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I have a new book on Reason, Authority, and the Healing of Desire in the Writings of Augustine. What exactly are reason and authority? Let’s talk about that. Ok, not really. Let’s just overview what Augustine thinks.
We might define reason as rational belief and trust in authority as irrational belief—perhaps as having nothing to do with rationality, or maybe as in tension or conflict with it. But this is way off. Augustine explains that it’s rational to trust the testimony of authority. It is necessary for life, and even those who most protest against trust-based systems of belief readily trust their parents’ claim to being their parents, the claims of geographers about distant cities, and the claims of historians about ancient people.
We might even go so far as to suggest that reason is merely the operating of our minds in a rational manner in order to know the truth; we could further define trust in authority as one of reason’s necessary operations. This is closer to Augustine, but still not quite right. He emphasizes the distinction between reason and authority, not their sameness.
So what are they?
Reason is understanding, and authority is that which we trust.
To understand and to trust are two complementary ways of believing the truth. Authority gives us access to truth when we are not able to understand it. It gives us the truth that a thing is even if we cannot comprehend its essence. Reason goes beyond authority in giving us the ability to understand that essence.
Take one of Augustine’s examples, parentage, in light of modern science. By simply trusting his parents, a child may have a true belief about who they are. But through a study of biology and genetics, along with running a DNA test, he may come to understand this fact through reason and know it without relying solely on authority.
Augustine’s early writings suggest that faith accepts the mysteries of Christian theology, while the practices of the philosophers give us a way of growing towards an understanding of God and the soul.
Homeboy ain’t gonna write one book in which he relies on authority and another relying on reason. Both reason and authority are concerned with much of the same topics. When Augustine treats a particular topic he will employ whichever method seems to him best suited to the topic, to his own abilities, or to the abilities of his audience. One book relies, for the most part, on reason and another on authority; we can’t say much more than this.
The thesis of my book is that Augustine has a Platonically informed yet distinctively Christian theology of desire both in his texts relying mainly on reason and in his texts relying mainly on authority. I’ve worked out this simple strategy for mapping a cross-section of Augustine’s books:
The Problem of Evil
God and the Soul
De Vera Religione
On the True Religion
De Natura Boni
On the Nature of the Good
De Libero Arbitrio
On the Free Choice of the Will
On the Teacher
De Utilitate Credendi
On the Usefulness of Believing
De Bono Coniugali
On the Good of Marriage
Enchiridion / Handbook
As for desire, maybe more later. For now, here’s a link to a short post on THE MUCH, MUCH BIGGER CONVERSATION ON DESIRE that Augustine is a part of.
This post is drawn from the Introduction to Reason, Authority, and the Healing of Desire in the Writings of Augustine. The whole book comes out in February. Here’s an early look at the back cover: