Augustine’s “death”: books IX and X of the Confessions

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Augustine’s “death”: books IX and X of the Confessions

  1. Having reached the time of the vacation in Cassiciacum, we have a new perspective on the pilgrimage of Augustine’s soul. So far, we could only observe Augustine either as the protagonist or the narrator of his life’s story, but always through the perspective of the narrator, the Bishop of Hippo.

  2. In the Contra Academicos now we can directly observe the protagonist in action: confident, hopeful, full of expectation of a new life, and taking intellectual pride in his achievement.

  3. Predictably, it is precisely this last aspect of our protagonist’s outlook that is condemned by our narrator, the bishop: “My books testify to what I got done there in writing, which was now hopefully devoted to thy service; though in this pause it was still as if I were panting from my exertions in the school of pride.” [ibi quid egerim in litteris iam quidem servientibus tibi, sed adhuc superbiae scholam tamquam in pausatione anhelantibus, testantur libri disputati cum praesentibus et cum ipso me solo coram te; quae autem cum absente Nebridio, testantur epistulae.] IX, iv, 7.

  4. The Contra Academicos is the testimony of the final stage of Augustine’s conversion: the full voluntary commitment to Christian life has already been made, but still a lot of open questions are to be taken care of. So, although up to this point the intellect has been one step ahead of the reluctant, weak will, now it is the converted will’s urging that prompts the intellect to take account of a number of remaining open questions.

  5. The primary intellectual roadblock in any person’s way after a voluntary commitment has been made is skepticism: the lingering doubt that perhaps however strong the motivating factors of the act of commitment were, they may have been illusory. (What if, after a long agony, I decide to devote my life to the service of God, and perhaps there is no God? Or, what if I commit myself to the pursuit of wisdom, and it is definitely unattainable?)

  6. In the Contra Academicos, Augustine shows that this kind of skepticism is untenable on several counts. First, it is self-defeating, both theoretically (for in its extreme form it entails its own denial), and practically (for pushed to its ultimate consequences it should lead to complete inactivity). Secondly, it can simply be shown to be false in the face of the infinity of certainties we have in our lives, from direct experience to facts of self-consciousness, to truths of reason.

  7. In fact, for Augustine, these certainties are not unrelated. They are all various manifestations of the certainty of introspection, not performed (at least, not performed exclusively) for the sake of self-examination, but pointing beyond itself, toward the unchangeable, absolutely certain, eternal Truth itself. This is the link between Augustine’s epistemological doctrine in the Contra Academicos, and later on in the De Magistro and De Libero Arbitrio, and the considerations of the Confessions, in the books following the “autobiography”.

  8. It is book IX that closes the “autobiographical” part. This book is the final and most crucial turning point in Augustine’s, the narrator’s perspective. With this book Augustine’s life’s story ends, as far as the narrator is concerned. But why? After all, he didn’t die, did he?

  9. Yes, he did. The protagonist of “the story” just died, to be reborn in the person of the narrator through baptism. As J. O’Donnell most aptly put it: “Bk. 9 is the book of death and rebirth. Baptism stands at its center, and baptism is both death in Christ (Rom. 6.3) and rebirth. Verecundus, Nebridius, Patricius, Adeodatus, and Monnica are all reported to have been baptized and died--though of those deaths only that of Monnica falls within what might be thought the chronological limits of this book (August 386 - late 387). Augustine, Alypius, and Evodius are baptized and go on to a new life. The parting of the ways between A. and his mother is marked at the end of the book with solemn liturgical language.”

  10. In fact, this was not the first death of the protagonist to have been recorded by the narrator. Cf. the beginning of bk. VII. But the death of youth did not lead to rebirth in adulthood, but to just another shameful period of both intellectual and moral disorientation, although with an ever growing consciousness of this fact. Indeed, the whole “story” leading up to baptism is a “story” at all, because it is the sequence of the periods of disorientation and reorientation of Augustine’s intellectual and moral compass up to the point when it finally finds and solidly holds on to its proper direction. After this, nothing much really happens, at least not anything that would be worth recording in a story of one’s finding his way. He has found it.

  11. The perfect tense is no mere grammatical adornment here. It indicates the present perfection, the present state of completion of a process, connoting a full awareness of the process leading up to it. This is what prompts Augustine’s final account of the process, surveying the contents of his memory. For it is in the storehouse of the memory that the past lives on in the present, providing the synoptic perspective our narrator has enjoyed throughout the story, and also providing a “miniature model” as it were of God’s synoptic view of the entirety of time. So, with book X, when there is nothing more left to be said about the story as it happened, since anything that was “story-like” in his life at that point has been completed, Augustine, the protagonist finally “merged” with the narrator, embarks on the most characteristically Augustinian enterprise of introspective theology.

  12. Cf. O’Donnell, on bk. 10.: If conf. were merely the story of A.'s ascent to God, the work could well end with 10.27.38;1 that it does not is a sign that the work is more ambiguously constructed, reflecting the continuing search for God and the continuing failure of that search to achieve perfect fruition. The themes of the two halves of this book (parr. 1-38, 39-70) were already linked at mus. 6.14.48, `quamobrem neque in voluptate carnali [i.e., concupiscentia carnis], neque in honoribus et laudibus hominum [i.e., ambitio saeculi], neque in eorum exploratione quae forinsecus corpus attingunt [i.e., concupiscentia oculorum] nostra gaudia conlocemus, habentes in intimo deum [cf. 10.20.29], ubi certum est et incommutabile omne quod amamus.' For temptation as the threat to mysticism, see Gn. litt. 12.26.54, `una ibi et tota virtus est amare quod videas et summa felicitas habere quod amas. ibi enim beata vita in fonte suo bibitur, unde aspergitur [see on 9.10.23] aliquid huic humanae vitae, ut in temptationibus huius saeculi temperanter, fortiter, iuste prudenterque vivatur. propter illud quippe adipiscendum, ubi secura quies erit et ineffabilis visio veritatis, labor suscipitur et continendi a voluptate et sustinendi adversitates et subveniendi indigentibus et resistendi decipientibus.' 2 (When temptation is sent by God--the temptations of this book are at least partly to be seen that way--they are a vehicle of self-knowledge: s. 2.2.2, `sic ergo ignarus est deus rerum, sic nescius cordis humani, ut temptando hominem inveniat? absit: sed ut ipse homo se inveniat.') The first half of Bk. 10 renews the ascent theme (see prolegomena).3 What A. learned to do at Ostia he now does, in writing this text. This is no longer an account of something that happened somewhere else some time ago; the text itself becomes the ascent.4 The text no longer narrates mystical experience, it becomes itself a mystical experience (for A.; it will further become in Bks. 11-13 a mystical experience for the reader as well). The failure to make the adjustment has led to serious failures to see the purport of this and the later books of conf.5 The proof of these assertions lies in the close parallels between the structure and contents of the first half of Bk. 10 to the structure and contents of the Ostia vision (9.10.23-25). The main correspondences are shown here, while others are noted in the commentary.6

  13. Indeed, there are important anticipations of what is to follow here, already in the course of the “story”. The first is the recurring theme of the need to turn inward to find the Truth. vera rel. 39.72: noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi. in interiore homine habitat veritas. -- conf. 10.27.38: et ecce intus eras et ego foris et ibi te quaerebam. -- conf. 9.4.10: nec iam bona mea foris erant nec oculis carneis in isto sole quaerebantur. The second is the “vision of Ostia”. conf. 9.10.

  14. All these motives point toward the final merging of protagonist and narrator in the final act of conversion: turning absolutely inward, to find the source of the light flickering in human consciousness.

  15. The source of this light can be found in us by a careful examination of its reflection in us. But such investigation is not enough. Without God’s illumination and grace strengthening our weakened souls by His revelation, we’ll never find it, we are lost in the labyrinth of our own divided consciousness. So we must turn, through our examination toward that external, supernatural light – this is the reason that the remaining two books provide an exegesis of Genesis, allowing Augustine to gain a glimpse into the synoptic view of God over His creation.

  16. Again, see O’Donnell’s comments on

Book Eleven

Bks. 11-13 offer the most perplexing structural problems for students of conf. A.'s only comment elsewhere is retr. 2.6.1, `a primo usque ad decimum de me scripti sunt, in tribus ceteris de scripturis sanctis, ab eo quod scriptum est: “in principio fecit deus caelum et terram,” usque ad sabbati requiem.' 1 That there is a change in subject of some sort is obvious, a change confirmed by the interesting observation of Knauer 68n1, that from here to the end the word salus occurs only once (at 13.18.22, in an echo of Rom. 13.11), after appearing 44x in the first ten books (and see on 11.2.4 for similar evidence for exaudire and misereri). The difficulty of these books has often led to their neglect.2

This is a turning point. The speaking voice and that of which it speaks become now unequivocally present. That present-ness foreshadows eternity, but for fallen creation that present-ness can only be found by reaching into the `future' --every attempt in Bk. 10 to reach the present ends by slipping into memory--the past--again. Here A. leaves memory to live in the present.

The embarrassment of moderns attempting to understand the structure and working of the text from here on is thus not surprising, for the reorientation required is considerable. Where before the reader could remain a voyeur looking curiously, side by side with A., at A.'s past, now the reader is urged to share A.'s exploration of the nature of God, and of himself--but not in the sense that the reader is expected to go away and recreate certain actions and emotions after reading the text: the reading of the text is itself the participation. A. does not turn his back on the intellectual ascent of the mind to God; he now pursues it in a different way.

To assist in the detection and interpretation of structures, the following observations may be offered:

(1) The first ordering principle is the sequential exegesis of the creation narrative of Genesis, carried through all three books (but the bulk of the text is expounded only in Bk. 13). This text is the third of five major attempts in A.'s life to do justice to the creation narrative: Gn. c. man. (388/90), Gn. litt. imp. (393/4), conf. 11-13, Gn. litt. (401-15), civ. 11-14 (417/18). Such a structure for catechetical discourse is suggested by cat. rud. 3.5, `narratio plena est, cum quisque primo catechizatur ab eo quod scriptum est, “in principio fecit deus caelum et terram,” usque ad praesentia tempora ecclesiae' (and cf. cat. rud. 6.10). Here in conf., allegory turns the seven days of creation into a narrative that stands for the whole narrative `usque ad praesentia tempora'. The difference is that cat. rud. 7.11 suggests that, after the narratio, there follow discussion on the hope of resurrection (and refutation of infidel errors concerning the resurrection); see preceding 9.1.1 for the paucity of mention of resurrection in conf. (We can see A. using Gn. 1 in a catechetical context in the fragments printed at PL 39.1724-9, which come from a series of sermons on the days of creation delivered during the days of Easter week to the newly baptized (on authenticity, see Verbraken); and this of course recalls Ambrose's exameron, a series of catechetical sermons from the week preceding Easter, which A. heard preached in either 386 or 387--Ambrose matched the six days of his sermons to the days of creation (see Amb. exam. 3.1.1). (On creation in conf., see A. di Giovanni, REAug 20[1974], 285-312.)

(2) The second ordering principle is the disposition of books corresponding to persons of the trinity. Bk. 11 depicts the God of eternity--the first person of the trinity; Bk. 12 depicts the God of the Word--the second person; and Bk. 13 depicts the God who acts through the church--the third person. (Hints of such a pattern have been offered before, notably by F. Cayré, Aug. Mag. 2.615, by Kusch, and in my Augustine [Boston, 1985], 113-123.) This observation is fully consonant with the pattern of intellectus fidei descried by du Roy in A.'s early works: du Roy 419: `Cette dépendance de la création à l'égard de la Trinité créatrice est la clé de tous les mystères.' du Roy had reservations about Kusch's thesis (du Roy 348n2), especially over the way Kusch oversystematized and forced the texts; but even Kusch did not make the precise identification made here between each of the last three books and one person of the trinity: he included Bk. 10 in his pattern in a way that blurs the underlying structure.

(3) The roles of God are contrasted at every stage in these books with the condition of the human creature, in whom the image and likeness of the triune God is reflected: so Bk. 11 sees humanity bound in time,3 Bk. 12, humanity struggling to interpret the words of scripture in order to know the Word, and Bk. 13, humanity acting out its redemption in the church under the guidance of the Spirit. Hence there is an implicit portrayal of human nature, particularly as represented in the redeemed soul of A., where A. now stands for all those who are redeemed by divine grace. From here on (see on 11.1.1, `ut dicamus omnes'), A. presents conf. as a work in which the reader is to share equally: these are now `confessions' in which the reader is invited to join. Hence the humanity presented here in the image and likeness of God is less Augustine and more Everyman than was the case before. Warrant for this may be found at Plotinus, alla ton theon theôrei, eipoimen an. all' ei ton theon phinôskein auton tis homologêsei, kai tautêi sunchôrein anankasthêsetai kai heauton ginôskein. kai gar hisa echei par' ekeinou gnôsetai, kai ha edôke, kai ha dunatai ekeinôs. tauta de mathôn kai gnous kai tautêi heauton gnôsetai. [… the doer, not self-intent but looking outward, will have knowledge, in some kind, of the external, but, if wholly of this practical order, need have no self-knowledge; where, on the contrary, there is no action- and of course the pure Intellectual-Principle cannot be straining after any absent good- the intention can be only towards the self; at once self-knowing becomes not merely plausible but inevitable; what else could living signify in a being immune from action and existing in Intellect? 7. The contemplating of God, we might answer. But to admit its knowing God is to be compelled to admit its self-knowing. It will know what it holds from God, what God has given forth or may; with this knowledge, it knows itself at the stroke, for it is itself one of those given things- in fact is all of them. Knowing God and His power, then, it knows itself, since it comes from Him and carries His power upon it; if, because here the act of vision is identical with the object, it is unable to see God clearly, then all the more, by the equation of seeing and seen, we are driven back upon that self-seeing and self-knowing in which seeing and thing seen are undistinguishably one thing.]

(4) Within the individual Bks. 11-13, other structural principles evolve to respond to the subject matter of each book. Bk. 11 in particular is notorious among students of the history of philosophy for its extensive meditation on Time. Discussion here of A.'s treatment is firmly planted in the wider context of conf. Fuller independent discussions of the philosophical and historical significance of A.'s treatment of Time are available; see particularly the commentary of E. P. Meijering, Augustin über Schöpfung, Ewigkeit und Zeit: das elfte Buch der Bekenntnisse (Leiden, 1979);4 U. Duchrow, Zsch. für Theol. u. Kirche 63(1966), 267-88; O'Daly 152-161 (good on the substantive links, esp. theological, with the rest of conf.); and R. Sorabji, Time, Creation and the Continuum (Ithaca, 1983 = Sorabji, Time); an older study, now almost a period piece, retains much interest for the philosophical consideration of the issues here: J. Guitton, Le temps et l'éternité chez Plotin et Saint-Augustin (Paris, 1933; 3rd ed. with new preface, 1959); ranging further afield into purely philosophical discussion are E. A. Schmidt, Zeit und Geschichte bei Augustin (Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberg. Akad. Wiss., Philos.-Hist. Klasse, 1985, Ber. 3), and C. Kirwan, Augustine (London, 1989), and see H.-J. Kaiser, Augustinus: Zeit und Memoria (Bonn, 1969). Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative (Chicago, 1984-88) opens (1.5-30) with a meditation on A.'s view of time, then continues to a similar discussion of Aristotle's Poetics, as the basis for wide-ranging discussions (recurring in later volumes) of the nature of narrative.

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