In Which I Free-Associate about the Wisdom of St. Augustine

March 1, 2010 at 5:09 am | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

St. Augustine

Here's my man St. A, looking sheepish, if not repentant.

Even before I began my convoluted path to conversion, I adored St. Augustine. When I first read him as an undergraduate, I was struck by his deft parries of common arguments against the existence of God. It’s a bit like reading Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics in that he prepares the ground for serious philosophical work by setting to rest a series of persistent, fruitless claims. (Naturally people still pull out the same hoary old objections because they presume to know what Christians believe without having read a single sentence of Christian theology.)

I even went so far as to devote the longest chapter in my dissertation to detailed analysis of his famous defense of nuns who had been raped during the Gothic sack of Rome, since he essentially established the definition of rape that prevails today among feminists and non-feminists alike.

St. Augustine also gave me an opportunity for one of my few witty comebacks: When I was in grad school, every now and then someone would criticize me for devoting so much attention to an “ancient white male,” and I would get the smug pleasure of reminding them that Augustine was a native of North Africa and thus almost certainly black (the racial map in 400 A.D. was different enough from ours to render that distinction meaningless, but it’s always fun to tweak the earnest.)

I recently started re-reading his deservedly famous Confessions. This volume is typically considered to be the first autobiography, and it’s amazingly rich. I particularly recommend Book VIII, “The Birthpangs of Conversion,” in which St. Augustine utters one of the most famous short Christian prayers: “Give me chastity, but not yet.” Aside from being intrinsically funny, I love this prayer because it captures the essence of the struggle to surrender to God’s will. That is, we long to turn ourselves over to God body, mind and soul but can’t quite let go of our favorite sins.

It took me 90 minutes to write the above introduction, which has robbed me of the time to unpack a couple of quick quotes. I’ll return to these, then:

“Let [critics of Christianity] rejoice and delight in finding you who are beyond discovery rather than fail to find you by supposing you to be discoverable”

And a favorite of mine: “For you have imposed order, and so it is that the punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.”

Paragraph of tangential chatter — feel free to skip:

The Prolegomena only rates four stars on, compared to five for Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit and Volume I of the Hong and Hong translation of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Fair enough. I’d like to meet the guy who’s too erudite to splurge on a fifth star for Volume II. Come on, give Kierkegaard a little credit — he wrote the whole tome by hand in eight months.

Kierkegaard is in good company, though: the latest edition of J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words scores an anemic four, and the most recent edition sports a truly hideous cover design. Let’s see how Friedrich Schlegel is holding up.

Oh, my. No reviews. Not even of Lucinde, which is pretty spicy stuff.

Love to all.


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