Augustinianism and the Beautiful Game

It’s a curious fact, but the best writer on football/soccer is an American: Brian Phillips. Perhaps it something to do with the fact that in Europe football is such a plebeian game. The new England manager they tell us is “a broadsheet man in a tabloid world,” and they are at least right that the world of football is tabloid. In America on the other hand the sort of people who like soccer tend to be europhile intellectuals. But then again there are intellectual football writers in Europe as well – Jonathan Wilson, various people at the  Guardian etc. – but still the way they approach the game is formed by its place in their culture. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that Americans have an apologetic imperative – they live in a culture which considers soccer rather a bore compared to other sports. This forces them to demonstrate football’s superiority to other sports, which leads to a more philosophical account of its essence.

In a previous post I discussed Brian Phillip’s argument that football is the most beautiful sport from its suitability to produce the sort of moments described by David Foster Wallace in his Federer essay as reconciling us with having a body. In a brilliant essay for Grantland Phillip’s gives an even better argument. He begins with the “fact” of soccer’s boringness. It is so brilliant that it is worth quoting at length:

There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole “maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can’t use your arms and hands” element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it’s a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that’s uniquely adapted for long periods of play where, say, the first team’s winger goes airborne to bring down a goal kick, but he jumps a little too soon, so the ball kind of kachunks off one side of his face, then the second team’s fullback gets control of it, and he sees his attacking midfielder lurking unmarked in the center of the pitch, so he kludges the ball 20 yards upfield, but by the time it gets there the first team’s holding midfielder has already closed him down and gone in for a rough tackle, and while the first team’s attacking midfielder is rolling around on the ground the second team’s right back runs onto the loose ball, only he’s being harassed by two defenders, so he tries to knock it ahead and slip through them, but one of them gets a foot to it, so the ball sproings up in the air … etc., etc., etc. Both teams have carefully worked-out tactical plans that influence everything they’re trying to do. But the gameplay is so relentless that it can’t help but go through these periodic bouts of semi-decomposition.
But — and here’s the obvious answer to the “Why are we doing this?” question — those same two qualities, difficulty and fluidity, also mean that soccer is uniquely adapted to produce moments of awesome visual beauty. Variables converge. Players discover solutions to problems it would be impossible to summarize without math. The ball sproings up in the air … and comes down in just such a way that Dennis Bergkamp can pull off a reverse-pirouette flick that spins the ball around the defender and back into his own path … or Thierry Henry can three-touch a 40-yard pass in the air before lining it up and scoring a weak-foot roundhouse … or Zlatan Ibrahimovic can stutter-fake his way through an entire defense. In sports, pure chaos is boring. Soccer gives players more chaos to contend with than any other major sport. So there’s something uniquely thrilling about the moments when they manage to impose their own order on it.

There is something profoundly Augustinian about Phillips’s argument here. The unique thrill of beautiful plays in football is like the thrill of underserved grace: it beauty is heightened by its contrast to the surrounding chaos. Recall Augustine’s point in Civitate Dei XI,18:

For God would never have created any, I do not say angel, but even man, whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing, the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses.

In book XXI Augustine deepens his account, showing that the reason why God permits such antithesis is in fact to show the character of salvation as mercy:

The more enjoyment man found in God, the greater was his wickedness in abandoning Him; and he who destroyed in himself a good which might have been eternal, became worthy of eternal evil. Hence the whole mass of the human race is condemned; for he who at first gave entrance to sin has been punished with all his posterity who were in him as in a root, so that no one is exempt from this just and due punishment, unless delivered by mercy and undeserved grace; and the human race is so apportioned that in some is displayed the efficacy of merciful grace, in the rest the efficacy of just retribution. For both could not be displayed in all; for if all had remained under the punishment of just condemnation, there would have been seen in no one the mercy of redeeming grace. And, on the other hand, if all had been transferred from darkness to light, the severity of retribution would have been manifested in none. But many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it, in order that it may thus be shown what was due to all. And had it been inflicted on all, no one could justly have found fault with the justice of Him who takes vengeance; whereas, in the deliverance of so many from that just award, there is cause to render the most cordial thanks to the gratuitous bounty of Him who delivers.

Augustine’s teaching that more are lost than are saved, a teaching that many find so improbable, is based here on his aesthetics: only thus can the true nature of salvation as mercy appear; only thus can the full wonder of grace be manifested.

16 thoughts on “Augustinianism and the Beautiful Game

  1. ” they live in a culture which considers soccer rather a bore compared to other sports. ”

    No, it’s because soccer is rightly recognized as unnatural.

    Lacrosse, hockey and baseball all use a weapons to inflict harm with, whereas soccer doesn’t even acknowledge that hands are proper to men.

    Football is war strategy, where as soccer is akin to aborigines in a discordant mass charge where where a successful venture is perhaps one or two kills.

    In other words it’s not that it’s boring, which it is, that makes it so distasteful to watch or play, but that it lacks the basic natural elements of organized society.


    • Actually, you make some points. Though I would add that soccer developed in the most civilised societies to have ever existed: life was regulated as an art; there was believed to be an art of living, and that art was to be practised well – the strength of Divine teachings reinforcing this. It may have been that such as these considered game and play quite differently, especially as to what was desirable. There may have been something fun in pretending not to have arms and being constantly conscious of the fact that you have a physical body: the rule not to use your arms constantly makes you conscious of it, as you have to habitually train yourself to not use them when, otherwise, your instinct tells you to; indeed, the instinct probably never quite dies but is rather anticipated and deflected, as it were.


  2. “Augustine’s teaching that more are lost than are saved, a teaching that many find so improbable, is based here on his aesthetics: only thus can the true nature of salvation as mercy appear; only thus can the full wonder of grace be manifested.”

    Whenever someone uses this argument, I’m tempted to respond that, by the same logic, eating is meaningless unless someone else starves to death; health is meaningless unless someone else is ravaged by disease; doing the right thing is meaningless unless someone else does the wrong thing; you get the idea.

    That argument doesn’t actually constitute a refutation of the picture you describe; perhaps God follows exactly this principle of plenitude in His creation. Perhaps if I am faced with a temptation and overcome it, then that means God has created someone else who is faced with the exact same temptation, and succumbed to it, in order to perhaps allow me to appreciate the grace of God more fully, by beholding the contrast. In such a situation, however, I would feel paradoxically responsible for the sin, whether I commit it or not — either by committing the sin myself, or by being responsible for the existence of someone else who commits that same sin.


    • The difference between eating (say) and redemption is that food is a matter of justice whereas redemption is a matter of mercy. Given that God gave us a nature that requires food it would be unjust for Him not to provide the possibility for everyone to have enough. But it would be perfectly just for God to condemn everyone to Hell. That He redeems many is a purely gratuitous mercy–that’s the whole point of what Augustine is saying. So there is no parallel: someone else starving doesn’t help to manifest the mercy of my having food because my having food _isn’t_ mercy; it’s justice. But having others damned _does_ manifest that the salvation of the blessed is _mercy_.


      • Fair enough. My main problem in understanding this doctrine indeed seems to be that I don’t have a clean separation in my mind of justice and mercy. (I always thought that the perfectly just man is necessarily also perfectly merciful, and vice versa — though it’s not immediately obvious to a fallen mind how the two qualities combine. That’s a problem with our understanding, not with the coherence of Justice and Mercy.) But, moving away from that, would something like giving alms fall under the category of justice, or mercy, in your scheme?

        Regarding the question of the majority of people being damned, I suppose the only way I can see of holding this doctrine would be to combine it with a radical agnosticism as to who is saved (imitating the position of CS Lewis on this point, and then having to go one better). So, a person who lived their entire life unbaptized with absolutely no interest in God or religion and ended by blowing their brains out, *might* easily be a saint, whereas the most outwardly pious Catholic *might* be entirely damned and empty on the inside. (The first suggestion is obviously more controversial than the second.) Otherwise, I end up with a fairly good way of knowing who is damned, which for me is far too terrible a temptation.

        This falls into another question — when we are asked to show mercy to others, if we find ourselves imagining anything at all, is it best to end up imagining we are likely to be showing mercy to the saved, or to the reprobate? In the latter case, we are effectively commanded to show the reprobate the only mercy they’ll know, since afterwards they’ll have none from God. I find that perfectly logical, but also an incredibly *ugly* situation — contrary to your assertion that the overwhelming probability that a given person will end up damned is the *aesthetically* right intuition.

        That’s the problem. Aesthetics vary on a personal level far more than notions of justice, so it’s one thing to argue that the damnation of the majority is an ugly situation but one required by God’s justice, and another thing to put aesthetics as a judge over notions of right and wrong and say that the damnation of the majority is justified on aesthetic grounds.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s a good point about justice and mercy. After reading your comment I re-read St. Thomas on that. He holds that both mercy and justice are present in all of God’s works, but that mercy is more primordial–since justice always presupposes an antecedent mercy. Even the damned, he says, receive some mercy in their punishment–insofar as they are punished less than they deserve.

          On almsgiving: there seems to be mercy in the sense of pity involved–I am moved by the misery of the poor–and in the sense of alleviating misery, but not in the sense of grace–pf giving them something they don’t deserve. Because, as St. Thomas teaches, the superfluity of the rich belongs in justice to the poor. (“According to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.””)

          On “various” aesthestics: Oh dear, is this your subtle way of hinting that you prefer cricket to football?


          • “Oh dear, is this your subtle way of hinting that you prefer cricket to football?”

            Actually, I far and away prefer reading a good story to either of these entertainments. It stands to reason, then, that my aesthetics ended up leaning universalist, since in a Story the happy ending may be guaranteed from page one, but that does not cancel out the validity of the twists, turns, and the unpredictable eucatastrophe necessary to get to it.

            That is, indeed, a purely aesthetic comparison, though.

            Coming back to this discussion after a while, I think I have a thought as to why your response to my ‘starvation’ analogy still feels like it’s off the mark. While it may be reasonable to distinguish eating as a matter of pure justice, from salvation as a matter of mercy — thus denying someone salvation is a surer prerogative on the part of God, than denying someone nutrition — that actually misses the point of my comparison somewhat. The entire discussion starts from the question of how a particular person who is granted salvation (or food, or any other good thing, whether it was merited according to justice, or received gratuitously according to mercy) properly come to appreciate and feel gratitude for it. The Augustinian comparison suggests that this appreciation develops by a Saint observing the torments of the damned (presumably without experiencing them oneself) and comparing them to their own blessed state; however, it does not seem obvious that this produces anything in terms of firsthand knowledge.

            In my own experience, the acquisition of knowledge goes rather in the other direction. My knowledge of what starvation is, as a condition, is limited by my own experiences of wanting food, but not having it; and it is comparing my own experience of eating to my own experience of hunger that I can gain any appreciation for what being able to eat is, in contrast to not being able to eat. Going from that, it is only by comparing people whom I see starving to my own experiences of hunger, and attempting to amplify it via my own imagination, that I can even understand what a starving person might be experiencing; if I lacked such an experience, I may have to draw an analogy to other unpleasant experiences, and employ even more imagination to imagine starvation with even less accuracy.

            So, from that reasoning, for the purpose of better appreciating the mercy of salvation, it is far more essential and proper for a Saint to experience a Dark Night of the Soul where they have a _firsthand_ experience of what it is to be cut off from God, to the extent that they can survive it spiritually, even if that extent cannot, in principle, reach to the full experience of being cut off from God irrevocably (thus, their spiritual strength ends up determining the extent to which they will be able to appreciate the gift they are being offered). This, I would guess, has far more effect than for the Saint to have secondhand experience of any number of other people being damned completely, eternally and irrevocably, an experience whose full horror they may never be able to translate completely into their own understanding anyways.

            I think that describes my understanding of the matter well enough to clarify my earlier comments.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Augustinianism and the Beautiful Game | Notes from Mere O

  4. I think you are probably right that for a particular person it is in one way it is more important to have the experience of the dark night etc. One’s own soul is more known to one that other things. But Augustine’s teaches that the beauty of the whole of creation is God’s principal reason for creating ( ), and this is augmented by the manifestation of mercy through contrast. “The beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries, arranged, as it were, by an eloquence not of words, but of things.”


    • You point to an assumption that a lot of people hold (including myself in the above comments), which is the assumption of personalism; that goods and evils are only meaningful to talk about in the sense of ultimately benefitting or being apprehended by some particular person or people (whether God, humans, or otherwise).

      God, being omniscient, certainly does not need to restrict His mercy to a very small number in actual reality, in order to _understand_ or _apprehend_ its gratuitous quality. (I am not qualified to say if God ‘benefits’ from His creation in any sense relevant to this discussion.) Likewise, no person will ever be able to understand this to the full extent merely from observing the damned, either: as I argued above, a person can only apprehend the horror of damnation by comparison to any personal experiences they have had of being deprived of God’s presence (which can never reach absolute deprivation); therefore the aesthetic order you cite, really does seem to be a non-personalistic good, one which has value, but does not exist to benefit any particular person.

      I suppose a better grounding in philosophy would be required for me to accurately evaluate the notion that something can be a good even if it benefits absolutely no one (and harms a lot of people relative to the ‘other’ ways one can suppose things could turn out). It seems to me this would be either a particularly hard and important truth about reality, or (on the other extreme) sheer nonsense.


    • The important thing I wanted to say but missed in my last comment: basically, if my own understanding of things is found to rest on a personalist understanding of the Good, then aspects of it that I found to be self-evident in fact require additional support — since personalism is not a simple or obvious assumption.

      Thank you for engaging in what has turned out to be a very interesting conversation.


      • This conversation as been helpful to me too; thank you.

        I agree with your personalist understanding of the good in one respect, but not in another. I agree that only persons can enjoy the good, only persons can attain to the good. But I don’t agree that the good of the beautiful order of the whole of God’s creation does not benefit particular persons. A particular person benefits not only from their own salvation, but also the salvation of the world, from the manifestation of God’s goodness in all of creation. Each of the saved rejoices not only in the mercy shown to himself, but also in the mercy shown by God to all the rest of the saved. All of the blessed will sing with Mary:

        He has shown strength with his arm,
        he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
        he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
        and exalted those of low degree;
        he has filled the hungry with good things,
        and the rich he has sent empty away. (Lk 1:51-53)

        Notice that she rejoices not just in the mercy God shows to the lowly, but also in the punitive justice He shows to the proud. Augustine would argue that the humbling of the proud augments the beauty of the exaltation of the lowly.

        And a similar note to that of the Magnificat is struck by the description of the praises offered to God in Revelation:

        After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying,
        “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
        for his judgments are true and just;
        he has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
        and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
        Once more they cried, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.”
        And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying, “Amen. Hallelujah!”
        And from the throne came a voice crying, “Praise our God, all you his servants,
        you who fear him, small and great.”
        Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
        Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
        for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
        and his Bride has made herself ready. (Rev 19:1-7)

        Note that they praise Him for His justice in avenging the blood of His servants, as well as for His mercy elevating the Church to be His bride.


  5. Having taken a lot of time to reflect on the issues raised in this post, and in the subsequent discussion (for which, again, I thank the host), I remain a Universalist by persuasion. I suppose I will have to speak my mind on the impression I get from the type of reasoning I have been exposed to from people who argue for the fewness of the saved, and the reader can judge whether my accusation is at all fair or relevant towards the points being made by Fr. Edmund.

    What reading all of this leaves me with an impression of is that, just like the notion of celibacy being a ‘higher’ achievement than marriage was very easily twisted at times into out-and-out disdain of marriage, the notion of love of God being a ‘higher’ commandment than love of other people is very easily twisted into out-and-out disdain of Other People. It has been fashionable, at recurring times in history, to revel in the vision attributed to St. Augustine, it matters little whether accurately or imprecisely, of the handful of the elect being taken by God’s arbitrary mercy out of a great contemptible massa damnata.

    But in this framework the purpose of Other People is mostly as combustible material meant to make the saints appreciate how lucky they are to receive God’s mercy, and therefore on-the-ground the practical commandment to actually love the Other People would have to be understood to mean — to employ them as handy and useful temporary means towards demonstrating one’s love of God. (I suppose this is why Kant, with his insistence on the ends-and-means distinction in treating other people, can be reckoned a toxic philosopher?) Other People should therefore be regarded solely as walking lists of (a) opportunities for charity versus (b) possible positive or negative influences on one’s own soul; they are to otherwise be regarded as entirely fungible (because Christ promised the man leaving his family “other fathers and mothers and brothers”, and the dispassionate monk “loves all people equally”) and therefore Other People completely cease to be relevant once dead. One can pray for them if that makes for a plausible act of charity, but otherwise compassion for their fate is a pernicious distraction from God, that must be stamped out whenever possible. (St. Francis Xavier described the concern of his Japanese converts for the eternal fate of their ancestors as merely a ‘hateful and annoying scruple’ which they had to be argued out of. This is by no means unique to the earlier ages, but is an eternal religious mood. One peculiarly horrible priest I encountered on a Russian-language Eastern Orthodox forum described compassion for pagans, heretics, etc. who happen to be residing in Hell as a *perversion*, likening it to enjoyment of sadomasochistic pornography. He is of course an extreme example of this type of reasoning.) If a few of the Other People are later found to also exist in Heaven, that is a neat bonus and a source of additional joy, but even their existence in the first place was, strictly speaking, unnecessary and worthless. Almsgiving is necessary for God, not to feed the person in question; I have read literature describing almsgiving and other good deeds done “not for the sake of God” as foolish and abominable (rather than being good in themselves, but intrinsically insufficient to pleasing God or attaining salvation); likewise missionary work is necessary because God commanded it, not because there is any particular intrinsic reason to go out to save some nation versus living the contemplative life alone in the desert while even the entire world burns. The only valid motivation in this type of religious life is ‘transcendent egotism’, overriding fear for one’s own soul producing total icy indifference for what might happen to anyone else; “compassion”, one might say, “is a disease which the saints are not sick with”, and those whose psychology predisposes them to this type of outlook supposedly gain head start on becoming saints, over those who do not. There is even ample support for this in Scripture, in the admonition to hate one’s mother and father; but I cannot suppose that meant “worry about your own salvation first of all; worrying about that of your mother and father is a distraction and a sin”.

    It might be argued that all this concern about Heaven and Hell is irrelevant; I can perfectly well love my neighbour while he is burning in Hell in accordance to God’s justice. But if I do not love my neighbour as myself, I am not fulfilling the commandment; and if I do love my neighbour as myself, it should make no difference to me whether it is my neighbour that is punished in Hell, or whether I am punished in Hell. This peculiar insistence I have on my own salvation, a matter in no wise necessary to God’s justice, seems to violate the commandment unless I insist the same for my neighbour.

    Finally, and most relevantly, it might be argued that all this is a ludicrous caricature of what religion is supposed to be. Certainly a good contemplative monk in the monastery or in the desert remains intimately concerned with prayer for the fates of the entire world and the people in it, and the subsequent intercessions of his sainthood prove this fact. But in terms of the ‘fewness of the saved’ being brought up by modern traditionalists with such emphasis as an essential doctrine, and a necessary mindset to be any kind of serious Christian, whether the justification comes from St. Augustine, St. Leonard of Port Maurice, Konstantin Leontiev, or whoever else (to list a few names I’ve encountered in association with this reasoning) I do not see how it can lead people to any other conclusion in terms of how they view their religious life in practice. If someone espouses a different and sane view on the fewness of the saved, they ought to be particularly careful of how their understanding is presented, to distinguish it from the extreme and ludicrous paradoxes I have outlined above.


    • You raise some good points. The danger of a kind of spiritual egoism is certainly very grave. Certainly we ought to have the attitude of St Paul in Romans 9:1-3:

      I am not lying, and my conscience in the Holy Spirit bears me witness: there is great sorrow and incessant pain in my heart. I could have wished to be outcast from the Christ myself for the sake of my brothers, who are my blood kindred.

      That is, one ought to be more concerned with the salvation of God’s people than with one’s own individual salvation. I agree with that the opinion that few are saved can easily be twisted, but of course this is true of any theological teaching.

      I do not think that the fewness of the saved as been positively revealed by God, and so I think can hold the opposite opinion. Nevertheless, I do think that Augustine’s arguments for it are plausible in themselves, and that his authority grants a certain probability to his opinion.

      That being said, I do have a certain sympathy for Cardinal Dulles’s position according to which the number of the damned is essentially unknowable:

      The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile. God in His wisdom has seen fit not to disclose any statistics […] All told, it is good that God has left us without exact information. If we knew that virtually everybody would be damned, we would be tempted to despair. If we knew that all, or nearly all, are saved, we might become presumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say fifty, would be saved, we would be caught in an unholy rivalry. […] We are forbidden to seek our own salvation in a selfish and egotistical way. We are keepers of our brothers and sisters. The more we work for their salvation, the more of God’s favor we can expect for ourselves.

      The one position that I think is entirely untenable is complete universalism. I do think that Our Lord positively reveals that there will be some people in Hell. When confronted with any individual person one can hope that they will be saved—this is indeed the traditional teaching, St. Thomas says that every living person is potentially a member of Christ’s Body. But one cannot hope that the total number of created persons will be saved.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.