Thursday, October 13, 2005

The beautiful externals

I wonder: Do students read Augustine's Confessions anymore? The book was assigned reading for me as a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame in 1956. Not an easy read, as I recall, but something of a revelation. Here was one of the great fathers of the Church, sainted no less, spilling the beans about his youth. Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, so to speak. A guy just like the rest of us, horny and ambitious. Then, the dramatic conversion. Lifted out of the world of concupiscence and dross matter into an eager anticipation of the Beatific Vision. Saved from what he called the "beautiful externals."

The book -- in my case, at least -- had the desired effect: a binge of inward-turning, otherworldly renunciation. To the curse of sexual lust Augustine added "a cupidity which takes delight in perceptions acquired through the senses...a vain inquisitiveness called knowledge and science." Beware, he cautioned, of "what is agreeable to look at, to hear, to smell, to taste, to touch." Even the beauty of the stars became for Augustine a distraction from the Divine.

I started down that road, but not so far that my steps were irreversible. I suppose the stars are what saved me, restored my good Pelagian regard for nature, brought me back to that down-to-earth thing which now seems most to be cherished: human curiosity, the desire to know. Not sacred knowledge, not the cabala, not the rites and mysteries of initiates, but the kind of reliable public knowledge that comes through -- yes -- sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. That "vain inquisitiveness" called science.