Why We Return to Augustine

Despite the rise of “Nones” (the non-Church-affiliated), Augustine’s Confessions tends to attract college-age readers. Christians generally turn to Augustine in troubled times, intuiting that he probably offers prophetic guidance for us somewhere in his voluminous corpus. But it isn’t just Christians who find something to connect with in the Confessions. My secular and religious students alike consistently hold up this text as one of the two most helpful texts they are assigned in a Great Books course. The other is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Why Augustine? Perhaps because Augustine invites us to wrestle with limitations and longings that modernity tends to ignore. Our greatest limitation is death, and we long for what does not die. More precisely, according to Augustine, we long to glorify what is more complete than ourselves: “[Man] is but a tiny part of all that Thou hast created. . . .yet this tiny part of all that Thou hast created desires to praise Thee.” The modern way of life aims at improving our material circumstances – the “improvement of [mankind’s] estate, and an increase of their power over nature,” as Bacon puts it in the Novum Organum.

Many of my students sense that the modern technological project is ultimately unsatisfying. Augustine gives us reason to suspect that the project has destabilized our psyches, leading us to increasingly self-destructive activity in the hope against hope that we can give ourselves a fundamentally improved tomorrow.

Elon Musk, admired by many of my secular Augustine-sympathizing students, recently described his soul as an unhappy storm. Is it likely that Musk’s efforts to relieve the human condition by radically transforming our nature will lead to happiness? Or is the manifestation of this technological restlessness a source of greater pain? It is no accident that the idols of Silicon Valley depend on psychedelic drugs. The gods are enslaved to their own creations – and to their own fantastic hopes of avoiding unhappiness by altering human consciousness.

Perhaps surprisingly, many of the “nones” in my classroom are trying to decide whether it’s religion or technology that’s really the opiate of the masses. They find it refreshing that Augustine challenges them to face the deep longings in their soul rather than feed the delusion that says the life of distraction is a good life.

One of my non-churchgoing students told me that reading Confessions made it impossible for him to be a materialist. This was not because of a distinctly apologetic argument. Rather, this student discovered in Confessions reasons for suspecting that modern science and technology are insufficient guides for how one should live.


The modern world is founded on the premise that we can find happiness without reference to a higher order and without seeking “those things which are above.” (Colossians 3:1) Hobbes and Locke – each in his own way – posit that survival accompanied by a little pleasure by day and a little pleasure by night satisfies the heart. And Montesquieu asserts that whatever satisfaction religion gives can be found just as easily in our hobbies (or in modern terms, movie streaming). According to this view, religion is nonessential.

The philosophers of modernity claim that we find personal and social peace when we subordinate our religious inclinations to private pleasure. They argue that we can comfortably ignore religion because we don’t really need anything more than material goods. We should change the subject whenever potentially uncomfortable claims about beliefs come up in conversation (don’t talk about religion at Christmas!). But this attempt to organize society solely around material prosperity fails to satisfy the human heart. Instead, it results in miserable escapism – or worse.

In Augustinian fashion, Pascal searches the modern soul and discerns that pastimes and entertainment fail to displace our longing for the eternal. As he argues, prosperity merely “diverts” us from thinking about our souls. We tell ourselves that we want a new experience or excitement because we want to enjoy it.

But the truth is that we want the novelty more than the specific thing. We can’t abide the quiet because that would force us to reckon with our unquiet souls. The longing for what lasts touches us so deeply that we require constant distraction to live without thinking about it. Even then, we cannot remove our deepest desire. We can only elevate or pervert it, either wondering about the divine or chasing a “joyless quest for joy.”

In an Easter sermon, Augustine teaches the newly baptized that Christianity is summarized by the liturgical verse, sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts!”): “That’s the whole life of real Christians, ‘Up with the heart;’ not of Christians in name only, but of Christians in reality and truth. . . .What does ‘Up with the heart’ mean? Hoping in God, not in yourself. . . .Unless he had lifted it up, we would be lying on the ground.”

Perhaps we return to Augustine because he discloses to us what we already sense is true, that life is more than the flesh. Augustine often quotes Galatians 5:17, “The flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh.” He does not understand this to mean that the body is evil, but that the life lived totally for the body is not worth living.

Augustine evangelizes and disciplines the spiritual longings that modernity belittles. He preaches that Christ gives what “the spirit of man itself does not know,” pointing to a happiness in grace that responds to (but exceeds) the longings of nature.

In this way, Augustine teaches us a mode of responding to modernity by asking questions about the best disposition of soul and body. We discover these questions by investigating ourselves, not by (vainly) trying to expand power over the cosmos. Augustine leads us to see that we can neither possess joy nor use the goods of this life well unless we move from a restlessness for temporal things to restlessness for the divine, from a life of feeding swine to a life that befits mature men and women who “seek His face evermore.”


*Image: Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1490–1494 [Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s TCT course St. Augustine’s Confessions

Aaron Urbanczyk’s St. Augustine on “Why We Read”

Michael R. Gonzalez is a Postdoctoral Research Associate with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He received his doctorate in political science from Baylor University after undergraduate studies at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.