I'm not going to worry about spoilers here, because it isn't fiction, and I'm not going to worry about putting anyone off reading it, because let's be honest- you are either a person who's going to read it, or you aren't. This isn't a book people pick up for fun. It's really long, it's fairly heavy theology, and while some non-religious philosophers might find it interesting, most people already know if they're going to wind up reading it one day or not, if they aren't required to. (I am a helpless religion and philosophy nerd, of course I knew I was going to get around to it one day.) So I don't know if I'm going to do a post for every book, but I don't intend to pull punches or leave things vague when I do. Feel free to skip or skim these posts, of course.
So, for some basic context: Augustine was a bishop in Northern Africa, around 400 AD. I've read the first half, I think, of his Confessions, and while it was awhile ago I do not remember being very impressed with anything besides his issues with his mother, which were pretty epic. This is the guy who once famously prayed "God, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." (Continence, we fervently hope, in this case meant self-control.) It is entirely possible that part of my various problems with him is due to the fact that I am still burned out on reading dead white guys tell me women suck, but I figure this is probably the only chance I've got to get through the book, so I'll take a chance. Anyway, he wrote the book over the course of several years, in response to the invasion and sacking of Rome.
I'm going to start with the fact that I knew I knew a bunch of people who'd tried this book and didn't get through the first fifty pages, and now I know why. Well, okay, the start is pretty dry, fine- but there's about twenty of the first fifty pages that kind of horrify me. Look, he wrote this in response to the pillage of a city, fine, I expected some pretty gut-wrenching talk about evil and violence and whatnot. But he's just so bad at it.
I mean, I realize I've been spoiled by growing up in this lovely time, where people actually occasionally get called out when they blame a rape victim for the rape. Occasionally. And we have some level of understanding of PTSD and depression. Occasionally. But Everlasting Gobstoppers, his total and entire lack of compassion is just stunning.
So, I'll warn you now, if you don't want to read rage-inducing pontificating about torture and rape, you don't want to read these quoted passages. (I have to quote them. Because I am still amazed they exist. And I am praying for any survivor of torture, rape or not, who has read this over the last 1600 years.) Just skip on down to the next regular paragraph, beginning with "Anyway, before all that...."
- In chapter 16, he seeks to comfort the afflicted by saying that injury of the body doesn't affect the soul, and so rape doesn't ruin a woman's chastity. Then he goes on... "But as not only pain may be inflicted, but lust gratified on the body of another, whenever anything of this latter kind takes place, shame invades even a thoroughly pure spirit from which modesty has not departed,—shame, lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure, should be believed to have been committed also with some assent of the will." Read that bit after the double-hyphen again. If not for that bit, I wouldn't mind him making this point- while it might not be the first thing to come to a survivor's mind, it might help down the road. The problem is, this is the only point of comfort he ever tries to offer.
- In chapter 18 he goes there again, this time talking to men. "For if purity can be thus destroyed, then assuredly purity is no virtue of the soul; nor can it be numbered among those good things by which the life is made good, but among the good things of the body, in the same category as strength, beauty, sound and unbroken health, and, in short, all such good things as may be diminished without at all diminishing the goodness and rectitude of our life. But if purity be nothing better than these, why should the body be perilled that it may be preserved? If, on the other hand, it belongs to the soul, then not even when the body is violated is it lost." Okay, great. Still not one word of "God is with you in your suffering" or "you did not deserve this", though.
- And then a bit later on, he decides to use the associative property from algebra to turn it around and take a potshot at everybody else. "Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact." Lovely pastoral manner, there, Augustine.
- Finally, in chapter 28, he basically says that God must have allowed the raped women of Rome to be raped because they were too proud and puffed up about their virginity. I'm not going to quote that bit because he goes on about it for a very, very long time. This, however, seals the deal for me.... "Moreover, it is possible that those Christian women, who are unconscious of any undue pride on account of their virtuous chastity, whereby they sinlessly suffered the violence of their captors, had yet some lurking infirmity which might have betrayed them into a proud and contemptuous bearing, had they not been subjected to the humiliation that befell them in the taking of the city." Seriously, what? Not once does he imply men who were tortured deserved it or needed it. In the case of a well known military leader, Augustine points out he probably expected to be tortured, but that's as far as it goes.
Anyway, before all that, he does some interesting things about what it meant that people who ran to Christian shrines were spared, which hadn't really happened before (and later grew into the sanctuary movement, where people seeking safety could claim sanctuary at Christian altars and churches). It was a little esoteric, and I'm not sure he's finished his case about that yet, so I think I'll wait to comment on it further.
He does show compassion once. There's a fairly extended piece about why we bury people and show some level of respect to dead bodies, but that ultimately if someone dies and remains unburied, it's okay. This certainly would have been an issue people were worried about after a sacking of a city, and still today, and he handles it with care and compassion that I have to say I was kind of surprised he had. There's a particularly lovely bit where he quotes Lucan, "He who has no tomb has the sky as his vault." What a beautiful and comforting image to give a grieving family.
Most of the last part of Book 1 is him going on endlessly about suicide, and we're back to the lack of compassion. I'm not going to do quotations for this because my brain won't let me. Basically his theory is that there is nothing bad enough that can happen to you to warrant taking your life, and there's no compassion towards or mention of the grieving families left behind. And apparently the only reason a rape survivor would suicide is because she couldn't live with the "outrage done her" and the loss of her honor, and the only reason a person would kill themselves to escape torture or death at the hand of another is to keep the enemy from their victory. Seriously? He does comment once that possibly someone with a "feeble mind" might consider suicide.
Augustine lived in a violent area, in a violent time. He knew people who had been in Rome and other sacked cities, and people who had been in wars. Some of them must have had what we now call depression and PTSD- those certainly did happen back then, there were just different or a lack of terms. I don't care what year it was, he could have done better. My only hope at this point is that the book isn't over, perhaps he'll get to the Gospel eventually. Being one of the "greatest Christian theologians" I would hope so. He certainly hasn't found it yet.