Augustine And The Purpose of Fiction

It’s quite something to find yourself calling one of the greatest thinkers in history a fool.

I intend to write a fuller review of St. Augustine’s Confessions later — when I’ve actually finished reading it. But I wanted to take a moment and react a bit to some of the things he’s said, things I wasn’t expecting him to say. You see, as it turns out…Augustine is not a big fan of fiction and literature.

Essentially, Augustine’s position seems to be that since words never fully express what we think, the striving for eloquence in speech is a hollow endeavour. In his society, rhetoric and oratory were highly prized no matter what was actually being said. Augustine heavily criticizes (rightly I think) putting the supreme emphasis on style over content, but I’m discovering that one aspect of his thought is his extreme reactions to what he views as extreme wrongs. For example, in converting to Christianity after a lifestyle of lust and hedonism, he solved the problem of his sensual appetite by declaring celibacy. He even goes so far to say in Confessions that the only proper way to have even marital sex was for the purpose of procreation. Any other sexual activity was a sin. (Apparently his views on this and connected topics shifted through his life, so don’t judge him quite too harshly; he was a man who examined himself thoroughly.)

But getting back to fiction. For Augustine, fiction is a form of lying. Writers today often say the same thing. But of course the difference is that Augustine takes lying and mendacity very seriously, from the Christian perspective of sin. And he questions ultimately the purpose of those dramatic entertainments which were so popular in his time, why audiences praise a performance that makes them sympathize with the sufferings and tragedy of a fictional character — for whom we can do nothing and to whom we can show no actual act of compassion. He asks, not unduly perhaps, why we excite our emotions to such a pitch with seemingly no purpose.

As he argues eloquently (and his eloquence is of course ironic) against the mendacity of fiction, I find myself naturally moving to the defensive position. Hasn’t he considered the parables of Jesus? And what about the possibilities of fiction to explore ideas and philosophies and theologies? And for this I call him a fool.

The thing to keep in mind, of course, is what fictional literature was like in his day. In that society most of it dealt with the gods and legendary heroes; Virgil’s Aeneid was taught and recited in schools. To us it is dead mythology. To Augustine it was a living religion at odds with his own Christian faith. It should come as no surprise then why he reacts so extremely to it.

All this leads me to the very Augustinian practice of self-examination. I consider myself one of these liars by trade who wants to build his career on fiction and literature. I look to inspire emotions in my readers and get them to connect to figures who both I and they pretend are people. Augustine’s question of, “With what purpose?” rings in my head like a challenge.

Why fiction? What effect does it have on us? Is it enough to critique a work on form and craft alone, or should I be examining what effect it has on me and why it is asking me to feel certain things for certain characters?

Even more to the point: What is it I’m hoping to accomplish by the telling of tales and the weaving of lies?

2 thoughts on “Augustine And The Purpose of Fiction

  1. As I read it, I found his critique of literature to be particularly beneficial in my own reflection as it challenged me to feel for those around me as I do for the fictional characters of books. He calls out fiction for eliciting real responses, but it seems to be a greater challenge to individuals that allow themselves to be deeply moved by the events of a play and yet ignore the actual suffering that surrounds them. I thought his discussion on getting pleasure from the sufferings of others on the stage to be important as it forces us to ask of ourselves what we enjoy in seeing despair and hurt played out through fiction. The questions that must be posed in response to his extreme position regarding the impact of our dependence on fiction are worthwhile to ask, though I do believe that there is still great value in fictitious works.

    • Yes, I think you’re right. His points on enjoying suffering especially were good ones. But I do still find myself wondering why he does have such extreme reactions; instead of advocating some sort of reform of fiction and drama he sort of outright condemns it. And why he never seems to consider the parables of Jesus (at least in the text, he probably thought about it out loud or in his head) is still a mystery to me. Maybe he places that on a different level, or maybe he doesn’t consider emotion to be their primary means of teaching — which is a fair point. But then I look at other parts of the Bible and see how emotions are evoked out of true stories for a purpose and I wonder again why he reacts the way he does…

      For myself it’s definitely moving me towards a place where I have to answer why I am a writer of fiction. I don’t think I have a clear reason yet, and I feel like I should. So it’s probably a very good thing overall, so maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to call him a fool. 🙂

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