Archive for August, 2014

Brown: Augustine of Hippo

August 28, 2014

Augustine of Hippo
Peter Brown
(California University Press, 2000; Second Ed.) [1967]
563 p.

Though it is now nearly 50 years since its first publication, I believe that this biography by the distinguished historian Peter Brown is still considered to be among the most eminent modern studies of Augustine’s life and thought. I first read it — in a fragmentary and harried fashion — when I was an undergraduate taking a course on medieval philosophy. To revisit it now, many years later (though still under circumstances that only a satirist could describe as leisurely), has been a great pleasure. I may have greater affection for one or another saint of the Church, but there is no saint whom I revere more than Augustine.

All biographers of Augustine have to contend with the fact that they are writing about a subject who has already written, famously and with penetrating insight, about himself. Of course his Confessions were published when he was yet “in the middle of the way,” and there remains much to say about his long and productive life. Brown covers the principal events of his life — his boyhood in north Africa, his migration to Italy as a young, ambitious man, his embrace of Manichaeism, his encounter with St. Ambrose and conversion to Christianity, his election as bishop of Hippo, and his many subsequent struggles to defend the Christian faith against rivals, struggles which decisively shaped Christianity itself. More than this, however, his purpose is to set Augustine in his context, filling in the background not with gold-leaf, as in so many of those beautiful medieval portraits, but with the intellectual and social ferment of the times. In this he is notably successful, though it must be said that even his living, breathing Augustine turns a bit wan and pale when Augustine’s own voice is given room on the page. Is there another figure from antiquity who speaks to us today with such immediacy?

Brown emphasizes the influence of Plato, mediated by Plotinus and Porphyry, on the thought of Augustine. His reading of Plotinus was a deep and creative one; he assimilated that mystical system so thoroughly that he was able to extend it in a way that was distinctively his own, grafting it fruitfully onto his theological work. Yet as he aged he moved away from the neo-Platonism of his youth in important ways, and the care with which Brown traces this gradual change is one of the principal virtues of the book.

As a young man, Augustine believed that with the proper discipline, education, and determination it would be possible to achieve a kind of complete spiritual transformation in this life, to live the life of a “philosopher”: wise, virtuous, and untroubled by sin. But his own experience, not to mention his troublesome duties as a bishop among his wayward flock, gradually convinced him that this was mistaken. Our hearts are so ‘wounded’ (his own word) that in this life they are likely never to be entirely healed; even our baptism does not lift this burden from us; we struggle onward, helped by grace but struggling even to co-operate with it. Much of his most potent and valuable philosophical and theological work, on grace and freedom, on faith and reason, and on love, was born directly out of this darker view of our human condition. Brown puts the matter this way:

“The ideal remained the same: the ‘purification’ of the mind, where shadows gave way to reality. ‘In the morning I shall stand before Thee and contemplate.’ But the process of ‘purification’ itself, had become infinitely more complex. In Augustine’s early works the soul needed only to be ‘groomed’ by obvious and essentially external methods, by a good education, by following rational demonstrations, by authority conceived of primarily as an aid to learning. In his middle age, this ‘purification’ is treated as more difficult, for the soul itself, he thought, was more deeply ‘wounded’; and, above all, the healing of the soul has come to involve more parts of the personality. The problem is no longer one of ‘training’ a man for a task he will later accomplish: it is one of making him ‘wider’, of increasing his capacity, at least to take in something of what he will never hope to grasp completely in this life. No one can truly understand a book, Proust has said, unless he has already been able to ‘allow the equivalents to ripen slowly in his own heart’. This profoundly human truth is what Augustine will always tell his readers: they must ‘look into the Scriptures, the eyes of their heart on its heart’.

“… To separate ‘faith’ and ‘reason’… goes against the grain of Augustine’s thought. For what concerned him was to set a process in motion: it was to ‘purify’, to ‘heal’ a damaged mind. He never doubted for a moment that this process happened through the constant interplay of the two elements: of faith ‘that works by love’, of understanding, ‘that He may be known more clearly and so loved more fervently’.”

And, in another place:

Augustine’s early ideal had been to lead a life of spiritual elevation achieved through intellectual effort and in the company of like-minded friends. He later came to see himself much more as a pilgrim, seeking something which he would never find in this life, and always necessarily incomplete: “Do we not all long for the future Jerusalem? … I cannot refrain from this longing: I would be inhuman if I could. Indeed, I derive some sweetness from my very lack of self-control; and, in this sweet yearning, I seek some small consolation.”

These mature views entered directly into Augustine’s famous conflict with Pelagius. In many respects, in fact, Pelagianism bears a striking resemblance to Augustine’s own youthful views, consisting as it does of an essentially optimistic view of human nature, a simple notion of human freedom, and an expectation that a life of moral perfection is attainable in this life. In struggling with Pelagius, Augustine was, in a sense, struggling again with his own self, and this perhaps accounts not only for his perceptiveness but also the passion with which he entered the fray.

Against Pelagius’ rosy view of human nature, Augustine’s can seem dire. Yet Brown argues that it was, deep down, the kinder and more forgiving: “Paradoxically … it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings.” And he did find room: it is reassuring to hear the language with which this pastor of souls discussed his own moral failings and those of the flock entrusted to him: “Many sins are committed through pride, but not all happen proudly… they happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness; many are committed by men weeping and groaning in their distress…”.

For Augustine in his maturity, self-control and reason were insufficient: man was beset by unconscious and conflicted desires that eluded control, and could only be healed by a long process, under grace.

A fundamental difference between Pelagius and Augustine was the way they understood freedom: “For Pelagius, freedom could be taken for granted: it was simply part of a common-sense description of a human being…” For him “the difference between good and bad men was quite simple: some chose the good, some the bad.” But for Augustine matters are more complex: “‘I could say with absolute truth and conviction (that men were not sinless) because they did not want to be sinless. But if you were to ask me why they did not want to be so, then we are getting out of our depth’.”

At the root of our action and even our thought, for Augustine, is our love. He distinguished his two great cities, the City of God and the City of Man, on the basis of the objects of their love. “My love is my weight,” he said, and so no account of human life can be adequate if it does not place love at the center of things:

“For an act of choice is not just a matter of knowing what to choose: it is a matter in which loving and feeling are involved. And in men, this capacity to know and to feel in a single, involved whole, has been intimately dislocated… Men choose because they love; but Augustine had been certain for some twenty years, that they could not, of themselves, choose to love…

“Freedom, therefore, for Augustine, cannot be reduced to a sense of choice: it is a freedom to act fully. Such freedom must involve the transcendence of a sense of choice. For a sense of choice is a symptom of the disintegration of the will: the final union of knowledge and feeling would involve a man in the object of his choice in such a way that any other alternative would be inconceivable.”

That last thought is a rather striking one. I remember being startled by it when I first encountered it — not in the pages of Augustine, mind you, but in Aquinas. It is, perhaps, just one small indication of the pervasive influence which Augustine’s life and work has had on subsequent Christian history.

There are many threads running through this book; I have here plucked at only a few. In an extended (~100 p.) epilogue for this second edition, Brown surveys the extensive academic work that has been done on Augustine and his world since he first wrote. I was surprised to learn that substantial collections of otherwise unknown sermons and letters of Augustine were discovered as recently as the 1970s and 1990s; he gives an overview and discusses their importance. And he candidly assesses his book’s strengths and weaknesses. The latter, while not absent, are rather minor when set beside the book’s sobriety, competence, and humane spirit.

“Of all the noises known to man…”

August 22, 2014

My series of posts on “Great moments in opera” consistently garners widespread indifference. But I can’t resist drawing attention to an interesting article by Roger Scruton on the operatic art. I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with his claim that opera is “the supreme art form” and that “the inner life is essentially operatic”, but there is nonetheless much of interest in what he writes. Scruton is himself an opera composer, and he has good insight into the allure of opera:

Opera is a crown to be won, a sign that the composer has finally stuck his head above the clouds on Mount Olympus. Beethoven wrote his single opera twice, and parts of it more than twice, in the determination to reach the summit where Handel and Mozart stood in triumph. Schubert tried and failed, again and again. Mendelssohn and Brahms shied away, but Schumann laboured for eight years over Genoveva, his only opera, in which the strain of writing is clearly audible. Janáček achieved his first real success, after several attempts, at the age of 50, with Jenůfa. Chausson put his entire life into his one opera, Le roi Arthus, as did George Enescu into his laboured retelling of the Oedipus story. Debussy spent ten years over Pelléas et Mélisande, and Stravinsky’s one full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress, was accomplished only by means of a complete change of style, from neo-classical Stravinsky to inverted comma “Mozart”.

Those examples testify to the determination with which composers have approached the operatic task. Their work might gain only a few performances, before disappearing into the void like Genoveva and Le roi Arthus, like Enescu’s Oedipe, Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Pfitzner’s Palestrina — distinguished operas that are now all but forgotten. Not deterred by those corpses by the wayside, however, composers continue to tackle the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, knowing that, even if they reach the first plateau, holding a completed score in their hands, they may not get to the next one, with a live performance. And beyond that goal lies the distant summit of the operatic art, where stands the handful of composers with works in the permanent repertoire.

He also makes some probing remarks about the recent practice, all too common, of saturing opera stage productions in violence, sex, and a general ugliness (which Heather Mac Donald has also written about):

Sacred things are especially intolerable to those who no longer believe in them. An urge to desecrate is the inevitable successor to a lost habit of reverence. Hence Siegfried is dressed in schoolboy uniform, Mélisande is lying on a hospital bed in sheltered accommodation, Rusalka is taking a bath in a whorehouse, and — well you know how it goes. The best one can hope for in the state-subsidised opera houses of today is that the singers will all be dressed in Nazi uniform, but otherwise allowed to get on with the plot.

It’s a good article. Read the whole thing.

Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

August 20, 2014

I Am Charlotte Simmons
Tom Wolfe
(Harper, 2004)
738 p.

A satire about modern university life has, among the many targets that leap into view, three that are nearly irresistible. There is, first, the prevailing political correctness. A related second target is the quality of intellectual life in our halls of learning, which consistently — and, one sometimes suspects, deliberately — fails to turn out students who are educated, in the sense of being well instructed in the great intellectual tradition of the West. Third, there is the delinquent social life of undergraduates.

In his novel about freshman life at a premier American university, Tom Wolfe has touched on all three of these themes, but his focus falls very much on the last: the drunken debaucheries and sordid spectacles that pass for social functions, the predatory and exploitative sexuality that passes for dating, the inarticulate vagary that you know passes for like intellectual life, and the corrosive effect of all this on the hearts and minds of the students.

Charlotte Simmons has been raised in a small mountain town in North Carolina, but earns a full scholarship to the (fictional) Ivy League university of Dupont. She is extremely intelligent, academically far superior to anyone she has ever known, and she looks forward with anticipation to starting university, eager to live the life of the mind to its fullest. But Dupont is not what she expects. To be sure, she takes classes, and has a few moments of joy in intellectual discovery, but mostly she is appalled. Her fellow students are, if anything, more surly, debased, and vulgar than those she left at home. For a while she maintains her balance and her focus; “I Am Charlotte Simmons!” she says to herself. She is destined for greater things.

But before long a crushing loneliness together with a complete lack of privacy in the student dorm (even the bathrooms are co-ed at Dupont) conspire to break Charlotte’s spirit. It’s hard enough not having friends; it’s worse to be rejected and excluded as a killjoy or a naif. Urged on by friends (whom she meets while ‘sexiled’ from her room at the insistence of her skanky roommate), Charlotte ventures out to some parties, and begins to attract the attentions of a number of men. From there the details of the story become more complex, but the general shape of the story does not: it is the beginning of a long, slow spiral of decline for Charlotte.

Why is it, I have often wondered, that those whose lives are most debauched and corrupt also show the greatest confidence in the conduct of that life? They are the most shameful and the least shamed. This happens at Dupont, and Charlotte, to her peril, falls for it.

There are a few central male figures in the story. Each of them has an interest in Charlotte, and that interest enters into their personal struggles to grow up as men. There is Hoyt, the ultra-cool frat boy who has his pick of campus women, and sees Charlotte’s innocence and reticence merely as a special challenge. Then there is Adam, a nerdy, slightly pretentious intellectual, who nevertheless has a genuine passion for learning and a good heart, and who proves, in a time of crisis, to be the only real friend that Charlotte has. And there is ‘JoJo’, a campus basketball star (Wolfe has a lot of fun skewering the phenomenon of the ‘student-athlete’) whose friendship with Charlotte does him great good. All of them see in Charlotte something extraordinary, and respond to it in different ways. Hoyt sees her as prey, something to despoil; Adam sees beauty and intelligence, and falls in love, but is too unsure of himself to be successful; JoJo is simply, confusedly, dazzled, encountering in her something intangible that he has not known before, but which he is unable to bring into focus. The ways in which these relationships unfold and interconnect are central elements of the story.

Wolfe’s writing is, on first acquaintance, decidedly mediocre. He is no great stylist. The tone is colloquial, informal, artless. There appears to be little craftsmanship in the prose, and the dialogue is unremarkable — unremarkable, that is, except for the astonishing density of profanity. His characters speak a kind of patois in which certain four-letter words function as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection, imperative, and pretty much any other part of speech. It’s appalling.

Yet, on further acquaintance, my assessment of his craftsmanship changed; the merits of his writing become more obvious on the large scale. The novel is well-constructed, the characters are life-like and distinctive, and the story is compelling. Indeed, I liked Charlotte very much, and it was hard to watch her wander, step by painful step, off the high road. And although it is true that his dialogue is poorly written, perhaps this is only because if you were to write down what people actually say, it would be poorly written dialogue.

The book could be read as a critique of the sexual revolution, and in that respect would make excellent penitential fare for the baby boomers who raised the liberating cry in the 1960s. What hath freedom wrought? On Wolfe’s campus, the old standards of decorum and respect, which were guardians of the sense of mystery which the one sex ought to inspire in the other, are entirely gone. The moral law and its social adjuncts, which had rightly sheltered the intimacy of lovers from the wolves of appetite and power, has been forsaken. Even the tradition of dating has died, replaced by ‘hooking up’, a euphemism for casual and frank mutual sexual exploitation. These young people who have learned the technicalities of sex before having experienced love, approach sex mechanically, so that it almost fails to be interpersonal at all — a condition captured brilliantly by Wolfe in a jargon-laced depiction of Charlotte’s seduction.

Perhaps most painful was Wolfe’s canny portrayal of this crack-up on young women. In this book they have forsaken the feminine virtues of modesty and grace, yet remain strong on the feminine vices of manipulation and guile. Worse, they have begun to adopt the vices that have traditionally been the peculiar province of men: they are foulmouthed, lewd, and boorish. Is there anything less attractive? Is there anything less likely to inspire in men the honour and devotion that men are able, and, in my opinion, really want to owe a woman? It is very sad.

I said at the beginning that this is a satire of university life. Like all satires, it reveals while concealing. The world presented here is not the whole of campus life — certainly it bears little resemblance to the life I lived on campus, but then I expect that I was rather atypical. Much of what Wolfe portrays rings true (take, for example, his superbly barbed depictions of campus dance parties, so aptly called ‘clubbing’), and that is both admirable and depressing.