Podcast episode

Episode 180: Augustine of Hippo: Saint of the Exoteric

We discuss Augustine’s seminally-important Christian anti-esotericism. We start by reviewing some of the aspects of the Christian esoteric covered in the podcast so far, and then turn to how Augustine refutes, attacks, or otherwise manages these currents to create a position-statement whereby Christianity is a single, universal system of belief which has no secrets. Along the way we discuss the problem of esoteric scriptural hermeneutics in Orthodoxy (which Augustine just glides over without mentioning, for the most part), and the difference between an anti-esotericist position and an actual eschewing of esoteric methodologies. Augustine has the first, but he doesn’t really have the second, and in fact uses tries-and-true esoteric Christian methodologies in his framing of an allegedly non-esoteric Christianity.

Works Cited in this Episode:



  • De doct. Christ. I, 6. This passage perhaps echoes Plot. Enn. V.3[49]14.16-19: ἀλλά τι κρεῖττον τούτου, ὃ λέγομεν «ὄν», ἀλλὰ καὶ πλέον καὶ μεῖζον ἢ λεγόμενον, ὅτι καὶ αὐτὸς κρείττων λόγου καὶ νοῦ καὶ αἰσθήσεως, παρασχὼν ταῦτα, οὐκ αὐτὸς ὢν ταῦτα.
  • Sermons on the Gospel of John: the Gibbs and Innes translation is available online. Evil magical arts: 97.3; the allure of secrecy: 97.2. Hiding certain doctrines from the catechumens isn’t really secrecy: 96.3 ad fin.
  • ‘Physician-argument’ fior religious coercion: (summary by Christian Tornau in the Stanford Internet Encyclopædia of Philosophy: ‘Augustine’s intentionalism also provides him with arguments in favor of religious coercion. As the objective of right fraternal love is not the neighbor’s temporal well-being but his eternal happiness or salvation, we must not passively tolerate our fellow-humans’ sins but should actively correct them if we can; otherwise, our motivation would be inertia rather than love (In epistulam Iohannis ad Parthos tractatus decem 7.11; cf. Letter 151.11; Ad Simplicianum 1.2.18). Catholic bishops are therefore obliged to compel heretics and schismatics to re-enter the Catholic church even forcibly, just as a father beats his children when he sees them playing with snakes or as we bind a madman who otherwise would fling himself down a precipice (Letter 93.8; 185.7; and Letter 93.1–10 in general). Obviously, this is a paternalistic argument that presupposes superior insight in those who legitimately wield coercive power. While this may be acceptable in the case of the Church, which according to Augustine’s ecclesiology is the body of Christ and the embodiment of fraternal love, it turns out to be problematic when it is transferred to secular rulers (Augustine rarely does this, but cf. Letter 138.14–15). And as even the Church in this world is a mixed body of sinners and saints (see 8. History and Political Philosophy), it may be asked how individual bishops can be sure of their good intentions when they use religious force (Rist 1994: 242–245). Augustine does not address this problem, presumably because most of his relevant texts are propagandistic defenses of coercion against the Donatists.’


Henry Bettenson and David Knowles. Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. Penguin, 1977.

Bernard McGinn. The Foundations of Mysticism. Crossroads, New York, NY, 1991: ‘the most detailed and incisive investigation in Patristic writing of the dangers of esotericism’: p. 256. The legacy of Gnosticism an anti-esoteric-hermeneutics attitude among the Orthodox: p. 99.

Guy Stroumsa. Milk and Meat: Augustine and the End of Ancient Esotericism. In Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism, pages 132-46. Brill, Leiden, 1996; we quote p. 142.


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