Augustine of Hippo lived during a time of exceptional upheaval. It was the beginning of the Dark Ages, when the christianized Roman Empire was crumbling. His Confessions was written between 397 and 398 AD, 13 years prior to the sack of the capitol by the Visigoths. Perhaps this historical situation is responsible for the fervid tone of his philosophy, although truthfully, there are zealots in every age.
Among rational, educated people, it is easy to explain this early Christian philosopher as a relic of a darkly superstitious and insecure time. We can understand his cultural influences, and accept his limitations with the same charity that we understand Aristotle’s theory of Spontaneous Generation. But unlike Spontaneous Generation, Augustine’s ideas are taken seriously today. Many theologians see him as the seminal Christian Philosopher. Many Catholic and non-Catholic lay people rapturize his quotes. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography includes him in what can be magnanimously described as an attempt to be open-minded. My copy of The Confessions gushes from its cover that this is “The greatest spiritual autobiography of all time.”
Unfortunately, Augustine comes with the emotional baggage of a damaged girlfriend who cuts. He is full of loathing and abuse towards himself. He calls himself “dust and ashes” (Augustine, p. 46). He says things like “I stank in [God’s] eyes” (Augustine, p. 65). With Flagellant masochism, Augustine describes his sin as if he is “bound about with painful chains of iron…scourged by burning rods of jealousy” (Augustine, p. 77). In response to the natural desires of adolescence, he says “clouds arose from the slimy desires of the flesh” (Augustine, p. 65). The saint’s descriptions are so graphic, sensual and laced with bondage and discipline, that he makes a fetish of his self-hatred and writhes in an ecstasy of suffering and self-punishment for his humanness.
And what is his solution to the aforementioned sinfulness? More self-torture: God “scourged me with heavy punishments, but nothing in proportion to my faults” (Augustine, p. 80). God “stood me face to face with myself, so that I might see how foul I was, how deformed and defiled, how covered with stains and sores” (Augustine, p. 193). Apparently Augustine’s particular kink requires verbal abuse while he’s being whipped.
Even after a decade in God’s Pleasure Dungeon, and numerous renunciations that would make the most fanatic Ascetic weep, Augustine is still not good enough. He has tossed the woman (and child she bore him) out of his house and become celibate. He has given-up lucrative academic posts to pursue his warped truth. He lives with the scrubbed cleanliness of laundry beaten on rocks. But he needs a final push towards holiness. So what is his method? More self-torture: “I upbraided myself much more bitterly than ever before. I twisted and turned in my chain” (Augustine, p. 199). God, ever the obliging dominatrix, “redoubled the scourges of fear and shame” (Augustine, p. 200). With this increased, punishing stimulation, Augustine is finally urged to let go in a climax of unity with the Divine.
I wish I could say that Augustine learned to love himself once he’d reached his goal. But this abused child of God was never good enough. He continues his celibacy and avoids physical pleasure. He even goes as far as avoiding pleasing fragrances and shutting-out pleasant melodies in church music (Augustine, p. 261). All senses are potential traps that can haul one back into sin. Concerning the sense of taste, he says “I…come to take food just as I take medicine” (Augustine, p. 258). For the rest of his life, Augustine is vigilant against the joys of the physical world.
It may interest free-thinking people to know what kinds of things are considered sins by this revered figure. In addition to the expected Seven Deadlies and violations of the Ten Commandments, Augustine includes Theater. Contact with The Stage, in Augustine’s colorfully graphic style, results in being “infected with loathsome sores” (Augustine, p. 78). Someone should have told him that the sores only occur if you have sex with the actors. As usual, knowledge is a bad thing, leading to the unfortunate consequences of thinking and questioning for one’s self (always a sin in the face of an authority that benefits from ignorance.) Knowledge leads away from God, “into the depths of apostasy and into the deceitful service of demons” (Augustine, p. 80). Free Will naturally follows: “the free will’s decision is the cause of our doing evil” (Augustine, p. 160). Anything to maintain a flock of sheep.
Paramount among sins is the sin of being human. “See how we wallow in flesh and blood” (Augustine, p. 195). It’s the tired, “spirit good; body bad” duality. Tired but ever profitable for religion. When it comes to creating converts, there is nothing quite as effective as telling people that what comes naturally to them, simply by being who they are is sinful; and that the only way to salvation is through the proffered organization.
Perhaps the most dangerous sin is that of heresy. Dangerous to the health of the heretic of course. In his discussion of the Manichean sect, Augustine states “They themselves are truly evil” (Augustine, p. 197). In another passage about them, he says that they “deserved to be spewed forth by a sickened stomach” (Augustine, p. 159). These are comments the saint makes about a sect that he was a part of for nine years. But he has no compassion for them. Dehumanizing the opposition is an excellent way to permit their persecution and destruction. If they’re characterized as vomit, or evil, killing them is okay. This is the foundation of what is called “The Augustinian Consensus,” a euphemism and philosophical justification for persecution. Augustine’s self-hatred regarding his own sin spilled-over onto humanity. It resulted in a millennium of violent persecutions against any individual or group perceived as unrepentant sinners.
This is the true danger of Augustine’s self-loathing. If it was just a case of this narrow, anti-motivational speaker influencing some horrible, small-minded people to hate their humanness as much as he hated his, I’d say that they were getting their just desserts. Unfortunately, these guilty-feeling busybodies never keep it to themselves. You’ll see them invade funerals for AIDS patients so that they can jeer at the bereaved family, or in the courtroom interfering with the private right of a couple to make end-of-life decisions, or in public schools trying to prevent condom distribution. And this is actually progress from the days when they would kill you for your transgressions (unless you’re an abortion provider, and then it’s game on…Dark Ages-style.) I’m not a psych clinician, but I can see the road that this self-hatred and self-denial leads down. And the dead end to that road is not a healthy place for either that individual or our society.
Augustine. The Confessions of St Augustine. Ryan, John K. (trans.) New York: Doubleday, 1960.