Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"City of God" V.19-20

Chapter 19:
The desire for glory and the desire for domination (what we in a post-Nietzsche age can safely call the "will to power") are not exactly the same thing, but Augustine points out that the former quite easily transitions into the latter. This is because pursuing glory can mean on rare occasions mean pursuing virtue. The reality is that this type of pursuit is rare. The inverse, those who wish for domination without also possessing the desire for glory, are the set of those who most quickly turn to crime and sin in pursuit of that domination.

On the other hand, those who wish to pursue glory can pursue it by means of virtue, or they can pursue only the appearance of virtue--they maintain a public facade of goodness in their quest for glory while not actually having virtuous souls at all. (One of the major themes of Plato's Republic is the attempt to answer the question of why it's not better to merely appear to be virtuous while simultaneously having all the fun of vice, and so getting the best of both worlds.)
What we find when we look at those who are truly virtuous is that they despise the appearance of glory, since God can see the reality. The problem is that some will be quick to include in their facade of virtue the further facade of despising worldly accolades. Which means that to some extent there's really no way to tell true virtue from a clever and competent facade of virtue. This will not bother the man of true virtue, because again he cares nothing for the praise of men and knows that ultimately God will set everything to rights. "He who despises the judgment of praisers, despises also the rashness of suspectors." Those who praise the appearance of virtue and those cynics who suspect that it is a facade are alike irrelevant to the man of true virtue.

What is not irrelevant to such a man is the salvation of both "praiser" and "suspector".
If he is truly good; for so great is the righteousness of that man who receives his virtues from the Spirit of God, that he loves his very enemies, and so loves them that he desires that his haters and detractors may be turned to righteousness, and become his associates, and that not in an earthly but in a heavenly country.
Our pursuit of virtue and our rejection of human praise should not lead us to turn our backs on the world in monastic isolation (a temptation which Augustine himself was led into as a new Christian--see Peter Brown's biography for an extended treatment of that time in his life), nor should it lead us to hate our fellow human beings, nor should it lead us to openly despise their praise of virtue (we want to neither be dishonest about the worth of virtue nor unintentionally push anyone to praise sin!). Rather, we are to love them and gently encourage them to turn their praise of virtue to the only truly Virtuous Person, Jesus Christ.
Their salvation, indeed, he does not despise, if he is truly good; for so great is the righteousness of that man who receives his virtues from the Spirit of God, that he loves his very enemies, and so loves them that he desires that his haters and detractors may be turned to righteousness, and become his associates, and that not in an earthly but in a heavenly country.  But with respect to his praisers, though he sets little value on their praise, he does not set little value on their love; neither does he elude their praise, lest he should forfeit their love.  And, therefore, he strives earnestly to have their praises directed to Him from whom every one receives whatever in him is truly praiseworthy. 
The Christian disposition towards those who reject the Gospel should not be rejection in kind, but rather love returned for hate, honesty about the nature of virtue and the true Source of any stray virtues that may have beet rooted in us by the Holy Spirit, and continually extolling the greatness of God and the salvation offered through the Cross.

At the same time we have to acknowledge the grim reality that pursuit of domination is not always tempered even by the lesser vice of love of human glory. Sometimes the will to dominate is on naked display in human nature and leads to the worst sorts of cruelty. (Nero is Augustine's example, we of course could think of many others.)
Even here, however, we must remember that God is the one who gives political power. The worst tyrants in history rule at the command of Divine Providence: "Nevertheless power and domination are not given even to such men save by the providence of the most high God, when He judges that the state of human affairs is worthy of such lords." While sometimes we can sort-of see why this may be the case in history (as Augustine thinks he has shown in part with the Roman Empire), "there may be, nevertheless, a more hidden cause, known better to God than to us, depending on the diversity of the merits of the human race." In other words, our response as Christians to the reign and atrocities of tyrants and dictators in the world ought to be a humble acknowledgement that God is sovereign and works to His own ends in history in ways which we cannot see.

And whatever we ultimately think about history and politics, we must, Augustine says, remember that true virtue is concerned with the worship of God and is never "the slave of human praise." While citizens of the city of man (i.e. non-Christians) are better citizens when they have a love of human praise (and so a facade of virtue) than when they don't, best of all is if Christians have both true virtue and skill in political leadership and position and rank in the state that enables them to do so (note Augustine's political realism here--we are all tainted with original sin, but we are not all as awful as we could be, especially when thinking in terms of worldly civic virtue). "But there could be nothing more fortunate for human affairs than that, by the mercy of God, they who are endowed with true piety of life, if they have the skill for ruling people, should also have the power." These are those rare and unique circumstances where we have political leaders who both exercise true virtue by and recognize that "however great virtues they may possess in this life," such virtues are to be attributed "solely to the grace of God" and "that He has bestowed it on them—willing, believing, seeking."

This is not of course the common state of affairs. The common situation of the world is that political leaders, have at best the love of praise. And "however much that virtue may be praised and cried up, which without true piety is the slave of human glory, it is not at all to be compared even to the feeble beginnings of the virtue of the saints, whose hope is placed in the grace and mercy of the true God."

The best of the virtues of the city of man are as nothing compared with the least of those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and brought by grace into the City of God.

Chapter 20:
The philosophers are quite right to pull pleasure from her throne as queen of the highest possible goods, and to insist that virtue should never be put in the service of pleasure. Augustine here is siding with basically all of the Hellenistic and Roman schools of thought against the Epicureans, who held that bodily pleasure is supreme. (For an excellent survey of all of these schools, see Paul Elmer More's Hellenistic Philosophies, available for print-on-demand at Amazon or here for free.)

But! We must be careful not to follow these philosophers too far. They say that they would replace "pleasure" with "virtue," but in reality they are merely worshiping "human glory." They have substituted bodily pleasure for the pleasure of feeding their own pride. "For their virtue,—if, indeed, it is virtue at all,—is only in another way subjected to human praise; for he who seeks to please himself seeks still to please man. " Everyone wants to trash the Epicureans, but in doing so their true motive is self-glorification.

Instead, Christians need to pursue as ultimate the glory of God. In doing so, we will find both true virtue and true pleasure.
He who, with true piety towards God, whom he loves, believes, and hopes in, fixes his attention more on those things in which he displeases himself, than on those things, if there are any such, which please himself, or rather, not himself, but the truth, does not attribute that by which he can now please the truth to anything but to the mercy of Him whom he has feared to displease, giving thanks for what in him is healed, and pouring out prayers for the healing of that which is yet unhealed.
This is a difficult sentence (the Latin isn't much better), but the point is plain enough. When we fix our attention on God (even when it seems contrary to our own immediate pleasures), we find that we are pursuing the truth. And then on closer examination we find that our pursuit of truth is not based on anything inherent in us, but on "the mercy of Him whom he has feared to displease." This in turn leads to gratitude for what has already been done for us, and desire for the completion of the good work that began with our salvation and will end with our glorification.
Here we have a point that C.S. Lewis makes in God in the Dock (I think, Lewis essay compilations start to blur together after a while) and that John Piper makes in Desiring God. That is, when we pursue pleasure or virtue for their own sakes, as ends in themselves, we find that we get neither. But when we pursue God through Christ, we find that we receive both pleasure and virtue along the way. To say 'I want to be happy', or 'I want to be humbler', or 'I want to be' any variant of pleasure or virtue is ultimately to be looking into ourselves for both of those qualities. This can not only be unsatisfying but also lead to idolatry as we base our spiritual status on what we find within our own souls.
On the other hand, to say "I desire God" is to come to the fountain of both joy and virtue that flows from the cross to all who believe. In a sense, our desires for pleasure and virtue (both fine in themselves) cannot be satisfied by pursuing either pleasure or virtue themselves. They can only be satisfied by pursuing God.

We should note in closing that even for Christians, that these desires will never be completely satisfied in this world. Although we are forgiven and redeemed, although we are bought with the Blood of the Lamb and reconciled to God in a relationship that can never be broken, there remains to do. Until then, we are to be grateful for what "in him is healed," and pray fervently "for the healing of that which is yet unhealed." This side of heaven we will only have fleeting glimpses and temporary sensations of the fullness of joy and the life of virtue that we are promised in Christ. To be sure these glimpses and temporary experiences are legitimate and true--more solid than anything a nonbeliever will ever experience--but they are only the appetizer that whets the appetite. And if you want a simply amazing reflection on the satisfaction of our desires that will come in heaven, I am happy to recommend Jonathan Edwards on the subject, or Sam Storms talking about Jonathan Edwards on the subject. (The best order is to listen to the latter and then read the former, but really any order will do.)
To give you a taste (which I may have shared before--when I'm blogging every day it's hard to remember what I've done!), here is Edwards on heaven:
There, even in heaven, dwells the God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is, or ever was, proceeds.
There dwells God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, united as one, in infinitely dear, and incomprehensible, and mutual, and eternal love.
There dwells God the Father, who is the father of mercies, and so the father of love, who so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son to die for it.
There dwells Christ, the Lamb of God, the prince of peace and of love, who so loved the world that he shed his blood, and poured out his soul unto death for men.
There dwells the great Mediator, through whom all the divine love is expressed toward men, and by whom the fruits of that love have been purchased, and through whom they are communicated, and through whom love is imparted to the hearts of all God’s people.
There dwells Christ in both his natures, the human and the divine, sitting on the same throne with the Father.
And there dwells the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, flows out, and is breathed forth in love, and by whose immediate influence all holy love is shed abroad in the hearts of all the saints on earth and in heaven.
There, in heaven, this infinite fountain of love — this eternal Three in One — is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it, as it flows forever. There this glorious God is manifested, and shines forth, in full glory, in beams of love. And there this glorious fountain forever flows forth in streams, yea, in rivers of love and delight, and these rivers swell, as it were, to an ocean of love, in which the souls of the ransomed may bathe with the sweetest enjoyment, and their hearts, as it were, be deluged with love!

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