Tag Archives: Augustine

More synchronicity: Rivers of Babylon

Just after posting the previous post, I had a bit of free time, so I played the musical free-association game: I choose a song to start with and play it, and when each song ends, I play whatever comes to mind next — which will generally be related in some way. Here’s what I played this time:

  • Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, “Walk Like A Man”
  • They Might Be Giants, “How Can I Sing Like A Girl?”
  • The Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive”
  • James Taylor, “Walking Man”
  • Leonard Cohen, “By The Rivers Dark”

After that, the next song that came to mind was Don McLean’s “Babylon” — which, like the Cohen song, is based on Psalm 137. I wasn’t really in the mood for Don McLean, though, so I stopped the association stuff and just put iTunes on random shuffle. The third or fourth song it selected on random shuffle was — wouldn’t you know it? — Don McLean’s “Babylon.”

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Less than an hour later, I picked up Krailsheimer’s Pascal again and found the following passage:

The rivers of Babylon flow, and fall, and carry away.

O holy Sion, where everything stands firm and nothing falls!

We must sit by these rivers, not under or in them, but above, not standing upright, but sitting down, so that we remain humble by sitting, and safe by remaining above, but we shall stand upright in the porches of Jerusalem.

Let us see if this pleasure is firm or transitory; if it passes away it is a river of Babylon.

A footnote explains, “This fragment is a paraphrase of a meditation on Ps. CXXVII [sic] by St Augustine.” All this happened just hours after I had written a post which quoted St. Augustine in connection with popular music (facetiously citing “noted Augustine scholar Sir Michael P. Jagger”).

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Constitutive ends, transcendent ends, and rules

I don’t care about making money, I just love to sell carpet!

— Buddy Kallick

If you ask what the goal or end of a particular action is, there are a number of actions which admit of two distinct answers — which, after rejecting several even less felicitous terms (trust me, it’s possible!), I have decided to call the constitutive end and the transcendent end.

This distinction was brought to my attention as I was rereading some of the epigrams filed under “Diversion” in Pascal’s Pensées (Krailsheimer’s translation), so I might as well use one of his examples to explain what I mean.

[Those who say] that people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare that they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature. The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but hunting does so.

In this case, catching the hare is the constitutive end of the hunt — so called because such an end is an essential part of what makes a hunt a hunt. Without a hare (or some other quarry), there can be no hunt. Or, to be more precise, it is not the hare itself that is necessary so much as the idea of the hare, as a goal imagined in the hunters’ minds. It is quite possible to hunt even when there are no hares about, so long as the hunters do not know this.

The constitutive end is therefore absolutely necessary, in that the activity in question is by definition the pursuit of that end. Unless a person pursues that end, it is impossible for him to engage in that activity. However, psychologically, it often happens that the constitutive end is not the “real” end — not the thing that would really satisfy those who are ostensibly pursuing it. This is where transcendent ends come into play. (Sorry if that sounds a little too maharishi; again, you’ll just have to trust me when I say that these are the least infelicitous terms I could come up with.) In Pascal’s example, the transcendent end of the hunt is simply to distract the hunter, thus relieving him of the pain of thinking about our miserable human condition. I call it transcendent because it transcends the activity itself. The hunt as a hunt is perfectly intelligible on its own terms even without the knowledge that the hunters are seeking to be distracted from their own mortality — but not without the knowledge that they are pursuing a hare.

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Furthermore, although the transcendent end is the “real” end — the one that the hunters actually care about — they must nevertheless focus all their attentions and energies on the constitutive end. In another of his examples, Pascal discusses a man who gambles a small sum every day for entertainment. Like the hare hunters, he doesn’t really want his ostensible goal (money) but rather diversion and distraction. If you offered to just give him some money each day on condition that he give up gambling, he wouldn’t be interested. However —

He must have excitement, he must delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want as a gift if it meant giving up gambling. He must create some target for his passions and then arouse his desire, anger, fear, for this object he has created, just like children taking fright at a face they have daubed themselves.

The transcendent end is such that it cannot be pursued directly, but only by means of the pursuit of a wholly different (constitutive) end. And the more you can lose yourself in the pursuit of the CE, forgetting all about the TE if possible, the more likely you will be to attain the TE.

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Actively pursuing one end (the CE) in order to attain a quite different end (the TE) is a dicey business, since there will nearly always be actions which, while effective ways of reaching the CE, are actually detrimental to the TE. This is why it is often necessary to pursue the CE within a framework of rules.

Hunting, for example, is subject to standards of sportsmanship, and too-effective methods are deemed unsportsmanlike. This is very strange if you know only that the goal of the hunt is to capture a hare — but once you understand the transcendent end of distraction-from-one’s-mortality (or, in less charged language, “fun”), it becomes clear why hunting must not be permitted to become so easy that it fails to keep the mind occupied.

The same is true for the rules of other sports. If your purpose is to get the ball into the goal, it seems quite counterproductive to refuse to touch it with your hands — but in light of the transcendent end of soccer (distraction again), such rules make sense.

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So far my examples — Pascal’s examples — involve only sports and other diversions, where the TE is distraction. However, I think the logic of constitutive ends, transcendent ends, and rules can also be applied to many other kinds of activities. A few examples follow.

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St. Augustine, back before he was a saint, used to enjoy stealing for the sake of stealing. As the noted Augustine scholar Sir Michael P. Jagger puts it, “Augustine knew temptation,” loving not only “women, wine, and song,” but also “all the special pleasures of doing something wrong.” In the saint’s own words (translated by E. B. Pusey):

I lusted to thieve, and did it, compelled by no hunger, nor poverty, but through a cloyedness of well-doing, and a pamperedness of iniquity. For I stole that, of which I had enough, and much better. Nor cared I to enjoy what I stole, but joyed in the theft and sin itself.

A pear tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste. To shake and rob this, some lewd young fellows of us went, late one night (having according to our pestilent custom prolonged our sports in the streets till then), and took huge loads, not for our eating, but to fling to the very hogs, having only tasted them. And this, but to do what we liked only, because it was misliked.

Behold my heart, O God, behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon in the bottom of the bottomless pit. Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself! . . .

So then, not even Catiline himself loved his own villainies, but something else, for whose sake he did them. What then did wretched I so love in thee, thou theft of mine, thou deed of darkness, in that sixteenth year of my age? Lovely thou wert not, because thou wert theft. But art thou any thing, that thus I speak to thee? Fair were the pears we stole, because they were Thy creation, Thou fairest of all, Creator of all, Thou good God; God, the sovereign good and my true good. Fair were those pears, but not them did my wretched soul desire; for I had store of better, and those I gathered, only that I might steal. For, when gathered, I flung them away, my only feast therein being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if aught of those pears came within my mouth, what sweetened it was the sin.

The pears were a constitutive end for young Augustine — no theft without something to steal — but the transcendent end was to taste “all the special pleasures of doing something wrong.” These are seemingly paradoxical pleasures, but everyone knows them; no one reads Augustine but recognizes himself in this passage. (I suppose the root of the pleasure is pride — glorying in the fact that one can do such things and enjoy them, in defiance of God, reason, and society.)

The theft was by definition a means to the end of getting pears — but the pears were valued only as a means to the end of committing theft.

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Everyone knows the story of the widow’s mite (as it is always called for some reason; it should be “the widow’s mites“).

And Jesus sat over against the [temple] treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living (Mark 12:41-44).

This is not generally considered one of Jesus’s “hard sayings”; most people naturally and intuitively understand and agree with the judgment expressed. For me, though, it has always been a major sticking point, something I have brooded over again and again in an attempt to understand Jesus’s message.

From a utilitarian point of view (and we moderns are all utilitarians to some degree), how can the widow’s donation possibly be judged better than those of the rich men? The rich men contributed substantially to the support of the temple at no real inconvenience to themselves — maximum benefit for the temple, minimum harm for the donors — whereas the widow made an enormous sacrifice which scarcely benefited the temple at all. By what criteria is that donation judged better which produces greater harm and less benefit?

One easy, not to say facile, explanation is that Jesus was making a statement about the general goodness of the attitude exemplified by the widow, not of this particular instance of it. What he meant was that it would be good if people in general (particularly rich people) were as proportionally generous as this poor widow had been. This particular widow’s gift was worthless and even actively harmful, but we ought nevertheless to praise it so as to encourage a similar attitude in others — specifically, in others who are not poor widows.

but that’s not what Jesus said. He didn’t say, “If only the rich could be so generous!” He said, “This poor widow hath cast more in.” It’s hard to avoid the (anti-utilitarian) conclusion that, for Jesus, the primary value of the gifts lay not in the good they did to the temple but in the harm they caused to the donors. The temple received more from the rich, but the widow sacrificed more, and thus her gift was superior.

Sacrifice is thus valued qua sacrifice, regardless of whether or not it helps anyone. However, not just any sacrifice will do. It must be a sacrifice motivated by love or piety — which in turn means that its constitutive end must be to help some other person, to further the work of God, etc. Although the widow wasn’t really helping the temple at all, it was nevertheless important that it was into the temple treasury that she cast her mites. Had she just cast them into the sea, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have been as approving. Likewise, when Jesus wanted the rich young man to sacrifice his wealth, he didn’t tell him to scatter his flocks and burn down his house; he told him, “sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor.” Was the point really to help the poor? No, of course not. But helping the poor (or some similar “good cause”) was nevertheless necessary as a constitutive end. The transcendent end was the sacrifice itself, or perhaps the moral effects which sacrifice engenders.

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Is all charity similar in kind to that demonstrated by the widow or demanded of the rich young man? There is, after all, something paradoxical about on the one hand scorning worldly goods and comforts (as a virtuous person should), and on the other hand trying to provide those goods and comforts for others as if we were thereby doing them some great service. Just as Pascal’s gambler had to “delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want as a gift,” doesn’t the charitable Christian have to delude himself into imagining that he can contribute to others’ happiness by giving them what he knows cannot bring happiness.

The constitutive end of charitable giving is to alleviate poverty — and that could be most effectively achieved by forcibly taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. But such means would be detrimental to the transcendent end (namely, the happiness that comes from love, generosity, and gratitude), so a rule is needed (“thou shalt not steal”).

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My work as a language teacher is necessarily based on the pursuit of constitutive ends. The transcendent end is to develop proficiency in English, and that goal can be achieved only through practice using the language. Language, however, is such that it cannot really be used without some communicative goal (which is why “Say something in Chinese!” is such an annoying request). In a recent class, for instance, I had my students read an English version of H. C. Andersen’s story “The Swineherd” and discuss whether the characters’ actions were right or wrong. (I knew from experience that women tend to sympathize with the princess, and men with the prince, leading to lively debate.) The real purpose of this whole exercise was to practice a few specific grammatical constructions — perfect modals (“he shouldn’t have deceived her,” “I would have done the same thing,” etc.) and the third conditional (“if she hadn’t kissed him, they wouldn’t have been banished”) — but this was accomplished by focusing almost entirely on the constitutive end of passing moral judgment on fairy-tale characters.

Of course, the most effective way for a group of Taiwanese people to reach any communicative goal would be for them to speak Chinese. Hence the need for rules (English only) to ensure that the transcendent end is served.

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One type of error is to disregard rules and focus too exclusively on the constitutive end. Another is to focus directly on the transcendent end, forgetting that the activity cannot maintain its character — and thus cannot lead to the TE — unless the CE is kept in focus.

“We don’t keep score; we just play for fun.” People who say this exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding. Yes, fun is the real point (transcendent end) of playing — but unless you’re trying to win (the constitutive end) you’re not actually playing the game and therefore won’t have as much fun.

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Was the firmament good after all?

Much of the 13th and final book of St Augustine’s Confessions is given over to a very meticulous — even tedious in places — analysis of the first chapter of Genesis, combing over every word and turn of phrase again and again, interpreting and reinterpreting it as if determined to winkle out every last molecule of meaning.

As I was reading this, I was naturally curious to see whether Augustine would pick up on the oddity in Genesis 1 which I had recently noticed and commented on —  namely, that God created the firmament on the second day but neglected to pronounce it good until the sixth. But instead I was startled to read this:

Of the several kinds of Thy works, when Thou hadst said “let them be,” and they were, Thou sawest each that it was good. Seven times have I counted it to be written, that Thou sawest that that which Thou madest was good: and this is the eighth, that Thou sawest every thing that Thou hadst made, and, behold, it was not only good, but also very good, as being now altogether.

Apparently the puzzle I had spent so much time pondering didn’t even exist in Augustine’s Bible! Where my King James clearly has only seven instances of God pronouncing his creation good, it appears that the version St Augustine was using had eight — with the additional “it was good” presumably being applied to the firmament.

I tried looking up Genesis 1 in the Vulgate, which is figured is what Augustine would have been reading, but it turns out to be the same as our English Bibles, with God saying “it was good” only seven times and neglecting the firmament. Then, figuring that Augustine may instead have been reading Vetus Latina versions translated from the Septuagint, I looked that up and, sure enough, the Septuagint Genesis 1 inserts an extra “and God saw that it was good,” applied to the firmament, into the eighth verse.

I don’t really know what to conclude from this. I suppose it’s possible that a line which was accidentally lost in the Masoretic text has been preserved in the LXX — but it seems equally probable that, the original text being so decidedly odd on this point, the LXX translators fudged it a bit and inserted a line which obviously seemed to belong.

At any rate, it’s too bad St Augustine didn’t have a Vulgate handy when he wrote his Confessions. I’m sure he would have noticed the firmament discrepancy and come up with an ingenious explanation for it.

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On Auster, Dante, and being an atheist conservative

I’ve been reading old articles on Lawrence Auster’s blog View from the Right and came across his review of the then-new blog Secular Right, in which he pretty much denies that “secular right” is even a coherent concept. Here are some key excerpts (italics are Auster’s; boldface and ellipses are mine):

The problem is in the very notion of a “secular right,” of a publicly and actively atheist conservatism. These are contradictions in terms. . . . It’s one thing for people privately not to believe in God, but still maintain adherence to the common loyalties we have as Americans. But if you publicly deny and attack and thus try to make other people disbelieve the specific supernatural claims on which our form of government is based, such as that our fundamental human rights to liberty and self-government come from our being created by God in his image, such as that man is a flawed and fallen being and therefore the powers of human government must be carefully restrained, I don’t see how you can call yourself a conservative or a person of the right, at least in the American context.

By definition, an outspoken public stance against religion and the existence of God is incompatible with conservatism. People taking such a stance may have conservative positions on this or that issue, but I don’t think they have the right to call themselves conservatives. . . . A conservative by definition is a person who respects, or at the very least defers to and doesn’t publicly attack, the fundamental principles and beliefs of his society.

Auster goes on to say that the people behind Secular Right (John Derbyshire, Heather Mac Donald, and Razib Khan) are not only unconservative but, by virtue of being outspoken atheists, are actually hostile to Western civilization itself.

These people are saying that America and the whole world would be better off if the whole human race stopped believing in God and if religion ceased to exist. They’re not just saying that religion intrudes in areas where it doesn’t belong or that religion sometimes leads astray and that man’s reason may a better guide in some areas than religion. They’re saying that wherever religion and belief in God exist, the world is worse than it would be than if it were guided by pure, godless reason.

. . . [t]hey are indicating their hostility to the entire Western tradition of Reason and Revelation. They don’t accept the Revelation part, and everything in our thousands-year-long history that is of religion, that makes reference to God or gods, that is not of materialist, scientific reason, they will, if it comes within their ken, put down, devalue, and discard. Whether it’s the Iliad (in which the heroic ideal is to become for brief moments like a god), or the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome (completely based in religion), of the plays of Aeschylus (inconceivable without the religion sense), or the Parthenon (a temple to Athena); . . . or the Hebrew Bible, or our entire moral and social system that comes from the Hebrew Bible, . . . or whether it’s the teachings and personality of Jesus Christ, . . . or whether it’s the establishment of the Christian Church in Rome, or the Christianization and re-civilization of Europe by the Roman Church after the barbarian conquests and the fall of the western Roman empire, or whether it’s the Frankish kingdom’s defeat of the Muslim invasion of France, which would not have happened if the Franks weren’t Catholics defending Catholic Europe from Islam . . . .

I could go on for thousands of words, but I think the point has been sufficiently made. Our history, our civilization, the BEST that we have been, is intertwined with God, gods, and religion at every point. Yet the village atheists of Secular Right would dispense with it all, and they want the rest of us to dispense with it as well, because in their wisdom they know that secular reason could have done a better job of it than religion — these intellectual adolescents who think they know everything but know nothing.

So it’s not just that they have no right to call themselves conservatives. It’s that they are hostile to that which makes up our historic civilization, the Christian West, as well as to the specifically religious dimension of the American Founding, without which there would be no rights as we understand them, and no limited government as we understand it.

According to Auster, to be an atheist — or at least to be openly atheistic — is to be hostile to the entire Western tradition. Because the West has always been based on religion in one form or another, anyone who is against religion is against the West. But in fact “the” Western tradition comprises a succession of mutually incompatible movements — Classical religion and philosophy, Catholicism, Protestantism, the Enlightenment — each of which was more or less openly hostile to its predecessors. To the extent that Greco-Roman culture was “completely based in religion,” it was a religion which Christians saw as completely incorrect. The Parthenon is, to Christians no less than to atheists, a temple to a false god — a being which does not actually exist and ought never to have been worshiped. If atheists often feel that “the whole world would be better off if the whole human race stopped believing in God and if religion ceased to exist,” serious Christians tend to feel the same way about paganism and idolatry.

The pagans of Greece and Rome perceived Christianity as a direct attack on their beliefs, culture, and civilization, a situation dramatized in the “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” episode in Acts 19. The evangelist mostly plays the confrontation for laughs — Demetrius is a self-interested silversmith whose main concern is protecting his own job as a manufacturer of idols, and the crowd he raises are a confused rabble, most of whom “knew not wherefore they were come together” — but history has nevertheless vindicated them. “This Paul,” says Demetrius, “hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands: so that . . . the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth.” And, well, didn’t that happen? In hindsight, we can see that Demetrius was right, and that the seemingly reasonable townclerk (“ye ought to be quiet . . . these men . . . are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess”) had gravely underestimated the existential threat Christianity posed to Diana, to her temple, and indeed to “all Asia and the world.”

And yet Christianity didn’t destroy Western civilization; it became Western civilization. Despite the fact that Christianity is by definition hostile to paganism, it still managed to assimilate and perpetuate much of Classical civilization and to define itself within a broader Western tradition. Augustine, Thomas, and Descartes were the heirs of Plato and Aristotle. The legacy of Virgil and Homer lived on in Dante and Milton. Despite the inherent incompatibility of paganism and Christianity, of Catholicism and Protestantism, there really is such a thing as what Auster elsewhere calls “the Classical-Christian tradition” — e pluribus unum. I would add that the Enlightenment also belongs to that same tradition, and that there is no obvious reason why out-and-out atheism might not also be included. For the would-be atheist conservative — or, if “conservative” is too strong a word, for the atheist who is in awe of the Western tradition and wishes to perpetuate it, but who wishes also to be loyal to the truth as he understands it, including the truth that there don’t actually seem to be any such things as gods — for such a person, the Christians of antiquity and of the Middle Ages provide an invaluable example of how to honor, appropriate, and continue a great tradition whilst at the same time unflinchingly opposing some of the core beliefs on which that tradition is based.

A particular source of inspiration for me is the fourth canto of the Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil visit the First Circle of Hell, to which are consigned good and honorable men who, not being Christians, are nevertheless damned because “they lacked baptism” and “did not worship God in fitting ways.” For the most part they represent the great men of pre-Christian antiquity, though some medieval Muslims (Averroes, Avicenna, Saladin) are also among them. Being serious about his religion, Dante never flinches from the harsh judgment it demands: that, Christianity being the Truth, non-Christians are, at bottom, wrong — ignorant, superstitious, damned. “Though they have merits, that’s not enough.” However wise and good they may have been in some ways, they were in the end — even Aristotle, “the master of the men who know” — simply wrong about that which mattered most. And so Virgil, as he prepares to lead Dante into the presence of such intellectual giants as Thales and Democritus, Plato and Socrates, Homer and Horace, says simply, “Let us descend into the blind world now.”

But Dante is no Vizzini (“Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.”), and despite his principled rejection of some of these men’s most fundamental beliefs, he approaches them not with contemptuous dismissal but with awe. “Great-hearted souls were shown to me,” he says of those he meets in the First Circle, “and I still glory in my having witnessed them.” And when he is invited to take his place among the great (damned) poets of the past — Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil — Dante’s attitude is an appropriate mixture of pride and humility. “And even greater honor then was mine,” he writes, “for they invited me to join their ranks — I was the sixth among such intellects. So did we move along [together] toward the light.” There is in Dante’s attitude none of the wishy-washy “all religions are true” universalism, nor of the “formerly all the world was insane” cockiness, which characterize so much of today’s philosophical and religious discussion. And, despite his categorical rejection of paganism, he nevertheless aspires to be worthy of the great pagans’ company, to continue the tradition they began, to “move along” with them “toward the light.”

In my own reading of the great Christian literature of the past (and, very occasionally, of the present), the words of Inferno IV often come back to me. Opening up a volume of Augustine, of Traherne, of Dante himself, I think, “Let us descend into the blind world now.” These men were, in my judgment, simply wrong about some very important things, including, most fundamentally, the existence of God — but they were giants, masters of the men who know, spiriti magni, and it would be an honor to be worthy to join their ranks — not as a Christian, any more than it was as a pagan that Dante joined Homer and Virgil, but as part of a tradition larger and grander than any one creed — and move along toward the light.

Besides Dante, another useful model for how, as an atheist, to relate to religion is provided by St. Augustine and the metaphorical spolia Aegyptiorum he calls for in De doctrina christiana:

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,—we must take and turn to a Christian use.

Augustine’s approach is less humane, less graceful than Dante’s — he speaks in terms of plundering the paynims rather than of learning from the masters and “separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship” of those whom Dante was honored to join — and is in this way perhaps closer in spirit to many a modern atheist. But underneath the hostility lies the same call to move beyond the mere écrasement de l’infâme, to learn all that can be learned even from the “blind world,” to take in all truth everywhere with what David B. Hart, in his own description of the Christian spolia (qv), called “a kind of omnivorous glee.”

What makes this omnivorous glee possible? The overriding concern with truth as such, over and above any cultural loyalties, which has — if not always then at least impressively often — been a hallmark of the West. Contra Auster, I would say that to put the Western tradition above truth itself, to refrain from publicly attacking your society’s false beliefs simply because they are those of your society — to subject even philosophy to the standard “my country, right or wrong” — is to go a whoring after idols and, paradoxically, to betray the Western tradition.

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