August 20, 2008

Augustine of Hippo

“Alii disputant, ego mirabor” [let others wrangle, I will wonder], said Augustin. It shall be my speech to the Calvinist & the Unitarian.

So wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journal on April 28, 1830. Two old passions of mine, Augustine and Emerson, two everlasting loves. A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter (De Spiritu et Littera), this is the title of a book I’m reading these days—a long letter by Augustine of Hippo to his friend Marcellinus, a Roman official in Carthage. At the same time, as my previous posts bear witness, I’m re-reading Emerson’s Journals.

Different times, different styles, of course. What does unite the two thinkers, however, is in my view their non-bookish attitude (notwithstanding their immense erudition). They write with their body, mind and soul. When they quote, they in fact basically follow their own path, and when they don’t quote, they actually go into the already said thoroughly with the mastery of the author himself.

Furthermore, they share a huge optimism about human nature, which makes them sometimes suspicious in the eyes of their contemporaries. Augustine astonishes his friend, who asks if such a great optimism is actually “Catholic.” Emerson wrongfoots Calvinists and Unitarians—I have always suspected he wasn’t Catholic just because of his birth …

Augustine quotes Matthew 17:19, “If ye have faith in yourselves as a grain of mustard-seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and it shall be done, and nothing shall be impossible to you,” and says:

Observe how He said “to you,” not “to Me” or “to the Father;” and yet it is certain that no man does such a thing without God’s gift and operation. See how an instance of perfect righteousness is unexampled among men, and yet is not impossible. For it might be achieved if there were only applied so much of will as suffices for so great a thing. There would, however, be so much will, if there were hidden from us none of those conditions which pertain to righteousness; and at the same time these so delighted our mind, that whatever hindrance of pleasure or pain might else occur, this delight in holiness would prevail over every rival affection. And that this is not realized, is not owing to any intrinsic impossibility, but to God’s judicial act. For who can be ignorant, that what he should know is not in man’s power; nor does it follow that what he has discovered to be a desirable object is actually desired, unless he also feel a delight in that object, commensurate with its claims on his affection? For this belongs to health of soul.
(De Spiritu et Littera, 63)

And Emerson, in turn, writes:

«As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at this need, inexhaustible power. Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man? Once inhale the upper air, being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth, and we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite. This view, which admonish me where the sources of wisdom and power lie, and points to virtue as to

The golden key
Which opes the palace of eternity
(MILTON, Comus, 13-15)

carries upon its face the highest certificate of truth, because it animates me to create my own world through the purification of my soul».
(Nature, VII)