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I want you to use me

St. Augustine knew that the Bible is a hard book to read. That’s why he left us, as one of the best known and influential of his works, something approaching a handbook for the study of Scripture, the book On Christian Teaching (De doctrina Christiana). Now, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend choosing this 1,600-year-old text as the next book for your small group Bible study, though as C.S. Lewis memorably pointed out (in an introduction to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius), what gives 1,600 year-old works their staying power is usually that they are far clearer and more accessible even to the average person than modern books full of “‘isms’ and influences.” In any case, Augustine does offer in this book a few very simple and fruitful rules for interpreting Scripture.

One of the most familiar is his hermeneutical rule of love. Augustine states this rule concisely toward the end of book I: “So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood” (I.36.40).[1] This is an attractive rule, even to the modern moral ear, insofar as Augustine seems to underscore the notion that indeed, after all, “all you need is love.” And, to be sure, insofar as Augustine is simply hanging this hermeneutical principle on the same two commandments on which Jesus himself hung “all the law and the prophets,” this is not far from the truth. Augustine says elsewhere, “Love, and do as you please” (Homilies on 1 John, 7.8).

The danger, though, is that such a reading of Augustine’s “love hermeneutic” can be reduced to a romantic sentimentality if it is extracted from other key principles and distinctions he makes in the De doctrina, distinctions that help the reader understand what it means to love God and to love neighbor. Two of the more important of these keys are, on the one hand, Augustine’s famous distinction between enjoyment and use, and on the other, his conviction about the ontological priority of the unchangeable over the changeable. As a way of showing how Augustine’s “love hermeneutic” works, I want to show how it draws its logic from these two fundamental keys in Augustine’s thought. What we’ll discover may sound a bit strange to the modern moral ear: in Augustine’s understanding, the only way for us to love our neighbor properly is for us to use him.

From the beginning of the book, Augustine puts on the table a key distinction that will underlie everything else he wants to say: the distinction between enjoyment and use. “Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them” (I.3.3). We are said to enjoy those things that we “cling to lovingly” for their own sake; other things that help us reach those first and primary things, and that we refer to our obtaining of them, we are said to use.

For Augustine, moreover, there is only one thing that we may properly enjoy: “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in fact the Trinity, one supreme thing” (I.5.5). All other things, including other human beings, are, properly speaking, to be used. They are, that is, to be referred to the obtaining of the one supreme object of enjoyment, just as, when traveling, we use the vehicles and pathways of the journey only for the sake finally of reaching the fatherland, “where alone we could find real happiness in its agreeable familiarity” (I.4.4). Therefore when Augustine says that the dominant exegetical rule for understanding the Scriptures is the love of God and the love of neighbor, he doesn’t mean the same thing by these two loves. The former is the love of enjoyment; the latter is the love of use.

To post-Kantian moral ears, this will inevitably sound strange. With Kant in the water of our moral reasoning, we assume that we readily understand the categories that Augustine proposes. Clearly, we may think, when Augustine speaks of enjoyment, he is talking about treating something as an end in itself, and when he speaks of use, he is identifying the way in which we deploy some things as a means to the end that we seek. If the end is toasted bread for breakfast, then the means is the electric toaster. The toaster is a tool I use in order to enjoy my breakfast. I don’t care about the toaster (except that it continues working so I can use it again tomorrow); it is merely an instrument I am using to achieve something that I want. One of Kant’s key universal maxims therefore follows somewhat straightforwardly: we should not treat other human beings like toaster ovens, merely as tools for the fulfillment of our personal ends, and therefore we ought never to treat another person as a means only, but always as an end. That, for a Kantian, is what we must mean by loving our neighbors.

To apply this means/ends distinction to Augustine’s use/enjoyment scheme, and subsequently to reject the latter as entailing a hopelessly instrumental relationship between human beings, is, however, mistaken. Such a charge against Augustine fails because it sidesteps a key principle of his theological ontology. Indeed, with this principle in hand, an Augustinian can show that Kant’s universal maxim about means and ends is self-defeating.

Reality, for Augustine, is arranged according to a hierarchy of being: some things possess a lower, some a higher degree of being. We can see this, he says, even if we confine our observation to living things: sentient life (the life of animals) we intuitively rank above vegetative life (the life of trees), and intelligent life (the life of human beings) we in turn rank above sentient life. Wise intelligent life, moreover, we rank above the unwise sort. But, he says, if even intelligent life can sometimes be wise and sometimes not, then there must be some measure of wisdom that is not subject to such variation, some standard by which wise or unwise intelligent life can be judged as such, and that is stable and unchanging (I.8.8). This wisdom in itself is nothing other than being itself, the unchanging fullness of being from which all other beings derive their existence; not merely the top of the hierarchy, but the condition for there being any hierarchy at all.

Augustine takes it as a self-evident metaphysical first principle that this kind of being, unchangeable life, “is to be preferred to the changeable variety”: “anyone who does not see this is like a blind man in the light of the sun, whom that clear, bright light, presently pouring into the place where his eyes should be, benefits not at all” (I.9.9). The human heart was made for infinite happiness, but that happiness is impossible unless it is reliably secure. No creature can offer that security, because every creature, as a creature, is necessarily subject to change, never steady, never still. For the creature, that it is and what it is are not one thing; it exists always and only from nothing (ex nihilo); it is necessarily contingent, dependent upon something outside of itself, and never therefore capable by itself of providing the source or ground or anchor for the being and bliss of another. God alone is firm; God alone is stable. His essence is his existence, and it is he who provides the ground and anchor of our being, the one supremely reliable safe haven to which we can direct our course on the turbulent seas of this world, the infinite good in which alone our infinite desires will be satiated. Our hearts are restless until they rest in him.

When Augustine says, therefore, that God alone is to be enjoyed, and everything else — including human beings — used, he does not mean that everything besides God is worthless; quite the contrary. He says that “if a thing is to be loved for its own sake, it means that it constitutes the life of bliss” (I.22.20). To treat other human beings as though they constituted the life of our bliss would be to expect more from them than it would ever be possible for them to give, to treat them “inhumanly,” as though they were something other than what they in fact are. The inevitable result of trying to treat human beings as (merely) an end, since their ontological status makes this in fact impossible, is that they instead become tools for our self-gratification, self-aggrandizement, and self-indulgence. Such a person becomes, that is, exactly what Kant most fears. But this is why Augustine can say that “unlawful use” (enjoying things that ought to be used, including other human beings) “should rather be termed abuse or misuse” (I.4.4). We abuse people when we try to treat them as our last end, because no one could ever bear that weight.

Thus Augustine shows that Kant’s principle is self-defeating: treating another human being as an end is pernicious. It is in fact impossible for a human being to be an end because a human being, as a creature, is by definition not self-sufficient: wholly ontologically and metaphysically dependent on another, the absolute other, who is perfectly self-existent (He Who Is).

If any doubt remains, moreover, that Augustine is not merely endorsing an ethic of cold, calculating instrumentality in our relations with other human beings, we should note how he can freely say that, when we order our loves properly, there is indeed a sense in which we come to enjoy our neighbor. Augustine cites St. Paul’s letter to Philemon: “In this way, brother … let me enjoy you in the Lord” (I.33.37, quoting verse 20).

We don’t use other human beings in the same way we use toaster ovens, as Kant seems to fear we might. There are different kinds and degrees of use, and some seem close enough to enjoyment that Paul can speak of enjoying Philemon. But, Augustine is quick to point out, Paul speaks of enjoying Philemon only “in the Lord.” That is, he is enjoying Philemon only because he is a creature of God; an extraordinarily exalted creature, to be sure, one who can enjoy the Lord in the same way as Paul by virtue of his humanity (I.27.28), but still only a creature, and therefore grievously abused if treated as being able to offer more than he can in fact offer, namely, the sure and unchangeable good that only God can offer. “When you enjoy a human being in God, you are really enjoying God rather than the human being” (I.33.37). Augustine says such enjoyment is “to use with delight” (I.33.37).

But of course, Augustine says, the most perfect love we can offer our neighbors is “so to deal with them that they too love God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind” (I.22.21). The possibility of their enjoyment of the Lord is what makes possible our enjoyment of them in the Lord. And so if we really love them, we will not only reject the idea that they are an end in themselves, that in them we will find our true enjoyment and our final rest; we will also want them to do the same with us. We will want them to use us. We will refer them in all their relations with us to the enjoyment of that one unchangeable good where they may fix their gaze forever: the unchangeable God.


[1] All citations of the De doctrina refer to the New City Press translation: Saint Augustine, Teaching Christianity, translated by Edmund Hill, OP. The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, I/11 (New City Press, 1996).


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