Augustine and the Vitruvian Man (renaissance jump-jam)

After looking through my drafts, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to stop introducing my posts with the word ‘So’. This will be a concerted effort to avoid the word (it won’t end well). I finally finished City of God! It’s mid-March when I’m writing this, so there you go – four months of bloody hard slog, and we’re finally there. This post is the last City of God-related post, more or less. As I was scrambling through the last forty pages, I was hoping there would be something to round the book off, something that I could write a nice little closing piece on – and lo and behold, I found this.

Augustine’s talking about how the body is “so designed as to show that it was created as the servant to the rational soul”, which is pretty hierarchical, but never mind that right now.

“And even if we take out of account the necessary functions of the parts, there is a harmonious congruence between them, a beauty in their equality and correspondence, so much so that one would be at a loss to say whether utility or beauty is the major consideration in their creation. This would be more apparent to us if we were aware of the precise proportions in which the components are combined and fitted together…” (XXII, 24)

This might not immediately have much significance to you, unless you’ve studied da Vinci at all. I’ve started reading about architecture recently, which is why this jumped out at me. Da Vinci has this picture called the Vitruvian Man – you’ll know the one. It’s also known as the Proportions of Man, and it shows off the geometry of the human body.  Da Vinci was illustrating the ideas of a classical architect called Vitruvius (surprise), who wrote ten massive volumes on architecture (De archetectura). They’re the best extant source on Roman architecture, and a cornerstone of any modern architect’s education. Anyway: Vitruvius wrote that the proportions of the human body were one of the major sources of inspiration for classical architecture.

The idea is that the body has a certain beautiful symmetry – there’s certain proportions and dimensions that are aesthetically pleasing. In da Vinci’s picture, for example, he’s got text saying things like “The length of the palm is one-tenth the height of a man”, so on, so forth. To be honest, I doubt you’ll find many people who actually match those proportions – I suspect there’s a racial aspect to the ratio too, insofar as both these guys are concerned with European proportions. I’m not telling you about this stuff because it’s true though – I’m telling you because it’s interesting.

There’s this raging humanist philosophy which basically argues that the perfect proportions found in humanity are a microcosm representing the perfect structure of the universe as a whole. That’s the point Vetruvius and da Vinci are making – Vetruvius says that “similarly [ie just as in humans], in the members of a temple there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole”. It’s the way the universe is designed, it’s the way humans are designed, and it should be the way buildings are designed too. This is the discourse that Augustine is tapping into.

Obviously there’s a link between the Vetruvian Man and Augustine’s City of God, in that (as we’ve noted before) Augustine’s talking about the city, and the role of the individual as citizen, as part of a larger body (the body of Christ, the City of God). These beautiful proportions of the individual human body represent in and of themselves a microcosm of the order and beauty of the City – basically it’s an extension of the ‘body as City’ metaphor that begins in places like 1 Corinthians 12:

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

If we were to summarise City of God, we might say that it takes 1 Corinthians 12, and makes the body into a city, to reflect the civic concerns of Augustine – who is, after all, a Roman, and therefore concerned with notions of duty and citizenship. By projecting the structure of the City into the biological structure of our very bodies, Augustine makes it clear that our natural state is within the City – it’s actually hardwired into the design of our bodies!

The problems here are pretty standard issues, most of which we’ve raised before. Augustine doesn’t really understand science like we do today, for example, and that limits his argument. He argues that we’re upright because we’re designed to look towards the heavens, while most animals are just earthly creatures that look mostly at the ground. To our way of thinking, that’s just not very scientific. There’s also the anthropocentric thing – the same impulse that sees humans as the center of the created universe also underpins the idea that the Earth is at the center of the solar system. It doesn’t have a stellar history, in that regard. Similarly, I’m pretty suspicious of this idea of the ideal proportions of the human body. I don’t have the scientific background to call bullshit, but I’d be happy to gesture in that direction and see what the science says.

What I can say for certain is that historically, some of the most widespread discrimination on the planet has taken place on the basis of the body. Women have been largely treated as the lesser sex – not on the basis of their gender, but on the basis of their physical bodies. That’s a prominent element of much Christian theology. Furthermore, the West has repeatedly treated black bodies as the bodies of lesser folk – in terms of Christian theology, black folk were sometimes treated as the children of Ham, who was cursed to have his descendants subjugated. In both of these cases, sex and skin colour, there’s this idea of a hierarchy of bodies – better bodies and lesser bodies. Within this hierarchy, there’s obviously a ‘best body’ – an ideal body – with perfect proportions and all this other stuff. You can’t really separate the idea of an ideally proportioned body from this massive heritage of discrimination.

So there we go – that’s Augustine’s City of God. I think I have a loose end to tie up – I remember planning to write a second half to one of my articles, but I’ll have to go back and read through them to figure out which one it was. Next up, I’ll probably do a throwback to Confessions, because I read that before I started this blog, and then I’ll do Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, where he talks about how to read the Bible. In a longer view, I’m looking to tackle Hannah Arendt as my next big thinker – ideally I’ll alternate between Christian and non-Christian thinkers. Until next time!


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