Augustine, the Christian Hedonist

What is Christian Hedonism?

“Christian Hedonism” is term coined by John Piper. According to Piper, all men by nature seek their own happiness. However, this pursuit of happiness is not in competition with God (contra. self-centeredness). In fact, as Piper has famously said, “God Is Most Glorified In Us When We Are Most Satisfied In Him.” And conversely, we are most satisfied as we seek that satisfaction in God. C.S. Lewis, who greatly influenced Piper’s view of Christian Hedonism, said,

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. – C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory.”

This is the essence of Christian Hedonism.

Christian Hedonism in Augustine’s Confessions

But John Piper or C.S. Lewis didn’t make this up. This isn’t some novel idea created in the 20th century. As I read the first ten books of Augustine’s Confessions I noticed a consistent thread of what we now call “Christian Hedonism.” The following is a collection of quotes from books I-X in which Augustine exemplifies this outlook of Christian Hedonism. (The following quotations are taken from Henry Chadwick’s translation, Oxford University Press, 1992.) For those who don’t want to take the time to read all of these, I’ve highlighted some of my favorites.

“To praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” –pg. 3.

“Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself?” –pg. 5.

“Let him rejoice and delight in finding you who are beyond discovery rather than fail to find you by supposing you to be discoverable.” –pg. 8.

“No one is doing right if he is acting against his will, even when what e is doing is good.” –pg. 14.

“For you have imposed order, and so it is that the punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.” –pg. 15.

“I intend to remind myself of my past foulnesses and carnal corruptions, not because I love them but so that I may love you, my God.” –pg. 24.

“For you were always with me, mercifully punishing me, touching with a bitter taste all my illicit pleasures. You intention was that I should seek delights unspoilt by disgust and that, in my quest where I could achieve this, I should discover it to be in nothing except you Lord, nothing but you.” –pg. 25.

“Yet sin is committed for the sake of all these things and others of this kind when, in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law (Ps. 118: 142). These inferior goods have their delights, but not comparable to my God who has made them all. It is in him that the just person takes delight; he is the joy of those who are true of heart (Ps. 63: 11).” –pg. 30.

“So the soul fornicates (Ps. 72: 27) when it is turned away from you and seeks outside you the pure and clear intentions which are not to be found except by returning to you.” –pg. 32.

“My hunger was internal, deprived of inward food, that is of you yourself, my God. But that was not the kind of hunger I felt. I was without any desire for incorruptible nourishment, not because I was replete with it, but the emptier I was, the more unappetizing such food became. So my soul was in rotten health. In an ulcerous condition it thrust itself to outward things, miserably avid to be scratched by contact with the world of the senses. Yet physical things has no soul. Love lay outside their range.” –pg. 35.

“‘My God, my mercy’ (Ps. 58: 18) in your goodness you mixed in much vinegar with that sweetness.” –pg. 35.

“In seeking for you I followed … the mind of the flesh. But you were more inward than my most inward part and higher than the highest element within me.” –pg. 43.

“Your punishment is that which human beings do to their own injury because, even when they are sinning against you, their wicked actions are against their own souls.” –pg. 47.

“My error was my god. If I attempted to find rest there for my soul, it slipped through a void and again came falling back upon me. I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape from myself. Where should my heart flee to in escaping from my heart? Where should I go to escape from myself? Where is there where I cannot pursue myself?” –pg. 60.

“Let these transient things be the ground on which my soul praises you (Ps. 145: 2). ‘God creator of all’. But let it not become stuck in them and glued to them with love through the physical senses. For these things pass along the path of things that move towards non-existence. They rend the soul with pestilential desires; for the soul loves to be in them and take its repose among the objects of its love. But in these things there is no point of rest: they lack permanence. They flee away and cannot be followed with the bodily senses. no one can fully grasp them even while they are present. Physical perception is slow, because it is a bodily sense: its nature imposes limitations on it. … But far superior to these things is he who made all things, and he is our God. He does not pass away; nothing succeeds him.” –pg. 62-63.

“What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter; for all that comes from him is unjustly loved if he has been abandoned.” –pg. 63-64.

“There is no rest where you seek for it. Seek for what you see, but it is not where you are looking for it. You seek the happy life in the region of death; it is not there. How can there be a happy life where there is not even life?” –pg. 64.

“At that time I did not know this. I loved beautiful things of a lower order.” –pg. 64.

“Our good is life with you for ever, and because we turned away from that, we became twisted. Let us now return to you that we may not be overturned. Our good is life with you and suffers no deficiency (Ps. 101: 28); for you yourself are that good.” –pg. 71.

“Lord God of truth, surely the person with a scientific knowledge of nature is not pleasing to you on that ground alone. The person who knows all those matters but is ignorant of you is unhappy. The person who knows you, even if ignorant of natural science, is happy. Indeed the one who knows both you and nature is no on that account happier. You alone are his source of happiness if knowing you he glorifies you for what you are and gives thanks and is not lost in his own imagined ideas (Rom. 1: 21).” –pg. 75.

“I aspired to honours, money, marriage, and you laughed at me. In those ambitions I suffered the bitterest difficulties; that was by your mercy–so much the greater in that you gave me the less occasion to find sweet pleasure in what was not you.” –pg. 97.

“Praise to you, glory to you, fount of mercies! As I became unhappier, you cam closer.” –pg. 109.

“What tortuous paths! How fearful a fate for ‘the rash soul’ (Isa. 3: 9) which nursed the hope that after it had departed from you, it would find something better! Turned this way and that, on its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable. You alone are repose.” –pg. 110.

“I learnt by experience that it is no cause for surprise when bread which is pleasant to a healthy palate is misery to an unhealthy one; and to sick eyes light which is desirable to the healthy is hateful. The wicked are displeased by your justice, even more by vipers and the worm which you created good, being well fitted for the lower parts of your creation. To these lower parts the wicked themselves are well fitted, to the extent that they are dissimilar to you, but they can become fitted for the higher parts insofar as they become more like you. I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, towards inferior things, rejecting its own inner life (Ecclus. 10: 10) and swelling with external matter. I was astonished to find that already I loved you, not a phantom surrogate for you. But I was not stable in the enjoyment of my God. I was caught up to you by your beauty and quickly torn away from you by my weight. With a groan I crashed into inferior things. This weight was my sexual habit.” –pg. 126-127.

“I sought a way to obtain strength enough to enjoy you; but I did not find it until I embraced ‘the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 2: 5)…. The food which I was too weak to accept he mingled with flesh, in that ‘The Word was made flesh’ (John 1: 14), so that our infant condition might come to suck milk from your wisdom by which you created all things.” –pg. 128.

“To enjoy you I was too weak.” –pg. 130.

“Come Lord, stir us up and call us back, kindle and seize us, be our fire and our sweetness. Let us love, let us run.” –pg. 138.