Tuesday, April 2, 2013

In Defense of Augustinian Pessimism

In general, I think the TV sitcom is a fairly stupid form of entertainment.  In 22 minutes, there’s some silly conflict, a happy resolution of the conflict, and the amazing advancement in insight and moral behavior that inevitably occurs at the end of each episode. 

The one exception I make to my sitcom antipathy is that old standby of 1990’s comedy—Seinfeld.  What is it that sets this show apart from more banal sitcoms, you may be wondering?  Well, the creators of Seinfeld—Jerry Seinfeld himself and Larry David—were keen philosophers of human nature.  They understood that, for the most part, our characters are fixed, that human beings keep making the same mistakes all the time, and that true personal growth and transformation rarely, if ever, occurs in the real world.  “No hugging, no learning,” was Larry David’s philosophical approach to the show, and this is precisely what makes it so profound.  In the last episode of the series, the four main characters actually wind up in prison, and they still learn nothing from their experiences.  We are almost guaranteed that when they finish serving their prison terms, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer will immediately return to the cynical narcissistic behavior that got them into so much trouble in the first place.
I have no doubt that, if St. Augustine were living in the 1990s, he would have appreciated the wisdom of Seinfeld too.  You see, Augustine was convinced that the effects of original sin and the force of vicious habits over long periods of time created a situation in which men and women may know what the right way to behave is, but they wind up time and again doing what is wrong anyway.   For example, a college sophomore who is on a very tight budget because of school expenses, knows damn well that she shouldn’t spend the little money she has buying a new pair of stylish leather boots, especially since she already has five pairs of boots in her closet already.  She goes to the mall with her friends determined only to look, but years of rampant consumerism and the rush she gets from buying new things undermine her fragile resolve.  By the time she leaves the mall, she has spent $200 on a new pair of boots that she didn’t actually need, and now is wondering whether she is going to find the funds to pay for gas to get to school.
In real life, this happens all the time: we resolve to begin eating better, but can’t resist the urge to wolf down Big Macs three or four times a week; we know we should not drink to excess, but wind up binge drinking almost every weekend; we promise ourselves that we will be kinder to our parents, but always seem to get into fights with them over the silliest things.
Augustine saw nothing strange in this pattern of behavior.  He was convinced that human nature was so corrupted that one could know darn well what the right thing to do is, but feel compelled to do what is wrong anyway.  His favorite quote was from Ovid:  “Video meliora proboque deteriora sequor.” (I see the better way and approve it, but I follow the worse way.)
What’s so radical about Augustine’s approach to human behavior is that it represents a complete and total break from the classical tradition of which he’s technically a part.  The adherents of all of the great schools of antiquity—the Neo-Platonists, the Peripathetics, the Academics, the Cynics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics—basically accepted the principle that, if a person knew what was right and desired to do what was right, right moral behavior was virtually guaranteed.   But Augustine clearly understood that this was an overly simplistic way of understanding human nature.  He knew this because in his own life he had troubles committing to do the good that he desired to do (“Lord, make me chaste and continent, but not yet”) and because, as a priest and bishop he encountered individuals who were sincere in their desires to live out the Christian faith, but who fell back into sin time and again.
And this is what makes Augustine seem so modern and relevant in the 21st century compared to his more idealistic counterparts in antiquity.  We understand today just how nearly impossible it is to overcome addictions.  We also have a much greater understanding today of those factors—environmental, psychological, and genetic—that often interfere with the free exercise of the will.
In this sense, I consider Augustine to be the first modern thinker in the West.  His understanding of human nature may indeed be pessimistic, but it’s also extremely realistic.  If you don’t believe me, just try this simple exercise:  commit yourself for one whole week not to lie or gossip for any reason.  See how long you succeed in carrying out this intention.
At the end of the exercise, you too may find yourself beginning to question just how free you are to do the good you desire.  And that’s exactly the sort of humility that Augustine claims is needed, if we are ever to begin to look outside of ourselves for a solution to our human problems. 

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