Monday, June 11, 2012

Thoughts on St. Augustine's Confessions part 1

All quotes are from the Barnes and Noble edition of this work. The original translation used is that by Albert Outler, and revised by Mark Vessey. 

About delight and pleasure.
“But what was it that delighted me except to love and be loved?” (19). “You were always by me, mercifully angry and flavoring all my unlawful pleasures with bitter discontent, in order that I may seek pleasures free from discontent. But where could I find such pleasures except in you, lord--except in you, who teach us in by sorrow, who wound us to heal us, and kill us so that we may not die apart from  you. Where was I, and how far was I exiled from the delights of your house, in that sixteenth year of my flesh, when the madness of lust held full sway in me--that madness which grants indulgence to human shamelessness, even though it is forbidden by your laws--and I gave myself entirely to it?” (20).

So first it seems that Augustine was delighted in giving and receiving love. He mentions “pure affection” and as an example he described the “way of the love of mind to mind--the bright path of friendship” and also the way of marriage (19). But he goes so far as to say that the only place to find pleasure without discontent is in God, and that when he was estranged from God, he was “exiled from the delights of God’s house” (20). Does it not seem likely that “delights” here is similar if not the same as “delighted” in giving and receiving love? So here is a question: Is friendship and marriage in themselves sufficient to give us delight or contented pleasure and joy, or are they merely means to curb worse ways to seek pleasure and delight, such as fornication? Are even friendship and marriage inadequate (in the sense of having pleasure in these things without, or free from,discontent) for pleasure and delight outside of a having our pleasure and delighted found, and contentedly found, in God?

Pros to this interpretation: First, friendship is mentioned here to indicate a way to love and be loved without “unholy desires.” While marriage seems to be given as a way not to let passion, and “the imagination of puberty” drag him “down over the cliffs...into a gulf of infamy.” So marriage seems to play a role of diverting his desires from mere sexual gratification, to more family oriented delight of giving and receiving love. I imagine, or take it that it was his assumption, that this is, or was to him, a more “pure affection.” If this is the case, since he speaks of (through a rhetorical question) love being that which he delighted in, and finally, since he says that God is the (perhaps, at the very least) the only place where one can find pleasure without discontent and that while he was seeking mere sexual gratification he was exiled from the delights of God’s house, all these things suggests that the above interpretation is correct.

Cons of this interpretation: 1) It relies on Augustine meaning the same thing by ‘delight’ in both places (doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable), and that pleasure and delight overlap to a great enough extent that the majority of the time that you speak of one you are also implying the other (which also doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable). 2) This may be the strongest con that I come up with, and that is that Augustine is limited in his ideas of one only finding pleasure free from discontent in God’s life (narrowly, as in God and not creation). Perhaps Augustine is broader in his understanding of pleasure free from discontent being found in God alone. Perhaps he means in all of God’s ways. Since friendship and marriage are ordained by God, then one can find pleasure or delight free from discontent in these institutions, and that because these are a part of God’s sum total of work and desire and ordinances. I think this second con is also not persuasive because of the predominance of NeoPlatonism in the Confessions. Surely God, since he is the one "with whom being and life are one," is the only true pleasure free from discontent, since he is the one being, or, the being who is perfectly and simply one (all other things being coming from the overflow of this one, but being privative).

Regardless, it seems that there are two models here that might be reasonably embraced by a Christian. One is that pleasure and delight free from discontent are found in God alone in a narrow sense. On this model one cannot find pleasure free from discontent in one’s marriage or friendships, but only in God alone, in the society of God life. So perhaps this might be that a person finds contented delight in God, and then they have contentment in everything else, in marriage/family, friendship, business, etc.

On the other model one can and should find pleasure free from discontent in one’s family/marriage and friendships when one’s family and friendships are functioning the right way, the way God designed them to. When one so finds pleasure in these relationships, they are finding pleasure and delight in God alone.