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The Wreckers, in Augustine’s Day and Ours
Edward Feser examines the perversion of human community in Augustine’s Confessions, and shows that the cure is to re-orient our community to God.
The perversion of authentic human community is a well-known theme of Augustine’s City of God. But it features too in the Confessions, as is brought home on reading Thomas Williams’ excellent new translation. Augustine’s account of his life prior to his conversion is essentially a story of immersion in corrupt forms of community – and of how true community is possible only as a byproduct of seeking something higher than it: communion with God. The perverse social order he describes is reminiscent of our own condition today.
Augustine’s well-known struggle with sins of the flesh is, of course, part of the story. The famous opening lines of Book III recount his arrival at Carthage (“burning, burning, burning, burning,” as T. S. Eliot would add in The Waste Land):
All around me was the noisy bubbling and sizzling of disgraceful loves. I was not in love, but I was in love with love, and in my innermost emptiness I hated myself because I was not emptier still… And so my soul was sick; all covered in sores, it rushed outside itself, eager to scratch its miserable itch with the touch of sensible things. (p. 29).
Eventually he would confine himself to one woman, albeit not in a true marriage. But nevertheless, he writes: “I discovered by my own experience how great a difference there is between the due measure of lawful marriage, which is a covenant for the sake of procreation, and an agreement between lustful lovers who mean to avoid having children” (p. 44).
But disordered sexuality is by no means the only perversion of our social nature into which Augustine had fallen. As is well known, in the story of his youthful theft of some pears, Augustine emphasizes that the pears themselves were of no value to him and that it was the thrill of wrongdoing that attracted him. But there is more to the story:
And yet I would not have done it by myself – this is how I remember my state of mind – I would certainly not have done it by myself. So I also loved the companionship of those with whom I did it… If I had been after only the thrill of committing the evil act, I would not have inflamed the itch of my cupidity by rubbing up against souls who shared my guilt. But since there was no pleasure for me in the pears, the pleasure was in the crime itself, and it was my companionship with fellow sinners that created this pleasure. (p. 27)
In other words, what was attractive in the sin was a shared experience of evildoing, a perverse sense of community in doing what is destructive of community.
When Augustine was older, he studied rhetoric, his ambition being a career as a teacher and orator by which he would win the admiration of others and thereby gratify his vanity. He tells us that a perversion of community once again prevailed among those in his social circle, who were known as “destroyers” or “subverters” because of the delight they took in belittling and tormenting other students.
This Augustine disliked even then, and later on in Book III he describes a similarly antisocial brand of sociality he observed in the culture of his day. While merely human customs should be disregarded if divine law requires it, Augustine says, they should otherwise be respected:
As for sins of passion that are against human customs, they should be avoided as the diversity of customs requires, so that the agreement within a city or people, founded on custom or law, should not be broken because of the intemperate desire of a citizen or a stranger. For any part that does not fit properly into its whole is disgraceful. (p. 38)
Yet some, out of “self-regarding pride,” collectively rebel against divine law no less than against salutary human conventions, putting selfish group interests ahead of the common good and delighting in the disorder that results: “They are held guilty… for taking pleasure in the breakdown of human society and presumptuously setting up their own private factions based on nothing more than their personal likes and dislikes” (p. 39).
But there are more subtle kinds of false sociality than such collective nihilism. Augustine describes the tendency he had as a young man toward sentimentality, and toward enjoyingtheatrical productions that generated powerful sentiments:
I in those days, wretch that I was, loved sorrow, and I went looking for things to be sorrowful about. I delighted then in an actor’s portrayal of someone else’s miseries, false and theatrical as they were, and the more tears they wrung from me, the more powerfully they enticed me… Thus it came about that I loved sorrows… the imaginary sorrows I witnessed that touched me only on the surface. (p. 31)
Why would Augustine find this something to be ashamed of later in life? As Roger Scruton points out in his essay “On Sentimentality” (in his collection Untimely Tracts), a sentimental person is one whose emotional life has become an end in itself, rather than a prompt to respond to fellow human beings in a manner appropriate to the circumstances that would typically trigger the emotions. Horrified at another’s suffering, a person with rightly ordered emotions is spurred to help. By contrast, the sentimental person is spurred to luxuriate in the sense of his own refinement for being the sort of person who is horrified at another’s suffering. It is surely this sort of disordered emotionalism for which Augustine rebukes his younger self. It does not foster true community, but at most a kind of subjective pleasure in the idea of community.
Augustine describes his youthful pagan religious and moral life as similarly superficial. Astrology was attractive insofar as it allowed one to evade responsibility for sins preordained in the stars. The Manichaean conception of the divine as changeable appeals to our pride insofar as it blurs the divide between God and man. “For I was changeable,” Augustine says to God, “as was evident to me from the very fact that I truly wanted to become wise and thus change from worse to better – yet I preferred to think that you too were changeable, rather than that I was not what you are” (p. 57).
Yet what Augustine then regarded as admirable in human beingswas determined not by “the solidity of truth,” but rather by whatever others happened to think. “Whichever way the wind blows from the hearts of those who give their opinions,” he observed, “the soul is carried about by them, turned this way and that, its course directed now one way, now the opposite” (p. 55).
Augustine confesses that even the noblest of his pre-conversion relationships with other human beings was tainted. He recounts the death of a dear friend, and that he found it utterly crushing:
I raged and sighed and wept and was in turmoil; I could not be at peace, could not think clearly. I carried my wounded and bleeding soul around with me; it could not bear to be carried around, but I could find nowhere to set it down. Not in pleasant groves, not in games and songs, not in sweet-smelling places, not in well-prepared banquets, not in the pleasures of the bedroom, not even in books or poetry: nowhere could it find rest. Everything was a horror to me, even the very light itself. (p. 49)
Augustine reproaches himself for the severity of his grief, because it resulted from treating a fellow creature, rather than the God who made him, as if he were the highest good. It is only when directing our love first and foremost at the one thing that cannot be lost, God himself, that the losses we suffer in this life become bearable.
Seeking happiness in careerism, fame, and sexual gratification, or at best in other people. Yet, even in that case, being more in love with the idea of love than willing to commit to another for life and for the sake of children. Looking to the shifting sands of public opinion for guidance about what to admire. Absorption in a popular culture that feeds on and fosters cheap sentimentality. A religiosity oriented toward self-exculpation and a vulgarly anthropomorphic conception of God. Associating with those who subvert social order out of prideful self-assertion, group interest, or even just the thrill of rebellion. Augustine’s life prior to conversion sounds much like that of many modern Westerners.
No wonder so many hearts are restless, as Augustine famously said his was until it found rest in God. Christ taught that the first great commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, and that the second is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This ordering is not accidental. If God has made us for himself, then we cannot rightly order human affairs without ordering them to him. We will be left with an empty simulacrum of human community rather than the real thing. You cannot obey the second great commandment unless you obey the first.