"Why is it that you loathe St. Augustine?"
Date: Tue, 06 Jan 1998 20:48:32 -0800
From: Jjr (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: I was just wondering...
Dear Mr. Geib,
Researching some material on Victor Frankl for a Humanities Seminar that I begin teaching next week, I stumbled upon your website. In many ways it feels like I also stumbled upon my long lost twin. A kindred spirit, at the very least. How I marvel (and envy) your education. I've come to appreciate fine literature and philosophy much too late in life, (although I have no regrets for all the "life lessons" I've learned); but I do regret much of the time I've wasted. But who said, "If youth knew, and old age could...?"
Anyway...I just had one quick question for you. Why is it that you loathe St. Augustine? The reason I'm asking is that I teach at an Augustinian university, and I need to use an Augustinian theme as a foundation for my Humanities Seminar. Not really knowing much about Augustine, I have spent the last few months immersed in his works. So much of his writing just seems to make good common sense if a person is interested in leading a life filled with meaning. In fact, a footnote in one of my books on Augustine led me to investigate the writings of Victor Frankl. At the moment I feel like I'm putting together the pieces of one large fascinating puzzle. And your webpage, especially the "thoughts" section, has really helped in this endeavor. That's why I'm confused about your loathing of St. Augustine. That's all.
I've spent about an hour reading your webpage, and I look forward to finishing it later tonight. (I'm a very slow reader--more's the pity). But it really "has made all the difference."
Bardsbabe (If you consider yourself a "geek", I guess you could say I'm a "nerd") ;-)
Thank you for the kind words about my webpage. It makes me very happy to see it bringing to you little bursts of inspiration here and there. I blush a little to hear you say you "envy" my education. Trust me, we are all ignorant - myself as much as anyone. We are just ignorant in different areas.
With respect to Augustine: What I cannot stand about him is the holy-can't-help-it-touch, as seen in "The Confessions," in arguing that we should reject the things of the flesh and turn to embrace only the spiritual. In this, he is completely like Tolstoy who argued that people should ideally lead celibate lives (he made this claim at the convenient age of +-80, when the fires of youth were already quenched). St. Augustine led a notoriously sensual life until his conversion, after which time he was all the opposite. I have no problem with Augustine's argument that one need live an active and fulfilling spiritual life ("The kingdom of God"). Nevertheless, I think one should have a balance between immersing themselves in the pleasures and imbroglios of this world with the contemplation of truth and immortal of the next.
I enjoy a good drunk now and again, and will pretty much take my female companionship where and when I can find it with little compunction and as much pleasure as possible. Like Augustine, as a young man, "With the basest of companions, I walked the streets of Babylon..."; but never in a thousand years will I echo Augustine da mihi castitatem et contentiatem, sed noli modo. While this is not the stuff upon which a whole life is founded upon, I get very suspicious when individuals like Augustine write off a whole part of a past they very much enjoyed as they become fundamentalist-puritanical. There is this lurch one way, and then a counteraction going too far in the opposite direction.
Augustine is an extremist and more than bit an aesthete. Off we go to live with other men in the seminary in a chaste life loving God; this world and temporal city of Man via the fall of Rome do not matter because of the larger fight to secure the spiritual city of God. Augustine fairly smacks of all this, and by instinct I recoil. Moderation in all things, I think - especially religion! And I want to run for the hills whenever an ecclesiastical figure starts talking about the proper romantic relationship between a man and woman. St. Augustine's goes way too far in his extreme emphasis on man's corruptibility and complete dependence upon God's grace for salvation. I prefer man as I most often find him: both hard and soft, good and evil, infinitely complex and ambivalent (and not something in dire need of "salvation"). Extremists like St. Augustine are often the ones who repress their natural inclinations until they finally explode and have their day. Witness, for example, the ungracious spectacle of Tolstoy bitterly swearing womankind off for the rest of his life only to grab some unsuspecting peasant maiden one month later in a moment of "weakness" and pull her down behind a haystack.
If I ever fell so in love with a woman like Augustine did with his mistress (whose name we don't even know!) with whom he shared so many years, I hardly think I would give her up for anything or anyone - especially religion. If there is a God, I do not believe He would lead me to hurt a woman thusly. If there be any divinity, I think it partially evidenced in that which a man and a woman share when deeply in love. I cannot avoid thinking that it is all about Augustine's mother Monica and a man who ultimately could not break free from her in the end. Yes, Monica finally pulled her errant son Augustine into the fold! Augustine's mistress was of course the loser in this arrangement. I always much preferred Vivaldi who lived his long life as a priest in a girls' school enjoying a long and fulfilling romantic/sensual life while making immortal music for the pleasure of himself, his fellow man, and (I imagine) God up above.
It are admittedly for somewhat personal and subjective reasons why I dislike Augustine so. But there it is. I appreciate his historical role as an early philosopher/theologian in helping to bring about a Christian civilization contrast to the barbarism of the pagan Roman Empire crucifying opponents, burning cities, enslaving captive populations, salting the fields, etc. I appreciate his skill as a writer and rhetorician. But there is something in the soul of the guy which I find unlovable. In Erasmus, another religious thinker, is seen more of the stuff which I like: A sense of humor and irony, view of the world which is not doctrinaire nor extreme, etc.
Nevertheless, I have a whole lot more in common in a post modern context with the worldview of St. Augustine (and Viktor Frankl) that I do with so many of those who argue that there is no such thing as the Good, the True or the Beautiful (re: the moral relativists). Our time seems to have taken the side of the Sophists against Plato; and in this intellectual fray, I am one with St. Augustine who was so profoundly impressed by the neo-Platonists. In our time, the danger of falling into the abyss of nihilism and ignorance (of the Word, of Truth, etc.) seems to me a much greater danger than that of the puritanical rejection of the joys and comforts of this world. I agree with St. Augustine that the possession of Truth is happiness, and believe that the honest and heartfelt search for Truth is the defining trait of a civilized man or woman who, in Hobbes' words, has a "perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of knowledge." But I reject the idea that I need place my soul in a Procrustean bed of Christian orthodoxy and conformity to do so. Augustine argues that for him Christianity is the true philosophy, Truth is one, and God is Truth. I see the situation as entirely more complex and variegated.
I hope this e-mail finds you well and answers your question somewhat. Teaching at an university named after Augustus, mine might well be a minority point of view there.
Very Truly Yours,