It is a commonplace of hagiography to extol the saint whom one is writing about to such an extent that the saint is turned into something almost but not quite human. There are, for example, various lives of saints which record the various miracles the saint performed while still an infant, including healings, preachings, and conversions performed while the saint before the average person would even be able to utter a meaningful sound or take a single step. There are the accounts of saints having conversations with animals, of saints transcending the laws of nature, and of saints evincing such love and courage in the face of dire circumstances that everyone for hundreds of miles around is converted to faith in Christ. And then there is St. Augustine and his Confessions.
As the most influential figure of the Western Church perhaps in all of history, Augustine would, no doubt, have been the victim of these mythologized and eulogized hagiographies to which so many other important saints have been subject. He, however, did the work himself of ensuring that we remember him as the deeply flawed and altogether normal human being that he was.
As Augustine traces his life, inner and outer, from infancy to adulthood to conversion to Christianity, the reader is allowed an insight into a man much like himself. What we see is a man driven by lust and tossed about by doubt. What we see, in short, is a man — a real, living human being like ourselves who shared in the same passions in which we share. And who, through the grace of God, conquered them all and became one of the greatest saints of the Christian Church.
If St. Augustine can be a saint, anyone can be saint. And that, in short, is what makes The Confessions one of the greatest of the Great Books.
There are significant differences between the doctrines of the world’s various religions. These differences should not be ignored or minimized. They will, however, be temporarily set aside here as the focus will be upon the widespread nature of mystical experience rather than upon the divergent aspects of these experiences as they have been reported by adherents to various systems. While the experience of a Hindu mystic in Upanishadic India is undoubtedly different in important ways from that of a Christian mystic in the Egyptian desert of the 5th century, there are definite shared features in the descriptions of each experience which indicate the experiences to be of a similar, even if not identical, nature. It is these similar features which will be focused upon for the purposes of this paper.
In his survey of accounts of mystical experiences, psychologist William James discerned four characteristics shared by all of these experiences. These four characteristics described by James in his Varieties of Religious Experience provide an outline of the criteria by which an experienced can be determined to fit within the category of mystical experience. These four marks are:
1. Ineffability. The experience is indescribable, or nearly so. Words are insufficient to the task of accurately expressing the contents of the experience. This is demonstrated, for example, in the previously discussed experiences of Aquinas and Pascal, and in their mutual inability to articulate their experience without resorting to poetic imprecision.
2. Noetic quality. The experience provides a profound insight into the nature of reality that could not, apparently, be reached through the rational faculties on their own. The sixth century bishop of Rome and Christian mystic Gregory the Great describes, for example, an experience of Benedict of Nursia, the famous founder of European monasticism, in which he described seeing “the whole world … brought before his eyes, gathered together, as it were, in one ray of light.” Benedict’s experience, as described by Gregory, bears a great deal of resemblance to the more ecstatic and extended vision of Arjuna recorded in the Hindu spiritual classic The Bhagavad Gita. There, when God reveals himself to Arjuna, Arjuna is “filled with wonder and his hairs stand on end.” He exclaims,
O Lord of the universe, I see You everywhere with infinite form, with many arms, stomachs, faces, and eyes. Neither do I see the beginning nor the middle nor the end of Your Universal Form.
I see You with infinite power, without beginning, middle, or end; with many arms, with the sun and the moon as Your eyes, with Your mouth as a blazing fire whose radiance is scorching all the universe.
The entire space between heaven and earth is pervaded by You alone in all directions. Seeing Your marvelous and terrible form, the three worlds are trembling with fear, O Lord.
Seeing Your mouths, with fearful teeth, glowing like fires of cosmic dissolution, I lose my sense of direction and find no comfort. Have mercy on me! O Lord of gods, refuge of the universe.
3. Transiency. According to James, “mystical states cannot be sustained for long.” Pascal measured his experience at approximately two hours; Aquinas’s experience occurred during Mass, which indicates it could not have lasted longer than an hour or two; and Arjuna’s experience seems to have been so overwhelming that after only a short duration he pleads for it to end, saying, “O Lord! I am overwhelmed with fear. Please take again the Form I know. Be merciful. O Lord! You who are the Home of the whole universe.
4. Passivity. The experiencer feels as if he is not acting but instead being acting upon by a powerful force external to his own consciousness. This force is so tremendous that he is forced to submit his will to it. In a description of one of his mystical raptures, Augustine of Hippo, for example, begins by claiming that he was “admonished to return to myself … with [God] leading me on.”
In spite of the numerous other differences in form and content exhibited by individual mystical experiences or in mystical experiences which occur in differing cultural and religious contexts, these four marks are shared by all.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been around small children that humans naturally crave the security of a familiar and nonthreatening environment. While this innate human tendency is most pronounced in small children, it follows all of us into adulthood and throughout our lives. In the same way that a child might bring a beloved toy or blanket along with him to act as a source of comfort in an unfamiliar environment, so most adults choose to partake of books and television which reinforce the views they already hold. The Pew Research Center, for example, discovered in a recent study that most political liberals in the United States listen to, watch, and read their news from media outlets that skew to the left while American political conservatives tend to consume media with a distinctively conservative bent.
It is a unique strength of an educational program based in the great books that the student is required by the very nature of the great books themselves to broaden his mind by reading literature that, often even when he agrees with the author, presents a challenge to his presuppositions and preconceived notions, and sometimes even his most certain convictions. While the students’ beliefs will not necessarily be changed, as beliefs are terribly difficult things to change in a person, there is no doubt that they will be clarified and that the students will walk away with a greater sense of the complexity of a topic and the diversity of positions available on that topic. In addition, he will have developed an appreciation for even those positions to which he is opposed, recognizing in them some aspect of or commentary upon the universal human condition.
This is an accurate summary of my own experience over the past semester as I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in those great books which take up the topic of history. Having read widely in the history of thought on history over these four months, I have been able to hear from some of the greatest minds of the Western tradition their thoughts on this uniquely Western idea that is history, allowing them to speak for themselves and to elucidate upon their own experience of and meditations upon the subject.
The range and diversity of possible positions has been one rather jarring feature of this reading. Given the great differences between, for example, St. Augustine, on the one hand, and Karl Marx on the other, it has occasionally been difficult to understand how each of them could be talking about the same thing. While Augustine sees the guiding hand of providence behind each movement in history, Marx sees instead the interplay of economic, and therefore solely material, forces, a wholly different moving force in history. Yet again, there is Niccolo Machiavelli, a thinker of equal eminence and erudition when compared to either Augustine or Marx, who raises his hand to object to both and assert rather that Fate of any sort can indeed be resisted by any man whose “valour has … been prepared to resist her” and whose “defences have … been raised to constrain her.” Still more thinkers, of no less excellence and import, might chime in with any number of other positions on the matter, running across a great array from freedom to fatalism, each arguing in favor of his position with great gusto and compelling evidence.
As Leo Strauss noted in his 1959 essay “What is Liberal Education?,” it comes as a surprise to some, upon approaching the great books, to realize that “the greatest minds do not all tell us the same things regarding the most important themes; the community of the greatest minds is rent by discord and even by various kinds of discord.” It might, at this point, be tempting to fall into the sleepy indifference of relativism or, for those with a personality more caffeinated than that of the relativist, to abandon the great books altogether as hopelessly confused and irreconcilable. Hopelessly confused and irreconcilable they may be, but the answer is certainly not the slumber of relativism nor the despair of intellectual defeat.
On the contrary, in encountering this great diversity of well-reasoned opinions on the topic of history I have been afforded a tremendous opportunity to refine my own viewpoint by taking into consideration the various challenges and alternatives to it. In his Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that “it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” While it may be going too far to claim, as Nietzsche does, that all philosophy is really biography, there is a certain element of truth in this claim. Stated with less polemic and more fairness, it might be said that all philosophy is the result of a particular individual’s attempt to extrapolate from his unique subjective experience of human life in the world to the universal, general, and objective nature of human life in the world. This is true also of one’s philosophy of history.
Over the past 16 weeks, I have taken up and considered the philosophy of history espoused by a significant number of admirable thinkers, including ancient Greeks like Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle, Romans like Marcus Aurelius, Christians of the Middle Ages such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and finally early modern and modern thinkers of great diversity, including Marx, Sir James George Frazer, Johan Huizinga, Pascal, and Karl Barth. It would be difficult to enumerate and elucidate the effect each has individually had upon my thought on history. Collectively, however, even without my thought on history having dramatically changed during this period of study, their effect has been tremendous. They have allowed me to recognize the limitations of my own worldview while opening my mind to the appreciation of others, and therefore of the human experience as a whole, and this is perhaps the most important thing any book, no matter how great, can do for a person.