Augustine in the Wasteland

Notes from a lecture I gave in Humanities 104 this morning. Too preachy, perhaps, but given the events I begin with, perhaps that’s understandable.



About six weeks ago (Dec. 2), the mass shooting in San Bernadino took place


Initial reports: a man and woman. It was unclear why. Speculation rampant, motive unknown.


A few days earlier, a middle-aged man had gone into a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs and shot three people dead. In the early


Explanations would eventually emerge for each shooting, and the news cycle and pundit talking points would grind again with their the predictable spin—round and around, pointlessly spinning, getting all of us nowhere.  More and more repetitive bullshit, signifying nothing.


Nobody says anything that is of any substance. All we get with such analysis is a close look at details, and a rush to judgment that is really nothing more than a tremendous shifting of blame.


It was radicalized Muslims that did it. It was a right-wing nutjob that did it. These things, these horrific awful things, were carried out by people who had somehow gone off the grid of normal human behavior.


But let’s entertain for the moment, for one crazy moment, that we wanted not to let the wheels pointlessly spin, that get somewhere in our understanding, to comprehend for real


Hearing about Colorado Springs and San Bernadino, as I do whenever I hear such things—and we all hear about such things now with a dismaying predictability—I thought about St. Augustine.


What if the reason such horrific things take place is NOT an irregularity

but IN FACT an inherent component of human behavior?

What if we kill each other not in spite of our humanity but precisely because of it?


Trust me, that is a thing you will not hear somebody say on CNN or Fox News. That is the sort of truth you have to get from philosopher or a poet.


The problem is not the abnormal behavior, but lies in the “normal heart”


WH Auden, “Sept. 1. 1939”


Faces along the bar Cling

to their average day:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home;

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.


There’s truth here, of course, but it’s the truth of description. It’s possible to go still further.


In the first book of his Confessions—the work he wrote as a spiritual biography—Augustine had put this still more pointedly.


We hear of a murder, and we ask Why did it happen? Did one man take another’s money, or his wife? What accounts for this behavior?


But then Augustine turns the issue on its head, and in doing so, comes to a far deeper insight.


Yes, murder happens often. The question we should ask ourselves is not why such things happen. But rather, why do they not happen all the time?


Not why does one person kill another, but instead, why are we not constantly trying to kill each other?


THAT is the mystery

THAT is the question we should be pursuing

THAT is the way off of the pointlessly spinning wheels that get you nowhere


Why are we not always acting on our own worst impulses?

For Augustine, the answer is a simple one: because of the Grace of God.


A position we should rightly call anti-Pelagianism. Human nature not good by nature but inclined toward evil. Rather than focusing on Creation and the Creator, it focuses on Destruction and undoing the work of the Creator.


“In the beginning, when God created the heaven and the earth, the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”


Evil not as a thing, but the lack of things—the opposite of creation. Evil then is simply privation, the absence of good—to do evil is to tend away from what God has made and instead to seek the void and the darkness.


“So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Portia in Merchant of Venice


not mischievous but rather characterized by naught— a world of absence and emptiness







OK, so let me back up. Who was this Augustine fellow?


Give you “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” (as The Catcher in the Rye opens)—all the stuff you can look up on Wikipedia if you’re inclined for a quick info-fix.


Born 354 AD in North Africa, and died in 430 AD


Roman Empire—converted to Christianity in the generation before he was born by the Emperor Constantine


In hic signo, vinces (Symbols and triumphs: an interesting motif of late antique and medieval Christianity)


Pagans, Jews, and Christians—a world of intellectual tumult. Different sorts of ideological claims and commitments


Not all theological controversies stamped out at the Council of Nicaea in the 320s.


Augustine himself an important contributor to the latter manifestation of these theological debates—


A good example is the Donatist controversy: under Diocletian, priests disqualified for collaborating, failing to stand up and resist, for failing to be martyrs


Virtue is no such short supply, so little reason to trust to human rectitude

Qualified trust in institutions for saving sould


In the same way that pagan people can be baptized, so pagan institutions can be turned to Christian purposes—turning from pointlessness toward positive goal


Romanesque and Gothic architecture developing from forms of Roman buildings


Same period: Jerome translating Bible into Latin, for the people (Vulgate)

(Luther will do the same a millenium later)


Appropriation? or CONVERSION


What can be done for a culture can be done for the individual, Augustine feels and the Confessions his story of how this happened with him.




In the opening of the Confessions, Augustine reflects upon his own coming to terms with the need for God’s grace.


The opening chapters are elaborate and complicated, not simple and straightforward. When you read them, do not think of them as wordy meanderings but rather as a sort of labyrinth that is intended to disorient and then re-orient the reader.


I think you should think of it then way you might when you look at a the ornate lettering of a medieval manuscript


Didn’t these scribes realize that those things are hard to read? You know, they did know that. But they didn’t feel that their purpose was to ease people’s reading, making it possible to get through it more quickly so they can—what? get on with more important things of their day?—but rather to slow them down, spend more time with it, so they would realize that this was the more important thing they had to do with their day.


“The restless heart which does not find its place of rest until it comes to rest in you, O Lord.”


In his prologue, Augustine is enacting the idea of the journey, a disorienting, unsettling, criss-crossing journey—a thematic miniature of the Confessions as a whole,


in which we feel strongly that the author is writing his life as a kind of welding-together of significant Greco-Roman themes and Judaeo-Christian insights. He lives in the Roman Empire but called to


The Confessions—for those of you who might have been here last term and read Virgil and Genesis—is a spiritual Aeneid or the story of Abraham–journeys off to an unknown but somehow promised worlds.


Such literature, and its interpretation [careful examination, reflection, discernment, considered judgment] is Augustine’s milieu.


A world of learning—where salvation comes not as it did for St. Peter, who was approached by Christ as doing his job as a fisherman, or St. Paul, who was knocked off his horse in a very dramatic fashion. I don’t think many of us anticipate personal appearances by Jesus or blinding flashes of light. Books, though.


Tolle, lege.


In some ways, he’s a very familiar sort for all of you at this point in your —steeped in an elite form of education, training for a white-collar job, ready to take your place in government, business, finance, management, etc.


Wonderful moment when A has delivered a panegyric for the emperor – with the drunk.


Not true Happiness, but at least not true Unhappiness, such as he was feeling.


It’s worth thinking about Augustine and that definition I had mentioned before of EVIL


Augustine—focused on things many of us here would also focus on. Worldly achievement, material well-being, sexual pleaure


AND YET: Factus Sum Mihi Regio Egestatis


Not productive, not creative but solipsistic, stunted, a life without any larger meaning





Here let us turn Prodigal Son story—his highly allegorical reading


Older brother/youunger brother

Jews (those of the old covenant)


God would save us, Augustine says, and the means of salvation are at hand if only we seek them.


Signs are around us—the book of Nature itself instructs us


It is necessary for the younger son to realize his disgrace (dis-grace) and to seek his father


But what is it we seek? Quote Merchant of Venice again:


Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy.


Links to other readings:


Now, I can see Prof. Macdonald, who’s a genuine English professor that the full quotation “Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this”

anti-Semitism we will encounter


Already mentioned Luther

I think we will see, from Prof. Maclaren’s discussions of visual culture the ways in which allegory is operative.


Sexuality : “Grant me chastity, but not yet” –Courtly Love, as well as Bocaccio’s Decameron. Plague, widespread death, celebration of life– not as Augustine would see sexuality


The theme of pilgimage and journeying


Community, esp as institutionalized: what we owe others and how we live together to bolster and support one another: Benedict and Beowulf, and perhaps even Machiavelli & Castiglione

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Augustine in the Wasteland

  1. timtrue says:

    It’s okay, Chris. All of mine are too preachy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s