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Augustine and the Problem of Beauty

6:00:00 AMAnonymous

Saint Augustine, in his many years of wandering in order to find truth, certainly had a long and complicated relationship with beauty.  In being a lover of beauty, he was often drawn in by poetry, fiction, theatre, and the ability of those arts to distract him from his current reality.  In finally becoming a lover of God, he often lamented his past obsessions with beautiful created things, claiming that it kept him from finding God sooner.  But how far does Augustine truly run with this notion?  Could it be interpreted that as Augustine gradually entered more fully into the Christian Revelation that he began to leave beauty behind as a skeleton of his past?  I would argue that such a theory regarding Augustine’s life and relation to beauty would be a gross misinterpretation.

In his Confessions Augustine frequently reflects upon the negative impacts of created beautiful things in his early life, thus giving rise to such false interpretations leading to the notion that Augustine became either suspicious of beauty or skeptical of it altogether upon entering the Christian faith.  Addressing God, he laments that, “you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made.  The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all” (1).  In one of my literature classes in which we were reading the Confessions, it was proposed by several different students that this passage certainly indicates that Augustine must have turned away from beauty due to the fact that it led him away from the God of Christianity.  However, “had Augustine turned against his many affirmations that only the beautiful is loved, he would have said so in his Retractions” in which he renounced the philosophies and ideologies that he formerly adhered to in his pre-Christian life (2).

If anything, Augustine’s  reflections on beauty throughout the Confessions serve as a reminder to artists, poets, playwrights, and lovers of beauty everywhere to be mindful of those things which they are trying to communicate through their craft..  In one of my previous blog posts, I spoke of the calling of the artist as a call to arms, a call to defend what is truly beautiful and to mediate that to the rest of the world.  Augustine’s early encounters with masterful works of art and beauty serve as an illustrative example as to why the artist has such a weighty responsibility.  In the beginning of the Confessions, Augustine recalls his childhood experience in school of being forced to read Virgil’s Aeneid.  While anyone who has read this work can certainly affirm its objective beauty as a masterful piece of epic poetry, Augustine regrets ever encountering it by lamenting, “I was later forced to learn about the wanderings of some legendary fellow named Aeneas (forgetful of my own wanderings)…In reading this…I myself was meanwhile dying by my alienation from [God]” (3).  While acknowledging the objective beauty found in the technical skill of Virgil’s authorship, Augustine admits, “I bring no charge against the words which are like exquisite and precious vessels,” but then goes on to explain that he took offense at the fact that, “the wine of error is poured into them…When one considers the men [such as Aeneas] proposed to me as models for my imitation, it is no wonder that in this way I was swept along by vanities and travelled right away from you, my God” (4).  This rightfully raises an important and pressing question: can something be truly beautiful if it contains moral corruption, or ideas which are not true or beautiful?  Can Virgil’s talented authorship in crafting beautiful words somehow make tales of suicide or death in itself glamorous, or even beautiful?  If not --- if suicide and violence still remain ugly and twisted --- then can it truly be said that the Aeneid is beautiful?

Augustine would say that since God is the source of all measure, beauty, and order, then it follows that, “the more measure, beauty, and order shine out in created things, the more they are good, the less shining out of measure, beauty, and order, the less are they good” (5).  In other words, something is more or less beautiful in proportion to the fullness of objective good that is shown in and through it.  Therefore, if one were to think of beauty through an Augustinian lens, one could reasonably argue that the magnificent work of Dante’s Comedy must be more beautiful than the pre-Christian works of Virgil or Homer because Dante conveys more truth and goodness following the Revelation of Christ to the world.  Thus, Augustine’s wariness towards the realm of beauty lay not in beauty itself, but in the fact that he truly believed that any beautiful things created before the fullness of Christian Revelation remained radically incomplete, and would be considered lower than the likes of Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, or Michelangelo’s David, or Carvaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew.

Artists of all kinds, including writers and poets, have a special duty and responsibility to utilize their talents to convey truth, according to Augustine  In using beauty to convey ideas which may be ugly, base, or immoral, the artist wrongfully lures others into a world of isolation that distracts man from reality.  Augustine fell into this pit for many years, causing his Confessions to become a grave reminder to all the artists and craftsman of the world.  Live up to your calling.  Defend the truth through beauty.  It is when truth is aligned with beauty that beauty reaches its full potential.

  1. Augustine, Confessions
  2. Emmanuel Chapman, Some Aspects of St. Augustine's Philosophy of Beauty
  3. Augustine, Confessions
  4. Ibid.
  5. Augustine, De Natura Boni

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