Sunday, 6 April 2014

Saint Augustine: Confessions

Saint Augustine (354-430) was born in present-day Algeria and is one of the great Church Fathers. His Confessions (written in 398) are called the West’s first autobiography, so that’s a strong reason to read them. But it’s not a book I enjoyed reading; for me it’s a cruel, misanthropic book redolent with Christianity’s typical contempt for the human dimension in behalf of a super-human view of what men and women should be. It is a paradoxical autobiography: in its essence it’s about an ordinary, all too human man; at the same time, it’s a condemnation of everything that is normal in people. Saint Augustine’s life is remarkable for how unremarkable it was.

His mother, Monica, was Christian, his father was not a believer for many years, but he was tolerant. “Though he had not yet come to faith, he did not obstruct my right to follow my mother’s devotion, so as to prevent me believing in Christ. She anxiously laboured to convince me that you, my God, were my father rather her husband.” He had, from what I can gather, a happy childhood.

How was young Saint Augustine? He was a normal child: had trouble learning foreign languages, had a “love of games,” a “passion for frivolous spectacles,” a “restless urge to imitate comic scenes,” and – heaven forbid! – he “used to steal from my parent’s cellar and to pocket food from their table” to “satisfy the demands of gluttony.” How absolutely ghastly, he was just like you and me! Somebody call Father Merrin. He also found pleasure in “doing what was not allowed,” of course he did. His adolescence was no less odious: “I had become deafened by the clanking chain of my mortal condition, the penalty of my pride. I travelled very far from you, and you did not stop me. I was tossed about and spilt, scattered and boiled dry in my fornications. And you were silent. How slow I was to find my joy!” And let’s not forget he indulged in “fornication.” Some of his problems are downright sad: “I even dared to lust after a girl and to start an affair that would procure the fruit of death.” He started well, but then degenerated into a saint.

Let’s go back to his hatred for school and learning. He discovered God more or less the way I did: “As a boy I began to pray to you, “my help and my refuge,” and for my prayer to you I broke the bonds of my tongue. Though I was only a small child, there was great feeling when I pleaded with you that I might not be caned at school. And when you did not hear me, which was so as ‘not to give me to foolishness,’ adult people, including even my parents, who wished no evil to come upon me, used to laugh at my stripes, which were at that time a great and painful evil to me.” I was just like that. When I was a kid and had a vague idea of God, I used to ask him to help get good grades. But it never worked so I figured I was talking to a void and gave up the practice.

Saint Augustine hated school and the arts, and he studied Greek and Latin with some aversion, but at last he realized it was useful in helping him read and write, talents he took with him into life. “This was better than the poetry I was later forced to learn about the wanderings of some legendary fellow named Aeneas (forgetful of my own wanderings) and to weep over the death of a Dido who took her own life from love. In reading this, O God my life, I myself was meanwhile dying by my alienation from you, and my miserable condition in that respect brought no tears to my eyes.” Yes, to him literature is horrible, pulling him away from God! So centuries ago art was already being blamed for immorality. “What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying fro his lack of love for you, my God, light of my heart, bread of the inner mouth of my soul, the power which begets life in my mind and in the innermost recesses of my thinking.” Well, I agree with him there, if all I had to read was Aeneid, I’d despair too.

Let’s despise bookish people a bit more: “Let there be no abuse of me from people who sell or buy a literary education. If I put to them the question whether the poet’s story is true that Aeneas once came to Carthage, the uneducated will reply that they do not know, while the educated will say it is false. But if I ask with what letters Aeneas’ name is spelled, all who have learn to read will reply correctly in accordance with the agreement and convention by which human beings have determined the value of these signs. Similarly, if I ask which would cause the greater inconvenience to someone’s life, to forget how to read and write or to forget these fabulous poems, who does not see what answer he would give, unless he has totally lost his senses?” Certainly, you have a point, reading and writing have more uses than literature, but it’s not either-or, don’t be so annoyingly pragmatic. But Saint Augustine is quite strict about what he reads, and he uses incredible criteria, namely whether or not the name of Christ is included in it: “This name, by your mercy Lord, this name of my Saviour your Son, my infant heart had piously drunk in with my mother’s milk, and at a deep level I retained the memory. Any book which lacked this name, however well written or polished or true, could not entirely grip me.”

No, I really do not like this man.

But then, when you’re least expecting something memorable from all this curmudgeonly talk, there’s a line or a passage brimming with love for life and empathy. I love for instance this description of babyhood:

Little by little I began to be aware where I was and wanted to manifest my wishes to those who could fulfil them as I could not. For my desires were internal; adults were external to me and had no means of entering into my soul. So I threw my limbs about and uttered sounds, signs resembling my wishes, the small number of signs of which I was capable but such signs as lay in my power to use: for there was no real resemblance. When I did not get my way, either because I was not understood or lest it be harmful to me, I used to be indignant with my seniors for their disobedience, and with free people who were not slaves to my interests; and I would revenge myself upon them by weeping. That this is the way of infants I have learnt from those I have been able to watch. That is what I was like myself and, although they have not been aware of it, they have taught me more than my nurses with all their knowledge of how I behaved.

His ruminations on friendship are even better. There are many epigraphs to plunder from him. Like this one: “Friendship can be a dangerous enemy, a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation.” Friendship was approved by him; he realised the folly of loving people who would die, of course, and they distracted him from love he could offer to God, but even friendship was irresistible to him:

   There were other things which occupied my mind in the company of my friends: to make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together, well-written books, to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity – just as a person debates with himself – and in the very rarity of disagreement to find the salt of normal harmony, to teach each other something or to learn from one another, to long with impatience, for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival. These and other signs come from the heart of those who love and are loved and are expressed through the mouth, through the tongue, through the eyes, and a thousand gestures of delight, acting as fuel to set our minds on fire and out of many to forge unity.
   This is what we love in friends. We love to the point that the human conscience feels guilty if we do not love the person who is loving us, and if that love is not returned – without demanding any physical response other than the marks of affectionate good will. Hence the mourning if a friend dies, the darkness of grief, and as the sweetness is turned into bitterness the heart is flooded with tears. The lost life of those who die becomes the death of those still living.

What a moving and perspicacious description. I want to steal this entire passage.

The apotheosis of the book, though, is his relationship with Monica, his mother, a woman he revered, kindness and meekness personified. Before he converted, she was already a believer, and through her diligence she helped his father convert too. “So she was brought up in modesty and sobriety. She was made by you obedient to her parents rather than by them to you. When she reached marriageable age, she was given to a man and served him as her lord. She tried to win him for you, speaking to him of you by her virtues through which you made her beautiful, so that her husband loved, respected and admired her.”

More on the wonderful Monica:

Another great gift with which you endowed that good servant of yours, in whose womb you created me, my God my mercy, was that whenever she could, she reconciled dissident and quarrelling people. She showed herself so great a peacemaker that when she had heard from both sides many bitter things, such as the bilious and undigested vomit that discord brings up, the crude hatred that come out in acid gossip, in the presence of one woman who is a friend and in the absence of another who is an enemy, Monica would never reveal to one anything about the other unless it might help to reconcile them.

I should reinforce that these pages of filial devotion are extremely beautiful. The book follows them until her death, at which Saint Augustine was present, and these are pages full of joy and sadness, joy because she’s finally going to be with God, and sadness because no matter how stoic he is, he can’t forget she’s his mother:

While she was ill, on one day she suffered a loss of consciousness and gradually became unaware of things. We ran to be with her, but she quickly recovered consciousness. She looked at me and my brother standing beside her, and said to us in the manner of someone looking for something, “Where was I?” Then seeing us struck dumb with grief, she said, “Bury your mother here.” I kept silence and fought back my years. But my brother, as if to cheer her up, said something to the effect that he hoped she would be buried not in a foreign land but in her home country. When she heard that, her face became worried and her eyes looked at him in reproach that he should think that. She looked in my direction and said “See what he says,” and soon said to both of us “Bury my body anywhere you like Let no anxiety about that disturb you. I have only one request to make of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be.” She explained her thought in such words as she could speak, then fell silent as the pain of her sickness became worse.

And when she finally dies:

I closed her eyes and an overwhelming grief welled into my heart and was about to flow forth in floods of tears. But at the same time under a powerful act of mental control my eyes held back the flood and dried it up. The inward struggle put me into great agony. Then when she breathed her last, the boy Adeodatus cried out in sorrow and was pressed by all of us to be silent. In this way too something of the child in me, which had slipped towards weeping, was checked and silenced by the youthful voice, the voice of my heart. We did not think it right to celebrate the funeral with tearful dirges and lamentations, since in most cases it is customary to use such mourning to imply sorrow for the miserable state of those who die, or even their complete extinction. But my mother’s death meant neither that her state was miserable nor that she was suffering extinction. We were confident of this because of that evidence of her virtuous life, her ‘faith unfeigned,’ and reasons of which we feel certain.

Don’t be fooled by the previous excerpts, this is quite possible the happiest book I’ve ever read. The narrator is happy for himself after he converts in a garden in Milan, he’s happy for his father because he’s converted too, and he’s happy for his mother because she unquestionably gone to Heaven. And those are the best parts, Saint Augustine’s deep perception of human feelings and relationships.

But there’s so much here I can’t applaud. I can’t stand the man’s self-abasement. Humiliation seems to be a requirement for loving God, and I don’t see what’s so dignified about that. I found myself wondering if many of his sins were real or if he just invented them, exacerbated them to paint himself even worse. I also didn’t link the connection between sadness and his growing proximity with Christianity. “As I became unhappier, you came closer,” he says. He seems to be saying that people need to be a debilitated state of mind to convert. It reminds me of a video I once saw with Christopher Hitchens, author of God is not Great. Already knowing that he was dying from cancer, a journalist asked him if this closeness to death made him reconsider his atheism, and he made a good point of how sinister some church people were in wanting to convert atheists, not in the prime of their health, but when they were old and feeble, afraid of dying and thus more vulnerable.

But my biggest problem is that his defence of God or nothing can only lead into totalitarianism: “But when God commands something contrary to the customs or laws of a people, even if that has never been previously done, it has to be done. If it has fallen into disuse, it must be restored. If it has not been established, it must be established. If it is lawful for a king in a city within his realms to give an order which none before him nor he himself had previously issued, and if it is not contrary to the social contract of this city to obey, or indeed if it would be contrary to the social agreement not to obey (for there is a general consensus in human society that kings should be obeyed), then how much more must God, the government of all this creation, be unhesitatingly obeyed in whatever he commands!” And from this type of servitude you can only go to misanthropy. Everything Man does is bad, everything good can only have come from God. It’s a horrible logic, but he repeats again and again. “My God, I give thanks to you, my source of sweet delight, and my glory and my confidence. I thank you for your gifts. Keep them for me, for in this way you will keep me. The talents you have given will increase and be perfected, and I will be with you since it was your gift to me that I exist.” Indeed, man is a passive creature waiting to be filled with his wisdom. “There are For I did not know that the soul needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth.” And if nothing outside God is good, there’s no other purpose in life than serve him: “‘You are great lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable’ Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him,’ carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you ‘resist the proud.’ Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

A few months ago I joked about The Prince’s cruel view of life. But I also pointed out that at least it had been born from a Humanist will to put man in control of his own life. That’s how the book ends, recognizing that man is not fettered to fate, that he can change his circumstances by his own efforts. The Confessions stand in opposition, offering an apology of subservience. Basically both books have to be treated the same way, a few good ideas must be salvaged and the rest forgotten.


  1. I remember in grad school having to read portions of this and De Civitate Dei for the Latin reading list and feeling more nauseated as I went along. His devotion to his mother is lovely, but he is - in almost every respect - so unlovely in his view of what human existence should be. Nietzsche had Augustine firmly in mind when commenting on certain aspects of the history of the faith. Excellent analysis

    1. Am I safe in assuming that those certain aspects were mainly the negative ones? Where does Nietzsche write about that, by the way?

  2. Great commentary on this one.

    It has been a few years since I read this myself.

    I concur with many of the points here being untenable, including the downgrading of deep reading, the strict interpretation of God' s will ,etc. Yet some of these were at least very influential ideas that Saint Augustine helped to formulate. Personally I enjoy reading about how he got to where he did. I think they say a lot about ow some people think as well as about our culture and history.

    "if all I had to read was Aeneid, I’d despair too." - I laughed out loud at that one.

    1. Brian, I hope you read my post on the Aeneid:

  3. Well, "have to." I can read them as literature, as part of a tradition. I can try to read them like their best readers read them.

    1. Well, I'd say they're not particularly good literature then.