PRIVATE AND PUBLIC

St Augustine (354 AD – 430) was amazed that Ambrose of Milan read books silently.  “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.... Perhaps he was afraid that if he read aloud, some obscure passage might raise a question in the mind of a listener, and he would then have to explain the meaning or even discuss some of the more difficult points.  If he spent his time in this way, he would not manage to read as much as he wished.  Perhaps a more likely reason...was that he needed to spare his voice... But whatever his reason, we may be sure it was a good one” (Confessions, VI, 3)
           Today one needs no reason, good or bad; it is simply the way it is done.  So much has silent reading become normal that when people have to read aloud they tend to do so rapidly and monotonously, as if they were still reading to themselves.  In the 19th century, perhaps because of poor lighting, and the absence of radio and television, reading aloud to the family was a common form of entertainment in the evening; one person would settle down close to the lamp and read for everyone in the room.  Nowadays anyone who reads bits from a newspaper while others are immersed in their own newspapers, is seen as rather a menace; reading has become a private matter.  It is likely that it parallels many other movements from public to private, because everything in the world is connected. 
           In St Augustine’s time the focus of people’s lives was more outdoors, and so while public buildings were very grand, homes tended to be plain and simple.  When people begin to concentrate all their energy on their houses and gardens it is an indication that the social sense is slipping.  The present craze for interior decor and gardening is something that only the very rich of long ago would have understood, but then their homes and grounds were as much for show as for themselves.  Today, everyone has to have a little world of his or her own.  It was the old woman of the roads  -  in other words, the one who had no real place in society  -  who longed “to have a little house,  /  To own the hearth and stool and all....”
           It might appear that there is no safer burrow in which to hide than one’s own psyche  -  in practice, one’s own ego.  These two image each another: my house and my ego.   Yes, I need to peep through my window at the world, to see what others are doing; but I don’t like to be seen myself, so I read about them in the newspapers or watch them on television.  This anonymous mole, then, from living like that, develops emotional problems  -  especially in relationships.  He resorts to psychotherapy to find peace within his four walls, and he gets some encouragement to venture out a little.  To venture out is very healthy.  Confine the mole for long enough and he may break out violently: many of the great evil-doers of history were once lonely isolated young men.  Introspective people can be helped greatly by some forms of psychology, provided that the psychology in question is not itself a flight into introspection. 
           This last is the most profound problem: to what kind of ‘beyond’ do these different psychologies deliver us?  Some practitioners have no religious or philosophical vision at all; perhaps they even took up psychology as an alternative to these.  If many people take flight into privacy it must be for good reasons, and the modern world offers us new ones every day.  We need even better reasons to persuade us to come out again!  It would not be enough to be told, “It’s healthy to get out of yourself.” We need a ravishing vision that will transport us beyond ourselves, a vision large enough to embrace private and public.  We have a thirst for the beyond, for what is called “transcendence”.  We are capable of hearing and embracing the truth.  “You have made us for yourself,” wrote St Augustine in a famous passage, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” 
           There is another imbalance of private and public: it is when I flee from interiority into activism.  For this, see this month’s text in ‘Wisdom Line’. 
Donagh O’Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.