It was their final conversation. She would soon die, although neither of them knew it at the time. St. Augustine and his mother waited for a ship that would take her across the sea, to Africa, where she had raised him. She had always prayed he would become a Catholic; now, after many years, he was one. “There we talked together,” he writes in his Confessions, “she and I alone in deep joy.” This common joy stemmed from their shared company, but also their shared belief in God:
Our conversation had brought us to this point, that any pleasure whatsoever of the bodily senses, in any brightness whatsoever of corporeal light, seemed to us not worthy of comparison with the pleasure of that eternal Light, not worthy even of mention. Rising as our love flamed upwards towards that Selfsame, we passed in review the various levels of bodily things, up to the heavens themselves, whence sun and moon and star shine upon this earth. And higher still we soared, thinking in our minds and speaking and marveling at Your works: and so we came to our own souls, and went beyond them to come at last to that region of richness unending, where You feed Israel forever with the food of truth: and there life is that Wisdom by which all things are made, both the things that have been and the things that are yet to be. But this Wisdom itself is not made: it is as it has ever been, and so it shall be forever: indeed “has ever been” and “shall be forever” have no place in it, but it simply is, for it is eternal: whereas “to have been” and “to be going to be” are not eternal. And while we were thus talking of His Wisdom and panting for it, with all the effort of our heart we did for one instant attain to touch it; then sighing, and leaving the first fruits of our spirit bound to it, we returned to the sound of our own tongue, in which a word has both beginning and ending. For what is like to your Word, our Lord, who abides in Himself forever, yet grows not old and makes all things new!
This passage presumes a lot of religious beliefs, none of which I aim to defend. Yet this is typically how we philosophers approach beliefs, whether secular or religious. We typically try to explain what they mean, show what they presuppose or entail, and then argue for their truth or falsity accordingly. This is a cognitive approach to belief: the assessment of its truth. When it comes to belief in God, philosophers using this approach argue in the following way: “We must believe in God, if we continue to hold some other belief to which we are already committed.” Different philosophers choose different beliefs as foundations for this sort of claim: that there is good and evil, rather than a moral void; that there is eternal truth, rather than a mere struggle for power; or, most basically, that there is something, rather than nothing. If we believe one or more such thing, goes the cognitive approach, we must believe in God, because only so would it be possible. But this is not at all how I wish to approach belief here.
Instead, I adopt an affective approach. That is to say, I aim to discuss the emotional-value (rather than the truth-value) of the belief that God exists. Using this approach, I argue as follows: “We must believe in God, if we wish to perfect an emotion to which we are already committed—namely, love.” I think this is what Augustine is getting at in the passage just quoted: he and his mother perfected their love for each other through their shared love of God. When all is said and done, Confessions is a love-story. Augustine recounts how his life has been a series of disappointing love-affairs, each one characterized by a different sort of love-object: sensual pleasures that titillated his body for a moment but proved unsatisfying in the long run; honors that inflated his vanity but left him feeling empty nonetheless; pagan wisdom that enhanced his intellect but proved incomplete in the face of suffering; friends who delighted him while they lived but died in the end. This story of disappointment changes when he finally adopts the love-object first presented by his mother: the God of Catholic Christianity. He comes to believe that God has been his love-object all along, and he writes in order to show us we are no different. “Our hearts are restless,” he famously begins, “until they rest in You.”
Augustine’s belief—in an omnipotent God who loves us unconditionally—is the belief I would like to evaluate here for its emotional-value, that is, for its ability to perfect our own love. Believe it or not, this evaluation becomes easier once we consider how this Christian love-story adapts a script written first by Plato. It is found in Symposium, which really ought to be called Drinking Party. That’s what “Symposium” means in Greek, and that’s where this divine conversation among friends is set. Plato tells how his teacher, Socrates, learned the nature of love from a woman. Her name is Diotima, “honored by the God,” and it is doubtful that she ever really existed. More likely, she is a figment of Plato’s imagination. In any case, she argues that lovers desire beauty, and they want it not for an hour or a day, but forever. Only one object will satisfy this desire, but because lovers mistake ephemeral beauty for its eternal Form, she describes a “ladder of love” that they must climb if they are to find genuine satisfaction.
This is a story of everyone’s affective maturation, inasmuch as we are all lovers. Some acquire the name because of their evident ardor, but they differ only in degree from the rest of us. The first rung of our ladder is appetite for another’s body. Sensuality, in other words, is the beginning of every love-story. But when the sensualist recognizes that there is more than one beautiful body in the world, Diotima says, he next learns to love all beautiful bodies. In Plato’s love-story, in other words, promiscuity is an achievement! Not surprisingly, that’s a part of the script which St. Augustine ignores. He does, however, adopt the following part, which brings the climbing lover from bodies to souls, first loving one soul and then, as with bodies earlier, loving all beautiful souls. This is a progression we all recognize in the maturation of love from mere sensuality to an appreciation of character. But Diotima does not stop there. From all beautiful souls, she says, the climbing lover rises higher, to love the source of that beauty: the institutions that cultivate souls, the laws that maintain those institutions, the knowledge that justifies those laws, and finally the object of knowledge itself. She calls it Beauty, with a capital B; in other dialogues, Plato calls it Good, with a capital G, or the One with a capital O; for our purposes here, without too much distortion, we may call it God.
Plato thus thinks that our hearts seek God, however imperfectly, and so our love will remain imperfect until it finally takes Him for its object. Sexual desire, for example, seeks beauty in bodies and reproduces the species, guaranteeing parents a sort of survival in the person of their child. Plato considers it an imperfect quest for the eternally beautiful life found perfectly only in communion with God. This, to repeat, is the script of Augustine’s Confessions. Famously, his sexual relationship—which produces a child who converts to Catholicism, shows great intellectual promise, and then dies—proves imperfect at best, like every other love-object before his conversion. Together, then, Platonism and Augustinian Christianity describe an ascent from sensuality to divinity, from time to eternity; together they believe that only by climbing this ladder will we find genuine satisfaction.
Modern philosophers have generally been critical, even contemptuous, of this belief. Nietzsche epitomizes this contempt when he calls Christianity “Platonism for the masses.” So, if we are to evaluate this Augustinian love-story and its Platonic script as something relevant to modern belief, we should consider how well it fares against Nietzsche’s attack.
The first thing to be said about this attack is that Nietzsche approaches the belief in God as I am doing so here: affectively rather than cognitively. In fact, my approach is inspired by his. He is not concerned to refute the arguments for the truth of Christian beliefs, anymore than I have been concerned here to defend such arguments. I agree with him that these arguments, though important in their proper context, do little to change lives. Evangelists make converts, but never, as far as I know, by presenting St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God, or any of the other products of philosophical and theological ingenuity. Nietzsche is concerned, then, with the emotional-value of the belief in God. He argues that this belief is resentful—as much a product of resentment, as it promotes more of the same—despite its pretenses to be loving. To make sense of this argument, I should say a few words about the emotion of resentment.
Two of resentment’s many features show roughly how it operates in Nietzsche’s attack: first, it creates values; second, it does so from a position of weakness. The first feature becomes clearer by contrast with anger, which assumes values rather than creating them. When someone is angry, on one hand, his antecedent values have been violated. Achilles lived by warrior-values, according to which he was entitled to a prize for his valor in battle; Agamemmnon violated these values by taking away his deserved prize; so Achilles got angry and challenged Agamemmnon openly. When someone is resentful, on the other hand, he feels weak and cannot make an open challenge; instead, he creates values to make himself more powerful, or at least feel that way. This is how the believer in God functions. Or so Nietzsche argues.
His On the Genealogy of Morality tells a quasi-historical story of how slaves and rabble created Christian values and the beliefs needed to elaborate them, all in order to compensate themselves in fantasy for their worldly weakness. “I may be a slave, without the power to satisfy my appetites here on earth,” these weak lamented, “but in heaven, in the company of God, I will have every satisfaction.” Not content to dream heavenly satisfaction for themselves, they wanted also to see the strong burn in hell. Consequently, everything that masters claim in this world—beautiful bodies, cultivated souls, political power—became sinful. Tricked eventually by the ingenuity of the weak, by their scary fables of eternal punishment for sinfulness, by their charming promises of eternal bliss for saintliness, even masters came to believe the values and beliefs produced by slavish resentment. In time, they surrendered their worldly prerogatives voluntarily. The religion of love, according to this story, began as a power-grab.
Many have criticized Nietzsche’s story on historical grounds, or as a sophomoric commission of the genetic fallacy, but they are missing the point. His genealogy is largely allegorical. At his best, and most evidently in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche makes a psychological argument about Christian belief at any time, including the present. Resentment is always operative in it, he argues, because we are all weak and thus tempted to create values in order to feel stronger. But are not some strong and some weak? Why are we all supposed to be weak? In a word, we die. While we live, moreover, greedy time robs us of our finest moments. In this inexorable weakness, Nietzsche argues, we inevitably dream of another life, an eternal one, where we will escape time, cheat death, and assume the power of an omnipotent God. By focusing our energies on this fantasy of spiritual eternity, however, we divert them from the bodily life we have, here in time. By loving God in his heaven, above all, we denigrate worldly loves.
Notice how neatly this critique fits the conversation between Augustine and his mother. “Any pleasure whatsoever of the bodily senses, in any brightness whatsoever of corporeal light,” he writes, “seemed to us not worthy of comparison with the pleasure of that eternal Light, not worthy even of mention.” To this demotion of bodily pleasure he adds an implicit criticism of time. Eternal is the Wisdom of God that he and his mother touched for an instant; but “leaving the first fruits of our spirit bound to it,” he sighs, “we returned to the sound of our own tongue, in which a word has both beginning and ending.” Augustine’s phrasing thus invites Nietzsche’s attack. What’s worse, many Christians today, no less than in other ages, invite this attack. How many times has a Christian’s profession of love proven to be a covert way of feeling superior to another person, let alone the whole of bodily and temporal existence in which the unredeemed live and breathe and have their being? How often have Christians hidden this deception even from themselves? Too often. Nietzsche is right about this much: Christian belief, whatever else it may be, is an ingenious disguise for resentment.
But as so often with Nietzsche, he over-states his case. His exaggeration becomes clearest when we consider how the Nietzschean attack applies to the Platonic ladder of love upon which Augustine’s love-story is modeled. According to this critique, Plato denigrates everything lovable in this temporal world: beautiful bodies, cultivated souls, political power. Why? If Diotima is to be believed, this denigration is necessary to reach the highest love, of eternal God. But why should we believe Diotima? Perhaps Plato invents divine authority for a story designed to console those who are too weak—physically, psychologically, politically—to enjoy the beauty of this temporal world in the first place. Lacking the power needed to secure worldly pleasure, such people would easily credit a story that described it as but a tedious series of rungs to be transcended on the way to the true beauty of eternity. Why not skip worldly pleasure as a harmful distraction, become an ascetic, and pole-vault directly to the Form of Beauty?
Many scholars accept this interpretation of Diotima’s ladder: as someone climbs it, he jettisons his love for the lower objects. Following this interpretation, if I climb from body to soul, I no longer enjoy sensual pleasure at all. I should even despise it as a temptation. Or, if I climb from soul to institution, law, and philosophy, I no longer enjoy the company of friends. In fact, I should despise them as distractions. This solipsistic asceticism does indeed seem resentful. But it is not what Plato is advocating. It cannot be: Socrates does not abandon his friends, nor even the pleasures of the body. He is at a drinking party, with food and conversation, which he enjoys more than anyone else. Nor can Augustine be advocating solipsistic asceticism. He and his mother do not climb over each other to reach the divine bliss alone. They go there together, in conversation. In my view, Plato and Augustine are instead saying that as we climb the ladder of love, directing our longing to superior objects, we do not despise the inferior objects. On the contrary, we love them better.
Thus, if you climb from body to soul, you will still enjoy sensual pleasure. Furthermore, because you will enjoy it for what it is—something pleasant to be sure, but ill-equipped to satisfy your deepest longing—you will enjoy it better. After all, your enjoyment of it will no longer be tinged with the disappointment that is bound to follow whenever you try to enjoy it as a substitute for the object of your deepest longing. Similarly, if you climb from soul to institution, law, and philosophy, you will still enjoy the company of friends. Having climbed higher than soul, now you will no longer wish that they were perfect. No one who seeks perfection from his friends can love them fully; they will always disappoint, engendering resentment. Having climbed higher than friendship, though, you could love them better—that is, without any resentment. To love them best, Plato is saying, we must climb to the top of the ladder. This applies equally to the love of our children, our parents, our spouses, and all those many people we try to embrace with our love. To perfect it at every rung, even the lowest, we must direct our longing toward the only perfect object.
Plato says too little about it; Augustine says more. His God is omnipotent, benevolent, and eternal; consequently, he “makes all things new.” He creates all things, including values, but not to acquire power. Lacking nothing, He could never be resentful. His creation proceeds instead from strength, and this is the nature of true love. About this nature, Nietzsche agrees, expressing it better than any other author. For after he has diagnosed the origin of Christian morality—that is, the origin of the distinction between good and evil—in the psychology of weak resentment, he offers true love from strength as the basis of a new ethic. “That which takes place out of love,” he writes, “takes place beyond good and evil.” His Zarathustra preaches this love with all the ardor of an evangelist, and Nietzsche thinks he can do so truly, without resentment, because he believes in authentic eternity: the eternal return of all things, in time itself. In his estimation, this affirmation of time is a genuine redemption from its greed and death, unlike the pseudo-redemption promised by the Christian and Platonic fantasy of an escape from time.
Nietzsche’s substitute eternity is not up to the task he himself sets for it—if your mother dies before your son is born, for example, you will never win from time the concession you most desire: that she hold him—but even if it were, all that matters for our purposes here is that Nietzsche agrees with Augustine that true love alone could transcend the resentful power-struggle that has fashioned so many of our values. Their debate turns on the following question. Is true love possible without belief in God, as Nietzsche thinks, or does it require God’s existence, as Augustine believes?
Such a love must differ from so much of what passes by that name among us. We are no creator God: we are weak and needy creatures. Our love usually stems from this neediness. We feel a lack, and experience a passionate longing for whatever we believe will fill it. But sometimes, at our best, we seem capable of more: we could absorb disappointments and failures, misunderstandings and sufferings, betrayals and lies, and still forgive, only if our love were giving rather than taking, a covenant rather than a contract, an expression of strength rather than the desperation of weakness. Think of the loves in your life. Think of how you have loved, as well as how you have been loved. What were the mixtures of these elements? No human could rightfully claim to have given unfailingly and unconditionally from the superabundance of a strong spirit. But could we do so ever? What I am arguing is that we are capable of doing so only if we believe two things: first, that we have a beloved who will not disappoint us; second, that our love is never unrequited. In other words, our perfect beloved must also be our perfect lover. No human could play that role. These conditions are met only by an omnipotent, benevolent, and eternal God.
Nietzsche himself seems to recognize this when he makes the great spiritual struggle of Zarathustra an acceptance of “the smallest human being,” his symbol for disappointment with the flawed objects of his love. Even if he manages to overcome his resentment of time, by crediting its eternal return, he must now resign himself to love its merely human inhabitants, whom he must suffer over and over again forever. This appears to have been a projection of the great spiritual struggle of Nietzsche himself, who wrestled with disappointed love all his life. Despite their unflagging solicitude, his mother and sister always frustrated him; the books of Schopenhauer and the operas of Wagner, whose flights of intellect and passion once transported him, now became the objects of his criticism; the affection of Lou Salomé proved as fickle as the favor of academia, dashing his hopes for romantic love and professional esteem. In the absence of God, the resentment that attends such disappointment would be the lot of us all. Whether or not it is, I do not say here, because quite frankly I do not know. For I have not argued that God exists, only that He must, if we are to perfect the fledgling love of our needy hearts. In the end, I must confess, I agree with Camus: “There is God or time, that cross or this sword.”
This essay is a slightly revised version of remarks delivered at a symposium last month at Duquesne University called “Belief Today.”—ed.