Monday, November 22, 2010

Confessions – Book 7

This is part 7 of my notes on Augustine’s Confessions.

The Remnants of Augustine’s Materialism (7.1.1-7.2.3)

Augustine was but slowly working his way out of the materialism that remained from his days as a Manichee. Specifically, he knew that God was incorruptible – he couldn’t imagine a God that wasn’t – but he couldn’t imagine how God couldn’t be physical in some sense. Augustine simply couldn’t imagine a God who existed, but didn’t exist physically. That said, Augustine was well aware of the problems associated with the Manichaean materialism, including a dilemma proposed by his friend Nebridius. Basically, Nebridius’ point is that the Manichaean explanation for human beings has a hole in it. The world as we know it is a mixture of divine substance corrupted by exposure to matter. But how can this be, if God is truly immutable and incorruptible? The whole idea of God having to fight evil seems to imply that evil could do some harm to God, which would mean that God is not incorruptible – which was anathema to Augustine, as soon as he had put the question to himself clearly.

I should note that it’s precisely this question about the mode of God’s existence that Augustine is driving at back in book 1, during the long series of rhetorical questions with which he opens his work.

3. Since, then, thou dost fill the heaven and earth, do they contain thee? Or, dost thou fill and overflow them, because they cannot contain thee? And where dost thou pour out what remains of thee after heaven and earth are full? Or, indeed, is there no need that thou, who dost contain all things, shouldst be contained by any, since those things which thou dost fill thou fillest by containing them? For the vessels which thou dost fill do not confine thee, since even if they were broken, thou wouldst not be poured out. And, when thou art poured out on us, thou art not thereby brought down; rather, we are uplifted. Thou art not scattered; rather, thou dost gather us together. But when thou dost fill all things, dost thou fill them with thy whole being? Or, since not even all things together could contain thee altogether, does any one thing contain a single part, and do all things contain that same part at the same time? Do singulars contain thee singly? Do greater things contain more of thee, and smaller things less? Or, is it not rather that thou art wholly present everywhere, yet in such a way that nothing contains thee wholly?

It’s quite interesting to note that the questions which at one point kept him from the faith have here become rather a means for deepening it, a source of praise and wonder, rather than a lament.

  • Have you ever run into a Christian doctrine which, when you first heard it, seemed awkward and unpleasant, only to have it later become meaningful?

The Origin of Evil – Take 1 (7.3.4 – 7.5.7)

Augustine’s initial attempts to think through the problem of evil from a Christian perspective kept running up against the idea that our will didn’t appear to be completely free. He frequently found himself doing things that (at least in his better moments) he didn’t want to do: and he was mystified as to why that conflict would be present in him. How did it get there? The Manichaean answer – that human beings were made up of both divine and diabolical stuff – was no longer sufficient, but he didn’t have any better alternative.

Furthermore, his materialism exacerbated any attempt to find an answer. If both God and evil have a substantial, spatial existence, it’s quite impossible to maintain that God is truly good and all powerful. It’s also interesting to note that Augustine still seemed (at this stage) to think of evil as somehow originally bound up with matter: “Was there some evil matter out of which he made and formed and ordered [the world], but left something in his creation that he did not convert into good? But why should this be? Was he powerless to change the whole lump so that no evil would remain in it, if he is the Omnipotent?” This appears to be a remnant of his Manichaeism, which he hadn’t yet thoroughly purged from his thinking.

Astrology (7.6.8 – 7.6.10)

It seems like it took Augustine an astonishingly long time to grasp the principal problem with astrology: people born at exactly the same time have dramatically divergent fates. Not sure how that could have escaped his notice for so long.

Neoplatonism (7.7.11 – 7.10.16)

In the midst of this materialistic confusion, Augustine discovered the books of the Neo-Platonists (probably the Enneads of Plotinus, though we’re not sure), and his world was turned upside down. The Neo-Platonists had a simple argument against strict materialism: truth did not have a physical, spatial existence, yet who could doubt its existence? The same was true of thought, of love, and many other abstract concepts. The genius of this particular line of thought is that it tried to look at God in much the same way: all ideas and concepts can be subsumed under higher concepts, until you get to the one concept that holds all others, and that is God. Once Augustine found the Neo-Platonists, his materialism was gone forever.

Yet for all the influence that these philosophers had on him (and it seems that he devoured whatever of their writings he could get his hands on), he couldn’t give his heart to them: for they had nothing to say about Jesus. Augustine still wasn’t sure who Jesus was – but he was sure that he was important. And eventually it couldn’t help but strike him that everything he found valuable in the Neo-Platonists was itself already in Scripture; and that Scripture contained much more that attracted him.

And therein I found, not indeed in the same words, but to the selfsame effect, enforced by many and various reasons that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.” That which was made by him is “life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shined in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” Furthermore, I read that the soul of man, though it “bears witness to the light,” yet itself “is not the light; but the Word of God, being God, is that true light that lights every man who comes into the world.” And further, that “he was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” But that “he came unto his own, and his own received him not. And as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believed on his name” --this I did not find there.

In the end, Augustine was willing to borrow from the Neo-Platonists and other philosophers whenever he found them helpful, which was not infrequently. After all, “I had sought strenuously after that gold which thou didst allow thy people to take from Egypt, since wherever it was it was thine.”

One very interesting result that came from reading these philosophers is that Augustine appears to have had a mystical vision of some sort. “Being admonished by these books to return into myself, I entered into my inward soul, guided by thee… When I first knew thee, thou didst lift me up, that I might see that there was something to be seen, though I was not yet fit to see it. And thou didst beat back the weakness of my sight, shining forth upon me thy dazzling beams of light, and I trembled with love and fear.”

The Origin of Evil – Take 2 (7.11.17 – 7.16.22)

Armed with a variety of concepts borrowed from Neo-Platonic philosophy, Augustine made a second run at the problem of evil, this time with much more satisfactory results. Here Augustine makes his first profound contribution to Christian thought: all that is, is good, precisely because it is. Of course, it can be corrupted, either naturally, by returning to a state of nonbeing, or unnaturally, through evil. But to the extent that it is at all, it is good. With respect to Christian theology, this is a breakthrough quite as important as Newton and Leibnitz’ discovery of the integral calculus: it really is that big, and has had an impact on Christian theology every bit as large as calculus has had on mathematics and physics.

Augustine’s argument that being itself is good is interesting and subtle.

And it was made clear to me that all things are good even if they are corrupted. They could not be corrupted if they were supremely good; but unless they were good they could not be corrupted. If they were supremely good, they would be incorruptible; if they were not good at all, there would be nothing in them to be corrupted. For corruption harms; but unless it could diminish goodness, it could not harm. Either, then, corruption does not harm--which cannot be--or, as is certain, all that is corrupted is thereby deprived of good. But if they are deprived of all good, they will cease to be. For if they are at all and cannot be at all corrupted, they will become better, because they will remain incorruptible. Now what can be more monstrous than to maintain that by losing all good they have become better? If, then, they are deprived of all good, they will cease to exist. So long as they are, therefore, they are good. Therefore, whatsoever is, is good.

In other words, Augustine says, imagine an object, any object. Since I’m sitting on one, imagine a chair. And imagine all the goodness removed that chair through corruption, like a spiritual refrigerator: imagine it reaching a state of “absolute zero”, so that no good remains in that chair at all. Now, if all good has been removed from this chair, does the chair still exist? If it does still exist, but all good has been removed from it, this means that it can suffer no further corruption, which means that it is incorruptible. But for Augustine, this is absurd, because incorruptibility is not just a good, it’s the good. How could something that has had all good removed from it participate in the very best good of all? We must conclude, therefore, that if our chair has had every ounce of its good removed, it must also have had every ounce of its existence removed. In other words, existence is as necessarily connected to goodness in Augustine’s account, as energy is connected to matter in Einstein’s. And both connections are equally radical and world-shaking.

And of course, this was the (final) end of Augustine’s Manichaeism. The Manichees imagined evil as a substance with an independent, autonomous existence. Augustine now knew it for what it was: a parasite, entirely dependent on God’s sufferance, at most borrowing existence from God’s good creation.

One of the implications of this is that there is some good in all creation, even the “lower” parts that human beings find less congenial (such as snakes and mosquitoes). The fact that we don’t like them shows partially that our vision is finite, but also that our taste is corrupt. The point is that all things in creation harmonize with each other.

Holding Fast to Christ (7.17.23 – 7.21.27)

Despite the mystical vision of the intellect which Augustine had been granted, he found that he was unable to sustain that level of engagement with God.

And thus with the flash of a trembling glance, it arrived at that which is. And I saw thy invisibility [invisibilia tua] understood by means of the things that are made. But I was not able to sustain my gaze. My weakness was dashed back, and I lapsed again into my accustomed ways, carrying along with me nothing but a loving memory of my vision, and an appetite for what I had, as it were, smelled the odor of, but was not yet able to eat.

Specifically, Augustine says, he was unable to “connect” with God because his faith in Jesus was, at best, unformed. Jesus is the one is the mediator between God and man, the one who gives us access to God. However, Augustine didn’t yet understand this. He thought Jesus was merely a superlative human being, one who could show us the way to God, but not actually God. Against the Manichees, he had concluded that not only was Jesus’ body real, but also that Jesus was possessed of a human soul: for deciding and feeling are appropriate to the changeable human soul, not to God proper.

There’s an interesting note here in Alypius’ (initial) take on Catholic doctrine. He initially thought that Catholics taught that Jesus had a divine rather than a human soul, and he (quite rightly) disagreed with this, because it was clear that Jesus’ soul must have been human. However, it eventually became clear that the position with which he was disagreeing was not, in fact, the Catholic one, but rather that held by Apollinarius, who was declared a heretic. (The opposite heresy is that of Nestorianism, which holds that there are in fact two persons in Christ, not just two natures.)

The orthodox position is laid out in the Definition of Chalcedon:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

As Augustine sought more to understand who Jesus was, he was introduced to Paul’s writings, which was another turning point. Everything that he found attractive in the teaching of the Neoplatonists was present in Paul, along with a great deal more.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Confessions – Book 6

This is part 6 of my notes on Augustine’s Confessions.

Monica (6.1.1 – 2.2)

Monica was clearly a little out of her element when she arrived in Milan. She had come from northern Africa, where the Donatists remained very influential, and consequently where veneration of the saints was a much more prominent part of Christian faith and practice. Nevertheless, Augustine says, she managed to adapt to the practices of northern Italian Christianity without too much difficulty. Ambrose had put strict limitations on the practice of venerating the saints, for at least two reasons that Augustine alludes to, and perhaps for a third: (1) It tended to encourage drunkenness; (2) it could easily be mistaken for pagan ancestor worship; and (3) it tended to slide too much towards the Donatist positions.

  • What do you think of the current Catholic practice of venerating the saints, whether Mary or St. Francis or any of the others? Do you think it’s OK to pray to the saints?

The Influence of Ambrose (6.3.3 – 6.5.8)

As Augustine spent more time listening to Ambrose, he began to move closer toward Catholic Christianity. Under the influence of Ambrose’s preaching, Augustine realized that he had been badly misinformed on what Christians actually believed. For instance, referring back to the verse in Genesis where God creates man “in His image”, the Manicheans had apparently told him that Christians believed God had a physical body. Augustine was both relieved and mortified to realize that this charge, which he had himself leveled repeatedly, was not accurate.

  • Have you ever badly misunderstood a point of Christian doctrine? How did you feel once you had it better explained to you?

In addition, Ambrose employed a very different method of explicating Scripture than Augustine had previously been exposed to. Eventually this worked its way out to a “fourfold sense” of Scripture, which remained the standard medieval doctrine, pretty much up until Luther. Augustine’s basic doctrine of Scriptural interpretation, which presumably had its roots in Ambrose, was not quite so convoluted as this. Rather, he said (in On Christian Doctrine):

“The end of the Law, and of all Holy Scripture, is love… Whoever then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception…. Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether.”

In addition, like St. Paul, Augustine believed that it was legitimate to interpret Scripture allegorically. To take one example, again from On Christian Doctrine:

Why is it, I ask, that if any one says that there are holy and just men whose life and conversation the Church of Christ uses as a means of redeeming those who come to it from all kinds of superstitions, and making them through their imitation of good men members of its own body; men who, as good and true servants of God, have come to the baptismal font laying down the burdens of the world, and who rising thence do, through the implanting of the Holy Spirit, yield the fruit of a two-fold love, a love, that is, of God and their neighbor;--how is it, I say, that if a man says this, he does not please his hearer so much as when he draws the same meaning from that passage in Canticles, where it is said of the Church, when it is being praised under the figure of a beautiful woman, "Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are shorn which came up from the washing, whereof every one bears twins, and none is barren among them?"

  • How do you deal with the difficult passages in Scripture? Which passages bother you the most?

Augustine also determined at this point that the εποχη advocated by the skeptics and academics was harder to carry out than it would seem. “My desire was to be as certain of invisible things as I was that seven and three are ten.” For he could not be mathematically confident even of the identity of his parents: yet he had to live as if he did know. In the same way, he could not achieve mathematical certainty about any of the philosophical and theological questions which beset him – but he could quite probably arrive at a reasonable certainty. And at any rate, it simply wasn’t possible to live with all judgment suspended on these questions. Augustine had never ceased to believe that God existed; and he slowly became convinced that this God would not have allowed these Scriptures to attain such authority through all nations if there were not something to them.

  • How confident are you that Christianity is true? Why do you believe it?

Ambition and Marriage (6.6.9 – 6.13.23)

Even as Augustine began to work his way up in the circles of the court, he became more and more conflicted about his career choice. He had tasted the good life and wanted more of it: but he was more and more aware that true happiness was not to be found in the pursuit of worldly pleasures, whether the lawful or the unlawful sort.

This particular section is, in some ways, oddly disjointed. At some points, he indicates that he despised the pursuit of trivial pleasures during this point in his life; at others, he indicates that he honored them. Probably this reflects the actual disorder in his mind, the cognitive dissonance he felt between the high honors he was pursuing at court and the moral compromises he was forced to make as a result.

The distress and confusion Augustine felt during this period is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in 6.11.18 – 20, an astonishing (and astonishingly disjointed) passage that nevertheless resonates even today:

O you mighty Academics, is there no certainty that man can grasp for the guidance of his life? No, let us search the more diligently, and let us not despair. See, the things in the Church’s books that appeared so absurd to us before do not appear so now, and may be otherwise and honestly interpreted. I will set my feet upon that step where, as a child, my parents placed me, until the clear truth is discovered. But where and when shall it be sought? Ambrose has no leisure--we have no leisure to read. Where are we to find the books? How or where could I get hold of them? From whom could I borrow them? Let me set a schedule for my days and set apart certain hours for the health of the soul. A great hope has risen up in us, because the Catholic faith does not teach what we thought it did, and vainly accused it of. Its teachers hold it as an abomination to believe that God is limited by the form of a human body. And do I doubt that I should ‘knock’ in order for the rest also to be ‘opened’ unto me? My pupils take up the morning hours; what am I doing with the rest of the day? Why not do this? But, then, when am I to visit my influential friends, whose favors I need? When am I to prepare the orations that I sell to the class? When would I get some recreation and relax my mind from the strain of work?

19. “Perish everything and let us dismiss these idle triflings. Let me devote myself solely to the search for truth. This life is unhappy, death uncertain. If it comes upon me suddenly, in what state shall I go hence and where shall I learn what here I have neglected? Should I not indeed suffer the punishment of my negligence here? But suppose death cuts off and finishes all care and feeling. This too is a question that calls for inquiry. God forbid that it should be so. It is not without reason, it is not in vain, that the stately authority of the Christian faith has spread over the entire world, and God would never have done such great things for us if the life of the soul perished with the death of the body. Why, therefore, do I delay in abandoning my hopes of this world and giving myself wholly to seek after God and the blessed life?

“But wait a moment. This life also is pleasant, and it has a sweetness of its own, not at all negligible. We must not abandon it lightly, for it would be shameful to lapse back into it again. See now, it is important to gain some post of honor. And what more should I desire? I have crowds of influential friends, if nothing else; and, if I push my claims, a governorship may be offered me, and a wife with some money, so that she would not be an added expense. This would be the height of my desire. Many men, who are great and worthy of imitation, have combined the pursuit of wisdom with a marriage life.”

20. While I talked about these things, and the winds of opinions veered about and tossed my heart hither and thither, time was slipping away. I delayed my conversion to the Lord; I postponed from day to day the life in thee, but I could not postpone the daily death in myself. I was enamored of a happy life, but I still feared to seek it in its own abode, and so I fled from it while I sought it. I thought I should be miserable if I were deprived of the embraces of a woman, and I never gave a thought to the medicine that thy mercy has provided for the healing of that infirmity, for I had never tried it. As for continence, I imagined that it depended on one’s own strength, though I found no such strength in myself, for in my folly I knew not what is written, “None can be continent unless thou dost grant it.”168

  • How do you deal with all the conflicting claims on your time, attention and effort? How can God help to bring order to these conflicting claims?

One interesting note: in his late 20’s, largely at his mother’s urging, he became engaged to a girl who was not yet old enough to marry. Since the legal age of marriage was 12, this presumably means that she was only 10 years old. This also had the side-effect of Augustine dismissing his concubine, and sending her back to Africa, without even her son to accompany her. It’s uncertain why he did this, since he was obviously torn up horribly about it: “My mistress was torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, and my heart which clung to her was torn and wounded till it bled.” Perhaps his mistress was from another class, perhaps even a slave? Or perhaps she had tired of Augustine’s pursuit of philosophy and ambition more than her, and the choice to leave was as much hers as Augustine’s. Whatever the reasons for her departure, however, Augustine was notoriously unable to maintain continence even for two years, and quickly took another mistress (of whom nothing more is said).

  • What do you think of Augustine for sending away his concubine?
  • Augustine was conflicted about marriage: it was a path towards lawful sexual fulfillment, but it also promised to interfere with his pursuit of philosophy. In this he echoes St. Paul in 1 Cor. 7. What is your take on marriage? What are the upsides and the downsides to it?

Alternatives (6.14.24 – 6.16.26)

As empty as the pursuit of worldly pleasures and ambitions was proving to be, Augustine was confounded in his search for any alternative. Marriage, he suspected, would be just as much a snare as his concubine had been. He wanted to live with his friends in a sort of proto-monastic commune, pursuing philosophy and supported by rich sponsors, and they had almost decided to start one when someone pointed out, “What do you think our wives will feel about this?” It’s almost comical that in all their planning, this question had never bothered to cross anybody’s mind.

The two sides of Augustine’s mind during this period are expressed well by his claim that Epicurus’ account of human happiness seemed the best – except that Epicurus left out any possibility of the afterlife, and Augustine was convinced of its reality.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Confessions – Book 5

Post #5 in my series of notes on Augustine’s Confessions.

Predestination (5.1.1 – 5.2.2)

Augustine’s strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty (and corresponding grace) was at the heart of the theology of Martin Luther and especially John Calvin. Augustine developed this theology most fully in his debates with the Pelagians later in his life, but it is apparent even in earlier works like The Confessions.

For the closed heart does not bar thy sight into it, nor does the hardness of our heart hold back thy hands, for thou canst soften it at will, either by mercy or in vengeance, “and there is no one who can hide himself from thy heat.”

  • Do you agree with this perspective? If God can soften our hearts or harden them, does that mean that God picks and chooses favorites? On what basis does God pick some people vs. others? Does this make God in some sense responsible for sin?

The Natural Sciences (5.3.3 – 5.4.7)

We should remember that the ancients knew a great deal more about the structure of the natural world that we sometimes give them credit for. For instance, they were also able to predict certain very mysterious events, such as lunar and solar eclipses. They were also very clear on the idea that the earth was round, and they even had a pretty good idea about its size: one fairly standard estimate had it at about 25,000 miles in diameter. In this respect, Columbus was wrong and everyone else was right: the debate between Columbus and his detractors was not whether the earth was round or not (they all agreed that it was spherical), but how large it was. Columbus was relying on some very faulty calculations when he argued that the earth was only 13,000 miles around.

Augustine was duly impressed by these achievements of physical science, and if you read between the lines, he gave them all their appropriate due. But he was also aware that these achievements were a dangerous stimulant. Nearly all of these advances had been come through the hands and minds of pagan philosophers, and from Augustine’s perspective, these accomplishments accomplished perilously little. In the end, does it matter that you can predict an eclipse of the sun if you don’t acknowledge the sun’s maker? Or to put it more bluntly, what is the value of being able to program a computer if you’re gonna go to hell when you die?

  • Do you agree with Augustine’s critique of natural science?
  • Does Augustine leave any room for a Christian to be a scientist? What would “Christian” science look like?

Scientific and Religious Conceptions of the World (5.5.8 – 5.5.9)

Although Augustine quite definitely believed that religious concerns should trump merely material scientific concerns, he held to at least a preliminary doctrine of “separate concerns”. It was a nearly fatal strike against Manichaeism that its cosmology appeared to contradict what was known scientifically. If Manichaeism had neglected to speak on scientific matters entirely, this would not have bothered Augustine; nor if individual Manichees had been misinformed would this have troubled him in the slightest. But Mani was claiming to speak under divine inspiration, and consequently, Augustine believed, we should expect that he would speak accurately on those matters. I don’t know the precise nature of the inaccuracies of which Augustine speaks, and haven’t been able to find good documentation on what those inaccuracies might have been. Perhaps Mani’s explanations of various physical phenomena simply disagreed with contemporary science but were not strictly falsifiable (such as his claim that the phases of the moon were related to the ascent of souls back to the original light); perhaps he made predictions which were not borne out by observation.

  • How much does it bother you that a particular religious scheme does not seem to be scientifically accurate? Under what circumstances would you expect Christianity either to confirm or to conform to science?
  • How do you deal with what seem to be disagreements between Biblical accounts of creation and contemporary scientific explanations?

Faustus (5.6.10 – 5.7.13)

Interestingly, Augustine’s mildly critical account of Faustus seems to differ somewhat from his later no-holds-barred attack on Faustus a few years later (in Reply to Faustus the Manichaean). In the Confessions, he says that Faustus was intelligent and well-spoken, and appropriately humble about the limitations of his own knowledge. However, he is unsparing in his criticism of him in his later work: perhaps because he was required to publically defend doctrines which Faustus had publically attacked, and because Augustine was dealing with Faustus not in his capacity as former friend and disciple, but as a bishop of the Catholic Church.

Rome (5.8.14 – 5.9.17)

The Academics (5.10.18 – 5.10.20)

Augustine had apparently been studying various contemporary and ancient philosophers for a while, but as the result of his growing dissatisfaction with the Manichaeans, decided to embark upon a systematic study of the philosophers. The school of thought which he found most congenial to his current state of mind was that of the Academics, philosophers of a skeptical turn who had established themselves in Plato’s Academy in Athens. They were primarily known to Augustine and his contemporaries through the writings of Cicero, especially his Academica. Their fundamental idea was the requirement of εποχη, suspension of judgment. They basically said, “You shouldn’t claim to know something unless you’ve got a pretty good reason to claim it. Under most circumstances, therefore, you would be wisest to withhold judgment.”

Despite this moderate skepticism, Augustine apparently continued to form and test theories about the fundamental nature of things. One of these theories, formed much earlier and continuing a firm hold on Augustine’s imagination, was that all of reality (even divine reality) was fundamentally material. God existed and was eternal, Augustine held, but was a substance of infinite extent, in conflict with evil, another eternal substance of infinite extent. This idea is basically a philosophically refined abstraction of Manichaeism: it’s the basic idea of Manichaeism, but without its silly, offensive and inaccurate cosmological ideas.

Milan (5.12.22 – 5.14.25)

Augustine’s stay in Rome was a brief one. He stayed there long enough to learn that students were effectively the same everywhere. The ones in Rome were, on the surface, better behaved, but scratch the surface, and they were still fallen. So when the opportunity came to pursue a career in government as a court rhetorician, he jumped at the opportunity. The result was that by the end of the year, he found himself in Milan, still teaching, but now living off a government salary.

One of the advantages Milan extended to this newly questing Augustine was the opportunity to observe and interact with Ambrose, the city’s influential and hyperactive bishop. As a teacher of rhetoric, Augustine was interested in Ambrose’s style of address, and although Ambrose was not at the level of Faustus in this regard, he nevertheless did not disappoint Augustine’s discerning ear. Furthermore, unlike Faustus, the more Augustine listened to Ambrose’s sermons, the more he found himself approving not just their style, but their content as well.

The net result was that Augustine found himself abandoning the Manichaeans, but his newly free allegiance remained torn between the philosophers and the church.

Confessions – Book 4

My continuing notes on Augustine’s Confessions.

Astrology (4.3.4 – 4.3.6)

Augustine was once a fan of astrology, probably because he was led to it by his interest in Manichaeism. Manichaeism was influenced to some degree by Zoroastrianism, which was heavily invested in astrology, and Manichees believed that the movements of heavenly bodies strongly influenced or even controlled events here on earth. The Christian Augustine strongly disapproved of astrology for at least two reasons: (1) He didn’t think its claims were true, and Augustine valued truth above all things; and (2) at its heart, astrology was deterministic, which removed human responsibility for their actions.

  • Do you agree with Augustine’s critique of astrology? Why do you think so many people throughout history have believed in it?
  • We may agree with Augustine that the stars don’t determine our fates. But modern science has dramatically increased our understanding of how closely we are tied to the matter and material events which form our bodies. Is this “new” determinism compatible or incompatible with Christianity?

The Death of Nebridius (4.4.7-4.8.13)

The death of his closest friend when Augustine was still in his late teens or early twenties left a huge impression on Augustine. It was his first acquaintance with grief, and it shocked him deeply. It’s especially interesting to compare the grief that he felt over Nebridius’ death when he was a Manichee to the far more restrained grief he felt over his mother’s death once he was a Christian.

Augustine has been much criticized, not for his youthful grief, but for his mature disparagement of that grief. Sometimes criticism of Augustine is the product of a conflict of worldviews: it’s only to be expected that atheist philosophers like Nietzsche would despise not just Augustine’s theology, but the piety which informed it. But sometimes even folks who otherwise share a great deal of Augustine’s perspective have parted ways with Augustine over this issue. C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, has an especially interesting and thoughtful critique of Augustine’s scorn for this youthful grief. Lewis very much agrees with Augustine that our earthly loves may be in competition with our love for God, and that to the extent that they are taking the place of our love for God, they are quite likely to go very wrong. We need to be on our guard, both Augustine and Lewis would say, against any love that would claim to take the place of, or threaten in any way to lessen, our love for God. But Lewis disagrees with Augustine on whether the desire to save ourselves heartache is a legitimate reason to limit our love for creating beings.

  • Is it legitimate for Christians to feel grief? Is it possible to feel too much grief?
  • Was Augustine’s grief for his friend excessive (as Augustine certainly feels that it was)?
  • Is Lewis’ critique of Augustine legitimate? Is Augustine actually saying, “Be careful not to love too much, lest your heart break?”

How to Love Temporary Things (4.9.14 – 4.12.19)

Augustine has a specific take on the right way to love temporary things. Clearly, we are supposed to love temporary things, for they are good and have come from the hand of God. But we should love them as God intended them to be, that is, as temporary. God appointed a beginning and an end to each individual thing, and we should love that individual thing as God intended it to be, that is, temporary. “Blessed is he who loves thee, and who loves his friend in thee, and his enemy also, for thy sake; for he alone loses none dear to him, if all are dear in Him who cannot be lost.” We sin when we love temporary things as we should love eternal things, when we base our lives on them, and find ourselves radically shaken when those temporary things move on. And indeed, if our perspective matched God’s eternal perspective, we would be eager that these things pass on, in the same way that when we are listening to a sentence, we are eager that one syllable succeed the next.

Would then death have existed before the Fall? Augustine implies as much when he says, “Behold, these things pass away that others may come to be in their place. Thus even this lowest level of unity may be made complete in all its parts.” And he says so explicitly in The Literal Meaning of Genesis: “One might ask why brute beasts inflict injury on one another, for there is no sin in them for which they could be a punishment, and they cannot acquire any virtue by such a trial. The answer, of course, is that one animal is the nourishment of another. To wish that it were otherwise would not be reasonable. For all creatures, as long as they exist, have their own measure, number, and order.”

On the Beautiful and the Fitting (4.13.20 – 4.15.31)

In this section, Augustine gives us some hint of what his views of God were before he became a Christian. One of the more interesting hints is that he was apparently unable think of God as anything other than a “substance” which had some sort of physical existence. This view may have been similar in some ways to pantheism, except that the dualistic Augustine believed that God was only part of reality (i.e., the good, spiritual part), not the whole of it. Augustine later came to disavow nearly everything he wrote in his first book, specifically:

(1) That evil is a substance. “I imagined that in the disunity there was some kind of substance of irrational life and some kind of entity in the supreme evil.”

a. But: Evil is not a substance, for all substances come from God, and God cannot create evil. Evil is rather the ultimate non-entity, the ultimate expression of non-being.

(2) That the soul is the highest good. “I conceived that unity consisted of the rational soul and the nature of truth and the highest good.”

a. But: The soul is not the highest good. Among other things, the soul is changeable, and the highest good cannot be changeable in anything like the same way, or else it would be moving from one good to another, and hence would not have always been the highest good.

(3) That God is a substance. “Substance” was a key idea for Aristotle, and he divided up the world into (1) substances; (2) the categories to which individual substances belonged, i.e., which gave them their definitions; and (3) the attributes which could be applied to individual substances. The young Augustine adopted this view of the world, and applied it to God. “I still supposed that thou, O Lord God, the Truth, wert a bright and vast body and that I was a particle of that body.” “I tried to interpret them, O my God, so that even thy wonderful and unchangeable unity could be understood as subjected to thy own magnitude or beauty, as if they existed in thee as their Subject--as they do in corporeal bodies--whereas thou art thyself thy own magnitude and beauty.”

a. But: A substance (or a body) could be more ‘x’ or less ‘y’ without changing its fundamental definition. Yet God cannot be more beautiful or less merciful: he is the ultimate beauty, and the source of all mercy. He cannot even theoretically change in this way. The only way that you can ascribe “beauty” to God is to say, as Augustine does, that God is His own beauty. “Thou art thyself thy own magnitude and beauty.”

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

In The Four Loves, Lewis offered a thoughtful critique of this book of the Confessions:

In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation in which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him (Confessions iv, 10). Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one's heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.

Of course this is excellent sense. Don't put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don't spend too much on a house you may he turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as "Careful! This might lead you to suffering". To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife or a Friend - if it comes to that, would you choose a dog in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love Himself than this.

I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St. Augustine's Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic "apathy" or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he "loved". St. Paul has a higher authority with us than St. Augustine - St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died. (Philippians ii, 27.) Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself offer them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say "Why hast thou forsaken me?"

There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket -safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Confessions – Book 3

These are my notes on the third book of Augustine’s Confessions, which our church Bible study is reading through this Fall.  As I’ve said before, don’t expect great writing – these are just notes, but could conceivably be helpful for folks.

Plays and Entertainment (3.2.2 – 3.2.4)

Augustine seems to deplore the stage plays that he enjoyed as a youth. As he asks, “Why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure?” The best answer he can come up with is that we enjoy the emotions we experience when watching a play because it is a shadow of something better. It is a good thing to feel mercy when someone is actually suffering, and indeed, we were likely intended to feel good when we show mercy, in the same way that we feel good when we fall in love. And the enjoyment we feel when watching tragedies unfold on the stage is a reflection or a shadow of this. Unfortunately, that’s all it is. It isn’t the same thing. It enjoys the same relationship to real mercy as masturbation does to marriage. In other words, Augustine says, the problem with plays is that we find ourselves falling in love with something that doesn’t exist. Indeed, this is such a problem, Augustine says, that we should beware of feeling any joy in compassion, lest we find ourselves rejoicing in others’ sorrows.

  • Do you agree with Augustine’s disparaging of secular entertainments?
  • We don’t tend to be as thrilled today by tragedies as Augustine was. Is there anything in his critique that is still relevant?

Cicero and Philosophy (3.4.7 – 3.4.8)

Cicero was a Roman philosopher and politician who lived from 106 BC to 43 BC. He was one of the first to introduce Roman audiences to the Greek philosophical treatises, along the way coining a number of critical Latin words. (He invented the Latin words which lie behind the English words “morals”, “property”, “individual”, “science”, “image”, “appetite”, and others.) Cicero subordinated philosophy to politics, and it is not surprising therefore that he primarily employed philosophy as a means to support politics – and thus found himself adopting tenets from a variety of different philosophical schools. Cicero was eventually assassinated/murdered/executed during the civil wars that ended the Republic and initiated the Empire.

The book which so affected Augustine, Cicero’s Hortensius, is now lost, and the only fragments which remain are found in Augustine’s own works. You get the impression from reading The Confessions that Augustine still found much to commend in this book, though he knew that Cicero was not a Christian. It urged a search for the truth qua truth, independent of any sect or viewpoint, and Augustine could no sooner have repudiated that exhortation than he could have repudiated the God who was Himself Truth. Certainly Augustine recognized that philosophy could be godless: he quotes Paul in 2 Col. 2:8-9 to this effect. But the root of philosophy, the “love of wisdom”, was very much a Biblical idea.

It is worth noting, however, that even the “pagan” Augustine here found himself unable to give complete allegiance to Cicero’s ideals. For some reason, likely because of his mother, he had a thirst for Christ (if not precisely for Christianity) that he knew secular philosophy could never slake.

  • Have you ever had a philosophy class or read a book on philosophy? What did you think? Did it help you understand your Christian faith any better?

The Bible

After reading Cicero, reading the Bible was a disappointing experience for Augustine. The mature, Christian Augustine of the Confessions looks at the Bible through much different eyes than the young, intellectual Augustine he remembers being. He alludes to these difficulties when he describes the allure that the Manichees held for him. He wholeheartedly agreed when the Manichees pointed out that the Bible often portrayed God as possessed of a body (not just in the New Testament, but also in the Old), and spoke of Him as consumed by jealousy and anger, all passions that Augustine himself had suffered from, but perhaps for that very reason scorned all the more. Especially telling was the fact that the Bible portrayed its heroes obeying a morality that was substantially different from that which Augustine himself (even at that time) believed was appropriate. (See my last point below.)

  • Augustine found it initially quite difficult to get anything out of the Bible. What has your experience been? Do you tend to agree more with the younger or with the more mature Augustine?

The Manichees (3.6.10-3.6.11)

The Manichees thrived largely between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD. It was based on the writings of a Persian prophet named Mani (216-276 AD), who taught that he was the Paraclete which Jesus had promised in the book of John. Manichaeism had adherents as far east as China and as far west as Italy and northern Africa. Like its successor, Islam, it claimed to be the fulfillment and complete version of other religions which had preceded it, which meant, in practice, that it adopted much of the terminology of the various religions with which it came in contact (including Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism).

Mani produced seven writings, most of which are lost, though fragments remain (i.e., are quoted in other books). A close analysis of these writings indicates that they are heavily influenced by intertestamental Jewish literature (such as the Aramaic Enoch, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls), as well as by 2nd century Gnosticism.

Manichaean theology taught a dualistic view of good and evil. A key belief in Manichaeism is that the powerful, though not omnipotent good power (God) was opposed by the semi-eternal evil power (Satan). This addresses a theoretical part of the problem of evil by denying the omnipotence of God and postulating two opposite powers. Humanity, the world and the soul are seen as the byproduct of the battle between God's proxy, Primal Man, and Satan. The human person is seen as a battleground for these powers: the soul defines the person, but it is under the influence of both light and dark. This contention plays out over the world as well as the human body—neither the Earth nor the flesh was seen as intrinsically evil, but rather possessed portions of both light and dark. Natural phenomena (such as rain) were seen as the physical manifestation of this spiritual contention. Therefore, the Manichaean worldview explained the existence of evil with a flawed creation God took no role in forming and was the result of Satan striking out against God.

Mircea Eliade, summarizing bar-Konai's Syriac narration, describes the Manichaean cosmogony in his A History of Religious Ideas:

In the beginning...the two "natures" or "substances", light and obscurity, good and evil, God and matter, coexisted, separated by a frontier. In the North reigned the Father of the South, the Prince of Darkness...the "disorderly motion" of matter drove the Prince of Darkness toward the upper frontier of his kingdom. Seeing the splendor of light, he is fired by the desire to conquer it. It is then that the Father decides that he will himself repulse the adversary. He...projects from himself, the Mother of Life, who...projects a new hypostasis, the Primordial Man...With his five sons, who are...his "soul" and "armor" made from five lights, the Primordial Man descends to the frontier. He challenges the darkness, but he is conquered, and his sons are devoured by the demons...This defeat marks the beginning of the cosmic "mixture", but at the same time it insures the final triumph of God. For obscurity (matter) now possesses a portion of light...and the Father, preparing its deliverance, at the same time arranges for his definitive victory against darkness. In a second Creation, the Father "evokes" the Living Spirit, which, descending toward obscurity, grasps the hand of the Primordial Man and raises him to his celestial homeland, the Paradise of Lights. Overwhelming the demonic Archontes, the Living Spirit fashions the heavens from their skins, the mountains from their bones, the earth from their flesh and their excrements...In addition, he achieves a first deliverance of light by creating the sun, the moon, and the stars from portions of it that had not suffered too much from contact with obscurity. Finally, the Father proceeds to a last evocation and projects by emanation the Third Messenger. The latter organizes the cosmos into a kind of machine to collect - deliver - the still-captive particles of light. During the first two weeks of the month, the particles rise to the moon, which becomes a full moon; during the second two weeks, light is transferred from the moon to the sun and, finally, to its celestial homeland. But there were still the particles that had been swallowed by the demons. Then the messenger displays himself to the male demons in the form of a dazzling naked virgin, while the female demons see him as a handsome naked young man...fired by desire, the male demons...give forth their semen, and, with it, the light that they had swallowed. Fallen to the ground, their semen gives birth to all the vegetable species. As for the female devils who were already pregnant, at the sight of the handsome young man they give birth to abortions, which, cast onto the ground, eat the buds of trees, thus assimilating the light that they contained. Alarmed by the Third Messenger's tactics, matter, personified as Concupiscence, decides to create a stronger prison around the still-captive particles of light. Two demons, one male, the other female, devour all the abortions in order to absorb the totality of light, and they then couple. Thus Adam and Eve were engendered.

It’s difficult to see how an intelligent man like Augustine could have been taken in by stuff that sounds like such complete nonsense to us; it’s less difficult to see why he detested it so much once he had left it. “The heresies men leave are hated most.”

Augustine picks out one particular Manichaean doctrine for particular ridicule in 3.10.18, when he makes reference to the teaching of the Manichees that:

  • It was bad to pick a fig, because it made the tree “weep”.
  • If that fig was eaten by one of the “elect”, it would be digested and release the particles of light within it, after which they could return to God.
  • If that fig was eaten by anyone else, the particles of light would be condemned to continued existence in the material world.

You can see how this is similar to the tactics Mani describes in the war between the forces of light and darkness.

  • Does this description of Manichaeism remind you of any modern religions? How do modern (non-Christian) religions tend to be similar or to differ from Manichaeism?

Changing Mores (3.7.12 - 3.9.17)

One of the critiques of the Manicheans against the Bible was that it portrayed its heroes doing things which good, modern Romans would find repugnant, such as marrying multiple wives, or participating in the slaughter of men or animals. Augustine’s mature response to this is unflinching: God commands different things at different times. For Augustine, God was no mere abstract ideal of justice: He was a King, and a King could do whatever arbitrary thing he desired. So it was nothing odd for a King to declare that members of one town could arm and defend themselves, while declaring that members of another town should submit to the army coming against them. In the same way, it might have been a legitimate application of God’s moral law for Joshua to commit genocide against the Canaanites, even if it would be a terrible violation of that law if we were to do the same thing.

“Is justice, then, variable and changeable? No, but the times over which she presides are not all alike because they are different times.” (3.7.13)

No Christian really disputes this today. The question is where you draw the line, i.e., which practices are always and inherently against God’s moral law, and which are merely cultural applications of that law? So, for instance, where does homosexuality or premarital sex fall on this continuum? Many Christians, including our representatives at the Presbyterian General Assembly, have concluded that the Biblical prohibitions against these acts should be received in much the same way as the Biblical acceptance of slavery, or prohibitions against women with short hair (or men with long).

Others point out that the Bible tells us more about gender relations than just “Do this” or “Don’t do that”. The Bible portrays our gender identities as being, in some mysterious way, a part of the imago dei, an inherent part of the Creation itself. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two of them will be one flesh: what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” The Bible has a specific ideal for marriage that involves one man and one woman, however honored more in the breach than in the observance. Moreover, on many issues, the Bible has multiple perspectives. Joshua may be seen as encouraging genocide: Jesus pretty clearly forbids it. Jacob had two wives: Deuteronomy prohibits even the king from multiple marriages. In 1 Corinthians, Paul forbids women to speak in church, then describes how they should do it.  However, the Bible never speaks from two different perspectives about homosexuality. Everywhere it is mentioned, it is clearly and specifically condemned. If it is the case (as some argue) that God is asking us to adopt a different standard on homosexuality, the Bible gives us no encouragement or preparation that He might be doing so.

And of course, this is precisely the view which Augustine himself takes on the matter:

Offenses against nature are everywhere and at all times to be held in detestation and should be punished. Such offenses, for example, were those of the Sodomites; and, even if all nations should commit them, they would all be judged guilty of the same crime by the divine law, which has not made men so that they should ever abuse one another in that way. For the fellowship that should be between God and us is violated whenever that nature of which he is the author is polluted by perverted lust. (3.8.15)

  • Presbyterians are in the middle of a number of controversies regarding changing cultural standards. What is your take on issues like homosexuality or sexual activity outside marriage?

Confessions – Book 2

The Third Day

Part of the background for Book 2 is Augustine’s use of the six days of creation to correspond to the six ages of history and the six stages of a human life.


Ages of Man

Six Days




Infantia (pre-verbal)


Adam to Noah

Book 1.7-1.12


Pueritia (childhood)


Noah to Abraham

Book 1.12 – 1.1.31


Adulescentia (15-30)


Abraham to David

Book 2.1 – 6.26


Juventus (30-45)


David to Babylon

Book 7.1-


Maturitas (45-60)


Babylon to Christ



Senectus (60-90)


Christ to the End


Book 2 begins his discussion of his own third age, and throughout the book Augustine uses language reminiscent of either the third day of creation, or of the Exodus journey. Specifically:


2.1 - For as I became a youth, I longed to be satisfied with worldly things, and I dared to grow wild in a succession of various and shadowy loves.

2.3 – [You are] able also with a tender hand to blunt the thorns which were excluded from thy paradise.

2.5 - no matter how barren I was to thy tillage, O God, who art the one true and good Lord of my heart, which is thy field.

2.6 - The thornbushes of lust grew rank about my head, and there was no hand to root them out.

2.18 - I fell away from thee, O my God, and in my youth I wandered too far from thee, my true support. And I became to myself a wasteland.


2.2 - The mists of passion steamed up out of the puddly concupiscence of the flesh, and the hot imagination of puberty, and they so obscured and overcast my heart that I was unable to distinguish pure affection from unholy desire. Both boiled confusedly within me, and dragged my unstable youth down over the cliffs of unchaste desires and plunged me into a gulf of infamy. … I was tossed to and fro, and wasted, and poured out, and I boiled over in my fornications--and yet thou didst hold thy peace, O my tardy Joy!

2.3 - If only there had been someone to regulate my disorder and turn to my profit the fleeting beauties of the things around me, and to fix a bound to their sweetness, so that the tides of my youth might have spent themselves upon the shore of marriage!

2.4 - But, fool that I was, I foamed in my wickedness as the sea and, forsaking thee, followed the rushing of my own tide, and burst out of all thy bounds.

Wilderness Wanderings

2.1 - For love of thy love I do this, recalling in the bitterness of self-examination my vile wanderings, that thou mayest grow sweet to me, thou sweetness without deception!

2.18 - I fell away from thee, O my God, and in my youth I wandered too far from thee, my true support. And I became to myself a wasteland.


It should be noted that at this time, it was fairly common for people to hold off on baptism, because it was assumed that only sins committed before baptism could be entirely remitted -- sins committed after baptism would be punished harshly by God. So the idea was that you would wait until either you were on your deathbed, or were at least past the excesses of youth, before you would submit yourself to baptism. This involved a pretty chancy set of calculations, and Augustine disapproved of the whole mercenary idea behind it.

Why is it still dinned into our ears on all sides, “Let him alone, let him do as he pleases, for he is not yet baptized”? In the matter of bodily health, no one says, “Let him alone; let him be worse wounded; for he is not yet cured”! (1.11.18)

(2.4.9 – 2.10.18) A Certain Theft from a Tree

Augustine spends over half of book two trying to understand why he stole a load of pears from a tree. He has often been mocked for this excessive concern over such a small sin (in the scheme of things), but Augustine knew what he was up to. He concentrates on this particular sin for (at least) the following reasons:

  1. Augustine knew that small sins paved the way toward big sins. As C. S. Lewis says, “That explains what always used to puzzle me about Christian writers; they seem to be so strict at one moment and so very free and easy at another. They talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important: and then they talk about the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven. But I have come to see that they are right. What they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to endure – or enjoy – forever.” (Mere Christianity, p. 92).
  2. The sin has an obvious rhetorical parallel with Adam’s sin: it involved the stealing of forbidden fruit from a tree.
  3. The sin has many less obvious parallels with Adam’s sin:
    1. It was an apparently trivial matter;
    2. It was forbidden by God;
    3. There was no obvious motive;
    4. The actual motive was a hidden one, a desire to maintain community with someone else (at the expense of communion with God).

Consequently, this theft becomes a fairly good “hook” on which Augustine can hang a profound discussion of the nature of evil.

The Nature of Evil

Always lurking in the background of Augustine’s discussion of the origin and nature of evil is the Manichaean doctrine of evil. The Manichees were dualists. They believed that evil came from an invasion of the good – the Kingdom of Light – by a hostile force of evil, equal in power, eternal, totally separate – the Kingdom of Darkness. So for them, evil was an independent principle, a positive substance, something which did not depend on God for its existence. Furthermore, human beings were not entirely free: each human being is composed of a body, which is physical and hence belongs to the darkness, but also of a soul, which is immaterial and hence belongs to the light.

Augustine was a Manichee for over a decade, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that this episode of the theft of the pears may have played a part in that. As Augustine says, he can’t initially think of any reason why he would have engaged in such a silly and stupid bit of thievery. He goes through the possible reasons at some length, but nothing obvious initially presents itself. And of course, this has potential problems for Augustine, because if he can’t come up with a reason, then it means that perhaps he loved evil for evil’s sake, which would go against the Christian understanding of evil.

Because from a Christian perspective, Augustine taught, evil is a privation of the good. This is easiest to see when we look at the reasons why people do bad things. Nobody loves evil for the sake of evil. Rather, we engage in evil behavior because we want something that, in itself, is good. But we go about acquiring that good in the wrong way, or we give up some better good to acquire the worse. The most inexplicable acts of evil that we have heard or can imagine – the Holocaust, say – become oddly comprehensible when looked at in this way. Hitler justified the murder of six million people because he wanted something that was, in itself, a good thing: a strong, healthy society. He wanted a good thing: the evil was not in the desire, but in the subordination to that desire of the other things he should have been desiring, such as mercy and compassion, or even simple truth (since obviously the Jews were not the cause of all of Germany’s problems, and he should have known that).

This is indeed the nature of all evil: it is a lack of good. “It is a parasite on existence leeching existence from good things” (Will, p. 76). It is a reversal of creation.

Augustine’s account of evil thus leaves no room for evil to be an end in itself. So why did he do it? Augustine returns to his analysis of his own motives in 2.16 with a fresh observation: he would not have done it by himself. He did it, in other words, to be with friends, in a perverted sort of inimica amicitia, a dangerous friendship. This was Adam’s sin as well (though not Eve’s): Eve was deceived by the serpent, but Adam knew full well what he was doing (1 Tim. 2:14). He didn’t eat the fruit because it was tasty or because it would impart knowledge, Augustine concluded, but because he wanted to be with his wife and to do what she did. (See City of God 14.11.)


  • What do you think of Augustine’s description of his sexual awakening in puberty? Is he too hard on himself? Is his description of what it’s like to be a teenage male accurate? (Cordelia: Does looking at guns make you wanna have sex? Xander: I'm seventeen. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.)
  • Where does evil come from? Is it possible to love evil the same way it’s possible to love good?
  • Why does Augustine make such a big deal about this theft of pears? Is Augustine too hard on himself?
  • What does Augustine conclude was his primary motive in stealing the pears?
  • Augustine seems to say (2.3) that sex should only be used for procreation (“for the begetting of children, as your law requires”). Presumably we disagree – but why?
  • Augustine says that all evil aims at some good. Is he right? Can you think of any counter-examples?

Confessions – Book 1

This year, the Bible study that I’m leading at my church is on the theme of “Christian Classics”, and we’re reading through four great works: Augustine’s Confessions, The Imitation of Christ, G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  At the moment, we’re in the middle of the Confessions, and I’ve been jotting down my thoughts on each book as we go through it.  Since I haven’t posted much else on my blog recently (besides some rabble-rousing stuff on Silverlight), I thought I’d post some of these notes.  Just don’t expect great writing: these really are just notes.

Chapters 1-6 - Introduction

The Confessions is a prayer, and it begins with an analysis of what prayer is. Augustine is saying, in effect, “I desire to praise God,” and then tries to understand what that means. It turns out that each element of this triad (“I”, “praise” and “God”) is problematic.

Augustine examines the last two elements first.

Augustine begins by confessing that he doesn’t understand what he means by “God”. Although he wants to pray to something he calls “God”, he knows that he needs God’s attention to do this successfully. But before he can do that, he needs to be sure that this is the right God, that, in fact, he knows enough about this God to be sure he’s addressing the God, and not some figment of his own imagination. But Augustine can’t know he’s addressing the right God, unless God Himself enlightens him. But how can Augustine request to be enlightened, unless he first prays to God (a God whose identity Augustine cannot know)? Augustine’s response is to acknowledge the circularity: “I shall seek you then, Lord, by calling for you, call for you by believing you exist” (quaeram te, domine, invocans te, et invocem te credens in te). This faith, of course, does not come from Augustine, but from God, through His Son. Still, this is admittedly circular, and Augustine will return to the question of God’s identity before he’s finished with his introduction.

Augustine similarly confesses that he doesn’t understand what he means by “praise”. Augustine desires to be in relationship with this God, to call this God to himself – but what would that look like? Augustine specifically picks apart a spatial metaphor: “What in me is large enough for my God to enter?” (et quis locus est in me, quoveniat in me deus meus?) But before we smile at Augustine’s naïveté, we should take a closer look at our own preferred metaphors. “God, be with me.” “God, help me.” Even more abstract language would fail Augustine’s test: “God, I would be in relationship with you.” Think about what we mean by “relationship”, and you’ll see pretty quickly that it’s just as much a metaphor as, well, anything else we can come up with.

Augustine acknowledges this in his masterful description of the divine paradoxes: “Then what are you, God – what, I inquire, but simply God the Lord?” (Quid est ergo deus meus? quid, rogo, nisi dominus deus?) “You love without lust, you’re jealous and secure, you repent without sadness, you’re angry and at peace” (amas nec aestuas, zelas et securus es; paenitet te et non doles, irasceris et tranquillus es).

In other words, even if there were no other issues, language would be completely inadequate to grasp either the reality of God, or even His relationship with us. But there is more than that at work. The first term in Augustine’s triad, Augustine himself, is equally problematic. Augustine needs God ‘in’ him, but he is a completely inappropriate vessel for God’s indwelling. “My soul is too cramped for you to enter it – widen it out. It is in disrepair – restore it” (Angusta est domus animae meae, quo venias ad eam: dilatetur abs te. ruinosa est: refice eam). In order to begin this impossible journey towards God, therefore, Augustine must be reformed; but before he can be reformed, he must first understand himself. And that is precisely what he spends the rest of the work (or at least books 1-9) attempting to do.

Chapters 7-12 – Infancy

The introduction, without ever quite saying it, is all about the inadequacy of language as a medium for exchange with the divine. The rest of book 1 is basically all about language as a medium for exchange between humans, and Augustine the rhetorician is at pains to describe the origin as well as the appropriate and inappropriate uses of language. Language is critical to Augustine partly because it was his specialty: he had been trained and had made his living as a master rhetorician. But even more, language was critical because God Himself had appeared to bless language when the second person of the Trinity was termed “the Word” (verbum).

Infancy is specifically interesting to Augustine, because he can’t quite imagine being human without language. Our identity is tied up in our memories, of course, but our memories can’t be expressed or even understood without language. A human who can’t speak, therefore, is not all that a human is meant to be, and the result is what we have all seen in infants and toddlers: “When I was frustrated, because I was not understood or was demanding something harmful, I threw a tantrum because adults did not obey a child, free people were not my slaves, and I inflicted on them my revenge of wailing” (et cum mihi non obtemperabatur, vel non intellecto vel ne obesset, indignabar non subditis maioribus, et liberis non servientibus, et me de illis flendo vindecabam).

Chapters 13-24 – Childhood

Augustine’s description of his childhood is again tied up with his concern for language, specifically, for how language is learned. Interestingly, Augustine is clear that he taught himself language, that it wasn’t something imposed on him from the outside.

Chapters 19-31 – Schooling

Augustine contrasts how he learned Latin, his mother tongue, with how he learned Greek, the academic language of the day. He highlights the significant role that love played in the former, and the extent to which it was missing from the latter. He makes clear that it was sinful for him to neglect his lessons in Greek, but he’s not very subtle in his implication that if love had played as great a part in his Greek as in his Latin lessons, his response might have been very different.

Language is also the medium by which society “keeps its own in line” (euge, euge dicitur, ut pudeat, si non ita homo sit). Society (mos) is fundamentally a community of those who share the same language, and language forms the boundaries for appropriate behavior in any given community. The literature of a society, therefore, serves as a justification for that society’s behavior, a role which Augustine lamented in his own case.


- Are children inherently good, only corrupted by society? Or is there some sort of corruption inherent in human beings from their birth?

- In what ways does Augustine see his infancy reflecting the good world that God created? In what ways does it reflect original sin?

- What can we learn from Augustine about the best way to raise children? How would an ideal Augustinian education differ from contemporary public education?

- How did culture/society/custom influence Augustine? How does contemporary culture/society/custom influence us?

- However much he loved pagan literature in his youth, Augustine clearly was not a fan by the time he wrote Confessions. What do you think of this judgment? Is there any benefit, or danger, to Christians participating in secular entertainments?

Monday, November 1, 2010

It’s About Trust: Muglia’s Silverlight Screw-Up

Every year for the last several years, Microsoft has used their Fall PDC conference to tout (among other things) the improvements they’re making, about to make, or have just made to the Silverlight platform.  But over the last year, there’s been a fair amount of discussion in the Silverlight developer community about the future of Silverlight vs. HTML 5, given that many of the things that you need a plugin for will eventually be available in HTML 5 (specifically, video and smooth animations).  This has left folks investing in Silverlight (like myself) a little bit on edge.  Microsoft has a history of touting a platform, only to drop it when something bigger and better comes by.  This may be good for Microsoft, but it’s not so good for the folks who have invested hard in that particular platform.  My assumption, however, has been that with the advent of Windows Phone 7, which is based on an old but reasonably functional version of Silverlight, that Microsoft has lots of reasons to continue investing in and improving the Silverlight platform.

Still, I was surprised, and not in a good way, that the entire emphasis at PDC 2010 was on IE9 and HTML5.  If the word “Silverlight” crossed Ballmer’s lips at the keynote, I missed it. There wasn’t a single session dedicated to Silverlight (it got mention in a few), and after a regular drumbeat of 12-month releases, there wasn’t a single hint about what might be coming in Silverlight 5.  This worried me.

My worry turned to angst, and from angst to anger, when I read Bob Muglia’s comments about why Silverlight had been de-emphasized at PDC 2010:

Silverlight is our development platform for Windows Phone,” he said. Silverlight also has some “sweet spots” in media and line-of-business applications, he said.

But when it comes to touting Silverlight as Microsoft’s vehicle for delivering a cross-platform runtime, “our strategy has shifted,” Muglia told me.

Silverlight will continue to be a cross-platform solution, working on a variety of operating system/browser platforms, going forward, he said. “But HTML is the only true cross platform solution for everything, including (Apple’s) iOS platform,” Muglia said.

Coming on the heels of Silverlight’s no-show at PDC 2010, this is clearly damnation by faint praise, and it’s spawned no end of tweeting and blogging and reporting about the future of Silverlight.  At the moment, there are lots of comments coming out from MS folks that Muglia misspoke or was misinterpreted, and that there’s going to be a walk-back of some sort in the near future. And if you’re a Silverlight developer, there remain plenty of reasons for hope, besides the obvious one that Windows Phone 7 is clearly a huge bet for Microsoft.  After all, as lots of folks have pointed out, the HTML 5 standard won’t be finished for maybe another 10-12 years. No current browsers support even the full set of tags that have been defined so far, and the ones that do don’t support them all in the same way.  The fact that the HTML 5 committee can’t even agree on a video codec standard is the classic example of this, but there are others.  And even when browsers have caught up, the tooling behind HTML5 simply isn’t there yet.  For starters, none of the MS tools can output HTML5, and even when Blend does finally support it, the various debugging environments for JavaScript/JQuery have many years of improvement ahead of them before they’re even within shouting distance of C# (which is, in my opinion, the best language ever, running in the world’s best IDE by a significant margin).  It’s precisely these things which make it so odd that Muglia has declared the Silverlight vs. HTML5 debate over – and which make it so likely that Muglia is going to “clarify himself” in the near future.

Still, I’m worried.  I love C#, and I love the fact that I can use Silverlight to bring C# to client-side web applications.  It makes writing the UI logic of an application dramatically easier than trying to code it in JavaScript.  But I’ll confess that I like Silverlight less than I like the idea of Silverlight.  The tooling remains poor by Microsoft standards.  XAML is a verbose, ugly language that is, at best, an awkward fit onto the simplicity and elegance of C#.  Blend is powerful, but the UI is a royal mess.  The XAML editor in VS2010 is light-years ahead of VS2008, but it remains slow and clunky.  Debugging databindings has always been a significant PITA, and it shouldn’t be.  Unlike Flash, Silverlight doesn’t even support streaming webcams and microphones.  Yes, it gives you access to the raw bits coming out, but if you want to do anything with those raw bits, you have to write your own framework to compress and stream them somewhere. God help you if you actually want advanced DSP like echo cancelling.  (I just got echo cancellation working on Alanta’s platform, by the way.)  It’s really nice that SL4 gave us access to the Net.TCP WCF binding – but it does so without security or authentication.  And of course, Silverlight has only reached about 60% of desktops, vs. some 96% for Flash.  Requiring a third of your audience to download a plugin can be a significant drag on your own application’s adoption.

In other words, Silverlight is still a pretty raw platform.  Version 4 was probably the first mature release, but the ecosystem still has a long way to go.  Nevertheless, I’ve felt comfortable investing in Silverlight despite its rough edges because I believed that Microsoft was committed to fixing the multitude of problems that remained.  I saw – and see – the potential that Silverlight has to be a premiere application platform. It could have a truly awesome design and development environment.  It could run faster than HTML and JavaScript could ever hope.  It could give you access to the best parts of the CLR on every desktop.  It could let you run raw GPU-accelerated code.  It could let you really achieve “write once, run everywhere (that Jobs will let you)”.  It could iterate orders of magnitude faster than the W3C or WHATWG could possibly hope to.  It could develop into an awesome, premiere realtime collaboration environment that users love because they don’t need to know anything about it and developers swear by because they do.

It could.  Silverlight could do all these things.  It doesn’t do them yet.  And the only way that it might ever do these things is if Microsoft puts its full weight and authority and development resources and marketing muscle into play.  Silverlight has always been a hard sell, an also-ran in a crowded space dominated first by Flash and now by HTML 5. But it has the potential to punch its own weight if Microsoft is committed to fixing all the things that remain wrong with it.  And that’s precisely what Muglia seems to have committed Microsoft to not doing.  Yes, there’s going to be another version.  (But there’s no point to Silverlight unless there are going to be five more versions, at a minimum.)  Yes, it is the platform for Windows Phone 7.  (Which has precisely, let me check, oh, umm, zero market share, in a market dominated by companies which have handily out-competed Microsoft for years now.) Yes, it can still fill a couple “sweet spots” in media and line of business applications.  (But these “sweet spots” can be addressed just fine with Flash and .NET client apps.) 

But here’s the real issue.  I’ve spent two years learning Silverlight because I trusted Microsoft to bring me a good return on my investment.  But unless Microsoft makes it clear very shortly that Muglia was simply wrong (not just “unclear”), you’d be foolish to make that same investment now.  WP7 looked mildly interesting because I might be able to leverage the Silverlight ecosystem on a new platform. But if that ecosystem is going to get de-emphasized, what mild interest I had in WP7 vanishes.  What Muglia has said, in effect, is: Silverlight is a bad bet for your technology future.  You shouldn’t waste your time learning it. Go learn HTML5 and JavaScript and JQuery instead.  And that’s a real problem for Microsoft. Because if I’m going to be limited to HTML5 and JavaScript, and can’t use C#, I don’t feel any particular need to do my coding on the Microsoft stack.  IE9 looks interesting, but at the moment, IE has had three versions in a row which are slower and uglier and less standards-compliant than any other browser on the market.  MySQL is mildly interesting, but Hadoop and CouchDB and MongDB look pretty darned fascinating.  Linux has clearly come into its own as a server platform.  I’ve had a hankering to learn Python for a while now (PHP is popular, but ugly, and aesthetics count for a lot with me), and RoR sounds like a pretty sweet ecosystem as well.  Muglia has just made a very persuasive argument that these technologies are going to be more important to my future than anything coming out of Redmond.

I hope he’s wrong.