To Make an End Is to Make a Beginning

James J. O'Donnell

The implicit reader assumed by my commentary on the *Confessions* must be a hardy soul. Learned, patient, willing to accept a fierce discipline in order to approach a venerable text whose mixture of readily accessible and infuriatingly remote passages invites alternately glib and uncomprehending readings. Somewhere between those readings lies the possibility of a reading at once more arduous and less plagued by spots of blank incomprehension. The years I spent writing this commentary were ones in which I struggled to achieve such a reading and to make it possible for others. I made a firm decision not to do the reading for others and then just present the results in some tidily wrapped package. There were already too many tidily wrapped packages offering such readings, and it was a wearisome business to distinguish the good ones from the bad. No, I thought, the time had come to stop coddling the reader with presents and turn her loose on the text with a new set of grappling hooks, meaning-extractors, and nuance-detectors.

But not every reader would be grateful. We have come to expect in our culture of the book that "classics" will be managed as user-friendly pleasure gardens, Disneylands of the mind, full of wonders, but demanding no serious thought and holding no real risks. To write a commentary of this sort was to thrust the reader out instead into a kind of wilderness survival training program. No one ever gets lost in Disneyland, but only a few get through wilderness survival training unscathed.

The choices I made in presenting this commentary were arguable in the extreme. Many would prefer Disneyland, while others will object vociferously to my characterization both of my own work and of the alternative forms I am so dismissivley rejecting. To them I would say only that the kind of reading I struggled for seemed worth the years of sometimes almost trance-like work I put into it, and still seems to me worth the effort for those readers willing to spend the time (now happily for them much less than I spent on the project) in a like manner.

The gender of a pronoun three paragraphs back suggests the *only* detail in which my learned reviewers whose work is printed in this volume fail to match my implicit reader, and it is a failing over which they had little control. In every other regard, Sheerin, Burns, and Lawless have trekked the wilderness valiantly, found their own bearings, and come back with readings of the text and commentary decidedly their own. I am grateful for their kind words, and more grateful for their criticisms and disagreements. I disagree with little they have said and will rather use the space generously offered me by the editor, in this and in many other ways a valued colleague through these years, to comment on a few of the most helpful points made by the reviewers and then to say a few words about the next tasks for readers of the *Confessions*.

The want of an apparatus criticus that Sheerin observes is a deliberate choice for two reasons: (1) the editions of Knöll, Skutella, and Verheijen all present successive refinements of what is essentially the same apparatus (the current reprinting of Skutella presenting the information in the most lucid and accurate form), hence repetition seemed nugatory in the absence of any serious prospect of expanding the base of manuscript evidence on which we depend; (2) given the depth of the commentary, it seemed better to incorporate all discussion of textual matters in the primary notes, and thus to reintegrate textual criticism with hermeneutics, a unity too often neglected in our time.

Patout Burns's observations about my philological blinders are just. This is partly the prudence of limited ability, partly an ideological choice. I confess that I side with the tradition of Courcelle in insisting on verbal links wherever possible, and find that the more expansive method of "pattern exegesis" practiced by Robert O'Connell, whose work Burns finds more valuable than I do, to be dangerously subjective. O'Connell's work remains highly controversial and I have had private communication from Augustinian scholars of standing rebuking me for paying it as much credit as I do. I will say that I have found his work everywhere stimulating if often infuriating, and I could not have read Augustine so well without him, but I cannot go very far in agreement with him; hence I have cited him less often even than perhaps he deserves. The debate over his theses can and should continue.

One one point I can underline agreement with Burns by further reference. I do indeed think that the paragraphs 17-22 of Book 7 mark an important stage in Augustine's development (and I think I say as much at vol. 1, p. xxxiii, and vol. 2, p. 435). Of the three questions that drove Augustine to Manicheism (3.6.10), one (the seemingly bad behavior of the Old Testament fathers) was resolved for him by Ambrose's sermons on the spirit and the letter, another (the question of God's body or bodilessness) was resolved in the first paragraphs of Book 7 before the reading of the *platonicorum libri*, and then the third, the origin of evil, is precisely what is resolved in those paragraphs 17-22 between the first attempted ascent and the second attempt, which I characterize as successful in Plotinian terms as Augustine understood them. The lingering disappointment that drives him to Paul, to the Incarnate Christ, and to Baptism, is not with an ascent that failed, but with one that succeeded and proved disappointing. On quiet nights I think I can hear the Augustine of this turning point in the text crooning softly the old Peggy Lee melody, "Is That All There Is to a Mystical Ascent?" Happily for Augustine, there was more, and Ostia (I have argued) is the place where he found it. On the place of *ordo* in A.'s thought, I have a fair amount to say in a note on 1.7.12, and here mark only that in the triad modus-species-ordo (which Augustine uses as a trinitarian image in the *de natura boni* shortly after *Conf.* and elsewhere), order is the distinguishing quality of that in the world that reflects the third person of the trinity, the dynamic force that sets all in motion, the animating goodness of the world; hence the place of *ordo* at just this point in the *Conf.* narrative is indeed as important as Burns suggests.

I come away from George Lawless's commentary on my essay in Augustinian literary biography chastened and curious. The judgment I uttered on the *de utilitate credendi* is one that I still hold: reasonable readers will differ; but when I find myself differing with Lawless, I mark down that I must return to the topic when the time is right and give it a thorough reconsideration. (For the moment, I take comfort from the remarks of M. Vessey at Journal of Early Christian Studies 1[1993] 179 with note 7, esp. ref. to C. Schaeublin, Vigiliae Christianae 43[1989] 53-68.) Similarly, I take his remarks on what I called Augustine's "writer's block" as offering useful corrective to the romanticization implicit in that very modern phrase, but at the same time as offering a kind of corroboration. The burdens of presbyteral and episcopal office were certainly part of what impeded Augustine's pen on more than one occasion in this period. I do think that the issue of adequacy to the task is one that is still very much on Augustine's mind in 397 -- I could not understand *Conf.* 10 without that assumption, and that emboldens me to cling to most of what I said there.

But I think Lawless raises an intriguing further possibility. Only in reading his comments about the different genres with which Augustine experimented in his early years as a priest did I think to ask a question that should have been obvious long ago: Why did Augustine need to become so *traditional* a literary figure in the episcopacy? Was he perhaps experimenting in those years with a less formal style, with a more frankly Christian Sonderstil? I say in the commentary that the Schrijnen-Mohrmann school and its insights and controversies are ripe for reinvestigation, particularly in light of booming work in both linguistics (the disagreements of Roger Wright and Michel Banniard play out on just this kind of turf) and literary history affecting later Latin. Do we take too readily for granted that Augustine *had* to be the sort of writer he became? Was he in the years 391-396 trying to become something else, and does the literary explosion of 397ff represent in this case a kind of failure? A relapse to literary styles and techniques more familiar to the old professor? That would be an extraordinary claim to sustain, but the underlying data need re-examination.

  • What next then for the reader of the *Confessions*? Here I will offer only a few pointers, some already implicit in the commentary.
  • 1. The place of "Platonism" in Augustine has been looming larger for forty-odd years, since Courcelle's first book at least. There is no comprehensive reassessment of the debate and of the underlying material. O'Connell stands for one position, Goulven Madec (whose book on Augustine and philosophy has been spoken of with eager anticipation for some years) will stand for another. There is opportunity for a fresh approach, one that I am not entirely confident I can adumbrate.
  • 2. The works of Augustine that seem to me to cry out for the closest reading now are the de trinitate (in which I would argue that Augustine continued the spiritual practice he begins in *Conf.* 11-13) and the letters, a vast corpus mined in the past mainly for biographical data but rarely read as literary artifacts or, even more importantly, as documents in the rhetorical self-fashioning of "Augustine". The letters are as important as the Confessions in showing us Augustine presenting himself carefully, oh so carefully, to the world around him, and I think we have much to learn from them yet.
  • 3. There are essentially two schools of thought about the psychological analysis of Augustine's personality. One holds that it is a task that can and must be done, with verve and fidelity to the tenets of one or another school of analysis; the other holds that such talk is poppycock, that ordinary philology or philosophy or theology will do the job well enough. Both schools seem to me misguided, though it is true that the real poppycock written by the first school has given the second school rather more of an excuse. I praise in the commentary one very old book by W. Achelis and one relatively recent article by Paula Fredriksen that seem to me to point the way to a serious psychological engagement with Augustine's works; but I would caution loudly that the real task for such an assessment is the one that has always been shirked, namely that of grounding a psychological study in the widest possible body of Augustine's writings. In particular, the sermons seem to me to offer a rich field of study, for their imagery, their recurrent themes, and their oral composition. I could see this task clearly as I worked on the commentary, and I knew with absolute certainty that I was not the one to undertake it.
  • Ends and beginnings. The gravest mistake that any reader of Augustine or of O'Donnell could make would be to think that I have settled something or finished something. True, there are tasks that now need not be repeated, and there is fresh material to use. But when I have taught the *Confessions* in the past I have found in Eliot's *Four Quartets* (alluded to in the title I give this essay) a resonant set of themes that offered me much inspiration. To let others read the text for us, or to assume that we have exhausted the text, these are serious mistakes. The greatest value the commentary has for me now is that it so conclusively marks the end of one *stage* of my own reading of Augustine, that I know I cannot now go back. To think of this text again, to read it, to teach it, is to find myself forced further out into the wilderness, to think about how this text can and will continue to live and grow and change in its importance and meaning for me. I make no large ontological or cultural claims for the Confessions: I will settle for echoing, distantly and faintly, the words Augustine himself gave to the book, in a similar spirit of fresh rereading, in his *Reconsiderations*:
    confessionum mearum libri tredecim et de malis et de bonis meis deum laudant iustum et bonum atque in eum excitant humanum intellectum et affectum. interim quod ad me attinet, hoc in me egerunt cum scriberentur et agunt cum leguntur. quid de illis alii sentiant, ipsi viderint; multis tamen fratribus eos multum placuisse et placere scio.
    My *intellectus* and *affectus* have been deeply touched by this old book and are still, and if my own pedantic words can help scrape away some of the veneration and some of the genteel mummy- wrappings with which we condemn our literary ancestors to the life in death of "classic" status, and so allow the text to burn their restless way into other hearts, then they will have done their job. I am very grateful for the opportunity of having readers like Sheerin, Burns, and Lawless, and pleased beyond measure at the thought that there may be more like them still reading and yet to come.