David Brooks, Augustine, and Expulsive Pleasures

I certainly expected to find flashes of insight from New York Times columnist David Brooks in his new book The Road to Character (Random House). I didn’t expect to find Christian Hedonism.

Late in the book Brooks recounts Augustine’s conversion, a conversion postponed by a desire to cling tightly to worldly pleasures.

Brooks tells the story:

In the Confessions, Augustine paints the scene when the delay finally ended. He was sitting in a garden talking with a friend, Alypius, who told him some stories about monks in Egypt who gave up everything to serve God. Augustine was amazed. The people who were not part of the elite educational system were out doing amazing things while the graduates of that system lived for themselves. “What ails us?” Augustine cried. “The unlearned start up and take heaven by force and we, with this our learning, but without heart, wallow in flesh and blood.”

In this fever of doubt and self-reproach, Augustine stood up and strode away while Alypius gazed on in stunned silence. Augustine began pacing around the garden, and Alypius got up and followed him. Augustine felt his bones crying out to end this self-divided life, to stop turning and tossing this way and that. He tore at his hair, beat his forehead, locked his fingers and hunched over, clasping his knee. It seemed as if God was beating on his insides, inflicting a “severe mercy,” redoubling the lashes of fear and shame that afflicted him. “Be it done now, be it done now,” he cried to himself.

But his worldly desires would not give up so easily. Thoughts jumped into his head. It was as if they were plucking at his garments. “Are you going to cast us off? You’ll never experience our pleasures ever again?” Augustine hesitated, wondering, “Do I really think I can live without these pleasures?”

Then there appeared in his mind a thought, the ideal of dignified chastity and self-control. In the Confessions, he dresses up this thought in metaphorical terms, as a vision of a woman, Lady Continence. He does not describe her as an ascetic, puritanical goddess. On the contrary, she is an earthy, fecund woman. She’s not renouncing joy and sensuality; she’s offering better versions. . . .

Augustine cast himself down under a fig tree, giving way to his tears. Then he heard a voice, which sounded like the voice of a boy or a girl from another house neighboring the garden. It said, “Take up and read. Take up and read.” Augustine felt a sense of immediate resolve. He opened up a nearby Bible and read the first passage on which his eyes fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye in the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence.”

Augustine had no need to read any further. He felt a light flooding his heart and erasing every shadow. He felt a sudden turning of his will, a sudden desire to renounce worldly, finite pleasures and to live for Christ.

In beautiful summary, Brooks writes:

Augustine says no to one set of desires and pleasures and rises to a higher set of joys and pleasures. (202–203)

This is the expulsive power of a new affection. This is Christian Hedonism. This is the beauty of Christ overpowering our sinful addictions to the fleeting pleasures of the world. This, as Brooks seems to know, is where character is born.

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