Having finished with the first round of stories for the Advanced Fiction workshop, I am going to be out of character and not moan about how bad ideas taken to their logical conclusions in real life, rather than merely in theory, end up as these very stories. Yes, they’re fiction, yes, authours don’t always condone what they write about. Still.
As an antidote, I’m going to post a few choice quotes from Augustine of Hippo’s On the Free Choice of the Will. (Most of these are taken out of context, but the whole book is good reading.)
He believed in the power of story, in fact. “But haven’t people often been condemned for good deeds? Recall the story that is superior to all others by virtue of its divine authourity. There you will find that we must think very poorly of the apostles and martyrs if we intend to make condemnation a sure sign of wrongdoing.”
“Let us carefully examine to what extent evildoing is punished by the law that rules peoples in this life. Whatever is left is punished inevitably and secretly by divine providence.” That would be powerful when worked out in a story. . . now I want to try it.
Also, if people tell you that the Church disapproved of using reason, please listen to the primary source. “Take heart, and set out confidently and piously in the paths of reason. There is nothing so abstruse or difficult that it cannot become completely clear and straightforward with God’s help.” (Later on he makes an exception for the Trinity.) In response to a statement by Evodius he says, “Here again I want to know whether you know this for certain, or whether you willingly believe it on the urging of some authourity, without actually knowing it.” And anyway, he wouldn’t be going to all the trouble of explaining the reasons behind the reasons behind doctrines, if he were one of those religious people who enforce their beliefs by repeating them until people just give in. He’s obviously not afraid of questioning basic beliefs and digging into things.
“We should not find fault with silver and gold because of the greedy, or food because of gluttons, or wine because of drunkards, or womanly beauty because of fornicators and adulterers, and so on, especially since you know that fire can be used to heal and bread to poison.”
“So to take something quite obvious as our starting point, I will first ask you whether you yourself exist. Or do you perhaps fear that you might be mistaken even about that? Yet you could certainly not be mistaken unless you existed.” And here we have Descartes’ famous “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”, centuries before he made that discovery.
And this merely parenthetical note: “(for if your soul could not perceive wisdom at all, you would have no way of knowing both that you will to be wise and that you ought to will this, which I feel sure you won’t deny)”.
“Augustine: And you surely could not deny that the uncorrupted is better than the corrupt, the eternal than the the temporal, and the invulnerable than the vulnerable.
Evodius: Could anyone?”
Unfortunately, they have.
“Augustine: And does anyone doubt that a life that cannot be swayed by any adversity from its fixed and upright resolve is better than one that is easily weakened and overthrown by transitory misfortunes?
Evodius: Who could doubt that?”
Most modern writers.
“Many find their happiness in the music of voices and strings and flutes. When they are without it, they think they are miserable; and when they have it, they are in raptures. So when the silent eloquence of truth flows over us without the clamour of voices, shall we look for some other happiness, and not enjoy the one that is so secure and so near at hand? People take pleasure in the cheerfulness and brightness of light — in the glitter of gold and silver, in the brilliance of gems, and in the radiance of colours and of that very light that belongs to our eyes, whether in earthly fires or in the stars or the sun or the moon.”
“So if you take away everything that is good, you will have absolutely nothing left. But every good thing comes from God, so there is no nature that does not come from God. On the other hand, every defect comes from nothing, and that movement of turning away, which we admit is sin, is a defective movement. . . . But since we cannot pick ourselves up voluntarily as we fell voluntarily, let us hold with confident faith the right hand of God — that is, our Lord Jesus Christ — which has been held out to us from on high.”
There’s another half of the book to go. I’ll post more probably on Tuesday, after Advanced Fiction again. I get to tell my atheist that he included 19 stereotypes of fundamentalist Christians in his story, which made me laugh, and why doesn’t he try something new?
The more I read of Augustine, the more I want to read (have I said this before?). He’s so good and right about so many things, and he’s a good writer too, which helps. And he has a sense of humour.
Have you, my readers, read any Augustine? Favourite works, or quotes?
(of Hippo — there was another, who ought to be just as well-known, even if his literary output didn’t rival Jonathan Edwards’)