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 I look forward to hearing from you!

To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Code of Law

June 2, 2017

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

Reading through the list of punishments in Dante's Inferno had a very visceral effect on me. I was thinking about the type of lifestyle that would lead one to create such insane punishments. After putting a little bit of thought into systems of punishment, I decided (squeamishness aside) to investigate other ancient texts that include codes of conduct. Today's blog discusses three of these ancient documents: first, Hammurabi's Code of Laws, then Assyrian pillars and writings, and finally I return to Dante's Inferno.

Hammurabi's Code of Laws is probably the most famous first set of laws. Though it may not have been the first in actuality, it is an example of an an early record of cohesive law. The necessity of these laws indicates two things to me: first, that populations are beginning to seek larger communities in which an unbiased law would, at the very least, be helpful; and second, that creating a universal law seemingly assists the public more than the ruler. Of course, living within a known set of rules is preferable to living with chaos and unknowns. A set law attempts to restrict the ruler from arbitrarily changing their minds, while also outlining neighborly conduct. This, in turn, benefits the ruler because structure would enable them to successfully integrate outsiders into his own kingdom.

From this code comes the famous quote “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. In other words, Hammurabi's code is known as a retaliatory code, one in which the punishment attempts to equal the crime. A few examples* of his crimes include:

2 - If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

110 - If a "sister of a god" open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.

127 - If any one "point the finger" (slander) at a sister of a god or the wife of any one, and can not prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked. (by cutting the skin, or perhaps hair.)

142 - If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: "You are not congenial to me," the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father's house.

143 - If she is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water.

Many of Hammurabi's laws deal with property (land, goods, or slaves). At times strict, and at times generous, they define concrete rules for living among a wide variety of people. This would have been crucial to the success of a kingdom which incorporated many conquered peoples. In my mind, however, the punishments of the accuser or the accused would often end in death, so it seems most wise to avoid accusation altogether.

Fast forward a couple hundred years, to the height of the Assyrian empire which is known for its strength in war. Their vast military specialized in diversity such as: archers, foot soldiers and cavalry. The Assyrian society was known for military exploits and techniques that destroyed walled cities. They gained nearly all of their capital by sacking and looting other cities. Their art and writings coupled strong, gruesome language with brutal pictures in order to boast of their success and also to warn opponents away. Without a coherent law, however, they simply relied on fear and intimidation. Perhaps due to a lack of regulated legal codes, the Assyrian kings found themselves fighting more uprisings than new lands. The uprisings eventually put an end to this regime. Yet, their tablets describing torture and military practices remain.** It is noteworthy to add that the Romans may have incorporated some of the Assyrian warfare model.***

Fast forward a bunch and we arrive at Dante's Inferno. (Yes, I am skipping many many things all of which deserve mention. For another time, perhaps.) I do not claim that Dante knew of Hammurabi or of the Assyrian legacy, per se. However, Dante participates in this conversation by writing another code – although this time, in a narrative form, independent of historical fact. His writings include punishments which fit the crime, much like Hammurabi's “eye for an eye”, and some of which are brutal tortures reminiscent of Assyrian tablets. For example, in the sixth bolgia, Dante punishes hypocrites by having them wear a beautifully ornate cloak of lead. The exterior's weight makes movement unbearably painful. Or in the ninth bolgia, those who caused riotous discord are disemboweled and slit down the middle to echo the rifts they caused in life.

Dante's narrative is another way to chart an incredibly complicated political time in which the Church was divided among itself. In fact, Dante's political ties sent him into exile. In his circular narrative, therefore, Dante inserts members of all walks of life, including church leaders, politicians, merchants, family and friends. He then describes punishments for all of their supposed sins which effectively mapped Dante's view of virtue in the 14th century. It also established a very visual text of punishments for sin. Because strong images create strong memories, these texts demonstrate a way in which graphic punishments and threats have changed or shaped cultures and belief systems.


*All laws quoted from the Avalon Project:

and for more on Hammurabi's Code, visit:

** Find a few samples of their artwork here:

*** For more on warfare, read here:

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.