Thursday, March 3, 2011


Augustine of Hippo, 354 - 430
Translation © 1961 R.S. Pine-Coffin
346 pages

At the age of nineteen a young man encountered the golden voice of Cicero. Inspired by Cicero's lush oratory, this boy began to pursue the love of wisdom, philosophy; truth. Ultimately this journey brought him to the faith of his mother, to the Catholic church, and he became a saint -- molding the minds of generations to come through his books, now part of the canon of western literature. Confessions records the ten years Augustine spent shifting from Manichaeism  and contempt of Christianity to becoming an ardent saint, one with an impressive talent for self-loathing.

The bulk of the Confessions is a prayerful biographical narrative, in which Augustine monitors his slow transformation -- constantly lamenting over the errors of youth and offering earnest prayers of thanks and adoration toward the god he eventually found. Following his conversion-in-heart and conversion-in-fact, Augustine muses on memory, the senses, temptation, and theology before devoting a final book to more praise. The praise and adoration Augustine lavishes upon his god and the church are rivaled only by the amount of scorn he heaps upon himself, others, the cares of life, and earthly pressures. The man is a prodigy, a raging Puritan before his time. I found this self-debasement rather dreary and depressing, and it's part of the reason I've been pecking at the book since mid-November while thinking of Augustine as "that miserable bishop" and "Gloomy Gus".  This is not a man who I want to emulate.

I approached the book in the first place as a student of philosophy and the humanities, and I hoped to find in Augustine a brother-spirit. This was not the case, for in spite of his praise and quest of 'truth',  Augustine accepts the dogma of scriptures freely, never so much as questioning it, and regards those who are interested in the world with derision. The Platonic contempt for material things is fully present here, and rather than studying science, Augustine would advise us to keep our minds on more spiritual things, like the dozens of pages he devoted to sorting out what 'Moses' really meant when he wrote that God created "the earth and heavens" and that earth was a 'formless void', where 'darkness was upon the face of the deep'.  He wrote page after page, which I read in utter bafflement. Theology, like debating the meaning of the trinity, often has this effect on me, for it seems no more potent than debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It's minds like Augustine's that made the medieval world, and I do not say that as a compliment. In principle, I admire his desire to find truth and to be a better person,  but I found nothing of inspiration here. I appreciated his skepticism toward astrology and horoscopes (which he developed through reason and the lack of evidential proof), and  I gleaned some historical knowledge from his biographical account -- for instance, the Academics were still around in Rome at this time, and apparently influenced by the Skeptical belief that nothing could be known for certain -- but that was it.  Augustine is a man whose mind was fixated on the ethereal, consumed by ideological commitment.  He'd make an excellent Muslim (very keen on submission to God, this one) or a Christian puritan, someone who regards 'orthodoxy' as a word more obscene than any of George Carlin's famous "seven", I felt discouraged by his utter lack of spirit.

Reading the book did help me though, in that it made me realize how easily the contemplative life can turn people into sanctimonious sourpusses. As someone interested in this kind of reflection, but also insistence on enjoying life, it prompted me to decide to err on the side of pleasure -- in Bernard Cornwell's words, to be more of a cavalier than a puritan.

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