Thursday, December 06, 2007

Augustine: "the lust of the eyes"

(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I quoted a passage from Hans Blumenberg's Legitimacy of the Modern Age on book 10, chapter 35 of Augustine's Confessions. Let's take a look at some 'curious' reasoning that Augustine has to say there.

Chapter 35 of book 10 presents Augustine's reasoning on how "the lust of the eyes" stimulates curiosity. Augustine is drawing upon 1 John 2:15-16, and I presume that he's using some edition of the Latin Vulgate:
15 nolite diligere mundum neque ea quae in mundo sunt si quis diligit mundum non est caritas Patris in eo 16 quoniam omne quod est in mundo concupiscentia carnis et concupiscentia oculorum est et superbia vitae quae non est ex Patre sed ex mundo est
Since I'm partial to the King James Version, I'll provide that one here even though it's based not on the Vulgate but on the so-called 'received text', the Greek text used by those who translated the King James Version:
15 Love not the world, neither the things [that are] in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that [is] in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
The expression "the lust of the eyes" is close enough to the Latin "concupiscentia oculorum," which is precisely what Augustine is using in book 10, chapter 35 of his Confessions, as we find in paragraph 54:
10.35.54 (commentary on 10.35.54)

huc accedit alia forma temptationis multiplicius periculosa. praeter enim concupiscentiam carnis, quae inest in delectatione omnium sensuum et voluptatum, cui servientes depereunt qui longe se faciunt a te, inest animae per eosdem sensus corporis quaedam non se oblectandi in carne, sed experiendi per carnem vana et curiosa cupiditas nomine cognitionis et scientiae palliata. quae quoniam in appetitu noscendi est, oculi autem sunt ad noscendum in sensibus principes, concupiscentia oculorum eloquio divino appellata est. ad oculos enim proprie videre pertinet, utimur autem hoc verbo etiam in ceteris sensibus, cum eos ad cognoscendum intendimus. neque enim dicimus, 'audi quid rutilet,' aut, 'olefac quam niteat,' aut, 'gusta quam splendeat,' aut, 'palpa quam fulgeat': videri enim dicuntur haec omnia. dicimus autem non solum, 'vide quid luceat,' quod soli oculi sentire possunt, sed etiam, 'vide quid sonet,' 'vide quid oleat,' 'vide quid sapiat,' 'vide quam durum sit.' ideoque generalis experientia sensuum concupiscentia (sicut dictum est) oculorum vocatur, quia videndi officium, in quo primatum oculi tenent, etiam ceteri sensus sibi de similitudine usurpant, cum aliquid cognitionis explorant.
Here's the translation provided by the Catholic Encyclopedia website:
54. In addition to this there is another form of temptation, more complex in its peril. For besides that concupiscence of the flesh which lies in the gratification of all senses and pleasures, wherein its slaves who "are far from You perish," there pertains to the soul, through the same senses of the body, a certain vain and curious longing, cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning, not of having pleasure in the flesh, but of making experiments through the flesh. This longing, since it originates in an appetite for knowledge, and the sight being the chief amongst the senses in the acquisition of knowledge, is called in divine language, "the lust of the eyes." (1 John 2:16) For seeing belongs properly to the eyes; yet we apply this word to the other senses also, when we exercise them in the search after knowledge. For we do not say, Listen how it glows, smell how it glistens, taste how it shines, or feel how it flashes, since all these are said to be seen. And yet we say not only, See how it shines, which the eyes alone can perceive; but also, See how it sounds, see how it smells, see how it tastes, see how hard it is. And thus the general experience of the senses, as was said before, is termed "the lust of the eyes," because the function of seeing, wherein the eyes hold the pre-eminence, the other senses by way of similitude take possession of, whensoever they seek out any knowledge.
Augustine rather persuasively shows the primacy of vision in our thinking by this above example, for his point is valid in both Latin and English (and doubtless other languages), for we do say "See how it sounds, see how it smells, see how it tastes, see how hard it is," all of which does tend to demonstrate the "pre-eminence" of the eyes over the other sensory organs.

Having established this primacy of vision, Augustine goes on to show how the eyes lead us astray:
55. But by this is it more clearly discerned, when pleasure and when curiosity is pursued by the senses; for pleasure follows after objects that are beautiful, melodious, fragrant, savoury, soft; but curiosity, for experiment's sake, seeks the contrary of these,—not with a view of undergoing uneasiness, but from the passion of experimenting upon and knowing them. For what pleasure is there to see, in a lacerated corpse, that which makes you shudder? And yet if it lie near, we flock thither, to be made sad, and to turn pale. Even in sleep they fear lest they should see it. Just as if when awake any one compelled them to go and see it, or any report of its beauty had attracted them! Thus also is it with the other senses, which it were tedious to pursue. From this malady of curiosity are all those strange sights exhibited in the theatre. Hence do we proceed to search out the secret powers of nature (which is beside our end), which to know profits not, and wherein men desire nothing but to know. Hence, too, with that same end of perverted knowledge we consult magical arts. Hence, again, even in religion itself, is God tempted, when signs and wonders are eagerly asked of Him,—not desired for any saving end, but to make trial only.
With this passage, Augustine establishes that our curiosity is not just content with taking pleasure simply from contemplating objects of beauty but even seeks out the contrary of these, ugly objects that ought to repel one, which thereby demonstrates the sickness of our perverse curiosity.

There's a certain plausibility to Augustine's remarks on the "malady of curiosity" -- thereby rendering understandable why he expelled those curious interests from his heart (paragraph 56) -- but he applies his critique to all of curiosity's interests, even the seemingly innocuous, as his remarks in paragraph 57 show:
How is it, when sitting at home, a lizard catching flies, or a spider entangling them as they rush into her nets, oftentimes arrests me? Is the feeling of curiosity not the same because these are such tiny creatures? From them I proceed to praise You, the wonderful Creator and Disposer of all things; but it is not this that first attracts my attention.
Augustine confesses that what first attracts his attention are not simply the wonders exhibited in nature, the contemplation of which would lead to praise for the Creator, but even nature's minor dramas, which draw the attention of his eyes and attract his morbid curiosity, making him forgetful of God, as he goes on to remark:
[W]hen this heart of ours is made the receptacle of such things, and bears crowds of this abounding vanity, then are our prayers often interrupted and disturbed thereby; and while in Your presence we direct the voice of our heart to Your ears, this so great a matter is broken off by the influx of I know not what idle thoughts.
Among these idle thoughts are those to which his curiosity directs him, especially thoughts about the world and its curiosities. The world would seem not to lend itself to being the object of investigation -- though as we have seen in yesterday's post, Augustine does allow a place for learning useful knowledge -- for it is "so vast a wilderness, replete with snares and dangers" (paragraph 56), a place of temptation like the one in which Christ was tempted.

Augustine's critique of curiosity would leave little room for an open-ended scientific investigation of nature, for nature is not clearly a reasonable place but a trap set to catch any unwary person whose attention has been drawn away from God.

If this were Christianity's last word on the subject, then we wouldn't hear any claims today that modern science rests upon Christianity's belief in a rational God who has designed nature for our contemplation.

Fortunately, Christianity has some other words, such as those we've found in the voice of Aquinas, but Augustine casts a long shadow...

Labels: , , , ,


At 2:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post, Jeff, as is this whole series. An important and fascinating topic.

I know the passages you quote and can;t help bu wonder about my contribution to consupiscentia oculorum by my posting of the fleshly orbs of Miss Veronica.

At 3:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I wondered at first who 'wild' man could be when I saw the notice in my email list that a certain Wild Bill had posted a comment. I'm glad that it was the Wildly Independent, Maverick Philosopher William J. "Bill" Vallicella.

I'm pleased that you like this curiositas series, for I was 'curious' what you think.

As for your posting of those 'fleshly orbs' of the Profane Veronica, well I think that empirical evidence should be displayed whenever possible if it can put flesh on abstract ideas and give them life.

I'll be looking into this particular topic more now that you've aroused my curiosity.

Just kidding about that last point. The profane, putative attractions of Miss Veronica miss their mark in me.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really liked this post, and I find it curious that one would critique Augustine with leaving little room for scientific investigation, since he is clearly talking about spiritual matters, and that charge could be laid against St. John himself who differentiates the world from the church, because of the love for God which overshadows the love of the things of the world, which do often distract our attention from it's origin and ultimate end. On the contrary, Augustine and others like him opened the door for intellectual activity, in the sciences and other realms of knowledge, because religion is a help and not a hinderance to scientific investigation. The first scientists were men of God, and some of the greatest scientists said that the wonder of God's creation led them to more profound contemplation of the divine. I disagree that Augustine's zeal should be interpreted as a closed-mindedness which is anything but.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But the point was that Augustine seems to have considered curiosity about the details of creation as a distraction from spiritual matters.

As for Christianity and science, that is a broader, more complex issue than Augustine's views.

Thanks for the comment.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home