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Confessions Essay, Research Paper

AugustineNoverim te, noverim me: “I would know you [God], I would know myself.” Augustine wrote these words in one of his earliest works, but they retained their force throughout his lifetime.[2] The irrefutable solipsism of self confronted with the absolute reality of God, the wholly other: all of Augustine’s thought moves between those two poles.But those poles were not far distant from one another, with vast uncharted territory between. Rather, they were elements of an intimate personal relationship destined for permanent and indissoluble union. To treat God and self as two different things is to introduce the fatal distinction that the serpent taught to Eve. The relation between creator and creature is totally different from that which obtains between any two created things in the material world. Each created object participates in a complex world of material objects from which God seems far away. But the creator is equidistant from all creatures–equally close to all.Theologians write about God dispassionately and objectively, in serene detachment, but in doing so avail themselves of a compendious device that runs the risk of negating the truth of all they say. Christian theology only succeeds when the believer sees that the story of all creation (”macrotheology”) and the private history of the soul (”microtheology”) are identical. Differences between the two are flaws of perception, not defects inherent in things.Saints do not have to be taught this identity, for theology realized is holiness. But even saints, when they are theologians, often find it hard to embody their intuition in their works. For Augustine, the crisis came early in life. Despite his reputation as a self-revelatory writer, he left behind little direct testimony about the condition of his soul at different times, but we can see that the first years of his episcopacy were a time of trial. He had managed the transformation from virtual pagan to devout Christian with reasonable equanimity. The map for that conversion was clear enough and commonly followed. Even his elevation to the priesthood in the church of Hippo had brought with it few fresh anxieties.But the final elevation to the bishopric seems to have unsteadied Augustine a bit. The transition was accompanied by some jibing from outside–suspicions of his Manichean past, rumor of an illicit connection with a married woman, jealousy from some less-educated African churchmen toward this well-educated outsider rising too rapidly to the top. Those things, however, must have been only the surface disturbances. Augustine was more deeply troubled by the implications of his new office.Who was he to stand in such a place of eminence, with so many people depending on him? He was still a sinner, but somehow he was also the conduit of divine grace bringing redemption to other sinners. Now a preacher, he needed to be preached to himself, but there was no one to do that. He had to stand alone before the people of Hippo each week and proclaim God’s word. How could the expectations of these people not drive him to despair?Two literary answers came out of this personal crisis. The first was perfectly theological, detached, and serious: Christian Doctrine was begun, and carried out through most of the third book, in the year or so after his elevation to the bishopric. In it, as we have seen, Augustine sketched dispassionately the nature of the Christian message and the mechanism of its proclamation to the world. It was a handbook for others who would preach, but it was a personal statement of intent as well. How do I preach, he asked himself? Christian Doctrine was the answer. But it was an incomplete answer, in more ways than one. At about this time, he turned instead to writing the Confessions.Detachment and objectivity are not to be found in the Confessions. Analysis of divine affairs is not only not kept apart from self-analysis, but the two streams are run together in what often appears to first readers to be an uncontrolled and illogical melange. This book’s fascination for modern readers stems in large part from its vivid portrayal of a man in the presence of his God, of God and the self intimately related but still separated by sin, and of a struggle for mastery within the self longing for final peace. It is an extraordinary book, no matter how studied.The rest of Augustine’s life was spent writing books of a more conventional sort. He would analyze in painstaking detail the inner workings of the trinity, the whole course of salvation history, and the delicate commerce between God and man in the workings of grace and the will, all in an objective, detached, and impersonal style.[3] What is different about them is that they were written by a man who had already written the Confessions, made his peace with God insofar as that was possible, and drawn from that peace (the forerunner of heavenly rest) the confidence he needed to stand at the altar and preach or to sit in his study dictating works of polemic and instruction for the world to read.The reading of the Confessions given in this chapter, then, may seem somewhat strange. The Confessions are not to be read merely as a look back at Augustine’s spiritual development; rather the text itself is an essential stage in that development, and a work aware both of what had already passed into history and of what lay ahead. No other work of Christian literature that does what Augustine accomplishes in this volume; only Dante’s Commedia even rivals it.Prayer–so all the authoritative writers state–is no simple matter. It is not easy to pray. In view of that, we should direct our first attention to the form of Augustine’s masterwork and portion out at least some of our admiration for his accomplishment of a very difficult task: praying on paper. The literary form of the work is a continuous address to God. No human audience is directly addressed, although in Book 10 Augustine will wonder what such an audience might make of the work. But at all times the direction of the work is towards God.Such a work would seem doomed to failure. Prayer is private, but literature is unfailingly public; prayer is humble, but literature is always a form of self-assertion; prayer is intimate, but literature is voyeuristic. One might be able to depict another’s prayer successfully (for then the voyeurism and the self-assertion are the responsibility of the author, not of the individual at prayer), except that no third party can ever enter into the privacy of another’s relation with God.But somehow or other Augustine succeeds. The Confessions are marked by an unfailing consistency of tone and authenticity of style. The believer and the writer function as one, with no awkwardness or embarrassment. There is never a false note, no false modesty, no posing for an audience. We come away convinced that, whatever else we have learned, in it we have seen Augustine at prayer, as he was.We need not insist that Augustine prayed in the privacy of his cell with just such words, just such cadences, just such nuanced and orderly allusions to scripture, just such unfailing intensity. The text is not the private prayer of a man on his knees in a chapel. In fact, in the Confessions Augustine succeeded at something even more difficult than transcribing his private devotions accurately. He has instead devised an idiom by which it is possible to pray in a literary medium that is, to pray as one would have to pray with pen in hand. This text does not represent Augustine’s prayer life as signifier represents signified; the text is itself the thing signified, the very prayer itself, the act of communication between Augustine and God. Its relation to the rest of Augustine’s prayer life is not as snapshot to subject but as one subject to another.The implications of this literary form come to be the subject of the Confessions themselves in the tenth book. We must bear in mind that we are not reading a book of any ordinary kind. This is emphatically not the “first modern autobiography,” for the autobiographical narrative that takes up part of the work is incidental content while prayer is the significant form. The work is sui generis.SinThe Confessions begin as prayer. The first few pages are dense and abstract, but they are of deep significance to the whole work and to Augustine’s life, and they repay study. The beginning is abrupt–and not Augustine’s.”Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised;great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite.” These lines juxtapose and combine two Psalm texts (144[145].3 and 146[147].5). With them, Augustine embodies his own principle from Christian Doctrine, that he who speaks of religion should rely on the language of scripture itself. Though necessity often compels the believer to use his own words, constant recourse to the very words of scripture provides a safety net over which the speculative theologian and confused penitent may work.The content of these lines is praise: a humble mortal enunciates the greatness of God, greatness of action and contemplation, of power and wisdom, embracing all that is. That greatness is in fact “greatly to be praised.” Much of the Confessions will sound the same laudatory note, and not by accident. We ordinarily interpret “confession” as a single-valued term, acknowledgment of wrongdoing by a miscreant. But the etymology has simply to do with emphatic agreement or acknowledgment. Confession of sin is the negative form of confession. Confession of praise, on the other hand, is the acknowledgment by the creature of the greatness and goodness of God. Confession of faith is then emphatic assent to a set of facts about God and God’s relation to mankind.All three confessions occur in the Confessions.[4] If God and the soul are all Augustine wants to know, and if they are to be known best in relation to each other, then acknowledgement of the weakness of the individual and of the power and greatness of God are two sides of the same coin. Sinful man sets himself in God’s place; confession of sin demolishes that preposterousness. Sinful man belittles God’s power at the expense of his own; confession of praise restores God’s place in the sinner’s eyes. Confession of faith declares what has transpired to the community of believers. Seen this way, confession is the working out of redemption itself in the life of the sinner. It is prayer itself. The literary text, prayer on paper, becomes in this way again not a picture of the working out of Augustine’s salvation, but the instrument of salvation itself.”And Thee would a man praise;a man, but a particle of Thy creation;a man, that bears about him his mortality,the witness of sin,the witness, that Thou resistest the proud:yet would a man praise Thee;he, but a particle of Thy creation.”God is great, but man is tiny, yet man, full of sin and death and rejection, somehow or another reaches up, as improbable as it may seem, to praise summary of its contents. The natural motion of the spirit is from the restlessness of alienation from God to the repose of peace and union with God. The Confessions, among many other things, follow this path from restlessness to peace itself. (A glance ahead at the last words on the last page of the Confessions [13.35-38] will confirm this.) In the beginning, confusion and division; in the end, peace.”Grant me, Lord, to know and understand which is first,to call on Thee or to praise Thee?and, again, to know Thee or to call on Thee?For who can call on Thee, not knowing Thee?For he that knoweth Thee not,may call on Thee as other than Thou art.Or is it rather,that we call on Thee that we may know Thee?”How does praise come about? Is it man’s doing? But if it is his doing, how is it not inevitable–for if all can know God, all would praise him, would they not? The precise sequence of Augustine’s question is this: In what order do the apparently separate acts occur of knowing God, appealing to God, and praising God? Does not knowledge have to come first? (For without knowledge, we would not know on whom we were to call or whom to praise.) Or is perhaps that we pray first, in order to gain knowledge? (Augustine himself began by calling on the name of God, but now he seeks knowledge (the word he uses is one he uses elsewhere in similar contexts as a name for faith) and understanding. The answer to the question comes from the source of all answers.”But how shall they call on Himin whom they have not believed?or how shall they believe without a preacher?And they that seek the Lord shall praise Him.For they that seek shall find Him,and they that find shall praise Him.”Scripture provides in this conflation of several passages, answers to all the questions.[5] Invocation requires belief (faith) first; belief requires a preacher; praise comes after seeking and is indeed part of a sequence that runs seeking-finding-praising. Given these data, Augustine can answer his questions in rational order.”I will seek Thee, Lord, by calling on Thee;and will call on Thee, believing in Thee;for to us hast Thou been preached.My faith, Lord, shall call on Thee,which Thou hast given me,wherewith Thou hast inspired me,through the incarnation of Thy Son,through the ministry of the preacher.”Here is the essence: faith calls on God (seeking-finding-praising: that sequence follows necessarily on calling on God, we are left to deduce), but faith comes from outside the individual, through the second person of the trinity.Thus God is great, mankind (though outwardly insignificant) is capable of praising God, but this capacity is no accomplishment of man himself. God preaches his Word to man, which results in faith, which results in invocation, which results in seeking, which results in finding, which results in praise. So the economy of the Christian experience is defined: faith is the beginning, unceasing praise (in heaven) is the end, and human life is a journey from faith to praise, from restlessness to repose. God is the guiding force, drawing men to himself despite their unworthiness.Faith is thus the ground whence invocation rises. The next paragraphs deal with the problem of invocation. What can it possibly mean to “call on God?” This puzzle becomes the means by which Augustine expresses awe and reverence at the majesty of God in a vivid, overtowering depiction of God, full of paradox:”What art Thou then, my God?What, but the Lord God?For who is Lord but the Lord?or who is God save our God?Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent;most merciful, yet most just;most hidden, yet most present;most beautiful, yet most strong;stable, yet incomprehensible;unchangeable, yet all-changing;never new, never old;all-renewing,and bringing age upon the proud and they know it not;ever working, ever at rest;still gathering, yet lacking nothing;supporting, filling, and overspreading;creating, nourishing, and maturing;seeking, yet having all things.Thou lovest, without passion;art jealous, without anxiety;repentest, yet grievest not;art angry, yet serene;changest Thy works, Thy purpose unchanged;receivest again what Thou findest,yet didst never lose ….” (1.4.4)Intellectually speaking, then, this book is a search for understanding. On this point a little clarification is perhaps useful. Augustine, and the early Latin middle ages in general, recognized a dual epistemology–an ideal theory of knowledge, and a practical one. In the ideal world, God is known from the glory of creation itself. Human reason suffices to deduce his existence, and full understanding of the deepest truths is accessible to all. But for fallen man, sin intervenes. Revelation supplements creation as a source of knowledge, and the authority of the church supplements faltering human reason. What revelation and authority give is faith, simple faith, and the restlessness with which Augustine begins. As the spirit of grace works, the strength comes to move from the epistemology of the fallen world (and the faith it provides) to the epistemology of unfallen man (of the Garden of Eden–almost of heaven) and the direct understanding–mystical contemplation is perhaps a better term–that comes with it.The Confessions open in faith and restless confusion. This work will show something of how Augustine proceeded a little way from faith to understanding and will itself, as literary text, be one of those steps. Perfect understanding (perfect repose) is impossible this side of the grave, but every step of the journey is an image of the whole journey (salvation history is the same story at all times in every place), and the text that begins with faith in Book 1 and ends with rest in Book 13 can itself be part of the process described (a part of the whole whose every part is the whole–paradox on paradox).A work that begins at the beginning of personal salvation aptly begins with the beginning of life. Augustine is justly famous for the insight he brings in these pages of the Confessions to the dilemmas of infancy, even if his sober conclusions seem harsh to us now. The justice of much of what he says cannot be denied, and when once we realize where he begins, it is hard to deny him his conclusions.To Augustine sin is always unprincipled self-assertion. What seems mere instinct for survival in the beats of the wild is in human beings a turning away from love of God and neighbor towards pride and emptiness. The innocence of small children, Augustine says, is chiefly inability in their selfishness to wield effective power over other people’s lives. But the first attempts to communicate and the first faltering steps are taken with nothing but self-interest in mind. The infant’s love for its parents is not caritas at all, for it is all demanding and no giving.But the speechless days of infancy are only prologue to Augustine’s recollections. In the first book of the Confessions he paints a picture of himself that highlights the contradictions of his youth. It is a society no longer faithful to the old traditions but insufficiently sure of its own mind to devote itself fully to the new religion that we see reflected in Augustine’s religious history. Throughout his early life, Augustine had a powerful yen to believe. Through wanderings and confusions, he was constantly on the brink of committing himself to some lofty ideal. Sometimes he even made the gesture. Already as a child, when illness seemed life-threatening, he cried out for baptism (1.1.17) and almost got his wish, except that his unexpected recovery seemed to render the saving bath unnecessary for the time.But at times religious affiliation could mean less to Augustine than the “natural” inclinations of fallen man. He is not minutely revelatory of his indiscretions and transgressions, but his self-analysis suggests at least the shape of his temptations and his lapses. What information he gives, though, comes almost offhandedly and gives us little idea of the quality of feeling and emotion that made his liaisons plausible.Instead, when he wants to penetrate the depths of his own iniquity, he chose to describe the theft of a few pears from a neighbor’s tree (2.4-9). This narrative is placed in his sixteenth year, an idle time spent at home, his education interrupted by penury, his energies at the disposal of his fancies. An unflattering portrayal of his father’s reaction to his new maturity shows that it was a time when the powers of the flesh were beginning to flourish. Then suddenly we have him and a few friends snatching pears. To ask whether the theft is meant to represent symbolically the sexual indiscretions of youth is literal-minded, but some broad analogy at least is probably implied. Although the moral consciousness begins to function in childhood, it is with adolescence and adulthood that the trivial indiscretions of childhood begin to harden into ugly excrescences of moral insensitivity. The adolescent is father to the man. Of that much at least Augustine meant to speak when he chose the pear theft for his meditation on sin.In speaking of the pears, he strips away irrelevancies and focuses on the sinfulness of the sin. Most immoral acts are undertaken with a purpose–or at least a rationalization –that is at least in part expressly moral. Some innate, positive attraction of the act draws the individual. Even so morally austere an author as Dante could portray the love of Paolo and Francesca with sympathy for a fall that had come through excess of love and enthusiasm; Augustine could well have recounted his own amours at least as deftly. But there was nothing at all redeeming about the theft of the pears. The pears themselves were paltry and unattractive, and the thieves did not even keep them; the comrades with whom he made the theft were not particularly his friends, nor did he want their approval; what attracted him was simply the thrill of the theft itself: forbidden fruit.Surely Augustine never expected to be cast down to hell for a few pears. But at the same time he felt with awe and horror that the obscure craving that had led him to the pears was the sort of desire by which hell is chosen. To delight in evil for its own sake, to assert one’s own primacy in the world by arrogating other’s goods to oneself for whatever purpose–there is the embodiment of all evil. The second book of the Confessions ends with Augustine facing with his own adolescent act in all its trivial magnitude:”Who can disentangle that twisted and intricate knottiness? Foul is it: I hate to think on it, to look on it …. I sank away from Thee, and I wandered, my God, too much astray from Thee my stay, in these days of my youth, and I became to myself a barren land.” (2.10.18)The sins of manhood follow upon those of adolescence with drear inevitability. Despite his preoccupation with himself (perhaps because of it) the world did not reject Augustine, and his career began to offer hint of future glories. As he began to make his way in the world, the tensions that had marked his childhood took on new forms and created new anxieties. He was beginning a life as teacher and student of ancient literature, committed to the propagation of the ancient ideas about man, nature, and the divine that were rooted in the literary tradition. Cicero was his favorite guide in these years, and it was the Hortensius of Cicero’s that was the spur to all his searches for truth.But the life of philosophy that this devotee of the classics actually found for himself would not have been highly regarded by Cicero. Augustine took up with the Manichees and pursued the life of perfection it offered. Manicheism was a self-absorbed movement on the periphery of Christianity that crossed the line separating church from cult. It seemed to offer a more rational, scientific picture of the world than did the simple–Augustine may have thought superstitious–orthodox teachings. Augustine had many reasons to find this sect attractive, for in it he found surcease from the plagues of an obviously troubled conscience. Bad conscience can easily turn to neurotic obsession, but Augustine did not remain a convinced Manichee long enough. Rationalism can not substitute for reason, and the intellectual shoddiness of Manicheism soon turned him away.Augustine was left leading a curious double life. In public, he was a teacher and a defender of the established order. In private, he was a half-hearted member of an illegal cult whose promises he did not quite credit. For the time being, the headlong rush of his career carried him unthinkingly along. The only qualms he had were instilled (he later thought) buy his mother, Monica.We cannot tell, with the evidence we have, what Monica meant for Augustine before his conversion. He could not have said for certain himself. In the Confessions he attributed much to her early influence. His narratives indicate equally that her influence was much ignored and resisted at this period. She wanted to see him a Christian, but he never responded directly to her wish. Christianity itself he scorned, for being too familiar and pedestrian. Only when he had taken a long journey through the exotic underside of late Roman religious life could he return to Christianity and find in it something adequately unfamiliar to carry promise of a happy future. He may well have thought, in early manhood, no more than that Christianity was a good religion for women of little education, like his mother; clever young men could do better for themselves.The successes of his career mounted and mounted, but what Augustine remembered was not so much the success itself as the ambivalences of that success. But a close friend, perhaps the closest he ever had, was taken from him in a most disturbing way. (This friend, like the mother of his son, is left nameless.) The friend fell ill, and his family had the sacrament of baptism administered while he lay unconscious. The patient rallied, and Augustine, full of the optimistic ebullience of the moment, spoke slightingly of the ritual performed on the passive invalid. He was surprised to find that his friend took the sacrament seriously and brushed away Augustine’s jibes. To make matters worse, the friend soon relapsed and died, in the peace of the church Augustine disdained. He had lost his friend to death, and to the church as well.Episodes such as this make up the fragments of autobiography that occur in the second through fifth books of the Confessions. The tale of lapse and descent is not overdrawn, except that to those who do not share Augustine’s harsh judgment on his younger self, it may seem excessive to have assigned any moral significance at all to the ordinary anxieties and strains of life. The insistent pull of fleshly concupiscence, the inanities of philosophical speculation, and the impatience of ambition all conspired to make Augustine successful and dissatisfied; so far, Augustine is no different from many others before and since. The young Augustine, much as we seek to know him, eludes our grasp, as he escaped even the Augustine who wrote these pages.This represented decline ends with the depiction Augustine gives of himself as he turned an uncertain corner to his thirtieth year. His Manicheism had left him, with his philosophical allegiance tentatively placed in the moribund school of academic skepticism, which still offered rationalism but was not embarrassed–as Manicheism was–by a body of idiosyncratic doctrines. Outwardly, the good of his career demanded that he make no break with the ruling orthodoxy. The dismal fifth book of the Confessions ends with the young Augustine betwixt and between, on the doorstep of the church, confused and doubting whether to enter:”So then after the manner of the Academics (as they are supposed) doubting of every thing, and wavering between all, I settled so far, that the Manichees were to be abandoned;– judging that, even while doubting, I might not continue in that sect, to which I already preferred some of the philosophers;–to which philosophers notwithstanding, for that they were without the saving name of Christ, I utterly refused to commit the cure of my sick soul.–I determined therefore so long to be a catechumen of the Catholic Church, to which I had been commended by my parents, till something certain should dawn upon me, whither I might steer my course.” (5.14.25)GraceNothing so astonished Augustine as the change that came over him during his short years in Milan. For that divine gift–such he had to believe it–he reserved the central books of his Confessions of praise. To admire the majesty of the heavens or the workings of divine providence through human history is one thing. That detached, objective contemplation can be cheap and inconsequential. But when Augustine looked back on his own life, he was amazed at the evidences of growth and change. Seeing God at work in his own life, he would not deny the call that had made him a bishop.No subject in the life of Augustine has excited so much discussion as the conversion he recounts in the Confessions. The reader facing those pages for the first time should be advised of some of the controversies and the importance that attaches to them.[6]The bluntest question is the historian’s: Is Augustine telling the truth? Does the highly selective, theological narrative of the Confessions faithfully represent his life at that period, or has he taken liberties with the facts? He would later (in Book 10) expatiate at length on the peculiarities of memory: was he not perhaps himself the victim of memory’s selective powers in this case? The first works written after the crucial events (mainly the Cassiciacum dialogues) do not support the narrative of the Confessions in abundant detail. If the garden scene of the Book 8 was so crucial to his whole life, why does no trace of it appear in any of the early works, some written as little as three months after the event?Broader questions deal not with the events themselves but with their significance. Augustine’s reading of the writings of certain Platonists were instrumental in effecting his conversion to Christianity. How important a part did they play? Perhaps the events of 386 amounted not to a conversion to Christianity at all, but to a conversion to Neoplatonism. On that view, only Augustine’s conscription into church affairs pulled him the distance further that made him a real Christian.Scholars still divide over the questions of historicity and have clustered around an ambivalent answer on the influence of Neoplatonism. It is generally accepted that Augustine converted to Christianity in 386, but then it is also generally accepted that the Christianity of his early period was heavily laden with Neoplatonic ideas and expectations.The disparities between the Confessions narrative and the Cassiciacum dialogues need not be significant, first of all, and can be explained by attending to the differences of literary style and purpose between those works. The dialogues were philosophical works in a Ciceronian mold, in which personal passions fit uncomfortably. The very proximity of the dialogues to the events of the conversion explains their reticence. (The dialogues were dedicated to some of his Milan friends; but it was just those friends to whom Augustine regrets having given a disingenuous explanation for his retirement: 9.2.2-4.) Having converted to a religion of humility and self-effacement, Augustine would not have trumpeted his inmost feelings so soon and in so self-serving a way. A full decade had to pass before he could devise the literary means, in the Confessions, to speak of his most private experiences without pose or brag.The philosophical quality of the dialogues illuminates Augustine’s relation to Neoplatonism. In 386 and immediately after Augustine was a Christian convert but not yet a Christian theologian. Inexperience and the lack of relevant training held him back. Instead, he was a professor of Latin letters with come competence in philosophical analysis. He could write of the problems that Christianity raised within the strict technical competence of his professional experience. The context of these dialogues is more Ciceronian than Neoplatonic, and there is no lack at all of explicit references to Christianity; but the characteristic Augustinian method of argument, in widening exegetical circles starting from particular texts of scripture, is not yet there and only comes to full maturity about the time of Augustine’s consecration as bishop.Furthermore, no religious conversion is complete and instantaneous. The one who comes to a new creed always brings confused expectations and misunderstandings bred in another environment. From earliest manhood, Augustine had been looking for an answer to all life’s questions, expecting a decisive turning by which everything would be changed for the better. When he did finally turn to Christianity, he seems to have had expectations the new religion could not fulfill. (He seems, for example, to have been conditioned to seek and expect what we could roughly call mystical visions; the expectation is encouraged by Neoplatonism, but fades as Augustine learns the Christian way of life.[7]) Perfect peace, serenity, and tranquility of spirit did not come automatically and permanently. In the ten years between the conversion and the writing of the Confessions, Augustine modified his expectations and in doing so discovered more accurately than he could have done before what was essential about his new religion. Neoplatonic influences were at work in the years after 386, but these influences were constantly on the wane, for Augustine had taken Christianity as the new norm according to which all other religious and philosophical notions were to be judged.[8]



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