Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Augustine's Confessions book 2

Any time you read any book at all about ethics, you want to pay very close attention to the opening moves.

Most of us read the other way: we want to get to the end and see what we are supposed to do and not supposed to do. That temptation is very strong with a writer like Augustine who casts one very long shadow in ethics. Even if you're reading him only to reject him, you will care a whole lot about what he requires and prohibits.

But that is kind of dumb if you think about it. Any moral system has some flexibility built into it. It would be really exceptional if every single conclusion was rock solid. There is far more to learn from considering the premises. You can learn a lot from reading moral writers with interesting moral premises even if you don't want to accept their conclusions.

Anyway, here in Book 2, Augustine actually begins to outline what sin means to him. And, as is becoming a bit of a theme for this blogging of the book, it isn't what I thought I remembered.

Augustine begins with sex. You expected that. Right? But he doesn't end up there. He ends up with what seems like a rather trivial sin—an account of stealing pears off a tree—as his paradigmatic example of a sin. How does that work?

Well, for starters, Augustine doesn't talk about sex as way of describing sin but as a way of describing human weakness. Sex in itself is not a sin. The sin arises when we start thinking and caring about how others see us as sexual beings.

Augustine is not, as the modern term would have it, sex positive. He argues that it is better to be celibate than to have sex. This, as odd as it may seem to us, was not an uncommon attitude in the ancient world. Sex was what imprudent people, people with poor risk assessment skills, did and it was understood by not a few to be a danger to your virtue in the sense that it prevented you from being all you could be.

When Saint Paul, says, for example, that a married man is focused on pleasing his wife and a single man is focused on pleasing God (a line that Augustine approvingly quotes) he is not saying anything that would have shocked ancient readers. They could easily imagine a military leader saying the same of his troops; saying that their loyalty and devotion as soldiers would be greater if they weren't married.

But we should not imagine that Augustine imagines sex to be a sin. He sees it as a weakness. And one of the profound outcomes of this is that he he uses terms like concupiscence and lust to describe all human craving after base things. Sex is a base thing in his eyes to be sure but it isn't evil. The sin comes when our desire for sex trumps our desire for higher things.

Dangerous friendships

When it comes time to confess the sexual sins of his sixteenth year, a year he spent in idleness, Augustine shocks us by not mentioning any of the things you might expect. He doesn't mention Suzie whom he met in the back pantry way or Pauline on the beach. No, the thing that drives him to sin is not Suzie's bodacious ta tas or Pauline's awesome posterior but his desire to seem like a player in the eyes of his friends:
... I rushed ahead with so much blindness that in the presence of my companions I was ashamed of being less filthy than they were. And when I heard them bragging of their wicked actions and boasting how much more beastly they were, I was determined to emulate their life, not merely for the pleasure of it, but in order that I might be praised for it. (Book 2, chapter 3)
In fact, as he goes on to tell us, when he couldn't match his friends' exploits, he bragged as if he had.  Well, you don't need to be a psychologist to recognize that behaviour trait.

The really important thing, here, however, is that he does do what some who claim to be his disciples would do and focus on particular acts as sins. WHat matters to Augustine (so far anyway) is the thing we aim at. The good we think we'll get of it.

And that is why the stolen pears are such a perfect paradigm example of sin for Augustine. He didn't particularly want the pears. He had better pears already accessible to him. He would not have taken the pears if he had been alone. No, the good he sought in stealing the pears is the shared joy that came from doing evil with others.

The joy we should really want is union with God. That's the basis of Augustine's morality. Does that mean that I have to give up everything else? No.

Marriage and Augustine's concubine

Augustine lets show a few interesting things about marriage. Like Paul, he argues that marriage is a way not to burn with lust. That's not a very exalted view of the sacrament. That said, you wonder what's going on between the lines.

Augustine loved his mother and speaks highly of her in most places so it really jumps out at us when he is critical of Monica. And he is on the subject of marriage. His mother, seeing that he has reached puberty, worries about his sexual behaviour but she doesn't worry enough to suggest he get married so as to not to sin. In fact, she discourages marriage and the rare moment of criticism Augustine allows himself towards his mother is on this subject. He clearly thinks she was only concerned about his success in this world when she ... well what did she do? We don't really know. We only know that Augustine says she didn't want him to marry.

This is all between the lines but I wonder iof Augustine didn't later come to resent his mother's (and father's but the mother matters most here) attidtude towards marriage.

And the primary evidence for this, it seems to me, is his concubine. Augustine kept a concubine and did so for years ultimately giving her up with regret. He had a child with her and he seems to have cared for her and the boy she gave birth to. And what we have to wonder is whether there wasn't a serious regret here regarding the life he might have had. I think there was and that has to affect how we read what Augustine says about sex here and elsewhere. It implies a much softer take on what men and women do in intimate situations both inside and outside marriage than what someone like Alice von Hildebrand would have us take to be Augustine's attitude.

Now, softer doesn't necessarily mean that the rules change, it does not imply that he believed that adultery was just fine in some cases, for example. Adultery is always going to be wrong. But it should be more understandable, and less worthy of contempt that von Hildebrand would have it.

To loop around to the beginning, if the stealing of pears is the paradigmatic example of sin, then lust is the paradigmatic example of human weakness.

1 comment:

  1. This is really interesting. Its been years since I read Augustine, but reading this it occurs to me that some people--like Alice von Hildebrand but she's certainly not alone--have had real difficulty drawing a distinction between human weakness and sin, which Augustine clearly does. So it makes you wonder how much of their own personal bias they bring to the discussion, and you can see how easy it is to do that.