Differences in Style: From Saint Augustine to Pope John Paul II

Michael Ferguson Beltz
Gustavus Adolphus College
April, 1996

Sixteen centuries have passed between the writing of The City of God, by Saint Augustine, and Crossing the Threshold of Hope, by Pope John Paul II. These two Christian theologians were compelled to deal with many similar topics, even though temporally they are distant. Among these common topics are the free will of humans, the existence of God, evil, omnipotence, and many more problematic ideas in Christianity. Their message, for the most part, tends to be the same: an affirmation of the Christian doctrine. Their similarities span a wider range than just a common message, they are similar in two other fundamental ways that are important to realize when we are examining the differing argument styles of the authors.

The primary area that Pope John Paul II and Saint Augustine are similar is in their subject matter. They are dealing with a metaphysical entity that the reader already has some knowledge of. Saint Augustine has an audience of educated people who were either blaming Christianity for the sack of Rome or were feeling the pressure of the former group. This audience has some level, even if rudimentary, of knowledge of the Christian God, even if it is in a doubting manner. Pope John Paul II, likewise is dealing with an audience that has some level of understanding about the Catholic Church and of the Christian God. The knowledge of the audiences allow both to ignore the preliminaries of explaining the religion. They are able to move directly into the defense of God. The second aspect of subject matter that they have in common is the intrinsically non-empirical nature of the objects that they set themselves out to defend. This non-empirical nature of the primary deity makes it impossible to verify or falsify any part of the Trinity. Both philosophers have to make an assumption of faith at some point in their argument because of this non-observable nature.

With these three similarities in mind, we can examine the major difference between Saint Augustine and Pope John Paul II. In this paper, I will examine four areas. First, I will explain the style of the argument used by Saint Augustine. Secondly, I will explain the style of argument used by Pope John Paul II. Thirdly, I will point out some of the crucial differences between these two forms of arguments. Finally, I will give a possible cause for the differences that arise between these forms.

Saint Augustine and the Foreknowledge of God

The argument that is spelled out in Book V, section 9, of The City of God, is typical of the argument style that Saint Augustine uses throughout his writings. The example chosen is Saint Augustine's argument for God's knowledge of all events. We can see that he is greatly influenced by many of the writers, theologians, and philosophers prior to him, primarily Plato. He became acquainted with Plato's writing before he became a Christian. "Augustine's whole outlook was influenced by Plato's doctrines as they were transmitted to him through Plotinus. His encounter with these doctrines played a crucial role in his spiritual development."1 This influence does not manifest itself solely in Saint Augustine's view of the separation of the spiritual and the flesh; it also extends to the basic form of constructing an argument.

Saint Augustine starts his arguments by making reference to a past event or thinker that his audience will recognize. He starts off his discussion about the free will of humans and the foreknowledge of God with an examination of the debate between Cicero and the Stoics. During the preceding five sections Saint Augustine has dealt with the writings of Cicero. This style mirrors the dialogue structure of Plato. Polemarchus and Thrasymachus are introduced in the beginning of The Republic to serve the same function as Cicero. Both Plato and Saint Augustine establish an antagonist to refute. The second step in the argument is to briefly spell out the argument of the antagonist. The manner in which Cicero addresses the Stoics shows that he does not think he can overcome them unless he destroys their deity. He attempts to do this by denying that there is any knowledge of future things, either by man or God, and there is no prediction of events. This mimics Plato's technique of using a direct dialogue between Socrates and his opponent. Saint Augustine does not create a direct fictional dialogue, but rather recreates the popular argument.

The fundamental stage of their argument form comes next. Both Plato and Saint Augustine show the crucial errors in their opponents' arguments. These contradictions do not come in an empirical or experiential form, but rather in a purely theoretical form. They primarily rely on the readers' ability to follow an argument. Reason is the primary tool of falsification. In the case of Plato and Polemarchus, the contradiction comes with the conclusion that an act of justice will ultimately cause an injustice. The reductio ad absurdum is reached. This means that Polemarchus must, by any reasoned reader, be concluded wrong. In Saint Augustine's work, Cicero uses mathematics and the stars during his argument to show that there are many flaws in prediction. By the time that Saint Augustine wrote, most of the examples used by Cicero had been explained. The same events that Cicero wants to use as examples do nothing but strengthen Saint Augustine's argument. St. Augustine moves to point out the largest flaw in Cicero's attack. This is where Saint Augustine reaches his reductio ad absurdum. He takes Cicero's argument to the conclusion that either humans do not have free will or God is not omniscient. "For, to confess that God exists, and at the same time to deny that He has foreknowledge of future things, is the most manifest folly."2 Cicero saw this problem in his own argument. St. Augustine points out that Cicero had to make a critical decision here: either God's omnipotence must be compromised or humans' free will must. For Cicero, he sacrifices the power of God. He even points out that Cicero saw this problem. To Saint Augustine, this argument has reached an impasse.

The final stage in Platonic and Augustinian proof is to introduce their own argument. This argument must not fall into the same mistakes and contradictions that the antagonists' arguments did. St. Augustine is not prepared to make the sacrifice that Cicero made. He believes that he has shown the flaws in Cicero sufficiently. With this in mind he crushes free will and states: "Neither let us be afraid lest, after all, we do not do by will that which we do by will, because He, whose foreknowledge is infallible, fore knew that we would do it."3 Cicero had problems with the notion that free will is an illusion. To him, all of human life is "subverted"; human existence has nothing special involved. At this point Saint Augustine makes his jump to the radical conclusion. Even though God's foreknowledge of events is perfect, why must this mean that man does not have free will? He points out that Cicero makes a choice, between free will and God's omnipotence, that need not be made. "[T]he religious mind chooses both."4 Cicero spells out the problems with viewing the world in terms of both. Saint Augustine points out that foreknowledge and fate do not equal each other. Knowing the exact outcome of the future does not mean that you are controlling the events. God knowing what we will choose in no way means that we do not choose the event. Saint Augustine's conclusion is that fate and foreknowledge are not one in the same. This conclusion avoids all of the problems that his predecessor's had. Like Plato's, Saint Augustine's conclusion relies, for its validity, primarily on the ability of the reader to reason through the arguments that are presented.

Pope John Paul II & the Human Free Will

The style of argument becomes much different as we step out of the fifth century and move into the twentieth century to discuss the argument style of Pope John Paul II. Reason ceases to function as the only argument tool. Pope John Paul II opts for an argument style that is closely related to the scientific method. Though the scientific method is based on reason, reason is only one component to this structure. In a chapter entitled "Proof: is it still valid?" he directly spells out the nature of validity in twentieth century Catholic Church doctrine. Pope John Paul II stresses that all understanding must first come through an empirical means. The empirical level of understanding is the first step in understanding all things from biology to the scripture. "[H]uman knowledge is primarily a sensory knowledge."5 In order to understand any part of the world, we need to first observe it. Pope John Paul II calls this a form of empiricism 'cognitive realism'. "Cognitive realism ... agrees that ... 'nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses'"6 This sensory empiricism is fundamental to Pope John Paul II's arguments.

When Pope John Paul II makes his claim that humans have free will and God does have a knowledge of all events in the future he uses this sensory empirical knowledge as his starting point. His argument begins with an attempt to reach his readers' past experiences. These past experiences are evidence of a free will, though at this stage in the argument it might be an imagined free will. No matter the past situation of the readers, they have had to make a quantifiable choice in their past. The next part of the argument for free will comes through the responsibility of all humans. As with the example of choices, this part of the argument draws on the experiential aspect of the reader. Readers are to examine the situations around them and notice how they are responsible for others and how others are responsible for them. This responsibility starts with the people close to you expanding outward. This web of responsibility extends indefinitely with God at the pinnacle. "Man is free and therefore responsible. His is a personal and social responsibility, a responsibility before God, a responsibility which is his greatness."7

At this juncture in the Pope's style of proving an argument we see a radical change from pure empiricism, Because the Catholic faith relies, on a fundamental level, on intrinsically non-empirical entities, the pope cannot depend solely on the empirical justifications. How can a non-observable Holy Spirit be quantified? The answer to this is simple. Pope John Paul introduces a concept he refers to as 'transempirical knowledge' or 'global knowledge.' Transempirical knowledge is all knowledge that is more than just information that the senses bring to us. This is very similar to the primary premise of Gestalt theory of psychology that the whole is greater than the mere sum of the parts. A person can know arms, legs, and head but this knowledge does not entail an understanding of what a human is. It is true that our understanding of humans is greatly enhanced by the knowledge of the parts, but it is not dependent upon them. The more we move into the global understanding the greater our knowledge of things becomes. As Pope John Paul II puts it: "He knows ... extrasensory truths, or in other words, the transempirical. In addition, it is not possible to affirm that when something is transempirical it ceases to be empirical."8 Where does the transempirical manifest itself in Pope John Paul Il's proof for free will? It comes in a move to the level of reason without empirical evidence. In a world with no free will, there could be no responsibility. All responsibility rests on the ability to choose right from wrong. God could not have pre-determined the course of the universe prior to the individual decision between right and wrong. Pope John Paul II moves the reader back to the conclusion that, '[O]ne could say that God is paying for the great gift bestowed upon a being..."9 God has sacrificed part of his omnipotence to give humans the ability to have free will. But this sacrifice does not mean that God has lost all or even most of his splendor. In reality God has only put himself on the examination block by giving humans this ability. The ultimate control over humans is the only loss that God has sustained. Thus, the sensory empirical knowledge of the premises does not bring us to the final conclusion. Taking all of the parts together allows us to understand the whole better, but they are not enough to reach the conclusion.

How Different the Same can be

As we can see, there are many fundamental differences between Saint Augustine and Pope John Paul II. The first difference that manifests itself in the arguments of the two philosophers is the knowledge of the audience. As I mentioned earlier, they both assume a rudimentary knowledge of Christianity. The difference lies in the assumed educational level of the reader. Saint Augustine is assuming a high level of knowledge in his reader. The reader must, primarily, be able to follow a complex line of reasoning and come to the conclusion that Saint Augustine desires. This is a reliance on a reader that is strong in logic and reasoning. Pope John Paul II does not expect his readers to have this high of a level of knowledge. He only demands his audience to be able to see the outside world. From here be walks the reader through noticing the trends he wants and drawing the conclusions he wants. The requirement of a high level of knowledge is not necessary; the reader need only a pair of eyes and the ability to read.

The second difference in style is the use of empiricism as a starting place in the argument. We see that Saint Augustine uses empirical data only as example. He does not feel the necessity to start the foundation of each argument on the shoulders of quantifiable observables. Pope John Paul II believes that the primary place to start any discussion is in the empirical realm. As he mentioned in his text in multiple places, we can know nothing unless it first comes into our senses: "The fact that human knowledge is primarily a sensory knowledge surprises no one."10 This empirical beginning to his arguments is crucial. It is in the idea of the 'transempirical' that we move away from pure sensory data. To get past the empirical realm Pope John Paul II uses 'Global knowledge.' This escape from the empirical realm is still deeply rooted in it, though. To further our understanding of the non-empirical, is a way is deepen our understanding of the empirical.

The third difference between the two writings of the philosophers is Pope John Paul II's attempt to make his audience start their investigation with an open mind. He desires his audience to bring forth all of their arguments in order to clear their minds of any biases. This idea becomes clearest when we examine his approach to other religions. He states that people should not look at different religions with their religion in mind. This causes people to see only the differences. The important part of examining Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism is to look for the positives in each religion. This is a radical stance for the Pope to take. This implies that Catholicism brings in biases that make it impossible to understand other groups. These biases only hinder the advancements of his arguments. This open-minded approach appears many places in his writings. Saint Augustine does not explicitly wish for his audience to be open-minded. At no place in his attempts to refute the arguments of his predecessors does he ever fully expect his audience to be unbiased. His arguments are actually stronger when the reader first assumes that God exists and that Christianity is the 'right' religion.

The Rise of Objectivity

Pope John Paul II's argument style has several crucial flaws in it. No matter the effort that he puts into building a sound argument for the empirical nature of religion, he is still forced to sacrifice the whole empirical mission at some point. The very nature of an intrinsically non-observable God makes the pursuit of empirically proving God futile. He even subtly acknowledges this by bringing in the 'transempirical' side of his argument. 'Extrasensory knowledge' is aided by empirical grounds, but in no way is either dependent or necessitated by the empirical. In this way, Pope John Paul II's argument style is not like the scientific method which it tries to emulate. Regardless of this difference, the Pope does try to replicate it in his argument style. We must ask ourselves the fundamental question: why does Pope John Paul II try to imitate a style of argument that will not be sufficient for the object that he wishes to prove? I feel that a possible answer is rooted in the rise of science in our world culture and the rise of objectivity. These two events go hand-in-hand in many aspects, but they are not synonymous. In many instances we see advances in science as the driving force for advancing objectivity and in other cases the advances in objectivity as a driving force in the progression of science.

Lorraine Daston points out in her articles different forms of objectivity arose as a result of the collective need by scientists to escape the possibility of different forms of subjectivity. Science moved to hold three characteristics that are important for the examination of the two philosophers' argument styles. The first change was from the use of empirical evidence as examples to the use of empirical evidence as the primary source of theories. Prior to Bacon scientists do not use facts to prove arguments, instead they use reason alone. "Galileo is even more dubious than Aristotle that experience alone can lead us to certainty, and he uses his images to explain and illustrate, very seldom to prove."11 The majority of Galileo's, and contemporaries, experiments were purely thought experiments. The reader was to imagine the event instead of trying to reproduce it. This is to change in 1605 with Francis Bacon. The desire to separate theory from facts becomes important. Bacon provided a "freedom from theoretical bias"12 with his introduction of reproducible facts as the basis of his arguments. We can see Saint Augustine's progression of theories as very similar to Galileo's. Saint Augustine only uses facts as a way to illustrate, not to prove. Pope John Paul II stands as an example of the form of argument after Bacon. The use of empirical facts as a fundamental starting place of the argument is an attempt to cleave theoretical biases from facts.

The second important aspect in the rise of objectivity and science is the attempt to move from the knowledgeable theorists to the average person. As Daston puts it:

Skill did not fit comfortably into the enlarged, collective science of the latter half of the nineteenth century, for at least two reasons: first it was rare and expensive and therefore could not be expected of all scientific workers; and second, it could be communicated at best with difficulty, if at all.13
This lack of skill equates into the need for parts of an experiment to be broken into its smallest workable components, This allowed for workers to be taught little of the experiment. The advantage of this is a further cleaving of the theory from the steps of the experiment. With the workers not knowing the theory, how could they view the experiment with any theoretical bias. Pope John Paul II does the same thing with his argument form. He breaks the theory into as small of a workable part as possible. This is a move to separate the facts from the theory. From here he places the pieces together slowly to give the impression that the theory is still removed from the facts. This is unlike the writings of Saint Augustine. He has no obligation to break the argument down into untheoretical components. Instead, he anticipates his reader to be well versed in reasoning.

The third difference between Pope John Paul II and Saint Augustine also parallels the rise of objectivity. Pope John Paul II wishes for his audience to be unbiased. This will enable them to have a better understanding of his arguments. This is similar to the rise of unbiasness in 'objective' science. One of the many definitions of objectivity is an unbiased approach to a theory or event. This keeps the personal prejudices and personal theories from getting in the way. A person gains a much greater understanding of a competing or new theory by first entering the examination with an open-mind. This is identical to the way that Pope John Paul II wants his readers to approach his theories. Saint Augustine does not require this removal of biases. In fact, the biases of the reader only help his proofs.

Just because science has moved to an attempt to be more objective, why does Christianity feel the need to follow suit? The answer to this lies in some respect in the works of Paul Feyerabend. He maintains that science has no more of a grasp on reality than any other ideology, including Christianity. The problem, as he sees it, is that science has risen to the top of the pile of ideologies. The world has started to view itself in terms of science. What does this have to do with the forms of argument for Christian writers? The answer is simple. In order to compete with the leading ideology, it must play by that ideology's rules. Saint Augustine's argument form does not go against the standard practice of his era, Pope John Paul II, likewise, conforms to the standard practice of our time, science. just as the heretics that tried to play by the Catholic's rules in the Middle Ages, religion must conform or be ignored. Religion must follow suit with science. If it does not, all of the people that have been indoctrinated by the ideology of science will simply discount it.


1 Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self. p. 127.
2 St. Augustine. The City of God. p. 152.
3 ibid, p. 153.
4 ibid.
5 John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 33.
6 ibid.
7 ibid, p.180.
8 ibid, p. 34.
9 ibid, p. 64.
10 ibid, p. 33.
11 Daston, Lorraine. "Baconian Facts, Academic Civility and the Prehistory of Objectivity" in Allan Megill ed; Rethinking Objectivity. p. 43.
12 ibid, p. 47.
13 Daston, Lorraine. "Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective" in Symposium on 'Social History of Objectivity'. p. 611.


Saint Augustine of Hippo. The City of God. trans. Marcus Dods, D.D. New York: The Modem Library, 1993.
Daston, Lorraine. "Baconian Facts, Academic Civility, and the Prehistory of Objectivity" in Rethinking Objectivity. ed. by Allan Megill. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994.
Daston, Lorraine. "Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective" in Symposium on 'Social History of Objectivity'. Vol. 22. London: SAGE, 1992.
Pope John Paul II. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. ed. Vittorio Messori. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 191 4. Pope John Paul II. The Gospel of Life. Vatican City Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995. Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989.

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