St. Augustine's roadblocks in his Confessions

As for the flip side, to see its goodness through the spirit, I see two different factors to consider here. One is the identification with a false reality, and the second is empathy. The two are related. By identification, I mean investing our sense of “self” into the fantasy of the play (or TV show or sports game or election or whatever), so that we feel, on a subconscious or emotional level, that the occurrences within the object of our identification are happening to “us” (e.g. people who feel as if they have won when “their team” wins a sports game, when really those spectators won nothing, and merely watched the game on the couch).

The relationship between that tendency and empathy is clear. Empathy is obviously a positive quality. Compassion and love are integral to religion and integral to humanity. The ability to care about others as much as we care about ourselves is critical to our existence, and Jesus placed this ability as second only to the importance of loving God (Matthew 22:37-39).

That same tendency for empathy can also be projected onto a fantasy, which is what Augustine was experiencing (and truly, all of us do this). Though even the identification with delusion has some good in it. If our minds were constantly focused only on higher truths, we would neglect the needs of both ourselves and others here in the material world.

As always with these things, I think the answer is balance. We need simultaneous cognizance of both absolute and relative truth, both the spiritual and the material. For most of us (myself included), there is a definite bias towards being identified with physical reality, though it’s also possible to go too far to the other extreme as well, and there are many cases of people who do. In a sense, our identification with physical reality is a type of “delusion.” Ultimately, this world is nothing but dust and shadows. As Solomon tells us, “all is vanity” (cf. Ecc 1:2-11). Yet, it can at times be a useful delusion if it keeps us from abandoning the responsibilities and obligations of our earthly life.

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Most scholars that I know of claim that his relationship to his mother and opinion of his mother remained very high throughout his life. I think that when a child respects a parent, and at the same time feels some need to break free from a parent, this process of breaking free will be troublesome. If you interpret Augustine‘s behavior here with the pears as a part of that process, I can see why he would do something so extreme. It must be very difficult for a child who respects a parent to also rebel against that parent for whom he has deep respect. The conflict within the teenager would be intense. For a teenager who has little to no respect for the parent, it would be seemingly much easier to break free and go one’s way.

Perhaps I am giving all of this a much more positive and generous spin than you are. I agree with Chesterton‘s insight that surprise is the secret of joy. So there would be nothing twisted about seeking after surprise itself. It would be an inherently good act, one that is quite necessary for humans to avoid the tedious life.

I’m not certain that what Augustine says in this chapter qualifies as rumination. Part of what bothers me about his own “analysis” here is that he is not attempting to identify what good impulses would have underlain his actions. I think that’s what you and I are trying to do here, almost for him, on his behalf. In his analysis, he says he liked the sin itself, the shame itself, the error itself. That just doesn’t cut it. Such an analysis would almost suggest that evil is a thing to which we can attach ourselves and our desires. But as he knew very well, evil is no thing, it is a parasite on goodness itself, in someway a disorder or a privation of the good, especially for a teen still in a process of human maturation. So what I’m after is the good impulse that moved him to act.

I do like this section. It seems that he is doing some deeper human analysis here than he did with the pears event.

I think that’s quite right and part of what Augustine identifies here. When a dramatic performance moves us, much of what is happening is our identification with human experiences. What good writers, directors and actors know is that there must be significant truth in both the writing and the performance if the audience is going to connect with it. So, a good play that moves me emotionally exemplifies something very true about the human condition. I connect with something sorrowful because I have lived it myself, or I have been a friend to someone who has.

Hmm, I don’t know about this. One of the greatest living comedians alive today, Jerry Seinfeld, flatly denies that there is any such connection. And he doesn’t just deny it within his own life, as in he in no way feels miserable (which he affirms as true), but he asserts that many comedians that he has known throughout his life are similar to him in that way-their lives are marked by a lack of tragedy and depression. Other examples would be Aziz Ansari, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, etc. True, other comedians have known depression or tragedy in their own lives. But that is true for every profession. I don’t think there’s enough evidence for us to make a necessary connection between tragedy/depression and comedy.

There is a way of seeing comedy in a much more positive light, I think. Augustine scholar James KA Smith once said in a Trinity Forum lecture that the ironist is our last hero. He is the one who sees through everything and knowingly insulates himself from caring. And thereby the ironist becomes a type of ‘saint’ for the masses to look up to.

I think this is wonderfully said and has a lot of truth in it. Augustine seems to see this well when he asks “Shall compassion then be put away? By no means. Be griefs then sometimes loved… I have not now ceased to pity”

I did find this quote interesting, “for though he that grieves for the miserable be commended for his office of charity; yet would he, who is genuinely compassionate, rather there were nothing for him to grieve for.”

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