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CONTENTMENT AND LIMITATIONS IN SAINT

AUGUSTINE’S CONFESSIONS
Question 3
“In your judgment, does Augustine in Confessions make an adequate proposal of
what is required to lead a contented life whilst mindful of human limitations?”

The Confessions were written by Saint Augustine in the later years of his life as
both a prayer to God, and as an inspiration to any others who would later read the text. In
this way he was reflecting back on the choices he had made throughout his life and how
those choices related to God and his overall religious experience both in confessing his
sins as well as in exposing his faults, thus leading others to the right path. During the
course of the text, we not only see a religious conversion wherein Augustine accepts
Catholicism, but there is a moral and an intellectual conversion expressed within the text
as well. All of these conversions and changes that occur in his life led him to become the
pious leader that he was. In his work Confessions, he comes up with plans on how to lead
a contented life while still remaining religiously affiliated and morally proper. He
considers what it means to lead a live of freedom and fulfillment while keeping in mind
the limitations of human ability and the limitations that have been imposed on humanity
by God. Saint Augustine explains that there is a dual layered world and the self and that
we can only progress into the second and deeper layer through the love of God. He also
explains the difference in types of freedoms that exist and that are possible for us as
humans.
Saint Augustine believes that there are three different kinds of freedom that are
conceivable. The first is absolute freedom, which is never possible for humanity to
achieve. It is the freedom to do anything one can imagine and beyond. There is no
limitation on what one can do if they possess absolute freedom. Since one must always
work within the confines of nature and human limitation however, we cannot have the
freedom to do anything; we are necessarily limited by our conditions and situations. The
next type of freedom Augustine expresses is that of essential freedom where one has the
possibility to choose the ends of their actions. This however is impossible for humanity to
achieve as well. Effective freedom is then what humanity can actually posses and it
reveals the limitations of our essential freedom. Since there are outcomes that we cannot
possibly fathom or control, we are not fully able to possess essential freedom. There are
always alternative outcomes or situations to our actions that we do not have any
jurisdiction over and thus we cannot be said to have essential freedom. Effectively we are
limited and so this is the only type of freedom that we can reasonably have. Augustine
believes that we all have the same capacities to be free, but we are all situationally
limited and can therefore only ever posses effective freedom.
Along with this capacity for freedom, we have the capacity of knowledge and
belief. Knowledge is, to Saint Augustine, connected heavily to faith and trust in his eyes.
He believes that we often trust that knowledge given to us from the authoritative figures
in our lives is correct and believe through faith in those facts we have been given. Often
times we will say that we know something that we have been told and accept on faith as
an act of blind faith. This is when we say that we know things based not on logic and
fact, but rather because we trust the source of it or believe faithfully that it is correct; we
equate our own beliefs with others based on a foundation of love. Saint Augustine claims
that love grants faith in a person and that faith and reason work together; that faith
enlivens reason, especially in accordance to God. Blind faith can often lead us astray into
following that which is improper or inconsistent with God’s desires for us, however it can
also strengthen one’s affiliation with God. Faith in God can only enrich our experience; if
we do not expect constantly to have God’s existence proven to us, we can instead revel in
the experience of God and lead a more fulfilling life and our understanding of religion
will be enriched. If we have love and faith in God, we will be more deeply connected to
the truth and reason that he provides.
Love is extremely important to Saint Augustine. God is, to him, a God of love.
There is a self in God, but below that there is a self of immediacy as well as a world in
God and world of immediacy. One moves from the world of immediacy to the self of
immediacy through introversion. The self in God relates to the world in God through
extroversion. The self in God can only be discovered and achieved through the eros or
love of God. This transformation occurs and allows the self to understand the deeper
realm of things thanks to the grace and understanding that God provides. The self of
immediacy or proto-self (as is true with the world of immediacy or proto-world) is
separated from God and is thus limited to the finite whereas the true self, or self in God,
(again as is true with the world) extends to the infinite where they are transformed by the
law and rule of God through love. One comes to know themselves through God and
through the transformation his love and grace allow. For Augustine, the strength of God
reaches out to us, but is our responsibility to reach back. Grace is the fundamental loving
gift of God that we cannot obtain for ourselves; we must receive it.
Though we come to know ourselves and our world through the grace and love
given to us by God, we tend to translate the love that we possess incorrectly and give pass
it onto the wrong things. We love things and beings in material immediate ways rather
than having a love of the eternal structures within them as given to us by God. This is a
fundamental problem for Augustine and is what he tries to rectify by giving his
confessions as a guide to how humanity should actually try to live their lives. Living
completely in blind faith can lead us astray and into faulty religions and lifestyles such as
Augustine himself had fallen victim to in Manichaeism and the recklessness of his youth.
Only through God can we come to know what is truly right and learn to act in appropriate
manners.
For Saint Augustine we have the world and rule of God to guide us into what is
proper while remaining contented. He believes that we should be happy enough to follow
in the word of the Lord and to accept the limitations in order to pursue the happiness that
will exist for us in the City of God. Whilst on Earth then, there are limits placed upon
sexual behavior and other physical worldly pleasures. Augustine is mindful of some of
these practices though ultimately his views on restriction seem too severe for one to fully
enjoy be contented within this lifetime. In terms of moral action he is strict about what is
to be allowed and what is unacceptable in accordance with the scriptures and word of
God.
In terms of moral actions and understanding, Saint Augustine believes that we
may see or know the truth and proper actions though we may not love or desire to engage
in it. In this way we are inconsistent in our pursuit of propriety and cannot be said to fully
be following God’s wishes for us. We must be aware of these principles of correctness; if
we are not devoted to enacting them then we are not fully acting in accordance with
God’s plans. We must enjoy acting purely and piously else we are merely going through
the motions and are not able to penetrate into the love that God provides for us to enact
the regulatory rules that he wants us to abide by. Saint Augustine has interpreted God’s
word to be limiting in terms of sexual behaviour and other physical enjoyments such as
delight achieved through indulging in food or drink. He believes that while this may
bring about a minor base level of happiness he goes on to state that this is not in fact a
desirable level of pleasure after all and that we should rather attempt to reach a deeper
level of happiness and understanding that is only available to us through God. These
worldly passions are noted as lowly and unappealing and ultimately as distractions to the
true meaning of life and of religiosity.
Saint Augustine does not abolish the idea of any enjoyment as some may suggest.
Instead he ascribes a deeply spiritual attachment to every action and decision that we
make. He does not take lightly the idea of religion and its relationship to human
happiness. While he agrees that things such as good food or drink, any actions of a sexual
nature and all sensuous behaviour in general may bring fleeting pleasure and enjoyment,
he suggests that these are only for the weak of spirit and mind or those who have not
come to accept God and religion in their lives. He believes these pleasures should be
tossed aside in order to connect with the higher pleasures we can obtain through knowing
and experiencing the love and grace that God provides. For Saint Augustine the physical
world is merely a distraction from the greater pleasure God can grant us and as such, it
should be avoided as much as possible in order to focus on the eternal gratification that
we can expect later.
When we take into account our capacity for freedom, the limitations of our
knowledge and belief systems in Saint Augustine’s Confessions we are given a largely
limited realm of action. Our freedom is limited and our knowledge can be misguided as
can our system of belief unless we adhere strictly to the laws laid out by God and
explained by Augustine himself. While he intends to allow for some freedom and action
in our lives, his scope is ultimately too limited for one to fully be able to express their
enjoyment for the things of this world. He rejects the conception of physical enjoyment
as it is fleeting and temporal whereas loving and enjoying the eternal goodness that is
granted through a love of and desire for God is infinitely greater. Since he is inherently
fixated on the realm beyond earthly passions and desires in the City of God, he rejects the
idea of indulgence in primal urges beyond their requirements. Examples of this would
include an excess of food or drink beyond what will suitably sustain ones life, or sexual
actions beyond the necessity of procreation, especially in regards to those who remain
unmarried. Saint Augustine recognizes the appeal in these behaviours as he himself had
allowed himself to indulge in these worldly passions and feelings in the naïveté of his
youth. Through his experience as delivered in this text in particular, he compels others to
follow in his footsteps and to move beyond these sensuous indulgences and to direct ones
life to the greater love and goodness that comes from a deep and real relationship with
God. Though his intentions are noble and intended to aid others in their quest for
religiosity, he ultimately ascribes too many limitations on humanity to allow for one to
lead a completely contented life within the confines that he has laid out.