The webpage of the Youth Ministry of the Irish Province of Augustinians

Augustine and Truth - Talk given by Noel at Augustinian Values Institute, Waterford, 2010


So, once again we meet as part of the Augustinian Values Institute. While there are many possible approaches to studying St. Augustine, the Institute has opted to consider him under the triptych of Unitas, Veritas and Caritas .
 
Last year when we met here we were looking at the theme of Unitas. If you remember, we said that Unitas (unity), has to be understood as union, communion, and, especially, community. At the centre of this experience is Augustine’s conviction that friendship is the foundation of healthy human relationships. His very particular understanding of our relationship with God, which he calls interiority, is also characterised by desire to be in that relationship just as we might long to be with a friend. As he says in the Confessions: “The friendship which draws human beings together in a tender bond is sweet to us because out of many minds it forges a unity.” [Conf Bk II.5.10]. 
 
The Totus Christus – that is, the communion of all of the believers (the body) with Christ (the head) is the sum of the interiority of all of the believers with Christ.
 
 
This year we are asked to reflect on Veritas . The straightforward translation of veritas is truth . However, if we limit ourselves to just one word in English we will not capture the richness of what Augustine is talking about. Last year I pointed out to you that veritas can also be translated as Meaning . Today, I think it is important to include a third translation of Veritas – Beauty . Now we need to consider this in more detail.
 
The first thing that needs to be clear is that, for Augustine, truth is an absolute . This means that truth does not change and is not subject to interpretation. This is, possibly, a strange concept to many of us and we will look at that in a moment. But, for Augustine, truth is much more than what is true.
 
Each one of you, as a teacher is dealing with different kinds of truth all the time. In matters of discipline you often have to get to the truth of what actually happened in a particular instance ; in your teaching you are involved in imparting truth and, indeed, in verifying what is held to be true; you probably accept that what is true for one pupil may not be so for another depending on family background, differing interests and, increasingly, ethnicity .
 
We are surrounded by different kinds of truth all the time. You only have to look at the world of politics to see that there are all sorts of opinions about what is true and what is less true . We have no problem coping with parallel truths and we even accept that what is true for one person may not be for another. It is quite normal to see that what was once true is no longer so. Even the Irish bishops have a chain of shops whose official name used to be Veritas Limited.
 
None of this is what Augustine means by truth. Truth goes beyond the vicissitudes of human interaction. These different types of what we call truth are, for Augustine, pale reflections of truth per se. If you think of it as degrees of truth it may be helpful. Most of the information and facts that we come across every day is, to a greater or lesser extent, true. The only reason we can know that is because we have, in our minds, a conception of what truth is.
 
Similarly, when we think of Meaning we are dealing with a polyvalent term . Very often, what something means depends on what I think it means . Interpretation, especially my interpretation, is highly valued in our society and the ability to interpret a text or a piece of music is seen as a gift. Think of poetry, for example, or music, or art. 
 
What has been called the authority of the reader – that is, the ability of the reader to determine the meaning of the piece – is considered quite normal in our society and academic institutions. This is the opinion that holds that the meaning of a tet is the meaning the reader takes from it; not the meaning the author may have intended. In fact, the whole world of literary criticism is awash with different understandings of meaning up to and including those who maintain that there is no such thing as meaning. 
 
We also readily seek things that are meaningful  – things that help us to connect with others or help us to cope with different moments in life. You only have to open your eyes and see the angel shops, self-help books to realise that people are searching for meaning.
 
While Augustine would certainly identify with the search for meaning he would probably have difficulty with the notion that physical and temporal things could ever give that meaning. Like truth, meaning is something that exists beyond our earthly experience; this is something he himself learned having gone down the road of trying to find it in earthly things. These things, in his view, point us towards the truth, towards meaning . In the Confessions he says:
“I said, ‘Is the truth then nothing, because it is not spread out through any space finite or infinite?’ And you cried out to me from afar, ‘Yes, in very truth, I AM WHO AM.’ And I heard as the heart hears, and there was no room left for doubt. And I could more easily doubt that I was alive than that Truth is not; which is clearly seen being understood by the things that are made.”
 
Beauty is, perhaps, a category that we might not readily associate with veritas. In our society beauty has been relegated to the world of Hello Magazine or David Beckham’s haircut. Beauty is subject to fashion, trends and is very much in the eye of the beholder or worse.
 
For Augustine, beauty is something quite different. Beauty is about harmony and order. This is the created order which gives structure to our existence. Harmony and order are where we find both truth and meaning since, if it were not for these our lives would be constantly under threat from discord, falsehood and, ultimately, chaos.
 
 
 
 
To get to the bottom of what Augustine means by veritas there are a number of things we need to be clear about. In a way, we have to enter a different world of language. However, as I hope to show, the fact that this is a different world does not mean, in any way, that we are talking about something that is outdated or irrelevant to our situation. We really need to talk about Being .
 
I want to begin by talking about a man called Paul Tillich. Tillich was a German philosopher and theologian who died in 1965. Just as an aside; Tillich is often referred to as the protestant’s catholic and the catholic’s protestant because both his philosophy and his theology refuse to be limited by the strictures of either faith even though he, himself, was a protestant. 
 
Tillich fled from Germany to the United States to escape the Nazi regime and this experience of destruction and threat informs a lot of his thought. Tillich sees human beings as being fundamentally under threat. Specifically, he understands this threat as being a threat to Meaning. Meaning, for him, is the ground of our being; it is what underpins our very existence. It is our foundation. This foundation is what provides not only meaning but also a harmonious order (beauty). For Tillich, if we lose Meaning our very existence becomes meaningless and meandering.
 
This is, in fact, what Augustine understands as Veritas – Truth, Meaning, Beauty. It is immutable – it does not change. It is eternal – it is at our origin and is our goal. It is a first principle that remains unaffected by our subjective experience. Being is our existence – truth, meaning and beauty are what allow us to engage with our Being. 
 
There is a fundamental difference between Truth and what is true. It is true that Fr. Hennebry wears a lot of ties  but that is not truth. It is true that Fr. Cooney often wears black but that is not truth. These things are what are what are referred to in philosophy as accidents. Even if Fr. Hennebry had no ties he would still be the same person . 
 
Things that we can see, touch, taste etc. are accidents because they could have been otherwise. They can change. They have nothing to do with the essence of a thing or a person. The essence of a thing is that aspect of it that does not change and is constitutive of that thing. Each of the accidents is true but none of them, or not even the sum of them, is truth. Truth is an absolute that remains aloof from the variations of accidents. 
 
 
Similarly, Meaning has nothing to do with what something means. Meaning is about the existential meaning that underpins our very existence. When Augustine speaks of veritas he is speaking about something that envelops our existence and gives it meaning and harmonious form (beauty). It is the ground of our being which means that it is both our origin and our goal.
 
This may all seem very vague and distant but it is actually very relevant in the context of our modern society. In fact, it formed the centre of the Pope’s message when he visited the UK recently . Benedict, who is a committed student of Augustine, spoke, principally, about two things – relativism and secularism. 
 
Relativism is the attitude that says that there are no absolutes. My truth can co-exist with your truth. Your values are every bit as good as mine. Benedict’s message (which very clearly has its basis in Augustinian thought) was that this is a falsehood. By making everything meaningful relativism tends towards a situation in which meaning itself is undermined; when meaning is undermined our lives gradually become pointless. Benedict, following Augustine, said that we are created in the image of God and this is truth (veritas). This truth gives our lives meaning and is the framework in which our very existence shapes itself.
 
When Benedict spoke about the danger of removing religion from civil and political debate he was speaking about he danger of reducing everything to the lowest common denominator in terms of truth. To relativise truth will, ultimately, lead us to a situation in which we might well be unable to distinguish truth from falsehood. Speaking in Westminster Cathedral he said:
“How much contemporary society needs this witness! How much we need, in the Church and in society, witnesses of the beauty of holiness, witnesses of the splendour of truth, witnesses of the joy and freedom born of a living relationship with Christ! One of the greatest challenges facing us today is how to speak convincingly of the wisdom and liberating power of God’s word to a world which all too often sees the Gospel as a constriction of human freedom, instead of the truth which liberates our minds and enlightens our efforts to live wisely and well, both as individuals and as members of society.”
 
 
 
 
Similarly, secularism is the school of thought that favours the individual over society. This emphasis tends towards an attitude that says that the opinions, values and desires of the individual are of more importance than those of society as a whole. This tendency reduces society to the sum of its parts and removes the possibility for truth and, consequently, meaning. Benedict’s appeal to civil authorities in the UK not to allow religion to be removed from political debate centres around this whole idea of veritas which was first explored, at least in the Christian context, by Augustine.
 
It is interesting to note that Augustine’s early life was not characterised by any great concern for veritas. His early education was all geared towards preparing him to be a rhetor . Rhetoric, understood as the art of public speaking was highly prized in the Roman Empire of Augustine’s time. Rhetors would routinely hire themselves out to speak on behalf of other people. This would have been common in the context of court rooms where rhetors would speak on behalf of the accused or the prosecution. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that rhetors would often speak on behalf of public officials. They would speak to the crowds about various public projects and policies. The point is that it didn’t really matter to the rhetor what side of the argument they were speaking for. The important thing was a stylish eloquence which would sway people and influence their decisions. Augustine himself says:
O my God! What miseries and mockeries did I then eperience when it was impressed on me that obedience to my teachers was proper to my boyhood estate if I was to flourish in this world and distinguish myself in those tricks of speech which would gain honor for me among men, and deceitful riches!"
Conf. I:i, 14
 
 
The Roman Empire, of course, was not a democracy but, nonetheless, there were constantly elections for Consuls, Praetors and other public offices. The successful candidates for these offices often became very wealthy men and so, the people who spoke on their behalf often had very lucrative careers as well as becoming very influential people.
 
This was Augustine’s career path and he was good at it. Inevitably, however, such a career is almost bound to make one cynical. Even when he went to Milan and heard St. Ambrose speaking, he was more interested in Ambrose’s oratory than in the content of what he was saying. He says:
 
 
I was so fallen and blinded that I could not discern the light of virtue and of beauty which must be embraced for its own sake, which the eye of flesh cannot see, and only the inner vision can see."
Conf VI:vi, 26
 
However, and very importantly, there was another reason that Augustine found himself in Milan; he was becoming increasingly unhappy. His success, his wealth and his influential friends were becoming less and less satisfactory. Everything seemed empty. Or, to put it in other words – what he was doing was meaningless (veritas). This is the famous restless heart that he speaks of when he says “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
 
It is this existential emptiness that only meaning can fill and he begins to find this meaning through the first community which he founded in Cassiciacum where, together with his mother, his son and his friends, he discussed philosophical questions and they all debated the issues. Over time this too ceased to ease his existential itch and over time he began to get more and more curious about the content of what Ambrose was saying in his sermons in the cathedral in Milan.
 
Augustine’s journey had taken him from North Africa to Rome, and then to Milan before he began to find something that could give his life meaning. It was in Milan that he began to see that this meaning was God. God is veritas, God is truth – eternal and immutable; God is meaning – the answer to his existential angst; God is beauty – the harmony and order of the happy life.
 
I suppose that it might seem a bit of a stretch for a modern mind to make the connection with God so easily. On the one hand we can say, as believers, that Augustine was being guided by the Spirit. On the other hand we, in the context of our modern society and culture, have perhaps lost some of the sensitivity towards the idea of God that would have been much more immediate for Augustine.  Writing in the eleventh century and following Augustine’s thought, St. Anselm describes God as:
… something than which nothing greater can be conceived.” 
 
Sometimes, the impression might be given that Augustine in some way knew that he would eventually arrive at this conclusion but we really shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Confessions, the book where he tells the story of this journey, was written after his conversion. 
In other words, he writes this book from the standpoint of one who is secure in his conviction of faith. He says in his book Revisions, which he wrote towards the end of his life :
“The thirteen books of my confessions praise the just and good God for all my actions, bad as well as good, and they raise the minds and hearts of my readers to him. Such, at any rate, was the effect they had on me while I was writing them, and they have that same effect on my now when I reread them. What others think of them is their own business. I know, however, that they pleased and still please many of my brethren.”
Retract II:6,1
 
The fact that Augustine understands God  (veritas, truth, meaning, beauty) to be so integrally fundamental to our living, places veritas in a very important position with regard to our ability to make judgements and choices. There is only one truth. If we are to choose then, it is reasonable to assume, we wish to choose well. We should always, therefore, choose truth. Apart from the obvious point that this will keep us free from error, choosing truth will contribute to our happy living because we will be in harmony with the ground of our being.
 
There is a very simple handout with a skeleton of this talk available if you want it. It includes a selection of quotations from St. Augustine about veritas. If anyone should want this little talk it is available to you on this website




Article posted on 7th of November 2010

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