Saturday, November 18, 2023

Augustine, Confessions


Opening Passage:

Great are you, Lord, and highly to be praised. Great is your power, and your wisdom beyond measure. And human beings want to praise you -- they who are just a portion of your creation, who carry around their mortality, who carry around the evidence of their own sin and the evidence that you resist the proud. And yet human beings, this portion of your creation, want to praise you. You rouse them to take delight in praising you: for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you. (p. 1)

Summary: The famous opening passage of the Confessions captures the structure of the work. It's a story about the journey from restlessness to rest, a journey that is structured by praise. This helps, I think, to understand the ways in which the book is not quite an autobiography; it is, rather, an exploration of the restlessness of the human spirit, in which Augustine uses his own life as an example. It begins, of course, with Augustine looking back to his birth and childhood. He discusses how as an infant he struggled to express his desires, and how as a student he struggled to learn what was most important. Both of these are just aspects of the restlessness of human life, always wanting something more and beyond, not merely from mere immaturity but, as becomes very clear when we grow older, we confuse the restful and the merely temporarily satisfactory. As a teenager, Augustine stole pears and then did not even eat them, merely throwing them away. The point of this story is not the pears; the point is the restlessness, the seeking for a satisfaction in the wrong way and in the wrong place. The same is true of Augustine's endless sexual temptations and indulgences. All of it is restlessness for something he could not yet enunciate even to himself.

In Book Three, he takes his first major steps toward the fulfillment of his journey, when reading Cicero's Hortensius, he is inspired by it to devote his life to philosophy and the search for wisdom. But the restlessness is still there; unimpressed by Scripture, he eventually falls in with the Manichaean movement, who claimed to provide deep insight into the nature of the world and our place within it. In Book Four, now a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage, he first dabbles in and then rejects astrology (which also claims to provide deep insight into the world and our place in it), and begins to work out his own Neoplatonic philosophy. But he is hampered at this time, although he did not fully realize the ways in which he was being hampered, by his perpetual attempt to fit God into his own understanding of the categories of the world. The Manichaeans, in the person of their greatest orator, Faustus, turn out to be a disappointment, and Augustine, ever restless, leaves his mother to further his career in Rome, in Book Five. Rome turns out to be an even bigger disappointment; it seems to symbolize for Augustine a sort of falling away from truth, as he begins to be tempted by Academic skepticism and its claims that we can never get closer to the truth than finding things that seem truthlike, and with his disgust at the intellectual dishonesty that pervades the students and thinkers in Rome. Still restless, he ends up in Milan, where the second major step of his journey occurs: he meets Ambrose, the first Christian who absolutely and undeniably impresses him.

With Book Six, we begin to learn the full significance of this turning point. Milan brings together a few of the most important people in Augustine's search for wisdom and happiness: his mother, Monnica; the bishop, Ambrose; and his students and friends, Alypius and Nebridius. Listening to Ambrose's public preaching, he begins to understand that some of his assumptions and opinions about Christian doctrine were incorrect, and Ambrose begins to give him reason to think that the Catholic Christian approach to life is better than that of the Manichaeans. Much of the restlessness of Augustine's life to this point was driven by ambition, and in Milan at the age of thirty, this collapses; he meets a drunken beggar who is happy and laughing, and he suddenly recognizes that, limited as this beggar's happiness may be, it is more genuine than anything that Augustine himself has. His search for happiness had been making him miserable. He talks this over with Alypius and Nebridius, particularly Alypius. 

Book Seven looks at this stage of Augustine's journey from the intellectual side, the puzzles that he had about God and the world, and the ways in which Platonism helped him to resolve some of these puzzles, albeit incompletely, and to lead him to the point at which he could fruitfully begin reading the Scriptures that he had previously dismissed. Book Eight looks at the same stage from the perspective of conversion, as Augustine hears about the many converts to Christianity and how their lives had changed because of it and, significantly, learns something about the conversion of the Platonist philosopher Marius Victorinus, which seems to bring home to him the genuine possibility of a Platonist like himself becoming Christian. At this point, of course, he hears a child in singsong saying, "Pick up and read", and, the conversion of St. Antony, whose conversion had involved reading a passage from the Gospel, he picks up the letters of St. Paul and reads. The passage he reads, from Romans 13, inspires him to convert.

In Book Nine, Augustine, Monnica, and his friends withdraw from Milan to a country estate to study and discuss and contemplate, in what had been Augustine's ideal for the philosophical life -- the opposite, in a sense, of what he had found in Rome. Augustine, Alypius, and Augustine's son Adeodatus all are baptized. Book Nine is in a sense about death; it does not go in any strict chronological order, but reflects in various ways about death -- both the sacramental death of baptismal conversion and physical death. There is a kind of thematic crescendo through the book as each death, symbolic or physical, adds another aspect to Augustine's understanding of dying to his old self, culminating in the pinnacle with the Vision at Ostia, in which Augustine and Monnica, while discussing heaven and the kind of interaction among the saints that will be found there, both share an experience that is a taste of that very thing, converse in heaven. Their discussion leads them up both to an experience of God as the Selfsame (a name of God that Augustine gets from the Latin translation of Psalm 4:9), a touch of what it is to seek wisdom in Wisdom itself. Monnica dies shortly after they have this glimpse at the rest at the end of the restless journey.

Book Ten brings us to Augustine's present as he is writing, and reflecting on what he is doing in writing these confessions for the praise of God, with the famous discussions of memory and anticipation. If we were reading the work merely as a biography, the shift between Book Nine and Book Ten would be jarring, but when we read the work as a reflection on human restlessness, it is the most natural thing in the world: having brought the narrative of his own restlessness up to his own time, more or less, Augustine now beginst to reflect on what this restlessness is. Book Ten gives us the subjective aspect of that restlessness, what aspects of human mind are involved in it, and Books Eleven and Twelve (Book Eleven in general and Book Twelve by looking specifically at the account of creation given in Genesis) give us the objective aspect of it, how this restlessness plays out in general in the world. The things of this world are not rest because they are not Selfsame; they are not adequate to themselves because they are made and therefore signify something higher than themselves. To try to satisfy oneself with worldly things is to try to satisfy oneself with things that are already telling you that they are not enough. 

But what is the rest to which this restlessness tends? Augustine, of course, although he has had a glimpse or two, has not reached it yet. He has spoken of how he reached the symbolic end in baptism, and reflected on the end of the journey itself and the nature of its restlessness. Thus the book ends the only way it could: Augustine attempts to work out what that rest involves by working out how this restlessness is changed by God's grace into rest in God. This he does by taking the account of creation he had worked out in Book Twelve, based on the beginning of Genesis, and uses it as a clue, a set of hints about what God might be doing in the re-creation of our souls through grace. He gives an allegorical reading of the days of creation as stages of our re-creation. So God manifested his light in Christ, and divided believers from unbelievers, just as he had made light exist and divided the firmament above from that below; he kindled the fires of the saints, just as he made the sun and moon and stars, and made sacraments and miracles and scriptural words spring forth; he gives order to the earthly aspect of ourselves and shapes us into his image, breathing his Spirit upon us and making us fruitful, thus to bring us to that for which our restless hearts long, the sabbath rest of God himself, which none can give but God. The book that began with restlessness can only end with the hope of rest.

Favorite Passage: There are many excellent passages, of course, but this one is always hard to beat:

And what is this? I asked the earth, and it said, "It is not I." And everything that is in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the depths and the creeping things with living souls, and they replied, "We are not your God; seek him above us." I asked the blowing winds, and all the air with its inhabitants said, "Anaximenes was wrong; I am not God." I asked the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars: "neither are we the God whom you are seeking," they said. And I said to all these things that surround the gateways of my flesh, "Tell me about my God -- the God who you are not -- tell me something about him." And they cried out with a loud voice, "He is the one who made us." My scrutiny of them posed the question; their beauty answered it. (p. 167)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Augustine, Confessions, Williams, tr., Hackett (Indianapolis: 2019).

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