ST. AUGUSTINE: Confessions [Books VI-VIII]

ST. AUGUSTINE: Confessions [Books VI-VIII]

  • His mother arrived in Milan, and Augustine informs her that he is no longer a Manichee, but not yet a Catholic adherent. She does not exult at this news, but stolidly tells Augustine that, as she believes in Christ, Augustine will convert to Catholicism while she still lives. She frequently attended church while in Milan, and regarded Ambrose as an angel of the Lord because she apprehended that he had induced Augustine to cast off the false beliefs of Manichaeism, and would ultimately convince Augustine of the truth of Catholicism.
  • Augustine often sought to speak with Ambrose about the hesitations he felt regarding the ability to find the truth, if the truth exists at all. However, when Ambrose was not occupied with helping others, he was engaged in solitary reading. Not wishing to disturb his study, Augustine refrained from approaching Ambrose with his doubts.
  • Augustine realized that the Catholic Church did not believe that God was a physical substance, bounded by the human form, as Augustine supposed they did when he censured them in his wayward youth. He rejoices that the Catholic Church untangled the torturous uncertainties with which he previously struggled.
  • He exulted that Ambrose expounded the Scripture metaphorically, which if read literally, then it would seem most absurd, as Augustine found it to be when he first essayed to read the Bible after perusing Cicero’s Hortensius.
  • Augustine argues that God persuaded him to believe in things which could not be demonstrated – either to certain persons, or perhaps indemonstrable to anyone – by illustrating the man beliefs Augustine possessed which he never saw, or was present when such actions were performed, such as things in history, reports of cities and places he had never visited, and the actions of other men, which if disbelieved would render him incapable of living because the beliefs were pragmatic.
  • Augustine states that human reason alone is inadequate to find truth, and therefore requires the authority of the Holy Scriptures.
  • God is gracious in that he makes bitter those desires which are not a desire for God, such as worldly fame, money, marriage, etc.
  • Augustine was anxious about a panegyric on the Emperor he intended to deliver. While walking toward the public place, where he was appointed to give his oration, he passes a beggar, who is rejoicing and laughing. Augustine considers the arduous burdens that ambitious men bear to attain the happiness of the beggar, who can achieve a state of bliss through a few pennies.
  • Alypias, one of Augustine’s friends, who also was a student of Augustine, was compelled against his will by some other youths to attend a gladiatorial game. Alypias maintained that though they could hale his body into the Amphitheater, he would not be present in mind to the spectacle. Thus, he closed his eyes. However, when he heard a startling uproar from the crowd, he opened his eyes, curious to see what had induced the outcry. He saw a man with a mortal wound fall and die. Immediately he became intoxicated with savageness, and delighted in the spectacle; and therefore he suffered a more grievous wound to his soul than the fallen gladiator suffered to his body.
  • Alypius was mistaken for a thief, and arrested. However, the mistake was resolved, and the true criminal finally was apprehended. The multitude, who had rejoiced when they captured Alypius and insulted him, was ashamed after Alypius was exonerated. Through this experience, Alypius learned that the judgment of men is not infallible.
  • Alypius sat as an Assessor in the courts of Rome several times, and people marveled at his incorruptness. Alypius, on the other hand, wondered how men could prefer gold to honesty.
  • Nebridius was another of Augustine’s close friends. He left Carthage to travel with Augustine and search for wisdom and the truth.
  • Augustine began his pursuit of wisdom at the age of 19. At 30, he still was engrafted to worldly desires that were unfulfilling and noxious to his soul. He always thought that the next day he would perceive the truth an grasp it – when Faustus comes, the skepticism of the Academics, etc.
  • Augustine and his friends decide to dismiss the vain worldly desires, and dedicate their lives solely to the search for truth. Augustine concludes that the dissemination of the Christian Faith is not vain. God would not have created the universe and all that is in it if the death of the body also meant the death of the soul.
  • Augustine struggled to wholly abjure his desires for the flesh, especially his lust for women. He recalled examples of illustrious men who were able to pursue wisdom while married. Alypius attempts to persuade Augustine not to marry, but Augustine, enfettered to lust and a servant of the devil, convinced Alypius that marriage is an acceptable way of life for a philosopher and devotee to God.
  • Alypius considered marriage out of curiosity, not desire. He marveled that Augustine was enthralled to the passion, and wished to experience what Augustine considered essential to happiness. However, God came to both of them, and aided them in wondrous and secret ways to escape their earthly prison.
  • Augustine was promised to marry a twelve year old girl. However, they would need to wait two years until she came of age before performing the marriage sacrament.
  • Augustine and some ten other men formed a plan to live apart from the business and bustle of men by bringing together their finances into one common pool. However, when the men considered whether the wives of some of the men, and the wives some of the men hoped to marry would approve of this plan, the intention fell to pieces, and they reluctantly continued on the broad path and beaten ways of the world.
  • He was forced to part with his concubine because she was an impediment to his future marriage. This separation severely grieved Augustine, and he soon took another concubine to assuage the fervor of his lust. However, the new concubine did not heal the wound of breaking with his former love, the mother of his son.
  • Augustine once agreed with Epicurus’ assertion that if we were immortal, and lived perpetually in experience of bodily pleasures without the fear of losing it, we would be happy and seek nothing else. However, he now knows that respite in God is the only way to attain true happiness.

I observed a poor beggar, then, I suppose, with a full belly, joking and joyous: and I sighed, and spoke to the friends around me, of the many sorrows of our frenzies; for that by all such efforts of ours, as those wherein I then toiled, dragging along, under the goading of desire, the burthen of my own wretchedness, and, by dragging, augmenting it, we yet looked to arrive only at that very joyousness whither that beggar-man had arrived before us, who should never perchance attain it. For what he had obtained by means of a few begged pence, the same was I plotting for by many a toilsome turning and winding; the joy of a temporary felicity. For he verily had not the true joy; but yet I with those my ambitious designs was seeking one much less true. And certainly he was joyous, I anxious; he void of care, I full of fears.

Perish every thing, dismiss we these empty vanities, and betake ourselves to the one search for truth! Life is vain, death uncertain; if it steals upon us on a sudden, in what state shall we depart hence? and where shall we learn what here we have neglected? and shall we not rather suffer the punishment of this negligence? What, if death itself cut off and end all care and feeling? Then must this be ascertained.

In my opinion, the most important perception made by Augustine in book 6 is the realization that a man can be happy with very little. When Augustine passes the ecstatic beggar on his way to deliver his panegyric on the emperor, he comprehends the absurdity of the situation. He is distressed and anxious about his impending oration while the beggar is carefree and happy. The values that society has imposed upon Augustine – i.e. wealth, fame, honor, etc. – presumably lead to happiness if on can attain them. However, the beggar demonstrates that happiness can be attained through other, simpler means. Furthermore, the beggar did not bear the psychological vexations with which Augustine is compelled to cope, and the possession of wealth, fame, honor, etc. do not guarantee happiness.

  • Augustine still conceives of god as material because he believes that anything that does not extend in space is nothing. If Augustine thought about his own mind and thoughts, he would have been capable of conceiving of an immaterial god.
  • Augustine’s friend, Nebridius, refutes the Manichean contention that God wars with evil. He demonstrates that evil could not corrupt or damage god because god is incorruptible. Therefore, God has no reason to war with evil because evil is worthless and all its endeavors are futile.
  • Augustine contemplates the origin of evil. He realizes that it is absurd to think as the Manicheans that God could suffer ill rather than believe people committed evil.
  • Free will is the cause of our sins. But who or what engendered this evil within us? Omnibenevolent god would not plant evil in us, and the devil could not have planted evil in us because, being created by God, he could not contain evil either.
  • Augustine reached a pint where he believed that evil is either that which we fear, or evil is the act of fearing. God created all things. God is all good, and his creations are also good. Augustine struggles with question such as why would God create the universe if evil was a necessary component.
  • Augustine renounces astrology. He is convinced that men’s conjectures are a sort of lottery in which some actualize through pure chance and force of innumerable predictions.
  • A refutation to the validity of astrology is an anecdote in which a man’s son is born at the exact same moment as his slave’s son. The master’s son traveled the gilded path of life, aggrandizing his wealth and honor, while the slave continued to serve his master for the duration of his life, the yoke of slavery never slackening about his neck. Twins serve as yet another counterexample to the art of astrology.
  • God hides the truth from the wise, and reveals the truth to babes.
  • Augustine beheld God with the eye of his soul. God appeared as a light takin up all space with its greatness, but not an ordinary light, nor a light a brighter kin of light customarily seen by humans. The light was above Augustine soul, but not like oil is above water, but above his soul because it made Augustine. Love knows that the light is God. Truth is eternity. Love is truth. Eternity is love.
  • Whatsoever is, is good because god is within everything. When a Being has lost all goodness, it ceases to be. A Being is either incorruptible, which is the chief good, or it is corruptible, which means that it is good because if it were not good, then it could not be corrupted. (I do not agree with this argument. A corruptible substance could be 5% good and 95% evil. Therefore, evil can exist.)
  • Iniquity is a perversion of the will, a turning aside and distancing from God.
  •  God is eternal. He did not begin to work after innumerable spaces of time had passed. All periods of time that have passed and will pass come and go through God.
  • He was borne up to union with God during his vision of him, but brought back down by his earthly body, which was still corrupt. The body which is corrupt presses down the soul.
  • Augustine endeavored to attain the strength necessary to remain with God, and not return to his wonted habits of corruption. He found the strength in Jesus Christ.
  • Augustine merely considered Jesus a preeminent man of wisdom, who attained authority through despising temporal things in favor of immortality of the soul. He did not comprehend the mystery in “the word was made flesh.”

These thoughts I revolved in my miserable heart, overcharged with most gnawing cares, lest I should die ere I had found the truth.

There is no such art whereby to foresee things to come, but men’s conjectures are a sort of lottery, and out of many things which they say will come to pass, some actually do, unaware to them who spake it, who stumbled upon it, through their oft speaking.

He that knows the Truth, knows what that Light is; and he that knows It, knows eternity. Love knoweth it. O Truth Who art Eternity! and Love Who art Truth! and Eternity Who art Love!

The corrupt body presses down the soul.

In Book VII, Augustine finally resolves the dilemmas that vexed him concerning the natures of God and evil. Regardin the nature of God, Augustine was incapable of conceiving God as anything other than a material substance. He believed that a thing must occupy space in order to exist. However, after reflecting upon these past beliefs, he concludes that if he had only thought about “thoughts”, then he would have been able to grasp the concept of something existing without occupying space. Thus, he equates the nature of God with thoughts. This is a very interesting insight, and can evoke several different interpretations. For example, thoughts require a thinking agent, and are given existence by that thinking agent. The thinking agent creates God. If there ceased to be thinking agents, would thoughts still exist? Would God exist?

Regardless of that consideration, there is yet another fascinating derivative of this insight; i.e. even if God is merely a thought fashioned by a thinking agent, then He is still capable of influencing behavior, and affecting the material world. Thoughts regarding certain values, such as health, can induce people to engage in exercise and eat “healthy” foods. The concept of God can induce people to “treat one as they would want to be treated.”

  • The temporal desires of honor and wealth, no longer were appealing to Augustine, but he still was enthralled by love for women.
  • Men rejoice for the salvation of a lost soul more than they rejoice for a soul that never strayed from the right path.
  • Men delights more in recovering loved things, than possessing loved things forever.
  • The more peril in a battle, the greater joy in triumph. Eating and drinking are not pleasurable unless preceded by the pinching of hunger and thirst.
  • The greatest joy is ushered in by the greatest pain.
  • An unresisted custom soon becomes a necessity. Because Augustine did not resist the temptation of lust during his youth and early adulthood, the practice has now become necessary to him, and he is incapable of conquering it.
  • A man visits Augustine and relates to him the story of two courtiers who found a book on the life of Antony, a devout Christian. The courtiers were inspired by the book to leave their secular jobs and pursue a life of spiritual improvement. They asked themselves what they were striving for in their secular labor, and could not give a satisfactory answer.
  • Two other courtiers greet the original two, who have converted to Christianity, and wish them well-being, but do not join them in their spiritual pursuit. These two new courtiers evoke shame in Augustine because he believes they are representations of himself, unable to renounce worldly pursuits in favor of spiritual ones.
  • Augustine castigates himself for not having the strength to renounce bodily pleasures in favor of spiritual ones. He is ashamed that unlearned men can immediately turn to God without thought while he, a scholar, cannot overrule his body with his mind.
  • The mind can command the body, but not itself.
  • He struggles with himself to overcome his lust. He imagines his ancient mistresses pleading with him to remain with them and do “this or that” shameful deed. Then he hears a voice ask him whether he truly believes he can live without his mistresses.
  • Then he imagines seeing Chastity, who was not barren, but a fruitful mother of joys by her husband God.
  • While Augustine weeps and beseeches God to help him end his corruption and enthrallment to lust, he hears the voice of a boy or girl command him to “take up and read.” He does not see any children near him, so he interprets the voice as the voice of God. He takes up the book he is carrying and reads the first chapter to which he turns. He read a section that admonished the reader against concupiscence, and exhorted the reader to follow Jesus. After reading the section, all doubt vanished, and a light of serenity entered his heart.
  • He informs his mother of his conversion, and intended renouncement of sex and marriage. She rejoices because God had granted her prayers, an given her a purer and more precious form of joy than she had previously hoped for by having grandchildren.

The more peril there was in the battle, so much the more joy is there in the triumph.

Eating and drinking have no pleasure, unless there precede the pinching of hunger and thirst.

The greatest joy is ushered in by the greatest pain.

An unresisted custom soon becomes a necessity.

Tell me, I pray thee, what would we attain by all these labours of ours? what aim we at? what serve we for?

The mind commands the body, and it obeys immediately. The mind commands itself, and is resisted.

The most important insight to remember from Book 8 of Augustine’s Confessions is the paradoxical statement: “The greatest joy is ushered in by the greatest pain.” This is a recurring theme found throughout literature. Protagonists must often overcome severe hardships and difficulties before they can attain their desired goal, which presumably would make them happy. Alexander wished to inherit a country in chaos because he could demonstrate his courage and attain fame in war.

I recently listened to a video that relates an anecdote about the creation of heaven and hell. God made heaven, and then asked the archangel Gabriel what he thought about it. Gabriel said that everyone would desire to enter it. Then God placed hardships and difficulties around the perimeter of heaven, and asked Gabriel his opinion of heaven now. Gabriel said that scarcely anyone would wish to bear those burdens in order to enter heaven now. The moral of the story is that in order to attain the greatest of joys, humans must suffer the greatest of pains.

Eating and drinking contain no pleasure unless preceded by the pinching of hunger and thirst.

Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics)

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