Talk on Augustine and I given at Georgetown

This talk was given to a student group at Georgetown University the evening of October 5th, 2017. The talk was meant to be interactive, so the notes here are more or less lecture notes, with moments set aside to talk with listeners. 


A scholar I admire once described modernity as standing dazedly in a grocery aisle, faced with the impossible cruelty of infinite choices. Anomie, Emile Durkheim called it: a situation in which order and boundaries break down, one’s horizons are endlessly broadened, and all options become, by nature of their multitude, merely theoretical. Reality, which at first appears thrillingly colorful and multifaceted, turns out to be a featureless heath. If you can and ought to do absolutely anything, you can do virtually nothing.

It’s the world we live in. It manifests, yes, in the stray and wandering thoughts that pass through our minds in the supermarket. You come upon an isle of some one-thousand or more boxes, bags, cans, pouches. All of them brightly colored, all of them glittering under the florescent light. Some of them summon up music in the mind; advertising jingles from the radio or television. Some feel distantly familiar, perhaps appearing in this show or that magazine and then taking up residence in your memory without notice. It isn’t possible to know which claims are true, which are false. It isn’t possible to know which features are significant. You wonder: what did I come here for, again? What do I want?

That latter question is more of a torment than it initially seems. Bear with me, for a moment, and consider the matter of juice. It is important, when I go to the grocery store, that I buy my daughter juice to drink. She can’t talk, so I don’t have much of an idea of what juice she prefers; and even if she could communicate, she hasn’t tried all the juices. How could she? There must be hundreds: blends, medleys, some refrigerated, some shelf-stable, some organic and all-natural, some less so, some almost neon and billed specifically as drinks for children, others dull or cloudy and uninspiringly marketed. How do I ever choose juice?

Back in 2004, Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote a book called “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” about this bizarre phenomenon wherein consumers, faced with infinite options, find themselves anxious and confused rather than liberated and energized by the choices before them. Schwartz argues that this notion strikes us as counter-intuitive because we modern Americans associate our vast array of consumer choices with freedom itself; one needn’t look too far into Cold War pro-capitalist propaganda to see that this is indeed the case. We’re loath to give up our choices, because choices mean freedom. But this is a warped view of both choice and freedom, one that seems to end up causing more tension than it relieves.

On different occasions by different minds, Saint Augustine of Hippo has been imagined as the progenitor of modernity, and I think that his sensitivity to this specific kind of anxiety is a large part of the reason why. True, he didn’t live in the kind of consumer culture we do; capitalism hadn’t yet come to pass, and he certainly wasn’t a liberal of the Enlightenment sort. But there are other threads that attach him to modernity: His vivid interiority has been well marked; so has his canny political thought, described as “political realism” by various moderns, though I’ve never had a very thick sense of what that means myself; and so has his struggle with lust, a familiar concept in our contemporary circumstances, porn-addled and sex-saturated as our culture now is. But for my money, what makes Augustine feel so hauntingly present is his battle with the tyranny of endless choices and the misleading understanding of freedom that comes along with it. It’s this aspect of his work that has been most influential on me, and I hope it will be illuminating for you.

I. The Man

Augustine was born in November of 354in Roman North Africa to his sainted Christian mother, Monica, likely an ethnic Berber; and Patricius, his pagan father, from whom he seems to have inherited his now world-famous sex drive, if not the man’s volatile temper. They were a family we might call upper-middle-class. Money came and went. Augustine, evidently brilliant from a tender age, was not going to be able to rely on any hefty inheritance to get along; he would have to make his way in the world. His parents and community fervently supported and funded his education in rhetoric, which he excelled at.

Augustine was also born in uniquely troubled times. Rome was falling, and its people did not have the fortune of being unaware. They understood that their magnificent empire — in all its splendor and magnitude and achievement — was crumbling, and it wasn’t yet clear to them what might replace it, either politically or by way of culture and norms. Many blamed Christianity for the empire’s misfortunes, arguing it had caused a kind of moral disorder and turn away from Rome’s patron gods.

Meanwhile, Christianity was, itself, somewhat fractured. As Rome stumbled, Christianity began to gain serious ground in terms of adherence, authority and wealth. The last great persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian had ended several decades before Augustine was born. Christians were tolerated, and multiplying. A Church heretofore made up mostly of mediocres, the Roman equivalent of middle class persons, began to attract aristocrats. But massive class divisions, not to mention doctrinal breaks and the deep scars left by the persecutions, still divided these earlyish Christians.

Heresy was still a major problem, from the Church’s point of view. Doctrinal matters were still very much up for debate, and orthodox Church authorities had their hands more than full trying to sniff out heresies old and new which threatened the unity of the Church. Augustine would become famous, eventually, for fighting two major heretical strands of late antique Christianity, Donatism and Pelagianism.

But before that, he would dabble in heresy himself. It is often reported that Augustine was a “Manichaean before he was a Christian,” or some variation thereof, which may lead one to believe he was part of a radically different religion before finding his way to Christianity. It’s more accurate to say he was a Manichaean before he was a Catholic: The Manichees were arguably Christians (of a heretical sort), who practiced a peculiar form of the religion refracted through a sharp dualism of light versus darkness, spirituality versus physicality. Manichaeism borrowed greatly from eastern traditions and pagan philosophy; it was heavily theorized, a thinking man’s cult. But by roughly his late twenties, Augustine had grown disillusioned with the sect, and for a time embraced a kind of philosophical agnosticism associated with later Platonism. It was at the end if this peregrination that Augustine would finally become a Christian.

In the backdrop of all this intellectual tossing and turning, Augustine battled his more well-known foe: His own sex drive.

He has gained a reputation through time as something of a rake. One copy of Confessions I own (and quite like) even features an Augustinian figure disheveled and partially nude in prayer, as though escaping to God directly from the clutches of wanton pleasure. It’s important not to get too carried away with this. Augustine likely only spent about three years, between ages sixteen and nineteen, chasing skirts in earnest. He was informally married (or, rather, had taken up with a legal concubine, not at all an unusual situation for a man of his age and station) by age nineteen, and would remain with the same woman for about fifteen years. When it appeared his mother, Monnica, had secured a propitious marriage for him, Augustine sent his concubine back to Carthage from Milan, and briefly took up with another woman while he awaited his marriage to the heiress Monnica had secured.

It was never to be. Before Augustine could marry the well-to-do girl, he converted to Catholicism and took up a monastic life, becoming a priest and then eventually a bishop. He never renewed or began another sexual relationship that we know of.

So it’s worth asking ourselves: How much of a cad could Augustine really have been, being effectively married (with a child) in his teens, and chaste by thirty-one? Likely not too terribly much of one, and I don’t think that’s an idle observation. What Augustine struggled with was lust, which is worth understanding as distinct from sexual promiscuity itself, even if the moral error is very similar.

For Augustine, lust was an error of the will. It was what pulled the will, which has a naturally tendency toward the good, away from its destination in God and instead oriented toward evil. In the case of lust, the will is moved toward sex acts which don’t fit the Catholic marital ethic, which requires that sex be an occasion for the conception of children. (In Augustine’s day, there were extremely vicious debates about just what approach Christians should take toward sex; some people advocated total abstinence, and others something a bit more like free love. Augustine’s stance that sex was permissible in marriage to beget children was sort of a middle-way, which made a place for married Christians in the church to be without shame. Of course, it no longer strikes us as moderate today.) When Augustine lusted, he was either desiring or pursuing (or both) sex acts not expressly for the birth of children; that he was with his mistress 15 years and had only one son, Adeodatus, suggests they used some form of birth control, and we are welcome, if not much advised, to speculate on what else. The point is that lust for Augustine was a constant source of unrest, a persistent whisper, well into his life as a chaste Christian, asking, why not just one touch?

II. The Confessions

The Confessions tell the story, more or less, of Augustine’s conversion, in the form of an extended prayer to God. It’s common to say of the Confessions that we find Augustine with his back turned, or that we catch ourselves eavesdropping on this primal, deeply personal prayer. That Augustine himself considers the work a sacrifice to God certainly suggests that he was well aware of the exposure he subjected himself to in send it out into the world.

Whatever the reason, the Confessions have, regrettably, become construed as a kind of bildungsroman over time. One might argue that moving from sexual experience to chastity isn’t the typical narrative arc of a coming-of-age story, but I think it has its well-known modern parallels. “I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free,” the late poet John Ashbery writes, and that line comes to mind for me more often than not when dealing with some film or novel or other about a person who, having glutted themselves on pleasure and luxury, feels paradoxically empty, and thus pursues some higher, purer cause. This is one way to think about Augustine’s Confessions: As the story of a young man who must venture out into the world and suffer the onslaught of experience before he can become the mature, sophisticated version of himself that can then attain wisdom.

But this gets Augustine quite wrong, I think.

With a good, solid bildungsroman, the sufferings of the hero are justified by his or her maturity at the end of their travails. Consider that master of the genre, Hermann Hesse: His young, would-be novitiate Goldmund, after leaving a monastery in medieval Germany, he wanders the fields and forests, having awakening after awakening — sexual, artistic, moral. It’s all very sturm und drang! But it all culminates in Goldmund’s rich final narration with his friend Narcissus, where it seems all his travails have been for his own betterment. Likewise with Demian, the autobiography of the fictional Emile Sinclair. For the most part it’s Jungian alphabet soup, with a little bit of gnosticism — but of course the end of all this vivid pain and yearning and confusion and even a trench injury sustained in World War I comes to this:

Dressing the wound hurt. Everything I have done since has hurt. But my soul is like a mysterious, locked house. And when I find the key and step right down into myself, to where the pictures painted by my destiny seem reflected on the dark mirror of my soul, then I need only stoop towards the black mirror and see my own picture, which now completely resembles Him, my guide and friend.

Through angst and birth-pains and so on, one becomes himself. This is rote for us now.

But it’s simply not the story Augustine tells. Augustine’s youthful peregrinations amounted to exactly nothing. Everything would’ve been better — much better — had he simply been Catholic from day one, and never bothered with the Manichees or the skeptics or the sins of the flesh. Consider his famous verses:

Late have I loved thee, O beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved thee! For behold Thou were within me, and I outside; and I sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou have made. Thou were with me and I was not with Thee. I was kept from Thee by those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou did call and cry to me and break open my deafness: and Thou did send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou did breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do now pant for Thee: I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee. Thou did touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.

The scholar Sarah Ruden published a rather less archaic translation of the Confessions this year, and put the line a little more contemporarily: I took too long to fall in love with you, beauty so ancient and so new. I took too long to fall in love with you!

Augustine doesn’t see his conversion as the fruit of a long and painful gestation. It wasn’t an accomplishment of his; it’s rather that God pierced his heart, or laid His hand on his heart, or healed his infirmities — there are several metaphors, in the Confessions, for it. But none of them supply an image of Augustine as the mountaineer at the peak of his Everest, or anything like that. Augustine does not go through a process of self-searching with its difficult elements which eventually mounts to an important realization about who he really is and what he really wants. Rather, he relents. The ‘search’, such as it was, was willful and futile. What Augustine sought, he realized, he couldn’t find on his own. It had to be revealed to him, and all he had to do — all he had ever needed to do — was let himself see the obvious.

III. The Will

Part of the issue is that, for we moderns, the will isn’t something we often think of as its own discrete capacity. We think of it as mostly a constituent part of this total entity we call ‘the self.’ The ways in which we desire are a core part of who we really are. Discovering what it is you really want is the object of many of our modern coming-of-age tales.

Consider, for instance, the 1999 Julia Roberts film “The Runaway Bride.” Like most rom-coms, it has a pretty simple moral, and in this case the moral is that you can’t really be happy until you learn what it is you really want. In the film, Roberts abandons several grooms at the altar before finally marrying the right guy. Each groom represents an exaggerated aspect of Roberts’ character. There’s the traditionalist who later becomes a priest; the hippie musician; the brainy entymologist; the thoroughbred all-American sports coach, and so on. In the film, we discover that each groom believed Roberts’ character liked her eggs a different way — scrambled, poached with chives, whites-only, what have you — because she has never really tried a few different kinds of eggs with no other intention than to figure out what she really enjoys. So there’s an egg testing scene. Julia Roberts, eating a lot of eggs, prepared in different ways. She eventually discovers what she really wants, who she really is, and so on.

For Augustine, the will is not so formless. For we moderns, writes D.C. Schindler, the will is “an essentially self-directing faculty which operates independently of any external factors, as well as of the other faculties constituting the human psyche.” For Augustine, on the other hand, the will is intrinsically ordered to the good. The will certainly can err and move away from the good, and oten does. But the will for Augustine is designed to seek the good, and the good is of course fully identified with God.

Which means a couple of things: First, that you do not need to embark upon a journey of self-discovery to figure out what you really want, and thus who you really are. The questions are, for Augustine, somewhat divorced. What you are designed to desire is God; the effects of sin in the world pull the will this way and that, away from its natural course. But you are most fully yourself when you seek God. And second, you don’t need to embark on a journey of trying to figure out what the good is, or what is “good for you.” The good is fully identified with God, and so it’s obvious what you need to pursue.

Augustine figuring this out is the narrative arc of the Confessions.

IV. Freedom: To Rest in Thee

It is perhaps bizarre for us to imagine the Confessions as a great story of freedom attained. Compared to the other stories we’ve considered, the narrative almost seems to flow in reverse: Boy grows up, leaves home, has a good time, learns a lot, and then — sheds it all, becomes chaste, hangs out with his mom, puts aside his past and devotes himself to virtue. In what sense does Augustine acquire his freedom?

It helps to get a sense of his captivity. As Peter Brown recently pointed out in the New York Review of Books, one of Augustine’s most enduring metaphors for his ensnarement in sin is that of birdlime, a clear, adhesive substance Romans would apply to twigs to capture unsuspecting birds, functioning like a glue trap.

For Augustine, the will is the bird, and the birdlime various temptations — not all of them even expressly evil, simply capable of  drawing one’s will away from its intention to conform to the will of God. The struggling of the bird on the fatal branch — a vivid image, if you give it a little thought, of suffering and futility — is the restless searching and wandering that, despite all the exertion, doesn’t get one any closer to God.

Freedom, for Augustine, is rest. Slavery is struggle. My heart is restless until it rests in thee, he writes. What he means is that the jostling of his will cannot stop until he has moved close enough to God to fully desire the good. This is a funny vision of freedom for us: Silence and stillness over energy and movement. We tend to think of things in the opposite way. But Augustine, as I have argued, simply does not identify freedom with options, or with the promiscuous exercise thereof.

One might reasonably ask how cooperating with the will of God still leaves the human will free. The answer is that it’s somewhat hard to understand; one of the many theological paths where reason begins to abut mystery. At the end of Paradiso, Dante has the same experience: At the conclusion of increasingly splendid visions of Christ, he gets a little lost trying to make sense of the unity of all things in Jesus. My wings were not made for that flight, he concludes, until he has a kind of epiphany — notably for our purposes, it’s more an epiphany of the will than of the mind proper:

But already my desire and my will

were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,

by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

To be a gear in that cosmic machine is to allow God’s love to direct your will: It’s a cooperative action, but perhaps nonetheless a bit mechanistic and determined for our modern tastes. But as we see here, it was an ecstatic and peaceful thing for Dante, and likewise for Augustine. It is what we are made for: Beautiful creatures made of stardust in the image of God, dancing in unity with all of creation, just as God intended for us from the very beginning.

V. Here I Am

Augustine has this charming turn of phrase for human beings: massa peccati, a mess of sin. And for humankind: massa damnata, a mass of the damned. Truer words, and so on. But to offer a small critique of my own, unworthy, certainly, of the Doctor of Grace: I think these terms can make us sound as though we don’t appear as individuals to God, but rather a single, corporate mass. (I think of the pulsating worm colonies someone filmed in a North Carolina sewer back in 2009. Not terribly far off, but still.)

There is good reason to identify ourselves as a group before God — ample Biblical reason, and plenty of theological justification for the theory of corporate personhood advanced very elegantly by William Cavanaugh. We are, after all, humanity, the Church, the mystical body of Christ and so on — any number of identities that are more than just me-and-you-and-everyone-we-know, though they include those members while exceeding their sum. And we have equally good reasons to be suspicious of the emphatic, hyperbolic individualism of our era.

Nevertheless, I think often about the resurrected Christ’s greeting to Mary Magdalene when she comes to visit his tomb. Jesus does not call out to her: human! He doesn’t even say something straightforwardly paternal, like daughter! Instead he says to her: Mary. She has come looking for him, and he calls to her by name.

There are so many reasons to doubt that we ourselves are in that very same position, so many reasons not to believe. This religion, from its very foundations to its more commonly criticized ethical features, barely comports with our modern age: Its notion of the will, the person, freedom, accountability — all of these things differ so widely from our current conceptions that it’s sometimes difficult to justify even using the same words. And then there are all the Enlightenment reasons not to believe, the empirical and the skeptical, the sheer folksiness of it, the baggage. Kierkegaard pointed out there’s almost something offensive about it: What could the creator of the entire universe, Lord of all things, this splendid entity in which all existence unfolds, want with me, a 26-year-old Twitter user? Then there are the political reasons and the cultural ones, and the fact that it just runs counter to our understanding of how we become who we really are to imagine that, in that one moment, when God calls to you by name, you reach the only opportunity you’re ever really going to have to become wholly who you are. We simply feel there should be more to it than that.

I was as much subject to all of that as anyone. You can read all the literature on the downsides of infinite choice, on anomie, on how, like Amartya Sen points out, some freedoms actively conflict with others and so some ways of being free actually diminish your overall freedom — but doing something about it, voluntarily foreclosing the options that make up the modern condition, doesn’t come as easily. It didn’t even come easily before the modern condition was A Thing; look how long it took Augustine, and it’s the length of that wandering among various dead ends and exercises that only looked like agency that I think most properly earns him the title of first modern man.

What Augustine gave me, and it all began with the Confessions, was the ability to respond to Christ’s greeting.

Because it simply isn’t clear how you should respond. In particular, there is this powerful urge — because we live in a society full of choices, because we’re endlessly standing in a grocery aisle, pondering what we should choose — to try a little of everything, to commit only minimally to anything life-altering, to vastly limit one’s #FOMO, to make sure nothing is determined for you, but only and strictly by you. What I learned from Augustine is that you’re not going to find anything, should you go looking, and you won’t be any better off for it than if you respond right away. Reading him, I realized that there’s no secret to who I truly am, that there’s no mysterious locked house I need to infiltrate, Hesse-style, to achieve knowledge of myself and my will. And there’s nothing to be gained by casting around anyway.

What I saw in Augustine’s youthful seeking was a cautionary tale. Augustine does not want his readers to make the same mistakes he did, and hesitate for the sake of hesitation or less. So I’ve committed. I’m all in. My chips are all down. I’ve devoted my life to God, and I try to live as he wants us to live, to do as he has asked us to do. Those lines from Dante I read you are posted and framed in my entry way, the last words I read as I leave the house every morning, and the first ones I see when I return home at night. I try to help others who are looking for God, and I try especially to campaign for care for the poor and oppressed. I don’t have much to give — certainly not nearly so much as Augustine — but I’m giving it all. That’s the genesis of everything I’ve ever written, ever said in a talk, and I owe it in large part to Augustine, who showed me the method of self-discovery I would otherwise have been inclined to is misleading, and that to become fully yourself you do not need to go on any kind of journey. When God calls, you answer as Abraham did:

Here I am.