Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet" (da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo).

I always thought St. Augustine was just about the epitome of sainthood. A wealthy youth, he spent days and nights in wild debauchery, carousing, drinking, wenching. He kept a concubine (with whom he was apparently deeply in love), and then 'found religion' later.

In middle age, he turned to 'faith,' and --at the behest of his mother, (St.) Monica (who was canonized mainly for having converted her son)-- became a Christian. A bishop, actually, of the North African city of Hippo. His acquaintance with the ways of the world, and his excellent education (he was regarded as the foremost rhetorician of his age) provided him with a body of experience from which he regularly disquisited, including this gem (recovered and refurbished on the Harper's blog site, on the mutuality of the relation of the state, war, and criminality:
You will not prove that humans are happy who live steadily in the midst of the disasters of war. Whether the blood shed is that of their fellow citizens or of their enemies matters not, for in any case it is human blood. The dark shadow of fear and the lust for blood has fallen over them. If they know joy, then it is but the gleaming of fragile glass which they must fear will be shattered at any second. How then can it be wise or even rational to see grounds to be boastful in the building of empires?…

If it does not do justice, what is the government but a great criminal enterprise? For what are gangs of criminals but petty little governments? The pack is a group which follows the orders of its leader according to a social compact of sorts, sharing the spoils along the rules upon which they agree. Through a process of gradual accretion, the gang may acquire bodies and territory, establish itself in some place, and soon be possessed of all the attributes of statehood—then it may be known as a state, acquiring this title not by being any less avaricious but rather by having achieved impunity. Alexander the Great’s conversation with a pirate he had captured reflects this well. The king asked what possessed him to infest the sea as he did, and the pirate replied: “No differently from you when you pursue your crimes in the world. I act with a small ship, so I am called a pirate. You command a fleet and are called emperor.”
On the same subject, he wrote: "An unjust law is no law at all."

While Augustine dying on his sick-bed, a man petitioned him that he might lay his hands upon a relative who was ill. Augustine replied that if he had any power to cure the sick, he would surely have applied it on himself first. But he finally rlented, and (as they say) "lo, the sick man went away healed." Not, unfortunately, the Saint himself, who shortly perished.

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