Posts Tagged ‘St. Augustine’

Feser: Five Proofs of the Existence of God

June 16, 2020

Five Proofs of the Existence of God
Edward Feser
(Ignatius, 2017)
330 p.

Arguments for the existence of God are of perennial interest, and over the centuries many different lines of reasoning have been proposed. You have your cosmological argument, your ontological argument, your argument from design, your argument from moral objectivity, your argument from Bach – a personal favourite of mine — and many others. As a group, they proceed from a variety of different premises, and, naturally, particular arguments are convincing only to those who accept the relevant premises.

Some of the arguments are probabilistic and lead to the conclusion that God’s existence is likely; arguments proceeding from observations of particular features of the world, such as the argument from design, are of this kind. But there is a class of arguments which are deductive in form and proceed from premises which are difficult to deny; these arguments claim to be demonstrations of God’s existence —  “proofs”, to use Feser’s word. In this book, Feser puts forward five arguments of this type and defends them against critique.

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Before proceeding to outline the arguments in question, it might be worthwhile to clear the ground of a few possible misgivings. There are some who see arguments for God’s existence as quixotic, and this can be for different reasons. If God – an all-powerful, all-good, eternal being who created the universe – exists, wouldn’t it be obvious? Or, from a different point of view, doesn’t belief in God’s existence properly belong to faith, and so isn’t it pointless, or even an impiety, to try to prove it by reasoning? Or, from yet another line of approach, aren’t philosophical arguments like this futile? Haven’t people been arguing these questions for centuries with no clear winner?

To the first point, the Christian tradition denies that God’s existence is obvious, in the sense of self-evident. St Paul does say that His existence can be known from the things that have been made, but doesn’t spell out how, and the Catholic Church actually holds as a dogma that God’s existence can be soundly demonstrated, but doesn’t specify what the sound argument is. In consequence, the Church denies that belief in the existence of God is something necessarily held on faith;  rather, she contends that we can know God exists, and that this knowledge is part of the “preamble to faith” (even if, in practice, many people believe in God intuitively or on the authority of the Church). And as to the futility objection – well, the same could be said for many, or most, philosophical arguments. Either you have the taste for this sort of thing or you don’t.

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The five arguments Feser presents are not original with him, but are drawn from the long tradition of philosophical reflection on this topic. He calls them the Aristotelian proof, the Neo-Platonic proof (from Plotinus), the Augustinian proof, the Thomistic proof, and the Rationalist proof (from Leibniz). It should be obvious, therefore, that these are not just the “five ways” of St Thomas Aquinas.

He devotes a chapter to each argument, and each chapter has a consistent structure. He begins with a discursive argument introducing the main premises, clarifying the relevant concepts, and giving the form of the argument which establishes the existence of some entity or reality X. He then considers what the nature of X is and why it is reasonable to describe this as “God”. In the next stage, he formalizes the argument into a set of specific logical steps (between 27 and 50, depending on the case) linking the premises to the conclusion (“So, God exists”), making the shape of the argument as clear as possible. Finally, he entertains and answers a variety of objections that have been raised against the argument over the centuries.

To attempt to describe the arguments in detail here would reproduce the book, so I’m not going to do that. But I will sketch the basic idea of each argument, and then focus on a few particular points that interested me.

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The Aristotelian argument begins from the premise that change occurs, and argues that this cannot be intelligible unless there exists, here and now, an unchanging changer (or, in the slightly more technical Aristotelian language, an “unactualized actualizer”) to ground it all. The argument goes like this: a given object (say, my drink) can change in various ways: it can become warmer or cooler, spill on the table, be poured into another cup, be chemically transformed by interacting with other objects, and so on. It could not change in these ways unless the change was caused, and the cause must be something outside it. Now, this thing causing the change must itself be either changeable or unchangeable. If the former, then the argument repeats; if the latter, then we have arrived at some entity which is unchangeable but causes the changes in other things. It is crucial to the argument that this causal series is not a temporal one (not an “efficient cause” in the Aristotelian sense) but what Feser calls a “hierarchical” series, one existing here and now and operative simultaneously. For example, my drink is cooling down, and this is because of heat exchange, here and now, with the surrounding air. This heat exchange is just energy transfer between the molecules of my drink and the molecules of air, and this energy transfer occurs because, here and now, there is an electromagnetic force which exists and acts between the molecules when they become sufficiently close to one another. And this electromagnetic force is, here and now, a result of the electroweak quantum field filling space, and this quantum field fills space, here and now, because… well, we don’t know, but we do know that the quantum field itself is contingent, exists in space and time, which are themselves contingent realities, and that they must be grounded in some deeper reality. Down, down we go, and the argument contends that we cannot go on to infinity, but must ultimately arrive at some level of reality which can “cash out” this hierarchy of simultaneous causes or conditions for the cooling of my drink. This is the unchanging changer (or unactualized actualizer).

Why identify this “thing” (if it is a thing) with God?  There follows a set of arguments to unfold the nature of this unactualized actualizer, and these arguments are neat (in the sense of tidy and tight) and also neat (in the sense of interesting). Feser argues that this “thing” must be outside space and time, immaterial, unchangeable, good (in the sense of ontologically good – fully itself, all it can be – rather than morally good), omnipotent (because it has power to cause all changes or actualize all possible realities), intelligent (in the sense of containing in abstract form the patterns of all it actualizes), and one. The validity of these subsidiary arguments are to be evaluated separately from the argument for the mere existence of the unactualized actualizer, but enough has been said to justify the identification of this reality with what we normally call God.

Feser considers numerous objections to the argument, from Hume, Kant, Russell, quantum mechanics, and others, and defends his formulation of the argument against them.

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The Neo-Platonic argument begins from the premise that things of our experience are composed of parts, and argues to the existence of a reality which is itself non-composite or, to use the philosophical word, simple. Plotinus called it “the One”. In a way similar to the previous argument, the claim is that whenever we have a composite entity we have a hierarchical series of simultaneous causes responsible for combining those parts here and now, and that this hierarchical series cannot go on to infinity but must terminate in something which (by the nature of the argument) is not itself composite.

This is not just an argument about patching together material bits to make a composite object, but is a philosophical argument that applies to metaphysical parts as well, such as (to invoke Aristotelian concepts) form and matter, if they exist.

In classical theism, simplicity is the hallmark divine characteristic. God has no parts because, if He did, the particular way in which they were disposed would require an explanation outside God, and God would depend for His existence on something prior to Himself (in which case that thing would be God). But something which is absolutely simple is one, immutable (because there is nothing about it that can change), eternal (because there is no cause prior to itself that can bring it into or out of existence), uncaused but itself acting causally on all things, and purely actual.

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The Augustinian proof is quite different. It concerns the nature of abstract entities like numbers, propositions, and universals. From the premise that at least one abstract object exists, the argument proceeds to the conclusion that an intellect exists, and that the features of this intellect justify calling it the divine intellect. Feser begins by laying out a battery of arguments (10 of them) to support the premise that at least some abstract objects exist, and then argues that this implies the existence of a mind in which these objects exist. But this mind must not be contingent on any material reality (since the abstract objects are themselves independent of material reality). Since at least some abstract entities seem to have necessary truth (like mathematical propositions), they must exist in a mind that is not contingent but exists necessarily. And so, step by step, the argument proceeds to the conclusion that the intellect in which these abstract objects exist is omniscient (containing all possible true propositions), eternal, etc., and that therefore it can be reasonably identified with the divine intellect.

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The Thomistic proof proceeds from the distinction between essence — what a thing is — and existence — that a thing is — and argues to the existence of an entity in which essence and existence are not distinct. The essence of this entity is to exist, or, rather, the essence of this entity is existence itself. As such, this entity exists necessarily and all other things exist by participation in it.

Essence and existence must be distinct in most things because we can know their essences without knowing whether they exist (ie. a unicorn), because they are contingent (which would not be possible if an essence automatically implied existence), and because (which requires separate argumentation) there can be only one thing in which essence and existence are not distinct, and yet we observe many things.

A thing can begin to exist only by the action of another, for a thing which does not yet exist cannot act on itself or anything else. But whatever causes a thing to exist must either have its existence from itself or from another. All contingent things have their existence from another, and those others must in turn derive their existence from others, and so on. This is another “hierarchical causal series”, happening here and now, not spread out temporally. But then nothing can exist unless this series of causes terminates in something which has its existence from itself, something that exists necessarily, the nature of which is simply to be. But this is a thing in which essence and existence are identified. Therefore the existence of any individual contingent being requires the existence of something that exists necessarily.

Like the other arguments in this book, this is a fully metaphysical argument. That essence and existence are one in God is the classic Christian position, derived from Scripture (“I AM WHO AM”) and fully flowering in the thought of Aquinas. He proceeded to argue that God, so conceived, must be one, the cause of the existence of all things at each moment, itself uncaused, and purely actual or fully realized.

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The Rationalist proof, which is the one of most recent origin, is based on the principle of sufficient reason. It begins from the premise that everything has an explanation and argues to the existence of a necessary being. This is an interesting one because it requires fewer metaphysical commitments than some of the other arguments, and relies on an uncontroversial principle that underlies all rational inquiry whatever. (Of course, the principle becomes controversial if it seems to imply God’s existence!)

The form of this argument will be familiar to any parent whose children are fond of asking “Why?” to whatever reasons are given them. The PSR (as it is called for short) states that “there is an explanation for the existence of anything that does exist and for its having the attributes it has”. It does not require that we know the explanation, or that the explanation be a deterministic one (ie. quantum mechanical causes do not undermine it). Feser does a good job explaining the incoherent mess one gets into if the truth of the PSR is denied.

The existence of contingent things must have an explanation, given PSR. If this explanation is in terms of another contingently existing thing, then it too must have an explanation, and so on. But this series of contingent things itself requires an explanation, and this passing of the explanatory buck can only terminate in a non-contingent thing – that is, a necessary thing, the existence of which, by its nature, requires no explanation. Absent this necessary being, we can never provide a complete explanation for anything.

The argument then proceeds along lines growing increasingly familiar to conclude that this necessary being must be one, the cause of all things, purely actual, immaterial, etc., and so reasonably identified with God.

**

Again, I have done no more than sketch the arguments here. Feser unfolds them in considerable detail, and devotes many pages to answering objections. I hope that I have summarized them with adequate faithfulness, although it has now been several months since I finished the book.

I find these arguments very interesting. It is a well-known phenomenon that physicists make poor metaphysicists, and I fear I am no exception to that pattern. I feel shaky when handling philosophical concepts like possibility, necessity, potentiality, causation, and so forth. Are these concepts reliable? Do they refer to real things? Do I understand these things clearly enough to reason with them? Personally I don’t feel particularly confident when on this ground. I am wary of any argument which seems to require that I phrase things in a particular way, or use particular concepts rather than others, for fear that the argument is only working by a linguistic formula. But I recognize this wariness as potentially unjust, for does the framing of arguments in particular ways reflect anything other than its making use of the appropriate terms?

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The worry that some of the metaphysical concepts used in the arguments might be merely conceptual, not corresponding to anything real, is, in its worst and most destructive form, the worm of nominalism eating the metaphysical apple. Feser recognizes that the nominalist habits common to much modern thought act as an acid on the structure of these (and other) philosophical arguments, so he devotes several pages to counterarguments against nominalism, and these arguments I found quite interesting.

One counterargument is that a nominalist cannot state his position without having recourse to universals. A nominalist may say that things do not share a common nature (because he believes there are no such things as natures) but are grouped together for convenience because they resemble one another in some way. But, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, this “resemblance” is itself a universal. And if the claim is that this resemblance, too, is merely a convention or name, then the question arises why particular “resemblances” are grouped together conceptually, since this can only be on the basis of some higher resemblance, and on and on. The nominalist is stuck in a vicious regress.

Another argument is that nominalism’s attempt to evade essences or natures in favour of mere names or words is a non-starter, since words are themselves universals. A nominalist says there is no such thing as blueness, but only things we call “blue” because they have a colour in common. But you say “blue” and I say “blue”; are we saying the same word or not? If we are, then we’re using a universal, and the nominalist has failed. As Feser sums up, “it is notoriously very difficult to defend nominalism in a way that doesn’t surreptitiously bring in through the back door a commitment to universals or other abstract objects, in which case the view is self-undermining.”

**

Having presented his five arguments and defended each of them, Feser still has several meaty chapters in reserve. He has already treated not only the existence but also the nature of the entity or reality of the thing each argument arrived at, and we have seen that these things shared certain properties in common. In this later chapter Feser draws these lines of argument together to argue that these five arguments do not exist in isolation from one another, but are drawn together by many connections and all converge on a single reality: God. He then systematically treats each of the principal divine attributes — unity, simplicity, immutability, immateriality, eternity, necessity, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, will, love, and incomprehensibility – and examines how each is supported by the arguments he has presented.

The argumentation in this section is sometimes quite subtle. Feser follows Aquinas in thinking that talk about God must for the most part proceed analogically – that is, words applied to God cannot be understood in exactly the same sense in which we apply them to contingent realities, nor are the meanings unrelated in the two cases, but there is an analogy between them. Feser devotes quite a lot of effort to carefully articulating what this means, distinguishing types of analogy, etc. As a result of reading this section I came tantalizingly close to finally achieving my long-time ambition to understand the “analogy of being”, but I ultimately failed.

The relationship between God and the world is the next major topic of discussion, and here Feser provides helpful overviews of divine conservation (that is, that God conserves the world in being here and now) and the relationship between miracles and laws of nature.

In the book’s final chapter he steps back to consider a huge variety of objections that are commonly raised against the kinds of arguments the book defends.  These range from the manifestly incompetent (“If everything has a cause, what caused God?”) to the thoughtful (“Don’t the arguments based on the impossibility of infinite regress merely establish a necessary condition for the existence of a contingent world rather than establishing the existence of a necessary being?”). There is a valuable section critiquing scientism (the doctrine that science alone can provide genuine knowledge) and a good discussion of the problem of divine hiddenness. Indeed, this chapter, which accounts for about 1/5 of the length of the book, is a treasure trove of arguments and counterarguments relevant to natural theology.

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At the end of this long overview, it is worth summing up some of the general features of the arguments presented. They are all metaphysical arguments. Nothing has been said here about science, or about any particular finding of the sciences. Nothing in these “first cause” arguments says anything about whether the universe is small or large, finite or eternal. It is hard to see how any future scientific discovery could have any bearing on them. Nothing depends on probability, an expanding universe, or the complexity of biological structures. Each argument starts from a single thing that exists here and now: I outlined the Aristotelian argument using my drink as an example, and that same drink could have served equally well for the others (except perhaps the Augustinian, though two drinks would have served there). The arguments are based on very basic ideas: change occurs, things are composed of parts, abstract objects are real, things exist contingently, and there are explanations for things. If the arguments are sound, they establish the existence of God with certainty. They are quite delightful and intriguing arguments.

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I have been looking for years for a book that would clearly and carefully state classic arguments for theism, and especially for a book that would treat the divine attributes philosophically. I’ve read a few, but this has been the best. It would make a fine textbook for use in seminaries or university courses on philosophical theology. The attention Feser devotes to rebuttals of common misunderstandings and objections is a valuable service (though I can imagine a typical reader will have to hunt patiently for the answer to his objection amid the wealth of material). The writing is clear and concise, and I can see myself returning readily to this volume when I want to revisit the arguments or clarify my thoughts. There is much more here than I was able to absorb on one reading.

The existence of God is more than a matter of merely academic interest. I am myself a Catholic, so I affirm the existence of God. I pray, try to act in ways consonant with my dignity as a child of God, and hope to one day see God face to face. I do not spend a great deal of time, as part of my daily routine, thinking about absolute simplicity, hierarchies of causes, perfect ontological goodness, and so forth. Yet it would be false to conclude that these philosophical arguments are somehow irrelevant to my religious life and devotion. The God whom they reveal to the mind is, to say the least, mysterious, behind and before, replete and bountiful, overflowing with power, closer to me than I am to myself, hidden but present within every aspect of my experience, the great fountainhead of being, in whom I live and move along with everything else. There is substance here for fruitful prayer and reflection.

Lecture night: mercy and Malick

April 8, 2018

John O’Callaghan, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, speaks in this lecture on mercy in Malick’s The Tree of Life. He brings that great film into conversation with Augustine’s Confessions, and illustrates the lecture with several excerpts. It’s an excellent lecture, recommended to admirers of the film.

Sing, but keep going

November 28, 2015

A favourite passage from today’s Office of Readings, which comes from a sermon of St. Augustine (and which I have posted before):

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith, and right living. Sing then — but keep going.

Tomorrow marks the start of a new year. Sing, but keep going. I wish you a good Advent.

The flaming heart

October 7, 2014

st-augustine

Following my recent post about devotion to the Sacred Heart, and my aesthetic difficulties with some of the images related to that devotion, Janet has very kindly been searching for less objectionable ones, and she turned up this image of St. Augustine holding a flaming heart. I don’t know if this is, technically, His Sacred Heart, but it’ll do. I really like this image. It is a window in St. Thomas’ church in Oxford — though neither Janet nor I are sure if that means St. Thomas the Martyr, or some other church dedicated to St. Thomas, if there is one.

In his book, Love’s Sacred Order, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes about this image (or ones like unto it):

…traditional iconography has represented Augustine as the mitered bishop with the intense gaze, holding out to us in his hand . . . a flaming heart. Mitered head and flaming heart:  an eloquent icon of what an authoritative teacher and shepherd after Christ’s heart should be–a mouth teaching without compromise the full truth handed down by Christ through the Church, and yet a truth intended not so much for codification as for burning up the world with love.

A suitable text, given the events in Rome this week. Thanks, Janet.

 

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.

Sing, but keep going

December 1, 2012

Tomorrow being the first day of Advent, today is the final day of the Christian year. I love the second reading from today’s Office of Readings, which comes from a sermon of St. Augustine:

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith, and right living. Sing then — but keep going.

“Sing, but keep going” always puts me in mind of my favourite walking hymn, “I Feel the Winds of God Today”. Since I cannot find a good version online, let’s hear instead Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Variants on Dives and Lazarus, which is based on the same tune:

And may I take this opportunity, a little early, to wish everyone a good Advent.

Goncharov: Oblomov

June 18, 2012

Oblomov
Ivan Goncharov
(Penguin Classics, 2005) [1859]
Translated from the Russian by David Magarshack
499 p.

Oblomov is a man afflicted. His ambitions have soured, his friendships faded. He no longer engages with life in such a way as to find either pleasure or sorrow in it. He spends his days (and roughly the first 100 pages of this novel) in bed, sometimes sitting up to toy with his slippers, or to summon his servant, but mostly lounging, idle. To the extent that he dreams of or hopes for anything, it is for an untroubled life, a life of peace and rest (“Isn’t that what everyone is working hard to attain?” he asks.), each day like the one that preceded it, with no unforeseen contingencies and no surprises. The world is passing him by.

His affliction has a name: Oblomovitis!

What happened to him? Did he fail to understand the task life set before him, or did he, perhaps, understand it too well? He makes his case, and it has a certain persuasiveness. Speaking of his former friends and colleagues, he says:

They argue, they discuss everything from every possible point of view, but they are bored, they are not really interested in the whole thing: you can see they are fast asleep in spite of their shouts! The whole thing does not concern them; it is as if they walked about with borrowed hats. They have nothing to do, so they squander their energies all over the place without trying to aim at anything in particular. The universality of their interests merely conceals emptiness and a complete absence of sympathy with everything!

Oblomov too is bored, but he knows it. There is an echo of Ecclesiastes here: he sees lives preoccupied with vanity and searching after the wind, given to distractions and ephemeral concerns, and he rejects such a life. Surely there is wisdom in this. His disengagement from life is not obviously rooted in cynicism or a rejection of goodness. Perhaps he is merely guilty of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

But the story is more complicated. Whatever limited value his moral case for his own manner of life may have, his Oblomovitis did not arise from an intentional decision, not entirely. It emerged from inside him, overtaking and consuming him. He explains:

My life began by flickering out. It may sound strange but it is so. From the very first moment I became conscious of myself, I felt that I was already flickering out. I began to flicker out over the writing of official papers at the office; I went on flickering out when I read truths in books which I did not know how to apply in life, when I sat with friends listening to rumours, gossip, jeering, spiteful, cold, and empty chatter, and watching friendships kept up by meetings that were without aim or affection; I was flickering out and wasting my energies with Minna on whom I spent more than half of my income, imagining that I loved her; I was flickering out when I walked idly and dejectedly along Nevsky Avenue among people in raccoon coats and beaver collars […] Either I have not understood this sort of life or it is utterly worthless; but I did not know a better one.

This adds a dash of poignancy to the mix. Yet life does not allow Oblomov to flicker out so easily. His comfortable world is disrupted by a great power: love. Olga is young and beautiful, and it gives her pleasure to see herself as the means by which Oblomov is resurrected and returned to the land of the living. He loves her from his heart, without vanity, and he rejoices. He does return to life, at least for a time: his world is flooded with light and beauty, and he feels a sense of purpose once again.

They plan to marry, but as the plans progress his old affliction begins to reassert itself. It is, at first, a sense that his love’s rose has lost its bloom:

He felt that the bright and cloudless festival of love had gone, that love was truly becoming a duty, that it was becoming intermingled with his whole life, forming an integral part of its ordinary functions and beginning to lose its rainbow colours. That morning, perhaps, he had caught sight of its last roseate ray, and in future it would no longer shine brightly, but warm his life invisibly; life would swallow it up, and it would be its powerful but hidden mainspring. And henceforth its manifestations would be so simple, so ordinary.

Again, there is wisdom in this, for every romance, if it is to endure, has to make a successful re-entry into ordinary life. But for Oblomov there is always the fear that life will simply swallow his love, and him with it, leaving nothing behind. And there is reason to fear: he is to make arrangements on his estate, for instance, for his bride’s arrival, but he puts them off, feeling overwhelmed by the details. He begins avoiding her to avoid being questioned. He feels himself falling back into old habits. Olga, for her part, sees it too, and her pleasure in her own powers of revivification fades. You can imagine the rest.

This book, it seems to me, is a fable in the form of a novel: a man suffers a peculiar, unsettlingly comic, affliction; he is rescued from it by love; but in the very effort to translate that love into practice, to make it endure, his sickness regains its power over him, and he is lost. It is like something out of The Brothers Grimm. Oblomovitis!

There is much to be said in favour of the book. Even when I thought it was overlong — and its modest 500 page length disguises the fact that the typeface is small and dense (those Russians!) — it gave me much to think about. I sympathized with Oblomov more than I thought I really ought to. Goncharov put his finger on a very particular temptation that can bring a life down to ruin, a temptation that I don’t remember having encountered in a serious literary work before. I will admit that while reading I was sometimes exhausted and impatient, but since I finished it — since I saw the overall shape — I’ve been thinking about it often. There is something emblematic or archetypal about Oblomov, something worth remembering.

He makes for an intriguing, if vexing, character study. His problem is not laziness, not ingratitude, not anger. His sin would seem to be acedia, spiritual sloth, which our tradition identifies as a kind of sadness in the face of the goodness of the world and an unwillingness to accept and engage it. But maybe not. Oblomov’s closest — and really only — friend gives this encomium:

He possesses something that is worth more than any amount of intelligence — an honest and faithful heart! It is the matchless treasure that he has carried through his life unharmed. People knocked him down, he grew indifferent and, at last, dropped asleep, crushed, disappointed, having lost the strength to live; but he has not lost his honesty and his faithfulness. His heart has never struck a single false note; there is no stain on his character. No well-dressed up lie has ever deceived him and nothing will lure him from the true path. […] His soul is translucent, clear as crystal. Such people are rare; there aren’t many of them; they are like pearls in a crowd!

True, this is but one man’s opinion, but he is the finest man in the novel, and I believe we are meant to take his words seriously. Is it possible that Oblomov is really too good for this world? Is he a kind of angel, like Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, whose purity of heart has rendered him unfit for affairs of the world? It is an intriguing idea. But too good for which world? It is one thing to float free of “raccoon coats and beaver collars”, and another to entirely divest oneself of love and responsibility. He sees through the things that are unworthy of him, but apparently he fails to see the things that should command his attention and devotion.

As years passed, he was less and less disturbed by remorse and agitation, and settled quietly and gradually into the plain and spacious coffin he had made for his remaining span of life, like old hermits who, turning away from life, dig their own graves in the desert.

The reference to desert hermits is arresting, for of course we have a tradition wherein hermits are not turning away from life at all, but rather rejecting one form of life — the trivial, ephemeral, and worldly — in order to embrace a higher. They are like Oblomov in some respects, but not in others. They withdraw in order to face life more directly, to wrestle with it and win a prize. Our religious tradition is full of such figures. I think of Augustine, for example, who wrote in Book VI of his Confessions:

I desired status, wealth, and marriage but you laughed at me. I suffered from the most bitter frustration of my ambitions but it was your kindness that let me find no sweetness in anything that was not you. Look into my heart, Lord, you who wanted me to recall this and confess to you. May my soul cling to you now, for you have pulled it away from the birdlime of death in which it was stuck fast. How unhappy was my soul! You probed my wound to the quick to make my soul abandon all ambition and turn to you — who are above all things and without whom all things would be nothing — so that, by turning to you, my wound should be healed.

A soul stuck fast, without ambition, finding no sweetness in worldly things: this is much like Oblomov. But what a difference! Perhaps what Goncharov has given us is a tale about what happens to a good and perceptive man in a world in which the world of spiritual possibility has been closed off. I do believe it could be read that way. If so, it is a tale for our times.

Pieper: Happiness and Contemplation

August 25, 2011

Happiness and Contemplation
Josef Pieper
(St. Augustine’s Press, 1958)
125 p.

These notes first written 25 February 2006.

‘No matter how much you labour, you labour to this end: that you may see.’

These words, delivered by St. Augustine in a sermon on the Psalms, are a convenient précis of this book, for they capture a number of its central themes: our life’s activity is directed toward an end, which is happiness; happiness is vision (that is, contemplation); and we do not achieve happiness automatically, but must seek it.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have been exposed to the cloying nonsense that fills the ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Self-Help’ shelves at the local bookstore could be forgiven for recoiling from a book tactless enough to call itself Happiness and Contemplation. A look at the cover of this book only seems to confirm the prejudice: a forest pond dappled with autumn leaves, into which one might gaze placidly and at length. Yet to pass over this book on that account would be a serious mistake.

Josef Pieper, who was professor of philosophy at the University of Munster for many years, was an extraordinary man through whom the Greek and medieval philosophical traditions found an articulate advocate and were brought into conversation with contemporary thought. His books are always rich and filled with illuminating remarks. Though they are brief, they demand and reward close reading; they are dense with argument and implication. Pieper himself had little original to say — that, one might suggest, was his great virtue — but in my experience he is unparalleled as an archaeologist of ideas. As T. S. Eliot once said of him, ‘He restores to their position in philosophy what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there: insight and wisdom.’ In this book he turns to address the largest question of all: what is genuine happiness, and how can we attain it?

Happiness and Contemplation proceeds systematically. The first half of the book is devoted to an examination of happiness: its linguistic usage (ranging, as we know, from the banal to the profound), the nature of our desire for happiness (we desire it by nature, we cannot not desire it), the metaphysics of happiness (the possibility of happiness and the goodness of Being stand or fall together), the cause of happiness (possession of a good), the relationship between happiness and joy (cause and effect), and the means to happiness. This means, argues Pieper, is contemplation: an intuitive perception of the bonum universale inspired and sharpened by love. This startling thesis is the theme of all that follows.

After introducing the idea of contemplation — or rather, after gradually assembling the idea by analysis of the demands of human happiness — he devotes several chapters to further unfolding the meaning of this word. Contemplation, according to Western tradition, is an activity of the mind; it has no practical aim; it is intuitive, not discursive; it is a kind of perception whose natural context is silent attentiveness; it is accompanied by amazement and, surprisingly, unease. In his own words, it is ‘a focusing of the inner gaze, undistracted by anything from outside, but troubled from within by the challenge to achieve a profounder … peace.’

This teaching that contemplation, which is supposed to be the means to happiness, is not a state of untroubled bliss, but is, as he says, ‘troubled from within’ seems contradictory, and merits closer attention. The first error to avoid is to misconceive happiness as an emotion; in Pieper’s meaning it is not. Happiness is possession of a good; the fullest happiness is possession of ‘the whole good’ (in theological parlance, God); emotion may, in the form of joy, accompany the attainment of happiness, but should not be confused with it. But even if we grant that happiness, not being an emotion, can co-exist with a sense of unease, why should it?

We said earlier that, as traditionally understood, contemplation is accompanied by amazement, and this turns out to be crucial to answering this question. Why should we feel amazement when our interior gaze rests on ‘the whole good’? Because, says Pieper, it is beyond our comprehension.

Earthly contemplation is imperfect contemplation. In the midst of its repose there is unrest. This unrest stems from man’s experiencing at one and the same moment the overwhelming infinitude of the object, and his own limitations. It is part of the nature of earthly contemplation that it glimpses a light whose fearful brightness both blesses and dazzles.

One might say that its very vastness is a silent call to venture further in, to desire possession of more and more of it. And, says Pieper, the Catholic theological tradition has interpreted it in just this way. He cites a statement of the poet Paul Claudel: the unease in contemplation is ‘the call of the perfect to the imperfect, which call we name love’. And so a picture emerges in which contemplation, being directed and sustained by love of the good, is, in attainment of its object, met by a complementary love that beckons it on. It is the meeting place, then, of that human love of which Augustine spoke (‘my love is my weight’) and that other love of which Dante spoke (‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’).

Pieper continues by considering contemporary examples of the contemplative spirit (for in our time the word is rare, though the experience is not — or at least not so rare as the word). Interestingly, in this discussion the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins looms large. He then devotes a chapter to various objections that could — and are — raised to the very idea that the highest human happiness is really to be found in contemplation. Alternatives that he considers are: happiness is found in work and accomplishment; happiness is found in living virtuously; happiness consists in selfless love for one another; happiness is crowned in artistic creation; happiness is fulfilled in loving God. All these, for various reasons, he rejects.

Finally, as a sort of a posteriori argument in favour of the thesis that happiness and contemplation really are found together, he closes with a disarming comparison between popular notions of ‘the happy man’ and the contemplative.

In his last pages, he reiterates a central point of the book. The modern world raises, he says, one final high-minded objection to the supremacy of contemplation — indeed, to the very notion that one ought to pursue happiness: suffering in the world.

Ought not a generous person who does not care to deceive himself about what is going on in the world day after day — ought not such a person to have the courage to renounce the ‘escape’ of happiness?

If, he says, the world is fundamentally unsound, and if therefore contemplation and happiness are empty escapes and delusions, then indeed this objection is decisive. The important implication is that the whole conception of happiness and contemplation developed here relies on the premise that the world is fundamentally good and harmonious. This sets it profoundly at odds with much contemporary thought, from Nietzsche on down. But that only increases its merit in my eyes.

In fact, this is a superb book; I have not done in justice. A fresh wind blows through it, and it is full of matter ripe for reflection. It assumes, and therefore encourages, a magnanimity on the part of the reader to seriously consider these great themes: happiness, love, and God. And it has been, not least, a very salutary reminder of the depth and humane dignity of pre-modern philosophy. ‘No matter how much you labour, you labour to this end: that you may see.’

Dreaming of St. Augustine

August 28, 2009

Today is the memorial of St. Augustine.  In past years on this day I have posted excerpts from his entry in The Golden Legend (2007, 2008), but this year I did not have time to get it together.  Instead, here is one of those rare — all too rare — instances where Augustine has popped up in pop culture: Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”, from John Wesley Harding.

Update: The excellent blog Nunc Stans is marking the day properly.  I suggest you go there.