Augustine Book VIII: The Struggle of Conversion

I have to admit, Augustine has been a struggle for me, as anyone who has been following the sporadic posts on this blog must realize. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that bothers me about him, but I think it goes back to this idea that he does not take responsibility for his faith. Instead we get a constant litany of actions that he flagellates himself with and then attributes all of his goodness to God. It is not particularly instructive for someone trying to figure out how to lead a good life.

That said, Book VIII has proven to be an interesting read. In part, I think it is because Augustine talks about several ideas that relate to conversion and to the idea of good and evil. In this book we discover that coming around to faith is a struggle and that the true struggle is within rather than without.

Augustine gives us the example of Victorinus, a man who declared himself a Christian mostly to Christian friends, but did not declare his faith publicly, until eventually, putting aside any concern about wha the world might think, he declared himself a Christian in front of a multitude of people, even after being offered the opportunitiy to confess his faith in private.

The next story he gives us is of Potitianus, who also gave up a secular life to devote himself to Godby giving up on the hope of becoming a favorite person of the Roman emporer.

Augustine finally describes his own internal struggle with faith, and how his mind was divided against itself. In part it had to give up the earthly pleasures and ambitions in order to turn him to God. He talks about how the common perception of this is that people beleive that there are two soulds within one person — one good, and one evil. But what Augustine is describing is a ouse divided against itself. The mind needs to see to its self, Augustine tells us, and it needs to make itself obey the same way the body obeys the mind. “The mind commands the body, and it obeys instantely; the mind commands itself, and is resisted.”

This makes me think about how even though we often know what the right thing to do is, we go against our better judgment and do the wrong thing. But Augustine says this is all about how we behave in ourselves. “Myself when I was deliberating upon serving the Lord my God now, as I had long purposed, it was I who willed, I who nilled, I myself. I neither willed entirely, nor nilled entirely. There for I was at dtrife with myself, and rent asunder by myself.”

But this internal struggle, and the struggle for faith is not entirely a bad thing. Early on in the book, Augustine tells us this struggle is a valuable thing. He says that it makes the final outcome more worthwhile.

“The conquering commander triumpheth; yet had he not conquered unless he had fought; and the more peril there was int he battle, so much the more joy is there in the triumph. The storm tosses the sailors, threatens shipwreck; all was pale at approaching death; sky and sea are calmed and they are excceding hoyed, as having been exceedin afraid. A friend is sick, and his pulse threatens danger; all who long for his recovery are sick in mind with him. He is restored, though as yet he walks not with his former strength; yet there is such joy, as was not, when before he walked sound and strong. Yea, the very pleasures of human life men acquire by difficulties, not those only which fall upon us unlooked for, and against our wills, but even by self-chosen, and pleasure-seeking trouble. Eating and drinking have no pleasure, unless there precede the pinching of hunger and thirst.”

Augutine goes on to tell us that this ist he same for people who come around to God after a long struggle. While this recalls the story of the prodigal son, it is also the story of every sinner who converts. Though it makes you wonder why we should be good in the first place. It seems like the real goal should be to misbehave and then repent. Though, perhaps Augustine is just being self-serving with this view and the truly blessed are those who have been good all along.

There is one other interesting side bar in this book. The Great Conversation continues in that Augustine talks with Simplicianus about reading certain books of the Platonists, and Simplicianus tells Augustine that he is glad that he did not fall “upon thr writers of other philosophies, full of fallacies and deceits, after the rudiments of this world, whereas the Platonists many ways led to the beleif in God and His Word.” It is interesting to see Platonism connected so closely with Christianity, but given that they both dtrive for the ultimate Good — Plato as an abstract concept, and Christians as God — it makes sense that they should find themselves at least somewhat compatible with each other.

Next Time: Humanities in the Modern Age

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