An Augustinian Prescription for the Western World

News: Commentary
by Joseph Enders  •  •  September 21, 2020   

How St. Augustine can heal our social woe

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Is the Western world suffering from sickness? Saint Augustine would certainly say so. The symptoms of his diagnosis would include the worship of false gods, a loss of virtue and improper valuation of temporal goods.

St. Augustine

The prognosis of these symptoms? The inevitable death of Western civilization. Thankfully, our saintly friend provides future generations some useful prescriptions, including repentance, grace and a focus on the highest goods. Saint Augustine left the West powerful medicine to cure ailing social orders and a blueprint to build a City of God, lest it waste away in the quicksand that is a City of the World.

To begin, it is crucial we understand what state the West is currently in and what brought it to this state.

First is the worship of false gods and idols. In the City of God, Augustine writes about how Rome fell, placing blame on the common practice of idolatry. Augustine knew the Roman gods were evil and deceitful beings that led Rome down a path toward degeneracy and evil. Idolatry is commonly misunderstood as worshiping a statue — something the average Westerner is obviously not partaking in.

However, idolatry is defined by Merriam Webster as, "immoderate attachment or devotion to something." In the secular humanistic world, we turn our idolatry toward humanity, government and wealth. Augustine would attribute this as a symptom of living in the City of the World.

If worshiping false gods leads to evil, the evils then create a deficiency of virtue. This dives deeper into the loss of Rome's greatness. The moral lapses in the Roman Empire were all too illustrious in Augustine's testimony of society.

In Book VI of The Confessions, he writes of the barbarity in Roman civilization — so bad that even Augustine's friend Alypius fell victim to it, suffering from a bloodlust. He was addicted to violence, attending gladiator bouts, often fought to the death, sitting in front so he could get blood splattered on him.

This new age of sexual revolution brought about the most abhorrent stain on the legacy of the West since chattel slavery — the willful and legal termination of unborn children.

In the West, you can see mankind turning to similar passions, sitting behind our screens reveling in the blood and gore in video games and movies. Though not quite as barbaric as actually killing people, the perceptual effects are the same, curbing a bloodlust.

Rome also loved its mindless orgies, which included premarital, homosexual and adulterous sex. In the West, the sexual revolution brought a radical change to our own views on sex. Our sexual discipline is subpar in even the best of situations. Pornography is readily available for free on any cell phone internet browser. Homosexuality is normalized to a point where 23% of the entire Generation Z identifies as LGBTQ according to GLAAD's third annual "Accelerating Acceptance" report.

Casual premarital sex is literally the new norm with online hookup apps like Bumble, Grindr and Tinder. This new age of sexual revolution brought about the most abhorrent stain on the legacy of the West since chattel slavery — the willful and legal termination of unborn children.

Support for these societally degenerative practices derives from people's addiction to sex. Abortion is simply the means to an end — that end being sex minus consequence. The West's current sexual immorality (defended to the point of justifying murder) and its thirst for blood would certainly lead St. Augustine to believe Western culture is embracing with open arms the City of the World — perhaps even perversely sleeping with it.

Augustine attributes these moral/societal lapses in judgment to the disorder of the soul. The highest goods, according to Augustine, are God and virtues like faith, hope and charity. The intermediate goods he calls the powers of the soul — including concepts like mind, love, wisdom and knowledge.

The lowest goods consist of material beauties and bodily satisfactions like the Grand Canyon, a Monet painting, eating a delicious pizza, sex with your spouse, and really anything aesthetically pleasing or pleasurable. The disorder of these goods is most commonly derived from our elevation of the lowest goods and willful ignorance of, or overt disobedience of, the need to focus our wills on the highest goods.

The prognosis of this worldly city is its inevitable destruction.

We often find ourselves placing personal pleasure over what is right (especially in the Western world). Augustine would describe this as an unreasonable elevation of worldly good. In consumerist cultures, like the West, man suffers from an addiction to material wealth. Protestant Christians tend to refer to their calling as their occupation.

Sex is another overvalued temporal good — one most men and women in the West overvalue. Premarital sex has become so normalized that the chaste, unmarried Westerner has become a rare reception, which would undoubtedly lead St. Augustine to view the West largely as a collective disordered soul focused more on temporal goods than the highest goods.

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The prognosis of this worldly city is its inevitable destruction — all brought on by the wrath of God toward the sins of an evil civilization. However, until this day comes, there remains hope.

Prescription: Reordering the Soul

Saint Augustine provides prescriptions for how the City of the World can work to emulate, or even build, the City of God. The first is repentance. This is the overarching theme of his Confessions. It's immediately recognizable that the entire book is a prayer in which St. Augustine is confessing to God his shortcomings and seeking his absolution. For Catholics, this is an obvious first step in repairing the West's ailing spirit, both individually and societally.

A contrite confession allows for Jesus Christ, through the priest, to absolve you of wrongdoing and endow you with His sanctifying grace to assist in the reordering of your soul.

Saint Augustine's second prescription will never come from us. He argues grace must come from God. It is not earned, deserved or natural. Grace is a gift from God to creation. When a person's soul is in a state of disorder, grace is the only way it can be reordered. Attending the sacrament of reconciliation and receiving absolution through the Catholic Church is one way the faithful receive grace.

A contrite confession allows for Jesus Christ, through the priest, to absolve you of wrongdoing and endow you with His sanctifying grace to assist in the reordering of your soul. Saint Augustine was the bishop of Hippo and a priest before that. He was all too familiar with hearing confessions, as well as giving absolution. This means we can reasonably infer St. Augustine would view seeking grace through absolution as one prescription for those in the City of the World.

Confession conveys divine grace

The soul is organized in a hierarchy of goods. Saint Augustine, in On Free Choice of the Will and The Confessions, argues that anything God created is good and therefore attributes to God the turning of our wills to Christ and His sacrifice.

The fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is directly linked to our wills turning in the opposite direction, begetting our inherently sinful nature. At the beginning of Book 1 of The Confessions, St. Augustine talks about the selfish nature of infants and how naturally it will cry out whenever his servants (parents) don't provide him/her with what he/she needs. Augustine refers to this inherently sinful nature as Original Sin.

No human being, born after Christ's death, is without a disordered soul. The only way to forgive Original Sin is through the grace of baptism. This grace allows the soul to recognize the hierarchy of goods and lets the soul become divinely illuminated, meaning you are equipped to understand and focus on God, virtue, powers of the soul, material beauty and bodily pleasure — in that order. This is why Augustine would view the reordering of the soul as a prescription to a person living in the City of the World.

Note that the prescription to creating a City of God is largely found within our soul. They are not societal or macro-solutions like politicians or bishops or the pontificate. Saint Augustine is no utopian; he acknowledges the unlikelihood — even the impossibility — of the City of God existing before the second coming of Christ, as it would require all men and women to turn away from their pagan traditions, passions and vices (something humanity has a 100% failing record in doing).

Baptism erases Original Sin

Rubric for Healing, Conversion

But, what Augustine did provide was a rubric to deal with individuals' suffering from the passions Roman society forced upon them. He acknowledged that having a social order that encourages its members to have properly ordered souls is beneficial, but due to our nature, he also notes it can lead to great abuses.

Looking on to the West, we must view ourselves in this same framework. How do we medicate the West's social disease? Saint Augustine's answer is to look within. Look into the soul. Focus first on God and virtue. In doing so, you will see a reversion to the greatness the West once knew, and the conversion of souls to Holy Mother Church.

There is a common saying in a Christian hymn written in 1968 by then-Catholic priest Peter Scholtes where he proclaims, "They'll know we are Christians by our love." The direction St. Augustine is leading us in On Free Choice of the Will would suggest this, because God is good. Everything created by God is good. God created the will. Therefore the will is good, even if we misuse it. The form of the will is good. On that basis, using our will to love others as Christ loved us would be a reasonable progression.

This is why St. Augustine would argue the Western world is in dire need of a return to God and virtue. The West's current state is disordered and on a path to destruction. But through prayer, the sacraments and willful transformation, there is still hope if Westerners start taking their Augustinian prescriptions. If we do, we may very well find ourselves building a City of God.

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