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!


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