J. Patout Burns

Thomas and Alberta White Professor of Christian Thought

Washington University (St. Louis)

James J. O'Donnell has provided a revised text of the libri confessionum and an unusual commentary on the whole document. These three volumes will serve as an invaluable aid to the reading of text because they represent a classicist's reading and contain the erudition which most readers of the text do not bring to it.

The text itself is printed in volume I without critical apparatus; it does not represent a new collation of the manuscript evidence. The principal changes, as O'D. explains, are in the punctuation and are based on analysis of variations in meaning produced by the alternatives rather than on textual evidence. Each such change is fully discussed. Because the commentary is keyed to the standard divisions of the text and incipit of various passages, the two volumes of commentary can be used without another version of the text.

This commentary is perhaps an early indicator of the type of work which has been made possible by the electronic tools now available to scholars. O'D. has attempted to interpret Augustine through Augustine, by drawing on the parallels to words, phrases and sentences which can be located elsewhere in his works. This has always been done to some extent, as a scholar's notes and memory made possible. The electronic data base has opened new possibilities, which O'D. has fully exploited. A typical comment moves from the text of the Confessions to a scriptural text, especially in Psalms, and then to Augustine's other uses of that text. Through this use of verbal parallels, the attempt has also been made to note and compare discussions of a particular question or ideas elsewhere in the corpus, particularly in the earlier works. Because the texts themselves are reproduced in the commentary, the reader is not sent searching for the exact text in a printed edition of the opera.

The recognition that such work could have been accomplished only in an electronic age in no way detracts from the scholarship required to execute it. Innovative use of verbal similarities can turn up hundreds of texts; a fine judgment was at work in distinguishing the truly enlightening parallels. Occasionally, of course, the tools take over from the workman. A knowledgeable reader will find some explanations superfluous and will quarrel with the accuracy or helpfulness of others. Given the sheer size of the work, however, this fault remains well within tolerable limits.

The commentary includes attempts to identify persons and places, to determine chronology, and to establish the historical context of the narrative. Often enough, this is a review of the existing scholarship but O'D. makes his own contributions as well. An outstanding example of the latter can be found at 3.11.19, where he explains that Monica refused to live in the house of her oldest son after Patricius' death rather than excluding Augustine from her own board.

The line-by-line commentary is regularly supplemented by an overview of the progress of the narrative as a whole or an excursus on an issue raised in the text. The role of the liberal arts, the genesis of the Confessions, the identity of the Platonic books, and other such issues are treated in this way. The commentary also provides an excellent review of the scholarship on most of the issues which are raised in the text. In his own way, O'D. supplements Courcelle's Recherches as a guide to the text.

The three-fold concupiscence (carnis, oculorum et ambitio saeculi) is particularly well treated in the discussion of Book X. The commentary shows, moreover, that this division of temptation provides a narrative structure for Augustine's own journey.

In recognizing all that O'D. has managed to do in this commentary, I hope that I will not appear ungrateful in pointing to some of the things which he did not, and perhaps did not intend to, accomplish. This is a classicist's reading of the Confessions, not that of a philosopher or a theologian. On numerous occasions, the commentary fails to elucidate or even to follow the complexity of Augustine's arguments. This is particularly true in Book VII, where Augustine deals with the problem of evil. At II:402, for example, he comments on the second member of the three-part argument for the incorruptibility of God in a way which not only fails to clarify the point of the identification of divine power and will but actually masks the point Augustine is making. Similarly, at II:448, O'D. points out that the paragraphs between the two attempts at ascent to God (7.10.16 and 7.17.23) have been little attended to in the secondary literature. He proceeds to compound that problem by failing to recognize Augustine's focus on the notion of order. The operation of divine truth in the creation provides an order through which Augustine not only solves the problem of evil, at least globally, but develops an explanation of the divine presence within the creation. Thus when O'D. arrives at the second, and successful, attempt at ascent to God, he fails to note that Augustine relies on the human mind's own participation in that ordering function, by judging how bodies ought to be arranged in space. The section intervening between the two accounts of ascent actually accounts for the success of the second. Similarly at 10.34.53 (III:222-223), O'D. fails to make the same connection to this mode of ascent of the mind to God and of God's operation in and through the mind.

A second type of interpretative failure derives from the handling of secondary literature. O'D. provides an extensive survey of the scholarship on various issues in the text. To this reader, his judgment occasionally seems to go awry. Robert O'Connell's thesis that Augustine believed the human soul had descended into the mortal earthly body as a consequence of sin has never been well received by the European scholars upon whom O'D. relies heavily. Yet O'Connell's theory provides a more than plausible interpretation of many passages in the Confessions which otherwise appear extraordinarily foreign to a modern reader. The comments on the infant's struggle with language (II: 37-38) and moral failings (II:41-45) would have been elucidated by reference to O'Connell's work. Similarly, at conf. 1.20.31, the vestigium secretissimae unitatis ex qua eram is identified by O'D. as the unity of the divine trinity; O'Connell could make much better sense of this as a reference to the primordial unity of all humanity in Adam.

Finally, the limitations of O'D.'s method of using verbal parallels is well demonstrated in his treatment of the significance of Ad Simplicianum for the later work of Augustine. In the comment on quomodo autem invocabunt, in quem non crediderunt? aut quomodo credent sine praedicante? (conf. 1.1.1, II:15), O'D. moves to the scriptural parallel in Rom. 10.13-14, thence to its citation in ad Simpl. 1.2.7 and 1.2.10, and finally to this sentence in praed. sanct. 3.7. While he notes that A. immediately retracted the interpretation of the passage given in exp. prop. Rom. cited in this last text, O'D. fails to note what A. actually endorsed in ad Simplicianum: not simply the necessity but the efficacy of divine vocation. Two paragraphs later and without citing Rom. 10.13-14, Augustine explained the congruous vocation (ad Simpl. 1.2.12-14), which then provided the theoretical structure to shape the entire narrative of Augustine's life in the Confessions, as is well attested in the scholarship. By replying on the verbal parallels, O'D's commentary on Book VIII in particular fails to note the influence of this theory of divine operation in the conversion narratives of Victorinus, Antony, the imperial agents, and Augustine himself.

If, however, this commentary be taken in terms of what O'D. actually accomplishes, it must be recognized as an outstanding achievement. Clarendon Press is also to be congratulated for the decision to print all the relevant parallels, in both Latin and Greek, in the commentary.