BMCR 2007.03.03

Augustine’s Confessions: Critical Essays

, Augustine's Confessions : critical essays. Critical essays on the classics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006. xii, 240 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0742542319 $27.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

The Confessions, probably one of the most widely read works from Late Antiquity, is a work that does not fit in an easy category, mostly because Augustine is such a complicated figure. This volume, consisting mostly of previously published articles, highlights some of these complexities. One article, Mann’s “The Philosopher in the Crib,” was unpublished and his other article, “Augustine on Evil and Original Sin” is a revised and expanded version. The thirteen essays in the collection include these two by Mann, as well as two by MacDonald and two by Wolterstorff. They follow the chronological order of Augustine’s life and the order of the books of the Confessions. The first three deal with the infant Augustine. The fourth article by MacDonald looks at Augustine the teenager and stealer of pears, and the rest deal with Augustine the adult.

In a fascinating section of the Confessions, Augustine discusses what he was like as an infant—not what he actually remembered, but what behavior he saw in his own son and other children ( Conf. 1.7.11). In the first article, “The Philosopher in the Crib,” Mann examines Augustine’s thoughts on not only original sin, but also ‘the doom of actual sin’ that children might commit (p. 2). Augustine describes how infants are jealous. Mann investigates whether or not infants have desires and emotions. This is not an easy thing to do, as Mann himself states (p. 10). Mann then briefly examines Augustine’s thoughts on sinning in dreams and determines that Augustine takes a ‘harsher stance’ against infant behavior than he does against possible sins committed in dreams.

The second article, by Bloom, is titled “Word Learning and Theory of Mind.” On first reading this essay, my first thought was that this should really be in a volume on modern theory of infant communication and not necessarily in one about Augustine. Indeed, this essay was first published in How Children Learn the Meaning of Words. Bloom believes that children learn what words mean by using something called the Theory of Mind—children learn that words refer to specific things and understand ‘how words relate to one another, and understand how words can serve as communicative signs’ (p. 17). He examines how some others see language acquisition as being associative and shows that this is not necessarily true for fifty to seventy percent of the time when children are learning about words (p. 20). Bloom then looks at Augustine’s description of how he, as an infant, learned what words meant and how he learned to communicate. Augustine tells us that he learned words by understanding the gestures and thoughts of the adults who were trying to teach him words, and Bloom, in the rest of his article, explores this presupposition that infants understand before they speak.

Early on in Augustine’s writings it is clear that he had a keen interest in language, not only how it is used but how it is acquired. Continuing on the theme of language acquisition, Matthews (“Augustine on the Teacher Within”) looks at another method that Augustine believes helped him to understand what words meant. However, learning languages and learning ‘non linguistic truths’ are different for Augustine. Language learning is primarily done with the help of the ‘teacher within’ or Christ. Outside teachers are necessary as well when learning about non linguistic truths (such as ‘God’ and the ‘Trinity’). He spends the rest of the article examining how the two types of learning are put together by Augustine.

The volume then moves from Augustine’s infancy to his teen years with an article by MacDonald (“Petty Larceny, the Beginning of All Sin: Augustine’s Theft of the Pears”). This excellent essay examines the curious story of the pear theft that occurred when Augustine was sixteen. Why it was included in the Confessions and what exactly Augustine wanted his readers to understand about the theft has puzzled those who study his writings. Augustine was clearly disgusted with himself for stealing those pears when they weren’t even stolen out of hunger. MacDonald re-examines the theft and ultimately finds two reasons for the theft and why it was included. The theft made it seem like Augustine had ‘limitless freedom and power’ (p. 65), but in fact he did not because only God has these qualities. The second reason was Augustine’s clear desire ‘to love and be loved’ (p. 65). Augustine stole these pears with a group of friends and anyone who reads Augustine’s other books will know that he has a keen desire to be surrounded by friends at all times.

Augustine’s understanding of evil comes out of two beliefs: that God is all good, and that He created everything. In the first part of his article “Augustine on Evil and Original Sin,” Mann examines the impact that his years of being a Manichaean had on Augustine’s ideas on evil. His rejection of Manichaeism was intimately tied with his creation account. God created everything ex nihilo (from nothing), and everything that God created is good (p. 73). , Mann contrasts Augustine’s creation account with the creator deity found in Plotinus and Plato. He finds that Augustine could not accept Plotinus’s claim that matter ‘is coeval with God’ (p. 74). Mann then examines how evil can be in the world. Creatures are not evil, but good because they are created by God. Evil comes about because of a privation of good, when the will moves away from God and abandons the good. Original sin comes into being because of the voluntary actions of Adam and Eve.

In another article by MacDonald (“The Divine Nature”) the complex issue of the divine nature is examined. The idea that God was truly immaterial was a relatively new one in the fourth century. MacDonald finds that there are three methods which Augustine used to help him understand the issue of divine nature. First, he was convinced that God was the ‘God of the Christian scriptures.’ Second, he used Platonic philosophy to help him understand the basic issues of the divine nature. Third, his past years as a Manichaean were used as a sort of ‘foil’ for helping him in the right direction (86-87). The journey for understanding the divine nature was a long process for Augustine, and MacDonald does an excellent job at breaking down this journey into manageable parts.

The seventh and longest contribution (40 pages) in this volume is Wolterstorff’s “Suffering Love.” He examines the juxtaposition between the grief that Augustine felt when his good friend or his mother died and his feelings of disgust at even feeling grief at all. For Augustine, to feel grief would mean that he was overly concerned with earthly issues. His mother dies, and he holds back the tears, until he is alone. That was a sin for him. However, he believed that ‘we are to love our fellow beings without being attached to them’ (p. 136). Wolterstorff begins by looking at Augustine’s ideas of living the happy life (p. 109) and comparing this to the ideas of the Stoics and the Peripatetics. While Augustine believed that the happy life was one in which one lives entirely free of desires and passion, he differed from the Stoics in that he believed that in this life a person will not try to live an apathetic life (p. 115). Why? Because no one avoids sin and a godly person will correctly grieve over the sins that he/she has committed. Wolterstorff also points out that Augustine goes beyond the Stoics in saying that people should not only grieve over their own sins, but also grieve over the sins of others.

Wolterstorff then examines the idea of a nonsuffering, apathetic God (p. 122) and how this relates to Augustine’s idea of emotions. He spends some time examining Aquinas and his ideas that God cannot experience emotions as humans do and in fact has no emotions (p. 128). Augustine, therefore, thought it was a sin to grieve over the physical death of his mother because ‘in God there is no sorrow or suffering’ (p. 108 and p.120).

The next article by Helm, titled “Augustine’s Griefs,” looks at the same examples of the grief of Augustine that Wolterstorff did—the death of his friend and the death of his mother, and comes to a different conclusion. In grieving for his friend Augustine made the mistake of loving the creature more than the Creator (p. 149). Augustine was also not a Catholic Christian at the time his friend had died, and therefore he later believed he was using human judgment instead of God’s judgment. When he grieved at the death of his mother, the correct grief was one in which he grieved for the loss of her virtue and not the loss of her physical body. Helm asks if it is correct to say, as Wolterstorff suggests, that Augustine thought it was a sin to grieve over the death of his mother because God was seen to be apathetic? For Helm, Augustine does not want us to live a life free of grief. To grieve correctly one must use ‘right reason’ (p. 153). It is fine to grieve at the death of one’s mother, as long as the grief is a correct one. Helm believes this to be the case too when Augustine grieved over the loss of his friend.

The ninth article and the second by Wolterstorff (“God’s Speaking and Augustine’s Conversion”) is made up of two excerpts from Wolterstorff’s book Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim That God Speaks (1995). Wolterstorff looks at the passage that has made the Confessions so famous—Augustine’s conversion story. He examines the passages in which God speaks. God spoke through 1) the child in the garden who commands tolle, lege, tolle, lege; 2) the sacred text; and 3) the person reading the text aloud, as in the case with Anthony. The act of God speaking is commonplace among Christians, Jews and Muslims, but it has received little study. Wolterstorff suggests that this neglect arises because divine discourse is sometimes confused with divine revelation (p. 169), and he spends the last three pages of his article explaining why speaking is not always the same as revealing. This is a good article on a little studied topic, but it suffers slightly from being cut up into two sections with some of the original article left out, so there seems to be an abrupt change between the examination of divine discourse and the differences between speaking/revealing. I will discuss this below.

The next article in the volume is written by Haji and titled “Being Morally Responsible in a Dream.” Augustine believed that we are somehow morally responsible for our actions that occur in dreams. In what is probably the most complicated article in this volume, Haji spends a great deal of time patiently examining all the variations on whether we can, in fact, be responsible for what we dream. By looking at the idea of moral responsibility, Haji finds that indeed one can possibly be responsible for what one dreams, if one, while dreaming, ‘can experience certain sensations, undergo sundry emotional reactions, and make miscellaneous judgments’ (p. 190).

The eleventh article is Wills’ “The Book of Memory.” Anyone familiar with the Confessions (Wills titles it Testimony knows the problems that result from Books Ten, Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen are many. Book Ten of the Confessions deals with memory. At first glance, Augustine’s description of memory resembles a ‘kind of glorified dump’ (p. 195). However, a closer look finds that Augustine’s thoughts on memory, according to Wills, are that ‘memory is dynamic, constructive, predictive, constitutive of identity, the meeting place with other humans, and the pathway to God’ (p. 195). Wills’ article is primarily broken up into these sections. He rightly notes that the function of Book Ten in the Confessions/Testimonies is to mediate between Books One-Nine of Augustine’s past and Books Eleven-Thirteen, which deal with the Trinity (p. 208).

The last article, by Richard Sorabji titled “Time, Mysticism, and Creation,” made up of four excerpts from Sorabji’s Time, Creation and the Continuum (1983), examines Augustine’s Confessions, Book Eleven. Sorabji begins by looking at the view of Aristotle which is that time is not real (p. 209). Augustine, however, has a different view. He believed that time, that is, the past (as memory), present (attention), and future (expectation), is a mental state and does in fact exist (p. 213). Sorabji then moves backwards a bit and examines the Augustine of Books Seven to Eight and his encounters with Platonism. Augustine uses what he learned from the Platonic writings to make the ascent journey from material things, to the soul, and finally to God. Is this a mystical experience? Sorabji leaves this an open question and instead moves to the problem of how mysticism and time are related in Augustine’s writings. He finishes by looking at the history of the question of why God did not create the universe before he actually did. Like Wolterstorff’s second article, this one also suffers from being chopped up with parts of the original article left out.

This is an excellent volume that deals with some critical issues found in the Confessions. That being said, there is just one minor problem. In two cases what appears to be a single article was originally two or even more sections or chapters (in the case of Sorabji) of a book. This is not so noticeable in Wolterstorff’s “God’s Speaking and Augustine’s Conversion” but it is quite obvious in Sorabji’s “Time, Mysticism, and Creation.” Some mention at the beginning of these two particular articles that there were some parts of the original not found in this published version would have been helpful.

Despite this, this is an excellent collection of articles that explores some of the major difficulties with understanding the Confessions. It shows what most of us knew—Augustine was an intellectual heavyweight and is still thought of like this today. More importantly, this volume shows some cutting edge research into Augustinian studies and that his ideas have affected not only modern day theology but are also having an impact on fields such as language acquisition in children. It shows that Augustine, who died nearly sixteen hundred years ago, still has something useful to say to the modern world.