Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part IV

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome; Wikipedia, public domain

Continued from part III, and repeating the last couple of sections of that article:

Clearly, Augustine is not dismissing the active life (though he has also not yet fully defined it). He is pointing, in fact, to a sanctifying function in that life.

In a similar text, with a less absolute division between the two lives, Augustine says the following (I give it in two translations – the first from the Cuthbert Butler book cited above, and the second, again, from an online NPNF version):

“Two virtues are set before the soul of man, the one active, the other contemplative; the one whereby we journey, the other whereby we reach our journey’s end; the one whereby we toil that our heart may be cleansed for the vision of God, the other whereby we repose and see God; the one lies in the precepts for carrying on this temporal life, the other in the doctrine of that life which is eternal. Hence it is that the one toils, and the other reposes; for the former is in the purgation of sins, the latter in the light [or illumination] of the purgation effected. Hence it is that, in this mortal life, the former consists in the work of leading a good life, the latter more in faith, and with some few, through a mirror in enigma and in part, in some vision of unchangeable Truth. These two virtues are seen figured in the two wives of Jacob. . . . the three first evangelists, who principally record the words and deeds of our Lord for the right conduct of the present life, are chiefly concerned [230] with active virtue; but John is chiefly concerned in commending contemplative virtue.”[i]

Then we find in Augustine a view we might almost describe as “pragmatic” – that the active life is simply necessary to us, as beings of the sort we are, and though we might desire to fly directly to the contemplative life, we cannot do so – and that’s not entirely a bad thing. We’ll take it piece by piece, reflecting on each as we go:

“No one in the works of justice loves the actual toil of the things done and suffered; no one seeks the active life for its own sake: it is undertaken and endured as the means of [231] attaining to contemplation.”

Feel free to add your own comments here on how medieval life was “nasty, brutish, and short”! There’s no view of vocation here, in any case, that says, “follow your heart/passion, find your “fit,” and enjoy fulfilment forever after” – that comes much later, in our modern era.

“For everyone would wish, were it possible, without undergoing the labour that has to be embraced in the active life, to arrive straightway at the delights of contemplation. But this is not possible in this world, where the labour of working the works of righteousness precedes the pleasure of contemplating truth . . .”

One might think of this as a works-righteousness, but that’s not what Augustine is teaching here – certainly he teaches strenuously against that in many other places in his work. Rather, as a rhetorician addressing how people in the Roman Empire actually lived, we may hear him here pushing back against the elite philosophical view that we should have the slaves do all the work so we can do the “highest” thing a “free man” can do, which is to spend all our time in contemplation.

“To see the Beginning is what every rational mind that desires the truth chiefly longs for [think of Plato]. But this longing should make it not refuse but endure the active life, without which there is no coming to that which is so ardently loved. But when this latter is attained to, then will be united in this world the beauty of contemplation and the labours of righteousness.”

Notice the phrasing here “when this latter is attained to.” There is an implication here, spelled out more fully in other Augustinian passages, that that attainment as at least partially available in this life.

“However keenly and clearly unchangeable truth is seen by mortal man, the corruptible body weighs down the soul. Therefore must we tend to the One, but for its sake bear the Many. So the one life is loved, the other endured.”

So here we have an “all labor is toil” theory – in which there seems no danger, at any rate, of loving the active life too much! That particular fear of the early desert monastics, and some later monastics, seems to be not in play here in Augustine’s thinking.

“But the one which is endured is more abundantly fertile, so that it becomes beloved, if not for its own sake, at any rate for its offspring. For the labour of the just bears great fruit in those they beget for the Kingdom of God by preaching the Gospel.”

And here, in the definition of “offspring,” we have the apparent relation, if not exclusive identification, of the active life with the duty of preaching. This was also to be found frequently in our next figure, Gregory the Great.

“But the life given up to the pursuit of contemplation desires to be free from all business, and therefore is sterile. For by striving after leisure, whereby the pursuit of contemplation is enkindled, it is not brought into touch with men’s infirmities, who desire to be helped in their needs.

Two things here: first, the association of the pursuit of contemplation with leisure certainly follows the elite classical philosophical model – and here that is being critiqued by Augustine, at least implicitly. Second, the association of the active life with “helping people I their needs” seems adaptable to a broader, faith-and-work understanding of that life (not just the life of the preacher).

“But the contemplative life also is aflame with the love of generating, for it desires to teach what it knows. Mankind have more appreciation for the active life, whereby their infirmities and necessities are cared for, than for the contemplative, from which what is divine and unchangeable is learned.”

Here one wonders whether there is a danger of loving the active life too much? Then Augustine continues and concludes the passage in a vein that makes it clear, again, that he is talking to clergy in particular:

“But those who spend their life in active good works, and are good pastors, will bear witness to that other life, which is at leisure for sake of the endeavor to attain to and to contemplate truth. It would not be right that the contemplative life should keep in leisure one fit and apt for the administration of ecclesiastical charges [and again], or that [232] those who are worthy of being entrusted with the government of the Church, should, through being inflamed with the desire of pursuing and contemplating wisdom, withdraw themselves wholly from the troubles attendant on action, and bury themselves in the leisure of contemplation.”

“So those who are enamoured with the contemplative life are often called upon, by the needs of the Church, to undertake the works of the active life; and thereby the contemplative life is held in greater esteem by the generality of men.” (c. Faust. xxii.52, 58).[ii]

I note that “held in greater esteem by the generality of men” seems once again to imply, strongly, that few people in Augustine’s day would willingly throw over the contemplative for the active life, out of desire for the latter.

Note that this was written around 400 a.d., in his mid-40s, which is fairly early for his writings (he lived to 430), and may have been in his “anti-Manichaean phase,” when he tended to emphasize human freedom over against Manichaean determinism – which contrasts with his later anti-Pelagian phase, when he tended to emphasize God’s irresistible, efficacious grace against the corruption of the human will.

Continued in part V

[i] Augustine, De consensus Evangelistarum, or On the Harmony of the Gospels, i.8.

[ii] Contra Faustum Manichaeum, xxii.52, 58 (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean), in Butler, pp. 230-232. NPNF ser.1,4. Another English version is available online, from NPNF ser.1,4: http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0354-0430,_Augustinus,_Contra_Faustum_Manichaeum_%5BSchaff%5D,_EN.pdf.

2 responses to “Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part IV

  1. Pingback: Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part V | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part III | Grateful to the dead

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s