“Just as the opposition of contraries bestows beauty upon language, then, so is the beauty of this world enhanced by the opposition of contraries, composed, as it were, by an eloquence not of words, but of things.” (City of God 11.18)

There is a popular online meme featuring a puppy that has destroyed a piece of furniture with the tagline, “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Like a friendly but fierce canine, sometimes we cannot be trusted with nice things because of our tendency toward destructive behavior.

This meme makes me think of Confessions Book 4, in which Augustine reflects on our human tendency to misuse the beautiful things of this world. We are drawn by our desires to cling to beautiful things as if they are eternal, yet inevitably, we find that they are transient, fleeting, and temporary. The consequence of clinging to transient things instead of clinging to the eternal God is sorrow, loss, and destruction.

In Conf. 4.10.15, Augustine prays, “Turn us toward yourself, O God of Hosts, show us your face and we shall be saved; for wheresoever a human soul turns, it can but cling to what brings sorrow unless it turns to you, cling though it may to beautiful things outside you and outside itself.” Only by clinging to God can we find happiness, while clinging to finite things leads to sadness and discontent. We can’t have nice things if we hold onto them in desperation, with the false hope that they will satisfy our deepest desires.

Augustine is teaching a kind of detachment from beautiful things, while advocating attachment to God. Detachment does not mean a rejection of beautiful things, nor does it mean that such things are of no use. Rather, beautiful things ought to be used properly, namely, in order to praise God, so that the soul can find rest in the One who has created all.

He continues in Conf. 4.10.15:

“Let my soul use these things to praise you,

O God, creator of them all,

but let it not be glued fast to them by sensual love,

for they are going whither they were always destined to go,

toward extinction;

and they rend my soul with death-dealing desires,

for it too longs to be, and loves to rest in what it loves.

But in them it finds no place to rest,

because they do not stand firm;

they are transient, and who can follow them with the senses of the body?”

There is no rest in passing things. We find rest in God alone, for God is our final end and enjoyment. In his work On Christian Doctrine, Augustine famously distinguishes between ‘use’ and ‘enjoyment’ (1.4.4). To ‘enjoy’ something is to cling to it lovingly as one’s end, whereas to ‘use’ something means to direct it toward its proper good. For Augustine, only God is to be enjoyed, since God is our final end and ultimate good. All other things should be used to lead us to God. To ‘use’ in this sense does not mean to degrade, demean, or dismiss something or someone, but rather to direct all to God, so that we can enjoy God together (On Christian Doctrine 1.32.35).

The notion of enjoying God is present at the end of Conf. Book 1, in which Augustine declares that the God who created all good things is our good. The problem is that as fallen human beings, we tend to love the gifts more than the giver, and so we descend into the darkness of sin (1.20.31).

Does this mean that we cannot or should not love the beautiful things of this world? According to Augustine, the answer is no. The solution to our predicament is not to leave aside beautiful things, but rather to channel our love for them to the One who made them.

The Christian life is about learning how to love properly. During this earthly journey, we must learn how to love things in God, that is, with God as the source and end of our desires (City of God 10.3). Loving God enables us to love things and people rightly, precisely because we love them to God, as our shared final end. If we love beautiful things in God, then we can truly receive them as good gifts, for all will be fixed firmly in God. However, if we cling to beautiful things rather than God, we will lose them and fall into destruction. With this ancient wisdom in mind, may we learn how to have nice things in this life in an Augustinian sense, namely, by channeling all of our loves to God, who is the beginning and the end of all beautiful things.