Notes from ‘Confessions of a sinner’ by St Augustine

“Who can recall to me the sins I commit as a baby?” (p.4) questions St Augustine. He continues “was it a sin to cry when I wanted to feed on the breast?”. These questions begin section 7 of confessions and set the tone for the whole book. These type of probing questions with a particularly Catholic flavour are expressed and reasoned through without shame. The question of innocence and of sin stalk St Augustine at every Holy turn. This autobiographical series of questions and confessions has some juicy gossip (“she was nearly two years too young for marriage, but I liked her well enough” p.53), yet overflows with rambling stream of consciousness style eruptions of loving verbiage for ‘O God my God’. It is a series of prayers admitting to the All Knowing One his past history where he found himself dominated by moods of lust or pious awe. He swung from pleasures and temptations of the flesh to the love, beauty and devotion to the Divine. What remained throughout was a sense that any act of sin was always under the shadow of God. He never faltered in his faith, but agonized over his inability to do Gods will. The result was the turmoil and agony when faced with Hellish temptations and the silence of the Lord: “I was tossed and spilled, floundering in the broiling sea of my fornication, and you said no word” (p.13).

St Augustine parades a keen understanding of the dilemma of sin and its relations to pleasure: “our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden” (p.15) and after stealing pears as a young boy he notes “If any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavour” (p.16). On the whole, it seems an excellent guide to the long road to achieving what Lacan would call feminine ‘jouissance’. From the tentative beginnings of minor transgressions, always under the paranoid thoughts of a vengeful and almighty God, St Augustine eventually learns that “no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthy light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even mention, besides the happiness of the life of the saints” (p.79). This supplementary jouissance is attained by looking towards the Other (in this instance, the Almighty as source of pleasure) and not phallic jouissance, the prohibitive ‘No’ of the father, in this instance, God. In part 11, he makes note that as his father was not a believer, his mother “did all that she could to see that you, my God, should be a Father to me rather than he” (p.7). St Augustine learns that the seeking of pleasure always within the shadow of prohibition is only a stealing of jouissance that affords a pittance of pleasure: his stealing of pears as a young man represents his seeking of pleasure through the transgression of the phallic lack and  restriction, which later he would recognize as inferior to feminine religious jouissance. St Augustine was always aware of the dangers of pride and the quest for the selfless will of God, which is why he was able to archive the desubjectified ecstasy that only comes from the complete reconciliation with the object cause of desire, ‘object a’. At this point, jouissance is obtained not through the attempt to achieve non-castrated phallic jouissance, but through the staging of St Augustine’s appropriation of the will of God. This is staged in the gaze of the Other. As Lacan says “desire is the desire of the Other”, thus St Augustine learnt to be true to his desire, which was to fulfil the will of the Other, God.

This philosophical meditation on belief is revealing. It shows how the religious mind solidifies its belief even in the face of the impossibility of knowing God through reason. St Augustine notes “we are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone” and that no reading of any philosophical proposition dissuaded him from his belief in “your existence and in your right to govern human affairs” (p.51). This reminds me of my reading of Quentin Meillassoux, whose book After Finitude, tells us that “even after successfully critiquing meta-physico religiosity, this does not disprove God but only a type of God which appeals to natural reason to declare the superiority of its own beliefs. To remove proof of the ’supreme’ supported by reason reverses the process of the destruction of polytheistic religion suffered at the hands of monotheistic religious reason (p.45). What does this produce? Fundamentalist fideism: a defence of religiosity in general which promotes the superiority of piety over thought, thus removing reason from any ground to a belief in God or gods. The result is a religionizing of reason: beliefs are legitimate as nothing but beliefs, not as reasonable beliefs (p.47)” [this is a block quote from my notes]. It looks as if the battle for man’s soul, if it is to be won by the atheistic philosophers, they will need to come to terms with the structures of desire and the jouissance generated by the belief in the divine and to overcome regimes of signs that perpetuate the Other’s jouissance through religious piety.

Next week, I will read and review Charles Darwin’s ‘On Natural Selection’

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