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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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Peace

January 15, 2016

 

“The days of peace and slumberous calm are fled;/ Those days, all innocent of scathing war,/ When all the fair Existences of heaven/ Came open-eyed to guess what we would speak: - / That was before our brows were taught to frown,/ Before our lips knew else but solemn sounds;/ That was before we knew the winged thing,/ Victory, might not be lost, or might be won.”
- John Keats, “Hyperion: A Fragment”

 

Why isn't Peace in the Syntopicon? For those of you who know the Syntopicon, you will say that it is in the Syntopicon, under the heading of War and Peace. True, but that is not the same thing as Peace. Before reading the entry, peace is already framed as if it can only exist in opposition to war. As humans, we often use opposites to begin a discussion, a way of understanding giant abstract terms. This provides a point from which to argue, define or extend discussion. Before the first war, there was only peace – and therefore peace was an unnecessary, and very likely, nonexistent term. Before the reality of war, peace lacked definition. This makes sense, of course. However, it is also possible that this old juxtaposition can grow stale or outdated. Is there a way to look at the great idea of Peace through new eyes?

Each war continues to define and change, augment and color our understanding and hope for peace. With each generation, war grows in numbers, tactics, techniques and weapons. Instead of periods of peace, we experience breath between periods of strife. If you could dream it or imagine it, what would everlasting or eternal peace look like?

Immanuel Kant states, “The morally practical reason utters within us its irrevocable Veto: 'There shall be no War'... Hence the question no longer is as to whether Perpetual Peace is a real thing or not a real thing, or as to whether we may not be deceiving ourselves when we adopt the former alternative, but we must act on the supposition of its being real. We must work for what may perhaps not be realized...” If everlasting peace is to be realized, it will come, perhaps as something near what Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of: educated minds learning to live together through forgiveness and compassion.

Perhaps, as wars have evolved from tribal to civil to global, our understanding of peace has also evolved. Has it distanced itself from the frame of War and Peace? What would result from a minor edit to the Syntopicon, replacing two opposites, for example, with two similarities? What if instead of War and Peace, it read Peace and Forgiveness or simply Peace? How would our dialogue, our arguments or our viewpoints change?

Martin Luther King, Jr. thought deeply about peace and he cared deeply for the future of humanity. His words remind us of hope, ideals and peace. His words belong to the future of our discussion, whatever it may be.

 

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

 

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

 

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

 

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

 

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

 

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

 

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