The following is a fairly accurate transcript of a talk I gave at a conference organized by the Pappas Patristics Institute at Hellenic College/Holy Cross in early March of this year (2017). I was flattered that nearly all of the attendees at my session skipped the following session to extend the Q&A time by nearly an hour. I am grateful to my respondent for his helpful feedback, and to those who attended my presentation for their stimulating questions.
I am still reading through the primary and secondary literature to evaluate responsibly the assertions I made in that talk. Some of my work to dig into the primary and secondary literature shall appear here on Into the Clarities, as four of them are nearing completion (although “approaching completion” is a condition that can, in my excessive caution, fall prey to Zeno’s paradox).
Hurriedly preparing for this conference paper, and especially reading voraciously in the wake of delivering this paper (to weigh its merits), has likely been the primary reason for my relative silence here at Into the Clarities for many months now (and the reason I had to halt work on the second Ullmann post).
During the conference, I frequently went off-page on a tear to clarify points when I’d made marginal notes to myself that I should do so — I had a stack of books by Augustine and Weber and Midgley with me, and read from several excerpts and discussed these relative to the points I was making. Here below, I have made a small attempt at inserting sentences to give at least some stubs for those mini-digressions and clarifications.
Here is something close to the talk I delivered.
There is much of tectonic significance for ancient cultural shifts that is lost in translation, smoothed out with equivalent terms for the convenience of the contemporary reader, or simply difficult to recover because the associated cluster of ideas –such as the genii— we no longer have as part of our cultural vocabulary, and generally have a hard time taking seriously, let alone understanding. Our modern words lie on this side of these transitions, and so we translate, across time, elements from another world into elements of our own. On some (uncommon) occasions this is done to whitewash; far more often this happens without anyone intending to make it happen at all, because escaping our context and entering the foreign country of another time and place is so much work. Continue reading
I will be posting several pieces on Augustine in the future, one on Augustine and disenchantment, another on Augustine largely secularizing the origins of political authority. The latter I shall get to first.
In the next month I shall also begin looking closely at another phenomenon that one sees slivers of here already in these chapters — the logic, character and scope of religious intolerance in the (third,) fourth and early fifth centuries. The issue of slavery is one I’ll likely need to defer.
Here, however, are parallel translations of chapters 14 and 15 from book 19 of the City of God, which I’ll be referring to. (Apologies for the strange formatting on mobile devices — it looks fine on my desktop.)
One of the central features marking the transition to the modern world is disenchantment. What disenchantment entails is suggested already in the word “disenchantment” itself: the word as it was coined in German –“Entzauberung”– literally means “de-magic-ing”. For us moderns, the world, specifically nature, is no longer shot through with innate meanings and magical powers. We do not take seriously suggestions such as that the forests are filled with mischievous brownies, and that our children thus ought not play there. We would not think to eat walnuts because of a headache: the symmetry between the shape of walnuts and the shape of our brains is no longer thought to cause anything through formal affinity (except through placebo). When we come across a glade that stirs us to wonder and lofty feelings, we do not seriously, publicly think that this marks the presence of a god who dwells there — at least, we do not think this simply and without consciousness of alternative views on the glade; we do not say a god dwells there without awareness that to say so publicly is merely to advance one exotic and embattled option among others that are more common, and which are more plausible to the vast majority of our cohort. There are indeed irrational and mistaken ideas about nature floating around, but they (and we) all fall on this side of disenchantment, and so their character is different from any pre-modern notions and modes of engaging the world.
A relatively intense sense of disenchantment may mark the modern world, but the processes of disenchantment do not begin there. They begin, instead, with Christianization. Continue reading
As they work their way through the seminal figures of Western history, introductory courses on Philosophy continue to include Augustine of Hippo, sandwiching him between Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, who each lived from seven-to-eight-hundred years from him in either chronological direction. One of the principal difficulties in engaging with Augustine on some of the classical loci of philosophy, however, is that he does not always have works dedicated to these topics. On these matters, one must glean his position from other works. Augustine’s position on political philosophy is one such subject. Thankfully, Robert A. Markus’ Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Revised Edition (New York: Cambridge, 2007) goes a long way towards filling this vacuum.