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‘Confessions: Book II’

August 20, 2015

 

Howard

 

Also in Chapter 4, he writes, “For of what I stole I already had plenty, and much better at that, and I had no wish to enjoy the things I coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself and sin.” Is the euphoric feeling/rush you get from sin greater than the act of sin itself? What highlights into the nature of sin and its intimate nature with mankind does he describe here? (i.e. “Let my heart now tell you what prompted me to do wrong for no purpose, and why it was only my own love of mischief that made me do it. The evil in me was foul, but I loved it.  I loved my own perdition and my own faults, not the things for which I committed wrong, but the wrong itself.”) Also, what connection do you see with his account of the pear theft in the vineyard and the biblical account of the Garden of Eden?

 

Yes, at times the euphoric feeling/rush you get from sin can be greater than the act of sin itself.  It seems the very act of sin is perversely pleasurable, the sweetness of forbidden fruit.  Germans even have a word for it, Schadenfreude, which means happiness at the misfortune of others.  There’s the cliché of the rebellious teen who seems to enjoy things just because the parents don’t and then loses interest when parents don’t care.

 

Finally obtaining what you’re pursuing can be surprisingly unsatisfying.

 

Would we enjoy things bad for us if they stopped being bad? Arguably, food that is bad for you tastes better than food that is good for you.  There was a line from an old science fiction movie where someone comments that they just don’t enjoy cigarettes anymore now that they no longer kill.  The party drug ecstasy works on the principle where it chemically deprives oxygen from the brain giving a euphoric high, pretty much the equivalence of putting a plastic bag around your head and nearly suffocating.

 

Was Augustine’s pear story deliberately written to invoke the biblical account of the Garden of Eden? It seems unlikely that it was a coincidence.  Similarly, it was an act of rebellion against God.  We choose to be our own master of our own fate, to be like God and try to take the place of God.

 

 

Danielle

 

In Chapter 2, he writes that “I cared for nothing but to love and be loved.  But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of friendship.” English writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Every time a man knocks on a brothel door, he is really searching for God.” Do you agree with Chesterton’s statement? What is the difference between love and lust? How are these two desires reconciled in God according to Augustine?   Also, what does Augustine say is the ideal use of sex is for? How has his views affected the church today in regards to sex and marriage?

 

“I cared for nothing but to love and be loved by people” showed that as humans we all long to be recognized and be accepted by others.  It is one of the original sins that a man is looking for fulfillment and happiness outside from God.  We try to find satisfaction and fill the missing part with whatever the world has to offer- in sex or drugs or money or food or possessions or fame.  We are born into the world and continue on the journey Adam & Eve set us upon – looking for the love they forfeited when they chose to prefer themselves to God, like the prodigal sons/daughters, until we ultimately come to our senses and figure out that God the Father is the source of life and love and happiness.

 

“Every time a man knocks on a brothel door, he is really searching for God.” – Well, I don’t exactly agree with that statement.  I thought men who go to brothels might be seeing communion of some sort in human connection/contact, but not love.  In my eyes, those men are just selfish and lustful.  However, I suppose G.K. Chesterton was trying to say that God is love.  Men who go to prostitutes have confused sex with love, and are usually looking for love rather than just sex (as they can simply get sex from masturbation).  These brothel visitors are seeking for God deep down.

 

The difference between lust and love is that Lust is a physical emotion, reaction and obsession to someone else’s physical appearance. It’s when you’re sexually attracted to a person and want him/her only for sex. Lust is when you’d rather keep the relationship at a fantasy level, and not discuss real feelings- with no strings attached.  Lust is when you are lovers, but not friends.  Lust is a selfish obsession and self-fulfillment, more about myself and not about other people. Lust tends to be short-lived.

 

Love is a feeling. When it is truly love, you will feel good about yourself when you’re with or without him. Love is when you want to honestly listen to each other’s feelings to make each other happy.  Love is when he or she motivates you to be a better person.

 

St. Augustine thought that in every man’s heart is this yearning for God, but we don’t always recognize it as such; we feel a yearning for happiness, fulfillment, peace, love, but in the real world it’s never enough.  We feel temporarily content by happiness, fulfillment, peace, and love but then those feelings vanish after a while.  That’s when we start to look for the real, perfect love from God. It’s like we’re chasing rainbows on the Earth if we look for these things in what the world has to offer, and especially if we try to satisfy these yearnings through sin. We just hit dead ends.  However, when we search for God, we then get a taste of real perfect happiness, peace, fulfillment and love.  And this is the reason that the greatest commandment is to love God above all else.

 

 

 

Bram

 

In Chapter 7 he writes, “What man who reflects upon his own weakness can dare to claim that his own efforts have made him chaste and free from sin, as though this entitled him to love you the less, on the ground that he had less need of the mercy by which you forgive the sins of the penitent?” It seems here that he is claiming that it is impossible out of a person’s free will to free him or herself from sin apart from God’s mercy. Do you agree with him? What part, if any, does free will play in a person’s salvation? Is a person really free? Is free will an illusion then? Does God override a person’s free will in salvation? Can love truly exist without free will? Why or why not? Is salvation from sin and all or nothing proposition – it’s 100% all God OR it’s 100% all our free will choice to choose God? Can it be both?

 

 

To keep it brief, let’s start with listing the three most commonly heard options, keeping in mind that these are often mixed and matched by more careful philosophers than myself.

 

The first option is materialistic determinism, where all we do, feel, and want is based exclusively on the 100% explainable biochemistry of the brain. This option should be discarded if we are to speak about God in any meaningful way.  The second option is that God is constantly controlling all our thoughts and emotions and we are puppets on strings.  The third most-often heard option is that we have a God-given free will and that we are free to choose to follow God or not.

 

As it happens I think Augustine would disagree with all of these and wouldn’t want to mix and match or find some middle ground. For Augustine it was his sinful nature that allowed him the choice to do whichever option, but it didn’t allow him to want what he wanted.  Because the sin appeared both pleasant and reasonable he chose it. He claimed to be blind, in a sense to the fact that sin is unreasonable and unpleasant and that to see the truth he needed God’s light.  This aligns closely with what Paul talks about in Romans 6 about being a ‘slave to sin’, or elsewhere ‘dead in sin’, meaning that our very nature is tainted in such a way that our perception of reality is warped into seeing the undesirable for desirable, the irrational for logical, and the ugly for beautiful.

 

If this is true, then a bigger question comes up, namely a similar one as Plato asked when he wondered how we can get out of the cave. We have to ask ourselves how we can be enlightened to see the truth.  Plato’s answer, just as, say a Buddhist answer is to look within. A scientific answer, or an Aristotelean answer, would be to look at nature.

 

Augustine’s answer is to look at God to show the true nature of sin and the true nature of God.

 

In any case, according to Augustine, we are indeed born in a cave, but a cave that makes it possible to choose one thing or another, but doesn’t allow us to want anything outside of the cave.  Whereas for Plato, the cave was the material reality and outside was the world of ideas, for Augustine, the cave was sin and outside the cave is God. Plato wanted to climb out of the cave, for Augustine, God had to come in and break the chains and the cave.

 

 

Patricia

 

In Chapter 4, he describes the famous scene of his theft of some pears from a neighboring orchard. He opens the chapter by saying that “It is certain, O Lord, that theft is punished by your law, the law that is written in men’s hearts and cannot be erased however sinful they are.” Do you believe we have an innate sense of morality (or a sense of right and wrong) within us (even apart from God’s revealed law) or is it taught to us by our parents and or society? Also, on a related note, do you think everyone has an innate sense or awareness of God within them – a kind of sensas divinitas (sense of the divine)?

 

 

I have a video of my 2-year old niece sitting in a high chair at lunch in a restaurant with her family. Looking as adorable as ever, she picks up the napkin in front of her and throws it on the floor while laughing hysterically. She then sticks her little finger in the air and begins to shake her head and wave the finger and say “no no no!” When her mother asks, “Olivia, why did you do that? Why did you throw the napkin on the floor?” she looks away clearly guilty and clearly defiant.

 

She knows very well that she’s not supposed to be throwing things off the table. So much so, in fact, that she accompanies the act with finger wagging. She is also determined not to look her mother in the eye while establishing her right to do something she finds entertaining, though wrong. Clearly, knowing that napkins are not supposed to be thrown on the floor is not something Olivia discovered on her own, rather, something that her parents taught her was bad. Still, there is something else lurking behind that knowledge. Something in Olivia’s defiance tells me that, even at 2 years old, this little girl has a compass that regulates her sense of right and wrong, beyond her parents’ rules. Her assertion of free will is so deliberate, and at the same time so guilty, that I think it transcends her parents’ education.

 

This is all speculation on my part and thankfully I don’t have to rely on videos of Olivia to reach such conclusions. A widely publicized Yale study conducted in its “baby lab” recently showed that babies as young as 3 months will reliably choose a “nice puppet” over a “mean” one: they know, and prefer, who is good over who is bad. In light of these and other findings, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says that “[…] there’s a universal moral core that all humans share. The seeds of our understanding of justice, our understanding of right and wrong, are part of our biological nature.” Another interesting finding is that while before age 8 children will choose rewards selfishly, after that age they begin to make choices that will benefit their peers, and psychologists attribute this to the role of society.

 

I’ve come to see human beings as remarkable biological machines that God has equipped with everything they need to survive, and I think history shows this to be the case. At a very basic level in society, people have established rules that make life livable and sound for either the many or the powerful, but the seeds of these rules are ingrained in us. Unless power has been completely corrupted, there is usually a logic to the rules. I say this with the knowledge of many kinds of societies throughout history whose laws and mores may appear strange, even barbaric to a modern contemporary mind, yet when studied closely in the context of the time and place, they become strikingly logical.

 

The fact that Augustine holds the pear incident in such regard, many years after it happened, shows the power of his internal moral compass: a society’s values, no matter how stringent, can’t possibly have such a strong effect on a man contemplating his life long after an event. This is especially true since the pear theft is fairly innocuous. Augustine is struggling not with the theft itself, but with his motivation for it. He knows that the instinct that drove him to participate in the theft, egged on by the rest of his crew as he was, was something much more primal and base than anything his parents or the rest of society could have taught him. Short of the owners discovering the pears gone in the morning, no one got hurt; there was little literal harm done. Augustine bemoans his rebellion because he understands who the originator of law is.

 

Certainly, Augustine’s moral compass is much more developed than many other people’s. The pear theft is innocuous precisely because the world struggles with horrific acts of cruelty and injustice perpetrated by people whose consciences are either in or out of tune with the gravity of their acts. Psychopaths, by nature, do not feel the remorse that an average person does. My understanding is that a psychopathic brain is wired differently, as well. (This is a subject that deserves its own attention in terms of culpability and responsibility.) What I also know from my limited knowledge of psychology is that some people guilty of various crimes do struggle with various afflictions, if not guilt then paranoia or something similar. If people are born with a sense of right and wrong, then the abuse of our free will resulting in such side effects makes perfect sense. I think this is true when morality is taken to extremes, too; there can be just as serious side effects.

 

In that sense, I do believe that there is a sensas divinitas in us. I personally don’t know of any society in human history that does not have the sense of an “other”, regardless of how it defines it. As with morality and everything else human, the seeds of our ideas pre-exist in us. Atheism is a modern concept born out of rationalization and rejection. As I understand it, it is the absence of something (the divine), rather than a concept existing on its own terms. By definition then, it implies something that stands in opposition to a pre-existing idea, one that various societies have validated over time in many different ways. In my experience, it can be hard even for a contemporary person to rationalize the absence of the divine, and I’ve had many atheist friends who’ve said they wish they could believe in God. (This shows the big role of society in shaping us). Belief, however defined, is more intuitive, and I think the reasons for this are inscribed somewhere in our DNA.

 

 


Danny

 

Discuss all the neoplatonic references he makes in Chapter 5.  According to his blending of neoplatonic thought and Christianity, how can good things like beauty and friendship become occasions of sin?  How does he view creation and its relationship with God?

 

In Chapter 5, Augustine writes about the beauty of the world and the ‘delightful bond’ of friendship we are all blessed with.  However, he warns that all these things can be “occasions of sin because, good as they are, they are of the lowest order of good.”  Furthermore, “these earthly things, too, can give joy, though not such joy as my God, who made them all, can give…”  In this chapter, Augustine briefly expresses some of the central tenets of neoplatonic thought that he intertwines with Christian theology.

 

In the philosophy of Plotinus and neopatonism, there is a hierarchy of reality.  Though everything around us that we observe seems complex and diversified, there is a unifying principle behind the multiplicity of the visible world that is intelligible to us.  The first order of ultimate reality described by Plotinus is called ‘The One’ which is beyond being and is indescribable.  Another name he uses to describe the One is ‘Good’.  That is the ‘most real’ one can get.  The One overflows of itself by descending level by level to the material universe (like the Sun radiating sunlight from itself).  Therefore, in neoplatonist thought, there are certain degrees of reality that are being generated that are less ‘real’ as they move away from the source of all reality, or the One.  In each level there is less unity and therefore less reality.  After the One, it generates the Supreme Mind which contemplates the (Platonic) Forms, and from the Supreme Mind comes the Soul.  (These three – the One, the Mind, and the Soul – are known as ‘hypostases’ or individual divine substances which make up the universe.)  At the lowest end of this hierarchy is the physical world or ‘matter’.  It is farthest removed from reality and has a ‘quasi-existence’.  It is a passive reflection of the Forms.

 

Humanity is essentially and always at the lowest of the three divine realms, that of the Soul.  Humanity also has two ‘sides’: one has a higher soul that is close to and illuminated by the Supreme Mind, and the other is a lower soul which is an expression of our higher soul on the level of the physical world.  The goal for us is to discipline our lower soul and extinguish it by gaining knowledge through philosophy and focusing on the Forms.  If our souls or minds are too focused on the petty individual concerns of this world, of our bodies, and earthly desires, then we will remain in a lower state of reality.  For Plotinus, we must wake up from our dreamlike obsession with the needs and desires of our lower selves in the world of senses through vigorous moral and intellectual self-discipline.

 

For Augustine, God takes the place of ‘The One’ as the ultimate source of all existence and goodness.  All other things he sees in life (or this material world) will distract us from contemplating God – following neoplatonic thought, that is why he places these material/worldly distractions in the ‘lowest order of good’ in the hierarchy of reality.  We will miss out on what is truly good and worthwhile if we focus on any other things besides God.  That is why, even though things like friendship and the beauty of the earth around us may be instances of good, they can lead us to sin by taking the focus off of God.  We have a tendency of idolizing good things in life (like beautiful objects and other people) which leads us to sin, forget God, or elevate ourselves or others in the place of God.  When we do such things, there will be a great chance of self-inflicted suffering and pain in our lives and those of others.  That is why he says that even though material things may bring us joy, it pales in comparison to the truest form of joy we can have or experience by focusing on God instead.  In neoplatonic terms, all other things we experience materially in this world are just pale copies of reality or lower levels of reality – just like shadows.  Augustine writes, “[Many things] are attractive and have beauty, although they are paltry trifles in comparison with the worth of God’s blessed treasures.”  To experience true reality and true beauty, we must turn toward God, the source of all reality who unifies and completes everything in the universe.

 

Plotinus and neoplatonic thought had a tremendous impact on not only Augustine but all of Christian theology that resonates till this day.  Like Plotinus, Augustine believed that spiritual reality had a priority over sensible or material realities.  In terms of God’s creation, neoplatonic thought enabled Augustine to think in terms of degrees of divinity where there is a sharp division between God the Creator and his creation.  One is divine and the other is not – both cannot be divine simultaneously.  Subsequently, Man (humanity) is not divine, only God is.  However, Augustine breaks from Plotinus when it comes to a hierarchy of divinity – there are no hypostases of One, Mind, and Soul – there is only the unity of God alone.  Also, humanity is not placed on the lower end of the spectrum of divinity of the Mind or at the top end of the spectrum of the divinity of the Soul.  Instead, human beings are created in the divine image or the image of God (imago dei), but we have so perverted our nature that we cannot be restored simply by knowledge, as Plotinus had believed.  The image of God in Man can only be restored by God’s grace and that alone according to Augustine.  In other words, sin and the absolute necessity of God’s grace mark an unbridgeable chasm between Christianity and Plotinus, and all other Greek philosophies and religions which view human nature as essentially divine and merely trapped somehow in the sensible world.  Unlike Platonism, for Christianity, the great division is between the Creator and the creature and not between the intelligible and sensible worlds.

 

 

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