Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

St. Augustine of Hippo: The Natural Law as the Eternal Law in Man

THE ETERNAL LAW WAS AT THE HEART of St. Augustine's conception of law and of order, in the area of morality, and in the area of human law. Augustine's conception of the "eternal law" is one that encompasses the eternal plan of the world, a product of divine reason and divine will, a law which governs the entire abyss of the cosmos, including the very abyss of the cosmos within man, not with an arbitrary will, but within a divine ordering that is manifestive of reason, nay, even more: love. The existence of this eternal law is seen in the sheer magnitude and ordering of the cosmos, in the course of the stars and planets, and in the growth of plants and movements of beasts. It is inscribed in a particularly powerful way in the human soul as the natural law, the inward compulsion towards the moral life; its voice is conscience, and its imperium the good. In this next area of blog postings we will discuss St. Augustine, and review his concepts of the eternal law and the natural law. St. Augustine will be the last of Church Fathers whose work on the natural law we will review, and will close out our current series of the natural law in the Church Fathers.

St. Monica, St. Augustine's Mother

St. Augustine, Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis (354-430), is a giant in Christian thought. He was a Romanized African, a Berber, born in the ancient provincial Roman city of Tagaste, now modern day Souk Ahras (سوق أهراس‎) in the country of Algeria. St. Augustine was the product of a Christian mother--herself a saint--St. Monica, and a pagan father, Patricius by name. Augustine received a classical education, but the influence of his mother did not seem to take on the young Augustine. Probably as a result of the influence of his father, or perhaps the result of his peers, or perhaps the result of young passions too difficult to tame, or perhaps a combination of all three, Augustine soon rejected the Catholicism of his mother, and immersed himself in pagan thinking and pagan libertinism.

Icon of St. Augustine of Hippo

While studying rhetoric, Augustine had an intellectual conversion at the age of nineteen as he was reading Cicero's dialogue Hortensius, a work that is--alas--now lost. This sparked his interest in philosophy and in the life of the mind, but it did not change his hedonistic life style, and it did not bring him back to the Church, at least not at once.

Eventually, Augustine went to Carthage, where he studied rhetoric. In belief and in morals he continued the life of a pagan. He took to carousing, to womanizing, eventually spurning even marriage, and settling down with concubine, with whom he lived for almost thirteen years, and who gave him a son named Adeodatus. Later, as we shall see, in his Confessions, he complained about the unruly life of both the students and professors at Carthage. He taught in Tagaste, and then in Carthage, where he founded a school of rhetoric. After nine years in Carthage, he went to Rome, believing that he would best further his career there. Disappointed in Rome by the lack of paying students, he eventually went Milan where he obtained a prestigious position as professor of rhetoric at the imperial court there. Not very nobly, he abandoned his concubine, hoping to get into a marriage that was more socially acceptable, but he soon broke off his engagement and began a relationship with another concubine. Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo. During this time, Augustine became interested in the Manichee sect, a sect he was later to reject, largely because a disappointing meeting with one of the leaders of the sect, Faustus of Mileve.

After leaving Manicheeism, Augustine plummeted into the depressive depths of skepticism. "He fell into a profound depression," Pope John Paul II states in his Apostolic Letter on St. Augustine, "and indeed despaired of ever coming to know the truth." Augustinum Hipponensem, I (herein AH). However, he did not stay long in the sloughs of skepticism, but, prompted by, and responding to, the internal promptings of God's grace, and as a result of the combined efforts of his mother, the encouragement of his friend Simplicianus, his reading of the Neoplatonists who tore him from materialism, and his hearing of the homilies of the great St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan (all of whom were agents of God's actual grace), St. Augustine began his journey back to Christianity and to the Catholic Church.

Mosaic of St. Augustine (=St. Austin)

The internal crisis which eventually resolved itself into Augustine's accepting Christ and his Church came about by his reading of the life of St. Anthony of the Desert and the voice of a child, or perhaps an angel. The event is profoundly moving, and his told by St. Augustine himself in Book 8 (Paragraphs 28 and 29) of his Confessions (Outler, trans. with revisions) Here he speaks of what John Paul II called being "struck by the lightning-flash of grace." AH, II:
Now when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. That I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from [my friend] Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that even his presence was no restraint upon me. This was the way I felt at the time, and he realized it. I suppose I had said something before I started up and he noticed that the sound of my voice was choked with weeping. And so he stayed alone, where we had been sitting together, greatly astonished. I flung myself down under a fig tree--how I know not--and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: "And you, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities." For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: "How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?"

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which--coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, "Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it" [tolle lege, tolle lege]. Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how [Saint] Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: "Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me." By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle's book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof." [Rom. 13:13-14] I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.
The event was one of transformation. Augustine sold all his inheritance, gave up his women, his hope for future advancement in the secular world, and returned to Africa where he began to live a monastic life with a group of his friends. Tragically, his son died soon after his conversion. Eventually, he was ordained a priest in the Hippo Regius (modern date Annaba (عنابة), Algeria. He was later ordained coadjutor bishop Hippo in 395, and upon succeeding to that post at the death of the existing bishop, St. Augustine remained as bishop of Hippo until his death at 430.

His labors on behalf of the Church and Christ show an indefatigable spirit. Unbelievably prolific in light of his episcopal duties which he took extremely seriously, and to which he devoted himself sedulously, St. Augustine left myriad works of various kinds. He had polemical works against the Arians, Donatists, Manichaeans, and Pelagians. He had doctrinal works such as his De doctrina christiana (On Christian Doctrine), De Trinitate (On the Trinity), or De libero arbitrio (On Free Choice of Will). He also wrote moral and practical works such as De mendacio (On Lying), De bono coniugali (On the Good of Marriage), and De sancta virginitate (On Holy Virginity). He penned works on Scripture, including commentaries on Genesis, St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (De sermone Domini in monte), and his celebrated commentary on the Psalms, Enarrationes in Psalmos. He also authored some more personal works such as his Soliloquies and his famous Confessions. He also penned a massive work on Christianity and history and political philosophy, De Civitate Dei, On the City of God, a work that he described as his magnum opus et arduum. He left numerous letters and numerous homilies. Most men could not read through it all in a lifetime.

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

The effect of his teachings on the Church were great when he authored his works, and they remain significant to this day. As John Paul II stated it in his Apostolic Letter on St. Augustine, he "has been present ever since in the life of the Church and in the mind and culture of the whole western world." AH, pref. His notions of creation (ex nihilo), of grace, of original sin, of free will, of evil as the privity of good, of the natural law, of "just war," of marriage and its goods--one could recite a dozen more--all remain de rigeur for the theologian and religious scholar. There is scarcely any part of Catholicism, or of Western thought for that matter, that is unaffected by him. These works, along with the three unfinished works remaining at his death at seventy-six years of age, are evidentiary of his "sleepless diligence and to his unconquerable love for the Church." AH, III.

St. Augustine did not prepare a treatise dedicated to law. As Crowe stated it in his book on the history of the Natural Law: "St. Augustine . . . wrote no distinct treatise on law [, but] he provided almost all the elements of a formal scholastic Tractatus de legibus." Crowe, at 62. What this means, of course, is that St. Augustine's teaching on the eternal law, the natural law, and the interplay between these and human law, must be gleaned from his writings, which are numerous, and certainly beyond the grasp of this author. It is important, therefore, to remember John Paul II's warning, which is no less true for St. Augustine's teaching on law than it is for any other of his subjects: "It is difficult to venture forth upon the sea of Augustine's thought, and even more difficult to summarize it--this indeed is almost impossible." AH, II.

With that caveat firmly in mind, we will begin that review by focusing on the references to the eternal law in St. Augustine's Confessions, a work, that John Paul II described as one "that is simultaneously autobiography, philosophy, theology, mysticism and poetry, a work in which those who thirst for truth and know their own limitations have always discovered their own selves." AH, I. The eternal law, one might add, will be part of every man or woman's autobiography, even if, God forbid, he or she should reject it. It will be part of everyone's philosophy and theology, those worthy of the name. It will be at the heart of true mysticism, and will be the center of any poetry that speaks of the true and the good.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.