Friendship in Augustine

I was excited to hear yesterday that my paper on friendship in Augustine’s Confessions has been accepted at the first annual Symposium on Faith and Culture at Baylor University in October. I had a wonderful experience at the Lilly Foundation conference last October, and look forward to seeing old acquaintances and fellowshipping with other Christian scholars. I strongly encourage folks in the North Texas region to attend. I was genuinely surprised and delighted by the caliber and spirit of the Baylor faculty, especially those in the Great Texts program. They have really taken the place up a notch or two since the hiring of Tom Hibbs as Dean of the Honors College several years ago. In any case, here is my abstract. Any suggestions regarding the thesis or secondary literature are welcome; quibbles and comments too.

“Early in his Confessions, Augustine characterizes the task of confession as an attempt to “give a coherent account of my disintegrated self, for when I turned away from you, the one God, and pursued a multitude of things, I went to pieces.” As readers have long noticed, the metaphor of the “divided soul” extends throughout Augustine’s narrative. Beginning as a division between knowledge and action, by book eight it intensifies into a division of the will: though knowing he ought to follow God, Augustine confesses his inability to want his own conversion whole-heartedly.

In this essay I argue that the theme of friendship is crucial for understanding the continuous theme of psychic division, because Augustine’s perversions of genuine friendship—the “pear tree episode,” prostitution in Carthage, and the “dear friend of Thagaste—bring to light his soul divided against itself through misdirected love. Through the vivid detail of his gripping account Augustine presents us with a number of considerations for a deeper understanding of the dangers and promise of Christian friendship.

I begin by briefly summarizing the ordo amoris set out in Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, which states that one must love all other “things” (res) in the degree proportionate to their inherent perfection, and with reference to God as their creating source. I then employ the ordo as a framework to interpret three forms of distorted friendship in the Confessions. At first glance, the infamous pear tree episode of book two seems to be a clear case of inordinate self-love, of action for its own sake. However, without denying his own culpability, Augustine comments, “I would not have done that thing alone” (2.9.17). In other words, Augustine points to a paradoxical situation wherein the sin that seemed to have been committed for its own sake was actually done through the instigation of an “unfriendly friendship” (inimica amicitia). A second episode I briefly consider along these lines is the Augustine’s indictment of prostitution as “infecting the vein of friendship” (3.1.1). Here also, action for action’s sake needed to be augmented by a distortion of true friendship.

Although these episodes clearly manifest the misdirection of love and the dangers of friendship, no experience impressed Augustine’s soul more than the death of his “dear friend” at Thagaste, recounted with considerable interpretive space in book four (4.4.7 – 4.7.12). I explore at some length how, although Augustine’s close relationship achieved the status of friendship as the “union of souls,” by contrast to the physical nexus of prostitution, it was nevertheless perverted by loving the young man with respect to his (present) mortality instead of his (absent) eternal end in God. In short, by loving to the point that he became “like another self” to his companion, Augustine’s soul was torn apart when sickness took his “other self.” Indeed, he tells us his will was divided between hating death in the present and loving/desiring the life of his friend in the past. He feared death yet despaired of living as “half a self.”

I conclude by interpreting Augustine’s reaction to the conversion story of the “courtiers” in book eight (6.15ff) as both a repetition and reversal of the prior turmoil over the death of his “dear friend.” It was no longer a matter of blindness to love/friendship’s transcendent reference point. It was no longer a question of the inability to grasp God’s nature. Rather, it was a matter of Augustine’s inability to love God wholeheartedly. Hearing the story of the conversion of several young men like himself, Augustine “ardently loved them” for their decision to become “friends of God,” at the same time hating himself for his past reluctance to make the same decision. I suggest, finally, that it was precisely this form of genuine friendship that incites Augustine’s final dissipatio animi and paves the way for his submission to God’s will, the healing of his soul, and a new theological ground for friendship: souls bound together through the “charity poured abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (4.4.7).”

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2 Responses to Friendship in Augustine

  1. Tim Enloe says:

    Congratulations, Bret!

  2. An excellent abstract, Bret. I posted the comment below on my blog as a response to your comment on my Balthasar abstract, but in case you haven’t read it, I’ll post it again here.

    Given that there are similiarities in the claims that we both make in our abstracts, I wonder if the following question will not be raised that we both need to be prepared to answer, viz., do our accounts in some ways negate human friendships in favor of friendship with God? In other words, are we presenting a kind of friendship that is in a sense de-humanizing? Thoughts on how to address this?

    Best wishes,

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