Sunday, June 16, 2013

Augustine of Hippo

“I dreamed I saw St. Augustine, alive as you or me.”  Bob Dylan

A Tiffany Studios Window of St. Augustine

Augustine of Hippo was a Manichean who converted to Christianity in 387AD, just as the Western Roman Empire was sliding towards decline.  He is an excellent example of Christianity’s co-optation of contemporary competing religious ideas in forging what would become the dominant religion in Western thought.  At the time, Augustine took absolutist definitions of good and evil from Manicheaism and welded them into Christian doctrine. These ideas would allow Christianity to prevail over the pagan alternatives it was confronting in the Roman Empire, and then in Western and Northern Europe just when the collapse of the Roman economy left the Roman Catholic Church the central unifying pillar of Western cultures.

A Renaissance Depiction of St. Augustine contemplating the City of God.  St Peter's Basilica including the famous dome depicted here was consecrated in 1626.

St Augustine was a dualist, who described spiritual struggle as conflict between the good of spirituality and the evil of the material world, the central tenet of Manicheaism.  In The City of God, he made the Roman Catholic Church the manifestation of Heaven on earth and arrayed it against secular power.  This would become the dominant theme, secular vs Church power, in the upcoming medieval period.

Augustinian Dualism would pose some problems, including censorship of genitals
St. Augustine also wrote that original sin was the source of man’s spiritual incompleteness.  This incompleteness gave rise to the illusion of sexual and material needs.  Sexual and material satisfactions could never heal that incompleteness in life, but the sexual union of man and wife before God was the closest living humans could come to the full spiritual reunification that awaited them in salvation and resurrection.  This was a timely change in doctrine given that the material quality of life was about to fall precipitously in Western Europe due to the decline of the Western Roman Empire.  A religion that stressed the importance of spiritual acts as a key to salvation in the afterlife was a source of solace in a time of material suffering. 

Walpurgisnacht, one of many pagan rites demonized by early Christianity.

At a stroke, Augustine attacked the central tenet of many pagan spiritual practices involving non-monogamous sexual expression.  Most pagan sexual practices took advantage of the intensity of sexual phenomenology to proclaim connection with various gods and spirits.  For many pagans, sex was an integral part of worship.  So many of the sexual variations we think of today as 'perversions' were deemed to be so because they were part of pagan spiritual practices in direct completion with early Roman Catholicism.  Augustine’s writings were the direct source of a great divergence between Western sexual practices and the relative tolerance and diversity of tribal experiences outlined in my previous post in this series.

Augustine also created a bastion against scientific observation and naturalistic description of the world by elevating spiritual knowledge over debased practical knowledge.  The problems posed by Christian gnosticism would go unrecognized as the church became the primary repository for most types of learning.  With the rise of literacy, movable type, and protestant empiricism, wresting this authority form the church would entail great violence and social disruption.

As a dualist, however, Augustinian solutions were going to confront Western thought and the Catholic Church itself with many problems that are the legacy of his absolutist thinking.  Not the least of these are the Cartesian mind-body split, and the Great Schism.  Dualism would make change in the Roman Church dangerous and gradual, and interspersed with great violence.  A divinely ordained church would be tempted to declare later thinkers apostate.  In creating reified notions of society, god, and humanity, the Roman Church would have trouble adapting as flexibly as its early Christian predecessors. 

The 1966 LP cover.  Bob is in the center.

What about the representation of Augustine in Bob Dylan’s famous song from John Wesley Harding?  That remains a bit of a mystery.  St. Augustine was a powerful writer, and was later sainted in both the Roman and the Orthodox churches. He is also honored in many protestant denominations for his thinking on salvation.  But he was never martyred as described in Dylan’s poem.  Perhaps Dylan is alluding to his own new-found Christianity following a 1966 motorcycle accident.  More likely he is using hyperbole in suggest that ‘ye goodly kings and queens’ now have “a martyr [is] among you whom you may call your own.’  Like the labor activist Joe Hill (compare J Baez “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.”, Augustine is a threat to secular powers, and an upholder of essentialist ideals over worldly rewards.  So we do not know if Dylan is grieving for his realization of his own original sin, or taunting the same old powers that be he menaced during his folk period, or paying homage to Baez and original lyricist Alfred Hayes.  Not being a dualist himself, perhaps Dylan is doing both. 

© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD,  Ann Arbor, June 2013.  All rights reserved.

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