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.