We Are All Alypius Now

The Metaworld Brings Unprecedented Challenges for Parents

Parenting is hard. Parenting in the age of Google and (now) Meta is absurd. The stakes seem higher than in previous ages, the dangers more insidious. For parents, it’s enough trouble to keep our souls from the corruption of social media addictions, “doom-scrolling,” or binge-watching.

Some might object, pointing out that it’s always the penchant of a passing generation to lament the hardships of their day. St. Augustine, for instance, wrote about temptations even in his day.

In one episode of his Confessions, we meet his friend Alypius. Although Augustine has high regard for him (Alypius was a student of his), he wrote that, “the whirlpool of Carthaginian immoral amusements sucked him in” and being attracted to “frivolous shows,” he became “ensnared in the madness of the Circuses.”[1] Augustine came to learn how fond Alypius was of the circus games, “a passion likely to be his undoing.” Because of this, he feared his friend might “waste his excellent promise.”

Augustine doesn’t confront Alypius “about his reckless addiction to worthless shows.” Nor does he “attempt to save him from ruining his fine intelligence on them,” and the reason is that, in brutal honesty, his student’s plight had “slipped [his] memory.”[2] One is reminded how parents too can’t always keep up with the struggles of their children.

Later on, when Alypius is in Rome, we find him taken by another form of entertainment. At first, we see that Alypius disdains the violent spectacle of the gladiatorial games. Nevertheless, in a new city with little oversight, he soon becomes enamored with these shows too. Such is the moral foundation debased by sin. As the story goes, his “close friends” one day happen to find Alypius and “drag” him into the stadium “by force.”[3] In his hubris, Alypius boasts, “You may drag my body into that place and fix me there, but can you direct my mind and my eyes to the show? I will be there, and yet be absent.” Powerful words, almost like a teen telling his parents that giving him a phone won’t introduce any bad or unnatural habits. And here, amid his noble protests, Alypius falls, and the story takes a sad turn. In spite of shutting his eyes, he cannot stop his ears from hearing the “huge roar from the entire crowd.”[4]  He is then conquered by “curiosity.”

In one of the most moving scenes in Western literature, Augustine describes the pathos of a man yielding to temptation: “He opened his eyes and suffered a more grievous wound in his soul than the gladiator he wished to see had received in his body.” After this, Alypius “gulped in the brutality.” The din and clamor of the crowd rising, “the noise effected a breach through which his mind—a mind rash rather than strong, and all the mind weaker for presuming to trust in itself rather than in [God], as it should have done—was struck and brought down.” Alypius became “intoxicated” with the bloody pageant. (Note Augustine’s trope here and elsewhere, comparing the spectacle of violence to that of drunkenness and substance abuse.) Something in Alypius had changed at a deep level. “No longer was he the man who had joined the crowd; he was now one of the crowd he had joined, and a genuine companion of those who had led him there.”

While it’s true this remains a cautionary tale, there is redemption in the end. God receives the glory for delivering Alypius from his bondage, as Augustine well knows. But this story is not without its share of sin-induced suffering. When the moral center is undermined, what appears acceptable and normal shifts, and one slides further away from the truth. In other words, the drug addict never begins in the gutter. For Alypius, this one moment of weakness made it easier to come back to the gladiatorial games again and again. And with each new return, he was less of himself than when he started, eventually sinking so low as to “drag others” into the ancient forms of addiction with himself.

To a greater or lesser degree, we are all Alypius now. We get hooked on shameful amusements. We try to avoid the places of temptation but through means of social contagion are dragged into all kinds of base entertainment by “friends,” or by “FOMO.” We set rules in our houses and are surprised when “curiosity” gets the better of us. We know “the eye is the lamp of the body,” yet give our attention to worthless things and open a “breach” through which darkness enters the soul.

Yes, we have it on good authority (the Qoheleth) that there’s nothing whereof it may be said, “See, this is new?” But it does seem like parenting today really contains some unprecedented challenges. Sure, there were sins of the flesh, sins of the mind, vices and distractions—and even if one might join the monastery to escape worldly temptations, monks of old warned us of the “noonday devil” of acedia to contend with.

Still, being a parent today seems different. When the perverse entertainment of the colosseum has legs, when it has come into your home, when it has found its way into your pocket, and is even now seeking a way into your brain, then, yeah, parenting may actually be harder today than in previous ages. It will likely demand more of us – a greater sacrifice, a greater donation of ourselves to the Lord on behalf of our children.

NOTES

[1] Augustine, Confessions, Maria Boulding O.S.B. translation (San Francisco, Ignatius Press: 2010) 143. [2] Ibid. [3] Augustine, 145. [4] Augustine, 146.

Devin O'Donnell is the Vice President of Membership and Publishing at the Association of Classical Christian Schools. He is author of The Age of Martha: A Call to Contemplative Learning in Frenzied Culture (2019). He was the Research Editor of Bibliotheca in 2015 and has worked in classical Christian education for 20 years. He and his family live in the Northwest, where he writes, fly fishes, and remains a classical hack.

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