If your friend dies, is it a sign of weakness, or of insufficient virtue, if you weap? — weakness because after all you are crying, insufficient virtue because you proved to be unstable, your happiness depending on the possession of something.  That seems a hard, stoic attitude, not Christian, and so a colleague wrote wondering whether St. Augustine didn’t endorse something like it in Confessions IV, where, reflecting on his own misery when he lost a dear friend in his youth, the saint says, famously, “For he alone loses none dear to him to whom all are dear in Him who cannot be lost.”

I wrote back to my colleague that I, by experience, had rather found St. Thomas Aquinas’ approach to be helpful: namely, when we suppose that Augustine is saying something misguided, silly, or false, look for some implicit restriction or qualification, which, if supplied, makes it sensible and sound.

I then told my friend that a story from my own household, from the day before, could substantiate the wisdom of this approach.   It was lunchtime, and my thumotic 10-year old Gregory was telling me with much enthusiasm how he was almost finished with the second volume of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and was looking forward to reading the third.  When I congratulated him, and asked about his reading it, he added that he wanted to get through the books so that, as his mother had promised, he would then be allowed to watch the movies.

I chided him in reply and said, “That’s very strange, Greg.  As in other cases, the books are much better than the movies.  So to say that you are reading the books so that you can see the movies is like saying that you want to go up, in order to go down.  Or that you’d like to go to heaven, to get to purgatory.”  I then added, “You know, St. Augustine once said that any sin can be analyzed as either using something that should be enjoyed, or enjoying something that should be used — taking an instrument as an end, or an end as an instrument. You might want to be careful,”  I joked, “because it sounds to me, from what you are saying, that St. Augustine might have said that your reading of those books is a sin!” Gregory then said something in reply which exceeds the comprehension of many philosophers today: “What if I am reading and enjoying the books, in order to see and enjoy and the movies?”

At that point, my three year old, Blaise, who was observing the whole exchange very carefully, apparently believing that Gregory was attempting to contradict St Augustine, started shouting as if in a chant and pounding his fist in time, “Augustine is always right!  Augustine is always right! Augustine is always right!”   I joked to Gregory, “You see, Blaise must have been inspired by the Holy Spirit, because what would a three year old know about the authority of St. Augustine anyway?”

So there you have it.  Just as St. Thomas thought, St. Augustine is always right.

The story continued though.  When he had finished his chant, Blaise turned to me and said, “And Daddy, you are so dumb!”  I then congratulated him on his insight and thanked him, saying that surely I needed him to follow me around, constantly repeating what he had said, the way in Imperial Rome a slave would follow the conquering general in the victory parade, reminding him that he was made from dust and mortal.

"I did not say that." St. Augustine even shows up in the margin to correct a well-intended by mistaken gloss.

“I did not say that.” St. Augustine even shows up in the margin to correct a well-intended but mistaken gloss. (Photo courtesy of Jim Siebach.)