Modern Post-Conversion Identity in the Light of Augustine’s Example
I have come to bristle at the word “community,” so often is it used in our time to describe and to justify any group of people, living in the same area or not, who are united by an ethnicity, a debility, or a common behavior, and whom the Church is supposed to approach ducking and scraping. This business of communities warrants some attention.
When Augustine finally gave his life up to Christ, it was to allow the Lord to sever the bonds that bound him to the corrupt courses of his past. It did not just mean that he would no longer seek the pleasures of the bedchamber. It meant that he would enter one community, the Church, a true community though populated by the common run of human sinners, such as we are, and leave several pseudo-communities or anti-communities he had once belonged to, regardless of the degrees and kinds of human goods he might find there.
The Import of a Sign
Let us come to the details. Augustine gave up his position as a teacher of rhetoric, because he saw it as corrupt at the root—as instruction for young men in how to bandy words in the law courts, not in the service of truth but of wealth and ambition. Now, there is nothing inherently wicked in the decorous and intelligent choice and arrangement of words. Far from it—it is a good thing, and Augustine would spend the rest of his literary life putting his old instruction in the humanities to powerful use in preaching the word of God.
But Augustine made a clean break with—what shall we say—the community of rhetoricians, a network of professional connections and personal friendships. Whether another man in his place must needs have made that break, I cannot say. Much would depend on the specifics of the common instruction, the worldly temptations the work would present, and the import, for the general public and for members of the Church, of the sign:for our deeds are also signs, and the meaning of a sign is not in the determination of the individual. A human sign means what the common people take it to mean, and he who intentionally gives the sign intends the expected and foreseeable interpretation.
Repudiating Both Action & Sign
Augustine also had to break with the Manicheans. This, too, was not simply a turn in the mind. The Manicheans did form a community or quasi-community. They knew one another. They helped one another find employment. No doubt they cared for Manichean widows and orphans. They were united, so to speak, by their energetic contempt for the Old Testament and for much of the New, and by their enthusiastic devotion to the ravings of the self-described holy spirit, Mani. I am sure the Manicheans threw many a social soiree, with rich food and drink for the commoners, and conspicuously abstemious fare for the “saints.”
You can build up plenty of powerful memories that way: smiles, slaps on the shoulder, discussing a false god while reclining on couches set outdoors on a balmy summer evening; surely the Manicheans were not completely devoid of natural goodness. Even Faustus, the Manichean bishop who Augustine once hoped could settle all his doubts, was a man of considerable personal charm and even natural modesty. Snares of the devil, Augustine would later say. And why not? If you want to lead a man to his damnation, natural sweetness and light—beeswax and honey—are always ready to hand.
Had Augustine continued to hang around with the Manicheans, it would be as if an alcoholic continued to work at a liquor store—but with a couple of considerable differences. First, there is nothing inherently wicked about taking a drink; but what the Manicheans believed and preached about God and the created world was blasphemous and ineluctably destructive to the human soul. We are not talking about stale bread instead of a feast. We are talking about poison.
Second, there is nothing inherently significant about working at that liquor store: the common people do not take it as a sign. If I say, “I am a dentist,” all I mean is that I am a dentist. If I give up my dentistry but attend a convention of my old friends in tooth-drilling, that, too, has no power as a sign. Dentistry has no charge, carries no moral freight beyond the specifics of the work. But if I say, “I am a pornographer,” that does indeed signify:it means that I believe that sexual relations are not sacred, not to be bound only to the haven of marriage.
Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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