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Confessions: The Object Of Praise Becomes The Object Of Love

But a human being as such is a huge abyss. You know the number of hairs on his head, Master, and in you there’s no subtraction from that number; but it’s easier to count his hairs than his moods or the workings of his heart.—Saint Augustine, Confessions4.22

What do I love when I praise? What is the real reason I praise something or a person? This is another question Augustine wrestles with. Augustine focused on the meaning of beauty in his work “On the Beautiful and the Fitting” yet dedicated the work to Hierius, an orator in the city of Rome, whom he had never met face to face. Looking back, Augustine questions himself on why had he dedicated his work to a man who he had never met, or much less, showed any interest in his work at all.

He had heard a few quotations by him that he liked, but Augustine recognizes the truth. He dedicated his work to Hierius for the clout the name could bring him. Augustine says, “my stronger reason for liking him was that other people liked him and praised him to the skies…” (4.21.1) Hierius, to some degree, reflected the story Augustine wanted his story to tell. Hierius was from Syria and “initially been trained only in Greek oratory” but “had, later on, turned out to be a marvelous speaker in Latin, and also deeply learned in questions connected to philosophical studies” (4.21.1).

Augustine states that the “object of praise becomes the object of love” (4.21.2) So what was Augustine really praising when he praised Hierius? What did Augustine love when he loved Hierius? There was a dichotomy because although he wanted to be praised as Hierius was, he did not want to be praised for the same things. Did Augustine really praise the underdog story? A small-town boy who makes it to the big leagues? That’s what one would expect, and it would make sense. But Augustine was not happy about his small beginnings. “How can it be that I love in another person what I hate in myself?” (4.22.2)

Augustine realizes that he did not praise or love Hierius. Nor did he praise and love his works. Nor did he praise and love his accomplishments. What Augustin really praised, and therefore loved, was Hierius' fame. His realization is best said in his own words,

So how do I know, and why am I confident in testifying to you that I was passionate about him more because of the passion of those who praised him than because of the things he was praised for? Well, if the same men hadn’t praised him but instead decisively disparaged him, and told me the exact same story about him, except in the mode of reviling and rejecting him, I wouldn’t have been inflamed or aroused. The facts, anyway, would have been just the same, and so would the man; only the attitude of those telling about him would have been different. (4.23.1)

Hierius could have been famous for anything and Augustine would have loved the fame all the same. Had Hierius been despised for the same work he was now being praised for, Augustine would have been indifferent to him. What did he praise? He praised fame, therefore he loved fame. And such love is impartial to what is moral, what is good, and what is right. People can be famous for just about anything that tickles the ear.

Consider the lyrics and lifestyles of some of the most popular songs and people right now. Why do famous people do this except for the fact that they know it will garner attention? And despite how despicable their actions or lyrics may be, the masses follow along with it and allow it to determine their culture and values. Most people do not question the moral depravity of popular culture because they praise and love fame. And when you love fame you are willing to overlook the more important things.

Augustine’s self-reflection concludes, “Here’s the ground on which a weak soul lies… whatever breezes blow, delivered by human tongues out of the bosom of humanity’s various views, they can carry that soul round and about, twist it inside out, while the light is clouded over and the truth not perceived—but it’s right there in front of us.” (24.23.2)

Teach me, LORD, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end.— 119:33

Lord, may I praise you, that I may love you.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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