A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

So Interesting, In Principle

In Preface to Paradise Lost Chapter 10, “Milton and Augustine,” C.S. Lewis summarizes, for the instruction of modern literary readers of Milton, just how thoroughly Augustinian Milton is being in most of his epic. Explaining Augustine’s view of the origin of evil (which he mentions is also more or less that of the universal church), Lewis says:

What we call bad things are good things perverted (De Civ. Dei, xiv, 11). This perversion arises when a conscious creature becomes more interested in itself than in God (ibid, xiv, 11), and wishes to exist ‘on its own’ (esse in semet ipso, xiv, 13). This is the sin of Pride.

This is excellent: “more interested in itself than in God.” It cuts straight into the reader’s thought-life, still talking about Milton’s Satan and Augustine’s story of the world, but suddenly also implicating the everyday movements of our own intellects away from God and back to self.

But it might be more vintage Lewis than vintage Augustine. Where Augustine only says “will,” Lewis paraphrases by introducing the term “interest,” that is, attentiveness with attachment. It’s an effective hook! But, as I say, its intimate psychological style seems more Screwtape than Confessions.

Looking through the parts of City of God that Lewis cites in this passage, I can’t find any suggestion that he is focusing on pride or the will in this extended sense of the mind’s power of attention. Augustine’s categories are self-exaltation, sovereignty, and self-satisfaction. One thing you always have to reckon with in reading Lewis is his remarkable assimilative ability; he takes in so much material and synthesizes it with such apparent ease. Combine this with his minimalist strategy about bibliographical citation and you should know better than to expect his interpretations to be very localized in any brief source text. He might be glossing what he he has received from wide reading in City of God and Confessions as filtered through its reception history down to Milton. But still, he points the reader to City of God XIV.11 and 13, so let’s look there. It’s an extended section about the origin of evil, first in angels and then in humans. Augustine’s analysis of pride in this context runs thus:

What is pride but a craving for perverse elevation? For it is perverse elevation to forsake the ground in which the mind ought to be rooted, and to become and be, in a sense, grounded in oneself. This happens when a man is too well pleased with himself, and such a one is thus pleased when he falls away from that unchangeable good with which he ought rather to have been pleased than with himself. (De Civ XIV.13, Levine translation in Loeb)

We get elevation, forsaking of what is proper, being pleased in oneself, and falling from the unchangeable good. It’s easy to see how Lewis could extend this rich mix of ideas to “becoming more interested” in oneself. Here’s an alternate translation of the same passage:

What is pride but the craving for undue exaltation? And this is undue exaltation, when the soul abandons Him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself. This happens when it becomes its own satisfaction. And it does so when it falls away from that unchangeable good which ought to satisfy it more than itself. (Dods translation, NPNF)

There is some slippage between these two translations, isn’t there? The nub seems to be whether the soul forsakes “the ground in which” it “ought to be rooted” so that one becomes “in a sense, grounded in oneself,” (Levine) or “abandons Him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself” (Dods). Is the soul forsaking its ground, its end, or just what exaxtly?

Well, those are both English approximations of principio, which is what the soul deserts:

Quid est autem superbia nisi perversae celsitudinis appetitus? Perversa enim est celsitudo, deserto eo cui debet animus inhaerere principio, sibi quodam modo fieri atque esse principium. Hoc fit cum sibi nimis placet. Sibi vero ita placet cum ab illo bono inmutabili deficit quod ei magis placere debuit quam ipse sibi. (from Loeb)

Now “principio” is a broad enough Latin word that a great many translations are justifiable. But if you came back to this passage armed with the knowledge that “ground” and “end” are both provided as equivalents for “principio,” you can see a little more clearly what Augustine’s getting at.

Principio (principle) is an origin word; it’s about where something is from, not just in a narrative sense (“I come from Alabama” etc.) but ontologically. Creatures are from God, and so are both grounded in and oriented back toward God; they have their principle outside and above themselves in God, who alone has and is his own principle. Creatures who turn from their true principle become self-grounded , but only “in a sense,” because acting like you are your own God doesn’t really make you your own God; it makes you a bad creature.

Does noticing Augustine’s use of “principio” here get us any closer to Lewis’ paraphrase about the creature becoming “more interested in itself than in God?” Maybe a little. Principle is also an epistemological word, and you could view the whole passage from the point of view of the mind (anima) being sourced in truth, the will being drawn to that which, or he who, is true and good and beautiful. But we’re out in the penumbra of all the terms now, so of course they overlap and resonate with each other. It’s a rich mix already in Augustine, and a rich reception by Lewis.

One last note, perhaps more annoying than anything, but worth considering whenever we read Augustine talking about the self, himself, myelf, etc. The English word “self” brings with it a host of connotations that simply have to be bracketed when talking about authors writing in Latin. Here’s John Cavadini:

To make matters worse, the English language has reflexive pronouns, such as “myself,” “yourself,” and “oneself,” that sound like possessive pronouns plus the noun “self.” “Then toward myself I turned, and asked myself, ‘Who are you?’” can sound like there is a thing called “self,” which is “mine,” and towards which I am turning, when in Latin all we have are forms of the first person reflexive pronoun. Sometimes the temptation actually to split the English reflexive pronoun into its component parts is seemingly unbearable: “Magna vis est memoriae … et hoc animus est, et hoc ego ipse sum” translated by Boulding (1997) as “What a great faculty memory is …! It is the mind, and this is nothing other than my very self,” separating the “my” and the “self ” of the English word “myself ” by the word “very,” and making it sound like Augustine’s memory is a thing called his “self,” when all we have in the Latin is the intensive “ipse.” (John Cavadini, “The Darkest Enigma: Reconsidering the Self in Augustine’s Thought,” in Visioning Augustine (Wiley Blackwell, 2019), 139

Cavadini goes on in detail about the issues that arise here, but you can see why this matters precisely when what we’re talking about it is finding one’s Self interesting. The direction is exactly right; just don’t bear down on the noun.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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