St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 10: Chapters 26-34

Summary

Wrongly in love with the beauty of the world, Augustine learned to love the beauty of God late in life. Whether one is rich or poor, life brings numerous temptations, from which only God can save people. Augustine considers the three kinds of temptations: lust of the senses, curiosity, and power. God gave Augustine strength to give up sexual activity, but his old habit still haunts him as erotic dreams. The pleasures of taste cannot so easily be given up, because one must eat. But one must be careful not to take inordinate pleasure in satisfying this need. The temptations of sweet smells are not difficult for Augustine to resist, but the temptations of sound, and especially music, are strong. When Augustine hears hymns sung, his reason takes pleasure in the words, but he is always tempted to let his irrational pleasure in the sounds themselves take over. The temptations of sight are impossible to avoid, because they are everywhere, in colors and light. Love of physical light can be sinful, but God himself offers spiritual light. All beautiful human arts and crafts come from God, but human beings do not move from these lower beauties to the higher beauty. Lust of the eyes is related to the second temptation, curiosity. Curiosity is a kind of craving after knowledge and experience for its own sake. Theater appeals to this craving, as does science, magic, and the demands of the faithful for signs and miracles. The third temptation is power. Human beings long to be feared or loved by others. Augustine admits he cannot control this temptation, because he can never disentangle his love for his fellow human beings from his own desire for approval.

Augustine meditates on his physical senses and his memory, and through them, he can sometimes ascend to a moment of contact with God, but he can never sustain it, so he falls back to his old self. Only Christ, who was fully human and fully God, can mediate between humans and God. Only Christ can cure Augustine's sins and give him hope.

Analysis

From memory and the knowledge of God, Augustine turns to the temptations of the world. He revisits the threefold causes of sin he first mentioned in Book 3.8 and that he derives from I John 2:16. "Lust of the senses" includes sexual lust, as it always has for Augustine, but here, Augustine examines in detail the temptations of all five senses. As Augustine remarks in the first half of Book 10, it is through the senses that humans receive knowledge of the world and begin to form the images of memory. The physical world and the bodily senses that perceive it are at the bottom of the Platonic ascent that leads the soul to God. Another point of this examination is that Augustine's spiritual journey did not end at his conversion or his baptism or at Ostia, where his narrative ended. He continues to struggle against temptation and to rely on God to bear him up. In fact, Augustine caps his discussion of each temptation with an appeal to God's grace and mercy to provide him the way to overcome that temptation. At the end of this literary examination of sin, Augustine describes himself meditatively examining his physical body — the report of his senses, the workings of his mind — until he makes the Platonic ascent and briefly achieves something like the beatific vision. The last part of Book 10, then, is a kind of literary acting out of the beginning stages of the ascent, in which Augustine and the reader jointly participate. But as in Book 7 and Book 10, the beatific vision cannot be sustained for long, because material human beings are too weak and limited to attain the immaterial realm. Only Christ, who was fully human as well as fully divine, can mediate between heaven and earth, spiritual and physical, God and humanity. Christ alone saves Augustine, and all humanity, from the abundant and unavoidable temptations and sins that plague them.

Modern readers are likely to be stupefied by Augustine's excruciatingly detailed examination of the dangers inherent in each of the senses. However, for Augustine, the dangers they represent are real. The temptation posed by all the senses, by curiosity, and by love of power is ultimately toward concupiscence, the immoderate love of the lower, physical goods that substitutes for healthy love of the highest good, God.

It is particularly hard for modern readers to view curiosity as a sin. The range of experiences that involve curiosity for Augustine is particularly eclectic: theater, the sciences, astrology, even the distractions of natural scenes. Curiosity for Augustine can include what may be thought of as morbid curiosity. It can also include intellectual pride; Augustine does not condemn all observation of the natural, but he does condemn seeking knowledge of the created world for its own sake and for the achievement of having understood it, rather than for what it can reveal about its creator. Curiosity can mean sticking one's nose into areas it does not belong, as in trying to predict the future or unveil the mysteries of universe. The curiositas of theater is a kind of sensationalism, an itching for cheap thrills. Even devout Christians can be guilty of being curious when they crave miracles and signs from God, in a kind of spiritual thrill-seeking. All of these curiosities distract the mind from seeking for substance in God.

Augustine displays acute knowledge of his own failings here, and nowhere is he more honest than in his examination of his own pride. Augustine loves to be loved; he enjoys doing well and being praised for it. These facets of his character are evident even in his description of himself as a child. But sin is so entangled with human behavior that Augustine cannot pull out one pure motive for his acceptance of praise. If someone praises his statements, is he pleased because of his neighbor's spiritual progress, or is he pleased because his vanity is flattered? For Augustine, this knot cannot be untied; only Christ can absolve humankind of its painful contradictions.

Glossary

Athanasius c. 296-373, bishop of Alexandria, theologian, and saint, noted for his asceticism.

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