Confessions of St Augustine – Chapter 6

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_St_Augustine“Rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” -Proverbs 9:8

Chapter 6 follows Augustine through a period of his life when he was particularly depressed. His faith in Manichaeism had unraveled, and he was beginning to doubt that he would ever find answers. The chapter does a great job of conveying the sense of despair that hung around him and his companions during this time. This is Augustine’s dark night of the soul; soon to be swept away by his conversion.

Ambrose

A significant event here is that Augustine meets Ambrose, who is to become his mentor and spiritual father. Importantly for Augustine, Ambrose introduces him to the concept of interpreting scripture allegorically:

First of all, his ideas had already begun to appear to me defensible; and the Catholic faith, for which I supposed that nothing could be said against the onslaught of the Manicheans, I now realized could be maintained without presumption. This was especially clear after I had heard one or two parts of the Old Testament explained allegorically — whereas before this, when I had interpreted them literally, they had “killed” me spiritually.

A particular turning point comes with Augustine’s revisit of the passage in Genesis where God makes man “in His own image.” Previously, Augustine had assumed that this must mean that Christians believe God is trapped inside a human body of His own; now he realized that this was more commonly understood to refer to a spiritual image, even though he wasn’t entirely clear on what this meant. He began to suspect that other “knotty” passages in scripture may hide deeper meanings as well.

The Laughing Beggar

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” -John Stuart Mill

The story of the laughing beggar (page 102) plunged Augustine even further into depression. I don’t think I can add anything to the text itself, so here it is:

While walking along one of the streets of Milan, I saw a poor beggar — with what I believe was a full belly — joking and hilarious. And I sighed and spoke to the friends around me of the many sorrows that flowed from our madness, because in spite of all our exertions — such as those I was then laboring in, dragging the burden of my unhappiness under the spur of ambition, and, by dragging it, increasing it at the same time — still and all we aimed only to attain that very happiness which this beggar had reached before us; and there was a grim chance that we should never attain it! For what he had obtained through a few coins, got by his begging, I was still scheming for by many a wretched and tortuous turning — namely, the joy of a passing felicity. He had not, indeed, gained true joy, but, at the same time, with all my ambitions, I was seeking one still more untrue.

If the beggar had asked me whether I would prefer to be in his merry state or my own fearful one, I would have answered that I would rather be merry. On the other hand, if he asked whether I would rather be a beggar like him, I should say that I would choose to be myself, even though worn out with cares and fears. But was that poor judgment and was it the truth? Shouldn’t I prefer to be like him? I had more knowledge than he, but no joy in all my pursuits. I was robbed of my joy because I sought to please men by impressive deeds.

The joy of a faithful hope lies very far from a scholar’s egotism. That was why the beggar had moved beyond where I was. He was happier because he was thoroughly drenched in mirth, while I wasn’t because I was hollow inside with cares. He had gotten precisely what he wanted in the wine. I listened to lies and sought empty, head-swelling praise.

Do you like gladiator movies?

“What make resisting temptation difficult for most people is that they don’t want to discourage it completely.” -Franklin P. Jones

This chapter also digresses into some stories of those close to Augustine, and there is a parallel theme in both Monica and Alypius’s stories. Both had a bad habit, and both give it up after correction. Monica makes offerings at the tombs of martyrs (Page 98); Alypius is addicted to gladiatorial games. Alypius’s story is especially interesting, because it serves to illustrate how he tries (and fails) to overcome his sinful ways on his own power, but is able to do so instantly once God intervenes. Monica, who has already submitted herself to God’s will, has no such struggle.

Alypius’s method of dealing with temptation will no doubt be familiar to all of us (Pages 105-108). At first, he hates the gladiator fights. But, when a group of his friends go to the circus games, he allows them to bodily drag him along with him, while loudly proclaiming that he will be mentally absent. He then sits there in the crowd with his eyes closed, trying to block everything out. Then, he allows himself just a little a peek, confident that he will “remain aloof from whatever evil was before him.” Before long, he is caught up in the excitement with all the rest, and after that, even tried to draw others into attending the games. Their hold is finally broken on him when Augustine makes an offhand comment mocking the games, which Alypius takes to heart.

Assignment

Read to page 150, along with the supplemental story of Augustine’s conversion.

The Telos of Kitty Cats

Cat have I loved, but dog have I hated.My cat, Plato, died this month of sudden heart failure. One moment he was eating supper, the next his body was sprawled on the ground, and he was gone. At least he died doing what he loved.

Plato was a good cat.

But what does that mean? He never donated large sums to charity, or prevented a robbery, or saved a life, or bequeathed deep wisdom, or even earned a paycheck. He wasn’t even exceptional looking; that is an actual picture of him there, but you could be forgiven for having thought it was a stock cat photo. If I lived the life Plato did, I would be considered a shiftless bum.

But Plato was not a human. He was a cat, and he was a good one.

Plato’s namesake gave us a concept known as telos. A thing’s telos is its goal or purpose. Everything has a telos, and different types of things have different teloses. Spoons, forks, trees, mice, men, and women are each different things with different purposes. Traits that make one of those things good may very well make another one bad. When Paul speaks of the many parts of the body, he is describing exactly this diversified community of telos. God made different things for different ends, and He will only expect from them in proportion to what they have been given.

Plato was a cat, and he was a good one. When we visited to the animal rescue, we only intended to take home his sister. He took it upon himself to curl up in my lap and purr himself to sleep. That earned him a home, and he never tired of earning his keep, filling my empty lap whenever it was possible, and often making a strong attempt even when it wasn’t possible. He liked gazing out the window at the birds, squeaking at them and dreaming of fresh food. On a few lucky occasions he found and dispatched mice which were making their homes where they shouldn’t have. When I worked from home, he would brave a dog 4 times his size in order to be near me. When I went to bed, he would lie on my chest and purr some more. When it grew cold, he would climb underneath the covers and form his own tiny warm cave.

I do not know if animals go to Heaven. I hope, and even suspect, that they do, but I have no real data to work from. But I do know that Plato was a good cat, and our lives were better for having him in it. Plato loved us, and I credit it to him as righteousness.

Rest in peace, kitten.

Deconstruction of Sesame Street monsters

Sunny Days would make a good name for a mental institution. Coincidence?Big Bird is schizophrenic. Elmo is a narcissist. Grover’s a megalomaniac. Cookie Monster is a binge eater. Oscar is a hoarder, Bert has Asperger’s, Ernie has ADD, The Count has OCD, and Aloysius Snuffleupagus is severely depressed (probably because his parents divorced).

Every Sesame Street monster embodies some form of personality disorder. But why would we choose such a cast for a beloved children’s show?

To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales do not tell children monsters exist. Children already know that monsters exist. Fairy tales teach children that monsters can be killed.” Haven’t you ever wondered why it is that a children’s show stars monsters? Monsters aren’t generally considered to be cute and cuddly; if your child says that there is a monster under the bed, they think it wants to eat them, not sing the ABCs.

Sesame Street episodes are our modern day fairy tales. And the monsters are a warning.

They weren’t always monsters, you see. They used to be children.

The mental age of your average Sesame Street monster ranges from 3 to 6. Haven’t you ever wondered where their parents are? Sure, we often hear them speak of mommies (and very rarely daddies), but we almost never see them.

Every one of these characters has some terrible flaw that they let grab control of their life. It ultimately grew so large that it drove a wedge between them and the rest of their families, and transformed them into something other than human.

Fairy Tales teach us that we can defeat external monsters. Sesame Street teaches us that we need to watch out for the monsters inside of us as well.

Confessions of St Augustine – Chapters 4-5

Augustine in his study“You shall have no other Gods before Me.” -Exodus 20:3

“Most men regard idolatry as being limited to these practices alone: burning incense, immolating a victim, giving a sacrificial banquet, or being bound to some sacred functions or priesthoods… [However, idolatry] can be practiced outside of a temple and without an idol.” – Tertullian, ca. 200 AD

“It became clear to him that no security can be found in this flood of Samsaric existence, and that the threat of death is ever-present.” -The Legend of Buddha Shakyamuni

Distractions

When we left our hero, he was grieving the death of his best friend. He was so upset that he even moved to Carthage to get away from places that would remind him of his old friend. Over time, he healed, and gathered a new, tight-knit circle of friends. However, looking back, Augustine does not see this as an unalloyed good:

For wherever the soul of man turns itself, unless toward thee, it is enmeshed in sorrows, even though it is surrounded by beautiful things outside thee and outside itself. For lovely things would simply not be unless they were from thee. … But far better than all this is He who made it all. He is our God and he does not pass away, for there is nothing to take his place. … You [God] alone cannot be lost; You alone are certain.

Ultimately even the good things in this world perish, so relying on them is foolish. Only God is lasting. It is important to keep in mind that Augustine does not condemn friendship, but rather treating friendship as an ultimate good. Even things which are good can be stumbling blocks if we allow them to take the place of God.

Fame and Folly

When he was 26 or 27, Augustine wrote a book called The Beautiful and the Fitting. He had already lost it by the time he wrote Confessions, which was apparently not much of a loss, because Augustine describes it as “miserable folly.” From his account, it was a mix of Manichean and Neo-Platonic philosophy.

Augustine dedicates the book to an orator who was famous at the time. However, Augustine himself actually knew nothing personally about this orator he admired, except that other people admired him (but they also knew nothing about him). Augustine’s vanity gets the best of him: he wants the man’s approval simply because he is famous, even though he may not be worthy of that fame. But Augustine doesn’t want just any fame; the kind of celebrity status enjoyed by actors and gladiators isn’t something he wants, even though he admires it in them. We saw a similar contradiction earlier, where Augustine realized that he enjoyed it when plays stirred up feelings that he hated in real life.

Smarts and Sanctification

Augustine continues to delve into philosophy, reading Aristotle’s Categories, and then trying to use it to understand God. However, because the categories are only good for understanding the created world, Augustine actually ends up moving further from the truth. He concludes that while intelligence is good, it is better to have faith without intelligence than intelligence without faith. This is similar to his thoughts on friendship; even good things become bad if they stand between us and God.

Near the end of this segment, Augustine meets Faustus, a prominent Manichean. Faustus is eloquent, but not all that smart. He doesn’t really know any more than the other Manicheans; he’s just better at saying them. This left Augustine thoroughly disillusioned with the religion, which now seemed utterly unable to resolve the problems he saw with it.

Assignment

Read to page 124. Augustine begins to move back towards Christianity in this section. There is an important theme developed in this section of knowing the right thing to do, but being unable to follow through with it, both in Augustine’s own life and the lives o those around him.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 3-4.5

Monica and Augustine“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” – I Corinthians 1:25

Now a young adult, Augustine travels to Carthage for what would be a rough equivalent of college. There, he discovers his love of philosophy, so it is fitting that this section ended up giving us several different things to ruminate on.

You don’t want no drama

Augustine was quite taken with the theater in his younger days, but looking back he views it as a great waste of time. He cannot seem to figure out why we would enjoy watching something that stirs up feelings that, in real life, we try to avoid:

But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters — whether historical or entirely imaginary — are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy. Tears and sorrow, then, are loved.

In our discussion, none of us were able to come up with an answer to this, even though none of us shared his dim view of the entertainment industry. Some did theorize that movies provide us with a release for some of our more negative emotions, preventing us from bottling them up, although this didn’t seem to quite cover things. If true, though, the ideal movie would run through all of the emotions.

The simple complexity of scripture

Reading Cicero gave Augustine a thirst for knowledge, and he turned back to the Bible to learn more. However, as a teacher who specialized in rhetoric, he found the language somewhat crude.

When I then turned toward the Scriptures, they appeared to me to be quite unworthy to be compared with the dignity of Tully [Cicero]. For my inflated pride was repelled by their style, nor could the sharpness of my wit penetrate their inner meaning. Truly they were of a sort to aid the growth of little ones, but I scorned to be a little one and, swollen with pride, I looked upon myself as fully grown.

One of the important features of Scripture is that it is accessible to even the simplest people; everybody is able to comprehend what is necessary for salvation. It’s interesting that Augustine actually viewed this as a mark against it; he was too proud to want to be part of something that was so accessible to even the uneducated. At the same time, looking back, he realizes that Scripture also went over his head. Underneath the simple message, there is more than enough meaning and wisdom that even two thousand years later people still haven’t finished penetrating its depths.

Unsaved loved ones

At this point in his life, Augustine had turned to Manichaeism, which caused extreme distress to his mother:

My mother, thy faithful one, wept to thee on my behalf more than mothers are accustomed to weep for the bodily deaths of their children. For by the light of the faith and spirit which she received from thee, she saw that I was dead.

This stood out as a rebuke to most of us, who have unsaved members of our own families, but not a similar level of distress. Augustine’s mother was eventually rewarded with a vision assuring her that he would rejoin her in the faith, a prophecy that took almost a decade to come true.

Baptism and death

One more incident stood out to me in this section. Augustine’s best friend falls sick. Augustine had previously converted this friend to Manichaeism, but while he was unconscious and near-death, his presumably Christian family has him baptized. Surprisingly, this has a very marked effect on the friend when he temporarily revives:

For when, sore sick of a fever, he long lay unconscious in a death sweat and everyone despaired of his recovery, he was baptized without his knowledge. And I myself cared little, at the time, presuming that his soul would retain what it had taken from me rather than what was done to his unconscious body. It turned out, however, far differently, for he was revived and restored. Immediately, as soon as I could talk to him — and I did this as soon as he was able, for I never left him and we hung on each other overmuch — I tried to jest with him, supposing that he also would jest in return about that baptism which he had received when his mind and senses were inactive, but which he had since learned that he had received. But he recoiled from me, as if I were his enemy, and, with a remarkable and unexpected freedom, he admonished me that, if I desired to continue as his friend, I must cease to say such things.

All of which raises for us the issue of just what baptism is. Modern Protestants don’t usually take it very seriously, but historically baptism has been a very contentious issue. Lancaster itself was settled by the Anabaptists, who were regarded as heretics in large part because they felt that people should not be baptized until they were able to understand their creed. While many of us now regard baptism largely as a rite we undergo because God commanded it, previous ages viewed it as having almost mystical powers, a view that seems supported by this story.

The friend died not long after, plunging Augustine into a great depression. Everything “looked like death” to him now, and seemed pointless. Augustine continues to delve into this in the next section.

Assignment

Read through page 90, which will take you most of the way through Book 5. The first half of this section departs from autobiography and delves more into theology, dwelling particularly on how even good things like friendship can distract us from God. He also discusses the first books he wrote (he finds them foolish now), and we learn more about his interactions with the Manichaeans.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 1-2

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” -Psalm 51:5

The Innocence of Infants

Augustine starts his biography with his time as a baby (he actually goes even earlier, wondering if he had an existence before he was even conceived). Though he doesn’t remember this directly, he is able to deduce what he must have been like from his observations of other babies. The inherent sinfulness of man is a repeated theme in the first two chapters, and Augustine finds sin even in babies. He describes the selfishness he observes in them, and concludes that babies aren’t innocent, so much as they are weak. They struggle hard to hurt those who care for them whenever they don’t get what they want, but lack the strength to inflict any damage.

Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast. … Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults, or even small faults, but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.

Education before virtue

Though Monica is now regarded as a saint, she was far from perfect. We get the impression that she only awakened slowly to the importance of raising her son up with a solid Christian foundation, and she of course had no help from her non-Christian husband:

My Father had no concern as to how I grew towards you, or how chaste I was, as long as I was skillful in speech, however fruitless I might have been your cultivation of my heart, which is your field, O God. Although my mother had no fled out of the “center of Babylon,” she still went more slowly in the skirts of it. She advised me to be chaste, but paid no heed to what her husband had told her about me, so as to restrain within the bounds of married love what she felt to be presently destructive and dangerous for the future. She did not heed this, for she feared that a wife might prove a clog an hindrance to my hopes -not the hopes of the world to come, which my mother had in you, but the hopes of education, which both my parents were too anxious for me to acquire- my father because he had little or no thought of you and only vain thoughts for me, and my mother because she thought that the usual courses of learning would not only be no drawback, but even of some help towards my attaining you. And my iniquity grew enormous.

Don’t we do the same thing when prioritize sending our kids through college over getting them married?

The Great Pear Heist

Pears
Augustine’s view of himself doesn’t improve as he ages. As he describes his early years, he focuses particularly on an incident where he and a group of his friends steal some pears.

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.

Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears. I stole those simply that I might steal, for, having stolen them, I threw them away. My sole gratification in them was my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy; for, if any one of these pears entered my mouth, the only good flavor it had was my sin in eating it.

The incident is notable to him because he can come up with no justification for the theft. He wasn’t hungry, and he had better pears at home. Apparently, the only reason he stole was to do something wrong. Each of us have also done the same thing (for example, any time you’ve intentionally annoyed somebody simply to get a reaction out of them). He uses this as a starting point to explore both the nature of sin, especially how it usually consists in (poorly) imitating some aspect of God, and his own sinful nature. The entire section is well worth reading.

Augustine notes other ways in which his sense of morality was deficient as well. He liked to cheat at games, but then get very indignant when he caught somebody else cheating. Since he was just as prone to cheat, he really had no basis to complain when the same was done to him. We are all prone to being far more forgiving of our own sins than those of others.

Assignment

Read through page 56, which is equivalent to about halfway through Book 4. He begins to stray. Look out for the following:

  • Augustine develops a love of the theater, something he now regrets. What do you think of his view of fiction?
  • Augustine investigates astrology, but finds it lacking.
  • Augustine’s mother, who has grown fearful for his salvation, has a vision.
  • Augustine’s best friend died young. How does this affect him?

Confessions of St Augustine – Introduction

Augustine“The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” -Benjamin Warfield, Calvin and Augustine

Welcome, brave readers! For the next two months, we’re going to plunge into one of the oldest and most significant Christian writings, written by and about one of the most significant Christians: The Confessions of St. Augustine. Read along at home, and then show up to the class where we’ll discuss it in depth (or read along at home and telecommute to class when I post my notes online).

Why Augustine?

The modern church is woefully ignorant of its history and roots. To most of us, Christian history consists of the following: Jesus came, died, and rose again. Then Acts happened. Then Catholicism messed things up and the Reformation happened. And then our church was formed.

It is necessary to study those who came before us, both to understand who we are, and to get grounding for our beliefs. Augustine is a good starting point for a number of reasons. He is the first major Christian thinker after Paul (in fact, he is probably also the most important Christian thinker after Paul). Also importantly, he predates the major controversies which still split the church today, so nearly every denomination from Protestants to Catholics are happy to claim him. If you find an idea in Augustine, it may well be wrong, but it’s probably not heretical.

Augustine’s influence stretches throughout history; some even credit him with laying thr groundwork for the Reformation. Martin Luther was himself an Augustinian monk, and both he and Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other theologian. In turn, during the Counter-Reformation, St Teresa of Avila was inspired by her reading of Augustine’s Confessions to become a Carmelite nun, an order which she then undertook to reform. The theology he laid out still shapes our thinking today, and we can all stand to gain from reading his insights first-hand.

What to expect

We will be using a modern English, abridged version, and reading through the equivalent of 2 chapters each week. If you’re bold, feel free to get the full version, but try to stick with a modern English translation; many of the ones out there are essentially King James versions and can be very difficult to trudge through. The text is also available online in many places (even in the original Latin). If reading isn’t your thing, you can listen to it instead.

The first 9 chapters (they are usually referred to as “books”) of the Confessions are Augustine’s autobiography. The last 3 delve into philosophical issues, such as the nature of time, memory, and the creation of the world. Each chapter begins with a prayer to God, which may seem a little unusual to our modern sensibilities. In fact, the whole book is really a prayer to God (hence the title; Augustine is confessing to God and we’re just listening in).

Background

Augustine lived from 354-430AD. He was born less than 50 years after Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious tolerance, ending the extremely vicious persecution that had been prosecuted against Christians before then. (For comparison, if you were born in the 1980s, about the same length of time separates you and the Holocaust). He was born in Africa, in what is now Algeria, back when it was still part of the Roman empire, and was of Berber descent. His mother was a Christian; his father was a non-observant pagan (although he converted shortly before his death). The family was middle class, with enough money to give Augustine a good education (he later went on to become a teacher).

Though he was ostensibly raised as a Christian, it didn’t take, and as a youth he left it for Manichaeism. Manichaeism, then about 150 years old, was one of the more influential of the Gnostic religions that were cropping up at the time. In answer to the problem of evil, it posited a dualistic world, with both a Good God and an Evil God. The Good God was identified with light and the spiritual realm; the physical world was the domain of the Evil God. Humans had a soul made by the Good God, but it was trapped inside the evil body that belonged to the Bad God.

Manichean followers were divided into two groups: the hearers and the elect. The elect had to follow a life of extreme asceticism: they were completely celibate, could eat no meat, or even kill plants for food. They were entirely dependent on the hearers to cook and provide for them. When taking a meal, the elect would ritualistically deny all responsibility for having killed the wheat to make it. This would then allow them to ascend to the spiritual realm upon their death, while the hearer who had made the meal would have to do penance in the form of being reincarnated as a vegetable themselves in their next life.

The rules for hearers were much less stringent, and it was this group that Augustine belonged to. Not only were they allowed to marry; Augustine himself lived with a woman without marrying her for over a decade, and even had a son with her, without raising any eyebrows. He stayed with the sect for 8 years, but eventually became disillusioned with their hypocrisy and false claims of knowledge. He converted to Christianity and eventually became a bishop, and played a pivotal role in the Pelagian Controversy, dealing with Donatism, and picking up the pieces from the sack of Rome.

Assignment

For next week, read up to page 30, which corresponds to the first 2 chapters, and covers Augustine’s childhood. Keep an eye out for the following:

  • Though he doesn’t remember his own time as a baby, Augustine uses his observations of other children to determine what he must have been like. Note Augustine’s view of a baby’s “innocence.” He takes a dim view of human nature even from birth, which is a significant part of Christian theology.
  • Augustine recounts a very famous incident where he stole pears from a neighbor’s tree. This was significant to him because he stole them not because he was hungry or they were especially good pears; he stole them solely because it was wrong to steal them. This also informs his views on the fallenness of human nature.

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