Tutors Talk Books: Ron Haflidson on Augustine
August 23, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin
Ron Haflidson has been a tutor on the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College since 2014. He recently spoke about his new book, On Solitude, Conscience, Love and Our Inner and Outer Lives, part of the “Reading Augustine” series from Bloomsbury Academic.
How did the idea for the book come to be?
I’ve been interested since I was an earnest and nerdy teenager in the question of how to live a good life. That’s one of those questions that leads to all sorts of other questions, two of them that I’m especially exploring in the book. The first is what particular challenges there might be to living a good life here and now, especially in relation to technology. One thing I’ve noticed, although I’m not the only one, is smartphones and computers mean we can stay connected to each other all the time. So I’m wondering: What difference does it make to us that solitude is less a part of our daily lives?
The second question is what kinds of habits we should form to live good lives, especially habits related to reflecting about how we’ve acted and deliberating about how we should act. That question led me to do my PhD on Augustine, and especially his understanding of what conscience is. For him, conscience isn’t an inner voice or an angel on our shoulder or any of those other ways we tend to think about it. For him, conscience is a kind of inner space we have within ourselves where we can go and be alone and really examine ourselves in God’s presence. So those two questions together led to the book.
What was the process of publishing it?
When I was finishing up my PhD and trying to figure out whether I’d ever be able to get a job, one of the pieces of advice you get is to try and publish at least three articles and try and get some book contracts to turn your dissertation into a book. So I busily did some of that, and I had some prospects to publish my dissertation as a more traditional book for academics interested in Augustine by an academic interested in Augustine. But when I got hired at St John’s and there was no requirement that faculty publish, I decided I didn’t want to do that. I was excited about the prospect of taking what I thought was most important in Augustine and communicating it to a more general audience, not just Augustine nerds. That opportunity came because my PhD supervisor was asked to write a book for a series connecting Augustine to some contemporary concern. He said he didn’t want to, but he recommended to the editor that I could. That was extremely kind of him. So I got an email out of the blue from the editor of this series asking if I would like to pitch something. And it took a bit longer than it should have, because I was busy becoming a tutor—which I'm still very much in the process of becoming!
You gave a lecture on this topic called “Why It’s Good to be Alone Sometimes: On the Moral Necessity of Solitude.”
Yeah, I gave a lecture in the GI [Graduate Institute] last summer that was a draft of the first chapter. One of the things that I try and do is provide a framework for different ways of thinking about solitude, because there are a number of contemporary authors who have made a case for the moral necessity of solitude—and I agree with them, but I also want to give the conversation some more depth by talking about different approaches to solitude. So in my lecture and in my first chapter, I talk about solitude as involving three possible companions: one is companionship with yourself, the second is companionship with nature, and the third is companionship with God.
So what is the moral necessity of solitude?
In a couple of sentences, the moral necessity of solitude is that it provides a space for introspection. And I agree with a number of authors, including some big names on the Program, who make the case that introspection can be one way of thoughtfully engaging with the influences that are constantly shaping us. To put that more dramatically, one could say that introspection is a way of not just going along with the consensus, not just reflecting what your community thinks is right—or, on the other hand, also not just opposing yourself to some community that you might have inclinations to disagree with. So in other words, introspection might offer a way of more thoughtfully engaging with the influences in your life and not just either reacting negatively against them or just mindlessly repeating them.
What impact does that solitude have on one’s life within the community?
I think there’s probably a negative and a positive. The negative would be [that] in order to carve out some space for introspection, you might need to be more ready to say no to all sorts of things. I think that’s especially demanding in the contemporary world, where we have all sorts of people we can stay in touch with who we love, but we might have to turn our phones off or disconnect from Facebook for a while. But I think that the positive is [that] we can be more thoughtful about who we are and about our relationships.
Augustine thinks that time alone in the presence of God is an opportunity to reflect really honestly about how you love the other people in your life and whether you are loving them well. Augustine thinks it’s very easy to care for people or relate to people in a way that is driven primarily by your own ego, rather than genuinely responding to who they are.
According to Augustine, can there be true solitude if you’re in the presence of God?
That’s a great question. Yes, I think so. He talks about it in terms of interior solitude—it can be possible, and indeed might happen all the time, that you might get some time away from other people and be alone, but your mind is so busy with all sorts of things and you’re just wrapped up with the same activities you [would] if you were out in the world. That isn’t real solitude.
Real interior solitude, for him, depends on being able to quiet down, come to stillness, and really bring yourself intentionally into the presence of God. I think that’s one distinction between the way he thinks about solitude and some other people think about solitude. For Augustine, we can never be truly alone. So then the question is whether we’re going to consciously invoke God’s presence or whether we’re going to not.
Who are some of the other Program authors that you mention in the book?
I discuss Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The heroine in that novel has a room that becomes her study that I think is related to her practice of solitude and might even be an image of conscience. I also talk about Dorothea in George Elliot’s Middlemarch. There are a few really central scenes in that novel where Dorothea retires by herself and reviews her day and checks in with how she’s feeling and does what I think solitude can do. There’s an especially dramatic scene where she’s shocked and infuriated with someone in her life, and after 24 hours, she’s totally transformed and is able to see herself in this relationship in a different kind of way. I engage with the Bible a fair amount, too: the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels in the New Testament.
Was your choice of authors in any way influenced by your time at St John’s?
Definitely. I hadn’t read Mansfield Park before I did a Summer Classics course on it. I hadn’t read Middlemarch before I was at St John’s. And especially, I’d say, I had a sophomore seminar a couple of years ago where we had a really great seminar on the Psalms, including Psalm 139. I was familiar with it, but conversation with the students made me realize how much more complexity there was, especially in terms of how the psalmist was responding to the belief that God could always see him. He was sometimes in the psalm comforted by that and other times horrified by that. So that made me go back to the Psalms, and the Psalms crop up at various times in the book. I’d also say that the question period of the lecture I gave, was extremely valuable. Johnnies are very good at asking hard questions, and they asked me some that forced me to think about the variety of ways we can use solitude and made me realize that I needed to be very precise about how I was thinking about solitude.
What about the more contemporary authors included in the book, like George Saunders?
It’s probably not coincidental that my favorite authors are exploring some of the same questions that I’m interested in. I felt like the contemporary literature especially was a way to really test whether Augustine was onto something or not. We might think that he might not have much to say us because he wrote so long ago, and he was a bishop and a priest, and he might be trapped in his own way of viewing the world. My hope is that some of this contemporary literature makes things more concrete and existential and if what is happening there resonates with what Augustine is saying, it makes it seem more true and relevant.
What drew you to Augustine initially?
I read Confessions when I was a freshman, and I was really drawn to how, in that book, the various intellectual positions he takes up and tries out—including Manichaeanism and stoicism and skepticism and then, eventually, Christianity—aren’t just abstract. You can really see the effects in his life. I felt like he was someone who connected the dots between philosophy and theology and day-to-day life, including the complexities of human psychology. I think that’s what initially drew me to him. That’s one thing that’s kept me coming back.
Does the solitude you discuss in the book always require faith or a theological lens?
The second, third, and fourth chapters are taking up Augustine and seeing what difference he thinks solitude can make in relation to faith. The first chapter isn’t. One major thinker that I spend some time on in the first chapter is Hannah Arendt, and she makes a case for solitude without any need for commitments—philosophical, political, religious or otherwise. The case she makes is that if we pay attention to the way our minds work, we recognize that when we’re alone, we quite naturally fall into conversations with ourselves. And she thinks having those sorts of conversations with ourselves make us much more critical about ourselves and about the influences in our life, so we’re more resistant to thoughtless consensus, tribalism, and totalitarianism.
In the introduction, I talk about contemporary authors who have made a case for solitude. Several of them don’t make any reference to any kind of faith tradition. Sherry Turkle, for example, is a MIT psychologist and sociologist who’s done a lot of research on how technology is affecting us. She makes the case that introspection can cultivate compassion for other people. Michael Harris, who’s a journalist and is decidedly not religious also makes a similar case, that Twitter and Facebook and all these sorts of things drag us into being members of tribes that deaden our capacity to be critical and to stand up as individuals who might want to dissent from the communities that we’re a part of.
Did you come to any personal conclusions about solitude while writing this?
I think I already saw the need for solitude in my own life, especially for self-examination and trying to be as thoughtful as I could about my relationships. I think I also saw—and this was more on rereading what I wrote rather than when I was writing it—how valuable writing can be as a tool. I’ve had the experience of being well-intentioned and thinking ‘Okay, I’m going to spend some time by myself and really think about my life.’ It can be very hard to stay focused. Whereas I think writing is a way of bringing some focus and asking yourself some questions and seeing what you write in response and then seeing what happens from there.
Do you have any further writing plans?
One of the great things about St. John’s is there’s no obligation to publish, which feels really freeing. So I think I might want to use that freedom to try and write something more creative. I have been reading a lot of creative nonfiction this summer. I am really attracted to that essay form. It’s not just academic, but it involves serious intellectual reflection, but also with some personal anecdotal exploration. I think I might like to try my hand at that, but who knows?