Saturday, July 17, 2010

Augustine as Comedian: Part 2 – Intentional Comedy

Several months ago I posted the first part of a two part series on Augustine’s City of God. It was not a particularly popular post, so I have delayed the sequel.[1] But as I looked over it the other day…I decided it was freaking hilarious. So I am posting it. You can read this one of two ways. You can either find Augustine funny…or you laugh at me for being a big enough nerd to find him funny.

The first post covered Augustine’s unintentional comedy. It mostly emerged from stuff he wrote that was so culturally foreign to a modern reader that it struck me as absurd. This post is more fun. It includes his intentional comedy and demonstrates a little bit of why he was one of the most famous orators of the Roman world.[2] I have organized the quotes and brief commentary under several categories.

Stupid Human Tricks:

“We do in fact find among human beings some individuals with natural abilities very different from the rest of mankind and remarkable in their rarity…Some people can move their ears, either one at a time or together. Others without moving their head, can being the whole scalp down towards the forhead…some can swallow and incredible number of various articles and …produce, as out of a bag, any article they please in perfect condition…A number of people can produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region…” (588)

…and while we are on the topic of smells…

“that those angels enjoy the smell of dead bodies is false. It is divine honors that really delight them. They have a plentiful supply of smells everywhere; and if they want, they can produce them for themselves.” (400)


At one point Augustine tackles the inordinately long lives of the patriarchs and comes to the following conclusion:

“…we must assume that men took rather more than a hundred years to attain puberty and to become capable of procreation.” (632)

The very idea of a century long puberty makes my head explode. But it seems that Augustine shares our cultural expectations of the general funess of adolescence:

“In fact is there anyone who, faced with the choice between death and a second childhood, would not shrink in dread from the latter prospect and elect to die?” (991)


“Why fill the bridal chamber with a mob of divinities? And what is the purpose of crowding it? That the thought of the presence of the gods should make the couple more concerned to preserve decency? Not at all. It is to ensure that with their cooperation, there shall be no difficulty in ravishing the virginity of a girl who…is terrified by the strangeness of the situation…If the husband finds the job altogether too much for him and needs divine assistance, would not one god or one goddess be enough…I feel sure that the belief in the presence of so many divinities of both sexes to urge on the business at hand would so embarrass the couple as to quench the enthusiasm of the one and stiffen the reluctance of the other!...(he goes on to spend several pages describing the minute individual functions of each of many sexual Roman deities finishing with)…what is the function of the goddess Pertunda[3]? She should blush for shame and take herself off. Let the bridegroom do something himself. It would be most improper for anyone but the husband to do what her name implies.” (245-6)

“(Adam and Eve) opened their eyes to their own nakedness, that is, when they observed it with anxious curiosity, and if they covered up their shameful parts because an excitement, which resisted voluntary control, made them ashamed.” – Is it just me, or is he talking about an erection…and if so, is he suggesting that Adam experienced no pre-fall erections? Why was the thing there to begin with if not for some purer version its post-fall purpose?[4]

“It is not only the mimes who give Priapus[5] an enormous phallus; the priests do the same.” (239) - This one is funnier with no context or explanation.

Also Funnier without Context:

“Perhaps it may be suggested that demons act like sponges or something of that kind.” (363)

“the Egyptians, who were addicted to geometry.[6] (646)

You’re Right, That Would be Surprising:

“such as male and female mules. It would be surprising if they were in the ark.” (647)

Who Indeed?

“For instance, would not anyone prefer to have food in his house, rather than mice, or money rather than flees.’ (448)

Augustine Takes his Arguments From Wonder a Little Too Far:
“Let us consider the marvels of lime.” (969)

“There are some details in the body which are there simply for aesthetic reasons, and for no practical purpose – for example, the nipples on a man’s chest…” (1074)

“Take the case of a man’s visible appearance. An eyebrow is virtually nothing compared to the whole body; but shave it off and what an immense loss to his beauty! For beauty does not depend on mere size, but on symmetry and proportion of the component parts.” (545)

Dark Humor:

“In the city any Sullan supporter struck down anyone as he pleased and the consequent murders were beyond all calculation, until it was suggested to Sulla that some people should be allowed to live so that the conquerors should have some subjects to command.” (129)


“No one therefore must try to get to know from me what I know that I do not know, unless, it may be, in order to learn not to know what must be known to be incapable of being known!”[7] (480)

The Bat Signal:
“Rome had collected for her protection far too many gods, summoning them, as it were, at a given signal by the immense volume of smoke of the sacrifices.” (101)

There might actually be something to this. In the Batman myth the bat signal calls a morally ambiguous individual with no real power, to solve their problems and bring them prosperity. That sounds like the definition of an idol to me…even if the idol has Christian trappings.

And Finally:

“Could a man escape starvation by licking the painted picture of a loaf, instead of begging real bread from someone who had it to give.” (165)

This post was prepared while listening to The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron and Wine
[1] I know it is problematic at best to evaluate a post’s popularity by the number of comments, but I don’t have a good alternative and am a compulsive self-evaluator.
[2] The role of humor in oration is underrated, particularly among preachers. I simply do not understand how you would try to communicate with emerging generations without giving some thought to what we find funny. It is no accident that Jon Stewart is the ‘most trusted name in news.’ Humor earns credibility because it shows care for the listener. But it only ears credibility if it shows care. We can sniff out emotional manipulation with uncanny ease.
[3] The goddess of penetration.
[4] On a serious note, Augustine had a history of sexual sin so, as a cleric, he had trouble seeing any good in it. I am convinced this is the way a lot of legalism goes. Someone who once abused one of the good things God gives us, has had their capacity to see its goodness seared. From their perspective the risks of its abuse far exceeded the benefits of its proper use. But it was given for enjoyment within prescribed boundaries. And so we guilt each other out of a wide range of seared enjoyments and end up being a community of prudes. This is exacerbated by ascetic religion that fails to see any purpose for pleasure in a penultimate existence.
[5] In medicine a priapism is a dangerously long lasting erection (the kind of thing they warn about in the Viagra adds).
[6] I love this idea. There is a great historical note about Pascal that his father refused to introduce him to math in the early stages of his education because he believed that “Mathematics was too intoxicating for the young mind.” But then walked in on him deriving Euclid’s triangle and realized that the time had come.
[7] This could have been filed under ‘unintentional comedy’ but it is just too obtuse for me to think he wasn’t being a little bit cheeky here.


Noah Elhardt said...

I, for one, really enjoyed this collection of quotes. Some of these are a riot, especially when coming from someone as revered as Blessed Augustine.

Is the last quote in reference to icons/iconoclasm?

Bronwyn said...

"Let us consider the marvels of lime"

That would be the most wonderful opening line for a book on cocktails...

Fun post, and amen brother to your insights on footnote 4.

Teresa said...

These are hilarious.