Margaret R. Miles / Fake Feeling

Many centuries ago, Augustine of Hippo noticed that a consequence of the entertainment culture of late antiquity was a sentimentalization and manipulation of feeling. His Confessions criticized  stage plays (spectacula theatrica) for directing his urgent feelings of longing to sexual objects. When he went to Carthage as a young man, he found the city a “hissing cauldron” of lust in which “my soul burst out into feverish spots, longing to be scratched. Implicated and reinforced by stage plays,  his friendships escalated into “that torrent of pitch which boils and swells with the high tides of foul lust, scratching the surface of my skin, causing feverish swellings, abcesses and running sores” (Confessions 3. 2).[1] Later, he fulminated against the stage plays by which he was “carried away;” they provided  “fuel for [his] own fire.” “It was a sweet thing to me both to love and to be loved, and sweeter still to enjoy the body of my lover” (Conf. 3. 1). 

Augustine’s rhetorical prowess was at its height as he reported the misdirection of his hunger for love. As he wrote his Confessions in early middle age, he recalled his youthful interest in the miseries and delights of staged love affairs. His primary concern was not, however, their stimulating depictions of sexual lust, but rather a manipulation of compassion: “there can be no real compassion for actors on the stage.” He feared that enjoyment of actors’ “misery” effectively diverts and blunts compassion for real people’s real sufferings. “At that time I loved to feel sad and went looking for something to feel sad about.” He found, in voyeuristic engagement even to the point of tears, “sorrow which was purely fictitious and acted.” He felt, he acknowledged, a certain covert by-taste, a pleasurable satisfaction that he was not himself suffering the misery of the fictional character.

Surprisingly, despite the proverbial lewdness and salaciousness of Roman theater, its encouragement of sexual lust was not the middle-aged Augustine’s primary concern. Rather, immediately after describing his emotional experience of stage plays, he objected to their manipulation and abuse of feeling. “To feel grief for another’s misery is a sign and work of charity and is therefore to be commended,” he wrote, but the infallible mark of misguided compassion is that it gives pleasure, the insidious pleasure of misery that is not one’s own. Nor is the spectator “called upon to help the sufferer.“ No response is elicited from the viewer except feeling for a fake misery. The precious capacity to feel another’s pain is immediately diminished, and cumulatively disabled, by spectatorship―not primarily by its content, but by spectators’ habituation to enjoying feeling as an end in itself.

If the stage plays of late Roman culture were effective, both to incite sexual lust and also to arouse and misdirect the spectator’s emotional engagement, a thoughtful twenty-first century North American must notice the far greater power of contemporary entertainment culture to affect Americans. Fake feeling produces, in the spectator, the temporary satisfaction of feeling fully alive―albeit temporarily—along with escaping the responsibility of compassion, that is to relieve witnessed “misery.” Augustine’s understanding of the dynamic of fake feeling informed his sermons throughout his life. Speaking to his congregation, he regularly exhorted listeners to act on feelings of compassion. He presented works of mercy as a direct expression of gratitude for the unreciprocable gift of grace.  

[1] Translations are from The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Mentor-Omega, 1963).

Margaret R. Miles is Emerita Professor of Historical Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Among her recent books are Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter (Cascade, 2011); The Long Goodbye: Dementia Diaries (Cascade, 2017); Reading Augustine On Memory, Marriage, Tears, and Meditation (2021), and a forthcoming volume with Wipf and Stock on Augustine and beautiful bodies. 


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