The Confessions of Saint Augustine

On Friday I finished Confessions, by St. Augustine. Confessions was written not much closer to our time (around 1,400 years ago) than it was from the conquest of Israel (around 2,000 years before that). But it is a much more “modern” book. Except for its very wordy style, it feels very contemporary.  By the end of the book, I felt I knew him.

Confessions is really two works in one: an autobiography (complete with “daddy issues”) and a popularization of Christian theology. Augustine’s family seems to have been either upper middle class or lower upper class. He’s active in sports, somewhat slotthful in study, goes to another “state” (that is province) for what we’d call college, and hangs out with his friends a lot. He works as a lecturor, and some of his closest friends become mid-level government officials. His relationship with his dad is tricky, he and his mom seem to be great friends, and the only odd note is that it is in passing that he mentions his concubines (which seem to be paid for by his mom?). Perhaps the contemporary equivalent would be that his mom bought him a very nice car, and he’s active on tinder.

While the young Augustine is living his life, the cool, hip religion of Christianity is part of the social milieu. I kept being reminded of my friend’s description of the “California ideology” and new media, and kept visualizing all of these events happening in Los Angeles with some variety of Buddhism, or maybe the Talmud. In any case Augustine’s initially attracted to the “Manichaes,” an early heresy in Christianity which insisted the soul was all good, and thus evil came from a rival, weaker deity. In any case he eventually rejects this — evil decisions come from one’s own will, and its the will that needs to be turned — and the once great Manichean heresy leaves only one ruin… in China.

Besides this outline, three themes stood out at me. First, the popular theology sketched out by Augustine is remarkably preserved — CS Lewis write nearly the same thing, except much clearer. Second, the writing style is dramatically different than anything in the Bible — the “Greek” New Testament feels much closer to the Hebrew Bible than this. Third, Augustine repeatedly expresses a concern that I’ve heard from my own secular contemporaries, and strongly urges against literal readings of the Bible.  (He may even do this to excess.)

St. Augustine describes the Trinity as the Eternal Father, the only-begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Son, fully human and fully divine, is the mediator between man and God. In this sense he is uncontroversially “Christian”:

But the true Mediator, whom in Thy secret mercy Thou hast pointed out to the humble, and didst send, that by His example also they might learn the same humility that “Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” appeared between mortal sinners and the immortal Just One mortal with men, just with God; that because the reward of righteousness is life and peace, He might, by righteousness conjoined with God, cancel the death of justified sinners, which He willed to have in common with them. Hence He was pointed out to holy men of old; to the intent that they, through faith in His Passion to come, even as we through faith in that which is past, might be saved. For as man He was Mediator; but as the Word He was not between, because equal to God, and God with God, and together with the Holy Spirit one God.”

On the other hand, Augustine’s writing style is nothing like the Christian Bible’s. The Hebrew Bible, and the Christian New Testament, are designed for a world where reproducing text is expensive. There Scripture has explicit reference to people memorizing the complete text, and letters in the first century were passed between towns. This economy of words means in just one sentence, the heart can grasp at the wondrous

And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.
Genesis 5:24

and the terrible.

Last of all, the mother died, after her sons.
2 Maccabees 7:41

Augustine, on the other hand, badly needs an editor. Even paragraphs with striking conclusions

For there is more than one way in which men sacrifice to the fallen angels.

Have incredibly long and drawn-out prologs. The earlier part of that paragraph, whose conclusion is so thought provoking, is tedious

Bear with me, my God, while I speak a little of ‘those talents Thou has bestowed upon me, and on what follies I wasted them. For a lesson sufficiently disquieting to my soul was given me, in hope of praise, and fear of shame or stripes, to speak the words of Juno, as she raged and sorrowed that she could not

“Latium bar. From all approaches of the Dardan king,”

which I had heard Juno never uttered. Yet were we compelled to stray in the footsteps of these poetic fictions, and to turn that into prose which the poet had said in verse. And his speaking was most applauded in whom, according to the reputation of the persons delineated, the passions of anger and sorrow were most strikingly reproduced, and clothed in the most suitable language. But what is it to me, O my true Life, my God, that my declaiming was applauded above that of many who were my contemporaries and fellow-students? Behold is not all this smoke and wind? Was there nothing else, too, on which I could exercise my wit and tongue? Thy praise, Lord, Thy praises might have supported the tendrils of my heart by Thy Scriptures ; so had it not been dragged away by these empty trifles, a shameful
prey of the fowls of the air

Even Augustine’s jokes are often buried. Here I highlighted an exchange worry of CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Read it, if you can stay awake

Behold, I answer to him who asks, “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” I answer not, as a certain person is reported to have done facetiously (avoiding the pressure of the question), “He was preparing hell,” saith he, “for those who pry into mysteries.” It is one thing to perceive, another to laugh, these things I answer not. For more willingly would I have answered, “I know not what I know not,” than that I should make him a laughingstock who asketh deep things, and gain praise as one who answereth false things. But I say that Thou, our God, art the Creator of every creature; and if by the term “heaven and earth” every creature is understood, I boldly say, “That before God made heaven and earth, He made not anything. For if He did, what did He make unless the creature?” And would that I knew whatever I desire to know to my advantage, as I know that no creature was made before any creature was made.

Augustine has a scientific sensibility. He describes experiments meant to test astrology, which in those days was considered applied mathematics. He warns against literal readings, and presents a metaphorical view of the creation stories in Genesis that would get him kicked out of many conservative churches. And while the view what the Book of Jonah is a metaphorical comedy is well established, Augustine’s (apparent) allegorical reading of the Miracle of the Fishes and Loaves would be more controversial, and I will not comment more on that here

Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit

Confessions is full of Roman abstractions and science, but not the evocative world of the Hebrews. Angels appear only rarely, and stars only as natural objects. The various cosmic entities, such as the Prince of Persia or the Witch of Endor, seem to have no place here. Most alarming, Augustine looks forward to a sort of cosmic stasis, and a view of everlasting life perhaps closer to Buddhist nirvana than an everlasting feast

Who can unravel that twisted and tangled knottiness? It is foul. I hate to reflect on it. I hate to look on it. But thee do I long for, O righteousness and innocence, fair and comely to all virtuous eyes, and of a satisfaction that never palls! With thee is perfect rest, and life unchanging. He who enters into thee enters into the joy of his Lord, and shall have no fear, and shall do  excellently in the most Excellent. I sank away from Thee, O my God, and I wandered too far from Thee, my stay, in my youth, and became to myself an unfruitful land.

Our Lord declared himself the God of the living, not the dead. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and hold Christ as the first fruits of that victory over unchanging death. May death have its perfect rest — that is, may death be thrown into the fire, the second death — and the living have the spirit, the inward-flowing air of changing organisms.

But these are minor matters. Augustine did not die for us, and never claimed to be our Lord. Rather, he is a fascinating man — sinner, rich kid, philosopher, and occasional troll — who followed in Paul’s steps and explained the Christian religion to the Romans. In the same way one can imagine the author of the Letter to the Hebrews speaking with Zadok the Priest, Augustine would have gotten along with — or at least enjoyed debating — Paul.

I listened to Confessions on unabridged audible.

6 thoughts on “The Confessions of Saint Augustine”

  1. I am at 281/347 and it is a slog, with intermittently good things. He does belabor things. Perhaps it is better in Latin? Agreed the sensibility is oddly modern, a rich kid trying to “find himself.” I will press on and finish it.

  2. St Augustine’s Confession is one of the most difficult old books I’ve read. At times it seems he was writing to avoid economy.
    Wish I’d been aware of the audible version–I have the Great Books version in 6 font dual column where progress is glacial at best.
    Thanks for the excellent review.

  3. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were 7 debates of 3 hours each… an artefact of an affluent society with plenty of paper and copyists, but no television or radio.

    Middlebrow intellectualism as popular entertainment.

    Confessions seems similar to that…

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