Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 19 — Augustine and Aquinas (Summary & Notes)
“There is a love that is within reason that can help you grow beyond reason to what reason always sought.”
(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 18: https://markmulvey.medium.com/awakening-from-the-meaning-crisis-by-john-vervaeke-ep-18-ee26c5dab198)
Ep. 19 — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Augustine and Aquinas [54.02] https://youtu.be/mRh4lwtgfVE
- After Plotinus (~270 CE) the Roman Empire starts to go into decline, drawing a close to the ancient era
- A figure arises that brings Christianity, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism together: Augustine
- Augustine is drawn to Manicheanism, originating from Mani in Persia. It dwelled a lot on a world that was darkening around them, so was particularly relevant given Rome’s decline; ideas of evil powers and structures
- Augustine was also suffering an inner conflict: in today’s terms we would call him a sex addict. He described it as: “I was always licking the open sore of lust.” As a result felt a lot of self-loathing, loss of agency etc.
- He writes the first autobiography in the history of the West — Confessions — and relates a story which came close to traumatizing him. Him and his friends stole some fruit, and he says he didn’t even want the fruit, didn’t desire it. He also didn’t want to impress his friends. He said he stole the fruit simply because it was the wrong thing to do. That something in him was dragging him down.
- He travels around, teaches rhetoric, and eventually starts reading philosophy and discovers the work of Plotinus. Thought highly of him (“In Plotinus Plato lives again”). He gets what the Neoplatonic worldview is saying and has a mystical experience about it. An ascent up to The One. But he can’t hold it — his darkness has so much gravity that it pulls him back down to that world of addiction. He later describes it like a “hole in being,” sucking the light away.
- This leads to a rebound effect of despair, since he was in the light — he experienced it — but was incapable of staying there. It made things worse.
- He’s later home with his mother and picks up the work of Paul and finds a kindred spirit. He sees the same inner conflict, and a worldview that makes sense of that inner conflict. He had an insight: at the heart of reason is love. And what’s damaged in him is his capacity for love.
- “There is a love that is within reason that can help you grow beyond reason to what reason always sought.” By participating in agape we grow in love, which is helping us to grow into fully realized persons.
- So Augustine says Neoplatonism needs Christianity. The healing and the response to evil that Gnosticism was looking for can actually be found in Christianity. He synthesizes them all together.
- He talks about all this in an autobiography — in a perspectival and participatory way. It’s essentially an existential manual.
- Nomological order: the fundamental principles by which knowledge and reality cooperate
- Normative order: This is what Plotinus gave us — how we can move in an orderly fashion up the levels of reality/consciousness/self from what is less real to what is more real.
- This ascent is driven by a love — a love of knowing what is real and simultaneously becoming what is real. The normative order tells you how you can become better. How you can create realness — meaning — in your own life. This is the narrative order of Christianity. The great story about the course of history moving toward a final consummation: the Promised Land.
- Augustine puts all 3 of these orders together — nomological, normative, and narrative — into a mutually sustaining fashion.
- Coherence: The more intelligible, the more real things are and fit together, the more meaningful you find your life. This is the nomological order. Significance: how valuable — how good — are the element of your life. This is the normative order. Purpose: Does your life have a direction. This is the narrative order.
- How did all of the this fall apart? How did we lose this beautiful synthesis?
- There was a traumatic loss of cities, literacy, trade, commerce… The standard of living that was lost in the Roman Empire was not recovered again until 1750 in London, England.
- In 1054 there’s a division. Christianity splits into Eastern Orthodox and Catholic. Bu separating itself from the East, Western Christianity loses some of its deeper connections to the Neoplatonic mystical theology. The West starts to become more Aristotelian.
- Reading changed. It had been spoken out loud — recited. This draws on many other ways of communicating, participation… a different kind of knowing. It’s a communal act.
- Lectio divina: a way of reading a text in which you are not speak it but to let the text speak to you. Letting it transform you. This type of reading is designed to transform you. To trigger, activate, and educate your procedural, perspectival, and participatory knowing. To help you in your reading remember the being mode.
- Avicenna up until this time was the predominant interpreter of the Augustine worldview , and gives priority to the Neoplatonic/Gnostic elements alive. (in Persia) But he gets replaced by Averroes, who is more purely Aristotelian. This leads to a shift to giving a priority to definitions and propositions. People start to read silently to themselves, and give priority to coherence of language instead of transformation of themselves in the world.
- But what they lose is reading as a psychotechnology — a psychospiritual, existential transformation. Reading becomes the consumption of propositions.
- People make this shift because the world is starting to open up again, and people are interested in knowing the world more scientifically. They start seeing the value of logically coherent, well-organized propositional theories. And Aristotle is being rediscovered. (Because of the Crusades)
- This starts to create a crisis in Christianity. Someone arises who sees this looming threat: Thomas Aquinas. And he takes up the task of solving this problem.
- Aquinas tries to reconcile this by saying reason and science try to understand this world (our physical world) and can discover real truths through reason and science, but the Neoplatonic world is also real — somehow more real. He creates a distinction between the natural world and the supernatural world. And says the supernatural world is only accessible by faith. Reason is down in the physical world, but love is now up in the supernatural world.
- The idea for Aquinas was that love moves the will. (in contrast to Plotinus/Augustine, where love moved reason) Faith becomes the act of willful assertion.
- Science and spirituality are starting to become divorced from one another in a profound way. If something is scientific then it’s not spiritual, and vice versa. Same with reason vs. love.
- Which means the supernatural world starts to become less and less real to us. And if it’s no longer viable to us then the whole Axial world mythology & grammar of meaning/wisdom/transcendence is now threatened to fall apart.
Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 20— Death of the Universe (Summary & Notes): https://markmulvey.medium.com/awakening-from-the-meaning-crisis-by-john-vervaeke-ep-20-22db108d7dfb
List of Books in the Video:
- Saint Augustine — Confessions
- Michael Casey — Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina
- Tom Cheetham — World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism
- Tom Cheetham — Imaginal Love: The Meanings of Imagination in Henry Corbin and James Hillman
- Marc Lewis — Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs