Sunday, December 13, 2009

Augustine as Comedian: Part 1 – Unintentional Comedy

Augustine is best know for Confessions, a reflective, passionate, devotional classic that is essentially an autobiographical[1] prayer. It was mandatory reading in our secular undergrad’s humanities program. I have since enjoyed several other works by and about the Bishop of Hippo (most notably, On Christian Doctrine which I eagerly devoured in a single sitting[2]) and have even given talks on his life and theology. So when my reading group proposed taking on his City of God I was thrilled. Let’s just say that it was a slog, even for an admitted Augustine enthusiast. But I took pretty detailed notes[3] on themes and trends. One of the surprising early trends was that in each of our first two or three meetings my friend Dan brought to our attention a line or two that were legitimately hilarious. Soon my weekly notes included a “Comic Passages” section which included entries from all but one chapter.

Even after I sifted through it (to get rid of repetition and ‘you had to be there[4]’ sort of stuff) it is a lot of material for a blog post so I am splitting it by type of comedy: intentional and unintentional[5]. This post will focus on Augustine’s unintentional comedy[6] under two main headings: bombast and irony.


First, we were impressed with the creativity and range with which Augustine mocked the critical faculties of his interlocutors.

“…and anyone who does not admit this is insane.” (392)

“…this was silly talk…” (454)

“Yet anyone who reads the passage in Daniel, even if half-asleep, cannot conceivably doubt the reign of the antichrist is to be endured…” (945)

“No one, unless he is deaf as well as daft, could have any doubt…” (1078)

I guess it would be easy to read these and simply conclude that Augustine was an enormous douche. But this is something you have to get over quickly if you are going to profit from any polemical work written more than, say, seventy years ago. So, instead, we started experiencing his self confident bombast as unintentional comedy in the creative range of his dismissals. It is fun to imagine how he would have fared in a ‘battle’ with the likes of Eminem[7]. I suspect he would have done just fine.

Then there is this gem on his exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 2 “I admit that the meaning of this completely escapes me. For all that, I shall not refrain from mentioning some guesses at the meaning[8]…” (933)

And then there was his compliment to the philosopher Varro: “I understand the difficulty experienced by an intelligence of such range and quality.” (289)

Finally, there was his seemingly unfortunate definition of preaching: “Though there may be direct and clear prophetic statements on any subject, allegorical statements are inevitably intermingled with them, and it is those especially that force upon scholars the laborious business of discussion and exposition for the more slow witted.” (746)

Again, he comes off as a total d#$%, but if you read it, giving him the benefit of the doubt, this comment demonstrates his fundamentally pastoral heart. To Augustine, there was no ivory tower. The point of philosophy and Biblical scholarship was to help people live better. He expended the long hard hours in his study for the benefit of the people who looked to him for insight. Modern rhetorical style finds him wanting, but there is something of real value here from one of the greatest minds in the history of western civilization.


The second great reservoir of unintentional comedy was the passages in which he condescends upon some characteristic he represented. For example many of the unintentional comic passages are either the self parody of his loquaciousness or comedy born of his obliviousness to the same.

On Prolixity:

“Is anything more loquacious than folly.” (224) –said the guy who wrote the 1000 page book

“If all the details that are so pregnant with hidden meaning of great importance were closely sifted, the results would fill many volumes. But a limit has to be set to this work, to keep it a reasonable size and this compels us to hurry on to other topics.” (701)

“even though philosophy had not yet erupted in a teeming flood of subtle and ingenious loquacity.” (791)[10]

“…but this book is prolix enough already, and I am afraid of seeming to seize an occasion for showing off my trifles of knowledge, for idle effect rather than for any advantage to the reader.” (466)

At this point I decided that Augustine’s major works would have been better if he had had a blog. He could have unloaded some of these ‘trifles’ that are embarrassing to a modern reader and make the book over long.

On Tedium:

“just as many words are used to refer to one thing, to emphasize a point without inducing boredom” (401) This was not my experience.

“It is, in my view, impossible to decide for certain whether Socrates was led to take this course (turning philosophy to morality) by the boredom induced by obscure and inconclusive subjects…” (301)

OK, I realize that the humor is hidden pretty deep here, but go back and read that again if you didn’t get it. Augustine is wondering out loud if Socrates turned philosophy into ethics because he wasn’t a very good philosopher or because he was a REALLY good philosopher, and just got board with it. I realize that this is a joke that takes far too long (say 600 years) to unfold, but that is freeking hilarious.

On Proportional Profundity:

“Now, take the prophet Hosea, he certainly has profound things to say, but his message is difficult of penetration in proportion to its profundity.”[11] (795)

I include this in the ‘Irony’ section because this is precisely how I experienced the City of God. It is rightly esteemed as a central work of Western thought, if only for the paradigm shifting ideas about: time, the just war, church/state and eschatology.[12] But unfortunately, reading time is one of my most limited commodities, so works (even classic works) get rated not only on their profundity but by a product of their profundity and their accessibility.

Next…Augustine’s Intentional Comedy

This post was written while listening to The Dear Hunter Pandora Station

[1] Many assert that he innovated the genre of autobiography.
[2] A rarity for me since I read so slowly.
[3] I have an 87 page word document with major themes, quotes, and notes that I could e-mail if anyone is interested.
[4] ‘there’ usually being a 34 page discussion of an obscure Roman philosopher who’s work isn’t otherwise extant
[5] Which will include his characteristic dark humor, a surprising amount of sexual or scatological hilarity, and a category I could only label: ‘um...what?’
[6] As such, this post will be mostly irreverent to a guy who is, really, one of my heroes. But the ability to laugh at someone’s ridiculousness is a pretty good litmus test for differentiating between healthy admiration and unhealthy idealization.
[7] A contemporary context (as in, it was contemporary 10 years ago) in which ad hominem polemics are considered fair game.
[8] While this confidence may seem misplaced to a contemporary evangelical trained in historical-grammatical hermeneutics, it makes far more sense in the context of ‘On Christian Doctrine’ where Augustine essentially argues that interpreting scripture is difficult and making localized errors in interpreting individual passages is not that grievous an error, as long as you err does not depart from the overall teachings of scripture.
[9] I am using the word irony ‘in the way it has come to be know.’ Here’s the thing, I know Irony’s pure definition. Let’s call it the Keirkegaardian use of Irony, saying one thing but meaning the opposite. But the word’s semantic range has clearly expanded to include what I will call the Alanis Morissette usage of, ‘wow that is oddly poetic or had the opposite outcome that one would expect.” I am open to another, more precise, verbal signifier to describe this latter phenomena, but until I get one I will continue to brazenly misuse ‘irony’ under the expansive protection of the ‘contemporary semantic range’ argument.

[10] Some days this is how I feel about philosophy.
[11] This is pretty much how I feel about the Old Testament in general (i.e. why it is hard to preach and why most Christians who read their Bibles regularly camp out in the New Testament). The cultural distance is greater and so it takes more work to mine it for value. It is like the historic shaft Iron mines in the Adirondacks that were abandoned once the Minnesota strip operations spun up. It is just more economical to mine the NT for insight. I am not defending this, just observing it.
[12] I owe my own loosely held position of amillennialism to the Bishop of Hippo.

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