Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Augustine, Alienation, and Yearning

Last week I mentioned a modern sense of alienation as a possible cause behind certain types of conversion. I want to return to the point here briefly.

There is indeed an alienation that exists now, but we need to be careful to locate its source correctly. Is it a product of modernity? While I would not want to deny that modernity may add accidental features to man’s Verfremdungseffekt that are not found in other times and places, the sense itself is a corollary of man’s fallen nature. In this respect, it is universal, and thus demands a transcendent solution.

Augustine understood this. Early in his Confessions (1.3.3), he says to God, conligis nos: “you gather us; you collect us; you put us back together.” In back of this language is an idea of man as fragmented, scattered, or dispersed and therefore in need of God’s remaking and reunifying power (though here the language arises in the context of a rejection of Mani’s fragmented material god: nec tu dissiparis sed conligis nos).

Such views about man’s dissipation were shared by Neoplatonists and others,1 though not for precisely the same reasons. James O’Donnell comments on the phrase conligis nos as follows:

Here, moreover, a doctrine of dispersion of divine being into material fragments, and the hope of restoration of wholeness, was central to the Manichees: ep. 236.2, `animas non solum hominum sed etiam pecorum de dei esse substantia et omnino partes dei esse arbitrantur. deum denique bonum et verum dicunt cum tenebrarum gente pugnasse et partem suam tenebrarum principibus miscuisse eamque toto mundo inquinatam et ligatam per cibos electorum suorum et per solem ac lunam purgari asseverant et, quod purgari de ipsa dei parte non potuerit, in fine saeculi aeterno ac poenali vinculo conligari’. The coincidence points to a late antique habit of thought that perceived the world-as-experienced as a place of shards and fragments, and supplemented that perception with a yearning for wholeness. A. knew Manichean, Platonic, and Christian forms of that perception and that yearning and chose to use Christian ones here, without having to abjure echoes of other forms.

In other words, for an Augustinian sensibility the “shattered” aspect of the world is not peculiar to America, late modernity, the Industrial Revolution, or anything else. It is a result of the Fall, and its solution is simply the Christian faith. The “yearning for wholeness” that was present in the late antique mind is real, but it finds its answer in Christ himself, and not in any particular organizational structure or nostalgia-inf(l)ected golden age.


  1. O’Donnell writes elsewhere  in same note that I am about to cite: “Though it may seem self-evident that A. found such notions in his neo-Platonic sources, then sought out the scriptural warrants that would support them, the process is likely to have been more complicated. What he found in the neo-Platonists that appealed to him had some correspondence to what he knew and thought before ever he read the platonicorum libri, for he did not come to those texts in any specially naive or untaught way. What he selected of the neo-Platonists to retain by the time of writing conf. was further influenced by what of their doctrine he thought compatible with (better: thought to be a reflection of) Christian doctrine. Moderns find his mature doctrine (that Christian teaching is the antecedent and lucid whole, neo-Platonism the derivative and imperfect reflection) to be the reverse of what we expect, and we now portray an A. who manufactured Christian doctrines from neo-Platonic cloth: the argument may perhaps be sustained, but we should never forget that to A. it seemed otherwise.” This particular point is relevant to other ongoing discussions.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

2 replies on “Augustine, Alienation, and Yearning”

Great little piece. Is it because we moderns have gotten rid of the biblical fall and so we need to invent our own? Or does each era have to reinvent the story of the Bible?

Dear Daniel,

I don’t know. It seems to me that the (real) Fall affects the stories we tell about other things, sometimes for good, sometimes not. The latter would occur when some subsequent devolution is substituted for the real McCoy: that would be a similar error to immanentizing the eschaton, but in the other direction–so, immanentizing the proton, I guess. But just as baleful.


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