As someone with an interest in both history and philosophy, and especially in the history of philosophy, a topic that I find very interesting is St. Augustine of Hippo’s philosophy of history in his work The City of God. Bertrand Russell, I think, succinctly summarized Augustine’s philosophy of history, and the philosophical milieu in which it falls, with his statement that “the Jewish pattern of history, past and future, is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and the unfortunate at all times. Saint Augustine adapted this pattern to Christianity.”1
Thomas Cahill’s book The Gifts of the Jews also sheds a great deal of light on this “Jewish pattern of history” and why it “is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and the unfortunate at all times” as well as why Augustine and many others, such as Karl Marx in the 19th century, have been able to adapt it to their own times. According to Cahill,
For the ancients, the future was always to be a replay of the past, as the past was simply an earthly replay of the drama of the heavens: “History repeats itself” – that is, false history, the history that is not history but myth. For the Jews, history will be no less replete with moral lessons. But the moral is not that history repeats itself but that it is always something new: a process unfolding through time, whose direction and end we cannot know, except insofar as God gives us some hint of what is to come. The future will not be what has happened before; indeed, the only reality that the future has is that it has not happened yet. It is unknowable; and what it will be cannot be discovered by auguries – by reading the stars or examining entrails. We do not control the future; in a profound sense, even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future by their actions in the present. For this reason, the concept of the future – for the first time – holds out promise, rather than just the same old thing. We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free.2
If this paragraph from Cahill is put side by side by with Russell’s summary of Augustine’s City of God on pages 355-362 of his History of Western Philosophy, it looks as if Cahill too is offering a summary of Augustine’s work, or at least a summary of Russell’s summary. He is not doing that, of course, but the resemblance is remarkable and indicative of why the “Jewish pattern of history” is so important and so powerful. The two central and distinguishing features of this understanding of history, as Cahill and Russell explain it, are a hope of a better future as a result of one’s actions in the present and an acceptance of free will to the exclusion of any form of determinism including the possibility of divination. Augustine’s greatest accomplishment in his City of God was, I think, to apply these Jewish ideas about history to the context of Christianity at the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. According to Russell,
what Saint Augustine did was to bring these elements [Jewish eschatology, the predestination and election of Paul, and the Old Testament distinction between sacred and profane history] together, and to relate them to the history of his own time, in such a way that the fall of the Western Empire, and the subsequent period of confusion, could be assimilated by Christians without any unduly severe trial of their faith.3
In The City of God, Augustine described his vision of history as a gradual movement from the point of creation to the eventual resurrection of the dead after which “the bodies of the damned will burn eternally without being consumed” and the saints will experience “the eternal felicity of the City of God.”4 As Augustine saw it, it is in history, as Frederick Coplestone describes the “Christian standpoint,” “progressively, that the Body of Christ on earth grows and develops and that God’s plan is unfolded.”5 As Coplestone goes on to say, it is to be expected that when Augustine viewed history in this way, “his outlook was primarily spiritual and moral.”6 To view and use history in any other way would have been to step outside of the “Jewish pattern of history” which he had adopted.
Through his work, Augustine was able to successfully integrate the “Jewish pattern of history” into the philosophical framework of the West at the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He was able to make a powerful case for the hope and endurance of Christians while simultaneously launching a major offensive against the pagan understanding of many of his contemporaries. In so doing, Augustine exerted a great deal of influence on subsequent generations and made the “Jewish pattern of history” the pattern of history which the West would adopt, and which it still follows to this day.
1 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 363.
2 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 130-1.
4 ibid., 362.
5 Frederick Coplestone, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 2: Medieval Philosophy From Augustine to Duns Scotus (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 85.