« Christmas Greetings | Main | Catching Up »


It's the day after Christmas, and nobody's reading blogs. Which makes this the perfect moment to announce another birth: that of what I hope is another long thread on the Daily Blague (see "Against Television").

Last night, I finished Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf, 2003). It is a must read - but never mind about that. I read a great deal of it yesterday, from the middle of the big chapter on Augustine all the way to the end. Something clicked somewhere; I remembered the lesson I'd learned from Peter Brown's The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Princeton, 1988). Mr Brown's book is an intricate tracing of the manifold obsessions with continence and chastity that marked the first four Christian centuries. Was sex good? No - everybody was sure about that. But there was the small question of propagating the race: no babies, no Christians. And lots of ordinary Christians then were just like ordinary Christians today: they were sure that their married lives were nobody's business but their own. At the other extreme were the Antonys and Jeromes, sublimated sex maniacs who were convinced that Satan was their true partner in every instance of sexual intercourse. Some priests were married, others castrated themselves. There was just a little too much diversity of opinion.

Augustine put an end to the plurality of opinions. Largely, he did so by appealing to Imperial authority: he was the first man of the church to call in the cops. I would hate him for that alone were I completely unwilling to factor in the disintegration of social order that characterized his era (which saw, among other things, the first sack of Rome). Authority aside, however, Augustine's synthesis wouldn't have held its primacy if it hadn't appealed to something both basic and widespread. The fact that it governed Western social thought right up until the 1960s - it was unchallenged in the Reformation - means that, well, it can't have been crazy.

And yet it seems crazy to many people today, or it would if they knew what it was. Let me put that the other way round: many people, if they knew that everyday red-state ideas about sex and authority were set around 400 AD by a troubled outsider, would agree that it is crazy to obey, without thought, his ideas - ideas that begin with him, not with Scripture.

Augustine is still approached with deference, if not reverence, by almost everyone who writes about him. I'm not going to do that. To me, he's just another populist tyrant.

I am a kottke.org micropatron

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2