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Love Part 8: Augustine

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Before Saint Augustine was a Christian Bishop, he was a well-versed Roman philosopher, so this post sort of concludes my last seven posts. In the Confessions, Augustine remembers reading "the platonists," which "taught [him] to search for incorporeal truth," and "the Apostle" (Paul), which taught him to "rejoice with trembling" (he also "trembled exceedingly"). "For where was that charity building upon the 'foundation' of humility...or when should these books teach me it?” “Most eagerly then did I seize that venerable writing of Thy Spirit; and chiefly the Apostle Paul."

Speaking of Paul, Augustine's nice elaboration on his famous Corinthian speech:

“But sight shall displace faith; and hope shall be swallowed up in that perfect bliss to which we shall come: love, on the other hand, shall wax greater when these others fail.”

Why do we love our enemies? “And hence it is that we love even our enemies. For we do not fear them, seeing they cannot take away from us what we love; but we pity them rather, because the more they hate us the more they are separated from Him Whom we love.” sounds sorta like Aurelius?

Following the greatest commandments “is true religion” he says. Paul collapsed the greatest commandments into loving others. Augustine collapses it into loving God:

“you ought not to love even yourself for your own sake, but for His in Whom your love finds its most worthy object, no other man has a right to be angry if you love him too for God’s sake…Loving his neighbor as himself, a man turns the whole current of his love both for himself and his neighbor into the channel of the love of God, which suffers no stream to be drawn off from itself by whose diversion its own volume would be diminished.”

Loving yourself is implied: “there is no need of a command that every man should love himself and his own body…we love ourselves…through a law of nature which has never been violated.”And: “that man might be intelligent in his self-love, there was appointed for him an end to which he might refer all his actions…and so, when one who has this intelligent self-love is commanded to love his neighbor as himself, what else is enjoined than that he shall do all in his power to commend to him the love of God? This is the worship of God, this is true religion, this right piety, this the service due to God only.”

The Love Test of interpreting scripture

When people don’t like a part of scripture they read it “figurative,” and when they like it it’s “literal.” Augustine’s solution is to read it always with love in mind:

“Scripture enjoins nothing except charity [love] and condemns nothing except lust.” And: “He who is mature in faith, hope and love, needs Scripture no longer…many live without copies of the Scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces.”


“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love…his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception.”

There are six steps to “wisdom,” many which have to do with love. The third, knowledge, comes down to nothing more than the “greatest commandments”: “After these two steps of fear and piety, we come to the third step, knowledge…in this every earnest student of the Holy Scriptures exercises himself, to find nothing else in them but that God is to be loved for His own sake, and our neighbor for God’s sake.” And “through being entangled in the love of this world—i.e., of temporal things—has been drawn far ways from such a love for God and such a love for his neighbor as Scripture enjoins.” … “then in the fifth step—that is, in the counsel of compassion—he cleanses his soul…And at this stage he exercises himself diligently in the love of his neighbor; and when he has reached the point of loving his enemy, full of hopes and unbroken in strength, he mounts to the sixth step…”

Augustine wrestles back and forth with how, exactly, to love yourself and other people. He is so convinced that God alone deserves to be loved, that he wonders how we are to love imperfect people and things. “For a great thing truly is man” and “we are commanded to love one another: but it is a question whether man is to be loved by man for his own sake, or for the sake of something else…It seems to me…that he is to be loved for…something else.”

As a kid, Augustine’s best friend dies and he is devastated, falling into a deep and long depression: “Wretched I was; and wretched is every soul bound by the friendship of perishable things.” Like the stoics, he thinks this type of grieving is wrong, and, similar but different to the stoics, his solution is to love people "in God":

“Blessed whoso loveth Thee, and his friend in Thee, and his enemy for Thee. For he alone loses none dear to him, to whom all are dear in Him Who cannot be lost.”

His reasoning seems to be this: you can only love what you can depend on, and ultimately you can only depend on God. The same goes for loving things: “If material things please you, praise them in God…If persons please you, let God be loved in them.” “..for these go their way and cease to be, and the soul is torn from them with sick longing, for it wants them to continue being so it can rest in what it loves in them.”

And: “Further, all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who…are brought into closer connection with you.”

The Confessions is Augustine beating his chest before God and his readers. It can be painful and self-deprecating to read. You could summarize the whole memoir as "I'm sorry" and "thank you." It does have many of his thoughts on love, but City of God also does, where he joins the history of utopian writings (“in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love").

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love


The Confessions

Posted by Matt Smith at 07/14/2011 04:52:28 PM