The spectacle of hell in Augustine

Modern critics of Christianity have repeatedly drawn attention to the recurring trope of the blessed watching the damned being tortured in hell. It appears most forcefully in the famous passage from Tertullian’s De spectaculis that was quoted by both Gibbon and Nietzsche, as well as in later theologians like Bonaventure and Aquinas (who didn’t have the excuse of being persecuted).

This theme appears to be mostly absent in City of God, where Augustine nonetheless insists on the reality and the appropriateness of eternal damnation for the majority of human beings. There is a strange element of his treatment of eternal punishment in Book XXI, however, in that he responds to critics who don’t believe that a physical body could endure endless suffering by pointing to all the many natural wonders he had experienced or heard of. He mentions the salamander, which supposely lived in fire, as well as more obscure examples such as the imperishability of cooked peacock flesh (something McDonald’s should look into). There’s even a passage in which he anticipates the Insane Clown Posse’s immortal line: “Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?” The ostensible message is clear — if God can do all this amazing stuff, how can you doubt that he could make a body that was able to endure eternal torture? Yet the subtext is disturbing: by insistently associating eternal torture with all these cool things, he is implicitly counting it among God’s marvellous wonders.

Hence the theme of enjoyment of and fascination with the tortures of the damned appears even here, in submerged form.

The difficulty of reading Augustine

Augustine is a difficult writer, and City of God is one of his most difficult works. The problem, it seems to me, is not that of following his arguments on a line-by-line level, or not primarily. Rather, the problem is figuring out why he is even talking about this topic in the first place. (I suppose we could just dismiss him as a sloppy thinker, etc., but those explanations are never very interesting or compelling to me.)

Nearly every book of City of God seems to be taken up with extraneous material and never get around to its main point — yet clearly Augustine believes that he’s getting at his main point. If you want to get at what’s distinctive in Augustine’s thought, you need to be able to get a sense for the unstated superstructure that is directing his inquiry — you need to develop a scent for the often unstated questions to which his arguments are an answer.

I’m tempted to draw a parallel with Dogopolski’s understanding of the task of Talmudic analysis, which is not to arrive at an answer but first of all to reawaken the disagreement that motivates the text.

On “political will”

One often hears complaints about a lack of “political will.” We know we need to rein in carbon emissions, for instance, yet so far the “political will” to do so has not emerged. We know we need to regulate the banks more closely, but again, we seem unable to muster the “political will.” One suspects that neuroscientists should focus their efforts on identifying the mechanism underlying “political will,” with the goal of producing a pill that politicians could take in order to summon it up — then all our problems would be solved.

What I’d like to suggest is that we actually have more than enough “political will.” Doing the right thing — once you know what it is — is generally the path of least resistence. It takes a real act of will to persist in doing the wrong thing, and even more to convince yourself that the wrong thing is really the right thing. This dynamic might be clearer if we called it political willfulness.

If you recognize what is right, you don’t need some additional surplus of arbitrary willfulness in order to achieve it. Instead, you release your willfulness and just “go with it.” There aren’t two “choices” here, each equally requiring an act of will — the choice is actually between either actively willing or releasing your will in order to get on with things.

Yet another post on The Tree of Life

The reference to Job is obvious and to the point. I’d suggest an additional inspiration, however: Augustine’s Confessions. It fits amazingly, even down to the commentary on Genesis. Maybe we can talk it out.

My Augustine article in SJT

A preview of the next issue of Scottish Journal of Theology has been posted online, including my long-awaited article on Augustine’s De trinitate. (You can view the PDF for free on the site as far as I can tell, but I don’t want to try to link to it directly because in my experience those kinds of links don’t work well on journal websites.)

This reduces my “forthcoming” queue to only one: an article for a special issue of Revue Internationale de Philosophie on Zizek. I do have an article under review, so hopefully that will work out — if I don’t have any work forthcoming, I may well cease to exist.

The terrible fruits of getting bored at church

A couple of my students pointed out a passage in Augustine’s Confessions (III.3) that we all had difficulty interpreting. Outler’s translation is relatively tame: “I dared, even while thy solemn rites were being celebrated inside the walls of thy church, to desire and to plan a project which merited death as its fruit.” The Penguin edition we’re using, however, has the following: “I defied you even so far as to relish the thought of lust, and gratify it too, within the walls of your church during the celebration of your mysteries.”

The Latin is as follows: “ausus sum etiam in celebritate sollemnitatum tuarum, intra parietes ecclesiae tuae, concupiscere et agere negotium procurandi fructus mortis.” It seems to me at first glance that Outler’s translation is more accurate and the Penguin is reaching — either way, though, it’s difficult to understand what Augustine might be referring to. Indeed, in the Penguin edition it seems possible that he’s confessing to masturbating during church.

Forthcoming Augustine article

Several readers have asked about my forthcoming article on Augustine for Scottish Journal of Theology, and I have tended to rebuff their requests. Looking at the copyright information for the journal, however, it appears that I have the right to post the submitted version on my personal website, and thus I am doing so now:

Gift and Communio: The Holy Spirit in Augustine’s De Trinitate

It is not clear to me when it will actually be coming out, as they appear to have a significant backlog. I will anounce it when it occurs, at which point I will also have the right to post the official PDF (hence with correct page numbers, etc.).

As a general note, I am among those who complain about the obstacles to journal access, but few of us take full advantage of the rights that publishers (particularly university presses) grant us to make work available on our personal web sites. I will try to be better about that in the future, as should you!

Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: What should we do with our Derrida?

In this response post, I’d like to address two points: first, the relationship of Malabou’s work to Derrida’s, and second, a potential theological connection with the notion of plasticity. I hope that I can be forgiven for being self-referential in the first part and that it will serve something like the purpose that leads Malabou herself to be autobiographical in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing.


My engagement with philosophy has been dominated by two thinkers: Derrida and Zizek. I came to Derrida first, in a Christian atmosphere that strongly emphasized the “transcendent” and quasi-religious element in his thought — the absolute alterity of the Other, the resistence of the “trace” to being taken up into any determinate form, etc. When I began to study Zizek’s work, I found that he gave voice to a lot of my own skepticism about what one might call the “postmodern pieties” that surrounded Derrida’s work in my own setting (and, as it turns out, elsewhere as well).

I found Zizek’s own critiques of Derrida to be rather simplistic and unfair, seemingly motivated more by a young intellectual’s desire to clear out his own space than by an even-handed assessment of Derrida’s philosophy, but I sensed an overall challenge to Derrida that rang true: in essense, I took him to be asking, What can we do with Derrida? From a certain perspective, Derrida’s project seems to be entirely negative, characterized by extreme caution over words and by a need to express one’s own position only indirectly by means of a strange kind of commentary — but what positive task corresponds to this critical moment?

Read the rest of this entry »

Augustine and The Big Lebowski

From Confessions XII.25:

But I will not tolerate their contention that Moses meant, not what I say he meant, but only what they say. It appals me, because even if their explanation is the right one, the arbitrary assurance with which they insist upon it springs from presumption, not from knowledge. It is the child of arrogance, not of true vision.

In other words: “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.”

With the law

Reading Augustine’s Propositions from the Epistle to the Romans, I came across a strange locution that reminded me of our recent discussion of Paul’s notion of the doers of the law:

41. “We know that the Law is spiritual, but I am carnal” (7:14), indicates clearly that the Law cannot be fulfilled except by spiritual men, who are made such by the grace of God. For he who has become spiritual like the Law will easily fulfill what it prescribes; nor will he be under the Law, but with it [nec erit sub illa sed cum illa]….

I am not a Latin scholar, but the locution “with the law” seems to me to be as strange in Latin as it is in English, and a search through the dictionary does not suggest a different preposition for cum that would be “better” in the sense of more intuitive. Augustine continues:

He is one, moreover, whom temporal goods do not seduce nor temporal evils terrify [is est autem, qui iam non capitur temporalibus bonis nec terretur temporalibus malis].

As the translation indicates, autem is to a certain extent disjunctive, so I don’t think we can say that being “with the law” simply and exclusively means being above the seduction/terror of temporal things — rather, the spiritual man will be both “with the law” and one who is not seduced, etc. (It’s strange to me that the translation doesn’t preserve the passive voice of this sentence — it seems to be part of Augustine’s point that the spiritual man no longer stands in a passive relationship to the temporal.)

I invite any thoughts.

Posted in Augustine, translation. Comments Off

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,285 other followers