Saturday, November 15, 2008

Week 01, Saint Augustine

Notes on St. Augustine ’s Confessions, Full Text from Books 1-9 (Oxford Edition)

These notes are based on the full text and not on our Norton selections, but they may prove helpful.

Confessional tone: people say he’s following an abstract pattern, and that’s true in terms of the broad “Christian pilgrim” outline, but in fact Augustine is a realist in tracing the interplay between his intellect and his feelings. This interplay is in part what gradually leads him towards god. The conversion isn’t sudden, but requires lots of life experience and some suffering, along with a great deal of study. Augustine addresses God directly, and his initial concern lies with how it is even possible to establish a relationship with such an exalted being, let alone address him in appropriate tones. The commensurability or incommensurability of language to its objects and its tasks is always an issue to be worked through.

Emphasis on original sin— even a child is not innocent; it just lacks the power to do the evil it intends. This emphasis reinforces Augustine’s statements about the need for discipline, restraint, and suffering—they teach us valuable lessons.

Sin and Evil: ultimately, the punishment for sin is sin itself; that is, the person who set himself up as a rival to God is condemned to keep repeating the same mistakes. That person runs around in circles of perversity rather than pursuing the straight and narrow path of salvation. We are condemned to be our sweating selves, as Gerard Manley Hopkins says. Discuss the episode in which Augustine steals pears simply for the love of stealing and because it seals the bond with his companions. The upshot of this is that humans are always building the Tower of Babel —they judge excellence and morality by human standards, not by God’s standards. This is a pagan thing to do—it is prideful and presumes self-sufficiency where there is none. But there is also a sense in which humans strive after God when they sin—they are pursuing sensual or other objects in the absence of God. We are always striving after excellence or at least after some kind of goal or object, but we pursue the wrong objects. In Book 2, Augustine’s problem with lust is connected with his theft of pears—pride is the main problem, but sensuality is also part of the problem. We usually see social forms as positive, “sublimation” of erotic tensions. Augustine tends to make the connection between social forms like art and sexuality clear—there are, he says, "many ways to worship idols."

Manichaean error: how the mind is misled by fantasies. The error here seems to lie in creating fantastic and mystical spiritual systems based upon misguided analogies from material things. God is not to be likened to that which he has created; he is not to be identified with his works. The Manicheans think evil is material and real, whereas Christianity says evil does not truly exist because it lacks grounding in God.

Pagan error: humanity taking pride in itself rather than turning towards god. The fundamental error committed by Cicero and others, though they are admirable in their genuine desire for knowledge, is that they think humanity is self-sufficient. Man is not, as Protagoras claimed, the measure of all things.

Proper praise for God: this is a question of language—no language is really adequate to comprehend God. It also involves understanding the relationship between God and his works—again, God is not his works. See page 63.

Proper appreciation of our fellow human beings: they are instruments of God. This is a painful realization—one is reminded of Christ’s question, “Who is my mother?” (Matthew 12:50: “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.”) We must not love that which is merely mortal in human beings but rather that which is spiritual. We must not become too attached to mortality—death is a door that opens, not closes.

Book 1

1. Augustine addresses a god of paradox, at least to the human mind; he is commanded to speak about God and to address him very directly, even though questions of his own worthiness come to the fore.

5. Part of Augustine's quest is a search for right language—should he use the language of law? Well, no. He does not know his source, so he seeks mercy.

6. He replaces his mother with God; it is interesting that Augustine returns to a time before he became conscious of himself, to his infancy. Why does he do this? Partly, I suppose, to show the agency of God at work from the very beginning, but partly also to emphasize the natural man. This part of the text is also about the development of language to make desires manifest. Notice that language is not, of course, adequate to express desire.

7. God is here characterized as the principle of constancy at work through Augustine’s changing life.

9. Very soon Augustine begins writing about original sin. He casts the child’s first desires as sinful. Parents, like God in this only, tolerate the child’s behavior because they know it will pass.

10-11. Augustine is interested in how humans developed the ability to speak. He connects the development of language with entry into human society. The misuse of gifts will be a major theme. Speech, for example, is easily used to manipulate others.

12. As Augustine grew into a young boy, he sinned by disobeying his parents. He loved sports too much. This is probably not so much due to idleness as to pride in winning—competitiveness. The same is true of love of the spectacle, sights to see. He speaks of being baptized or given Christian rights by his mother, Monica. Augustine had been ill with some kind of fever, but he recovered and the ceremony was put off.

14. Augustine says that Monica was obedient to her husband even though he was not yet a Christian. He also speaks here of the deferral of his baptism—perhaps it was so that when he sinned as a youth, the penalty would not be so great.

15. The punishment for sin is sin itself—so a person who does not study will have a disordered mind. Augustine speaks rather scornfully or dismissively of classical literature, mentioning Virgil’s Aeneas and Dido. This literature strays from the one true story. Milton , despite his love of the classics, will take much the same line later on.

17. Augustine says that he did not like Greek simply because it was a foreign language and difficult to learn; he also says that curiosity stimulates learning more than discipline, but the latter is necessary.

18-19. Augustine says that literary education often gets misused as the means for excusing one’s own faults. It is not so much the words that are at fault but rather that teachers spoil them.

20. Praise was the reward for reciting classical literature well—Augustine says it was a waste of effort, mere vanity.

21. Committing a barbarism was the worst thing imaginable—love of praise, erecting one’s hopes on earthly success. This is not worshiping God. We notice that the tone of this first chapter is truly confessional—Augustine is traveling back and even reconstructing his infancy and childhood, finding much fault with himself and his desires. He is explaining, but not excusing, the formation of his character into that of a sinner. Children, as he describes them, are little adults, always on the slippery slope to hell.

22. The child’s desire for baubles gives way to desire for a royal scepter. So children are already sinful little adults. At the end of this first chapter, Augustine gives thanks to God for the gifts he received even as a child—self-preservation, delight in truth and friendship, and so forth. Still, he sought God not directly but in human society.

Book 2. Adolescence

24. There is a lot of inclusion of Plotinus—particularly in Augustine’s remarks about unity versus multiplicity. He seeks earthly pleasure, and wishes to love and to be loved. This turns him towards eroticism.

25. At this point in his life, Augustine is a bag of squirming appetites. God, he says, was nonetheless beside him, punishing him along for his own good. In this way, Augustine deals with the bittersweet nature of sexuality and all human pleasure.

26. Notice that there is a connection between rhetoric and sexuality—the lust of the flesh is connected to the desire to invade others with one’s words and persuade them, dominate them. At this point, when he is 16 years old, Augustine is recalled from Madauros so he can go study at Carthage . He does not give much credit to his father because his father only wanted him to study rhetoric and become famous. But the family did not have much money, so Augustine spent some time idly.

27. Augustine criticizes his father for taking pride in the son’s growing manhood. But his mother took care to keep him away from the worst evils. He did not listen, and even pretended to do things that he did not do.

28. Augustine says that even his mother showed much ambition for his worldly success in the study of literature; his mother thought that this would lead him towards God. He implies that he needed discipline at this time, and did not get it.

29. Here is the passage where Augustine steals pears from a tree just because he can. He wants the excitement of stealing. He describes this as love of degradation. So this minor fault sounds as if it might have been committed by Satan himself: corrupt love of the lie, of evil for its own sake. Will he maintain this position? Francis Bacon wrote of humanity's “corrupt love of the lie” for its own sake, which he can’t quite explain. But Augustine will help to explain by saying that sin catches hold of us mostly by our need for approbation amongst our peers. There’s more hope in that than in plain evil: we seek unity and security and love in perverse ways because we have turned away from God. Why does he go on during this episode to speak of beauty? He speaks of beauty in connection with harmony and unity between the senses and the objects of the senses.

30. But Augustine clarifies the point here—love of sensual things, of material objects, leads people away from God. Desire for such things must therefore be restrained because we can’t maintain proportionality in our desires. Augustine says that people commit crimes for love of inferior goods, not simply for the sake of crime itself. So is Augustine saying he was even worse than most sinners because he fell for the sake of falling? Read onwards….

31. What is the nature of Augustine’s pleasure in stealing fruit? He returns insistently to this question.

32. Even the sinner acknowledges God. When people turn away from God, Augustine explains, they seek purity and clear intentions in his absence. People seek some object beyond themselves, but they seek lower things perversely. In essence, people set themselves up as God and try to imitate his excellence and power.

33. Augustine explains at the end of the chapter that he took delight in stealing fruit because of his association with a gang of miscreants—he would not have stolen the fruit on his own. Again, people tend to form into small groups that mutually reinforce the group norms—and disobey God. One of the fundamental sins, therefore, seems to be that humans set themselves up as a law unto themselves. They strive for excellence within their own group, seeking false stability and security. The pear episode has stretched from 29-33.

Book 3. Student at

35. Augustine becomes a slave to his own appetites. He writes emphatically about the desire to desire, to be in love with love, etc. Love will seek an object, material or otherwise.

35-6. Here Augustine talks about tragic pity, though he has not read Aristotle. He says that he was very fond of theater. Plays represented to him his own miseries and stoked the engines of his desires. But this kind of theatrical grieving and emotion does not lead to action in real life. That is what is wrong with it. Augustine speaks warily of mercy and pity for misguided or wrong actions—one must be careful not to be led into sympathy with sin in this way. Too often, people elicit mercy simply because they lose pleasures they don’t deserve.

37. Suffering may be commendable, but we should not fall in love with it. That is what sometimes happens when we go to the theater—we love to feel pity for the fictional characters. Augustine admits that he lusted after a girl in church, but that even then God hovered over him mercifully.

38. Augustine says that lawyers were often praised for deceiving others. But at least he stayed away from the Wreckers who hazed their fellow students.

39. While in law school, Augustine studied Cicero ’s Hortensius, which text urged him to study philosophy and therefore moved him towards God. It made him long for the immortality of wisdom, and not just for material things. So a pre-Christian author performed a real service for Augustine, advocating the love of virtue. But he says that since the book did not mention the name of Jesus, his enthusiasm for Cicero remained limited. This is of course Augustine’s way of limiting the authority of classical literature, but he also casts himself as always the Christian Pilgrim seeking faith and security in God. Monica had implanted Christ’s name in him, or rather God had done it through her.

40. So Augustine says that he decided to read the Scriptures. He found that the book spoke to many different kinds of people on different levels. Augustine found the Scriptures unworthy in comparison to the dignified Cicero . In this immature state, he says, he fell in with learned people who constantly talked about Christ, but did not understand Christianity. Already, Augustine is in love with eloquence.

41. And these loquacious people cannot distinguish God from his beautiful works. Augustine is speaking of the Manicheans, of course. He says that he was fed with empty dreams and phantoms.

42. Augustine thinks we have fairly reliable knowledge from our images of existing bodies and that the bodies themselves are real or certain. But they do not yield an adequate understanding of God.

43. Augustine explains that he was seeking for God not with the intelligence of his mind, but rather with the mind of the flesh. In other words, he sought God in material objects because he was unable to raise his mind above them. Augustine did not understand that evil has no existence—the Manicheans confused him on this point because he saw only with his physical eyes. This is the usual distinction between two kinds of seeing.

44. Augustine says he did not understand that God’s justice does not change when he consents that people should adapt it to their own time and region. That is why it was acceptable for Abraham, Isaac and others to do the things they did.

45-46. Augustine distinguishes between injuring persons at one time or another and violating God’s laws—thus, he condemns so-called sodomites in any age for what he considers their “shameful” acts.

47. The main kinds of wickedness spring from lust for domination or from lust of the eye or from sensuality. That is, pleasure, pride, and curiosity. Again, the punishment of sin is sin itself. We damage ourselves thereby.

48. Augustine says that many of the things done in the Old Testament were to show what the present need required or to prefigure the future. But Augustine did not understand the things when he was with the Manicheans.

49-50. At this time, Monica was very concerned for her son. God granted her a dream in which she was encouraged to bring Augustine home to her again. But the dream was more a presage of the future because for nine years afterwards Augustine was mired in sin. Notice that his father has died—Monica is referred to as a widow.

51. Monica received another consoling answer—a bishop whom she had asked to instruct Augustine did not do so because he said the young man would discover his errors by reading. The bishop said that thanks to his mother’s tears, Augustine would not perish.

Book 4: Manichee and Astrologer

52. From the age of 19 to 28, Augustine says his time was spent seducing and being seduced, deceiving and being deceived. The language he uses here has scriptural precedent in Timothy. He compares himself to an infant even at his best.

53. Augustine was a teacher of rhetoric during this bad time. He also met a woman during these years and remained faithful to her; it seems his relationship was better than mere lust.

54. Augustine consulted astrologers and opposed animal sacrifice. I suppose this failure to approve of sacrifices means that he could not accept the depths of Christ’s sacrifice either. Augustine won a poetry contest thanks to a doctor (a physician to Emperor Valentinian) who advised him to throw away his books on casting fortunes.

56-57. During this time when Augustine was studying astrology to make a living, he met or made a very close male friend, who died within a year. He attributes the fellow’s death to God’s intervention; Augustine was leading him astray. But the friend, while sick, was baptized by his family, which was a blessing— he died soon thereafter, and Augustine felt the loss deeply.

58-60. Augustine grieves deeply and in error—he does not understand how to love a mortal human being with respect for that being’s mortality. So he finds no relief from his sorrow, and has to flee his hometown and go to Carthage at last. He found solace only in other friends—which was another error. Resistance and failure to see spiritually makes him go in circles even when he thinks he is making progress.

62. It is alright to love transient things as a basis for loving God, but it is not acceptable to be stuck in them through the physical senses. Mortal things move towards nonexistence. Again and again Augustine emphasizes that as physical beings we are very limited; nature imposes limitations upon us.

63. Augustine considers the relationship between parts and the whole. What we experience through the flesh or the senses is only partial—we remain ignorant of the entirety. This page is very much about what gives pleasure and the proper way to praise God. It also deals with the right way to relate God and physical nature—”he made these things and is not far distant.” As Gerard Manley Hopkins says in his poem “Pied Beauty, ” “praise Him.” So the lesson here is that faith makes the connection—physical nature is not the ground for making analogies to god; he is not “like” physical nature. But our appreciation of physical nature draws us on towards him.

64. The same theme continues—Augustine talks about the seeming absence of Christ: “he has gone from our sight that we should return to our heart and find him there.” The point Augustine is making is that he loved beautiful things of a lower order.

65. Augustine wrote a treatise on the beautiful and the fitting—some things we find beautiful because they are a kind of totality, and others are beautiful because they sit well or are adapted to some other thing, like a part of the body. He dedicated this work to an orator named Hierius because he wanted to be able to speak like that man. In doing so, he was judging by human standards.

67. The source of all beauty is God’s creative act, says Augustine. But Augustine was still moving “within the confines of corporeal forms.” At this time, he was still attributing to evil a degree of existence.

68-9. Augustine also says that he was not yet on the way back to god, but that he was meandering or wandering around. He studied Aristotle’s ten categories and thought that he could comprehend God under those ten categories. He was always thinking by way of analogy with the body, which led him astray.

70-71. The chapter concludes with a declaration that learning without God is pointless—he still thought that God was like a body of immense size. And he was depending upon himself, not God—there is no strength in that.

Chapter 5: Carthage , Rome , and Milan

73. Here is where Augustine is told that he should speak to Faustus the Manichaean. So far, he has been thinking that the classical philosophers make more sense than Christian authors.

75. But Augustine says that the classical philosophers become lost in their own ideas and that they “serve the creation rather than the creator,” citing the Scriptures to make his case.

77. Augustine meets Faustus, who is an agreeable fellow but not very precise.

78-79. Faustus succeeds, says Augustine, because of his charm and eloquence. He explains that eloquence does not make speech untrue any more than mere plainness makes a statement true. Wisdom and foolishness are like food that is either nourishing or useless. So there is nothing inherently wrong with beautiful speech—it is rather that people misuse such instruments. In any case, Faustus turns out not to know much about the liberal arts besides grammar and literature. But at least Faustus admits his limitations—there is some dignity in that.

80. So Faustus, without realizing it, helped to set Augustine free from his intellectual shackles. Augustine says that God was behind his decision to go to Rome rather than stay at Carthage . He had heard that in Rome students were conscientious, whereas in Carthage they were not.

81. God made the city of Rome very attractive to Augustine to draw him there, so much so that Augustine even deceived his own mother to get away. He identifies the trip to Rome , which had to be made over the ocean, with the coming of his baptism. there is an interesting association here between the tears of Augustine’s mother, the ocean, and baptism. This kind of connection seems characteristic of Augustine as a writer.

82. Augustine says that his mother loved him as all mothers do—Augustine tends to make people he knows into universal patterns without necessarily taking away from their individuality or humanity. So far, he tells us, he had not accepted the materiality of Christ’s suffering on the cross—he was treating it in the manner of the Manichaean, as a fantasy or phantom. So he was as yet living his life inauthentically.

83. Augustine says that God heard his mother’s petition as something reminding him of his promises to her regarding her son. And so God will show mercy to her for her tears.

84. At this point, Augustine says, he did not believe that he himself had sinned, but rather that “some alien nature which sins in us” was responsible. In other words, he still believed in the material reality of evil. Here Augustine also makes an interesting statement about the academics—he says he did not yet understand their true intentions. He thought that together with skepticism went a positive esoteric doctrine designed to safeguard Plato’s spiritual metaphysics from stoic and epicurean materialism.

85. Augustine says he as yet had no hope in the church, and thought it shameful to believe that God has the shape of the human figure. Again, he still believed “that evil is a kind of material substance.”

86-87. Augustine soon found out, he writes, that that Roman students were even worse than students at Carthage —the Roman students skipped town when it came time to pay tuition fees and went off to another professor. so when a position opened up at Milan for a teacher of rhetoric, and one of the Manicheans recommended that he take it, Augustine agreed to make the trip. This trip was to put an end to his association with the Manicheans, though neither understood that at the time.

88. At Milan, says Augustine, he met Ambrose the bishop, and was charmed by the man’s speech. In that way, he came to appreciate the doctrines Ambrose preached, but was unable to separate the fine words from the good doctrine.

89. No longer trusting either the Manicheans or the classical philosophers, Augustine decided to become a catechumen in the church.

Book 6. Secular Ambitions and Conflicts

The main thing to look at in Book 6 is the Alypius story and Augustine’s continuing problem with lust. Alypius has a weakness for the circus, but not so much for women.

Book 7

Here Augustine charts the rigorous intellectual course he followed preceding his miraculous, grace-given conversion moment of Book 8. The movement of Book 7 is from Plotinus to Saint Paul . He also discusses what has been keeping him down, at this point in philosophical and psychological terms: we have a carnal will and a spiritual one.

123: Augustine tells us that he had been reading Plotinus and was advised to become introspective, and so he saw a new kind of light unlike any other on earth or above Earth. In other words, the text of Plotinus urged him to consider his source. See Ennead 5.1, pg. 347. The ascent here described entails freeing oneself from the world, introspecting into the nature of the soul, the intellect, and thence towards contemplation of the soul. Augustine follows this process exactly. And Plotinus was following Plato’s Statesman and other texts: see the note on Statesman 273d: talking about cosmic cycles, and how the bodily elements wear down into the chaos they originally were before God made order, and God takes pity and keeps the whole creation from going to ruin. Augustine was now able to move towards sustainable “belonging” and order, using the Platonic and Neoplatonic theories. Plotinus also prepared him for the difficulty of sustained vision, in that the One remains hidden from the uninitiated.

126 bottom, Augustine says that wickedness is not a substance but “a perversity of Will twisted away from the highest substance.” That is a central notion in his work.

127-28. Augustine has a mystical vision of the entirety rather than just the individual parts of the creation—he follows Plotinus here: the unity of beholder and beheld is beyond reason, and we keep falling back into multiplicity, to intellection that inherently involves dualistic thinking. So this vision cannot last, and it leads him to recognize the necessity of Christ as intermediary.

130-131. All this speculation and mystic experience leads him back to the Scriptures, especially to St. Paul . This is where he learns about the doctrine of grace. The Platonic books make no mention of grace. The whole issue of the relationship between God and his Creation, the world, comes up in Paul: see Romans 2.

Book 8: The Birth Pangs of Conversion

Paul leads Augustine to reflect upon how to get free of the lusts of the flesh, how to make the will turn towards God so that the body will not turn habit into necessity. Here Augustine will have a relationship to a text that is both simpler and yet more profound: the “tolle, lege” revelation leading to his encounter with a specific passage in the Scriptures.

145. He keeps postponing his date with chastity.

147-49. An interesting passage—the mind commands the body to move and it does so, but when the mind commands itself, it meets resistance. Why? Why can’t we order ourselves to will something? Augustine says there are two wills, neither of which is complete. One is carnal, the other spiritual—it isn’t that we have two distinct minds or souls, as the Manicheans who attribute materiality to evil suggest. Rather, as on 148 bottom-149 top, Augustine explains this split-will dilemma as the consequences of being a child of Adam—the result of a bad choice made by Adam and Eve. The punishment of sin is sin itself—we keep making the same intellectual/spiritual mistake that our first parents made. But this is not to say that we thereby escape responsibility for our errors.

151-153. Lady Continence comes to Augustine in a dream and shows him examples of chaste people—he should be able to follow their example and need not keep puffing himself up or despairing on the basis of his own efforts based upon reason and will. This appeal to example, or testimonial acclamation, is common to Augustine and Christian narrative more generally: shoring up the individual’s resolve by appeals to a sense of duty and promises of belonging to a virtuous and mutually reinforcing community. And then Augustine hears a voice chanting, “pick up and read.”

The passage Augustine reads is from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans—“make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” This is a common moment in spiritual autobiographies—as if by chance but really by Providence , one arrives at a certain passage in the Bible and it has a transforming, clarifying power. This is the point at which Augustine is fully converted; he no longer wants to become a married man. The children are God’s agents without knowing it; their words don’t mean to them what they mean to God or Augustine.

Victorinus an example of symbolism’s necessity as well as an exemplum of the “lost sheep that came back to the fold.” The exemplum form is worth discussing—it suggests a model for fashioning the self after virtuous people who have gone before oneself, facing the same struggles and overcoming them. Lady Continence uses that tactic when she points to the saintly children. This is a Christian way of realizing that selfhood is so strong that it can become a trap, a source of alienation and despair. So we must be shown another “self” that has struggled and overcome.

Book 9: Monica’s Death

Augustine is finally freed from being a professor of rhetoric. Partly this happens when he becomes ill with a lung complaint and retires to a country estate.

164. Augustine is baptized; he also takes up the task of teaching others.

166. Augustine recounts how Monica died and ponders the spirit in which she died, explaining along the way some of her limitations and strengths. Patience and humility seem to be her strongest traits—a paradigm for the representation of women in much medieval literature. As usual, he builds in a certain distance and sense of priority in dealing with human relationships, even one as important to him as the one with his own mother. Augustine and his mother share what seems to be an intense meditative and ecstatic moment that stems from contemplation of God's mysteries, and then she declares that she has done what she needed to do with regard to her son, leading him towards Christian faith, and that she is now tired of earthly things.