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!

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July Quarterly Discussion Review

July 28, 2017

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

“what other end or period is there of all the wars and dangers which hapless princes run into, whose misery and folly it is, not merely that they make luxury and pleasure, instead of virtue and excellence, the object of their lives, but that they do not so much as know where this luxury and pleasure are to be found?” - Plutarch, “Demetrius”

Plutarch considers the lives of Antony and Demetrius to be filled with vice. And yet, he includes these two lives in his volume dedicated to virtue. It reminds me of the wandering post I wrote about vice last year. I ended that blog with the question about whether or not an intimate understanding of vice could possibly lead to virtue. It seems that Plutarch at least weighs the idea of gaining virtue through a peek at vice in these two chapters. He likens the experience to a way of learning music. He writes, “Ismenias the Theban used to exhibit both good and bad players to his pupils on the flute and say, 'you must play like this one', or again, 'you must not play like this one'; and Antigenidas used to think that young men would listen with more pleasure to good flute-players if they were given an experience of bad ones also. So, I think, we also shall be more eager to observe and imitate the better lives if we are not left without narratives of the blameworthy and the bad.” In other words, virtue is not inherent, but must be taught. Therefore, Plutarch details the lives of Demetrius, the “City-besieger” and Antony, the “Imperator” as examples of how not to live life. In fact, as the introductory quote explains, Demetrius and Antony seem to have set off on the wrong path from the beginning of their lives. Both were from excellent families and both excelled in military skills, but failed to understand virtue off of the battlefield. For example, Antony's earliest friends included cheaters and thieves. He loved ostentatious displays of rhetoric, passion, emotion and drama. Demetrius also loved to appease his own appetites. He appeared to have no understanding of virtue as demonstrated by his extreme desire for pleasure.

It seems to me that their downfall resulted from a desire or need for pleasure. And yet, the way they went about pleasure-seeking seems entirely different to me. Once Demetrius freed Athens, he was rewarded with a room in the Parthenon. This previously unheard of gesture emboldened him, rather than humbled him. Therefore, he darkened the Parthenon (a temple dedicated to the virgin Athena) with prostitution and liquor. Even late in his life, as a prisoner, he eventually gave in to these desires. Rather than pursuing virtuosity, Plutarch notes that he ended his life playing dice and drinking, as if unaware that material pleasures are not the true path towards excellence. This seems, to me at least, to represent his own selfishness. Yet, Antony, who also demonstrated much selfishness, directed all of his passion towards Cleopatra. Plutarch often condemns Cleopatra's hold over him and claims that she manufactured some of his downfall. Cleopatra and Antony also held ridiculously lavish feasts and created unnecessary expenses. However, he was devoted solely to Cleopatra in something more akin to obsession. For her, he abandoned wives and battles and all duties. I wonder if this devotion is different from Demetrius' passion for pleasing himself. I am not sure whether the need to please always stems from selfishness or not. Regardless, these men lost great amounts of money and lives in the pursuit of satisfying their own pleasures. Worse than that, neither had much remorse for having done so. And either way, Plutarch condemns them both. Reading these chapters, I am continually reminded of the War of the Roses as portrayed by Shakespeare. A great many lives were unnecessarily ruined in both cases. And more than that, what they started had incredibly disastrous ends, not for themselves, but for entire civilizations.

Even though I have read Plutarch's analysis, and even though he explains the points at which he finds fault with Demetrius and Antony, I struggle to find one indictment stronger than the other. I wonder, which one does he believe to be better? Yet, it strikes me, while reading through these lives, that there is no better or worse, per se. Instead, I feel that Plutarch wants us to understand complexity. Even these two people who had all the fortunes necessary to be great, could not be great. And in the case of Antony, he faults the public for some of Antony's shame. Plutarch explains that Antony played the part so well, was so charming and lovable, that in the end, the people wanted more from him than he did himself. This strikes me as devastatingly tragic. Likewise, the people of Athens played to Demetrius' ego, and in doing so, they created (or ignited) a monster.

I am indebted to those who spent time on the phone with me in discussing Plutarch's dense text. I continue to learn so much, not only from Plutarch, but from others response to his words. Our next Quarterly Discussion will occur in October and I invite you to join the conversation. Email me at for more information.

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Discussion of Dante's Inferno

May 5, 2017

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

Enjoy Liszt's “Dante Sonata” while reading today's journey into hell.

I spent a few hours last week discussing the various virtues of Dante's Inferno. I could spend endless hours discovering the ways in which one gains knowledge of virtue through sin in Dante. His brilliant and horrific punishments both captivate and repel. Clearly, Dante thought deeply about the idea of judgment and what it means to live an honorable life. I am not sure that the answer is as clearcut as we would like for it to be, however. As Dante struggled to navigate the religious division of his times, he placed popes and clergy in this dark narrative. This real-life divide, which would have affected his family, neighbors and community, may be one reason that he deals so harshly with people who have caused other schisms. Either way, it demonstrates that, for Dante, virtue is not necessarily tied to the church, but only what is right in the church. In this sense, the Inferno leads the reader to a path of divinity.

In Dante's Inferno, the reader listens to Dante's questions and Virgil's answers in a descent through the many circles of Hell. (I have often wondered how we are participating? Are we a fly on the wall?) For this discussion, we focused on the Malebolge section, which descends into the darkest realms of Hell. Virgil guides as Dante observes and questions. In nearly every section, Virgil gives concise, straightforward answers meant to keep Dante on the right path (and on time!). Hell includes a hodge-podge of mostly male unrepentant sinners. These people come from all walks of life, some mythic and some from Dante's own life. While they witness absolutely horrific punishments (dreamed up by Dante and meant to match the crime), Dante expresses sympathy, anguish, and horror. Virgil rejects all of these emotions, claiming that those who have sinned must be punished. In Canto 29, Dante identifies a family member, and Virgil reprimands his emotional response. He says, “Be no longer broken/ Thy thought from this time forward upon him;/ Attend elsewhere, and there let him remain”. This lack of mercy or emotion confuses me, however. If this is an educational journey, why are we to completely disregard or remove emotion? Is emotion a hindrance on the path to virtue?

Our wonderful discussion enlightened many aspects of this educational journey. Yet, in addition to the question above, I have a few more questions that bear contemplation, and so I list them here. Feel free to add to the discussion!

First, why does Dante mix real-life figures with those of mythology? Is he trying to do more than write an instructional guide to virtue? Is this a work of art which he intends (or hopes) will rival those of Ovid and Virgil? If so, why is Virgil his guide? More than that, isn't it a bit problematic that pride is a sin, and yet, Dante wants to broadcast his own genius?

In partial answer to a discussion of genius, I think that Dante attempts to deal with this idea of pride and genius in Canto 26. In a beautiful section of the Inferno, Dante recounts Ulysses' actions and ambition. As a punishment apparently fit for the overly ambitious, flames continually devour Ulysses. Whereas Dante thanks God for his ability and genius, Ulysses ambitiously pursued knowledge, wisdom and virtue on his own. Perhaps this inclusion of Ulysses is meant to instruct Dante on how to avoid arrogance. So, what is an appropriate amount of pride, and how must it be demonstrated in order to avoid the flames of Dante's Inferno?

Secondly, in Canto 25, Dante uses very little dialogue, which stands out when compared to other sections. Generally speaking, each canto relies heavily on dialogue between Dante and Virgil. A lot of information is transmitted through this question and answer pattern. In fact, it is an efficient use of space considering the fact that the reader meets people from all walks of life (and myth). Dialogue offers a nice, succinct style of filling in the details. In Canto 25, however, Dante describes mythological beings in such a way that might rival literature from antiquity. Was that one of the goals when writing the Inferno, or did his pen get away from him here?

Third, what is the relation of sinners to those who punish sinners? All sorts of beasts mete out punishment. Where do these beasts come from and, in being relegated to live in Hell, are they in a sense also being punished for some fault of their own?

And finally, is there an element of witness that makes sin that much worse? In walking this cavernous dark hole, many of the sinners ask Dante to remember him. I wonder why? Do they want him to remember the crime, or the man before the crime? Do they want to be remembered for greatness, even if it is their sin which causes them to be great? What is it about witness that allows an entrance to memory? Is the reader also participating in this act of witness? Is memory an important element of education, experience, knowledge or something else?

I will have to leave the answers to someone else. I look forward to future discussions on Dante, but greatly thank those who took the time with me last week. Our upcoming July Quarterly Discussion will focus on Plutarch. Email for more details and information.

Sites that I found useful while reading Dante's Inferno:

- The Paris Review runs through each Canto with a little wit, humor and information:

- An introduction into Dante's Worlds by Dr. Guy Raffa:

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