I. Take Yourself Seriously
I started reading Augustine's Confessions last night, for the first time in fifteen years. (I had to run out to the used bookstore to buy a copy, having jettisoned most of my books six years ago.)
With distance, I see in a way I couldn't see at the time why I loved him so much: for the cumulative effect of his insistence that you take yourself seriously; that you think--hard--about who you are and what you do, and why;
that in fact, you matter.
[From a visual journal I kept when first studying Augustine, 1993]
"The power of memory is great, very great, my God. It is a vast and infinite profundity. ...This power is that of my mind, but I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am. ...This moves me to great astonishment. Amazement grips me. People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, ...by the revolution of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested."
--Augustine's Confessions, Book X: Memory
II. The Obscure Consolation of Original Sin *
I'd been raised in the late 1960s with a "do what you want" philosophy, in a "if it feels good, do it" era.
The good intention was soul liberation (in reaction to soul-stupifying restrictions of the past); but to me the message ended up sounding like "It doesn't matter what you do."
I was struck one day when my religious-studies prof casually said something about "trying to be good." That was not a phrase I'd ever heard. When I checked with my parents, they agreed that making an effort to be good had not been part of their thinking. (One was just naturally good, or not; trying didn't come into it.)
The good thing about having been raised outside any religion was that I never suffered abuse from it. I know people who wince at some of Augustine's ideas, for instance, because they'd been piled on them like bricks.
But to me, many of his ideas were correctives.
Original sin, for instance, offered me psychological insight that balanced the importance of the individual ("you're created in the image of God...") with an awareness of human limitation ("...but you're not God"). I found this encouraging: "Look, it's a given that you are going to fuck up. Don't let it stop you."
But I know many people who'd heard it from childhood as "You are bad."
III. The Fierce Champions
These ideas aren't just expressed through theology, of course.
Augustine's intensity reminds me of Charlotte Bronte, who also insists, through her plain, poor, and powerless character Jane Eyre, that the individual matters.
Reading both Augustine and Bronte, I feel their concentrated personalities so strongly, it's like they're present in the room. They burn off the page, right through the centuries.
Jane Eyre fiercely defends her honor and her right to self-determination. She expresses herself in religious terms, but one senses it's because they serve her, not because they've been beaten into her. She derives dignity and strength from them, not humiliation. She's unimportant in social terms--a governess, as Bronte knew from experience, was like a table scrap off the table of privilege--but she matters to God, and hence to herself.
[Art Sparker recently created a nice portrait of Bronte.]
IV. The Symphony of Science
I take similar encouragement--and humility of scale--from science, and scientists like the ones in the video below, who say:
"I'm just a speck ...there are billions and billions of specks." "The cosmos is also within us; we're made of stardust." "That makes me want to grab people on the street and say, 'Have you heard this?!'" "But you've gotta stop and think about it."
And here they are--my sister sent this to me--auto-tuned! "We Are All Connected"
More videos from the Symphony of Science, "a musical project headed by John Boswell designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form."
* "The obscure consolation of original sin" is a phrase from John Updike's essay "On Not Being a Dove," in his collection Self-Consciousness.