Augustine And Existentialism -- By: Gordon R. Lewis

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 08:1 (Winter 1965)
Article: Augustine And Existentialism
Author: Gordon R. Lewis

Augustine And Existentialism

Gordon R. Lewis

If the contemporary existentialist is pictured as a lonely individualist in a unique world of his own, it may seem futile to compare him with anyone as ancient as Augustine. But James Collins cautions, “In studying existentialism there is a danger of so fore-shortening the historical perspective that its roots in the philosophical tradition are overlooked. The kind of approach favored by the existentialists is not entirely novel; it has striking parallels in St. Augustine, Pascal, and other respectable thinkers.”1

A warning may be needed on the other hand, however. J.V.L. Casserley finds more than “striking parallels” to existentialism in Augustine. Casserley contends that “Existentialism is not really modern at all, but the heir of a long philosophical tradition.”2 And one of the existentialists in that tradition is none other than St. Augustine.

This study purposes to evaluate such claims as those of Collins and Casserley by comparing the thought of Augustine with that of contemporary existentialists. Considerable clarity is introduced into the discussion of existentialism by Paul Tillich’s distinctions between an existential point of view (fallenness), an existential, content or philosophy (non-essentialist) and an existential attitude (involvement). Each of these aspects of existentialism will be compared with the thought of Augustine.

I. Augustine and an Existentialist Point of View.

Tillich’s concept of an existentialist point of view is formulated in terms of Plato’s division between the world of eternal essences and the world of temporal particulars. The human soul has been separated from its ‘home’ in the realm of pure essences. “Man is estranged from what he essentially is ... . This platonic distinction between the essential and the existential realms is fundamental for all later developments. It lies in the background even of present-day Existentialism.”3 While manness may be perfect, existing men are fallen, anxious and despairing.

Not all existentialists explain the human predicament in just these terms. Heidegger and Bultmann stress the fact that man’s existence is

inauthentic. According to Buber man is threatened by depersonalization. Berdyaev considers our plight objectivization, externalization, or “thingification.”4 In whatever terms, existentialists acknowledge that all is not well with men as they actually exist in the w...

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