Augustine trembling

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions:

You have taught me that I should come to take food in the way I take medicines. But while I pass from the discomfort of need to the tranquility of satisfaction, the very transition contains for me an insidious trap of uncontrolled desire. The transition itself is a pleasure… (Chadwick, trans.; Oxford World Classics; p. 204)

“The transition itself is a pleasure”—one’s attitude toward this fact I suppose determines whether one lives a life of the animal or of the spirit. In the animal life, one celebrates this excess of pleasure that is independent of need-satisfaction: “Let the stoics say what they please, we do not eat for the good of living, but because the meat is savory and the appetite is keen” (Emerson, “Nature”). In this generous excess of nature, such a one finds life. But he who lives of the spirit can see it, as Augustine does, only as temptation, as trial. The sensual world, for one such as Augustine, is a terrible fright, a den of dangers, in which one may never take delight—for that is just the danger. And so he creeps through it frightened, jittery, in constant peril. And yet I am supposed to imagine him joyful?

But now, as ever, comes the old nag: and is that all, that excess? Is that all, that striving forever after more sensitive, more discerning, more cultivated pleasures? No longer can I say, with Augustine: “the happy life is joy based on the truth” (p. 199). For truth has become modest, has been demoted, is now mere means to the end of joy, and moreover is with equal cheerlessness willing to serve suffering, if one should point it in that direction. In this modesty truth has become nobler and more praiseworthy, to be sure—after all none likes a puffed-up pride. But the intimate link between truth and joy has been severed. And thus I ask: joy, pleasure—is that all?

Asceticism involves stripping back from the excess to the mere necessity. It is recoverable within the animal life: we may strip back here to gain sensitivity there. And is that all it is? Is our only aim, our only source of pride, this discernment? Yes, I suppose, but so it was with Augustine. He gave an objective, external justification of his pride, but this justification rested on false premises: in the end his joy in God was itself no more than puffed-up pride—for which I by no means blame and condemn him! Only I will do without such justification. I will call my pride, ‘pride’.

I say Augustine appears to me as a cowering creature—does he not appear so to everyone? About the sounds of music he writes, “Not that I am riveted by them, for I can rise up and go when I wish” (p. 207). He is afraid of giving himself up to the sounds, of losing even for a second power over himself—is this not cowardice, and precisely a lack of self-possession? To be able to offer oneself up willingly to something external requires true self-possession, true freedom. That is the basis of receptivity, openness. Augustine lacks the self-trust to so offer himself. Given over to God, he is stolen from himself.

I am—I do not deny it—making an image of Augustine, an image of use to me.



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