The other day The New York Times reviewed a new book about the early Christian leader Augustine (seen here in his fraternity pledge class photo). It looks like an intriguing read and maybe I'll get to it eventually.
"Augustine hit upon an idea that would shape Western consciousness for centuries: the notion that human beings have two wills within, a defiant one that wants autonomy and a chastened one that wants to serve God. The only way to achieve happiness, Augustine believed, was to subordinate the former to the latter. . .It was during the Renaissance that this conception of the self came under serious challenge, most powerfully in Montaigne’s 'Essays,' which mocked the idea of sin and preached self-acceptance. To Augustine’s anxious admission that he was a problem to himself, Montaigne simply responded, So what’s the problem? Don’t worry, be happy. As modern people we have chosen Montaigne over Augustine. We traded pious self-cultivation for undemanding self-esteem. But is love of self really enough to be happy? You know the answer to that, dear reader. And so did Augustine."
The great religions teach us that we must love ourselves if we ever are to be capable of loving others. And there is profound truth in that. The problem, which Augustine obviously understood, is that our task is made more difficult because we must learn to love ourselves even while acknowledging that we are deeply flawed in various ways. It's not unlike true patriotism, which is love of our nation even while acknowledging our national faults -- and sometimes speaking aloud about those flaws so they might be fixed.
The self-esteem movement that gained traction a few decades back was rooted in a proper concern about being able to love and accept ourselves. But, as I came to know more about it, I found that it was not built either on the religious idea that we are lovable because we are precious children of God or on the more practical idea that true self-esteem is gained through real accomplishments -- not in all the children in a foot race receiving equal "participation" ribbons.
The book reviewer is right that we all know the answer to the question of whether love of self is really enough to make us happy (as if being happy were the ultimate goal of life; but that's another subject). And if you don't know the answer, perhaps it's time to read Augustine's Confessions.
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WHEN THE HUNGRY AREN'T FED
A new report from Bread for the World says hunger in the U.S. is terribly costly and is killing tens of thousands of children. Come on, Americans. We can do better than that. The problem is systemic, and so must be the solution.