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Questions on Augustine

August 3, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Each quarter, Harrison Middleton University hosts a Quarterly Discussion. This discussion is open to students and non-students alike. They focus on a short text which everyone reads prior to the discussion. I thoroughly enjoy these because they give me a chance to break away from my own studies, to focus on something in a small group which is a great listening opportunity. This month I was blessed to have Jim Keller, a current HMU master’s student, assist with the discussion topic, reading, and questions. He even led the discussion so that I could participate. What a treat! I think that anyone interested in Shared Inquiry style discussions should try their hand at leading. While it may seem intuitive, there really is a lot to learn about managing the flow of a conversation. Whatever your style, trying to put together a successful discussion requires a great knowledge of the text, but also an ability to listen to disparate voices in a conversation. I find this to be the greatest struggle, but also the greatest benefit, of Shared Inquiry. Many thanks to Jim for the assistance in setting up the conversation, and to the participants for some inspiring conversation.

This month, we read Book XIX from St. Augustine’s City of God. We began with a passage from Chapter 4 which reads, “And justice, whose office it is to render to every man his due, whereby there is in man himself a certain just order of nature, so that the soul is subjected to God, and the flesh to the soul, and consequently both soul and flesh to God – does not this virtue demonstrate that it is as yet rather labouring towards its end than resting in its finished work?” (580B). From this statement, I believe that Augustine’s version of justice can be defined as: “to render every man his due.” Upon first reading, I assumed the implication being that each man received an equal portion. However, Chapter 13 squarely denies that assumption. In Chapter 13, Augustine writes, “Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place” (588A). In other words, we all receive a lot in life, and it may partake of greater or lesser as fits our being. I am still contemplating how this reflects a sense of justice. So, taking both of these statements together, I see that Augustine’s world relies upon order. In the city of man, order is granted as best as can be expected, but imperfectly to say the least. Order is a form of justice in that it is at least an organizing principle. Justice, also, stems from God (or from the City of God) which exists in perfect peace. This ultimate ideal of peace is the justice that Augustine seeks. So, man’s flawed implementation of justice is at least an attempt to model the city of God. I do see how the city of man is flawed and he consistently revisits that throughout the chapter. I still cannot quite come to terms with the idea of inequality as foundational to this sense of justice. I always assumed that God granted portions to each man, so why would he perpetuate inequalities?

I also struggle with the way in which Augustine proves his point. Throughout the book, he claims that human life is flawed and poor in comparison with the life of the soul. And yet, Augustine’s proof always stems from examples of human life. I see the obvious reason for that, being difficult to capture universally-accepted empirical data which proves of the soul’s existence, yet to claim that human life is worthless and then turn around to exclaim its worth seems complicated at best. Chapter 6, for example, describes the ways in which it is acceptable for judges to implement torture. While admitting the system is flawed, Augustine also allows that the wise judge may need to torture innocent persons in order to understand the truth. Though he acknowledges that often tortured persons are innocent and at times the innocent are killed, he finds it to be a necessary part of the process towards the greater good. Augustine writes, “These numerous and important evils he does not consider sins; for the wise judge does these things, not with any intention of doing harm, but because his ignorance compels him, and because human society claims him as a judge. But though we therefore acquit the judge of malice, we must none the less condemn human life as miserable. And if he is compelled to torture and punish the innocent because his office and his ignorance constrain him, is he a happy as well as guiltless man? Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling were he to recognize the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God ‘From my necessities deliver Thou me’” (583). In other words, while the judge may feel some level of guilt, he is to be absolved of any sin because he is fulfilling the duty required of him. Rather than a reflection on the individual, this scenario is meant to demonstrate man’s absolute depravity. The city of man grants a judge power and it is better for him to pursue this grave responsibility in the manner of the times than to avoid unpleasantness by shirking the judge’s sole responsibility. Duty compels the judge to act.

Contrary to all the questions I have raised above, I did learn quite a bit from these conversations. Reading Augustine begs conversation simply because of the complexity of terms and the text’s density. In this chapter alone, we discussed virtue and vice, good and evil, peace, eternity, eternal life, and justice, just to name a few. I would encourage anyone to pick up a chapter of Augustine and struggle with it as we have. Better yet, pick up the chapter with a few friends and struggle to define these terms in both his context and our contemporary world. My appreciation to the folks who struggled alongside me and listened patiently as we explored the text together.

As usual, I am already looking forward to October’s Quarterly Discussion on de Tocqueville. You can join! Simply email asimon@hmu.edu. I look forward to hearing from you!

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Augustine and Monica

March 2, 2018

Thanks to James Keller, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

In leaving Carthage, Augustine abandoned his mother, Monica. A widow, she pleaded with her son not to leave - or, if he must go, not to leave her behind. She would come with him. He lied to his mother, offering her the false comfort that he was not leaving but was only seeing off a friend. In the night, he slipped away, sailing to Rome. Monica suffered a second bereavement. This story, related by Augustine in his Confessions reveals a certain callousness on the part of Augustine toward his mother. Yet, throughout The Confessions, he appears to revere his mother, praising her virtue. How could a man that so loved his mother treat her so despitefully?

That he thought highly of his mother is beyond doubt. He relates several stories of her remarkable virtue and piety. In the third book of The Confessions, he relates how Monica prayed fervently that her son might come to know the Christian god and how she wept over his state of spiritual death. Monica was rewarded with a divinely-authored dream that assured her that Augustine would one day convert to Christianity. In the ninth book, he relates how her mother-in-law originally despised her due to the rumor-mongering of the servants and how Monica, through patience, kindness, and gentleness, won her mother over, so that the two women became quite close. Similarly, she won her husband over to the Christian faith. Augustine sees her as the model wife, never complaining about her husband but defusing his anger with her gentle forbearance. Augustine frequently expresses love and admiration for his mother.

But like most relationships between children and parents, the relationship between Augustine and Monica was complicated. Augustine’s reverence for his mother was mingled with resentment. Though Augustine’s ostensible aim is to confess his own guilt, at times he absolves himself of that guilt by putting the blame on his mother.

For example, even though Monica spent much time praying that her son would become a Catholic, she did not take the opportunity to make him a Catholic when she could. In his childhood, Augustine became quite ill, and it was thought that he should be baptized in order to ensure the saving of his soul. However, he recovered quickly and his baptism was delayed. Monica worried that if he lived a life of profligacy after being baptized, his baptism would be undone and he would be damned. While Augustine praises his mother for her teaching and understands the reason she delayed his baptism, he disagrees with the decision, likening the delay to withholding medicine from the sick man (6). Moreover, he implies that the later sins of his life might not have happened if he had been baptized and purified at that young age and that those years that he wasted as a prodigal son could have been spent in service to the Christian god.

Indeed, that he wasted years serving himself is due in part to Monica’s confused priorities, at least, according to Augustine. It was important to her that he become skilled in rhetoric and be able to make a living at it. To this end, she put him in schools where he was beaten when he did not complete his work, preferring to play games instead. Augustine was quite bitter about the beatings administered by his teachers. He found his teachers to be hypocrites. They too wasted their time with amusements (5). He could not understand why parents would turn their children over to the rough punishment of these teachers. As he grew older, he discovered the intense sexual desire of youth, but he found that his parents did nothing to help him. His mother did not want him to marry, lest he be distracted from his studies and his future career be jeopardized. So, instead of having licit sexual relations with a wife, he sought the illicit relations of a mistress (11-12). Later, he would find the life of a rhetorician empty, the fame that accompanied it hollow. Monica’s emphasis on his career led him to a life of sin and vanity. Moreover, it ultimately delayed his conversion to the Catholic faith, as he did not want to give up his life of sexual libertinism.

Even when he writes of abandoning Monica, while confessing his own callousness, he finds fault with his mother. She is a jealous mother, too desirous of his company. In his opinion, she loves him disproportionately. His leaving her, therefore, is a punishment sent from her god, so that she will learn to love her god first and her son second. Or, to put it more accurately, her distorted love of Augustine, which is the cause of her emotional suffering, is both the cause of her punishment and the punishment itself: “...[God] used her too jealous love for her son as a scourge of sorrow for her just punishment” (39). In this way, Augustine mitigates the guilt he feels over leaving his mother - she has brought this sorrow upon herself.

This attribution of guilt to Monica creates a fascinating dichotomy in The Confessions. On the one hand, he wishes to accept responsibility for his sins. His constant refrain is that every wrong thing he ever did originated from himself. Contradictorily, he relieves himself from guilt by placing the blame on his mother, at least in part. She did not protect him from temptation. She did not purify him through baptism. She taught him to pursue illusory goods - fame and wealth. She drove him away through her neediness and too fervent love. Augustine writes that Monica “inherited the legacy of Eve, seeking in sorrow what with sorrow she brought into the world” (39). But Augustine’s writing echoes the defense of Adam after eating the forbidden fruit, as if Augustine said to his god, “The mother you gave to me, she caused me to sin.”

One can now understand why Augustine, though he adored his mother, abandoned her. He bore her a good deal of ambivalence. While he considered her a model of virtue and religious devotion, he also found her to be negligent of his spiritual good. Though he ostensibly tries to accept responsibility for his own wrongdoing, he finds himself laying much of the blame on his mother: his guilt is her guilt. In confessing his sins, he publicly confesses her sins as well. The mixed feelings that his mother was a most remarkable woman and yet had failed him help explain why he could lie to his mother and leave her lonely in Carthage.

Works Cited

Augustine. The Confessions. Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. The Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer J. Adler et al., vol. 16, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990, pp. 1-159.

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Groot, The Metaphor

June 19, 2015

Whether or not we realize it, metaphor pervades all speech. Look no further than 'head of lettuce' or 'ear of corn' to find a common example. Expressions like these often make learning a new language fun and challenging. Today's blog ventures into figurative language from the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy as seen through the lens of Augustine. It may seem a bit irreverent to apply Augustine to this film, but the reasons are simple. First, the film offers two fun examples of figurative speech that can be discussed in the short blog format. Second, while Augustine would clearly not have applied his rules for reading Christian doctrine to a Marvel comic, he does state, “[H]uman institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life – we must take and turn to a Christian use". And comics have certainly saturated the film market of late, which may mean that they are somewhat indispensable...or at least worthy of a few notes. Therefore, with a sort of blessing, we will venture into the types of metaphor provided by Groot and Drax (Guardians of the Galaxy) as discussed in On Christian Doctrine by St. Augustine.

Augustine discusses unknown signs as one of the problems in understanding scripture. So, in the Bible, stories can be literal and straightforward, or they can be figurative. The reader must decide which type of speech applies to each passage. Even though we understand the word for sheep, for example, the author may compare an aspect of sheep to a human condition, using the sheep as a metaphor. However, the Bible weaves back and forth switching without warning – in much the same way that we speak, and perhaps think. Add to that the mystery of translation, and honest understanding can get very complex very quickly. Augustine states, “Some of these [words], although they could have been translated, have been preserved in their original form on account of the more sacred authority that attaches to it, as for example, Amen and Halleluia. Some of them, again, are said to be untranslatable into another tongue”. As a way around the struggle of interpreting signs, Augustine suggests being “meek and lowly at heart”. He suggests that we listen, learn and not impose our thoughts on new ideas. Or, as Montaigne would say, “we shall find that it is rather familiarity than knowledge that takes away strangeness.” Free your mind of preconceived notions in order to familiarize yourself with an outside view or opinion. Accordingly, science fiction is a genre that, at times, challenges our perspective and boundaries. Enter Marvel's 2014 film, Guardians of the Galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a humorous and entertaining tale of misfits. Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are a pair of misfit, petty thieves. Groot is an oversized tree trunk that can rapidly grow branches as his main line of defense. His speech (yes, the tree talks!) is limited to three words: I am Groot. The second character, Rocket, is a giant raccoon: overly-bossy, overly-talkative, egotistical but also, an electronic whizz. Amazingly, these two unnatural beings somehow communicate effectively. Their unique communication and combined skill-sets actually make them a very effective team. Rocket has learned to understand Groot's intonation and the way that he applies the three words: “I am Groot” to different situations. Those three words relay a lot of information if one is actually listening.

When the hero of the story, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), meets Groot, he quickly becomes disgusted at the inability to communicate. Quill asks a few different questions and gets the same answer: “I am Groot.” When Quill complains about Groot's lack of language, Rocket shrugs and replies, “Well. He don't know talking good like me and you. So his vocabulistics is limited to 'I' and 'am' and 'Groot.' Exclusively in that order.” Annoyed, Quill does not understand Groot's actual capabilities. What Quill does not understand is that Groot is answering his questions, he simply has not listened. They do not speak the same language. (The question of why a tree understands humans, but humans do not understand a tree, I leave to you).

Augustine warns of a scenario similar to this miscommunication between Quill and Groot. Augustine asks that we disregard preconceived notions in an attempt to understand difficult and foreign language. In other words, look for meaning from as many angles as possible in order to derive the best possible meaning. It is important to know when speech is literal and when it is figurative. He states, “He, however, who does not understand what a sign signifies, but yet knows that it is a sign, is not in bondage”. Therefore, in our movie analogy, Rocket, the oversized, egotistical raccoon is light years ahead of the human Quill. Ironic.

But Quill is a bit better off than some other characters in the movie, namely, Drax (Dave Buatista). We meet Drax while he is in prison. He finds Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and intends to kill her to revenge the death of his wife and daughters. Quill convinces Drax to stop until they all kill their main target. During this scene, Quill draws a finger across his throat to indicate a slit throat. Puzzled, Drax replies, “Why would I put my finger on his throat?” Quill, obviously dumbfounded, repeats what he believes to be a universal symbol for murder. It becomes more absurd as they argue and Quill says, “It's a symbol. This is a symbol for you slicing his throat.” To which Drax quickly replies, “I would not slice his throat. I would cut his head clean off.” At this point, the audience laughs because the misunderstanding cannot be breached. But the point is interesting. In this scenario, both speak English, but clearly, they have not communicated well. Therefore, the movie hosts a character who speaks only figuratively (as far as we can tell) in Groot, and a completely literal character, Drax.

This kind of troubled communication leads to the audience's enjoyment within the frame of a movie, but you can see how it would be less than fun in a real-life scenario. As Augustine stated, we can see how a little patience and humility might have led to a less difficult relationship. Of course, much to audience satisfaction, these characters do grow and learn. At the end of the movie, instead of “I am Groot,” Groot says, “We are Groot.” And, Drax uses an actual metaphor. Better yet, Rocket has become just a shade more charitable and humble and Quill learned to love someone besides himself. It is as Augustine says, “[L]et charity...call you back to benevolence, and interpret the coals of fire as the burning groans of penitence by which a man's pride is cured who bewails that he has been the enemy of one who came to his assistance in distress”. Pride often colors communication, whether we know it or not. While far-fetched (for many reasons), Guardians of the Galaxy, offers an interesting dialogue regarding communication styles and the translation of metaphor. And, of course, many thanks to St. Augustine for adding humility.

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