Augustine


For over 1,600 years, the works of Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E. ), the great Christian theologian and teacher, have strongly influenced religious, philosophical, and psychological thought. His ideas of mortality were informed by various belief systems, such as the early Christian view that death is punishment for original sin and the Platonic notion of the immaterial and immortal essence of the soul.

This instinct is the basis for morality, as the rational self strives to preserve its rational nature and not to become irrational or inorganic in nature. Augustine takes from Greco-Roman culture, particularly from the Stoics, the notion that every living thing has an "instinct" for self-preservation. From the books of the Pentateuch, Augustine receives a juridical account of the origin and character of death: Death is a punishment (Gen. 3:19). In his epistles to early Christian communities, the apostle Paul (an ex-rabbi) makes a juridical understanding of death central to the Christian faith (2 Cor. 1:9); these letters become increasingly important for Augustine's understanding of the significance of death.

Augustine's evaluation of death undergoes a profound change after he encounters the theology of Pelagius. In his earlier writings, such as On the Nature of the Good, Augustine regards death as good because it is natural: Death is the ordered succession of living entities, each coming and going the way the sound of a word comes and goes; if the sound remained forever, nothing could be said. But in Pelagius's theology, Augustine encounters a radical statement of the "naturalness" of death: Even if there had never been any sin, Pelagius says, there would still be death. Such an understanding of death is very rare in early Christianity, and Augustine eventually stands with the mass of early Christian tradition by insisting upon the exegetically derived (from the Pentateuch) judgment that death is a punishment that diminishes the original "all life" condition of human nature. It is a distinctive and consistent feature of Augustine's theology of death that it is developed and articulated almost exclusively through the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.

The fact of death has ambivalent significance. On the one hand, death is an undeniable reality, universally appearing in all living organisms: Life inevitably ceases, however primitive or rational that life may be. On the other hand, just as inevitably and as universally, death demands denial: Consciousness rejects the devolution from organic to inorganic.

See also: Catholicism ; Christian Death Rites, History OF ; Philosophy, Western

MICHEL RENE BARNES

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