Category Archives: Christian Classics

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.