Reflections on Augustine’s Confessions, Book III

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April 9, 2014 by mattwilcoxen

Augustine_Confessiones“Was that life I led any life at all, O my God?”

In book 2 Augustine described his captivity to what we might call “the lusts of the flesh” and “the pride of life” (cf. 1 John 2). As he begins book 3 he completes the trifecta, interpreting his infatuation with theatrical shows as his “lust of the eyes”.

Augustine ponders what it is that he loved in the theatre, since the shows he watched were sad and tragic. Why is it, he wonders, that one can love to watch things that one would never want to take place in their own life? In fact, the quality of these shows is often determined by how convincingly sad they are. This seems to be in contradiction with the basic premise of eudaimonism: namely, that everyone wants to be happy. Augustine’s conclusion about this situation is twofold. First, the self-indulgence involved in the theatre is a human parody of divine mercy: whereas God alleviates sorrow without being made sorrowful, we are made sorrowful by other people’s sorrow, without lifting a finger to alleviate it. Second, he says that the theatre allows one to indulge one’s inner lusts without having to endure all the sorrow that would come along with actualizing those desires.

As Augustine lived in this way and pursued his academic career, he had to read Cicero’s Hortensius. He was supposed to learn style from it, but the substance caught his eye. It talked about pursuing wisdom itself, for it’s own sake. Augustine was awakened by philosophy, but his Christian past apparently told him that wisdom should be pursued through Christ. So he turned back to the Bible, but he found it, well, aesthetically deficient in comparison to the works he had been reading. It was evidently unsophisticated in both style and content. He turned away.

The Manichees offered Augustine what appeared to be a unique combination of having Christ and having philosophical sophistication. The Manichees posed the theodicy to Christians: either your God is completely good but not all-powerful (since evil competes with him) or your God is all-powerful but not completely good (since he must have created evil). They “solved” this predicament with a cosmic dualism that saw good and evil as eternally competing forces. They also denounced the Old Testament entirely: its picture of God was too anthropomorphic and it was full of moral crudities, they alleged.

At this point, Augustine anticipates what he will later learn more about: the nature of God as That-Which-Is, a definition that under girds his notion of evil as privation, or non-existence. He will embrace a metaphysics in which evil is parasitic on good. A further entailment of what he will learn about God is that God is eternal and unchanging, but that creation is mutable and ever-changing. This means two things: (a) God’s eternal will can be instantiated in different ways depending on the context into which it is instantiated, and (b) God’s one eternal will has its temporal form unfolded piece-by-piece. Both of these insights will allow him to put the discontinuities between the OT and the NT into a wider metaphysical framework.

As Augustine begins his nine-year sojourn with the Manichees, his mother, Monica is distraught. She walks through a veil of tears. Yet Augustine again anticipates, telling us how she was buoyed by a dream of his conversion, and the reassurances of a sage Christian bishop. (Note: Monica is now described by Augustine as a “widow” with no mention whatsoever of his father’s death!)

Augustine’s time with the Manichees may seem relevant only as a piece of historical knowledge, but it also points up the need to think carefully about what we might call the divine nature. Augustine’s deepest issue, we will learn later, is that he needed to be converted. However, there was a “defeater belief” that in some sense was standing in the way. That defeater was an erroneous conception of what it would mean for God to be God. The Christianity Augustine encountered in North Africa was apparently of a naive sort, one that did not go beyond the crudist, most literal interpretation of scripture. Augustine will later learn, not to contradict, but to go much deeper than the literal interpretation. He will learn to read theologically.

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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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