These are reflections I had while reading ‘The Confessions of Saint Augustine.’ Because this book is a collection of ideas, what follows is a wholly personal reaction to some of those ideas. If you aren’t interested, don’t read it.
Book II, Chapter III – Lust
“The thornbushes of lust grew rank about my head,” Augustine rather melodramatically writes. The second book of his confessions brims with self-flagellation for how hormone-riddled he was – at age sixteen. I wish he would have cut himself some slack. Didn’t he realize that everyone has a perpetual boner at age sixteen? Besides, lust is a chemical reaction in our heads; nature put it there so our species wouldn’t die out. The only reasons we don’t live in a wonderland of orgies are
a) this is not ancient Greece,
b) social mores say that it’s tacky to be a whore, and
c) laziness, because there can be cumbersome feelings
that accompany sex, and some people only want to
deal with that in small doses.
There are a few effective ways to deal with a dirty mind. Unfortunately, Augustine chose the least helpful to himself and the most annoying to everybody else – angst.
Book VIII, Chapter V – Vice
“Habit, not resisted, became necessity,” writes Augustine. He’s talking about his own man-whoreishness (which I’m guessing he exaggerated, since unnecessary guilt tends to magnify things unnecessarily), but it’s applicable to anything. The thing is, in spite of the austere teachings of the church, having vices does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a person. However, as Augustine implies, when your vices become your personality and you let them turn you into an asshole, obviously you have a problem. But you also have a problem if you walk around inundating yourself in self-imposed shame because you’re not living up to an unreachable standard. I propose moderation as a solution; virtue born of self-flagellation helps people just as much as malicious vice, which is to say, not at all.
Book IX, Chapter IV – Cause And Effect
In the course of this chapter, Augustine whines about how God “didst torture me with a toothache,” which I find frankly silly. If Augustine wanted to pull a spiritual lesson out of an aching bicuspid, fine, but why did he assume the pain itself was sent by a deity to punish him? Everybody gets toothaches. It has absolutely nothing to do with how well you are keeping the ten commandments.
Book IX, Chapter IX – Being A Good Wife
Augustine’s mom was a real piece of work. Behold the praise of her son:
“While many matrons whose husbands were more gentle than hers bore the marks of blows on their disfigured faces, and would in private talk blame the behavior of their husbands, she would blame their tongues, admonishing them seriously – though in a jesting manner – that from the hour they heard what are called the matrimonial tablets read to them, they should think of them as instruments by which they were made servants.”
So, when a married gal-pal would complain about getting hit in the face by her husband, Augustine’s mom would tell her to quit whining because it was her own damn fault she was getting smacked around. Apparently being a good wife means never ever disagreeing with your husband and never ever forgetting that when you agreed to marry him you were really agreeing to be his servant. I do not care that this was written a million billion years ago; the fact that this attitude was ever taken seriously is enraging. People are not fucking property.
Book X, Chapter XXII – Joy
Augustine says that “there is a joy not granted to the wicked but only to those who worship thee [God] thankfully – and this joy thou thyself art. The happy life is this – to rejoice to thee, in thee, and for thee. This it is and there is no other. But those who think there is another follow after other joys, and not the true one. But their will is still not moved except by some image or shadow of joy.”
This is not an absolute truth, and I say that as someone who spent five years as a practicing Christian. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to find joy in religion – I know plenty of people who genuinely do. But I found no joy in it. My religious years were marked by misery. Surrounded by people who were ecstatic about God (or pretended to be – because I know plenty of other people who were just really good at saying the right things) was a bit of a torment, because I certainly never experienced that transport of joy and couldn’t manufacture it. Everyone else was annoyingly happy about God; I was merely curious. Since enthusiasm was the norm, I inferred that my lack of it meant there was something wrong with me. Thus my religious life alternated between periods of paranoia, when I would berate myself for my imperfections and compulsively confess every petty sin I could think of, and despair, when I would attempt to resign myself to the fact that despite my efforts to live a Christian life, it wasn’t good enough and something was irreparably unacceptable about me as a person. It was emotionally crippling.
Gradually I grew out of my need to cling to religion. I found that, without the fear of God’s judgment hanging over my head, I was brave and self-sufficient and kind of awesome. I found friends who showed me understanding, not judgment, when I shared my flaws and fuck-ups with them (something I had found nowhere in the Christian community I belonged to). I started having adventures. I stopped trying to hear God’s voice and listened to my own. I found peace and joy, not in waiting on an unknowable and apparently uninterested deity to shower me with them, but in going out and finding them for myself.
Augustine can call my happiness a shadow if he wants. I know that I’m a truly happy irreligious person, and I know that that is not wicked.