Continuing his defense of Christ against the charges of the pagans who attribute the fall of Rome to abandoning, the old Roman gods, in Book II chapter 20 Augustine takes a brief chapter to discuss the preferred moral ethos of the pagan critics. As I read his, obviously unsympathetic, exposition of the “kind of felicity the opponents of Christianity wish to enjoy”, as the title of the chapter goes, I couldn’t help but note the numerous parallels to be found in the reigning ethos of our contemporary, capitalist, liberal (in the classic and modern sense), democratic culture. At the heart of Augustine’s critique is how little they care about the actual moral character of their citizens. As long as they are materially okay and everyone is broadly freed to do whatever they want, then they’ll be happy.
What I’d like to simply do is quote and then comment, drawing out links to the present.
‘So long as it lasts,’ they say, ‘so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of piece, why should we worry?
I mean, right off the bat: material prosperity, military victory, and peace. What’s more American than that?
What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right for the poor to serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat and to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make sue of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride;
An increasing gap between rich and poor, with varying responses to the problem, at once sounding like liberal and conservative solutions to the problem.
if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice;
There are any number of examples here but can we stop and think for a minute about the glorification of celebrity culture for a minute? Name the last ethicist who got serious air-time or public accolades? Now, how many film, TV, and music awards shows do we have every year?
if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights;
Self-explanatory, but we are not a responsibility culture. We are a culture of personal freedom and autonomy that extends in all directions. Well, as long as nobody messes with each other’s stuff:
if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect.
Here we begin to get into those features of modern culture caught up with our differing conception of the role of government, but it’s been a long time since we’ve understood it as an instrument of moral formation for our society. Governments are increasingly seen as referees making sure nobody plays too rough. Governmental respect is low, but as long as we fear its power.
The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a mans own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s proper, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his won, or with others, if they consent.
Again, the assumption that the character of the citizenry is a moral concern of government is gone–and there’s something inevitable about that when you’re trying to manage a pluralistic culture. Still, minimalistic, consent-based moralities are increasingly seen as the norm to which we should be aspiring.
There should be plentiful supply of public prostitutes, for the benefit of all those who prefer them, and especially for those who cannot keep private mistresses.
Don’t mess with my porn, bro.
It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick; to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence.
Luxury and opulence are not an object of reproach. The idea that certain forms of financial extravagance are obscene–that there even is such a thing as financial extravagance–is for communists. Various forms of gluttony, both of the garden-variety or the more delicate tastes of the foodie class, binge-drinking, and so forth, can be noted to be on the rise.
Most interesting is the reaction of the mob against anybody who raises a protest:
Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority; he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living.
If this sound unfamiliar to you, then you haven’t been paying attention to the drift of most public discourse over the last few years. Obviously, the rhetoric is a bit soaring, but the fact of the matter is that dissent from the partyline on the nature of freedom, autonomy, and so forth is increasingly marginalized and given no space in academic forums and eventually the public square.
Finally, the idolatrous root is arrived at.
We should reckon the true gods to be those who see that the people get this happiness and then preserve it for them. Then let them be worshipped as they wish, let them demand what shows they like, so that they can enjoy them with their devotees, or, at least, receive them from their worshippers. All the gods have to do is ensure that there is no threat to this happiness from enemies, or plagues, or any other disasters.’
Whether it’s the hands-off god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that only wants us to be happy or just your more average cultural deification of created goods, we trust the “gods” who promise to give us these basic ultimate values. We will serve whatever god serves us best.
Obviously, this is all a bit dark and pessimistic. It’s an evaluation that needs to be paired with Augustine’s underlying confidence and hope for history because of the work of Christ. Still, the moral insight is prescient, revealing a pattern, a tapestry that seems to be reweaving itself before our very eyes. Of course, it wasn’t the end of the Church then and, though in post-Christendom we face a somewhat different challenge, it won’t be now. Still, it’s good to recognize the pattern for what it is–its interconnections and precedents.
Soli Deo Gloria
I think it was Mark Twain to succinctly summed it up, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme”.
Derek, I really enjoy when you look at older writers (when I say older, I mean anything pre 19th century, so it is a pretty big net), so I was just wondering have you come across the Scotsman Thomas Chalmers in your theological travels at all? I am nearly at the end of his essay, ‘The Expulsive Power of a New Affection’, which I have found particularly insightful. If you had the time, I’d appreciate your thoughts on it.
Every time I read Augustine I am blown away by how much his world looks like ours. Presentist notions of sociological progress over and against the mythical dark and stupid ages of the past are pretty much just totally torpedo’d by any realistic look at late antiquity.