Do you feel restless? Have you ever lied in bed at night looking up at the ceiling wondering “Is this all there is to life?” Or have you ever achieved a big goal in life only to feel let down?
Over 1500 years ago, Catholic bishop, philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo had those same feelings of angst and wrote down some insights on how to deal with them and they’re just as relevant today as they were then.
My guest today has written a book about Augustine’s ancient insights on the anxiety of modern life and how this famous Catholic theologian has had a profound impact on Western philosophy, including among 20th-century existential philosophers. His name is James K. A. Smith and his book is On the Road with Saint Augustine. We begin our show discussing Augustine’s biography and his oft-overlooked influence on atheistic existential philosophers like Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus.
We then dig into the big ideas that Augustine hit on his famous book Confessions including how to deal with existential angst, how to find your true self, what it means to be truly free in life, and how to deal with our restless ambition. Along the way, James shows how 20th-century existential philosophers dealt with these questions, why he thinks existentialism falls shorts to answering them, and why Augustine’s solutions might be better.
Lots of great insights about big life questions in this episode.
- Who was St. Augustine? Why are we still talking about him?
- Augustine’s influence on 20th century existentialist philosophers
- How did these philosophers respond to restlessness?
- Why being on the road all time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
- Mankind’s perpetual search for home
- How does Augustine deal with the tension of living life now vs. longing for the eternity to come?
- Why existentialism is both attractive and exhausting
- The utterly scandalous idea of grace (especially in the midst of our American religion of independence)
- Augustine’s take on the idea of freedom
- Agency vs. autonomy
- What does it mean to become who you are? What is authenticity?
- How people can help us find our authenticity
- Curbing the restlessness of ambition
- The restless pursuit of knowledge
- Why you should doubt your doubts
- Dealing with the anxiety of death
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with James KA Smith
- Eternity Is Now
- Hiking With Nietzsche
- An Accessible Primer on Nietzsche’s Big Ideas
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- Why The Great Gatsby Endures
- Martin Heidegger
- How to Find Your Calling In Life
- Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness
- Sources of Existential Angst
- The Myth of Sisyphus
- Parable of the Prodigal Son
- Freedom From . . . Freedom To
- 15 Best Buddy Movies
- 4 Questions That Will Crush the Fear of Missing Out
Connect With James
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Do you feel restless? You sometimes wonder who you are, what life’s all about and where you’re headed? Do you go after goals and relationships thinking that once you obtain them, you’ll finally be happy only to feel let down again and again? For over 1500 years ago, Catholic Bishop, philosopher, theologian, Augustine of Hippo had those same feelings of angst and wrote down his thoughts and how to deal with them in his famous book, The Confessions. Subsequent seekers and philosophers have been influenced by his words right up until the present day.
My guest today has written a book about Augustine’s ancient insights and the nature of restlessness and how these insights had a profound impact on Western philosophy, particularly among the existentialist of the 20th century. His name is James K. Smith. He’s a professor philosophy and theology, and his book is On the Road with Saint Augustine real-world spirituality for restless hearts. To begin our show discussing Augustine’s biography and his often-overlooked influence on existential philosophers like Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus. We then unpack how Augustine was something of an existentialist himself and yet crucially deviated from modern existentialist. And his ideas and comparing contrast his view and their viewpoints on the way in which life is a journey.
How someone could find their true self, what it means to be free, and how to deal with restless ambition. Lots of interesting insights about life’s big questions in this episode after it’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/augustine.
James K. Smith, welcome back to the show.
Jamie Smith: Oh, it’s great to be back with you.
Brett McKay: We had you on a few years ago to talk about your book about Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age and his idea of why there’s so much existential angst in modernity. You’ve got a new book out though called On the Road with Saint Augustine; a real-world spirituality for restless hearts. I feel like this is like a sequel to that. It’s like the antidote to restlessness. Before we get to Saint Augustine’s insights about how to deal with existential angst in the 21st century. Let’s find a little bit about our travel companion here. Who was Saint Augustine for those who aren’t familiar with them? Why are we still talking about him today in the 21st century?
Jamie Smith: Yeah. Augustan was an ancient thinker and theologian and Bishop who lived in the late 300 and early 400. So latter stages of the Roman Empire and very much embroiled in some of those dynamics. However, he was from North Africa. He was from what would be today contemporary Algeria. His father was Roman and Pagan. His mother was African and Christian. You could say he was familiar with a bicultural even biracial experience. At this time, North Africa was the outer edge of the Roman empire. He knows something about the experience of being on the margins, but also aspiring to be in the center. He’s probably most famous for his work “The Confessions,” which is still assigned in universities around the world and often described as one of the first memoirs of the West.
Yeah. He continues to fascinate. I was in a conversation in DC about the book a couple months ago with Elizabeth Bruenig from the Washington post. She said, “Who else from the fourth century still has haters like Augustan does”. He’s not an uncontroversial figure. But he continues to capture imagination and went on to become what we call one of the doctors of the church. Probably after Jesus and the apostle Paul, probably one of the most significant influencers of Western Christianity and yet was also read by philosophers throughout the centuries, including the 20th century in particular.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that. I mean, obviously Confessions had a profound influence on believing Christians because it’s about Augustine’s conversion. As you know and you talk about throughout this book; On the Road with Saint Augustine. Augustine had a big influence on these continental, existential often atheistic philosophers of the 20th century. We’re talking Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, who I mean … For those who are not familiar with these guys. Who were these guys in big strokes and then how did Augustine influence them?
Jamie Smith: Yeah. That’s a great question because in some ways these figures will not be familiar to folks every day today; now in the early 21st century. Yet my contention is that we have actually all drank from their wells even if we didn’t realize it because what happens in the middle of the 20th century. Germinating from Germany and France just before world war two and after World War II is this movement that came to be described as Existentialism. These philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre were influential and writers like Albert Camus and so on. What they were grappling with was what we now talk about in terms of authenticity.
There was this new sense of the burden of selfhood. There was this sense that if we were going to make meaning and find meaningful lives; we had to like answer this call and be resolute and go … We had to find ourselves would have been the language. The way it trickled down into movies and cinema and magazines and things like that. In many ways, I think in the early 21st century we are still heirs to this existential project of finding ourselves; this quest for authenticity. Yet what’s really intriguing for me as a philosopher is when you dig down below the surface. When you scratch below the surface of what Heidegger and Camus and these folks were saying. It turns out that the common influence was this fourth century African theologian named Augustine.
That they all had very, very direct encounters with Augustine’s thought. In some ways that was also precipitated by folks like Blaise Pascal and Soren Kierkegaard who also are this progenitor of this existentialist tradition that also grappled with this Augustinian inheritance. What turns out to be the case is Augustine is the first existentialist. That’s why it’s not a mistake that he writes a book like The Confessions where he’s hearing inside himself trying to figure out who he is. What he’s about and what he’s called to and what he loves. Yeah. He’s trying to find himself and it turns out that’s a very ancient quest. Yet I think it’s one that’s maybe even more ubiquitous in our late modern era.
Yeah. As you said, we’ve drunk from this. We’re permeated in this existential philosophy. If you’ve ever seen an Instagram meme about making your own meaning, finding your true values, finding your true North; those are the existentialists right there.
Yeah. Yeah. That’s the everyday translation of this existentialist impulse to find oneself to become who you were called to be.
Brett McKay: Augustine, I’ve always called him Augustine but I guess its Augustine.
Jamie Smith: It goes either way. I don’t judge.
Brett McKay: Okay. No. It’s okay. You can judge here. Augustine, I’m going to call him Augustine. In his confessions, he refers to life as a journey on a road. That’s another modern thing we do. Life’s a journey on. You got to hit the road. There’s road movies, we can talk about that. As Augustine points out in the book and you point out being on the road all the time can beat you down. It makes you feel restless and you say being on the road and the thinking of life is a journey on a road. It makes us feel restless in two ways. What are those ways?
Jamie Smith: Yeah. I think you’re right that this is another way in which we’ve inherited this existential thread is everybody’s on a journey, right? That’s a very, very common language for what we think spirituality could mean in a secular age is. Well I’m on the road, I’m looking, I’m searching, I’m journeying. We might even call it a pilgrimage or something like that. Augustine says, “Yeah, that’s true. That’s true to the human condition”, he would say. He does think the nature of the human condition is that you are on the way. You can’t not be chasing something. You can’t not be looking to arrive somewhere. There are two kinds of restlessness; there’s restlessness that stems from not knowing where home is, right?
That’s the restlessness of Gatsby. That’s the restlessness of Kerouac’s, on the road. Because what happens there is, all right, we got to be moving. We got to be looking. We got to be searching; we got to hit the road. And the restless is stems from the fact of maybe not knowing where you’re supposed to get to. Or getting to what you thought was the destination and say, “Oh, we made it. We’ve arrived. This is going to be happiness. This is going to be meaning.” Only to realize that that evaporates. That’s why I always think of Gatsby in this return, right? Where you get to what you think is everything you’ve hoped for. And you’ve got this fantastic mansion and the greatest day. But there’s still that green blinking beacon on the other side of the bay and all of a sudden now you want something else and you think, “Oh, happiness must be over there.”
That’s the restlessness that’s just utterly exhausting and devours us and is despairing in a sense. There is still another restlessness that Augustine is honest about. I guess this is what I appreciate. I share Augustine’s faith as a Christian and … But I don’t think that that insulates me from restlessness. Now, it’s the kind of restlessness that stems from. I know where home is. Every day I pray thy kingdom come, but it’s not here and I’m saying how long Oh Lord. It’s that dynamic of a sanctified impatience and the difficulty. The veil of tears that we are still journeying on, even if we have a compass, even if we know where home is, even if we know who true north is. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still burdens of the journey that come with our own restlessness, if that make sense.
Brett McKay: No. That makes sense. I think everyone’s experienced those first two type of restlessness. The first type where you don’t know where home is. When you’re lying in bed at night and you’re like, what am I doing with my life? What am I supposed to be doing? Then the second kind of restlessness, and this is like once you achieve that big goal and you’re like, well that was underwhelming. That was incredibly underwhelming.
Jamie Smith: Because we’re talking about what really are fundamentally spiritual realities, right? What Augustine would say is; so he’s a Bishop, he’s a preacher, he is a Christian. He’ll say, “even if I know who God is and what to hope for, that doesn’t mean that I don’t still experience those kinds of disappointments. The disorientation that comes from sinking, I could have settled somewhere and realizing that doesn’t work.” That’s why I appreciate his realism in facing up to that.
Brett McKay: Yeah. There’s a tendency for some Christians when they explain hardship in life as well. It all worked out in the next life. Whenever I hear that, that’s a cop out, right? I mean it still sucks right now, but Augustine says, “yeah it does suck, but you got to keep. It’ll happen.”
Jamie Smith: I’m not immune to basically falling for the trap of pretty things as if they could make me happy. Do you know what I mean? Or falling for the trap that accomplishment could make me happy. Augustine says, “well that’s always a fraught and fragile prospect because you can always lose.” What does it look like to grapple with that?
Brett McKay: Well, let’s go back to these existential philosophers because as you said; they got this idea from Augustine or they were influenced by Augustine’s idea. What was their response to this restlessness that people feel just for being him? How did they respond to that?
Jamie Smith: Yeah. That is a great question. There are a few different ways. I don’t know how patient you’re serve up. I’ll give you an example. Okay, great. Martin Heidegger, who’s in a way the granddaddy of this movement his response, is to say. He inherits from Augustine the sense that we have to answer a call that we are on the road to somewhere that we need to find ourselves. He boxes from specifying that and he says, “at the end of the day you have to decide what you are called to be.” If I’m called to something, it’s actually me calling to myself. It’s a little bit like a very heavy German philosophical version of you do you which means the burden is on me to make myself. And I think that comes with its own exhaustion and paralysis almost. I think our culture experiences that.
If answering the call of who I’m to be is really entirely and only up to me, I am not sure I trust myself to do that or what if I got to go on. There’s I think angst that comes from that burden. Someone like Camus, Camus was as Augustinian as you could get without God. In other words, he recognized everything that Augustine was saying about the world, but then he said, ” I can’t believe it.” That’s why he faces up to what he calls the absurd. If the world is calling me to all of these things but they are impossible, how do I nonetheless make a life in spite of that? Which is why he thinks the greatest philosophical question is suicide.
Some of the Kerouac is, I think maybe even more germane than people realize even if they’ve never read his novel on the road. Because for Kerouac, what you do is you just embrace this philosophy that says “the road is life,” right? You don’t actually think you can arrive anywhere or you don’t know where home is. You just embrace this philosophy says, “Oh, it’s all about the journey. It’s all about the road.” Which I think works for a while until you’re a puddle of exhaustion and despair in the middle of that road and you’re wondering, “can’t I get home.” like it can’t somebody welcoming me home. Augustine would say “that voice, that hunger in you that keeps hoping that there’s a home and someone to welcome you”, Augustine would say that’s an inbuilt hunger. What you need to do is open yourself up to entertaining the possibility that it could be true and that it’s actually God who’s making that home to welcome you into.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah. Camus said that idea that the road is home to with his myth of Sisyphus, right? Sisyphus, for those who aren’t familiar; it’s this idea like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up and then he rolls back down. He’s to keep pushing it up for eternity and at a certain point, Sisyphus like enjoys it. I’m just going to love this. This is absurd. I’m going to love it. That’s how you deal with the problem of this restlessness and anxiety of modern life.
Jamie Smith: Exactly. I absolutely love Camus. He’s just one of my favorite writers. I guess I just appreciate his honesty because … I don’t want to make this too loaded. But I would think if I was with Camus and I couldn’t entertain the possibility of a grace from a God from beyond that would probably be about the best I could come up with. The remarkable thing about Camus is he still thought he was called to be a Saint in the face of that. He’s still forged a life of moral concern and so on and so forth. He thought at the end of the day it was all absurd. That’s sad and heartbreaking to me only because I guess I can imagine the possibility, otherwise. I guess I also admire Camus for facing up to what he thought was the situation he found himself in.
Brett McKay: All right, so the existentialist say that life is lived on the road. It’s a journey, but either you yourself choose where it is going or the journey is all there is the road. That’s all there is to life. Whereas Augustine says that, yes life is a journey but we’re all moving towards a definite home. How does he deal with the tension between living life as it is now and hoping for rest and happiness in the life to come?
Jamie Smith: Yeah. For Augustine, the road trip that he thinks explains the human condition. It’s the parable of the prodigal son, which I think is commonly and known enough that we could assume. The parallel, the father, the son who says … Basically says to his father, “I wish you were dead, could I please have my inheritance now?” The father gives it to him. He runs off to a distant country; blows it on wine, women and booze, and his destitute. He is living lower than the animals and then comes to himself and makes his way back to the father who gathers him up in graceful welcome home. That’s where he finds himself as well. For Augustine, that’s the possibility that the human condition holds out. What he would say is, “grace, is this realization that I am not my own, that a father is waiting to welcome me.” In some sense has assured me of that welcome.
There’s also this not yet dynamic of this mortal condition in which we find ourselves. The technical word he would talk about is what he calls eschatology. That there’s this still the sense in which we are waiting for the kingdom to arrive in its fullness. In the meantime, we are pilgrims. He even sometimes says we are exiles. We know where we’re going. We are assured of a home that will welcome us, but it’s … We have many miles to go before we sleep. What does it look like to be hopeful on that journey? What does it look like though to be realistic about that journey? It doesn’t mean pretending everything is good. It means facing up to the brokenness and fallenness and lamentable aspects of this world. How difficult it is? How difficult it is to stay between the ditches, so to speak?
Brett McKay: We’ll talk about some of these in specifics, but you’re going back to the existentialist philosophers. I think, you’ve talked about this too. There’s something about their philosophy of its extreme rugged individualism, right? You make your own meaning. It’s up to you. It’s all about courage; the courage to face the absurd and it’s attractive. As you said, once you like try to like, “okay, I’m going to find my own meaning”, but it’s like, “Oh, man, this is exhausting. I can’t do it.” A lot of people don’t want to like feel they need to depend on someone. Even a higher power because it seems like, I don’t know emasculating or infantilizing. I don’t know. There’s some issue there that people want something, but they’re afraid to take it.
Jamie Smith: Oh, I think you’re absolutely right. I think the most scandalous aspect of Augustine’s vision is grace because grace at the very bottom says, “I can’t do it on my own. That this is impossible for me to accomplish.” I get the offense of it. I think it’s especially offensive to those of us who live in a secular late modern world. Because the most sacrosanct value in our cultural moment I think is autonomy, is independence. There’s ways in which that’s maybe especially true for guys. Like there’s a gendered way that goes. I think in general also there’s just a sense that autonomy, independence, self-sufficiency is our religion. Augustine just thinks; you can’t be human and not be dependent. You can’t ever be fully human without owning up to your dependence ultimately on God, but also your human dependence.
I think one way to explain the epidemic of isolation and loneliness as our culture is actually as a mirror and effect of our prizing of autonomy and independence. We don’t really know how to value community, friendship and dependence. Even though we have ways of being collectively together; they are not the same as recognizing the fact that I’m dependent on communities that have come before me, that are around me and so on and so forth. I think you’re right. I think one of the reasons why existentialism took hold is it was it … It confirmed this myth of autonomy. Augustine understands why we want to be ourselves. It’s not a facing individuality. It’s questioning individualism and for Augustine you could actually never find the fullness of yourself alone. Yeah. I get why that’s scandalous and yet I also think … I think our culture is discovering that we are not our best masters. I think I’m the last person I want to trust with myself. It’s one of the reasons actually why I think; I don’t know if you notice in the book. But recovery communities are constantly referred to as an analog of what we’re talking about. I think the way into recovery the way out of addiction is to recognize the illusion of autonomy and independence.
Brett McKay: All right. There’s a lot to unpack there.
Jamie Smith: Sorry. Yeah.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah. there’s always this digging. I’m going to parse this out a bit. You talk about there’s ideas of freedom in there. Then you’d also talked about identity or authenticity. Augustine and the existentialists had different takes on this. Let’s talk with freedom. This idea of this autonomous individual that makes their meaning, makes choices of life. That’s an existentialist thing. As you talk about in the book, the existentialist thought of freedom mainly is freedom from constraints. But you make the case that this focus on freedom from as freedom can actually ensnare us and make us less free. How so?
Jamie Smith: Yeah. This I think is one of the great gifts Augustine could give to us in terms of just like analyzing freedom for us. By the way, I think this is really hyped up in specifically American contexts. Yeah. When we use the word freedom; almost the only way we imagine freedom is what Isaiah Berlin called negative freedom. Its freedom from is freedom understood as the absence of constraints. Nobody is pushing me. Nobody is having its hands-off freedom and I get to choose what I want. That’s what he calls free choice. He actually thinks free choice is prone to its own slavery and addiction. We might say today because if freedom is just the power and agency to choose to do whatever I want; my freedom is actually never directed or aimed or led or guided to my good to some substantive vision of the good.
Instead, I imagine I’m freer just to the extent that I multiply my options. But if I just multiply my options, what can also happen is a paralysis. The trivial example of this is; I go to the grocery store to buy toothpaste and there are 17,000 kinds of tooth paste, where do I even start? It’s like, fine I’m going home. I don’t even know where to begin. There’s a deep existential version of this, which is how would I even know what to choose? Then secondly; if there’s no real specification of what I ought to choose and I just start trying things out, what can happen is there … What looks like free choice can also become the beginning of my own addiction and enslavement to the thing. Augustine has this analysis in book eight of The Confessions where he says, “Oh well I start by thinking I’m going to choose to do this and I think that this will make me happy.”
Then after a little while I have to do this to have any feeling of happiness. Before long doing this actually no longer makes me happy. Yet I can’t not do it because now I’m just trying to maintain some base level of high so to speak that I was experiencing. It’s exactly the dynamics of addiction. For Augustine that’s negative freedom and it doesn’t go well. The story does not turn out well. Positive freedom. Freedom for is what now? When my agency, my power to choose is enlivened and empowered precisely because it is directed towards some good. Some vision of what the good life is and so now it’s empowering me to pursue and chase something that is for my good. What that means is Augustine can imagine guardrails and scaffolding being gifts to me.
Now they’re not constraints, they’re not restraints, they’re not shutting down my options. They are guardrails that are channeling me towards my own good and that doesn’t mean I’m not free. Actually, for Augustine that’s what it’s most free.
Brett McKay: What’s the relationship for Augustine in between these guardrails and grace?
Jamie Smith: The guard would be a manifestation of grace. I would also say for Augustine, grace is also this infusion of a revivified capacity in my wheel. Do you know what I mean? Basically, I need a resurrected will and power of choice to choose well. But then within that if God gives me good guard rails, those are also a means of grace because they are channeling me in the right direction. I’m trying to think of like another analog. Let’s just think out loud for a second. Imagine somebody has been imprisoned for 20 years and you come and you throw open the door and say you’re free.
There’s two very different ways to do that. You throw up the door, say you’re free. Go ahead. You can do whatever you want. Or you can say you’re free. Let me give you some directions. Let me give you an aspiration. Let me give you the power of living into a specified way of life. Which person is most likely to actually experience agency and empowerment? It’s going to be the second because they’ve lived a life that is directed towards something. And has been made possible precisely because somebody has actually narrowed the options but given them the power and direction to chase what is for their own benefit. The other person has no constraints but also has no direction.
Brett McKay: No. It’s good. That’s interesting. So you use the word agency, not autonomy. Augustine’s more focused on agency, not so much autonomy.
Jamie Smith: Yes. This could be really important actually. If Augustine is critical of autonomy, what we mean is he’s critical of this notion that I am a law unto myself. Right? That I am self-sufficient. The opposite of that or the alternative to that however, is not being an automaton right or a robot or something. It’s actually being given truly re vivified, re-energized agency so that I am becoming myself. I’m not just becoming a cookie cutter of what God stamps out. I actually am being resurrected as it were to become myself. When I choose these good things, it’s me that’s choosing. I’m able to choose because of the infusion of grace.
Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. Now back to the show. Well you just hit on this dig into this idea of grace because I think particularly in America when people … It’s such a loaded word grace’s because from evangelical … Because I think when most people hear grace, they think of like Evangelical Protestant perspective. You hear the altar call; you say the sinner’s prayer then once saved, always saved. It doesn’t seem like that’s how Augustine thought of it, or did he?
Jamie Smith: I think he’s just working with a fundamentally different metaphor as it were. What Augustine means when he’s talking about grace is … The root term of grace is gift. For Augustine, all of creation is gift all the way down. Do you know what I mean? All of creation doesn’t have to be, so it’s given. Everything I have in a way is has been given to me. It’s been gifted, so I’m graced. Then what he also thinks is if you left me to my own devices as a prodigal, I left to my own devices. I’m going to always and only look for love in all the wrong places. Being without grace for Augustine means being left in my own devices, and left to my own devices I’m going to try to satisfy what is an infinite hunger with all kinds of finite things.
I can’t dig myself out of that hole. I can’t undo that bent of my heart. What I need is the gift of God’s renewal and reorientation of my hungers so that I am looking for satisfaction in the right places, if that makes sense. Grace is really about a gifted sense of agency so that now I choose well. For Augustine, the really important thing is the opposite of grace is autonomy and independence. And self-sufficiency which is imagining that you can earn your way out and Augustine thinks that’s also just going to be always doomed to disappointment and frustration. By the way, there are all kinds of religious people. There are all kinds of people who call themselves Christians who actually at the end of the day are very offended by grace because they still think it’s about performance. When Augustine got in some really heated controversies in his time; one group that he got quite political with are the Pelagian.
The reason was is because the Pelagian kept saying, “Oh, well there’s a goodness in us so that we can do this on our own.” Augustine just reacted so viscerally to that. I think that’s true. I mean, it’s exactly one of the reasons why I think if you want a picture of what it looks like for Augustine; look at the experience of addicts and recovery. A key part of the recovery journey is recognizing one’s dependence on a higher power and all the debts one owes to others. What it does is that whole process and journey disabuses us of our self-sufficiency.
Brett McKay: Yeah. With freedom, there’s an existential take on freedom, which is freedom from autonomy. You make your choices, it’s all on you. Augustine say, “no, it’s freedom too.” We have to depend on someone if we really want to be free.
Jamie Smith: Then you really are free. You’re not just like a robot. Now you can become you.
Brett McKay: Okay. Becoming who you are, right? This is an existential thing. You say that Augustine has his idea of you become who you are by submitting. The existentialist would say, “no, you have to create yourself.” That’s the authentic. Let’s look at this idea of authenticity. What did the existentialist think it meant to be authentic?
Jamie Smith: Yeah. For the existentialists really the fundamental criterion of authenticity while maybe there’s a couple of aspects of it, but let’s say this, to be authentic for the existentialist is to resist conformity to the masses, to intentionally choose who you will be and to forge that identity for yourself. Right? Does that make sense? There’s a sense in which to be authentic is to not go with the flow, not default to what everybody else is doing, not mimic and imitate the they as Heidegger called it. To then be resolute in your intentionality in choosing to be somebody unique and individual. That means forging your own identity.
Brett McKay: It meant disregarding or rejecting people?
Jamie Smith: Oh, yeah. There’s a deep individualism about this to the extent that, yeah other people; Heidegger and Sartre in particular and Camus to a large degree do not have much of a constructive account of how people contribute to my authenticity. Instead, what you get is an overwhelming sense of how others make me inauthentic, that they rob me of my authenticity. Sartre, of course famously in this play hell is other people. For Heidegger, the portrayal of the influence of others on my life is always an almost exclusively negative as leading me to conformity and therefore losing myself. When I just mimic and imitate the mass; the masses I am losing my authentic individuality. You can also understand why I think this philosophy found a pretty unique home in American popular culture. It’s almost liked the philosophy of the Western, even though it was hatched in French cafes.
Brett McKay: Augustine would say his response to the idea of authenticity or becoming who you are is you need people. He would concede, yes people can have a bad influence on you. He even talks about it in his Confessions. The whole thing that kickstarted his conversion was he like stole a pair and he said, “well it was because I was with this gang and they were telling me I should do it to be cool” He did it. He also says no, but people can also help me become who I’m supposed to be.
Jamie Smith: Yeah. This why I still think there’s a deep resonance. I still want to locate Augustine in an existentialist tradition because he agrees with this notion of looking for authenticity. I also think he agrees that authenticity requires intentionality on our part. That is if I do just go through life on autopilot and just conform to whatever everybody else is doing, that is not going to be authenticity. The difference between Augustine and say Heidegger and Sartre and Camus is that for Augustine, well two things. There is a normative vision of how to be human. Do you know what I mean? For Augustine; there is a call on us, but that call on us is coming from the one who made us. There’s a normative substantive vision of what it looks like to live into the fullness of being human. It’s not just something I make up.
Brett McKay: That’s Aristotelian, right?
Jamie Smith: It is also very Aristotelian, deeply Aristotelian. Exactly. Then the other part of it that distinguishes Saint Augustine from the 20th century existentialist is he does have an account of how others contribute to my finding myself and answering that call. If you think of Augustine’s Confessions; his quote unquote fall is chapter two where he steals the fruit from the tree. Ding, ding, ding. Genesis chapter three that the parallel to that is in book eight where he’s back in a garden and this is his conversion. But in fact that entire scene is embedded in a web of friendships and community and people who meet him. Actually to be honest, love him enough to hold up to him, visions of how to be human that they think he’s called to live towards.
You see him redeem friendship and to realize … In the same way that in book two when he falls into his sin; so to speak, when he falls he says “alone; I would not have done it.” By the time you get to book eight and for the rest of his life, he will also say “I could not be happy without friends.” When Augustine says happy, he doesn’t just mean “Oh like cheery or having a good day.” What he means is having meaning in my life. I could not be who I am called to be without friends. I think that sense of the authentic self as actually one who is located as a node in a web of relationships is so crucial to thinking about what healthy humanity looks like.
Brett McKay: Another analogy you can make that it’s like life’s a play, right? Shakespeare. Once you find that role that you’re supposed to be a part of, if it fits you. It feels good. There are other people there as well with you. You can’t know who you are and what your role is without other people telling you about it.
Jamie Smith: Right. Exactly. Another way I play on it in the book On the Road with Saint Augustine is even if the existential is held up the freedom of the open road as the way to go find yourself. Of course, as soon as you’re driving on a road; you’re already following somebody, right. You’re not blazing a trail. You’re following a path. The question isn’t probably whether you are with people. It’s who you are with and where they are headed. That’s the question to ask ourselves.
Brett McKay: Well, also in the book with all of these road movies; they’re buddy movies. It’s like, “Hey, I’ve got to go find myself. Come along with me.”
Jamie Smith: Yes. Yeah. I think it’s a very intriguing paradox in a way.
Brett McKay: All right, so authenticity. His response to that was you have to be embedded yourself with other people and accept grace. Then he also does these other issues of anxiety that causes anxiety. One of them that he hits hard because he had to struggle with this for his early adult life was the restlessness that an anxiety that ambition can cause. Tell us about Augustine’s struggle with ambition.
Jamie Smith: Yeah. Just to step back to frame it a little bit. A lot of what Augustine analyzes are the human propensity … As I said before, to look for love in all the wrong places. That is the human propensity to try to satisfy what is an inbuilt infinite craving by merely settling for finite things. Any things, there’s all kinds of examples of that; it can be power, it can be sex, it could be education. It could be … There are all kinds of things that we think will be the thing that helps us achieve what will ultimately make us happy. He thinks if you frame any of these things in that way, you’re probably going to be … You are doomed for disappointment. When he’s thinking about ambition, he’s asking what do I want when I want to lead, what do I want when I want to win?
In his early life before he’s a Christian. In his early life, he’s a very ambitious young man. He’s trying to climb the ladders of both education and the university but also of political power. He eventually climbs from the margins and the provinces of the empire in Africa to a post in Rome and then eventually makes it to be a part of the Imperial policies. He’s almost liked the white house speech writer thing. What’s intriguing is Augustine kept imagining that he would be satisfied if he finally achieved everything he aspired for. Really the opening and beginning of what would ultimately turn out to be as conversion wasn’t failure. It was success. It was actually achieving everything he was hoping for getting to the very top of the mountain and then sitting down and looking around and thinking “really, this is it, I was hoping for more.” I think a lot of us know that postpartum depression that sets in after you’ve already achieved everything that you’ve hoped for.
For Augustine, that was a gateway into asking, “Man, what am I hoping for? What I’m looking for?” Then what really intrigues me, I guess is that even after his conversion. When Augustine goes on to become a priest and then ultimately a Bishop and a very influential Bishop, he’s still very honest that he struggles with ambition. What he means is he’s a sucker for praise. Who doesn’t love to be told, “Augustine, you are awesome?” He’s still so susceptible to trying to find ultimate happiness in what other people think of them. The reason why I love his honesty about that is Augustine says “well look, I think I just need to realize this is probably always going to be a demon that plagues me.” One way of course to avoid praise and adulation is to suck at what you do.
Augustine says, “Well, I guess that would solve my problem.” Of course, it wouldn’t because you would still want it. That’s why he confesses. He says, “am I doing this for God or am I doing this for me?” To which his answer is yes. He’s always going to be divided in that regard. He knows that being honest before God that he still struggles with this is part of that grace that he’s living into. It’s like somebody who writes a book and is hoping and wants to hear good reviews, but it’s a book about humility, right? Does that mean you never want to write a successful book on humility? I don’t think so. But it’s what are you looking for in that and how much expectation and hope are you putting in that.
Brett McKay: Well, I thought it was interesting too. Augustine’s answer isn’t like don’t be less ambitious. Don’t play it small with your life. You’d say okay, God’s given you gifts through grace. You have to use those or else you’re a lazy and slothful servant, right? Those talents terrible he says. He says yeah, you have to be careful with making sure you’re using that ambition for the right reasons.
Jamie Smith: Yes. You keep having these reality checks with yourself. You keep taking internal audits of your aspiration and ambition. You keep venturing out and then also just realize God gives us the practice of confession. To say you know what, I really like it when so said that; like that really fueled something in me. I think honesty about those things is so much better than false humility. I think false humility is a terrible idol in Christian communities in particular because actually false humility is the mask of pride. I think we do well to break those idols.
Brett McKay: Also, no humble bragging.
Jamie Smith: No humble bragging. Exactly.
Brett McKay: Don’t do the humble bragging. Let’s talk about this pursuit of knowledge information that also caused restlessness that he dealt what Augustine did. How does our modern life encourage us to restlessly pursue knowledge and information? How does that manifest itself in our world?
Jamie Smith: Yeah. I do think it’s a feature of late modern culture that being in the know is one of the ways that we feel we are valued. In some ways there’s a long legacy of this, of enlightenment saying we’re going to think our way towards Utopia. On a more mundane level it’s just living in an information age where to beat up on things, to be enlightened. To know what’s going on and to not feel ignorant is one of the badges that we wear to be valued by other people. I think it’s no mistake that we are still a people who are susceptible to imagining that being smart is being important or being in the know is how I will get noticed.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You made a reference to a Portlandia Sketch, like it’s over … But there’s another one too where they did, it’s like … Did you read it where they’re just competing over each other? They read all these obscure hip things?
Jamie Smith: Yes. Yes. Interestingly, we also don’t like people to tell us things that we already know or we don’t like to be told things that we don’t know. Right? Because then it means we’re not up to speed and therefore we must not be important.
Brett McKay: Did he have this problem and if so, what was his response?
Jamie Smith: I think the Augustine struggled with this in a way that parallels. I think some contemporary struggles. Let me put it this way. It’s interesting how ancient is the idea that education is the way to significance, right? Especially remember Augustine is living in the provinces on the margins and the empire and the way you are going to climb into centers of power is by enlightenment and education. What happens there is now you are idolizing and using education to achieve something other than actually understanding yourself and the world is because it’s a weapon that you want to wield so that you can get access. It’s really about a climbing into an insider space and I still think that’s a … Somebody who teaches at a university. That’s definitely the way a lot of people still think of education.
They’re not really super interested in wisdom. They’re interested in the credentialing that gets them access to centers of power and influence and Augustine was very susceptible to that.
Brett McKay: Yeah. He became a Manichaean.
Jamie Smith: He did. Yeah. The Manichaeist were this crazy religious sect at the time that it’s very hard for us to imagine ourselves into. They were gnostic, they put a lot of weight on astrology and reading the stars. Because of that star gazing dynamic, they actually thought they were the scientists of the day. They thought they were the rationalists of the day. When Augustine was lured into or drawn to the Manichaeist; it was precisely like those people who imagined by aligning themselves with quote unquote science. They are showing their independence and enlightenment and therefore scoff at. Anyone who would be so benighted and diluted as to believe something.
What Augustine realized this; he spent about 10 years actually with the Manichaeist. And what he realized is it turns out in every community people are believing something at the end of the day like there was still … Once he got to peer behind the curtain, he saw through this myth of enlightenment and rationality and realized that it was pegged on its own confessional belief and not one that he thought stood up to scrutiny. I think it’s interesting. Augustine says, you can’t not believe. There is no human standpoint that isn’t predicated on some fundamental trust in a story, in a community, in a myth about the word … Myth, not in the sense of a fable, but in the sense of an orienting story about the world. Augustine just thought at the end of the day. Christianity had the most comprehensive story to make sense of his experience.
Brett McKay: Well, it’s an analog, a modern analog of this idea. You have some secret information or secret knowledge and you scoff at other people, the outsiders, you see this all the time on internet culture, right? The VMs or the CrossFitters or the Quito people or the … Even at like evolutionary psychology. I know everything about human nature and this is … I can explain everything. Augustine would be like I’ve seen that before.
Jamie Smith: Yes. It’s just another manifestation of our hubris. Of course, that’s not to give comfort to ignorance or it’s not to praise irrationality. Its just to recognize that reason itself operates on the basis of trust and there’s no standpoint in which people aren’t dependent. It’s the epistemological equivalent of what we were talking about earlier in terms of a dependence that we all have.
Brett McKay: We all believe in something. This reminds me, I’m reading this book about a Kierkegaard and Plato. It’s by Jacob Howland and his connections like Kierkegaard connection to Socrates. He makes this interesting point about a philosophy begins with doubt. But he says in order for there to be doubt, you have to believe in something first.
Jamie Smith: Yeah, yeah. No. There’s another line in Kierkegaard where … I think it’s in his journals where he says, “It’s faith that brought out into the world.” They are sisters; they’re companions, they … And Augustine. Some people have this picture of Augustine as like this other dogmatist. I tried to show from his sermons; for example that he actually, he gives room for people to be honest about their doubts. He just always counsels them. Don’t treat your doubts to certainties.
Brett McKay: Doubt your doubts.
Jamie Smith: Yeah. Doubt your doubts. I think especially that’s wise counsel maybe for people who have emerged from fundamentalist communities of whatever stripe and where they weren’t allowed to doubt anything. And then swing to the other side and are equally indomitable about their new rational enlightenment. I Augustine thinks, “Oh, I think probably the truth is somewhere between those two poles.”
Brett McKay: I guess the answer to this restlessness that this desire for knowledge is like have some intellectual humility and even not think that intellectual knowledge will give you meaning. I think in your book “You are what you Love.” You talk about the difference between head knowledge and creature knowledge like Augustine would say. Recognize the creatureliness in you that you need love, you need social relationships. That’s what gives life meaning.
Jamie Smith: Yes. I mean without denigrating intellectual pursuits. Do you mean Augustine is literally one of the intellectual giants of the West? What I love then is somebody who is so brilliant and so intellectually astute also recognizes the limits of what he’s able to know. I think our world could use more people who are willing to live into and recognize the limits of what they know. Also, to recognize that mystery is its own profundity. Mystery isn’t just a puzzle to be solved. It’s actually a sense that there is an overwhelming truth that I’ll never comprehend.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about another thing that causes us restlessness and that’s death. Now, death was something that existentialist took very seriously because like once you die, you cease to exist.
Jamie Smith: It’s true high. Heidegger thought, the most fundamental posture of the self-design as he called it was being towards death. That was the real wake up call.
Brett McKay: How did they handle it? I mean the existential, how do they handle the anxiety that death could call? Was it just like accept it and just like live life to the fullest today?
Jamie Smith: Yeah. I mean there’s varying versions of that. For Heidegger; death was like facing up to the utter singularity of one’s death was supposed to be this resolving catalysts so that I had to face up who am I and what am I going to do for? You could say it’s something similar with Camus in the sense that there’s no expectation of immortality for Camus. Which is why then we have to labor for justice here and now. That was a very, very important theme for Camus. If there’s going to be justice is going to be because humans in their finite lifetimes or are laboring for it. Again, I admire that about Camus because you could also imagine another take which is saying there’s nothing after, so let’s eat, drink and be Merry because tomorrow we die. Whereas Camus thought it heightened our moral responsibility to one another.
Brett McKay: Then what was Augustine’s response?
Jamie Smith: Augustine’s response is he just wants to take seriously that the fear of death tells us something about a human aspiration, right? The flip side of every fear is a hunger or a hope. And the fact that it seems difficult to face any race, the fear of death. Augustine says, “let’s listen to that and say, isn’t that a sign that we are hoping and longing for something more for, for immortality.” Of course, that’s why he thinks at the heart of Christianity was this most astounding event, which was the resurrection of the dead. Interesting you mentioned Plato earlier, the young Augustine probably thought, “Oh, the best we could hope for is the immortality of the soul.” It’s only actually when he immatures into Christianity that he sees, “Oh no, actually Christianity doesn’t just hold out the immortality of the soul. It’s talking about the resurrection of the body.” Which means the hope we have here is actually for a new heaven and a new earth. Right? It’s the hope, our cosmic hope isn’t just a hope for a disembodied existence. It’s for God reconciling all things and gathering up all of the goods of creation as well. It’s a very, I think it’s an ultimately a humanistic vision in the sense that it honors all the aspects of being human.
Brett McKay: Well, James, this has been a great conversation. I mean, this I book hope this wedded people’s appetite to go read The Confessions. I think it’s a really readable book even though it was written in the fourth century.
Jamie Smith: Yeah. Especially if you read it in a decent contemporary translation.
Brett McKay: Anyone that you recommend.
Jamie Smith: I recommend Sarah Rutan’s new translation in the modern library is very good. Henry Chadwick’s, which is a nice cheap Oxford paperback. Both of those are excellent. Chadwick’s has some great footnotes for people who are unfamiliar with the ancient context.
Brett McKay: James, where can people go to learn more about your book On the Road with Saint Augustine?
Jamie Smith: jameskasmith.com is probably the best place to start.
Brett McKay: All right. James Smith. Thanks so much your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jamie Smith: Great to talk to you again. Thanks so much.
Brett McKay: My guess it was James K. A. Smith. He is the author of the book On the Road with Saint Augustine. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere and you find out more information about his work at his website; jameskasmith.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/augustine. You can find links to resources where you delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our [email protected] where you find our podcast archives hold thousands of articles about personal finance, philosophy, physical fitness. How to be a better husband, better father, and if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of AOM podcasts you can do so much to your premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code Manliness for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already. Thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think we get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.