Thanksgiving, the Puritans, and St. Augustine
Thanksgiving is the holiday that brings us all together, whether or not we’re Christians and whether or not we’re American citizens.
It’s the first holiday of the Holiday Season that begins around now and lasts until New Year.
We’re so sure that saying Merry Christmas is intolerant and dogmatic that we’re all about Happy Holidays—an exceedingly vague and nonjudgmental phrase. It’s a phrase that seemingly couldn’t offend or inspire anyone. Still, it’s the one that now manages to invigorate the commercial stimulus package that is the jolly season.
But nobody’s so politically correct as to be offended by Happy Thanksgiving.
From a merely historical point of view, maybe we should be more sensitive. After all, the original Thanksgiving was about the Christian European imperialists giving thanks for the initial success of their project to impose their idea of how people should live on this continent—even or especially at the expense of the way of life of the indigenous people. Maybe it’s also about the indigenous people being suckered into choosing not to wipe them out while they easily could.
Still, there’s something really good about that Puritanical idea: All people are equal under God. All are to participate equally in the political community. Everyone is to be liberally educated. Everyone is to have time for leisurely reflection. And nobody is above or below having to work for his or her daily bread.
Right now, I’m teaching St. Augustine’s The City of God. The evangelical atheists on BIG THINK will no doubt accuse me of “cherry picking” what’s good—meaning most readily acceptable to us all—about that book for our edification.
But isn’t it in the spirit of Thanksgiving for us to come together in thanks for what we’ve been given, including given by our great tradition of philosophers and theologians? So I’m going to talk about perhaps the original Christian source about what we owe the Puritans.
St. Augustine explains that the philosophers had different views about how we should live. Some of them, such as Plato and the Platonists, thought that the best way of life was contemplation—meaning the way of life of the philosopher. Others, such as some Stoics, located it in action—meaning that philosophy is most of all a moral code for gentleman and political leaders. And finally: Some had the more nuanced view that the best life is a mixture of contemplation and action; here my students are reminded of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
Augustine says there’s some merit in all these answers, and some lives might well be devoted mainly to contemplation and others mainly to action. Thoughtful reflection is a natural human good, one that’s good for us all. And so no human life should be without leisure.
Leisure, of course, is to be distinguished from empty-headed diversion. The philosophers were wrong to not believe that leisure—free thought—is a duty for us all. Socrates was wrong, or at least gave the wrong impression, when he said most of us are stuck living in a “cave” of manufactured belief or are slaves to our political socialization or, for that matter, to natural compulsions beyond our control and comprehension.
Nobody who’s devoted his life to action—the politician or the entrepreneur—should use the necessity of action as an excuse for running away from what he or she can’t help but know about him- or herself. Nobody should try to lose himself in action or diversion. Business men shouldn’t be so busy that their lives are some mixture of rodent-like restlessness and aimless recreation.
Part of the truth we should have the leisure to affirm, of course, is the many ways we should be grateful for what we’ve been given. We don’t know spit about who we are unless we are, at least at times, filled with gratitude. That’s why our leisure should be social or relational. Thanksgiving is for us all, and we never celebrate it by going it alone.
The philosopher, meanwhile, is not wrong on what genuinely human leisure is. Study in the broadest sense is one of the most pleasurable and worthy human pursuits. But even the philosopher should be moved by “the compulsion of charity” to act in service to others.
What’s wrong with Socrates is that he lacked charity or personal love. So even Socrates was so lost in seemingly impersonal ideas that he lost himself, even he was about denying the deep or full truth about who he is. A charitable Socrates would have actually come closer to genuine self-knowledge. So Thanksgiving is, in part, about taking time personally to feed the poor.
It’s easy and true to say that charity is a virtue that doesn’t have a natural or self-evident foundation. The love we have for unique and irreplaceable and infinitely valuable other persons is rooted, Christians say, in love of God. Charity isn’t empathy; it’s much more personal and requires much more of each of us. Charity, first of all, means being of personal service for those who are emotionally impoverished by loneliness.
But Augustine also says that sinful man hates the equality of all human beings under God. The sin here is our proud desire to willfully impose ourselves on others—to dominate them. The characteristic human sin is to perversely think of oneself as God, to act as a god in relation to other men. It’s surely possible to know THAT truth about personal equality without belief in the personal God of the Bible.
The Christian, Augustine adds, has the duty to obey the law and act as a good citizen wherever he or she lives. But even such dutiful Christians were hated by the best Roman citizens. That’s because they have to dissent from the civil religion of their particular city. They refused to accept the degrading belief that we’re all deep-down merely citizens, that the gods, in effect, want us to be “city fodder,” that we’re basically replaceable parts of some political whole. It’s the Christians who paid the price for being so insistent that each of us is more than a citizen, more than a part of some whole greater than ourselves. And certainly that personal truth has stayed with us even or especially in our skeptical time.
Despite all the tyrannical political missteps by Christian leaders (including those by the Puritans), it’s the Christians who gave us the idea that everyone is free from natural and political domination to be, as we say, a person, a being with his or her own conscience or irreducibly inward life and with a unique personal destiny. And that’s why everyone needs and deserves a liberal education.
So on Thanksgiving we can give thanks for the truth we all share about who we are. Thanksgiving is neither Christmas nor the Fourth of July. More on that thought later.