There is a misconception about belief, stemming from Plato’s cave, that once we have crawled out into the light we have found the answers. The ancient philosophers poured themselves into the questions of ‘what is good’ and ‘what is reality’ in order that they might understand their place in the cosmos. The oracle at Delphi commanded them to “know thyself”. When Descartes picked up the baton with cogito ergo sum there was the fundamental supposition that it is possible to locate the self in the midst of reality.
For Augustine, only through truly knowing God will he ever then know himself, and the act of writing is a way of synthesizing his quest. This ‘knowing’ is not a singular definitive act, but a relationship. Augustine blazes a trail where the soul is allowed to wrestle with the complexity of the world around us while still holding fast to truth. His life quest to know God would be constant, always seeking and searching, “created to be the creature who beats its fists against the breast of the divine: ‘because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.’”(xxii)
According to Patricia Hampl (1997) what would have made Augustine’s contemporary readers of The Confessions gasp “was not his admission of lust, but his acknowledgement that, after conversion, indeed even as a bishop of the Church, he is still searching and speculating about God and himself.” (xvi)
The Confessions is comprised of thirteen books, the first nine are autobiographical and begin with his conception and end with the death of his mother Monica and his subsequent overwhelming grief. Then, abruptly, almost without warning or interlude in Book X he begins an inquiry into memory and then delves into speculations on time and eternity, and finishes off with Book XIII, his own treatise on the allegorical retelling of the Creation narrative in Genesis. While this all feels very abrupt and disjointed to the uninitiated (me) Patricia Hampl says this:
“In fact, the movement from his life to his reading of Genesis is not smooth- it is ablaze. The writing becomes more, and not less, urgent. His story, for Augustine, is apparently only part of the story. There is a certain logic at work. Having constructed himself in the first nine books, Augustine rushes on to investigate how God created the universe- how God, that is, created him. And all of us, all of this. Reading Genesis with his laser-beam gaze is a form of concentrated life. Reading, pondering, is experience.” (xxiii)
What makes Augustine’s work so profound is the strength he has to ask questions. There are more questions than assertions peppered throughout his work, nothing is taken for granted in this mysterious world and in this incomprehensible process we call living. As we get into the narrative, Augustine is clearly troubled by the mystery of existence. Instead of David Copperfield’s succinct “I was born”, or Felix Krull’s self congratulatory platitudes “there you lay in the subterranean twilight…etc” Augustine, the Bishop of Milan, is honestly stymied by his existence.
“Yet allow me to speak, though I am but dust and ashes, allow me to speak in your merciful presence, for it is to your mercy that I address myself, not to some man who would mock me. Perhaps you too are laughing at me, but still you will mercifully toward me, for what is it that I am trying to say, Lord, except that I do not know whence I came into this life that is but dying, or rather, this dying state that leads to life? I do not know where I came from.”
(Book I 6:7)
This is crazy. I have conversations on a regular basis with people about existence and cosmology and I am frequently shocked by the level of certainty that people express about life. There’s a certain adherence to a simplistic worldview. Life is simple. Existence is simple. The words of Jesus are simple. I find this whole acceptance of simplicity to be somewhat disconcerting. Augustine gets right to the heart of the matter: we exist, but how and why now?
Between the lines there is a constant narrative with contemporary philosophical thought. The complexity of life, the omniscient and omnipresent creator is in direct contradiction to The One of the Neoplatonists. The One from whom all things exist is ultimately unknowable. Existing not as a being but rather an emanation. The further away from the source of being we get the more we lack the ability to discern what is good, therefore evil exists within us as a result of our distance from truth.
According to Plato, we all have a postnatal memory of being good, and deep within the recess of our soul, if we excavate far back enough we can regain our goodness. This baton will be picked up by Rousseau and his conception of the ‘noble savage’…if we can get back to the moral simplicity of the savage, unsullied by the degradation of society we can find untarnished moral truth. To Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’, Augustine counters with an actual savage, using the narrative of his youth to dispel any notion of a pure being existing at birth. Every base impulse exists within him without prompting or nurturing and he finds himself upon adolescence a petrie dish of lust and desire.
“From the mud of my fleshly desires and my erupting puberty belted out murky clouds that obscured and darkened my heart until I could not distinguish the calm light of love from the fog of lust.” (Book II 2:2)
I’ve read reviews of the Confessions that say that Augustine was trying to come to terms with his early lifestyle of depravity. These reviews tend to equate “confessing” with shame and guilt. What Augustine is doing is the exact opposite of this. Despite his youthful depravity God is not far off, his relationship with his creator is not conditional on his being good or just or faithful, but on the faithfulness of God.
“You were ever present with me, mercifully angry, sprinkling very bitter disappointments over all my unlawful pleasure so that I might seek a pleasure free from all disappointment.” (Book II: 2,4)
Left to himself he becomes infected with the ‘foul mange of the soul’. He blindly struggles through, until he happens upon Cicero. It is while reading Cicero that there is a trickle of hope for something more. Cicero promises an immortality that comes only through wisdom. Yet ultimately proper speech and style are not enough, one must also seek truth. Augustine hangs up the mantle of his youth, and instead dons the cloak of a seeker.
“Feverishly I thrashed about, sighed, wept and was troubled, and there was no repose for me, nor any council. Within me I was carrying a tattered, bleeding soul that did not want me to carry it, yet I could find no place to lay it down.” (Book IV 7:12)
Here’s the thing, Augustine doesn’t live in a vacuum of faith. He happens to have an overbearing mother, who has been praying for his salvation from day one. She seems to discredit the life trajectory he has been on by the faith based assertion that God will draw him to himself. She simplifies his quest for truth into something almost pitiable. He resents her faith, he resents her assurance, and more than that he has grown up as a casual observer of this faith and finds it wanting.
There are at least two serious hurdles for him with this christian faith:
#1: He views the bible as a series of inelegant writings, even at times barbaric. How can a christian synthesize the embarrassing scenarios of violence, rape and deceit that are found throughout the Old Testament?
#2: The origin of Evil. If God is supreme and pure goodness, evil could not be a divine creation. If all things were created by the Divine, including evil, God could not be as good as the church claimed.
In Book V he finds an answer to the first problem in the renowned rhetorician and Bishop of Milan, Ambrose. Initially Augustine listens to his sermons fascinated by his style and presentation of the scriptures, but before long, he finds Ambrose’s exegesis of the scriptures compelling. Augustine had been reading everything literally, and through the lens of the allegorical a whole new interpretive meaning becomes illuminated. He realizes that the christian faith is after all intellectually respectable. His rational arguments against the christian faith are faltering, so he decides to become a catechumen in the Catholic Church, and with one foot in the door, he waits until some kind of overt certainty presents itself.
As to the origin of evil, by Book IX we have a clear understanding of where it comes from. Not from God but from man. Augustine uses himself as a case study for original sin. After spending nine years with the Manichaeans that believed every person is comprised of the spiritual light and material darkness, he moves on to the Neoplatonists, where evil is simply moving away from the one eternal source. They believed the solution to evil was diligent study, discipline and mystical contemplation that would lead them back toward the ineffable One.
Sounds great. But how exactly does one do this? Is study and contemplation enough? What about the part of him that enjoyed doing what was wrong? Augustine wants us to realize this: “well after his intellectual questions had been answered, he continued to resist conversion because, to him, baptism means chastity. In fact, the most famous line in The Confessions is the prayer: ‘Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.’”(xxi)
How do you get beyond the hump of ‘please not yet’? Augustine comes to the realization that there is only one way: through the mediator between God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ. Recognizing truth is not enough, we must be picked up and carried into it.
“Come Lord, arouse us and call us back, kindle us and seize us, prove to us how sweet you are in your burning tenderness; let us love you and run to you.” (Book VIII 4:9)
He sees truth. He sees God, he is at the entrance of the cave, and yet that human gesture to reach out and grasp it, to step out into the light is impossible. Every night he says to himself, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow I will put an end to my depravity’. His weakness is soul crushing. Eventually he finds himself in a garden, under a fig tree and pours out his heart to God. He has found him, but he is too weak to embrace him. Then he hears a little child shout out “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read!” He finds his bible and at random opens it up and begins to read:
“‘Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires.’ I had no wish to read further, nor was there need. No sooner had I reached the end of the verse that the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away.” (Book VIII 12:29)
This brings us to Book X. After nine books illuminating his need for a redemption and his ultimate salvation, he wants us to know that this is not the end of the story. He is daily beset by temptation, whether from his senses seeking after their own pleasure or the occasional images of Roman dancers in his dreams; even his dreams are in need of redemption. The only ‘safe haven’ for his soul is in God.
After spending time looking at himself under the microscope of introspection, he zooms out to the macro. Just as God was the author of the narrative of his life, He is the author of the universe. While he needed to be carried into truth, creation needed to be carried into existence through the spoken Word. The Logos. In Plato’s Timaeus the offspring of the Demiurge is called the Logos, the creative source behind existence, yet incapable of relationship. For the christian, the Logos, while being the author of creation, is also our mediator and exists to daily intercede on our behalf as the man Jesus Christ. Neoplatonist philosophy led Augustine back to Christianity, but eventually even this philosophical template was wanting. He found the Truth that is written in the scriptures to be even greater. The Logos is more than an impersonal creator, He is the Son of God, indeed God himself. The Word that is uttered eternally and through Him all things come into being in one simultaneous creation that exists beyond time and our ability to comprehend.
The next three books are an act of worship; an act of seeking relationship with the incarnate wisdom. He searches the scriptures, listening for the voice of God.
“Augustine, grappling with Genesis in his study, is no less heated - more so really- than Augustine struggling famously with the flesh. He invents autobiography not to reveal his memory of his life, but to plumb the memory of God’s creative urge. ‘My mind burns to solve this complicated enigma.’ he says with an anguish more intense than anything that accompanies his revelations about his own life. He understands his life as a model of the very creation that is beyond him and of course within him. He writes and writes, and reads and reads his way through the double conundrum, the linked mystery of his own biography and of Creation.” (xxiv)
The Confessions are bookended between his birth and in the birth of creation, he’s starting all over, but this time from a different perspective. While the Spirit of God was brooding over him, when he was still formless, this same Spirit of God hung poised above the void of creation. Augustine has found his way into the complexity of the Trinity. While his contemporaries had differing views on hierarchy and substance of the godhead, Augustine avoided the fray by turning his attention to a similar triad that exists within ourselves. An imperfect reflection of our creator, summed up as: I am, I know and I will.
“Let anyone with the wit to see it observe how in these three there is one inseparable life: there is one life, one mind and one essence.” (Book XIII 11:12)
Book X was a tour de force of the complexity of the self. We are multifaceted and in this we reflect our creator. To ‘think” and to ‘know’ is not enough, there is another part of ourselves that exists outside of our knowledge of it; it hovers and broods, coaxing and guiding. When physically Augustine was in anguish about his need for salvation, when he intellectually had been persuaded of truth, the last remaining hurdle was the sanctification of his spirit. This is where we recognize the love of God, in a place beyond intellect, where the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given us.
And what is the conclusion of all of this? Again, Augustine uses himself as an example. When he first found the joy of his salvation he wanted to sequester himself in Cassiciacum, a small community devoted to study. He wanted his days to be spent in quiet meditation and worship. But things don’t go according to his plan. In 391 he travels from Cassiciacum, a small village on the outskirts of Milan, to Hippo, which is in modern day Annaba, Algeria. His goal was to convince a friend of his to join his quiet little community back home, but instead Bishop Valerius decides that Augustine should be his successor. Very much against his will Augustine is ordained as a bishop and a life of quiet contemplation seems to evaporate before his eyes.
God wants more than reflection and contemplation, he wants charity. Augustine is called into community, and this is where The Confessions end; with an allegorical interpretation of the days of Genesis that doesn’t take place in a vacuum but within the hearts of the church. When god speaks light into creation and into our hearts, it isn’t for our benefit as individuals but for the kingdom.
“Let there be light; repent for the kingdom of heaven is near, repent, and let there be light.” (Book XIII 12:13) (Gn 1:31; Mt 3:2; 4:17)