Continuing my reading of Augustine’s work, I decided to read The Excidio Vrbis, and Other Sermons on the Fall of Rome. It is a short book, which compiles some texts that Augustine wrote and recited the year after the assault of Rome by the troops of Alarico. Although they are texts of a Christian nature, as is of a Christian nature all of Augustine’s work, these texts can be useful in improving our ability to endure suffering.
There is much to talk about, in many ways, about the fall of Rome. Nothing of a human nature lasts forever: not civilizations nor man himself. To tell people that their nation will have no end is to lie to them. Don’t get attached to what can change, disappear or die.
Why did Rome fall? A combination of factors: quality and quantity of soldiers, hunger and disease among the population, administrative incompetence and economic decline. You can look at this story from various angles. Augustine chose to look from the religious and materially fatalistic angle: there is no human construction that lasts forever. Thus, the “eternal Rome” is a myth. It is as Hobbes said : just as the human body declines for internal (diseases and old age) or external (injuries) reasons, also political bodies are born by social contract, grow with prosperity and can die by war or sedition. His Leviathan is a manual for perpetuation a government’s lifetime, but I’m yet to see such manual work. For Augustine, only spiritual things are eternal. So we can’t expect the hegemony of a nation to last forever. One way or another, for this reason or that reason, Rome would fall. Period. It’s the divine plan for matter. Everything in this world passes. To deny that is to lie. Because of this, it is not a good idea to cling to the country or anything that might change (friends and lovers, who can become people different from those you have become fond of) or end (wealth, fame, among others).
The nation is not the country (territory), but the people. The nation doesn’t die if the citizens don’t die.
Many Christians back in Augustine’s day were very upset, thinking they were watching the end of their nation. But weren’t they confusing things? For Augustine, the nation is not the country, not the territory, but the people. Even if Brazilians are dispersed around the world, as long as they keep in touch with each other and keep their traditions alive (a difficult task for such a culturally colonized people), the Brazilian nation will remain alive, even if the country called Brazil sinks into the Atlantic. Same goes for Rome, Augustine says: as long as there are Romans, the Roman nation remains, even if Rome is assaulted, taken, destroyed, burned, whatever. If citizens live, so does the nation.
Suffering is an opportunity for self-improvement if you have humility, patience, charity, and hope. Thinking about the present suffering is not as important as thinking about the present actions. There’s a bright side to suffering.
Augustine suggests that suffering be seen as a test. Suffering, when endured to the end, can lead a man to a better state. If you know how to deal with suffering, you’ll come out of it better than before. Such Nietzschean words for a Catholic saint. Constructively enduring suffering requires four virtues, Augustine says: humility, patience, charity and hope. MAPs (minor-attracted people), pay attention.
Humility is the opposite of pride. When the proud suffers, he suffers twice as much as the humble. Because the proud one keeps thinking things like “I’m too good to go through this, I don’t deserve it.” When you are suffering as much as the other, you need to identify with him, not think that you are better than him. Otherwise, you will suffer both the pains that are imposed on you and those that you impose upon yourself, when you compare yourself with “lesser beings”. It will be devastating when you realize that you, who are “virtuous”, are suffering as much as someone considered inferior. Everyone is equal in suffering. Suffering is no place for pride. Now, moving on. Patience is the ability to tolerate suffering. Augustine suggests that the Christian remember that all suffering in this world is in the divine plans. God knows what’s best, doesn’t he? Then tolerate it. This test, he says, is an opportunity for purification. Of course, this makes no sense to those who are not Christian, but patience during suffering is something universally accepted as positive. This doesn’t mean you should abandon the chances of ending your suffering, but rather that you must find psychological means of making suffering tolerable, or you will be crushed under the weight of pain. A good way is not to think so much about how much you suffer, but how you act in relation to suffering. Your actions can increase or soften the impact of the pain that is felt.
The virtue of charity, on the other hand, only makes sense if suffering is affecting a whole community. If each person who participates in suffering tries to make such suffering more tolerable not only for himself, but also for others, the bonds of friendship between those who suffer will be strengthened and the weak will need less patience to tolerate the punishments. Do to the other what you would like to be done to you. If you’re both suffering the same way, it’s easier to identify what your comrade needs. Finally, have hope. Augustine says that the nature of matter and all that is human is that those things end. If that is so, no one suffers forever, no suffering in this world is eternal. With these things in mind (humility, patience, charity, and hope), it is easier to view suffering as an opportunity for learning and improvement.
The questions of the faithful themselves are as important as the objections of the infidels.
Not only when talking about churches, but also of social causes and other human mobilizations, it is necessary to understand that keeping individuals in the group is as important as adding new members to the group. In the case of MAPs who organize themselves for social change, there are those who are not so firm in the cause and have doubts about whether or not they are doing the right thing. If these doubts are not resolved, they can leave the group and the cause’s potential for change will be lower. Thus, solving the doubts of weak links is as important as “debating” with antis on Twitter. Perhaps more important, since arguing with antis is often a waste of effort.
Do not take a warning as something negative, but as a direction.
Better than tolerating suffering is avoiding it. If you are warned that something bad is in the process of happening, you should not panic, but think about how to avoid this bad event or minimize its impacts. That’s what Bolsonaro should have done. But in his case, he didn’t even panic. He chose to embrace danger.
When someone criticizes your position about something, show that person examples of nations that have adopted their position and thrive.
This advice is valid for anyone who advocates an unpopular idea, such as socialism or legal reforms. Take examples of where your idea has worked and rub it on your detractor’s face. In Augustine’s case, in showing that Christianity is not the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, he pointed to Constantinople, a Christian nation that was very well off at the time.
If you say you are a Christian, you should learn from the tale of the rich and Lazarus. It’s not a sin to be rich. It’s natural not to want to do what’s right, but it’s wrong to not do what’s right.
I grabbed this advice mostly because the evangelical population in my country is increasing and, with it, the popularity of prosperity theology. The rich Christian has a commitment to the poor. In the Holy Bible, in the gospel of Luke, there is the story of the rich man who refused to feed Lazarus and ended up in hell, while Lazarus went to Abraham. Then the rich man asks Abraham if someone among the dead could go and visit his family to warn them what happens to those who concentrate wealth, even in face of the needs of the poor, but Abraham says someone who doesn’t listen to the Law and the Prophets won’t listen to someone who rises from the dead either. This is even prophetic: if Jesus returned to earth to reaffirm the Christian commitment to the poor people, he would not be believed by those who do not read the four gospels that they insist in carrying everywhere. It is not that wealth is a sin, but it is certainly unfair that you, being so rich, are not able to open your hand to those in need. Sure, you don’t want to share what you spent so much time and effort to get, but it’s the right thing to do. Nobody said saving yourself is easy.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Augustine comments on the bad example of Peter, who said he would die with Jesus and instead denied that he knew him when Jesus was captured. You can’t promise what you can’t do. Although Augustine speaks of this case in a more mystical sense, Søren Kierkegaard points to another reason not to make promises on impulse. In his Diary of a Seducer, Kierkegaard says that you should not stop a person who has fallen in love with you from making promises that you know will not be fulfilled, because the lover, when he breaks the promise, is dependent on your forgiveness. Perfect setting for emotional manipulation.
If you love something, don’t act against the interests of that thing you love.
Augustine says this when he learns that many Catholics, in order to defend the church, prevented repentant donatists from being readmitted to Catholicism. This is to act against the interests of the church, even if such an attitude is motivated by love for the church. The same applies to political positions or social causes.