St. Augustine’s Literary Praxis and The Beautiful

*This is not a “counseling” related paper, rather a reflective theological paper written when I was in seminary.


St. Augustine’s Literary Praxis and The Beautiful
In what ways does Augustine’s view of beauty influence his understanding of God in relation to the Christian life in his Confessions?


When talking about beauty we can easily fall prey to discussing beauty abstractly rather than making the spiritual heart-felt connections between beauty and God that Augustine frequently makes in his Confessions. The polarity Augustine seamlessly intertwines between reflecting on his past and confessing his sins of unbelief while at the same time commenting on what he believes, post-conversion, illustrates for the reader a heart deeply moved by God’s love.

When Augustine began his Confessions, ten years had passed since Augustine’s conversion to Christianity in the year of 386 A.D., which allowed for him to write a reflection on his past and at the same time process his thoughts and questions in regards to Christianity. One such example of this is at the beginning of book 1. Augustine is quick to inform his readers what his spiritual questions are:

You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you. Grant me to know and understand, Lord, which comes first: to call upon you or to praise you? To know you or to call upon you? [1]

For modern day Christians whose language for speaking about their relationship with God includes intimate words and consider this way of speaking a reflection of their “personal relationship” with God, Augustine’s Confessions may be surprisingly refreshing. Augustine writes beautifully and even poetically at times, to such a degree that one wonders if Augustine considered his writing of the Confessions as an act of worship in of itself. I submit that the ability to confess sin while at the same time acknowledging the character and supremacy of who God is as well as why He deserves to be praised is an act of worship. This kind of worship is modeled by Augustine for the reader and as a result reflects particular theological underpinnings in the way Augustine approaches God and thinks about Him. The question I want to explore further in this paper is: in what ways does Augustine’s view of beauty influence his understanding of God in relation to the Christian life in his Confessions?

Augustine’s sincerity in his Confessions affords him the ability to express questions to God in such a way that his transparency gives the reader room to consider why and how he thought as he did and if we also think or feel as he did. Consequently, we are in a way, invited to participate in Augustine’s journey, which makes the answerability of the above question all the more important for us as Christians. We have an opportunity to learn from Augustine’s past and personal struggles. It might challenge us to ask of ourselves if we have been complicit with a secular way of thinking about beauty in relation to God. We might also learn from the kind of intimacy Augustine has with God which demonstrates that our confidence may rest in the free gift of salvation from the God who lovingly pursues his children. Augustine phrases it this way, “You, my God, you it was who dealt so with me; for our steps are directed by the Lord, and our way is of his choosing. What other provision is there for our salvation, but your hand that remakes what you have made?” [2]

Until Augustine’s conversion—which we are privileged to read about nearly halfway through his Confessions—Augustine develops three themes that he consistently wrestles with, which in turn causes the reader to ask the following questions. Firstly, Augustine is unsure of what the nature of a human being is. Is man good or evil? Can man save himself by living in a particular way? Secondly, Augustine’s sensual experience with creation and beauty manifests within him desires to experience as much as possible (i.e. carnal pleasure). What is the nature of creation? In what ways is man similar to or distinct from creation? Why are there things that are beautiful and does that beauty mean anything? Thirdly, Augustine is unsure of what to do with the idea of God. Through Neoplatontism he would be able to philosophically construct a being called God, yet whether that God is personal or Creator is something that he would not reach clarification on until he reads Scripture. This in turn causes the reader to ask: in what ways does God reveal himself in Scripture? In creation? In beauty? In man? These three themes fit into a larger struggle to which I will refer to as Augustine’s internal-external dilemma. Roy W. Battenhouse, editor of A Companion to the study of St. Augustine, offers the following explanation:

The philosophical path that Augustine himself wishes to follow is clearly modeled upon the Neoplatonic ascent from the multiplicities of the material world to particular instances of rationality, thence to a contemplation of Reason itself, and — beyond all — to a vision of the Source of all. […] When properly understood, however, the life of reason permeates all the arts of man. […] In one of its efforts to ascend from particular instances of beauty to the Beauty which they symbolize, reason begets poetry. [3]

Augustine wants desperately for the world to make sense rationally, something that proves to be difficult as he works through the doctrines of Manichaeism, which claims that the material world is evil. However, pre-conversion Augustine is curious by what he sees; he delights in the beauty found in the material world, not realizing that carnal pleasure from these things were corrupting his thinking about God (see Book IV, chapters 15 and 24). It’s as if Augustine’s internal-external dilemma creates a kind of friction in his thinking about beauty. On the one hand beauty seems to point to something beyond itself. On the other, he is not able to fully grasp what beauty is. Consider Augustine’s reflection below:

[…] In Love with beautiful things below me, I was plunging unto the depths. To my friends I would say, “Do we love anything save what is beautiful? And what is beautiful, then? Indeed, what is beauty? What is it that entices and attracts us in the things we love? Surely if beauty and loveliness of form were not present in them, they could not possibly appeal to us.” [4]

In Book 5, Augustine parallels Romans 1 when he chides secular philosophers for distorting truth and worshiping creation rather than the Creator. I submit that Augustine’s theology of beauty begins to overshadow his introspective-reflection and eventually comes full circle as he thinks through his conversion. Commenting on Augustine’s earlier works Carol Harrison in her book, Beauty and Revelation In The Thought of Saint Augustine, makes the following observation:

The implications of these ideas on Augustine’s aesthetics cannot be overestimated: since beauty (forma/formosus) is thus inseparable from existence given by and orientated towards God, the whole of the Christian revelation—in God’s formation of Creation, His image or form in man, His forming and ordering of history and an aspect of beauty which is at once immanent within the temporal, mutable realm, but which yet belongs to and originates in transcendent Divine Beauty. […] The synonymity of existence, goodness, and beauty which Augustine’s idea of forma implies is obviously, in part, anti-Manichean. [5]

Divine beauty would haunt Augustine as he wrestled with man’s relationship to creation and in turn man’s relationship with God. As he reflects on his past, Augustine makes reference to a few books he wrote entitled The Beautiful and the Harmonious, dedicated to a man from an orator in Rome, named Hierius. Augustine’ desire to win the approval of Hierius was in part his motivation for writing these books, however Augustine also provides another reason, “But I continued to enjoy turning over in my mind the question of the beautiful and the harmonious about which I had written to him; I considered it with a contemplative eye and admired it, although no one shared my appreciation.” [6] As he continues his reflection he comments, “I did not yet see that the whole vast question hinged on your artistry, almighty God, who alone work wonders.” [7] Lastly in the same stream of thought he concludes:

I was about twenty-six or twenty-seven when I wrote those volumes. The materialistic images on which I was speculating set up a din in the ears of my heart, ears which were straining to catch your inner melody, O gentle Truth. I was thinking about the beautiful and the harmonious, and longing to stand and hear you, that my joy might be perfect at the sound of the Bridegroom’s voice, but I could not, because I was carried off outside myself by the clamor of my errors, and I fell low, dragged down by the weight of my pride. No joy and gladness from you reached my ears, nor did my bones exult, for they had not yet been humbled. [8]

There is something about the grandiose nature of creation that lends to thinking about it in ways that are greater than ourselves. In the above quotes Augustine readily admits that he was thinking about beauty incorrectly, not attributing to the God who created it and as a result trading joy in the Lord for the weight of pride. I submit that Augustine does not fault creation for his lack of inward resolution, rather he brings with himself a particular way of approaching creation, which hinders his ability to perceive God as Creator. After conversion Augustine would reconstruct how man should see beauty in relation to God. Carol Harrison phrases it this way, “Man’s attitude to Creation, Augustine observes, should therefore be dictated by the order he finds there; since it is divine ordained, it will lead him who follows it to God, its Creator and orderer.” [9]

Treating beauty as if it were a kind of road map to God or like a mirror that reflects God in some is not entirely unique to Augustine. It would be somewhat of an injustice to not mention that Augustine has read Plotinus, who claims that symmetry and harmony of material forms are a reflection, as Harrison points out in her chapter on Augustine’s earlier writings. [10] For Augustine this reflection is deeply personal and not just purely an abstraction. The significance of creation and God as Creator, lies in what He communicates in and through his creation. In book 5.1.1 Augustine claims that creation never tires of praising God. [11] Later, in book 10.6.8, Augustine says, “I love you, Lord, with no doubtful mind but with absolute certainty. You pierced my heart with your Word, and I fell in love with you. But the sky and the earth too, and everything in them —all these things around me are telling that I should love you […].” [12]

There are two things we gain from Augustine’s view of beauty in creation so far. Firstly, beauty has a divine purpose, as it is divinely created. That purpose is to direct our gaze to God, the Creator and worship Him, not the creation itself. Additionally, creation celebrates the glory of God, by praising God intrinsically. Secondly, human beings were not created to worship the creation. We see this in book 5, as Augustine continues to chide the philosophers for they way they approach the creation:

This in turn leads them into an extreme of blind perversity, where they will even ascribe to you what is theirs, blaming you, who are Truth, for their own lies, and changing the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of corruptible humans, or birds or four-footed beasts or crawling things. They distort truth into a lie, and they worship and serve the creature instead of the creator. [13]

Augustine is evidently leaning on Romans 1:21, where Paul, in the prior two verses states, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20, ESV). There is no doubt from what has been covered so far that Augustine desires to communicate the dangers of looking at the world through a lens that does not account for a Creator. Augustine’s own testimony reaches into his internal-external dilemma, prior to conversion, and exposes his own blindness by recognizing that Truth itself had to replace his faulty thinking by rescuing him out of a self-made worldview. At the risk of being reductionistic, I submit that for all Augustine’s philosophical training and Manichean influences, his overall struggle was between worshiping the creation rather than the Creator.

As I near the end of this paper, I want to focus on what it looks like for Augustine to worship the Creator through the beauty of Creation. Augustine makes two profound statements regarding his conversion, which is contextualized around his need of strength and enjoyment of God. The first quote comes from book 7, at a point where Augustine is looking at creation. He makes the following statement:

And then my mind attained to That Which Is, in the flash of one tremulous glance. Then indeed did I perceive your invisible reality through created things, but to keep my gaze there was beyond my strength. I was forced back through weakness and returned to my familiar surroundings, bearing with me only a loving memory, one that yearned for something of which I had caught the fragrance, but could not yet feast upon. [14]

Seeing God through creation created “a loving memory” that he longed to find again, if only he had the strength to rest in that state. The second quote shortly thereafter follows the one above. Augustine says, “Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and humankind, the man Christ Jesus, who also is God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever.” [15] Notice that Augustine says he looked for “strength” in order that he might “enjoy” God.

When we link the “loving memory” of perceiving God through creation to his finding “strength” in Jesus Christ—his savior—to enjoying God we are given a glimpse into what it means for Augustine to look through creation, to its Creator and ultimately to his Redeemer. Keep in mind that we humans are a part of God’s creation and once redeemed there all kinds of new possibilities at hand when it comes to participating in creation, and in a sense, demonstrating through our actions who God is to others. Explaining Augustine’s response to beauty in creation, Carol Harrison makes the following comment:

It is in the praise, awe, jubilation, and love of the Psalmist that Augustine finds a suitable response to the beauty of Creation. The psalmist, he comments, thereby becomes the voice of a mute Creation praising its Creator, and this through the month of a fallen man, who is in turn brought to acknowledge his Creator. He expresses these ideas succinctly in Confessions, ‘Let your works praise You that we may love you, and let us love You that Your works may praise You.’ [16]

Augustine’s play on words near the end of the quote reveals something about Augustine’s inner change. The internal-external dilemma that he consistently reveals to us as he struggles with his identity before God no longer cultivates a barrier in relation to the purposes of creation. In this way, creation cannot be properly understood apart from God, nor beauty, nor our purpose for existing. Augustine came out of a kind of narcissistic pride, where he reveled in carnal pleasure and deeply struggled with how to discern what was truth. In was not until he was saved by Truth itself that his eyes were opened and freed from the pains of living for himself.

Augustine knew he needed to covert when he read the following passage, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:13-14, ESV). He was in a garden wrestling with questions and doubt, but when he read this verse it struck him at the core of his heart. The translator, Maria Boulding, in the Kindle Edition of the Confessions, makes the following statement, “Since Book VII the central issue for Augustine has been acceptance of Christ; this now crystallizes into the “putting on” of Christ in baptism, sacramentally symbolized by the clothing in the new robe.” [17] I submit that this revelation from Scripture functioned as the keystone for an entirely new modus operandi for Augustine. By “putting on” Christ, Augustine was able to understand his need for salvation what it meant to live in a way that reflected this redeemed life. He would never encounter beauty the same way, as if looking through a window he will be able to see the Creator as the one that creates and sustains life.

I have presented evidence to show that Augustine had three primary areas of struggle: man, creation, and God. Throughout his Confessions, Augustine intertwines these thematically, each with their own sets of concerns and frustrations, hindered by a stubborn heart fueled by lusts and carnal desires. Augustine was in love with creation and created things, he looked for hope in Manichaeism, solidarity in the company of philosophy, and joy in his own intellectual endeavors. Yet, he was not at peace until he surrendered himself to Christ. It was only then that he could delight in the Lord and discover the pleasure of God’s presence echoed by creation and manifested in Scripture.

Augustine’s Confessions offer to us a glimpse into a man who has been radically changed, renewed, and re-directed. His love of Christ permeates his writing and is a tribute to the personal and loving God we worship. We learn from Augustine that beauty should inspire us to worship the Lord and recognize it as something God created to echo his glory on earth. This means we have no room for complacency. We are missing something that is deep, true, and wonderful if we fail to see that the Creator of the universe has made us in his image, yet sinful, but also saved, having “put on” Christ. This means the Redeemer and the light of truth is able to shine through us to others and then back to himself, making us walking and talking beacons of God’s love and mercy. Because of Christ, we have the opportunity to participate in God’s creation in such a way that when we obey Christ, worship Christ, and delight in Christ we demonstrate the beauty of Christ to the world. Living in this way is an act of worship.

Endnotes

  1. Saint Augustine, The Confessions (New York: Vintage, 1998), 3.
  2. Ibid, 84.
  3. Roy W. Battenhouse, Companion to the Study of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Baker Book House, 1979), 105.
  4. Saint Augustine, The Confessions (New York: Vintage, 1998), 67.
  5. Carol Harrison, Beauty and Revelation in the Thought of Saint Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992), 39. There appears to be a typo in the quote. The continuity of the text seems to flow better once the word “yet” is removed.
  6. Saint Augustine, The Confessions (New York: Vintage, 1998), 69. And the previous paragraph.
  7. Ibid, 69.
  8. Ibid, 71.
  9. Carol Harrison, Beauty and Revelation in the Thought of Saint Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992), 23.
  10. Ibid. 5.
  11. Saint Augustine, The Confessions (New York: Vintage, 1998), 75.
  12. Ibid. 201.
  13. Ibid. 78-79.
  14. Ibid. 139.
  15. Ibid. 139.
  16. Carol Harrison, Beauty and Revelation in the Thought of Saint Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992), 132.
  17. St. Augustine (2007-04-01). The Confessions (1st Edition; Study Edition) (Kindle Locations 4789-4790). New City Press. Kindle Edition

Bibliography

Augustine, Saint The Confessions. New York: Vintage, 1998.

Battenhouse, Roy W. Companion to the Study of St. Augustine. Cambridge: Baker Book House, 1979.

Harrison, Carol. Beauty and Revelation in the Thought of Saint Augustine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992.

St. Augustine (2007-04-01). The Confessions (1st Edition; Study Edition) (Kindle Location 20). New City Press. Kindle Edition.