What We Do at the Ends of Things

The Saint Augustine Taken to School by Saint Monica.
Image: Nicolo di Pietro, The Saint Augustine Taken to School by Saint Monica, c.1413-15. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Michael D. Barbezat (The University of Western Australia)

I, like a lot of people, have been thinking lately a great deal about endings: the curtain falling upon the American moral leadership of the West, the possible transformation of democracy into totalitarianism, the passing away of our familiar global climates, the termination of economic mobility (and all the familiar patterns of acquisition and enjoyment based upon it) for entire present and future generations, and the destruction of fundamental values and institutions of education which were until relatively recently regarded as cornerstones of our civilization, to name only a few. Despondency, apocalyptic despondency to be precise, is the term often applied to the emotional experience of this kind of thinking about endings, and it is almost a defining feature at the present moment of many of our actual and virtual communities, like the faculty tea room or Facebook.

I kept finding my mind returning to these worries about endings while I prepared to teach Augustine’s Confessions this semester. Augustine lived his life in an age of endings. Born in North Africa (part of modern Tunisia) in 354, he was trained to pursue a career in the schools and bureaucracy of the late Western Roman Empire. In his lifetime, most of the institutions and rhythms of life (some that endured for centuries) that defined the empire came to an end. In the Confessions, when Augustine describes his youth and his early efforts to find a fit in his world, he explains that he kept finding that his culture was somehow sick, spinning down in ways he struggled to understand and to describe. In response to this sense of wrongness, he departed from his earlier course, converted to Christianity and later became one of the most influential theologians and intellectuals ever to live. He died in 430 while his city was under siege during the Vandals’ conquest of North Africa, and the world he had known was itself in its death throes.

We teach students about this long-dead African for many reasons. His theological work continues to shape the religious lives of many millions, if not billions, of people – Catholic and protestant – to this day. For the Middle Ages, he was a towering father figure. As antiquity ended, what he wrote and what he imagined gave form to what followed. Intellectuals interpreted and reinterpreted what he had said in commentary after commentary, and they viewed their own experiences through his theories of the mind, of vision, of emotion and of grace.

So it is that in my own deep fear of endings I continued to find his voice portentous. Some time ago, I introduced Augustine of Hippo to a class of undergraduates with words something like these:

This was a man who had one of the best educations money could buy to set him up for success in the world into which he was born. By his death, the entire intellectual, political, and economic world he had been trained to navigate had passed away and changed into something else. He did what he could to make sense of this change and influence what came next.

Unanimously, the entire class interjected that the situation I outlined seemed to them familiar. They saw that the Bishop of Hippo confronted and tried to address questions like those they faced in the current world. As I re-read the Confessions for a new course this semester, I came up with a new version of such a question: what do we do within the world and within ourselves at the ends of things?

The answers I imagined Augustine would offer to this question were seductive, because they offered a way to think through the experience of a cacophony of endings and a way to respond to the apocalyptic despondency slowly creeping upon my world and its institutions. While his answers cannot be identical to mine (if I ever have them), he faced an ending world and gave answers to my questions that can help us even if they alone cannot save us. He argued that one should find a neglected truth, somehow both inside and outside the self, that does not change. In the light of this thing once found, the world that passes away is not the most important thing. For Augustine, the important thing was an immutable God, who did not succumb to chaos and in whom a stable love and motivation for human action in the present world could be located.

For Augustine, placing value upon changeable things was the errand of a fool. A person who wanted wealth and success in this world, he said, would be dominated by fears and anxieties that would never end. Lovers of the changing world would either fear never possessing what they wanted or losing possession of what they desired even if they attained it. There was no rest and certitude in such desiring or troubled possession. Indeed, by his death, the very world order that he critiqued had largely itself passed away. Looking at the troubled, and often short, lives of the late Western Roman emperors, there was little joy in their type of possession. With this and similar arguments, Augustine suggested that the basic values of his late Roman world had played themselves out to a point were they could be critically understood and rethought in fundamental ways.

I do not want to push my students to process their current experience of our many (actual and potential) endings through a religiously shaped otherworldliness (although I would not be bothered if they did); instead, I hope to help them critically understand and rethink a wobbling world, because this is what needs to be done. In such a necessity lies the trouble that kept leaping into my mind as I re-read the Confessions: what is the shape in which I can rethink the world and my role in it?

The current despondency to which we must help our students (and ourselves) respond echoes the despondency Augustine observed in his world: the endless fear of either always wanting or always fearing losing. Take, for example, the recent book by Wolfgang Streek, the emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute, How Will Capitalism End?. It has as its thesis that the economic model of the current Western World will murder itself. This end will come despite the fact that there is nothing else to take capitalism’s place. The crisis for Streek is that we simply do not know what we are going to do or what is going to happen at the end.

In my attempts to find an answer, I fall back to the idea of history and the duty of historians, trying to argue with myself that even when endings are a thing of terror they are nonetheless a familiar presence. History (even the history of ‘irrelevant’ subjects and far-removed places) has a role to play in dealing with the convulsions of the present because it lends itself to the creation of perspective, and it does so through critical and analytical confrontations with the ends of things. An historical narrative takes parts and explains how they can be made to fit into a whole, and endings are the stuff with which historians work. In fact, the experience of life is a continued sequence of endings. In the memory, these many ended things come together, as Augustine explained:

Not all the parts exist at once, but some must come as others go, and in this way together they make up the whole of which they are the parts.

I hope that in a future time there will be people with memories to take the parts before us now and fit them into wholes.

Michael D. Barbezat is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800), based at The University of Western Australia. He holds an MA in medieval history from the University of California at Davis and a PhD from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Michael’s research broadly interrogates the uses of theology, and particularly eschatology, in medieval notions of community and the logic of persecution. His current project, ‘Burning Bodies Community, Eschatology, and Identity in the Middle Ages’, explores the role played by ideas of punishment in Hell and Purgatory in medieval ideas of community identity and the response to deviance and difference in the context of this identity.

4 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this post. I am not a medieval scholar but a historical sociologist of a sociological historian (not sure which) of modern empire and contemporary inequalities. I found your reflection on reading and teaching Augustine moving, rich in thinking material and strangely giving of hope for me personally, as an educator who worries about the future her students are going into and how inadequately she prepares them, and as a historian troubling the present.
    Jane Haggis, Flinders University.

  2. You are kidding? The US has never had moral leadership of itself, let alone the West. It has been a politically corrupt, the most politically corrupt Western nation, and a warmonger since it came into existence.

    The British certainly for a time offered some moral leadership but the US, never. Donald Trump simply reflects a backward and corrupt political system and he represents a lot of American culture.

    Only Americans believe the delusional fantasy that their nation has been some sort of leader because they are brainwashed into believing in American exceptionalism. The rest of the world quietly smiles at the naievete of Americans sourced in deep ignorance about the outside world. But fantasies require such ignorance, and that no doubt is why it persists.

    I would simply point out, that whatever mess the United States is in, and it does offer the lowest quality of life on average of any developed nation and has for a long time, if not always, it doesn’t represent the world or the developed world and the other developed nations are doing much better, despite the shared problems of the modern age.

    American problems are American problems and the fact that most developed nations do not have American political or social systems is a sure indicator that thankfully, the Americans have never been leading the way.

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