Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Confessions: How much of a platonist is Augustine?

(Conclusion of Book One)

The more I read of this thing, the more dismayed I get with myself for having read so shallowly thirty years ago.

Rereading it now, I can see that again and again, I simply assumed I knew where Augustine was going instead of paying attention to what was really going on. Augustine, for example, says that plays that had him weeping for fictional characters led him astray. When I first read this, I read it as simply saying what Plato says in The Republic, that these texts are poor for teaching. I think now that Augustine's point is more subtle and more positive. It's easy to miss this because he goes on and on about his failings in being so enthralled in all this drama when he should have been studying more practical stuff.

At the end, however, there is a flip where Augustine suddenly talks about how, despite all his failings, God's grace was with him and helped him do things he never could have done of his own accord.

Where Plato sees a epistemological problem, Augustine always and everywhere sees sin first and epistemology second. It isn't just the texts he loved but also the teachers who taught him who were sinners. I think Augustine would say that no matter how far astray you go, God's grace is reaching out to you and is there to lead you home.

The second big thing that I missed all those years ago was idolatry. Under the influence of popular culture, I tended to assume the danger of idols and superstitions was the idols and superstitions themselves. I see now that to do that is to treat these things as if they had real powers. Even thought I knew that idols were empty, I thought that superstition itself could get a hold of you to such an extent that the idols you were superstitious about may as well have power.

I have come to see in the ensuing years that the real problem with idols is that they and our thoughts about them are nothing at all. The primary danger they pose is that you will simply waste your time worshiping or being fearful of what is just clay. Any real power or psychological effect is a distant second by comparison to this waste of time and opportunity.

It matters a whole lot to Augustine that the fictional character whose words he declaimed was Juno as opposed to mere a fictional character created for the purposes of entertaining. And it also matters to him that even when he declaimed the words he knew that Juno had never actually spoken them. The whole exercise was, thus, a waste of time and effort.

The biggest shift between my earlier and present readings is one of tone. I now see that this section of the Confessions is full of hope. When I first read it, I projected a vision of the "dark ages" wherein people saw this world as a vale of tears to be endured solely for the purpose of getting to a better life in the next world. I see now that Augustine saw this world as full of God's grace. Those years he spent weeping tears for Juno were years he might have spent better but, given human sinfulness, it is unlikely that he would have done. Wonderfully, however, he sees that even though he did not do better, God's grace was still with him. It's a wonderful life after all—let's wonder at it.

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