Noverim 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. 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. 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 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.
The 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 (144.3 and 146.5). 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. 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;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.
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."
"Grant me, Lord, to know and understand which is first,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.
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?"
"But how shall they call on HimScripture provides in this conflation of several passages, answers to all the questions. 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.
in 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."
"I will seek Thee, Lord, by calling on Thee;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.
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."
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;
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 beasts 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 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) by 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)
Nothing 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.
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 some 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.) 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.
In the central books of the Confessions (Books 6-9), Augustine contemplates the events that led him to his new life. Much has been selected, edited, and rearranged to make this picture. The description Augustine gives of these crucial events in his life is meant to be theologically and spiritually accurate, arranged according to principles other than those of strict chronology. With that caution in mind, the pattern and truth of these books becomes evident.
The patron of Augustine's turn to Christianity would seem to have been Ambrose, whose sermons demolished intellectual barriers Augustine had not been able to surmount for himself and whose hands administered the baptism that made Augustine a member of Christ's church. But Ambrose was always a little too high up and far away for Augustine. The high affairs of the imperial court preoccupied Ambrose, and another ambitious courtier working his way up into the fringes of that court cannot long have detained his attention. He had seen many like Augustine before.
But Augustine may have emphasized Ambrose's remoteness to contrast him with the Manichean leader Faustus in Book 5. He did manage a private audience on at least one occasion (Letter 54.2.3). He had sought Faustus's advice as of a guru, but found only some oratorical skill, and Faustus wound up studying classical literature under Augustine. He went to hear Ambrose, to observe his oratorical style, was inspired to seek him out as a guru, but was rebuffed by various difficulties. The Christian religion, we are meant to infer, is not transmitted as secret doctrine by gurus, but proclaimed publicly from the pulpit for all. Augustine could never reach Ambrose the guru, but Ambrose the bishop reached him with his words and baptised him with his hands.
Before that baptism, there was still a world of confusion and uncertainty to face.
"And lo, I was now in my thirtieth year, sticking in the same mire, greedy of enjoying things present, which passed away and wasted my soul, while I said to myself, 'Tomorrow I shall find it. It will appear manifestly, and I shall grasp it. Lo, Faustus the Manichee will come and clear every thing! O you great men, ye Academicians, it is true then, that no certainty can be attained for the ordering of life? Nay, let us search the more diligently and despair not. Lo, things in the ecclesiastical books are not absurd to us now, which sometimes seemed absurd, and may be taken otherwise, and in a good sense. I will take my stand where as a child my parents placed me, until the clear truth be found out. But where shall it be sought or when? Ambrose has no leisure. We have no leisure to read. Where shall we find even the books? Whence, or when procure them? From whom borrow them? Let set times be appointed, and certain hours be ordered for the health of our soul. Great hope has dawned: the catholic faith teaches not what we thought, and vainly accused it of. Her instructed members hold it profane to believe God to be founded by the figure of a human body. And do we doubt to knock, that the rest may be opened? The forenoons our scholars take up: what do we do during the rest of the day? Why not this? But when shall we pay court to our great friends, whose favor we need? When shall we compose what we may sell to scholars? When shall we refresh ourselves, unbending our minds from these intense cares?'" (6.11.18)
Two problems continued to plague Augustine and suspend his assent to Christianity. The first he alluded to in the passage just quoted, and was twofold. First, there was the resolute materiality of the world we perceive and the consequent difficulty imagining any kind of existence not bound to visible, tangible forms. But then there was the gross corporeality of the Christian scriptures, particularly the Old Testament documents. Augustine was bound in a world-as-it-seemed and a view of Christianity that seemed no less bound to such a world.
Here Ambrose made from the pulpit his first contribution to Augustine's search. In his sermons, he showed Augustine for the first time Christian scriptural interpretation as Augustine would later describe it in Christian Doctrine. He elucidated the notion of spiritual being in a way that taught Augustine how to think of God without binding God into the world of matter. God as creator is only possible with such a vision. This finally undermined Augustine's Manicheism, which had labored to find a place in the material world for both God and evil. For Augustine, God had finally been liberated from the struggle with evil, and evil itself no longer needed to be given a material form.
Now the problem of evil itself could be faced in a context that gave promise of a solution. Judging by the arrangement of the Confessions, Augustine seems to say that the first advance in understanding occurred in 384 and early 385, shortly after his arrival in Milan, and there is verisimilitude to this. The initial impact of Ambrose on a mind like Augustine's should have been great. If that is true, then the second stage of Augustine's development, the resolution of the problem of evil, ran through the rest of 385 and perhaps into 386. For this, Ambrose was again, in a roundabout way, influential.
There a lively interest in Ambrose's Milan in the writings of the late Platonists. Even though one of the leading Platonic writers, Porphyry (died c. 305), had written a book directed against the Christians so vehement and effective that it was later the victim of an unusually successful book-burning campaign, many of the ideas of the Platonists were well-received. Marius Victorinus, of whom we shall hear again in closer connection with Augustine's conversion, had translated Greek Platonic writings into Latin, and these were widely read and discussed in the circle of intellectuals around Ambrose.
Not unlike the scholastics of the later middle ages, these Christian Platonists used a secular philosophy to illuminate their own theological reflections. In the terms Augustine used in Christian Doctrine, they were spoiling the Egyptians of their gold. In an age when the trinitarian definitions of the Nicene creed were new-minted Platonic discussions of the three hypostases (the One, the Mind, and the Spirit) sounded eerily similar to the Christian principles. The vocabulary of the Platonists offered clarification for the complex and confusing testimony of scripture. Augustine was not a leader in this movement, but he was an eager learner. Just what he read and how he interpreted it remains a matter of heated controversy, but we can sketch his development with the help of the Confessions.
Augustine had been troubled all his adult life by the problem of evil. If God is all-good, the old question goes, how does evil arise? Worse, if God created all things, does this not mean that he created evil itself? Is not a Manichean solution preferable to this blasphemy?
The answer to which the Platonists led Augustine lay in the nature of being itself. Being is not, for the Platonists, something absolute, but something contingent. Material creation is not fully existent, but only participates in the being of the One, the creator (which the Christians would readily identify with God the Father). The One has perfect existence, but all other entities are only shadows of the ultimate model. Now all things are good insofar as they are created, that is, insofar as they participate in the being of God, but they are less than perfectly good insofar as they fail to resemble the all-good essence of God. The will of a rational creature is capable of turning towards God, hence participating more fully in God's goodness, and capable of turning away, hence participating less fully. Evil lies in the absence of good, in the willful separation from God that is the act of created beings. The natural tendency of created beings is to return to unity with God, to full goodness. Evil is merely the name given to the turning away from God of those beings. Properly speaking, evil inheres only in the wills of free, rational creatures. The other things men call evil (the violent deaths of innocent people in natural catastrophes, for example) are only manifestations of a divine providence that men, with an incomplete view of reality, cannot fathom. Suffering is punishment or trial for creatures, but is intrinsically good in itself insofar as it succeeds in reforming or purifying them. If it fails the failure is that of the creatures, not of God.
This is a stark and radical theodicy, by which all the evil of the world is taken on the shoulders of mankind. This principle would eventually smooth the way to Augustine's doctrine of original sin, an awesome doctrine, bearable only because it brings with it (for the believer) the hope the whole burden of evil does not stay with man, but has been assumed again voluntarily by God, in the redeeming sacrifice of the cross.
Augustine's debt to Platonism is made explicit in the passage where he uses the first verses of the Gospel according to John as his touchstone for assessing the Platonic achievement (7.9.13-14). He finds in their writings plenty to parallel the notion of the pre-existent Word and its function in creation, but what he finds lacking in them is anything to correspond to the fourteenth verse: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." In that gap lies the difference between the despairing forced cheerfulness of the Platonist and the hope of the Christian.
Once Augustine had seen his way past the problem of evil to a recognition of his own guilt, all should have been well. Already at the end of Book 7, the Platonists and their writings have sent him to the pages of Saint Paul and he sings the praises of the divine grace (7.21.27). The intellectual obstacles to his acceptance of Christianity had fallen away. He may even at the time have thought that he had reached his goal (cf. 7.20.26: "I chattered on [about these matters] just like an expert").
But Augustine was about to discover the last secret Christianity has in store for men of intellect and curiosity who consider its claims. In the end, intellect and curiosity are not enough. The mind may be satisfied, but there is more to Christianity than the intellectual apprehension of propositions; there is more to faith than belief. This discovery led Augustine to the final surrender of heart and will that he would later recognize as conversion.
The eighth book of the Confessions narrates, or seems to narrate, the last stages of Augustine's conversion. Seems to narrate, for on examination it becomes clear that we are not given a definite account of an orderly sequence of events. Rather, a variety of episodes, with a similar theme but no indications of date, are grouped together to depict the growing pressure Augustine felt in the last weeks or months before the decisive episode.
The book is a compilation of conversion stories. Augustine and Alypius appear at the end of a line that includes the desert monk Saint Anthony, two unnamed courtiers of Augustine's own time, and the learned and renowned Marius Victorinus. The sequence begins with Victorinus, and we should not think it mere coincidence. The story is told to Augustine by Simplicianus, Ambrose's destined successor as bishop of Milan and the closest ecclesiastical friend Augustine made in Milan. Simplicianus heard Augustine tell of his encounter with the books of the Platonists in Victorinus' translation and saw a chance to tell Augustine a story about a man very like Augustine himself(8.2.3-5).
Victorinus was a distinguished student and practitioner of rhetoric and philosophy who had earned the honor of a statue erected in his honor in the Roman forum. But he had also found himself drawn to Christianity. He confided to his friend Simplicianus that he was in fact already a Christian, but Simplicianus replied, "I will not believe it, nor will I rank you among Christians, until I see you in the church of Christ." Victorinus, like many another high-minded dabbler in religion, replied with depreciating humor, "So is it walls that make people Christian?" Simplicianus was unmoved, on that occasion and others, and insisted on public affiliation, with eventual success.
Simplicianus' tale of Victorinus was doubtless meant to nag at the professor's spirit while he went on living in Milan, pursuing his public activities as teacher, finding his attention brought again and again to the startling tales of conversions that upset the routine of life lived in the secular world. The courtiers who abandoned their careers when they found a copy of the Life of Saint Anthony (by the great Alexandrian bishop Athanasius) even showed him, all unsuspecting, the method of his decision. Beyond the public, civil Christian life in polite society, he began to encounter the monastic life, outwardly shabby and unsocial, but increasingly attractive to many. Anthony had shown the way for a radical renunciation of the secular world that would challenge thoughtful Christians henceforth, whether they actually left the secular world or not, to examine carefully the conditions of secular life and see how far those conditions might be compatible with Christian commitment.
The pressures mounted. The Confessions capture and analyze the two-mindedness Augustine found in himself, conscious of two conflicting wills working within him simultaneously. His whole intellectual search had been an effort to reach a placid and measured conclusion on the basis of which to effect a rational reorganization of his life, but faith, that essential turning of the will towards God, is finally mysterious to the very people who live with it.
In later years Augustine would resist all efforts to resolve the paradoxes of grace and will. He had good intellectual and spiritual basis for that resistance, but the emotional hardihood that kept him to his position in the face of all the pressures either to abandon his definitions or to explain them in a facile way (and thus lapse either into Pelagianism or Calvinism) came from his own experience. He could not account for the turnings of his own will, much less for those of anyone else. He knew that it was his will, that his decisions were free and voluntary, but he also felt that those decisions were fundamentally impotent ones. Another power had been working at another level of his soul, and in the presence of that power the ditherings of his own paltry liberty of choice were insignificant.
So the history of human salvation is the history of human will and effort leading to sin and error counterbalanced by divine will overmastering human powers and leading people back to knowledge and holiness. Because the process affects the very foundations of knowing and willing, it is impossible to represent it fairly in human language. Those who have known the experience can never fully or adequately represent it to those who have not. Augustine's example shows us that even the most sensitive of converts finds it difficult to reconstruct the situation in which it was possible not to be a believer, and this only makes it harder for the outsider to find the picture credible. Rational argument may go on, and the hidden workings of grace may use those arguments as instruments, but the main business of Christianity is not subject to human control or management.
"Thus soul-sick was I, and tormented,
accusing myself much more severely than my wont,
rolling and turning in my chains,
till they were wholly broken,
whereby I now was barely held, but still was held.
... For I said within myself,
'Be it done now, be it done now.'
And as I spake, I all but enacted it.
I all but did it, and did it not;
yet I sank not back to my former state,
but kept my stand hard by, and took breath.
... The very toys of toys, and vanities of vanities,
my ancient mistresses, still held me;
they plucked my fleshly garment, and whispered softly,
'Dost thou cast us off? and from that moment
shall we no more be with thee for ever?'"(8.11.25-26)
The climactic scene that follows in the garden at Milan is unobtrusively surrounded with echoes of other moments. The fig tree that will appear, for example, may very well have stood in that garden, but we cannot notice it without recalling another fig tree in the gospel (Jn. 1.48-50). Once again we are drawn to consider the questions of historicity raised by this account, but if we are prudent, we will dismiss them as irrelevant. The personal authenticity of what Augustine recounts to us makes his reliability as an observer of surrounding events at the moment of secondary importance. Whether it happened this way or not (to an outside observer's judgment), it is perfectly clear that this is the way it was lived, and that is all that matters.
Augustine was sitting with Alypius in a private garden. "But when a deep consideration had from the secret bottom of my soul drawn together and heaped up all my misery in the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, bringing a mighty shower of tears." (8.12.28) (Early Christians lived closer to the brink of tears in prayer than their modern counterparts, tears of compunction.) Augustine goes apart from Alypius: "solitude was suggested to me as fitter for the business of weeping."
"I cast myself down, I know not how, under a fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out, an acceptable sacrifice to Thee.It has been suggested that the neighboring house was a church and the words part of a liturgical ceremony; that the words were spoken by real children; and that it was all a hallucination that Augustine cheerfully read as a sign from heaven. But Augustine himself left the question open. The curious psychological verisimilitude of a situation in which his first thought was not to obey but to ask pedantic questions about the source is worth noticing.
--And, not indeed in these words, yet to this end, I spake much unto Thee: 'And Thou, O Lord, how long? How long, Lord, wilt thou be angry, for ever? Remember not our past iniquities, for I felt I was held by them.
--So was I speaking, and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo!, I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of a boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and often repeating, 'Take up, read; take up, read.' Instantly my countenance altered and I began to think most intently, whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words, nor could I remember ever to have heard the like." (8.12.29)
Augustine acted quickly enough, though. He remembered what he had heard of Anthony, that a chance encounter with the words of the Gospel had changed his life. So he went back to where Alypius was sitting and took the copy of Paul they had been reading. He fell upon the first words that came to his eye.
"Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in concupiscence." (Rom. 13.13-14) No further would I read, nor did I need to: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light of serenity infused into my heart, all darkness of doubt fled away."
"We have no right and we should not have the presumption to say that when he rose from his knees in the Milan garden he was not altogether a 'new man.'" Alypius, reading further on the same page of Paul, found a text for himself and joined Augustine's resolve. Augustine is hard on himself in Book 9 for having equivocated about the step he should take next. He determined to stay out the teaching term a few weeks longer rather than break away and resign immediately, and when he handed in his resignation he alleged weakness of health--true, but incomplete as an explanation. (However strong the effect of the garden scene immediately, only time could prove that it was not a false dawn.)
Shortly after began the country-house idyll at Cassiciacum. The habits of the intellect were too deeply ingrained to break suddenly, but we are also told that Augustine would lie awake half the night, praying with tears. In the Confessions Augustine offers here a reading of a Psalm text to show his new relationship with the scriptures. In the spring, the group came back to Milan and Augustine and Alypius were baptised--a further step also dismissed in a few lines. The scene in the garden was private; the baptism made the decision reached there public. Walls do not indeed make people Christian, but Augustine was only fully a Christian when he had entered those walls as a full member of the sacramental community. (In Augustine's time, the eucharistic ritual was a matter not discussed openly before the unbaptised; hence we are frustrated at having no testimony here of the impression that ritual, and the sense of participation that came with it, made, but the importance of the sacrament should not be ignored because of ignorance.)
The narrative is almost at an end at this point, but Augustine has one last debt to pay. In the short time Monica survived his baptism (less than a year), mother and son finally understood each other. Not long before death overtook her as their party waited at Ostia for a ship to Africa, an event occurred that seemed to Augustine to complete the transition he had begun.
Augustine knew better than to try to have a name for what happened at Ostia. He certainly knew better than to make it out to be more than it was. A foretaste of heaven, coming as it did just before his mother's death, had a particular symbolic force, but despite the parallels with Neoplatonic rapture, Augustine the bishop did not think the whole of the Christian life would be a succession of these dramatic moments. What he was granted with his mother in those moments by another garden was just one more gift. The ecstasy of mysticism is one of the highest and greatest gifts, but it is inessential.
The whole chapter should be read to appreciate the quality of the moment (9.10.23-26). The sensible world fell away and mother and son were completely at sea in their shared union with God. This is in an important sense the decisive encounter with the Word of God that had been only adumbrated in all the previous moments depicted in the Confessions, even the one in that garden at Milan. This particular narrative comes, moreover, in a literary work that is itself of a mystical kind. The special qualities Augustine brings to this particular event are those of the time of his writing of the Confessions. Memory and accurate reportage alone could not make the moment come alive.
Monica's last message to her son as they stood together was to be a theme for the rest of the life he faced from then on. "Son, for my own part I have no further delight in any thing in this life." She was one of the few whose only worldly hope, for the conversion of her son, had been fulfilled. "My God hath done this for me more abundantly, that I should now see thee withal, despising earthly happiness, become his servant: what am I doing still here?" (9.10.26)
The saints are those who live in the world but who are not quite of it. If we are justified in calling Augustine a saint, it is probably accurate to say that he began to live his sainthood just at this moment. Henceforth, he knew a freedom he had only suspected might exist before. His future as a servant of God was out of his own hands. His immediate return to Africa and the foundation of the quasi-monastic community at Tagaste was to be thwarted by other needs of the church. He wound up in a city far from his cloister, far from all the ambitions he had known, perfectly content to do the work he found himself busied with. (Augustine in Hippo and Newman in Birmingham resemble each other in more than a few ways, not least in the misplaced pity of those who think their talents wasted in such obscurity.) The autobiography of Augustine the sinner is at an end. Henceforth, Augustine is freed of time and narrative, and his Confessions reflect that freedom.
With Book 10, the reader must give up all hope of concluding that the Confessions autobiography in any conventional sense. What narrative line there had been is lost altogether and a more complex literary strategy obtrudes its presence upon the reader. While it has been fashionable to argue whether the last four books have anything to do with the first nine, the simple bulk of the material should give us pause: two-fifths of the work's pages remain, and scarcely an autobiographical scrap is to be found among them. We might rather argue that, since the pieces of reminiscence are so clearly confined to one part of the work, it is more remarkable that the impression could ever have grown up that the work was autobiography at all.
The place to begin to seek an authentic reading of this work is still with the fact of prayer. The first nine books of the Confessions, written by the neophyte bishop in his first episcopal years at Hippo, present a double image to our consideration. They are about the early life of a sinful young man determined to find his own way to salvation but destined to be dragged off in a direction he at first resented. But they are also the prayerful reflection on those events of a mature man, a bishop in the church of Christ, living out the transformation those books describe.
In Book 10 the images of the past fade away and we are left to face Augustine the bishop, the product of the years of growth and change the first books suggest to us. What we know of the early Augustine comes to us in the main through the eyes of this middle-aged man. Any reading of the Confessions that does not confront him, and not merely the phantasms of the young Augustine that he presents, is doomed to inadequacy. And this bishop is a man of prayer.
But perhaps we need a more subtle description of the nature of prayer and confession to understand what is going on here. Prayer is endemic to the human condition, in all places and cultures. We know full well how self-centered and unloving such prayer can be, even when it is as innocent as the child's plea for a new toy or revenge on a playmate. Prayer, the turning of the mind and heart to God, takes place even where grace is absent, but this inferior communication between God and man is still evidence of the possibility of authentic communication.
The sinner who prays in ignorance and darkness prays badly, and prays in the imperative and subjunctive moods. He commands God to give him what he wants, he pleads his cause. God's will is of no account. Such prayer begins to become authentic only when it is founded in the knowledge that comes of revelation. God reaches down to mankind with the gospel, and this forms the basis for the transformation of the individual (we saw all this on the first page of the Confessions). Gradually, immature prayer becomes what we will call (to distinguish it from the immature variety and to conform to Augustine's usage) confession. The fully enlightened Christian would no long need to speak in the irreal grammar of imperative and subjunctive. What God has promised, God gives, and the indicative mood is adequate to present this. Hence, there is no longer need for plea and impetration, but for confession and acceptance.
Prayer of the second kind is what Augustine the bishop is seeking throughout the Confessions. Confession is man's part in revelation: God reveals, man praises, and the circle is complete. In mortal life the process is imperfect, but the only business of the saints in heaven is the praise of God, the complete fullness of confession begun here below in the dark light of revelation.
Augustine's literary Confessions fall then into two parts. First, there is the reassessment of his own past in the light of divine mercy that filled the first books. Augustine lived through those years under a variety of delusions about himself and the world; as bishop he can now look back in the light of revelation and see the true pattern of those years. What was, as it was lived through, a puzzling search for truth and knowledge, turns out to have been a piece of Christian salvation history all along, with its own fall into sin and rise through grace.
But Augustine in the Confessions was concerned with the present as much as with the past. Present imperfections were as puzzling and important to him as those of his past. Confession is difficult and its success only partial, for the author of the confession is still sinful and in need of grace lest he fall again. The last books of the Confessions, among other things, bring us to Augustine at the moment of confession. They present him, as he could then imagine himself, and they present his praise of God, working in him as he then saw it.
The structure he imparts to this confession resembles a conventional examination of conscience. To the outsider, such considerations can easily seem morbid and self-absorbed. Here again the outsider is at a disadvantage. The whole of the Confessions is a self-examination in the light of divine truth, and what passes for examination of conscience is only a small part of this whole.
On another level, Augustine is demolishing his own human words by the instrumentality of the divine Word. What were inadequate words arranged in immature prayer now become an embodiment of the Word itself being given back to God. The authority for all speech comes not from the human voice itself but from God's Word, wholly outside human comprehension. Human beings no longer comprehend themselves with their words, but God's word comprehends human beings and revitalizes all discourse. What men say has meaning only if the divine Word speaks through them. What men say of and for themselves is inauthentic. Prayer, in its fulfilled form as confession, is the only form of discourse with a claim to legitimacy. Confession becomes the vital basis of all discourse, hence of all human life insofar as it is human. ("Pray without ceasing": 1 Thess. 5.17.) All that is not confession is partial and imperfect by comparison.
"Let me know Thee, O Lord, who knowest me:The scriptural echoes are unusually important here. First, Augustine uses God's own words to make the central prayer of the whole work--for self-knowledge based in divine knowledge. Then he offers his whole soul to God as something to be possessed "without spot or wrinkle," deliberately using a phrase explicitly applied in scripture to the church as a whole (Eph. 5.27). The individual human soul is inextricably part of the church and hence resembles it. Finally, God's Word itself is the justification for speaking at all.
let me know Thee, as I am known.
Power of my soul,
enter into it, and fit it for Thee,
that Thou mayest have and hold it
without spot or wrinkle.
This is my hope, therefore do I speak." (10.1.1)
"For behold, Thou lovest the Truth,God himself strictly does not need the literary artefact for the act of confession to be complete, but the text is the instrument by which confession comes before men as well as God and hence obeys the twofold command to love neighbor as well as God. Putting confession in writing does not limit or narrow its authenticity, but completes it and makes it a part of the life of the whole church, the instrument of God's redemption on earth.
and he that doth the truth,
cometh to the light.
This would I do in my heart before Thee in confession,
and in my writing, before many witnesses."
"What then have I to do with men,The question of credibility underlines the question of authenticity. Why should readers who come to the work in detachment and skepticism, merely curious to know what another isolated individual happens to be like, believe what they read here? Will not skeptical readers take this text prisoner, make it the grounds for their own religious, historical, or psychoanalytical speculations, and ignore the author and his message?
that they should hear my confessions ... ?
A race curious to know the lives of others,
slothful to amend their own.
Why seek they to hear from me what I am,
who will not hear from Thee what themselves are?
And how do they know whether I speak true,
when from myself they hear of myself,
seeing no man knows what is in man
but the spirit of man which is in him?" (10.3.3)
"But because charity believeth all thingsThe answer lies in God's grace. Those who are bound together by the love of God, and who are therefore part of the church, will see and understand in his story their own stories. Salvation history is always and everywhere the same, and Augustine's story is--insofar as it is true confession in the special sense--the story of every soul touched by grace. Charity, the substance of grace at work in the world, becomes the means by which barriers of suspicion and detachment are eradicated, and readers come to share the experience of a writer. This is not a book to be read so much as it is a prayer in which the reader is to share.
(that is, among those whom,
knitting them unto itself, it maketh one)
I also, O Lord, will in such wise confess unto Thee,
that men may hear,
to whom I cannot demonstrate whether I confess truly;
yet they believe me,
whose ears charity openeth unto me."
"But what I now am, at the very time of making these confessions, diverse people desire to know, who have or have not known me, who have heard from me or of me. But their ear is not at my heart, where I am, whatever I am. They wish then to hear me confess what I am within, whither neither their eye, nor ear, nor understanding, can reach. They wish it, as ready to believe -- but will they know? For charity, whereby they are good, telleth them, that in my confessions I lie not; and she in them, believeth me. ... But for what fruit would they hear this? Do they desire to rejoice with me, when they hear how near, by Thy gift, I approach unto Thee? And to pray for me, when they shall hear how much I am held back by my own weight? To such will I discover myself." (10.3.4 - 10.4.5)
And so the microscopic self-examination begins, at much less distance than the voyage of memory in the early books had allowed him to stand.
"Yet I know something of Thee, which I know not of myself. Truly, now we see through a glass darkly, not face to face as yet. So long therefore as I be absent from Thee, I am more present with myself than with Thee; and yet know I Thee that Thou are in no ways passible; but I, what temptations I can resist, what I cannot, I know not. I will confess then what I know of myself, I will confess also what I know not of myself. And that because what I do know of myself, I know by Thy shining upon me; and what I know not of myself, so long I know it not, until my darkness be made as the noon-day in Thy countenance." (10.5.7)
Even now Augustine cannot escape from the fields of memory. All human consciousness and existence finds itself, Augustine discovers, in the memory, which is the foundation of identity. If the chance agglomeration of sense experiences were all I possessed, I would be lost in the void of the amnesiac. To begin to understand himself, Augustine must now try to understand the faculty that he has used with such success to recapture his early life. As he comes to the present, he discovers that a substantial part of what he is, and therefore of what he wants to represent to his God and to his brothers and sisters is that power of memory itself. That is what makes Augustine recognizably himself.
"Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this am I myself. What am I then, O my God? What nature am I? A life various and manifold, and exceeding immense. Behold the plains, and caves, and caverns of my memory, innumerable and innumerably full of innumerable things." (10.17.26)Memory is where Augustine must be when he searches for God. In authentic self-knowledge, Augustine knows God.
"See what a space I have gone over in my memory seeking Thee, O Lord; and I have not found Thee without it. ... But where in my memory residest Thou, O Lord, where residest Thou there? What manner of lodging hast Thou framed for Thee? ... I entered into the very seat of my mind (which it hath in my memory, inasmuch as the mind remembers also) neither wert Thou there. ... Where then did I find Thee, that I might learn Thee, but in Thee above me? Place there is none. ... Everywhere, O truth, dost Thou give audience to all who ask counsel of Thee, and at once answerest all." (10.24.35)The self itself, seat of all human identity, is not absolute but contingent. We do not find God in the self as much as we find that the self is in God. With this secret of self-knowledge finally revealed, Augustine is ready to see himself as he is.
Augustine's ensuing meditations on his moral state as bishop are alien to us. If the revelations of the first books seem a little tame to the sensation-seeker, the content of Book 10 seems downright neurotic. Here is a man who has meditated long and hard on the will of God and the power of grace, devoting himself in mature years to niggling criticism of his own habits and actions. What, for example, is a bishop doing deploring church music?
For at times he wishes the whole melody of sweet music used to accompany the Psalter could be banished from his ears and his church's too. "That mode seems to me safer, which I remember to have been told often of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who made the reader of the Psalm utter it with so slight inflection that it was nearer speaking than singing. ... Yet when it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than the words sung, I confess to have sinned penally, and then had rather not hear music." (10.33.49-50)
There is more than absurd scrupulosity at work here. As bishop of a Christian church, living in monastic simplicity in plain sight of a large community, Augustine was all but immune to the greater faults of life that flesh is heir to. The natural result of this state is complacency, a confidence that one has finally triumphed over sin because one has finally triumphed over the obvious forms of sin. No such comfort is to Augustine's taste. Just as he can see the gratuitous love of wrong in his theft of pears at age sixteen, so now he knows that, even for a bishop, at every turn, the things of this world hold a perilous attraction for the soul, tying it down and keeping it from its natural course of ascent to God.
Even to phrase the issue that way is to misrepresent it to Augustine's disadvantage. Better to say that the fallen will turns towards the things of the world more than is their due, misdirecting their use towards self-enjoyment rather than the love of God. The ensuing enshacklement is, like all sin, entirely self-inflicted. The things of this world are not at fault for being beautiful, but even things of this world explicitly in the service of God, like the melodies of church music, are no less an opportunity for error than the more obvious temptations.
This scrupulous analysis of the attraction inherent in material things may seem to spring from a world-denying attitude, a painful and extreme puritanism. But this view is only possible if Augustine's main point is ignored. To affirm the world to the exclusion of God does harm, not only to the individual, but to the world itself. To make an idol of something or someone is dangerous no less to the idol than to the idolator. Augustine is so confident of the persistent power of the world to exercise its attraction, that he feels safe in counterbalancing that power with his own deep suspicion.
"Notwithstanding, in how many most petty and contemptible things is our curiosity daily tempted, and how often we give way, who can recount? ... I go not now to the circus to see a dog coursing a hare; but in the field, if passing, that coursing peradventure will distract me even from some weighty thought, and draw me after it: not that I turn aside the body of my beast, yet still incline my mind thither." (10.35.57)Even though he quickly turns such distractions to profit in the contemplation of God's works, he is still dissatisfied: "To rise quickly is one thing, but it is another matter not to fall."
In this attitude lies a strain of perfectionism that is not necessarily morbid. Augustine refuses to be satisfied with himself as imperfect creature; but at the same time, by his very act of confession, we see that he recognizes and acknowledges the imperfections he shuns. He knows full well that complete perfection is not a gift granted in this life. Compunction in its absence is a high gift and in itself a sign of the growing attraction to the heavenly life. To go on, aware of imperfections, however trivial, is a better thing than to make light of them. Augustine's horror at the moral evil in the world around him is genuine; if it were not matched by comparable horror at the evil and possibility of evil within, it would scarcely be sincere.
"And Thou knowest how far Thou hast already changed me, who first healed me of the lust of vindicating myself, that Thou might forgive all the rest of my iniquities, and heal my infirmities, and redeem my life from corruption, and crown me with mercy and pity, and satisfy my desire with good things. ... But, O Lord, ... hath this third kind of temptation also ceased from me, or can it cease through this whole life? To wish, namely, to be feared and loved of men, for no other end, but that we may have a joy which is no joy." (10.36.58)The final trap that awaits Augustine the bishop is the one that would suggest to him that he is now, after all, a bishop; he has, after all, put his whole life on paper for the world to see. Now, surely, at last, he is able to grasp the reins of power and become the great man, God's special messenger, that he was always meant to be. The respect and admiration of his flock strengthens a sense of separateness and importance, while the hostility of heretics and others outside can underline a tendency to self-righteousness. Bishops so closely resemble worldly governors that they are readily assumed to live according to the same principles of power and personal aggrandizement. That assumption itself puts great pressure on the occupants of the office, however strong their intention to remain untouched by the temptations.
The self-portrait of Augustine in his weaknesses comes to an end. His past is a story of personal inadequacy redeemed by divine mystery, his present is continuing story of subjection to all the temptations the fallen will finds in the world, but his case is not hopeless. Grace has taken a hand in his life, and the chasm separating him from God is neither infinite nor incapable of being bridged. Here the story of the first ten books comes full circle. On the first page of the Confessions, it was God who intervened to make all discourse possible, through Christ's preaching ministry. Now at the end of the tenth book, God's intervention again is necessary to make the speaker himself whole and healthy, this time through Christ's redemptive mystery.
"But the true Mediator, whom in Thy secret mercy Thou hast showed to the humble, and sent, that by his example also they might learn that same humility, that Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, appeared between mortal sinners and the immortal just one; mortal with men, just with God." (10.43.68)Christ is both victor and victim, both priest and sacrifice, the Word made flesh and dwelling among men.
"Affrighted with my sins and the burden of my misery, I had cast in my heart, and had purposed to flee to the wilderness; but Thou forbade me, and strengthened me, saying, Therefore Christ died for all, that they which live may now no longer live unto themselves but unto Him that died for them." (10.43.70)
Augustine's memoirs lead up to this page of the Confessions, with its act of faith. The turn to God that faith entails is constant and unceasing. Each hour brings a new conversion, from past sins to future hope, leaving behind the self bound in time and mortality to contemplate the transforming power of God outside all time and creation. Augustine's mission as bishop is to turn his back on the past and live only for, not the future, but the present -- conceived as eternal. In Book 11 he is compelled to consider time itself as evidence of the created nature of earthly things, but for now, Augustine has come to the end of his past, escaping from time into history, leaving himself behind and embracing the Christ who gives history meaning.
"Too late I loved Thee,
O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new!
too late I loved Thee!
And behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad,
and there I searched for Thee;
deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms,
which Thou hast made.
Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee.
Things held me far from Thee,
which, unless they were in Thee, were not at all.
Thou called, and shouted, and burst my deafness.
Thou flashed, shone, and scattered my blindness.
Thou breathed odors, and I drew in breath
and I sigh for Thee.
I tasted, and hunger and thirst.
Thou touchedst me, and I burned for Thy peace."
In the Image and Likeness of God
The last three books of the Confessions are the principal obstacle to the work's reputation for greatness in the literary, as well as the psychological or theological, order. One scholar recounted no less than nineteen different theories that had been devised to explain their presence and their relation to the rest of the work, then proceeded to add his own. Consensus still eludes us. What follows is neither a majority view (for there is none) nor simple idiosyncrasy, but the serious student should bear in mind that different interpretations abound.
The first ten books of the Confessions move from the origins of fallen life to the dynamic present of the author, writing c. 397. The first page of the work states the conditions out of which all reasonable speech arises and the first book takes us back to the author's infancy. In the books that follow, the narrative takes the author from a state of original sin to a state of sacramental grace. The text proceeds from the origins of all discourse in divine revelation to the fulfillment of discourse in the redemption effected by the incarnate Word. So far goes salvation history, down to the present, in both the structure and content of the narrative.
What can possibly be left? The answer is trite but newly illuminating: God and the soul. Noverim te, noverim me is still an adequate summary of Augustine's aspirations. But now the fundamental rupture separating creature and creator has been healed. History is over, in that sense. A bond of unity has been reforged. The future is now no longer the story of sin in the world of time but of love in the world of timelessness. The Christian lives in time between history and eternity, and it is into that world that Augustine the author now escapes.
Book 11 opens in this new, divine present. Augustine now sees himself standing in time, facing the eternal divinity: "Lord, since eternity is Thine, are Thou ignorant of what I say to Thee?" (11.1.1)"But how shall I suffice with the tongue of my pen to utter all Thy exhortations, and all Thy terrors, and comforts, and guidances, whereby Thou broughtest me to preach Thy Word, and dispense Thy Sacrament to Thy people? And if I suffice to utter them in order, the drops of time are precious with me. Long have I burned to meditate in Thy law, and therein to confess to Thee my skill and unskillfulness, the daybreak of Thy enlightening, and the remnants of my darkness, until infirmity be swallowed up by strength. And I would not have aught besides steal away those hours which I find free from the necessities of refreshing my body and the powers of my mind, and from the service which we owe to men, or which though we owe not, yet we pay." (11.2.2)
At the end of his journey through memory in the praise of God, Augustine finds himself left with the scriptural text itself, the visible form of the divine revelation, through which to perform his sacrifice of praise and prayer. The study of scripture in this sense is not a special task set upon him because he is a bishop of the Christian church, for the last sentence makes clear that the duties of his office tend to impede his devotion rather than to enhance it. The duty to preach God's Word imposes responsibilities that could take Augustine further and further from his own personal encounter with that Word. Public responsibility and private need should coincide, but in a fallen world such is not always the case."Lord, my God, give ear unto my prayer,
and let Thy mercy hearken unto my desire:
because it is anxious not for myself alone,
but would serve brotherly charity.
... Grant thereof a space for our meditations
in the hidden things of Thy law,
and close it not against us who knock.
For not in vain wouldst Thou have the darksome secrets
of so many pages written:
nor are those forests without their harts
which retire therein and range and walk,
feed, lie down, and ruminate.
... Let me confess unto Thee
whatsoever I shall find in Thy books,
and hear the voice of praise,
and drink in Thee,
and meditate on the wonderful things of Thy law;
even from the beginning,
wherein Thou madest the heaven and the earth,
unto the everlasting reign of Thy holy city with Thee."
The circle is full. The Word of God inspires quest and praise to begin, and the fullness of that quest in this life is a return to the words of God in scripture. We have here a preview of the content of the last three books: they will explicate the Genesis account of creation, in which the whole history of creation is summed up. (The seventh day of creation is the day of eternal rest towards which the holy city proceeds; the first six days represent, inter alia, the six ages of man.) The last three books are thus an emblem of all scriptural study, since they treat in detail a passage of scripture that stands for the whole.
The opening chapters of Genesis were a constant source of illumination for Augustine; in the years just following the writing of the Confessions he would write his great Literal Commentary on Genesis. These last three books of Confessions give only a highly selective sketch of Augustine's ideas on the subjects raised. They bear looking into, to see what else is going on besides the simple exposition of a few verses of ancient Jewish scripture. We find in them not merely an exposition of scripture, but a self-conscious exposition of exposition itself. The principles of Christian Doctrine should be kept steadily in mind while we examine these pages written so shortly after.
The core of Christian doctrine is contained in the first line of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth, and the spirit of God was over the waters." The fathers saw allusion here to all three persons of the trinity. The words "in the beginning" are the same as those that begin John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word," which all Christians took to denote the second person of the trinity. Since even Augustine would know that the Greek version of the phrase could indicate not merely circumstance but even instrument ("by means of the beginning"), it was easy to assume that the deeper sense of the opening line revealed the three persons of the trinity were actively present in the act of creation from the outset.
Any creation narrative implies a doctrine about the nature of God and the nature of creature, focused on the process of creation itself. Augustine sees this, but almost immediately diverts his discussion into what often looks to readers like a digression, the long discussion of time that fills Book 11. He introduces the subject with the only joke in the Confessions:"See, I answer him that asketh, 'What did God do before He made heaven and earth?' I answer not as one is said to have done merrily (eluding the point of the question), 'he was preparing hell (saith he) for pryers into mysteries.'" (11.12.14)
Augustine will answer the question seriously, for in it lies not merely the abstract subject of time but the essence of creature, creator, and creation, joined together in a unique philosophical nexus. The bulk of Book 11 works out a long and complex inquiry into the nature of time. Philosophers still read these pages with curiosity and interest. For our immediate purposes, it is sufficient to consider the conclusion he reaches."It is in thee, my mind, that I measure times. ... The impression, which things as they pass by cause in thee, remains even when they are gone. This which is still present, I measure, not the things which pass by to make this impression. This I measure, when I measure times. Either then this is time, or I do not measure times." (11.27.36)
Time is inherent in the created intellect, a category for describing the apparent transience and impermanence of reality. Time is not even a created thing, for it is a creation of created things. Intelligent created beings see the world around themselves in a framework of their own invention, which they call time. This characteristic distinguishes their experience from that of their creator. God as creator sees all things simultaneously in a single vision, perceiving process and change but, freed of experiencing those things in temporal succession, he does not experience time. The creator lives outside created things and therefore, a fortiori, outside time. Time cannot be, Augustine concludes, without created being.
Book 11, therefore, seems to deal with the fact of creation in the scriptural text and the problem of time as theological obstacle. But these two tasks are one and the same. The book is thus in reality devoted to the question of creation itself, looking at all times to the first person of the trinity, God the Father of all things, eternal being who creates all contingent, temporal being. Book 11 is therefore the book of creation.
Book 12 is by contrast the book of God's words; that is, of scripture; that is, of knowledge--for all authentic knowledge comes from divine revelation. The formal pretext for the discussion of Book 12 is the distinction between heaven and earth, which Augustine takes allegorically to represent the difference between spirit and matter--between things as they are and things as they seem. God's knowledge, manifested to us, reveals this distinction. Otherwise we would be caught forever in the world of appearances."Wondrous depth of Thy words! whose surface, behold! is before us, inviting to little ones. Yet are they a wondrous depth, O my God, a wondrous depth! It is aweful to look therein, an awefulness of honour and a trembling of love." (12.14.17)Revelation is ambivalent and multi-leveled. The enhancement of human knowledge is thus a constant transition from surface knowledge to inner knowledge, from letter to spirit, from material appearances to spiritual, inner reality.
Just as Book 11 contained a long exploration of the problem of time itself, with full consideration of objections and alternatives, so too the matter of Book 12 is elucidated in an imagined debate with those who would gainsay the Christian interpretation of scripture."With these would I now parley a little in Thy presence, O my God, who grant all these things to be true, which Thy truth whispers unto my soul. For those who deny these things, let them bark and deafen themselves as much as they please. I will essay to persuade them to quiet, and to open in them a way for Thy Word. But if they refuse, and repel me, I beseech, O my God, be not Thou silent to me." (12.16.23)
The apparent movement of reading is from text to author, from message to intention, but revelation short-circuits the process. Something beyond mortal grasp intrudes to keep the reader from moving directly from the written word to the intention of the human author."For behold, O my God, I Thy servant, who have in this book vowed a sacrifice of confession unto Thee, and who pray, that by Thy mercy I may pay my vows unto Thee, can I, with the same confidence wherewith I affirm, that in Thy incommutable world Thou createdst all things visible and invisible, affirm also, that Moses meant no other than this, when he wrote, In the beginning God made heaven and earth? No. Because I see not in his mind, that he thought of this when he wrote these things, as I do see it in Thy truth to be certain. For he might have his thoughts upon God's commencement of creating, when he said In the beginning, and by heaven and earth, in this place he might intend no formed and perfected nature whether spiritual or corporeal, but both of them inchoate and as yet formless. For I perceive that whichsoever of the two had been said, it might have been truly said; but which of the two he thought of in these words, I do not so perceive. Although, whether it were either of these, or any sense beside that I have not here mentioned, which this so great man saw in his mind, when he uttered these words, I doubt not but that he saw it truly, and expressed it aptly." (12.24.33)
The business of language is enlightenment, but in human hands it leads to uncertainty and confusion. But revelation, working in the hearts of believers and in the church as a whole, communicates through written texts that spring from human minds and circumvents the sequence of author-intention -text. The author is no longer a mythic icon established by the reader in accord with his reading of the text, nor is the text so established either. Instead, both are reduced to instruments through which a deeper truth about God and hence man can be descried. We know when we have used the text properly not from any self-verifying quality of the text itself, but because the independent act of God authorizes the text through the church externally and through faith internally. The only word, in other words, is the Word.
If this is a fair summary of the content of Book 12 of the Confessions, a pattern is forming. Book 11 dealt with existence, both temporal and eternal, and led to God as creator and to the creature's relation to that God. Book 12 dealt with the conditions of knowledge, elucidating the nature of knowledge through the revelation of the Word of God in the hearts of believers. If this pattern continues, we should expect to find in the thirteenth book some indication of the presence of the third person of the trinity?
And in fact the full trinity is the subject of the opening pages of Book 13, and with that discussion comes the clue we need to see the pattern of the last books. The three fundamental qualities of existent being, Augustine says (13.11.12), are existence, knowledge, and will. We have encountered this trinity before in the human personality; now we see it deriving from the godhead itself. God the Father is God as eternal being, source of all that exists; God the Son is God as knowledge, source of all that knows and is known; and God the Spirit is God as will, that is to say, God as love, source of all motion of heart and spirit.
With the fullness of trinitarian doctrine as it is imagined in Book 13, unity and variety, the many and the one, have been harmonized in a system of unusual durability and stability. But Augustine is not content merely to imagine the reality in a void. The thirteenth book shows the spirit alive in the world and hence completes the triad begun in Book 11.
The presence of the Spirit in the world is the church: Pentecost proclaimed as much. Hence Augustine turns to consider the sacraments, the deeds of the spirit through the church in the world. (Scriptural language begins to predominate more and more in this book. We near the end in the presence of the spirit.) Consider the paragraph, for example, beginning with the imagined command to baptism: "But first, wash you, be clean ...." (13.19.24) Augustine's own baptism was a high point of Book 9, the culmination of his conversion from the world to God. So too the presence in the world of the church that baptizes in the spirit is the culmination of salvation history. From here on, there is naught to do but wait and watch and pray for the coming end. The church works through her ministers, who attract Augustine's attention a few pages further on:"Now then let Thy ministers work upon the earth, not as upon the waters of infidelity [Gen. 1.2], by preaching and speaking by miracles, and sacraments, and mystic words: with ignorance, the mother of admiration, intent upon them, out of reverence towards those secret signs. Such is the entrance unto the faith for the sons of Adam forgetful of Thee, while they hide from Thy face, becoming a darksome deep." (13.21.30)
This is a world made altogether new by the action of the spirit. Mystery and miracle beget faith, but faith begets faith as well, and the spirit is always present. Mankind is commanded to increase and multiply, by which Augustine understands (13.23.37) no simple command to procreation but a deeper urge to growth and development in the spirit for Christians and for the church. Though sin persists, the spirit creates hope in the place of despair and gives new meaning even to the acts of sinners. This new life of the spirit is a foretaste of what awaits.
The end of the Confessions is near, and in a text so emblematic of salvation history as this one, the end of the text will be the end of all things. The six days of creation stand for the whole history of creation. The seventh day is not merely a way of imagining the continued eternal existence of God past the process of creation, but a way of imagining the future for all mankind. The last paragraphs of the work blend theology and prayer in the unique mixture we have learned to recognize as confession:"O Lord God, give peace to us ...
the peace of rest, the peace of the sabbath,
which hath no evening.
... But the seventh day hath no evening,
nor hath it setting;
because Thou hast sanctified it
to an everlasting continuance. ...
That day may the voice of Thy book
announce beforehand unto us,
that we also after our works
(therefore very good,
because Thou hast given them to us)
shall rest in Thee also
in the sabbath of eternal life." (13.35.50-36.51)
Salvation history has therefore no end. It ceases to be muddled with actions and distractions, but confession is eternal. This book comes to its last page, but is endless. God continues to work, eternal and never endless."But Thou, being the Good which needeth no good,With these last words we are reminded that the quest is not yet over, that the search is still underway, still beginning anew at each moment. We close the book, in fact, on the Latin word that means "shall be opened." The text is prayer and confession itself, but it is not exclusive. Augustine the writer puts down the pen but does not cease to confess.
art ever at rest,
because Thy rest is Thou Thyself.
And what man can teach man to understand this?
or what angel, an angel?
or what angel, a man?
Let it be asked of Thee,
sought in Thee,
knocked for at Thee;
so, so shall it be received,
so shall it be found,
so shall it be opened." (13.38.53)
Augustine's Confessions move from ignorance towards knowledge, both reaching and not reaching that goal. Reaching, in that faith is knowledge; not reaching, in that faith only sees through a glass darkly. The last three books of the Confessions, embodying the knowledge of God that Augustine the bishop and author is seen striving for at the end of Book 10, well suit what has gone before.
But there is perhaps one further level of meaning to this peculiar text. Books 11-13 see in God, in the persons of the trinity the qualities of existence, knowledge, and will. We also saw that Augustine elsewhere made much of the parallel that exists between this image of God and the form of human personality itself. The creature exists in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1.26) and shares in existence, knowledge, and will, insofar as they come from God. Sin is the way men become less like God, redemption the way they come to resemble him again.
There is thus a unique sense in which the last books of the Confessions are intimately related to the first ones. The real movement of the Confessions is from an initial apparent knowledge of self (and ignorance of God), which then recognizes itself as fraud and ignorance. Augustine moves towards real knowledge of God, in three persons, which is authentic knowledge of self. Noverim te, noverim me again: I can only know myself if I know God; to seek to know myself in isolation is the folly of sin.
The first ten books dismantle the apparent knowledge of self with which the sinful Augustine began. In those books, by a negative path, Augustine comes to know himself. Real uncertainty remains, as is clear from the passage in Book 10 where the saintly bishop admits he does not know to which temptation he might next submit.
Books 11 to 13 become more positive. By depicting God through scripture, Augustine is giving the final, authentic depiction of himself? Augustine sees himself as, not a unique and interesting sinner (for sinners are neither unique nor interesting), but as a being created in the image and likeness of God. By describing that God, he describes himself now more accurately than he could ever have done before. He describes others as well, for saints resemble each other, despite the uniqueness of personality. ("Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" is the first sentence of Anna Karenina.)
The Confessions depict in the end the Augustine with which the work began, but do so with an authority that was lacking at the outset. What sets this pilgrimage apart is that it makes the result a living possibility for every reader. The conclusion--knowledge of God leading to knowledge of self--is one that is accessible to all.
The Confessions, then, contain two books. One is the book Augustine wrote. As such it is itself an act of prayer and confession. But the other is the book that every reader takes up, with two possible readings of the book to consider. We may read the text in a detached, anthropological temper, treating it as a historical artefact of late antiquity, a window through which to catch something of the life of that alien time. We may accordingly study the author and his intentions in writing the text. When we do this, however, we are not reading the text Augustine would have us read, and the difficulties modern scholars experience with this text are the result of their professional insistence on giving this text a reading it was never meant to have.
Augustine would never have wanted the text to be anything other than prayer and confession for anyone. By leading in the last books to the abstract and difficult discussion of the trinity and its image in man, he makes it possible for every reader to duplicate the process through which he has gone, to go through that process for himself. The very difficulty of the text thwarts analytic detachment and hurries the reader along. Read in this way, the book is no longer Augustine's book, but our own book. The creature in the image and likeness of God whom we learn to know from the last books is no longer Augustine (as it was for the author of the text), but ourselves, creatures like Augustine.
Read in this way, this text itself becomes a medium by which we may look past the individual conditions of author-intention-text to a general truth. This work refuses to be an icon for veneration and study in itself. The author himself declines to accept our veneration. Rather, both conspire to pass our attention along imperceptibly to the God that both represent. Ultimately text and author efface themselves, the reader closes the book, and the whole process begins anew. The real book is opened, as the last words of the Confessions indicate.