Beauty ever Ancient ever New

Those who don’t read St Augustine (whose feast is today) tend to associate him with one thing, and one thing only: his views on sexuality and sin. The more learned may concede that his defence of original sin and his (to us) skewed view of sexual desire had much to do with his battle with Julian of Eclanum, a Pelagian bishop largely forgotten today; but for most people Augustine remains someone who was hostile to pleasure and severe, not to say completely cranky, about sex.

It is not my intention to defend Augustine against his critics, but there is one aspect of his teaching, often overlooked, which to me speaks volumes about the man: his conception of beauty. Augustine was heavily influenced by the neoplatonists, especially Plotinus, and made a sharp distinction between the creation of God (ex nihilo) and the creation of artists (ex materia). God’s beauty emanates out to natural things through his creation, which was originally without any beauty (cf Confessions, 12.3).  The earth occupies the lowest form of beauty. Things become more beautiful as they possess more form; God is supremely beautiful because only God possesses perfect form. And from this supremely beautiful God we derive rhythm, which is so important to mathematics, music and poetry. (cf De Musica) The wonderful thing about this rhythm, which is eternal and immutable, is that it can only be discovered by human beings, never invented.

For Augustine, unity is a necessary element of beauty. Hence, the Church is beautiful because she is united. Equality (or likeness) is another necessary element; and the Church is beautiful because she mirrors her Spouse. Number, proportion and order are also elements of this beauty (cf Of True Religion), for he maintains that ‘in all the arts it is symmetry [proportion] that gives pleasure, preserving unity and making the whole beautiful’ and ‘everything is beautiful that is in due order.’

Where beauty is concerned, I think I am an unregenerate Augustinian and I’m grateful to him for helping me not merely to experience beauty but to think about it and see yet more beauty. A mathematical equation, a musical phrase, a line of poetry, a brushstroke, a fold of the hills: all can speak to us of the beauty of God. But perhaps most eloquent of all is the human person — and, paradoxically, it is Augustine, the north African saint allegedly responsible for all our current anxieties about sex and marriage, who helped us see that.

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6 thoughts on “Beauty ever Ancient ever New”

  1. I had to deal with some Augustine during a Uni short course a year or so ago. His was a philosopher as well as a theologian and he seemed to draw on the ancients in his writings.

    To be honest, I’ve not paid a lot of attention to his views on sex or sexuality, but have appreciated the depth of his writing on so many other aspects of God, the Church and life.

    I appreciate your explanation of his idea of beauty, and the separation between what God created and creates, and artistic beauty coming from man – although I’ve been tempted to see God’s giving those artistic people the talent as a gift.

    The idea of Church as beauty because of it’s unity seems unfortunately a little dimmed these days, but the concept is a great one. I’ve come to view the Church as a Sacrament, much as the Eucharist and others Sacraments are outward signs of God’s grace – surely the Church as the body of Christ can be considered the same?

    Like all of the Sacraments, its needs to be received in good spiritual health, being reconciled to God and with love and respect for all of it’s constituent parts. Perhaps this might lead to a new unity of purpose and people to restore the diminished beauty of the church in unity.

    • St. Augustine also said “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” His insertion of the word “but” leaves me to believe we should disregard everything prior to it in that sentence as being a somewhat dishonest plea. He had a common-law wife and at least one child with her, so was a family man.

      I was thinking the same as you were, that Church unity is (greatly) dimmed since the Reformation, and note you make mention of the Eucharist and other Sacraments – but in the C of E as in other Protestant denominations are there not only two Sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist? The rest seen as services only? These are sticking points in discussions with our Protestant family members and no doubt have been since the schism.

      The reunification of the Church is a great concept, but how do we get back to that state, the Church as St. Augustine knew it? Particularly when ecumenism means different things to different groups? As Catholics, my husband and I say give us ecumenism, but not without our seven sacraments, the allegiance to the chair of Peter, etc.

  2. Thank you for giving the reference to Confessions 12.3. Often on blogs I find people do not give a reference… May I add that Confessions 10.27 is the source of of your headline? Then I hope I am not too arrogant in hoping that Augustine may give me a few minutes in the New Creation (OK, there may not be minutes in eternity :)) so that I can stop by and tell him the debt of love and gratitude I feel I owe him.
    I was helped by Peter Brown’s biography. So helpful for someone whose Latin is abysmal (polite speak for non-existent).

  3. Thank you for reminding us why Augustine is still very much worth reading! Another part of that section of the Confessions that always grips me is his awareness that ‘you were with me … you were within’. For all his ‘misshapenness’, he knew himself to have been created by that Light. I don’t see in Augustine the ‘utter depravity’ his later commentators found.

  4. was interested in reading the above, then a bit perturbed about the idea of ‘getting back’ the united church. My own ‘uninformed’ view is that the church has become disunited because of mans interference (- yet again man has spoilt the beauty of Gods creation!). Surely the question should be how do we move on from where we are the create a better united church, regardless of schisms etc?

    • We can be perturbed, perplexed, whatever – but it was Jesus Himself who called us to be one body, and He who prayed that we might all be one in Him. You rephrased my question in asking how do we move forward? What will this unified church look like? I doubt I will see it in my lifetime but pray we can once again become obedient to Jesus’ directive.

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