St. Augustine on Music, Psychology, Poetry, Theater, Visual Art and Government.

     Yesterday we looked at Augustine’s 3 doctrinal essentials for analyzing culture. Today, we’ll look at how these played out in his analysis of different cultural spheres: Music, Psychology, Poetry, Theater, Visual Art, and Government.

     Music: For Augustine, music was a good creation of God to which he was personally drawn. However, he was concerned that while singing hymns his affections were drawn more to the “well-trained, melodious voices” than the music itself. While he recognized the value of music to “stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle in me a more ardent flame of piety”, he also thought it a grievous sin when the music itself brought more enjoyment than the words it conveyed[1]. That being said, Augustine recognized that King David was ordained as a musician, and, in fact, good quality music communicated theological truth, for “the rational and well-ordered concord of diverse sounds in harmonious variety suggests the compact unity of the well-ordered city.[2]” Music, Augustine believed, could stir pious feelings to great truths, especially when well-delivered. However, when musical talent was emphasized over the theological intent, this grieved the Holy Spirit.

  Psychology: In the area of psychology, Augustine is a pioneer. “Confessions” was perhaps the first auto-biography, and Augustine felt that personal self-understanding was a great aid to religious fervor. Augustine labors to understand, for example, the nature of memory, which leads him to the worship of His Creator[3]. By the same token, Augustine whole-heartedly rejected the astrology of his day, which finds its closest kinship to modern psychology: “[The astrologers] tell us,” says Augustine, “that the cause of sin is determined in the heavens and we cannot escape it, and that this or that is the work of Venus or Saturn or Mars. They want us to believe that man is guiltless, flesh and blood though he is and doomed to die despite his pride.[4]” No doubt, Augustine would have rejected most modern pop-psychological theories, affirming that man is only a product of his environment, and that at his essence, man is guiltless.

Poetry: Augustine was well-versed in poetry, and won many wreaths for his ability to recite the classics by heart. However, Augustine believed poetry to be largely a waste of time in his later years, “a most enchanting dream, futile though it was[5].” However, it must be recognized that St. Augustine rejected poetry in large part due to its religious ties. In Augustine’s day, the poets were even dubbed “theologians”, because all their work concerned the Greek gods[6]. One wonders what Augustine would think of modern literature, for he states elsewhere that “Verses and poems can provide real food for thought,” and weren’t nearly as dangerous as philosophy, because it was easy to discern that poetry was fictional[7].

Theater: This same sentiment is seen in Augustine’s view of the Theater, for it was the poets who were responsible for the stage. Augustine, in fact, devotes a whole chapter in his “City of God” to condemning the Romans for lifting up the Greek gods, while condemning the theater productions which portrayed their alleged acts. He principally objected to these performances because he feared the state and divine sanction would impel others to follow the crude example of the gods[8]. However, he had other objections as well. For example, he believed it an act of pagans to revel in the misery of others, which he compares to itching a puss-filled sore, exacerbating the plight of human misery[9]. He was horrified, even as an unbeliever, at the delight men showed at the cruel violence of the stage and the gladiatorial games[10]. Some productions, he asserted, were less offensive than others, namely comedies and tragedies, principally because they lacked the filthy language of other performances[11]. Augustine thought it unhealthy curiosity to attend the circus, where freaks and prodigies were put on display for entertainment, and also blamed unnatural curiosity for the delight men took in seeing mangled corpses at the games[12]. While Augustine affirmed that the theater productions were indeed “wonderful spectacles”[13], and that the creation of these spectacles was a gift of God, perhaps the only use of the theater to believers was that of analogy. The world, said Augustine, is the theater of God, wherein the central event is Christ on the cross[14].  Again, one wonders what Augustine would think of Hollywood today, when entertainment is not so blatantly tied to religious worship.

Visual Art: Augustine’s relationship to visual art is complex. On the one hand, he finds art in general to be unacceptably lavish, which can only be an additional temptation of the eyes. On the other hand, he “sings a hymn of praise” to God for these selfsame works, for He still asserts that God empowered man to make such decorations[15].  And while he rejoices in the ability of the eyes to see colors, shapes and sizes of beauty, he fastens his desire, that they might not “take possession of my soul[16].” In this, Augustine affirms the nature of art, but also is concerned that the believer recognize that God is the nature of beauty, not the art itself[17]. Perhaps, once again, Augustine saw art’s usefulness in its analogy to the Christian life, wherein abstract representations of life are akin to seeing goodness in the spirit of good men, while remaining aloof to goodness itself, being God[18].

Government: Augustine’s view of government has been influential in the church over the centuries. He takes a decidedly positive view of human government, which he believes exists to ensure the peace of all people, based on his reading of Romans 13. “Now,” says Augustine, “when victory remains with the party which had the juster cause, who hesitates to congratulate the victor, and style it a desirable peace? These things, then, are good things, and without doubt the gifts of God[19].” In fact, Christians are to pray for their government’s peace, as it is their own peace[20]. However, Augustine throws the “glory of Rome” in the face of its proponents, asserting that by Cicero’s own definition of a republic (where true justice is enacted), Rome doesn’t even qualify, for “true justice has no existence save in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ[21].” He calls many of Rome’s glorious triumphs a “lust for sovereignty (which) disturbs and consumes the human race with frightful ills[22].” If even Rome were a truly just government, all their gain is loss of they do not desire the heavenly city of God[23].

[1] Confessions, 238-239.

[2] City of God, 537

[3] Confessions, 223

[4] Ibid. 73

[5] Ibid. 35

[6] City of God, 561

[7] Confessions, 62

[8] City of God, 43

[9] Confessions, 55-57

[10] Ibid, 66

[11] City of God, 43

[12] Confessions, 242

[13] City of God 767-768

[14] Ibid. 409

[15] Confessions 241

[16] Confessions, 239

[17] Ibid. 231

[18] City of God, 336

[19] Ibid. 434

[20] Ibid. 638-639

[21] Ibid. 57

[22] Ibid. 78

[23] Ibid. 434

[24] City of God, 42

[25] Confessions. 49

[26] City of God. 587

[27] Ibid. 605-606

[28] Confessions, 295

[29] Ibid. 63

[30] Ibid. 63

[31] Confessions, 262

[32] City of God, 630

[33] Ibid. 769

[34] Confessions, 33

[35] Ibid. 36

[36] Ibid. 35

[37] Confessions, 96

[38] City of God. 554-555

[39] Ibid. 559

[40] Ibid. 586

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  1. This is in an interesting observation, Nick: “The world, said Augustine, is the theater of God, wherein the central event is Christ on the cross”. It makes me think of Shakespeare’s line “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t shy about borrowing ideas from others, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it traces back to Augustine.

    Augustine’s comprehensiveness is amazing, isn’t it? Is there a part of the world around him that he did not ruminate on?

    • Or how about C.S. Lewis’ famous analogy of Shakespeare writing himself into the play to save its characters?

      I can tell you after spending many, many, many long tedious hours reading St. Augustine’s work….yes, he’s extremely thorough.

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