|Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), 1872
by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum)
Alypius* was a life-long friend of Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. Both were born in the 4th century in Numidia (current Algeria) which was part of Roman North Africa. They were converted to Christianity together while studying in Milan. Though revered as a Saint of the Catholic Church, there was a time in his life when Alypius seemed hopelessly enslaved to an addiction of the most unlikely sort. Augustine describes the plight of his friend better than I could ever hope to.
“He had gone on to Rome before me to study law . . . and there he was carried away again with an incredible passion for the gladiatorial shows. For, although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquaintances and fellow students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence, they drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater, on a day of those cruel and murderous shows. He protested to them: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.” When they heard this, they dragged him on in, probably interested to see whether he could do as he said. When they got to the arena, and had taken what seats they could get, the whole place became a tumult of inhuman frenzy. But Alypius kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such wickedness. Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and rise superior to it no matter what it was, he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body. Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor which had entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul, which was more audacious than truly valiant–also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness–delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides. And yet from all this, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, thou didst pluck him and taught him not to rest his confidence in himself but in thee–but not till long after.” Augustine – Confessions VI;8:13
Addiction is “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming to such an extent that cessation causes severe trauma”. Though the allure of watching slaves and criminals battle to the death is hardly on our top ten list of addictions to watch out for, the story of Alypius illustrates how susceptible the human brain is to addiction. A review of the diagnostic criteria for addiction (here) makes it pretty clear that its not just nicotine, alcohol or drugs that have addictive potential. Most of us wouldn’t think of work, shopping, Facebook, texting, or video games as being much more of an addictive threat than gladiatorial games. But this lack of respect is disarming and very dangerous. In reality, addiction is so multifaceted that it holds the potential to threaten most of us. Addiction is a lot like eBay–there’s something for everyone.
Parallels between the story of Alypius and the modern plague of pornography should be obvious (GBH’s watershed talk here; Dallin H. Oaks here). One look was all it took for Alypius to be drawn in. Spurred on with curiosity “he opened his eyes and was struck with a [deep] wound in his soul” that took him years to recover from. The exact words could be used to describe those ensnared by pornography.
In his Conference talk on addiction a few years ago, M. Russell Ballard described addiction as surrender. He said “any kind of addiction is to surrender to something, thus relinquishing agency and becoming dependent”. Surrender to anything other than God is tantamount to idolatry. It is a moment Satan instantly recognizes; he will immediately move in to seize control. Elder Ballard went on to teach that the cause of the disease and its remedy are different faces of the same coin:
“Ask him for the strength to overcome the addiction you are experiencing. Set aside all pride and turn your life and heart to Him.”
As we surrender to our addiction we are enslaved by it. On the other hand, as we surrender to God, He liberates us.
* He is also referred to as Saint Alypius of Thasgate