Sunday, March 15, 2015

Augustine's friend

Hippo Rhegum. St. Augustine's Basilica Floor Inscription
St Augustine was Bishop of Hippo 395/7 - 430 

In Book IV of the Confessions Augustine gives us an account of the consequences of the death of a friend.

I was surprised that any other mortals were alive, since him whom I had loved as if he would never die was dead. I was even more surprised that when he was dead I was still alive, for he was my ‘other self’. Someone has well said of his friend ‘he was half of my soul’. I had felt that my soul and his soul were ‘one soul on two bodies’. So my life was to me a horror. I did not wish to live with only half of myself, and perhaps the reason why I so feared death was that then the whole of my much loved friend would have died.

In his excellent translation of the Confessions Henry Chadwick, finds learned allusions to Cicero, and Horace, and Ovid and Aristotle, in the expressions in inverted commas. No doubt. But in a moment I wish to notice two biblical expressions as well. Could these have been in Augustine’s mind, at even this early stage in his life? (57)

Augustine goes on to discuss the folly of investing eternal value in what is mortal, immutability in what is mutable.

What madness not to understand how to human beings with awareness of the human condition! How stupid man is to be unable to restrain feelings in suffering that human lot! That was my state at that time.(59)

Such reflections were an early venture in what for Augustine became an important theme in the many-themed Confessions: human mortality, and the folly of placing one’s trust in what was mortal and hence mutable rather than in the immutable God, whom Augustine did not know the truth of at this stage in his life. Such words as those that follow are not merely those of the time of the loss but the are peppered by Augustine's later Christian self;  

When I thought of you, my mental image was not of anything solid and firm; it was not you but a vain phantom. My error was my god. If I attempted to find rest there for my soul, it slipped through a void and again came falling back upon me. (60)

But a little later

Though left alone [by bereavement] he loses none dear to him; for  all are dear in the one who cannot be lost. Who is that but our God, the God who made heaven and earth and filled them?( 61)….If physical objects give you pleasure, praise God for them and return love to their Maker lest, in the things that please you, you displease him. If souls please you, they are being loved in God; for they also are mutable and acquire stability by being established in him.

There is another theme here, besides human immortality and divine immutability, the wrestling with the relation and conflict between uti, the use of things, and frui, their enjoyment, a matter which seems to have bothered Augustine throughout life.  If we enjoy mutable things, things for their own sake,  does this take away from our love for God who is the only immutable good? He did not seem to be satisfied by the thought that love for a mortal creature for themselves was contributing to the longer term end of love to God. Love for a creature for themselves seems always, in his thinking, to be in competition with love to God for himself. Here, in the Confessions, he seems to have found some reconciliation in the thought that a love for the creature is to be reconciled with our love for God in the thought that ‘In him therefore they are loved’. (63)

We do not know the name of the friend who died. But then, as Frederick J. Crosson has pointed out, for some reason in the early parts of the Confessions, until Augustine reaches Italy he 

does not tell us the name of any of the people he encounters (with one single exception): not his mother or father or brother, nor the friend shoes death overshadows his life, none of his students (though Alypius is one), not his common-law wife, or son, none of the Manichees he lives with for nine years – until Faustus, the Manichean bishop he has waited so long to meet.

When he reaches Italy, the names flood out. Why this change? 

Among other factors, Crosson thinks that he names only those who have been instrumental (whether knowingly or not) in his path of ascent to God.  He might have added, ‘during the time of this ascent’. If you figure in his descent, in his estrangement from God and man, as Crosson puts it, you remain anonymous, except for Faustus; if you figure in his ascent, you get named. Faustus gets his name (Crosson thinks) because it as a result of Augustine’s unsatisfactory encounter with him, that the snare of Manicheeism begins to be loosed. ('Structure and Meaning in St. Augustine’s Confessions', (in The Augustinian Tradition, ed. Gareth B. Matthews, University of California Press, 1999,) p.30)

But back to friendship. There are two sentences in the Old Testament that provide a similar conceptuality to that which Augustine used of himself and his anonymous friend, and to which Chadwick links various similar expressions from classical writings. In Deuteronomy, amidst laws against idolatry, we find

‘If…..your friend who is as your soul entices you secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods…you shall not listen to him or listen to him’. (13.6-7) Not all friends are as souls but if you have one who is, don't be tempted when he attempts to lure you away to idolatry,

And the other passage is better known, the story of David’s friendship with Jonathan, son of Saul.

‘The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul’. (I Samuel, 18.1) ‘…for he loved him as he loved his own soul.’ (20.17)

In the first instance, the friendship must be transcended by the person’s non-idolatrous allegiance to Jehovah. The second focusses on the depth of the relationship between David and Jonathan, and especially on Prince Jonathan.

This biblical language seems very similar to that of Augustine, doesn't it? Perhaps Augustine picked it up at his mother Monnica's knee. Moral: do not be too quick to think that an unusual expression must be borrowed by a Christian writer from a Classical author. It may be found in Scripture.

Given current cultural interests, it is worth pointing out that Scripture has a different expression for the union in marriage of a man and a woman. ‘They shall become one flesh’. (Gen.2.24; Matt. 19.6)