Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Augustine's Confessions, Trans Henry Chadwick, OUP, 1991

SUMMARY: Augustine begins in his early years where he sought pleasure not in God but in his creatures, roaming the streets of Babylon in search of sensual folly, seeking shame for its own sake, running with the bad crowd. But despite his wild side, Augustine had many natural gifts and first became a lawyer, then a teacher of rhetoric. At some point he reads Cicero's Hortensius and devotes himself to the pursuit of wisdom, which he at first attempts to find in the Manichee religion. Augustine recounts how easy everything came to him, how reading Aristotle's Categories was like reading a children's book, but that these strengths were ultimately infirmities because they were not under God's control. Augustine moved away from Manichaenism, flirted with astrology and then slowly became more involved with the church through Ambrose. If something kept him from the church, it was that he needed the embraces of a woman to satisfy his insatiable sexual desire. Augustine came to study Neoplatonism and found a great amount of truth in the works of Plotnius and Porphyry. Through the Neoplatonic lens he inquired into the origin of evil (see first discussion topic). Finally, in a garden in Milan, Augustine broke down into a very dramatic fit of weirdness and converted when he read: "Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts" (Rom. 13: 13-14). Augustine must have been quite the wild man. Shortly after his conversion, his beloved mother dies.

This is more or less the end of his autobiographizing: Chapters X-XIII are more philosophical in nature. Chapter X is about memory: when Augustine speaks of memory, he means something like Plato's anamnesis, bringing forth what is already there, a gathering together (sounds like Heidegger). He equates memory itself with the mind, though at one point he says it is the stomach of the mind (in which case remembering is vomiting?). He then goes on to discuss the relationship of happiness and truth....the pursuit of truth, through the higher path of the mind's eternal knowledge or through the lesser path of the 5 senses, is only useful in as much as it serves happiness, which only God can truly provide. Pursuing truth for curiosity or for praise is no good.

Chapter XI is about time and eternity. Here Augustine asserts that God's eternal Word created time. The much quoted passage comes on page 230: "What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know." Augustine posits that there are not three times (past, present and future), but three modes of the present, a present past that is memory, a present present that is immediate awareness, and a present future that is expectation. Time is not dictated by the movement of physical bodies but by the way we measure it, and time's measurement is the mind itself. Time is a distension, a stretching out of the present, and our minds are what stretches it out.

There is a very good discussion of Augustine on time in Paul Ricoeurs "Time and Narrative," Chapter 1. I'll email it to you all. Ricoeur says: "Augustine's inestimable discovery is, by reducing the extension of time to the distention of the soul, to have tied this distention to the slippage that never ceases to find its way into the heart of the threefold present – between the present of the future, the present of the past, and the present of the present. In this way he sees the discordance emerge again and again out of the very concordance of the intetions of expectation, attention, and memory" (T&N, pg. 21).

In Chapter XII, Augustine talks about how we are to understand God's act of creation. The difficulty seems to revolve around how to understand God's actions outside of time, how, if time and differentiation are created only with form, to understand the existence of a formless mass. The only bit I found interesting in Chapter XIII was Augustine comparing the trinity to the threefold presence of being, knowing and willing in man. It seems an odd comparison. I gotta say, I didn't find these last two chapters so riveting.


1) Augustine on Evil: Augustine is firmly against the belief that there is an evil substance, or that there are two opposed principles of good and evil. He rather thinks of evil as a perversion of what was created good by God allowed by the indeterminacy of the created human will. Evil is not a thing but a deprivation of good, something that would not be seen as evil unless in contrast to an already existent good thing, like a disease to its host. Augustine also talks about evil as a kind of turning away from the inner, eternal Word to the outer, temporal world.

2) Family Romance: That Augustine was such a womanizer and so wholly devoted to an angelic vision of his mother is ripe for Freudian analysis. But the most amazing thing I found in the book is the following: Monica has a dream where God says to her "Where you are, there will he be also," meaning that Augustine will eventually come to the faith. But this is paraphrasing the Roman marriage rite, "Where you are, there will I be." So underneath the idea that Augustine will convert is the desire to marry him. But here's the amazing part: in Freud's "New Introductory Lectures," he describes the purpose of analysis as conquering the id with the ego, or "Wo es war, soll Ich werden," or "Where it was, there I shall be," or "Where id was, there ego shall be." Did Freud read Augustine? Did he know about the Roman marriage rite?


  1. Merci, Ben.

    Sometimes I wonder if we overemphasize the role of sex in Augustine, to the detriment of the other issues at stake. I do it, too, but I think it might be in part a function of our milieu. Lust is part of it, but think of the other concupiscences - lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, lust of scent. (I'll come back later and correct this; I left my copy of the Confessions at the apartment. On a side note, if you want the real Augustinian influence on Heidegger, read the section on curiosity in the Confessions in conjunction with idle talk and curiosity in B&T).

    Lust is the most visible part of the temptations, but remember that toward the end when Augustine thinks about the ways in which he still sins, he includes being distracted by a lizard eating a fly and a dog chasing a hare, not impure thoughts. I think that curiosity, knowledge not directed toward God, is as much a failing as lust. Moreover, I think vanity and desire for praise was also a tremendous obstacle for Augustine, one that I'm not sure he entirely overcame. The piece is horrendously egotistical in some senses - the way in which he brings up his brilliance, even if to negate it, seems somehow... less than redeemed. All of it could be understood as the force of habit that keeps the self dispersed throughout the world, and not unified in God.

    This is unrelated to anything, but I've always enjoyed the the garden imagery in the Confessions. I suppose one could read the stealing of the pears - the sin that has no motivation - as a metaphor for the primal stealing of the apple in Eden. A's spiritual quest for redemption begins when he reads Hortensius - gardens - and ends with the conversion in the garden. I'm sure it's a self-conscious reference to Christian mythology.

    Anyway, that's enough for the moment for me -

  2. I second Liane's comments about curiosity. It was highly reminiscent of Heidegger and is clearly a central overarching theme which subsumes, I think, Augustine's focus on sex.

    So, I guess the question is what is it about fascination that is so bad for Augustine and for Heidegger. At least for Augustine, quite right, it seems to have something to do with the knowledge not being directed towards God. More than that though, I think that it has to be seen within the Neoplatonic system in which Augustine is working. Permanence, stability, fixity, are the marks of higher ontological status. God is a the highest substance, thus he is impassive and unchanging. To connect with him, as Augustine sought, and as is illustrated in the two scenes of mystical experience, is to ascend the hierarchy of Being from those things that are more transient and changing to those things that are more stable and unchanging, culminating in God. Cupidity with its everchanging directions (think of reading wikipedia as Carman mentioned) does not lead upwards towards that which is most unchanging and unified, but away towards those things always in flux.

    Heidegger, of course, seems to have his own, different reasons for having a negative view on curiosity, but that takes us beyond our current interests.

    The real question that interests me is, beyond the history of philosophy questions of Augustine's focus on unchangingness and unity, what are the position's presuppositions, what speaks in favor of it, and what against it. On one hand, it seems intuitive, at least to me, to prefer that which is more enduring over that which is transient. This seems to be the initial impetus for this ontological privileging. Now, on the other hand, obviously this position has been rightly critiqued a lot recently from a feminist perspective as well as from the perspective process theology. But I think it remains something to be reckoned with when we consider our own less significant valuations. A diamond is, after all, forever. Thoughts?

    One additional note, I am surprised that the translator did not mention this, but the phrase "Where you are, there will he be also" seems also to allude to Ruth 1: 16, "For wherever you go, I will go." There, Ruth swears to his mother-in-law Naomi that she will follow her away from her homeland Moab back to the Land of Israel. This verse was read by many Jews contemporary with Augustine as indicating Ruth's conversion to Judaism. This passage from Ruth is early(8th-6th BCE) so it itself could not have been influenced by the Roman marriage ritual (as some have argued). Given Augustine's knowledge of scripture it seems likely that he could have intended this double allusion. This raises interesting thoughts about how he read Ruth.

    Enough for now.

  3. Since we're comparing the two, I think the difference between Heidegger and Augustine on the question of curiosity might be this: Heidegger thought of curiosity as an inauthentic way of being inescapably temporal; Augustine thought of curiosity as representative of the temporal, worldly enchantment that led away from God. In other words, Heidegger lamented curiosity because it led Dasein away from being authentically temporal and Augustine because it revelled too much in the temporal. For Augustine the crucial distinction is between inner, divine Verbum and outer, human vox; for Heidegger there are only different ways for vox to be itself. That said, I think that Heidegger would think of Augustine's pursuit of the eternal as an attempt to flee one's temporal being.

    Yoni, I think a paper is waiting to be written that starts with Ruth and ends with Carole King's "Where you lead, I will follow."

  4. Curiosity I think, is about the proper ordering of love. It comes out a lot more clearly in his later work, On Christian Doctrine, that we’re not reading here, but one of the big themes in Augustine’s work is the ordering of passions. He makes the distinction of love as ends and love as means. Love of God should be the only end, love of others and love of the world should be the means. (It’s an interesting, extremely un-Kantian ethical ideal - loving others solely as means). This is basically what Yoni was saying about curiosity taking us away from our ascension to the true, the lasting, the holy.

    I think the important thing to stress is that Augustine isn’t opposed to the world as such. He doesn’t think love of world is bad, he doesn’t think love of others should be shunned, he doesn’t think the temporal should be discarded in favor of the eternal, not entirely. He thinks, instead, that all of those things should be subservient to our love of God. Curiosity is pernicious because it can’t be ordered, it can’t be directed toward God, in the way love of one’s neighbors could be. Curiosity is always a scattering.

    In this, Ben, I’m not sure I agree with your explanation of the difference between Heidegger and Augustine. I don’t think man can ever reach the timeless; the perspective of the timeless only exists from the vantage point of God. One could read Augustine as the first postmodern; the self is always opaque to man. God can gain a timeless, whole perspective on it, but that perspective is denied to man. (Think here of his remark that I can never know my own infancy). The only comfort he can see receive comes in knowing that somewhere there exists a coherent vision of himself. So there is a distinction between the temporal and the eternal, but man is inescapably nailed to the temporal. The good Augustinian aims to be as ill-at-ease as possible in this temporal world, but doesn’t actually believe in the possibility of escaping it, of reaching the timeless. To be authentic is to be alien. Maybe one could connect that to the echoes of Ruth Yoni cited; the paradigmatic example of being at home, of converting, centers on the foreigner. If you think of the anxiety of being-toward--death in H., I think Heidegger and Augustine are a lot closer than one thinks.

  5. Without having read On Christian Doctrine, I'm not in a position to say anything about curiosity and the proper ordering of love, though it's an interesting point. But I definitely wasn't saying anything about "reaching the timeless." It seems more a question of orientation, whether your eyes are fixed on the heavens or on the earth. You could say that end of the the former is an ill-at-ease position in the temporal, and thus that it prefigures Heidegger's disjointedness, or you could say that it's representative of the infinite striving of an unhappy consciousness, unprepared to accept the temporal as the horizon of the human. Both seem like defensible positions, but I'm still gonna opt for the latter.