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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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Love in Troilus and Criseyde

December 15, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post. Also, thanks to HMU Tutor Dominique Wagner for a wonderful discussion which resulted in some of the questions posed in today's blog.

“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly as love.” - Erich Fromm

Listen to John Cage's Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard while reading of love.

What kind of love do Troilus and Criseyde share? Courtly love, romantic love, passionate love, committed love, friendly love, dutiful love? I could go on. We have so many types of love, and we use the word so often that it may refer to our favorite food (as in “I love pie”) all the way down to the essential core of our being. More than merely defining what type of love they share, however, I propose that Troilus and Criseyde do not share love at all. Let me explain.

Let me start with a note on the style of the work. Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in Rhyme Royal. This just sounds like the form that such an idealized notion would take – that love be represented in Rhyme Royal sounds fitting, doesn't it? Rhyme Royal consists of stanzas that contain 7 lines of iambic pentameter rhymed in ababbcc format. It is common to fuse elevated speech with elevated notions (or nobility). Shakespeare often employs this tactic, as does Chaucer. And both do it with great success. So, the rhyme scheme alone may be a hint to the reader.

In the story, Troilus, the son of Priam, has fallen in love with Criseyde. He pines away for her and finds himself growing weaker at the idea of both having her love, and of being scorned by her. As Troilus pines away, his friend Pandarus offers help. Pandarus also happens to be Criseyde's uncle. After a few schemes and ruses, the affair begins. Yet, from the very outset, Criseyde's participation is at a different level than Troilus'. He has fallen in love with her by sight and, perhaps, reputation. She has yet to truly notice the noble knight. And when Pandarus explains the love that Troilus feels for her, she reasons to herself:

“'Alas, since I am free,/ Am I to love and put myself in danger?/ Am I to lose my darling liberty?/ Am I not mad to trust it to a stranger?/ For look at others and their dog-in-manger/ Loves, and their anxious joys, constraints and fears!/ She who loves none has little cause for tears.

“'For love is still the stormiest way of life,/ In its own kind, that ever was begun;/ There's always some mistrust, some silly strife/ In love, some cloud that covers up the sun;/ We wretched women! What is to be done/ In all our grief? We sit and weep and think;/ Our grief is this, that it's our grief we drink.

“'And then there are these wicked tongues whose fashion/ Is to speak harm; and men are so untrue;/ Immediately they cease to feel their passion,/ They cease to love; they're off to love anew; But harm that's done is done, that's certain too:/ Those are the very ones that passion rends;/ But violent delights have violent ends.'” (Book II, #111-113)

She explains how the violence of a passionate relationship can go awry. She even advocates for her liberty over security in marriage. In fact, she does not address marriage in a contemporary sense, but only the instability of passionate love. Throughout the text, I feel that Criseyde's character is fairly flat. She is not given a lot of depth, but I wonder more and more about her actions. In this speech, she demonstrates her hesitation and her concern for herself. Yet, she does fall into Pandarus' schemes and begins to see Troilus.

Criseyde is not new to the pain of love. Previously widowed, she was also abandoned by her father who foretold the fall of Troy and left. Her father fled to the Greek stronghold just outside Trojan walls. In Book V, her father enacts a deal that trades Criseyde for a Trojan prisoner, and thus, she is forced to leave Troilus. They part among tears and promises, however, Criseyde does not keep her promises. Instead she is courted by the Greek Diomedes and eventually falls in love with him. Once Troilus learns of her betrayal, he pushes harder on the battlefield until he is killed by Achilles. Chaucer writes, “And, having fallen to Achilles' spear,/ His light soul rose and rapturously went/ Towards the concavity of the eighth sphere,/ Leaving conversely every element,/ And, as he passed, he saw with wonderment/ The wandering stars and heard their harmony,/ Whose sound is full of heavenly melody.” (Book V, #259) As Troilus ascends to heaven, he recognizes the futility of worldly love. It would be easy to say that the moral of the story is that the only true love is devotion to God. If so, I wonder why Chaucer used a pre-Biblical setting for his moral? However, I can overlook this based upon the fact that Troilus and Criseyde was an incredibly popular story of Chaucer's time. (In fact, the narrative had been written at least twice - first in French, then in Italian- before he recounted it in English.) In other words, I can imagine that Chaucer used a popular tale to demonstrate his ideal of heavenly love.

There are two things that I cannot overlook, though. First, Troilus and Criseyde display an almost cheapened sense of self-serving love. Troilus, a great warrior, pines away and devotes every moment of his life (even those in battle) to his love Criseyde. In doing so, he implores the gods for help to win her love. Then, when he wins her love, he curses the gods (for making sunlight which signals his time to leave). He chooses not to eat and drink, he foresakes all pleasure save that which he experiences with Criseyde. The entire time, Troilus is acted upon by others, unable to create a plan of action on his own. On the other hand, Criseyde reluctantly enters into the love affair after numerous tricks (created by her uncle Pandarus). Therefore, their love was never truly about the other. The warrior who cannot act for himself and is so devoted to fulfilling his own desire enters into love for his own sake, not for any noble reason. Criseyde, whose main reason for starting the affair with Troilus was so that her uncle would be happy, does not have much choice in the matter. She does not want to lose her newfound liberty. She does not want to be attached to pain and ridicule and gossip. Furthermore, she realizes that the type of love exhibited by Troilus (the intense passion) often has violent ends. She knows, however, that women have little choice, and so in a sense of self-defeat, she takes pity on him. Troilus has yet to realize this, and perhaps he never fully realizes it. Instead, after his death, his soul flies into heaven mocking those who participate in worldly love. Yet, I feel it is unfair to mock love and then claim that all earthly love is untrue. And second, I wonder why Chaucer dedicated five books to tell the tale of their love, and then introduce the idea of virtue only in the last 10 stanzas of the poem. What is the purpose for such a short discussion of virtue?

My point, though, is not whether or not this is a tale of Christian love, but rather, what our actions say about us. Did Troilus truly love Criseyde, or did he love himself, or his own idea of Criseyde? Did Criseyde truly love Troilus? In leaving him for Diomedes, she perhaps chose the smarter path, since Troy was falling and Diomedes appears stronger and more decisive than Troilus. So, is self-preservation a type of love? Would Chaucer say that religious love can also be seen as a type of self-preservation? And, in classic Chaucerian style, what do we know about truth after reading of this love affair? Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, can we only gain access to divine love through an experience of mortal love?

Read the full text of Troilus and Criseyde on Project Gutenberg.

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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 asimon@hmu.edu for more information.

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