At the Circus with Franz Kafka and Augustine – Part II

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In contrast to Kafka, Augustine, in Confessions, saw the circus in a less ambiguous manner. While Kafka made the choice between one end of the circus and another very complicated and difficult to decipher, Augustine makes it into a clear either/or decision. He associated the circus with the worst vices of society and, in his friendship with Alypius (arguably, his closest friend), we see that Augustine figured Alypius’s detachment from the circus as the first stage of conversion (which he, in fact, did together with Alypius – the image in this post is based on this group conversion). To be sure, Augustine makes it his task to wean Alypius away from the circus. But the irony of this is that Augustine had far worse vices to deal with, but if it weren’t for Alypius and their friendship, he would not be able to address them.   Regardless, the foil of his friendship with Alypius is the circus.

Augustine lived with Alypius and Nebridius when he moved to Milan. They were all friends and, as Augustine notes, they had the deepest discussions on religion, philosophy, and society. Reflecting on his friendship, Augustine records Alypius’s origins and the first time they met, in Carthage. He, like Socrates and many of his pupils, was older than Alypius. Regardless, their attraction to each other – which has much to do with virtue and character – is mutual:

Among this group (of friends) Alypius came form the same town as myself. His parents were leading citizens. He was younger than I and had attended my classes when I began to teach in our town and later in Carthage. He was much attached to me because I seemed to him good and cultured, and I was attached to him because of the solid virtue of his character, which was already apparent when he was of no great age. (VI, vii (11), 98)

However, immediately following this kind description, Augustine notes how Alypius, a young man of “solid virtue,” was, to his detriment, in love with the circus. He is “miserably” involved with the circus and his passion for it was “fatal”:

Nevertheless, the whirlpool of Carthaginian morals, with their passion for empty public shows, sucked him into the folly of the circus games. At the time when we was miserably involved in that, I was using a public lecture room as a professor of rhetoric there…I had discovered his fatal passion for the circus, and was gravely concerned because he seemed to be about to throw away or even already to have thrown away a career of high promise. (99)

When Alypius comes in to visit Augustine’s rhetoric class, Augustine rises to the occasion to save Alypius from the circus. But because Alypius is so addicted to the circus, Augustine regrets that “imposing some degree of pressure” or even his friendship was not enough.

But there was no means of warning him and recalling him by imposing some degree of pressure, either by the benevolence of friendship or by exercising the authority of the teacher. (99)

But when, one day, out of the blue, Alypius makes a surprise visit, something miraculous, in Augustine’s view, happens that enables Augustine to save Alypius from the circus:

One day I was sitting at the usual place where my pupils were present before me. He came in, greeted me, sat down, and gave his attention to the subject under discussion.   I was expounding a text which happened to be in my hands. While I was expounding it, it seemed opportune to use an illustration from the circus games which I sued to make my point clear, and to make it clearer and more agreeable I was bitingly sarcastic about those captivated by this folly. (99)

By being sarcastic about the circus, Augustine tells us that Alypius felt the words on the circus were distinctly for him. He knew Augustine cared about him and became “angry with himself.” This led Alypius to “love me more ardently.”

Augustine sees this moment as prophetic. And, citing Ezekiel, he argues that he “cured a wasting mind of high promise” by weaning him off the circus. In the wake of this, Alypius pleaded with his father to allow him to go and learn with Augustine: “His father yielded and granted his request.”

However, once they started learning, Augustine learned of another folly; namely, the “Manichee superstition” that emulated chastity. Augustine calls it “only a shadow and a simulation of virtue.” But this very simulation is what puts Augustine on edge because he, quite frankly and openly, loved women. Their main difference – within their friendship – was on this very point. And by way of it, Augustine was prompted to reflect on how, despite his desire to pursue the truth, he was still indecisive. This comes out of the fact that Augustine was tainted by experience while Alypius was too “innocent”(102).

Regardless, the message is clear. Augustine could not have taken Alypius on as a student or…as a friend without weaning him from the circus.   On that note, he seems to be telling us that even if philosophers and theologians can be friends, and live together, as Alypius and Augustine did in Milan, they can be only melancholy and perplexed. The joy and distraction that Augustine sees as “fatal” has no place in religion and philosophy which are, in his estimation, a serious and not a vulgar (that is, a common) pursuit. Virtue and the way of truth do not lead to the circus.   The circus, in other words, will lead one astray.

And by way of inspiring Alypius to hate himself and his passion for the circus, Augustine suggests that he saved a soul from self-destruction.   As Augustine notes, this salvation- from-the-circus made Alypius “love me more ardently.” And it is through this circus-free love of Augustine that Alypius comes more into dialogue with deeper questions about truth and the true way of life.   It seems as if, in Augustine’s world, God tolerates and even produces different ironies (such as Augustine’s contradictory lifestyle) but God does not tolerate humor and the circus which, to his mind, will only lead one to destroy one’s soul.

…to be continued….

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