Love and the sound mind

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, writes:

Surely this beauty should be self-evident to all who are of sound mind. Then why does it not speak to everyone in the same way? Animals both small and large see it, but they cannot put a question about it. In them reason does not sit in judgement upon the deliverances of the senses. But human beings can put a question so that ‘the invisible things of God are understood and seen through the things which are made’ (Rom. 1: 20). Yet by love of created things they are subdued by them, and being thus made subject become incapable of exercising judgement. Moreover, created things do not answer those who question them if power to judge is lost. There is no alteration in the voice which is their beauty. If one person sees while another sees and questions, it is not that they appear one way to the first and another way to the second. It is rather that the created order speaks to all, but is understood by those who hear its outward voice and compare it with the truth within themselves. (Henry Chadwick, trans.; Oxford World Classics; p. 184)

Does the “created order” speak? What does it say? But first let me drop the loaded language, and speak only of the material world. I see no need to prejudge the matter. So: I have loved the material world, and I have loathed it and held it valueless, and in both states I have posed questions to it. Who are you?, I have asked, and I have found that while the material world is very noisy and full of clatter, it does not speak, but is ever silent, and goes about its cacophonous way. Nor am I much moved if I am told that I have never truly abandoned my love for it, never truly esteemed it nothing. For ‘no man knows the being of man except the spirit of man which is in him’ (1 Cor. 2: 11). To make such a suggestion is an epistemic scare tactic, a desperate defense of a conclusion dearly held. It is a maneuver that once moved me, but no longer: I have fortified my mind against it. Indeed, I may say that any God who endorses such reasoning—which may be used to justify anything at all—is unworthy of worship. If God put the truth within me, then he must rest content with the truth I find there: that speech is late-arrived, and parochial—that silence is the rule, and speech the exception.

A second question is pertinent. To love material things, must we become subject to them? Kierkegaard says that only two lives are possible, the life of the animal, which is the life of loving the material world, and the life of the spirit, which sees the task of life as death. He is correct, and if I reject the life of the spirit, then my life-work is therefore to live the best animal life I can discover. It is thus of great interest to me to know whether such a life is necessarily a kind of servitude. It is not. Augustine, blinkered by his embrace of the spirit, underestimates the diversity of love. One may love as underling, as equal, as superior; as friend or as foe; intimately or at a wary distance. Certainly I do not deny that much love of the material is a kind of servitude. I know such a condition only too well. But it is not the whole. It is characteristic of Christian rhetoric to reduce the animal life to what is worst in it, to gluttonous intemperance—but this is just rhetoric, and the self-respecting atheist need not be moved by it.



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