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.
The tension between fate and freedom is a tension that runs throughout the history of man’s thought on history. It is, no doubt, a tension that arises from the direct experience of man in the world. When considering his past, he is tempted to see himself as having been inexorably drawn toward his present situation. The choices and circumstances of his life have led him, inevitably it seems, to the point at which he currently stands. When he looks forward to his future, however, he feels as if the choices he makes are made freely and are the decisive factors that will lead him to where he will be. When faced with a fork in the road, a person will typically feel as if the direction he embarks is one that he chooses for himself. The tension between fate and free will is particularly evident and acute in the study of history.
The earliest works of history and literature evince a precarious indecisiveness in their treatment of fate and freedom. Homer’s Iliad, for example, opens with an invocation to “sing, o goddess, the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, which hurled many mighty souls to Hades.” Shortly after, however, Homer attributes the events he records to “the will of Zeus.” There is a contrast here, within the first few lines of one of the earliest great works of historical literature, between the effectiveness of the decisions and actions of Achilles and the fate decreed by the supreme god of the Greek pantheon. It is a tension that Homer does little to resolve throughout the Iliad. While the gods incite and direct the Trojan war, in this revealing to us the otherwise hidden hand of fate, Homer takes great pains to list the names of each of the “mighty souls” who fought, implying a significance to their choices and actions as particular persons.
Later historians in the Greco-Roman tradition do little to resolve this tension first seen in Homer’s works. While adopting an approach to history that usually concentrates upon the decisions of great men, their personalities and their activities, Greek and Roman historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Plutarch, as well as later poets like Virgil, simultaneously give credit to fate as the determinative factor in the lives of persons, nations, and civilizations. Plutarch, for instance, demonstrates his belief in the significance of great men in the shaping of the Roman past in his approach to history through biography. Plutarch begins his Life of Alexander with a plain statement of his purposes; there, he conveys his desire to examine the influence of a person’s virtues and vices upon his life. In his Life of Romulus, however, Plutarch appeals to fortune as the primary determinative factor in the rise of the Roman Empire, asking his reader to “consider that the Roman power would hardly have reached so high a pitch without a divinely ordered origin.”
The Christian historians of the Middle Ages and later approach history with quite different conceptions of human significance and the nature of fate than their pagan precursors; the tension between fate and free will, however, is not entirely resolved by these authors. Augustine, for example, in his attempts to formulate a Christian understanding of history in his City of God, argues vociferously against any role for the celestial bodies in determining human events. He does not, however, take issue with the idea of fate, but, rather, with the terminology in that the notion attributes the flow of history to the impersonal forces of fortune rather than to the guidance of a personal God. “In a word,” he says, “human kingdoms are established by divine providence. And if anyone attributes their existence to fate, because he calls the will or the power of God itself by the name of fate, let him keep his opinion, but correct his language.” Augustine goes on only shortly after this, however, to ask, “What judgment … is left to God concerning the deeds of men … when to these deeds a celestial necessity is attributed?” There seems good reason to wonder similarly, however, about the justice of God’s judgment when the deeds of men are attributed to a divine necessity which is merely fortune under another name.
In the modern historians, the deterministic force of history is once again depersonalized and at last de-divinized. Rather than positing a metaphysical fortune as in the ancient pagan authors or the providence of a personal God as in the medieval Christians, the modern authors instead espouse a theory of history determined by purely material factors. Karl Marx is perhaps the ultimate example of this modern belief in the supreme power of impersonal material forces in his belief that all societies are governed by “natural laws of … movement.” For Marx, economic forces are the determinant, indeed the only truly effective, forces in history. While later modern thinkers have occasionally replaced the economic with the geographic, the technological, or the genetic, the attribution of preeminence in the movement of history to material factors remains the predominant mode of thought to the present day.
A survey of the history of historical thought reveals a dichotomy in emphasis upon and attribution to the forces of fate and human will in shaping the history of mankind, a dichotomy that often exists, and creates a tension within the thought of, a single author. While the trajectory of historical thinking has been toward a minimization of the role of the choices and actions of particular persons in the unfolding of history, there remains the problem most succinctly stated by John Lukacs: “no free will, no history — no history in our sense of history.” Hence, while Homer and Plutarch attributed the great events they recorded to the decrees of fortune, they also found it necessary to provide extensive lists of great men and their great deeds. While Augustine attributes the upbuilding of great kingdoms to the providence of God, fate by any other name, he also defends at length the particularity of persons and the possibility of choice in vice and virtue. And Marx, most ironically, decreed the supreme decisiveness of the material and impersonal, yet himself became one of the greatest forces in the shaping of twentieth century history.
One of the first books Augustine wrote after becoming a Christian was his Confessions, the world’s first autobiography. In the Confessions, Augustine tells the story of his life all the way from his infancy to the time he became a Christian. In the selection below, Augustine discusses the education he received as a child.
But what was the cause of my dislike of Greek literature, which I studied from my boyhood, I cannot even now understand. For the Latin I loved exceedingly— not what our first masters, but what the grammarians teach; for those primary lessons of reading, writing, and ciphering, I considered no less of a burden and a punishment than Greek. Yet whence was this unless from the sin and vanity of this life? For I was but flesh, a wind that passes away and comes not again. For those primary lessons were better, assuredly, because more certain; seeing that by their agency I acquired, and still retain, the power of reading what I find written, and writing myself what I will; while in the others I was compelled to learn about the wanderings of a certain Æneas, oblivious of my own, and to weep for Biab dead, because she slew herself for love; while at the same time Ibrooked with dry eyes my wretched self dying far from You, in the midst of those things, O God, my life.
For what can be more wretched than the wretch who pities not himself shedding tears over the death of Dido for love of Æneas, but shedding no tears over his own death in not loving You, O God, light of my heart, and bread of the inner mouth of my soul, and the power that weddest my mind with my innermost thoughts? I did not love You, and committed fornication against You; and those around me thus sinning cried, Well done! Well done! For the friendship of this world is fornication against You; and Well done! Well done! is cried until one feels ashamed not to be such a man. And for this I shed no tears, though I wept for Dido, who sought death at the sword’s point, myself the while seeking the lowest of Your creatures— having forsaken You— earth tending to the earth; and if forbidden to read these things, how grieved would I feel that I was not permitted to read what grieved me. This sort of madness is considered a more honourable and more fruitful learning than that by which I learned to read and write.
But now, O my God, cry unto my soul; and let Your Truth say unto me, It is not so; it is not so; better much was that first teaching. For behold, I would rather forget the wanderings of Æneas, and all such things, than how to write and read. But it is true that over the entrance of the grammar school there hangs a veil; but this is not so much a sign of the majesty of the mystery, as of a covering for error. Let not them exclaim against me of whom I am no longer in fear, while I confess to You, my God, that which my soul desires, and acquiesce in reprehending my evil ways, that I may love Your good ways. Neither let those cry out against me who buy or sell grammar-learning. For if I ask them whether it be true, as the poet says, that Æneas once came to Carthage, the unlearned will reply that they do not know, the learned will deny it to be true. But if I ask with what letters the name Æneas is written, all who have learned this will answer truly, in accordance with the conventional understanding men have arrived at as to these signs. Again, if I should ask which, if forgotten, would cause the greatest inconvenience in our life, reading and writing, or these poetical fictions, who does not see what every one would answer who had not entirely forgotten himself? I erred, then, when as a boy I preferred those vain studies to those more profitable ones, or rather loved the one and hated the other. One and one are two, two and two are four, this was then in truth a hateful song to me; while the wooden horse full of armed men, and the burning of Troy, and the spectral image of Creusa were a most pleasant spectacle of vanity.