Margaret R. Miles / Common Misunderstandings of Augustine

Augustine’s sermons habitually included metaphors and similes for the purpose of rendering theological concepts more accessible to his listeners. Like Freud many centuries later, he knew that metaphors prove nothing, but they make abstract concepts “more comfortable.”* Comparing a familiar practice or relationship from common life can bridge the distance between a complex idea and listeners’ (or readers’) feeling and understanding. This feature of Augustine’s rhetorical toolbox has frequently been misunderstood as trivializing or disparaging his metaphor in relation to the reality it is intended to illuminate. The following examples, from Augustine’s mature sermons, clarify the intention of his comparisons.

1. Quoting Jesus’ words, “whoever loves father or mother above me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37), Augustine explicitly refused to diminish human love, saying, “He didn’t abolish love of parents, wife, children, but put them in their right order. . . . Love your father, but not above your Lord; love the one who begot you, but not above the one who created you.” Indeed, based on “the love you have for your parents,” recognize how much you should love God (your Father) and the Church (your mother.) From one’s (presumably) great gratitude and love for parents, it is possible to understand—to feel—how much more God is to be loved. The great gifts of one’s parents—birth, care, etc.—are not as great as God’s gift of eternal life (S. 344. 2); also S. 349. 2: “It is absolutely right for you to love your wife, your children, your friends, and your fellow citizens . . . these relationships imply a bond of relationship, the substance of love.” In short, experience of the reality of God’s love depends, and is built on one’s intimate experience of human love.

2. Expounding on a frequently-heard complaint, “the times are bad,” Augustine said, “it is absolutely necessary that the times should be harsh . . . to stop us loving earthly prosperity.” The difficulties of present life gather meaning in relation to eternal life; “the times” have the important effect of weaning Christians from consuming attachment to the world. Lacking the world’s “bitter elements,” the vivid pleasures of the world—“the race-course, the games . . . the theaters, the organs, the flutes and the dancers”—would seduce Christians. Augustine does not, however, suggest that the evils of the world are its defining feature. He concludes: Even with its “many bitter elements, still, the world is so sweet” (S. 346A. 8). And it is precisely experience of the “sweetness” of the world that entices, arouses, and promises more life, eternal life.

“Life here’s glorious,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. Augustine agreed. Were it not for the astonishing beauty of this world— a musical theme appearing in Augustine’s writings from youth to old age—how could Christians even begin to imagine a future life? Augustine’s earliest writing, De pulchro et de apto (The Beautiful and the Fitting, now lost), and the last books of his epic, De civitate dei (City of God), written in his last years, expatiate on the future resurrection of bodies, basing his acknowledged fantasy on scripture and present experience, from which pain and mortality have been subtracted. His Confessions describe his early search for God as he interrogated the created beauty of the world: “I asked the earth, the sea, creeping things, the blowing breezes, the heaven, the sun, the moon, and the stars, ‘what is this God?’” They answered, “We are not your God. . . . He made us.” Augustine writes, “My question was in my contemplation of them, and their answer was in their beauty” (Confessions 10. 6). This passage describes Augustine’s discovery that the indelible mark of the world’s creation is the “beauty so old and so new” of its creator. The “tell,” the give-away linking creation and Creator is beauty. The answer to Augustine’s urgent question was to look more deeply into, to notice the familiar beauty of the world as created.

4. A final example responds to criticism of Augustine’s apparent trivialization of slavery. This objection is based, not on his own practice in relation to slavery, but on his acceptance of slavery as an uncontested feature of his society.** Augustine wrote: “How much safer for you to have been the slave of a man, rather than [a slave of] your distorted desires”(S. 342. 4). And, “it is a happier lot to be the slave of a man than of a lust” (City of God 19. 15).

These quotations silently reference the young Augustine’s own vividly described “slavery to a lust”: “From a perverse will came lust, and slavery to lust became a habit, and the habit, constantly being yielded to, became a necessity. These were like links, hanging each to each, which is why I call it a chain, and they held me fast in hard slavery.” Augustine recalled his compulsive pursuit of sex as consistently unpleasurable: “a slave can’t enjoy that to which he is enslaved” (Confessions 8. 5).   

As a bishop, Augustine insisted on living in poverty; he also required resident clergy to own no assets or personal belongings. His decree mandated that the slaves (who routinely accompanied every household of similar size), must be sold, and that all the money from the sale be used to feed the poor.*** In short, Augustine had experienced what he could only describe as slavery, that is, servitude to an unchosen imperious demand, together with inability to own and govern his own body. It was precisely that experience that sensitized Augustine to the intimate reality of slavery, rendering him unwilling to accept that relationship in his own household, even though he did not censure an institution that was “the foundation of the whole culture of antiquity.”*** 

Augustine’s comments on “slavery to a man” as preferable to “slavery to a lust,” far from trivializing slavery, depend precisely on an unvarnished recognition of slavery’s horrors. Augustine did not say that slavery to an owner was “better” than the implacable intimate slavery he had experienced, but that he had experienced slavery to a lust as even worse than the implacable horrors of slavery to an owner. Clearly, however, he had not experienced both kinds of slavery, and we wish that he had added the phrase, in my experience, to his simile. However, his later refusal to accept a relationship of owner to slave reveals his extreme abhorrence of slavery. His housemates in the rectory must have complained about his fiat. After all, lacking slaves, who did the cooking, cleaning, and laundry in the monastery?        

These examples suggest that Augustine did not intend to disparage either human love in contrast to love of God, or to trivialize human slavery in relation to a compulsive addiction. In each case he employed the much-respected weight and strength of the first to emphasize the second.     

* Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures, (New York: Norton, 1965), 837.

** Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 71-77, 79.

*** Frederick Van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop (London: Sheed and Ward, 1961), 135-136.

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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