August 28, 2013
Hollingworth on Augustine and Civilization
As Rick noted, today is the Feast of Saint Augustine, an occasion for special celebration at Villanova, which is sponsored by the Augustinians. I've been dipping into Miles Hollingworth's splendid new intellectual biography of Augustine. Here's a bit, with profound relevance especially for teachers, parents, and those who reflect on our public life:
Clever university students of the right persuasion can affect a meticulous languor whose sole pleasure is noticing itself in grand poses of disinterest—what Evelyn Waugh called 'the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding'. But you can't cheat life like this; your character will continue to hound you. The emerging picture is of Augustine as a young man, with the blood really pounding in his ears. He will make every attempt to repose in the normal and acceptable life of his new city; yet he will feel unable to enjoy it with the same ease that he will observe in those around him. He will feel that he is being permitted to live only a fugitivam libertatem, a 'fugitive's freedom'. It is one of the particular consequences of individuality and the first-person perspective that you will always assume that you are the only one going through these things. And if God has been a part of your upbringing then this is the moment when God usually gets it in the neck—as the spiteful architect of it all. Why should we be obliged to call Him good and make up the shortfall in a disingenuous belief?
Augustine’s contribution to the psychology of adolescence seems to be to suggest that the stock intensities of this time arise within a complex about God; about parents (and particularly the father) as the earthly stand-ins for God; and about how the sensation of betrayal by these deities creates those hair-trigger responses to the world. 'For just as vinegar corrodes a vessel if it remains long in it, so anger corrodes the heart if it is cherished till the morrow.’ Those who newly enter the world as children are permitted a certain measure of goodwill about it all that the enemy of this has only to destroy by cultivating scenarios in which anger must be carried for long distances. For, by the laws of action and reaction, anger develops in complex and elongated ways into sets of rights—which are those negative assurances held so passionately against all-comers. And from the anger of children forced to compromise comes the adult triumph of the rights-based civilization of the Earthly City, holding its sharpest edge to the neck of God.
Miles Hollingworth, Saint Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford UP, 2013), 112-13.