Sunday, 21 May 2017

Deaf Awareness Week: A Fair Hearing for St Augustine

A Fair Hearing for St Augustine

Augustine and the Deaf: The Myth

Look up any timeline for the deaf, and St Augustine of Hippo often gets a bad press. Here’s one example:

St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) taught that the deaf are excluded from salvation on the grounds that they cannot hear the Word of God, citing St. Paul: "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). St. Augustine also taught that handicapped children were the results of the "sins" of their parents.

And some others:

  • St. Augustine remarked that deaf people were a representation of God’s anger towards the sins of their parents. 
  • St. Augustine interpreted the birth of handicapped children as proof of man's natural depravity, a sign that children were punished for their father's sin
  • St. Augustine tells early Christians that deaf children are a sign of God’s anger at the sins of their parents

These are the most common statements you will find on the subject of St Augustine and deafness, the ones which come up in article after article, which appear on web pages as soon as you goggle “Augustine” and “deafness”. And they are all quite wrong. So why did they get it so wrong? And what did Augustine really say?

What Augustine observed and wrote

Christian Laes in “Silent Witnesses: Deaf-Mutes in Graeco-Roman Antiquity” notes that:

“St Augustine believed that faith comes by hearing and that deafness is a hindrance to faith. However, he believed that Deaf people can learn and thus are able to receive faith and salvation. Augustine refers to bodily movements, signs, and gestures, and believed that these modes were capable of transmitting thought and belief. He implies that it is equal to spoken language.”
“In his De Magistro Augustine suggests that deaf-mute people were a relatively commonplace constituency, that the deaf were not entirely isolated from the broader hearing society (since there was communication between both groups by means of gesture), and that deaf-mutes also communicated quite sophisticatedly with each other.”

In translation, Augustine says:

“Have you never noticed that people almost talk to the deaf with gesture? Did you never see how by their gestures deaf people ask, answer, teach, or show everything they want or at least most of it? In these situations, not only visible things are expressed without words, but also sounds and tastes and other similar things. Also actors in the theatres are able to explain and display whole stories without using words.”

Christian Laes comments:

“We know that the ancients sometimes recurred to quite elaborate sign language for other occasions: finger counting and rhetoric performance, as well as the so-called "mute" trade with people who spoke an utterly foreign language. Further, Augustine at least theoretically takes into consideration that two deaf-mute people might marry each other. Even if their children were not deaf, they still would learn to express themselves with gesture, particularly if the couple were isolated”

And most notably, Augustine mentions a very well-known handsome and elegant young man in Milan who was both deaf and mute. Here is a translation:

Augustine: But surely, did you not see at Milan a young man of excellent physique and refined manners, yet so mute and deaf that he understood others only by means of signs and that only in the same way could he express what he wished? This man is very well known. I also knew a farmer and his wife who could speak, yet they had four sons and daughters, or perhaps more (I do not recall exactly how many), who were deaf and dumb: dumb, because they couldn’t speak; deaf, because they could take in signs only through their eyes.

Scott G. Bruce in “Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism” notes a recent study of Augustine - L. A. King, Surditas: "The Understanding of the Deaf and Deafness in Writings of Augustine, Jerome, and Bede."  Bruce comments:

“Contrary to received opinion, the grim social fate of pre-modern deaf children was not mirrored by the teaching of the Church on the issue of their salvation. Over the past hundred years, historians of deaf education have drawn repeatedly, but selectively from the letters of the apostle Paul and the writings of Augustine of Hippo to construct and perpetuate the argument that ancient and medieval Christian thinkers adhered literally to the notion that Faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:I7) and therefore denied the hope of salvation for deaf people.”

“This presumption has been shown to be completely false. In a brilliant piece of revisionist history, Leslie A. King has argued that uncritical reverence for nineteenth century scholars of deaf education has allowed their erroneous presumptions about medieval attitudes toward the deaf to circulate unquestioned and unexamined down to the present day.”

“Her careful analysis of the Latin terminology for deafness employed by Augustine and other patristic authors and their respective opinions about the deaf and their hope of salvation has led her to conclude that ‘the tradition that Augustine condemned to hell on account of Romans 10:17 is utterly unfounded - is completely at odds with - ideas - attitudes he displays at length and in detail in De Quantitate Animae and De Magistro.’”

Augustine's Theology and Deafness

So let us look at Augustine’s words about deafness which have been mistranslated and misunderstood. These come from his third book “Contra Julianum”, where he writes

“Since you also deny that an infant is subject to original sin, you must answer why such great innocence is sometimes born blind; sometimes, deaf. “

“Deafness is a hindrance to faith itself, as the Apostle says: 'Faith is from hearing.' 'Indeed, if nothing deserving punishment passes from parents to infants, who could bear to see the image of God, which is, you say, adorned with the gift of innocence, sometimes born feeble-minded, since this touches the soul itself? “

“Or is each of you feeble-minded, so that none thinks feeble-mindedness an evil, although as Scripture says: 'The mourning for the dead is seven days, but for a feeble- minded man and ungodly man all the days of their life.'”

“Does anyone not know that those whom people call 'morons' are so dull by nature that some have almost as little wit as cattle? Yet you do not wish to say that from the beginning, when the human race deserted God, it contracts the offense of its condemned origin, which fully deserves to suffer all these punishments it endures except where the inscrutable wisdom of the Creator spares it, mysteriously, according to His plan.”

“There is no basis for your judgment that there cannot be offense in infants, because there can be no offense without will, which they do not possess.' This assertion may be correctly made about a personal sin, but not about the contagion by way of origin of the first sin. If there were no such sin, then infants, bound by no evil, would suffer nothing evil in body or in soul under the great power of the just God. “

“Yet, this evil itself took its rise from the evil will of the first man; so that there is no other origin of sin but an evil will.”

Now let us see what Augustine is saying. First of all, he is saying that being dead is “a hindrance to faith” because it makes education and understanding more difficult. That’s not the same as saying it is impossible, and that while this is expressed negatively, as we have seen, he was very observant, and could see that by gestures – not necessarily signing, but more what might be called “acting out” or “miming”, deaf people could communicate successful. It was just harder for them to do so.

Secondly, he is most certainly not saying that “deaf children are a sign of God’s anger at the sins of their parents”. Rather he is understanding deaf children as a kind of scarred and damaged image of God, and he sees the image of God is damaged in everyone; this is just one manifestation of it.

So the locus is not the sins of the parents, but the damaged state of the parents, what he terms “contagion by way of origin of the first sin”, or what might also be called “original sin”. It is clear from his writing that this “contagion” he sees almost what we would now call genetic – inherent defects in nature passed down from one generation to another.

It is this “original sin”, this defect in human nature, which he sees as that “deserving punishment passed from parents to infants” It is no action on behalf of the parents, but simply a kind of moral and physical genetic flaw, which sometimes manifests itself in children born deaf.

He also is to some extent a realist: while he believes that healing can take place, he has seen innumerable cases when it is not:

“Moreover, our Lord's words about the man born blind that this did not happen because of his own sin or the sin of his parents, but that the works of God were to be made manifest in him cannot be applied to the innumerable infants born with such great variety of faults in soul and body. For, indeed, there are many who are never healed at all, but die with those same faults, at another age, or even in infancy; and some infants already reborn retain the faults with which they were born, while other evils of the same kind may also be added.”

In Augustine’s view this “fallen state” or “original sin” is a defect which we carry in our very being, so that it is impossible for anyone to live a sinless life. He is looking for an explanation of handicapping conditions, and he doesn’t see that all the children born disabled can be said to have been done so to show the works of God to be made manifest.  God can heal, but Augustine doesn’t see it as something we can take for granted.

To some observers, that a disabled person does not receive a miraculous healing is a sign that the person lacks religious faith. For Augustine, this is not the case: it is that the disability is part of the flawed biology of human beings. In many ways, no body functions well, for they are all corrupt.

How are they born in this way? Because of flaws in our biology. Why one person and not another? Augustine sees this as  an “insoluble problem.”  There are no simple answers, and he is honest enough to say so.

He does think of this “moral defect” in our being as being something that was a matter of biological transmission, so that children inherit it because their parents also inherited it. It was not because of any actions, and those statements which link Augustine to saying deafness in a child was a result of parent’s wrongdoing are mistaking “original sin” for “sins”. It is a state of being which we all share.

One we might say is the genetic potential for actions which are morally defective, from which can come the defective acts themselves.

But what then of sex? Although that is the means by which the flawed image is transmitted, which is in line with his genetic view of "original sin", Augustine is very determined not to take the view that sex is in any way evil or that the body is bad:

“I have never censured the union of the two sexes if it is lawfully within the boundaries of marriage. There could be no generation of human beings without such union, even if no sin had preceded it. As to the second proposition you add as mine, that children are born of the union of bodies: this I do say indeed, but the conclusion you wish to draw as mine is not mine."

"I do not say that children, coming from an evil action, are evil, since I do not say that the activity in which married persons engage for the purpose of begetting children is evil. As a matter of fact, I assert that it is good, because it makes good use of the evil of lust, and through this good use, human beings, a good work of God, are generated.”

And elsewhere he says: “actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing.”

Two Views of Human Nature

While we may certainly see the story of the “fall of Adam” as mythological, I have only ever come across two distinct explanations for the way in which human beings seem inherently incapable of living perfect lives we seem to have a propensity for both good and evil, some kind of flaw in our genetic makeup. Something seems to have gone wrong right at the beginning when human beings evolved into intelligent moral beings.

One is that which was popularised in the notion of the tabula rasa, the blank slate of the philosopher Locke, the innocent savage of Rousseau, in which the moral defects are spread by a kind of cultural contamination, what Dawkins would call a meme. But we know the tabula rasa is false: there is no blank slate. Steven Pinker firmly demolished that.

The other is that how we behave, and how badly we can behave, is part of our genetic heritage, perhaps also linked with the peculiar self-awareness we seem to possess, that we alone seem capable of moral reasoning, and communicating the reasoning. It is spread by a kind of genetic contagion. And bodies themselves are also never perfect: and this lack of perfection is also transmitted genetically. 

We should not of course that the ability for cultural contamination to take place, can itself be seen as an innate flaw in human nature, so this theory encompasses the other as a special case. It is very much a Darwinian kind of explanation: our DNA is defective.

This is the side on which Augustine came down on, but he also was aware in his writings that despite the obstacles which our flawed nature can throw up, such as deafness, that human beings can and do overcome and compensate for those obstacles. It may be hard for the deaf-mute to understand: it is not impossible. It may "hinder faith"; it does not prevent it.

And in conclusion..

A few past historians misunderstood Augustine, and attributed to him positions on disability which he never held, and unfortunately these are widely copied without reverting to source material. But modern historians have looked more closely at what he said, and concluded that the older views were simply reading into the his writings what was not there.

Augustine’s affirmation that life is always worth living despite the many and varied sufferings which beset humankind. The body is good, not evil, indeed  he also says “a woman’s sex is not a defect, it is natural.” 

Augustine also has a very positive perspective on disability:  ‘What does it matter, as he grows up, whether he speaks or makes gestures, since both these pertain to the soul?’

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