambrose speak. He was already disillusioned with Manichean doctrine after being unimpressed with one of the Manichean rhetoricians. At that point, Augustine says, I was lucky enough to get my hands on some books that were “written by the Platonists.”
He is not specific about which Platonist texts he actually read. It’s even more difficult to figure out which Platonist philosophers he was reading because they are paraphrased instead of being presented directly. When he paraphrases what he has read, it sounds not only suspiciously like something other than Platonist philosophy: they sound exactly like something other than Platonist philosophy. That is to say, what he reads in the Platonists sounds exactly like the beginning of John’s Gospel.
His paraphrasing of the Platonists begins this way,
“In them I read, not that the same words were used, but precisely the same doctrine was taught, buttressed by many and various arguments, that, in the beginning was the word and the word was with God; He was God. He was with God in the beginning. Everything was made through Him; nothing came to be without Him.”
Augustine uses this strategy–of saying In them I read…–four times in Book 7.
Think for a moment about this is outrageous claim, and this outrageous strategy. Let me paraphrase Augustine’s strategy:
“What was in these works? The best way I can adequately summarize them is by quoting word-for-word, the beginning of John’s Gospel.”
This man is obviously moving from one biased strategy to another, and now thinks he has found the gold. Because in his writing he becomes increasingly aware of his own conversion to Christianity (at least, the strategy of his book follows this pattern) in those books, he finds a way of articulating Christian belief, and a way of moving towards Christian belief. This is all part of his conversion, which is in reality a strategy to solidify dogma into the reader of his text: by fitting prior experience and belief into the new Christian identity.
The logic behind his psychological movement towards Christianity goes something like this. Because the Platonists have come to the same conclusion that the Gospel of John has, without divine revelation, then this part of Christian Scripture is something that can also be discovered through the use of reason.
But if what he read in Platonist philosophy was the beginning of John’s Gospel, why does he need Platonist philosophy? Why not just read John’s Gospel?
What he seems to imply is that, since the Platonists have reached the same doctrine as the Gospel of John by reason, it provides an explanation for how one arrives at the Gospel of John. Augustine says that this reasoning “buttressed by many and various arguments,” shows how Christianity is evident to one who has not received the divine revelation. After all, what John’s Gospel does not do is give many and various arguments. Augustine uses extrabiblical sources, which are not truly Chrisitian documents, but rather, are documents which the highly-platonic Church incorporated as part of its theological-colonial project: anything from another culture which becomes valuable to Christianity must be made to fit with the Christian dogma, or else it is burned.
Knowing that there is a “rational” basis for accepting some of what’s in Christian scripture makes it much easier, Augustine says, to accept what cannot be “buttressed by many and various arguments” from within the scripture. Can you see how this man is helping himself intellectually to the most fallacious psychological rationalizations in the history of the human race?
Augustine’s psychological path to Christian belief is an elaboration of the Pauline notion that there is a “natural revelation” available to everyone through reason. Paul uses it to say that no one can claim “ignorance” of God. Augustine is simply updating this notion for his own people of his own historical time and people of his own particular intellectual experience. How do we get to Christianity? Well, for somebody like Augustine–somebody educated in the pagan classics–pagan classics is going to be the most natural way to get to Christianity. Augustine realizes that, suggests that, and not only is this simply permissible, but there is something very interesting to the early Christian Church about the way in which “Athens” and “Jerusalem” complement each other.
What about the things the Augustine did not read in the Platonist philosophers? In fact, Augustine mentions what he did read in John’s Gospel as opposed to what he did not read in the Platonists. This comparison is intriguing because it seems as though he’s saying that, since the Gospel of John has proven to be something that one can arrive at using reason, then it must be some kind of shortcut through reason. In other words, he accepts the “reasonability” of divine revelation. So, he then uses the divine revelation as something with which to contrast against the things he did not read in the Platonists. Bad move. The Platonists could not by reason prove that “God so loved the world….” so, he says, we must conclude that Platonism is essentially insufficient.
Augustine uses a somewhat obscure metaphor to justify this approach. It comes from the story of the Exodus: the paradigmatic story of the Jewish people. He takes a particular view of the Exodus. The Jews obviously left everything behind in Egypt when they left. But they also took the Egyptian gold with them. Augustine asks, what does this mean for me now in this situation of reading Platonist texts, and Christian belief and identity? This leads Augustine to say that, for him, the Platonist philosophers are the Egyptian gold. One can, and should, Augustine says, take those things with them on their journey out of Egypt. The Egyptian gold comes out of Egypt, other Egyptian things stay behind. It’s a powerful metaphor in which Augustine can both understand and justify the use of and taking of the Platonist philosophy to his Christian identity — which is based on Platonic philosophy — which is a completely flawed philosophy to begin with, but is the only thing intellectuals such as himself are aware of.
The Egyptian gold becomes a kind of consecrated, shorthand way of describing anything from another culture which becomes valuable to Christianity. As such, Augustine is making an enormous contribution to the question Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Enormous of course because implied in this, if there is Egyptian gold, there is going to be a lot of things that Christians want to leave behind: such as idol-worship. For Augustine, he wants to leave behind stories about, for example, Zeus doing dirty things with nymphs. (But even then there’s opportunities of reading the stories deeply rather than literally.)
What this means is that Augustine now has the opportunity to bring pagan culture and Christian culture together into one unified body of bullshit, and in a way which can only be an intellectual luxury for somebody like Augustine. It’s something that enriches the Christian aristocracy. Augustine is making the claim to this “Egyptian gold” which he brings to the table, which not only intellectually allows him to become a Christian, but enriches the Christian patrimony and the superstructure of that society.
They know more about who they are as a Christian aristocracy because other cultures have been reformed to fit its regimen. And in this sense he is making a fairly obvious claim about what Athens has to do with Jerusalem.