Cannibalism and the Resurrection

March 6, 2012

Just cannot get enought of this Saint Augustine!  What will I do when I put aside his weighty tome, City of God?  Maybe I’ll go back and read over the parts I only skimmed.  (I estimate that I’ve read about 75% of the 1070 pages in my edition.)

Augustine is thorough, and he’s determined to refute all the arguments he has encountered against his religious views.  It can get pretty detailed.

…So, the knotty question comes up about the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead.  We are talking about the virtuous, saved souls, who are bound for heaven.  What size body will they get on their reawakening?  If they died old, will they get their young body?  What if they lost a limb or two in this vale of tears, our worldly life?  Will it be reconnected to their body?

And this…surely one of Augustine’s weirdest forays into the logic of miracles: What about those people who were victims of cannibals?  And that includes people who were eaten by others who may not have been pagans, e.g. during the travails of the sack of Rome by barbarians – some Christians may have taken this last resort to stay alive.  Will the resurrected victim somehow get a reassembled body, even though his flesh has been consumed and incorporated into that of another?

Yes, we are assured that the saved will be made whole.


Burning in the City

March 5, 2012

Nearing on the end of Augustine’s The City of God, I continue to be entertained by Saint A’s withering sarcasm towards his ‘opponents,’ i.e., the pagans, and his dogmatic torturing of ‘rationality.’  One man’s rational is another man’s fanaticism.

In this later book, Number XXI, he is discussing the nature of eternal torment meted out to the sinners after the Second Coming, and dealing with difficult ‘scientific’ issues, e.g., how can a sinner’s body continue burning for eternity?  After all, would it not be consumed after a while?  Augustine uses a fascinating argument, what I call the argument from ignorance, which essentially states, “You [pagans] cannot explain everything we see in the world – we are all ignorant of things.  Therefore, you should not object to my assertion that God performs miracles.”  Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then, it’s a line of reasoning heard today, as are so many things the Saint says.  Rick Santorum comes to mind often when I read him…

Here, the Saint makes an interesting point about the relative authority of texts:

But, as I said in the eighteenth book of this work, we are not obliged to believe everything contained in the historical records of the pagans, since their chroniclers…seem to be at pains to differ from one another …But we are free to believe, if we so choose, those reports which are not in conflict with the books which, as we have no doubt, we are obliged to believe.  XXI 6: Not all marvels are natural; many are devised by man’s ingenuity, many by the craft of demons 

Obviously, it’s all clear and simple which texts ‘we are obliged to believe.’  Following on, Augustine discusses many ‘marvels’ that are generally accepted as true, although they seem laughable to us.  So, he argues, if you accept them, you might as well believe me too.  Certainly, the miracles God performs are no more absurd than these ‘marvels.’  But, of course, he does believe in some of those marvels:  He’s not just being funny.

…My purpose here is to demonstrate the kind of marvels recorded in profusion in pagan literature, and generally believed by our opponents, although no rational explanation is offered, whereas the same people cannot bring themselves to believe us, even though rational grounds are produced, when we say that Almighty God is to perform an action which lies outside their experience and contravenes the evidences of the senses. … XXI 8:  The omnipotence of the Creator is the ground of belief in marvels

 Marvelous things are abounding in the world, and, really, is a man rising from the dead so much more remarkable than some of the animals and natural wonders we come across?  At one point, he cites the numerous volcanoes in Italy, mountains that burn continuously without being consumed!  And, my goodness, Fire turns stones white, but turns wood black!  And charcoal, which is created when fire consumes wood, cannot itself be destroyed by fire or earth!  Thus, people put charcoal under stone property markers, knowing that it will never decay, so that if the stone markers are moved, they can prove the original location!  What a weird manner of pre-scientific reasoning…Fire destroys, so there must be something magical about charcoal which will not be further destroyed.

…For in any case, I have sufficiently argued that it is possible for a living creature to remain alive in the fire, being burnt without being consumed, feeling pain without incurring death; and this by means of a miracle of the omnipotent Creator.  Anyone who says that this is impossible for the Creator does not realize who is responsible for whatever marvels he finds in the whole of the world of nature.  It is, in fact, God himself who has created all that is wonderful in this world, the great miracles, and the minor marvels that I have mentioned…The nature of eternal punishment: XXI 10

The salamander was thought to have the ability to live in fire – that’s strong!- and so become the symbol of the French kings. Later, the amphibian was shown as a fire-breather. It shows up on several facades in New York City, most notably here on the Alwyn Court building, which is swarming with them.


Augustine on Intercourse before Sin

May 9, 2011

In Chapter 23 of Book XIV of Saint Augustine’s City of God, the good doctor deals with some very thorny delicate questions.  He is considering the nature of Adam and Eve’s fall after they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and thinking of just what was the state of their souls, and their virtue, before the fall.  A question arises:  Would procreation have taken place in paradise, if no one had sinned?

Why does this question of sin and sex arise?  Well, as a Christian, Augustine is at pains to show time and again how the lusts of the body are evil, man’s state of thralldom to his passions turns him from goodness and virtue, and towards damnation, and that the saintly path of renunciation of the flesh is the means to salvation.  But, surely, God did not intend for Adam and Eve to live in purity for all eternity by themselves!  All alone in that great big garden of Eden?  No – it was necessary for the number of saints to increase to its fixed limit (somehow I missed this bit of theology, but when the number of saintly humans reaches a certain value, it will be time for the Last Days), so naturally, Adam and Eve had to have children, had to…do…it.  But sex without sin, without lust, without base animality is not possible, correct?  Ah, not so!

Augustine proceeds to describe to us just what sex without sin would be like, but he does so with great circumspection, avoiding coarse language, and trying to do without any explicit reference to the private parts, because, after all, even with such a virtuous aim, the reference could excite some people to impure thoughts.  The whole business comes down to will power. 

Virtuous men and women have power over their bodies.  Their souls and virtue rule their body, and control its baser impulses.  Just so, Adam would have ‘relaxed on the bosom of Eve’ without any enthusiasm brought on by lust and desire or impure thoughts.  He would simply will his organ to do its duty just as any man can will his arm to move up and down.  The entire thing would be quite wholesome and reasonable, actually.  Viagra would have nothing on him!

Augustine points out that some animals seem to have control over parts of their bodies that we do not.  For example, many animals can cause their hides to flex and jerk, and they do it to shoo away flies, or even to shake out spears. 

Man has not this ability: but surely that does not mean that the Creator could not have bestowed it, at his pleasure, on any animate creatures?…It would not have been difficult for God to fashion him such a way that even what is now set in motion in his flesh only by lust should have been moved only by his will.

To further make his point, Augustine brings forward contemporary evidence:

We do in fact find among human beings some individuals with natural abilities very different from the rest of mankind and remarkable by their very rarity.  Some people can do some things with their body which are for others utterly impossible…Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together.  Others without moving their heads can bring the whole scalp … down towards the forehead and bring it back again at will.

There you have it, simple!  Certainly Adam could have impregnated Eve by virtuous exercise of his will, bringing his mind in its clear grasp of sinless need for children to make his body do what was necessary.  Augustine is filled with such breathtaking insights, but this is only a hypothetical.  We all know what really happened.


Cloistered

March 21, 2011

Another visit to The Cloisters, the museum at my doorstep.  Above, the face of a full-length figure from a portal, clearly showing the stylistic  influence of Chartres.  (It would have been painted.)  The naturalism is clear, but it’s a far cry still from the naturalizing style of the Italian Renaissance which shows up in a panel from Milan that is included in the collection:  Medieval by chronology, but not style.

 

These faces, blurred because I obeyed the injunction against the use of flash, see more like collective dream images of what a king and queen should look like.

Some capital ideas, showing just how much drama can be squeezed into a small space at the top of an arcade column.  The ape-man theme, wrought in precious metal, is in evidence elsewhere in the museum as well.

This tomb effigy shows the ideal of the Christian knight.  His feet rest on a crouching lion, indicating his strength and courage.  Many tomb effigies have such animal features, often small dogs, which I believe indicate the person’s faithfulness or loyalty.

No visit here is complete without a glimpse of the End of Days, provided in The Treasury, where an illuminated manuscript of The Apocalypse is on display. 

        

A strange grotesque in the margin seems to be the equivalent of Monty Python’s “and now this…

This volume from a Spanish translation of Saint Augustine’s City of God is what got me started reading that very long book.

 


Dylan vs. Saint Augustine

November 18, 2010

 Augustine

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

 

In fact, from the moment a man begins to exist in this body which is destined to die, he is involved all the time in a process whose end is death.  For this is the end to which the life of continual change is all the time directed, if indeed we can give the name of life to this passage towards death.  There is no one, it goes without saying, who is not nearer to death this year than he was last year…

City of God – Book XIII, Chapter 10:     The Life of Mortals:  Should it be Called Death?

Here’s a link to Bob Dylan doing his song, I Dreamed I saw Saint Augustine.


We are in the 21st century, no?

September 19, 2010

I saw this bumper sticker ahead of me on a van this morning.  I’m no expert on Marxist sociology, but I believe the idea is that ideology is determined by material circumstances, i.e., the means of production determine the dominant ideas of an era.  Okay, so how come this fellow, and he’s in good company, is espousing ideas that are right out of Saint Augustine’s City of God?  Clearly, this driver is a citizen of that heavenly city, not the city of the world.

Or, are we to assume that all the significant elements of society are not much changed today from what they were in the early 5th century A.D?  How else to account for the incredible staying power of these ideas?


City of God, Cities of Hell, Cities of Self

September 16, 2010

Saint Augustine discusses the two cities, that of The World and that of God, but they occupy the same place, are co-extensive!  We choose our citizenship in one or the other, but we do not relocate.  And the City always is referring to Rome, the sack of which, was the initial impetus to the writing of Augustine’s massive work.  In Part II, Saint A. finally leaves off trashing the pagans and their stupid arguments for why the Fall of Rome is all the fault of the Christians, and gets down to business:

My task is to discuss, to the best of my power, the rise, the development, and the destined ends of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, the cities which we find, as I have said, interwoven, as it were, in this present transitory world, and mingled with one another.

City of God, Part II,  Book XI, Chapter I -  The subject of the second part: the origins and ends of the two cities.

In his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe has Mephistopholes advance a similar view of the geography of heaven and hell – they are the same place, but we don’t all occupy them together.  “I’m feeling good.  I’m in a good place today.”  “Oh yeah!  Well, I’m right next to you and I feel crappy!  Aren’t we in the same place?” 

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we are is Hell,
And where Hell is, there shall we ever be.
And to be short, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be Hell that is not Heaven

Italo Calvino wrote a book called Invisible Cities, and one of them was the City of the Inferno.  It too occupied the same place as all the other cities, which is to say, the world.  Inferno makes us think of Dante, but his hell was in a specific location and was well mapped.

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.  There are two ways to escape suffering it.  The first is easy for many:  accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.  The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension:  seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

I tend to think that Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row is yet another one of these cities, maybe a city of the self, certainly of the world, and it is everywhere.  Desolation Row is not just the Bowery, it is, as they say, a state of mind.  Is it someplace you want to get out of or escape to?  Not clear, maybe both.

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

To Desolation Row – B. Dylan

Finally, we have the City of the Self, the city within.  We all live in our own city, of one.  Is this city heavenly or hellish?  Seems it can be either one.  We make the city we live in the city of our self.  For some people, living anonymously in the midst of stone and asphalt can be the most beautiful and relaxing state of being; the country subjects us to the hell of other people.

I am going to seek solitude and rustic peace in the one place in France where they exist, in a fourth-floor apartment overlooking the Champs-Elysees.

Stendahl – The Red and the Black

Others, who won’t join the City of God, live in the city of the self that is obsessed with the world.  Ahab, the bad king of the Old Testament was one.  His modern incarnation sought the world out of obsession with whiteness, and wasn’t he really just self-obsessed?  He tries to bribe his crew into joining his metropolis of insanity.

Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke — look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!  Melville – Moby Dick

But for some, like Starbuck, even as they live their lives in the mini-city of the Pequod, the unfortunate New England whaler, and certainly no microcosm of a City of God, the city of self shows unexpected depths of peace.

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yes, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.  Melville – Moby Dick

More at the True Binnacle:

Amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being… you can see all the way down to the calm center, where there is no city at all.

                


Augustine: Lost in the clouds

August 23, 2010

 

After devoting hundreds of pages to a sharply worded, often funny, and always derisive deconstruction of the folly of Roman paganism, St. Augustine finally turns his attention to more positive topics, e.g., the superiority of Platonism as the one pagan philosophy that is closest to the true religion of Christianity.  What strikes me most is the way in which thinkers of his day, and ours, are bewitched by their own polished use of language.  So many chasms of unexplained propositions are glided over so lightly.

From Book VIII, Chapter 6 of The City of God:

As for the teaching which is comprised in [what] Platonists call logic, or rational philosophy, heaven forbid that I should think to compare them with those who have placed the criterion of truth in the bodily senses and have decided that all that belongs to the realm of learning is to be measured by such unreliable and misleading standards.

In other words, abstract thought gives knowledge; observation yields error.  Here we have the Christian imprimatur placed on a Greek concept that will inhibit the growth of science for another thousand years.  As I remarked on my post about Playfair, the great innovator in representing quantitative data with graphs, this prejudice against the evidence of the eyes lingered on into the scientific age.

Here I always wonder what bodily senses they use to see what beauty which they say is found only in the wise. With what physical eyes have they beheld the beauty and grace of wisdom?

A marvelous example of rhetorical skill tripping up the search for truth.  He fixes on a metaphor, takes it as concrete, and then teases out the contradictions that ensue, using it as evidence for his spiritualist point of view.

They saw also that in every mutable being, the form which determines its being, its mode of being and its nature, can only come from him who truly is, because he exists immutably.

This lapidary phrase is almost like a chant, a mantra.  Often, in this chapter, Augustine uses rhythm and apparently simple logic to build to towards a triumphant declaration of the obvious truth of his religion.  He continues with this evocation of the entire panorama of existence:

Nice glasses!

It follows that the whole material universe, its shapes, qualities, its ordered motions, its elements disposed throughout its whole extent, stretching from heaven to earth, together with all the bodies contained within them; and all life, whether that which merely nourishes and maintains existence, as in the trees, or that which has sensibility as well, as in the animals; or that which has all this, and intelligence besides, as in human beings; or that life which needs no support in the way of nourishment, but maintains existence, and has feeling and intelligence, as in the case of angels – all these alike could come into being only through  him who simply is.

Yes, I love it, I do

For a wonderful introduction to The City of God, see this text.


News from late antiquity, early modern

July 7, 2010

 

Moving along in Saint Augustines massive City of God, I think he’s pretty much laid to rest the charge that the adoption of Christianity by the emperor and the citizenry of Rome was responsible for its sack by Alaric and its other troubles.  He gives a thorough review of the calamities that befell the Republic and the Empire long before Christ walked the earth and asks sarcastically, why didn’t your gods protect you?   Obviously, it was not the fault of Christianity, since it hadn’t appeared yet.  Morever, excellent rhetorician that he is, he points out that if Christians had been around during the bloodshed of the Gracchi, the various Punic Wars, the civil wars, and so on, the pagans would have immediately argued that it was the presence of Christians that was bringing down the wrath of the gods on Rome.  So since there were no Christians, shouldn’t they blame their own gods?

It’s entertaining to see the lengths to which Augustine will go to make his points, but we have to recall he was writing for an educated audience that was very interested in these ‘spiritual’ questions, and not above enjoying some sophisticated repartee at the same time.  So, he dwells with glee upon the burning of one temple and the incineration of its sacred idol that claimed the life of a high priest who tried to save it.  What!  Your all-powerful gods not only could not save themselves from a mere fire, but couldn’t even lift a finger to save the priest who tries to save them? What sort of gods are these, he asks?  I’m waiting for the clearcut demonstrations of the beneficent power of the Christian god that comes later on.

1200 years later on, I’m halfway through Don Quixote, the novel, or is it a chronicle?, or maybe just a daydream of a bookworm on drugs, and an argument is underway.  The Don, his squire Sancho, and a few local people with some learning are discussing the first part of The Adventures of Don Quixote which was just published.  Everyone’s talking about it!  The second part is coming soon.  [I am reading the second part.]  The characters compare themselves to their depiction in the novel, pointing out inaccuracies and complaining a bit of how they are shown.  The author of the second part will, it is hoped, be better than that of the first.  After all, it is known that there is another version of the story circulating that is a downright fraud, a blatant ripoff of the idea, written and published by some hacks.  For his part, Sancho is peeved that the story is a little too accurate for comfort regarding his humiliation at the inn, when he was hurled into the air on a trampoline-blanket by some tricksters.  Some verbal trickery from the Don assures him that he wasn’t really there, even if his body was.


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