Get Acquainted with Augustine

Fra Angelico, Conversion of Saint Augustine

Fra Angelico, Conversion of Saint Augustine

Get Acquainted with Augustine

 Darrell Sutton considers a new edition of the Confessions

Ed. Carolyn J. B. Hammond. Augustine Confessions Vol I: Books 1-8, pp.413; Vol. II: Books 9-13, pp.446. Loeb Classical Library, LCL 26-27, (Cambridge: Harvard, 2014-2016).

John Chrysostom (344-407) has always been a favorite writer of mine. Relatively few of the Patristic authors are comparable. He wrote with panache, but it is not so easy to set down reasons for why one enjoys him. Maybe it was the beauty of how Chrysostom arranged his thoughts in Greek sentences. Maybe it was his eminence as an exegete of the Greek Scriptures. Of the many arguments that could be enumerated, these two at least represent motives behind the Greek Orthodox Church’s high estimation of Chrysostom’s value to them. Then again, maybe one delights in his writings, as well as in the letters of Basil (c.320?-379), simply because they were written in a language other than Latin.

Familiarity with the development of Latin is fundamental to understanding the formation of Romance languages. We often overlook the fact that for more than two millennia it was the language of science, liturgy and education. As late as the 19th century it was used by many as a spoken language. Presently, aside from the confines of the Vatican, there is a relatively small neo-Latin movement reviving the language for day to day communication. This is a noble endeavor and will gain footing among the linguistically gifted, but certainly will attract few others.

Some of the greatest works of literature were composed in this tongue. Because of fragmentary citations and inscriptions, it is safe to say that Latin language’s history spans nearly c.2500 years. Any dialect in use for so long undergoes modifications. These changes were scrupulously studied. Writings were exposed to judgments. Latin was divided into Gold and Silver ages by Quintilian. Nowadays these inappropriate descriptions of literary quality are designed more for the scholarly community than they are intended to convey truth. Nevertheless, the boundaries are set, undermined only by the ambiguities of literary criticism. An astute critic sees that the shades of language in Ovid’s Metamorphoses are no less expressive than idioms in Virgil’s Aeneid. The subtleties in nuance are all too painfully obvious. On first reading one must keep a Latin dictionary at-hand. Less amusing but far more enjoyable are the polished lines of Ovid’s Poems from exile.

The era commonly described as “Late Antiquity” spans the period c.300AD unto c.800AD. The designation is not too auspicious, but it is a title which found its coinage in the research publications of Peter Brown, an eminent Princeton professor of history. During this time-frame it once was believed that few masterminds or works of merit were born or invented: so the era was devalued by some scholars. One exception, to which all competent Patristic specialists would attest, is Aurelius Augustinus of Hippo (354AD-430AD). Esteemed alike by many Protestants and Catholics, Augustine is revered as a learned biblicist. Studies of his writings, The City of God etc., also are central to a proper interpretation of the formative ideas of Western Civilization, and although his main theological beliefs, such as his theory of inherited guilt and his deterministic views, have fallen on hard times within most of Christendom and outside of it, he still retains a notable place in the compendium of Latin Church Fathers.

His Confessions is a spiritual autobiography written in the form of an extended prayer. It is considered a “classic”, and will maintain its place on any list of important books that persons should read. Few writers in antiquity illustrated their life with such emotion, or against a backdrop of a mother’s tears and prayers for a wayward soul. Just like John Bunyan’s (1628-1688) memoir Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, it is an unforgettable book. And if in the near future there is a renewed acquaintance with Augustine’s admissions of his early errant life, Dr. Hammond will be partly responsible. She has published a respectable edition; although a few critical comments will be noted below.

Born in Tagaste, Numudia, Augustine was reared in the region of Africa that was popularized by Juvenal for being the locale where advocates were nourished {Sat.7.148}. Augustine was a master of rhetoric. This ability he utilized fully in his theological and devotional tracts: and his reputation is immortalized by successive generations of men and women who seek to build upon some sort of Augustinian foundation, which for him was not a foundation made in Greece.

The Greeks released men from the fear of almighty fate. Augustine, however, imposed a predestinarian outlook, one composed of some dreadful ideas. Augustine was a student of classical Latin texts. The depth of his knowledge of ancient Greek still is disputed. His theology was firmly based on considerations of philosophy. Stoicism aside, Aristotle’s (384BC-322) philosophical presuppositions gave frame of thought to later Greco-Roman writers who considered morality a distinct impossibility apart from the benefit of free will (Nic. Eth. 3.1). Didymos of Alexandria (AD313-398), a Coptic theologian, claimed that ‘man’s will was uninhibited despite all inevitability’. Needless to say, that idea is an adaptation of Platonic thought (Rep. 617E). Plato’s (c.429BC-347) principles resurfaced often in religious movements. Theorist R.W. Sellars (1880-1973), in his Reflections on American Philosophy from Within (1969), proposed that “Neo-Platonism in the Augustinian tradition was always strong in Protestantism as opposed to the Aristotelian perspective of Thomism”. Indeed, Augustine’s early struggle with the concept of free will ended with him being overcome by his discovery of an eternal law of necessary consequences and conditions, by a God that he believed predestined a select company of persons to go to heaven upon their death, while simultaneously abandoning [or predestinating] the remainder of persons to be condemned to hell.

Such was the doctrine of the eternal decree formulated by Augustine which, to his way of thinking, was designed for the glory of God. Double-predestinarian in aspect, it was a doctrine avoided by the Byzantine Church and not popularly affirmed by most of the western Roman church of Middle ages, but it was widely acclaimed during the Reformation; but not by Thomas Mϋntzer (1489-1525) and the Anabaptists. It was moderately acceptable in Roman Catholicism, but not within all catholic sects of the east. Notwithstanding, ancient Latin literature is rich in substance. It gave to posterity the dinner comedies of Petronius, Cicero’s Letters, poems and philosophy, the War Commentaries of Caesar and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. These writers, though, all found a niche that was carved out by their predecessors. Augustine’s labors, on the other hand, are noteworthy for their uniqueness to his age.

Augustine’s Quest for Truth

Augustine told a long tale. His life consisted of twists and turns of sadness, sorrows and joy. For centuries readers took up and read his life-story. It is a soul-searching treatise of 13 books. One reader after another must have perceived a reflection of his or her inner self in its pages. This argument partly helps readers to comprehend the Confessions’ enduring value. The quest for knowledge is an absorbing venture. It is set in motion early in life: immediately at the time an infant opens his or her eyes and recognizes new surroundings.

Book 5 is of special interest and is vital to understanding Augustine. In 373 he entered into the sect of the Manicheans and further grieved his mother, Monica. Mani, the founder of the sect was believed to have been an apostle of Christ. The group’s beliefs were definitely infected by ancient Iranian ideas. Gnosticism played no little part too in Mani’s spiritual worldview and in his conception of the lives of Jesus in the Gospels. Augustine sought out Faustus, famous among the Manichaeans for his eloquence and wisdom. Augustine, however, did not find his reputation commensurate to his mind. So distressing to Augustine was his frustration that he removed to Milan. There he came under the sway and tutelage of Bishop Ambrose who ‘was teaching wholesome salvation’. In 386 he became a catechumen in the Roman church. His inward struggles continued.

For Augustine, his pursuit did not find its final resolution until he heard a child crying out Tolle Lege– ‘pick it up and read it’ [Hammond]. The text of Romans 13:13-14 became for Augustine a treasury containing many delightful things. Now illuminated, his restless heart had found peace.

Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne

Saint Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne

Dr. Hammond’s Edition

In volume 1 after a brief preface (ix-xi), there follows a helpful introduction and other preliminary materials (xiii-xlv). She writes eloquently and adeptly. Text and translation follow: Dr. Hammond says J. O’Donnell’s three-volume critical text and commentary forms “the scholarly foundation for this volume” (ix). Volume 2 begins with Hammond’s affecting note on her battle with breast cancer and the difficulties the disease brought to her work on Augustine (ix-x). Subsequently a perceptive introduction and bibliography follow (xi-xlii). Text and translation follow: the margin to the right of her translation records biblical references cited by Augustine. The second volume terminates with indices (429-446). Hammond made use of several translations while she composed her version. Henry Chadwick’s (1920-2008) translation was a favorite; but William Watt’s (1590-1649) renderings are apparent on every page (cf. 7.6 ln.1), even if one considers that W.H.D. Rouse (1863-1950) had revised Watt’s text for inclusion in the Loeb series.

The Loeb Classical Library has evolved. Hammond’s ‘Introduction’ to each volume is reasoned and instructive. Readers will learn much. In newer or revised editions of Loeb volumes, ‘Introductions’ tend to be longer, much more informative than in volumes issued 40 or more years ago. However, in a new attempt at originality, Hammond plainly states (vol. 1 p.xxiii) that Augustine “gives the impression” [of his] “sexual immorality…, [that] “it may have included homosexual experiences”. The Latin text does not give that impression in any way. Besides, what is the purpose of attributing to him an attraction that was alien to his nature? Hammond’s proposal highlights the division between rigorous philological work and inventive literary criticism. The former requires control of fine distinctions of meanings, and the latter ingeniously re-imagines contexts, reconstructing them according to innovative theories (see her section entitled ‘Theories of Meanings’, pp.xxiv-xxxii). Conversely see H. R. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction (2007), 392, where he writes “During this time, as he states in the Confessions (2.3.6), Augustine’s sexuality awakened, which his father observed with delight in the hope of grandchildren in due course”. Question: would the expectation of the birth of offspring been a source of joy for Augustine’s father if Hammond’s suspicion was credible?

First-rate authors now supply the Loeb Classical Library with somewhat critical texts. In the past, the footnotes were rarely of much value, employing a minimalist apparatus; although several volumes were exceptional. In the main, authors presented scanty bits of information; the bottom of the page now may be used for liberal amounts of data. Hammond’s notes usually are sparing and inadequate. There are too few linguistic notes, and the inclusion of variant readings would have caused the two-volumes to appreciate in value for layman and scholar alike.

In one place there is an extraneous citation of Jane Austin’s Emma, “It was rather too late in the day to set about being simple-minded and ignorant” (vol. ii, p.xiii). As for the context of the footnote, in his discourse with God, Augustine had considered withdrawing from some of his skillful pursuits. He was frustrated. In the end he had become quite happy that he stayed with his interests. What a quotation of an English novelist of the 18th and 19th century might add to the discussion is of small substantive value and it throws no light on his literary dialogue with God.

Furthermore, in statements that are reminiscent of J.P. Kenney’s The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading the Confessions (2005), Hammond writes (vol. 2, p.xviii) “Augustine is more famous as a theologian than as a mystic…”. She proceeds to refashion him as a mystical character. The transformation was not easy for her and leads her to create several convoluted sentences: e.g., “The direction of bodily sight upon countless distracting physical stimuli is a weakness tending toward disintegration…” (loc. cit.). Her theory of cognition thrives on ambiguous and paradoxical terms. Yet in the performance of academic discussion, the ordinary use of scholarly language still is indispensable.

Loeb volumes are known for their effective translations which normally mirror the source-text on the facing page. Hammond’s version will be judged variously by differently people. Competent persons will acknowledge their debt to her. Her renderings are clear. Below I instance the place where Augustine speaks reverently to God of his mother’s death. It is a touching segment. Therefore, a sentiment of strong feeling should transcend the English, even down to describing the pangs experienced by his bastard son, Adeodatus, who was born during Augustine’s early years of profligacy. Here is Hammond’s paraphrase (9.28):

I was rejoicing and giving thanks to you because I recalled something I knew before—how anxious she had once been about her place of burial, which she had planned and made ready beside the grave of her husband. Because they had lived together in such harmony, she used to desire this one thing more (which shows how the human mind falls short of the divine): to be allowed in addition to that blessing, something other people would remember—namely, that after her travels abroad the mortal remains of husband and wife might be buried side by side.

I was unaware of when this vain wish had begun to vanish from her heart through the fullness of your goodness. I was surprised and delighted when she made this clear to me, though already in that conversation of ours by the window, when she said “What am I to do any longer in this world?” she seemed not to want her death to take place in her homeland. I heard later that while we stayed at Ostia, one day when I was not there she had spoken confidentially, as a mother might, with some of my friends about her scorn for this life and the blessings of death. When they were astounded at such courage in a woman (courage which you bestowed upon her) and asked whether she was frightened to let her body rest so far from her own people, she answered, “Nothing is far away from God, and there is no need to fear that when the end of the world comes he will not know where to raise me up!”

So on the ninth day of her illness, when she was fifty-six and I was thirty-three, that devout and faithful soul of hers was set free from the body.

I closed her eyes. A measureless grief welled up in my heart and was on the point of overflowing into tears. At the same time, by a tremendous effort of mind my eyes suppressed their flow at its source and remained dry. The struggle to do so was so great that its effect on me was dreadful. At the moment when she breathed her last, my boy Adeodatus cried aloud in his grief and was only checked by a concerted effort from all of us.

All due credit to Hammond: it is a highly emotive piece. Augustine’s Latin text is a remarkable representation of pointed diction and well placed words. There are none of the incredibly complex parallel clauses one can find in the Annals of Tacitus. Augustine’s expressions are straight-forward. Hammond does well to capture it all. She has kept to a rhythm that allows the Latin text to manifest itself in English dress while retaining the bare-bones grammatical aspects of its syntax. Latin writing has its own texture, eliciting specific sensations. Latinist Niall Rudd (1927-2015) stated as much in his volume Lines of Inquiry: Studies in Latin Poetry (2005). On the face of it Hammond’s translation may seem poetic. In fact, that extract probably could be reformatted in verse-form. The death of her husband was painful for her: Augustine’s mother felt that she had little left for which to live. She knew the resurrection of the dead would occur some day in the future. Overtaken by grief, that event could not come soon enough for her son and grandson. With reason, one could object to the length of the extract. I feel, however, that longer extracts, when carefully read, supply readers with protracted moments of contemplation. Augustine’s Confessions is a reflective book. It is a discerning study of human psychology and of the science of behavior, one to be studied, even mastered.

Since books were a primary means of learning in antiquity, ancient writers wrote biographical narratives for the purpose of imitation, in order that readers could study ideas and ideals, accepting some and rejecting others, thereby forming suitable patterns for living their own lives. This new edition of Augustine’s Confessions communicates that notion and more. Publications regarding Augustine remain steady. The fascination continues. But things are changing in Augustinian studies. And we would do well to remember the wisdom of John Owens (1564-1622), a master Latinist and a great epigrammatist, who produced, among other items of writing, a collection of epigrams. One of them offers a suitable benediction for an epoch whose ideas of patriarchy should not be revived: “Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis: “Times change and we change with them.”

For over 1500 years the field of Augustine studies was dominated by men. Inter-disciplinary researches have made ‘Classical Studies’ a wide-ranging field of study, one that includes to some extent creative writing. These studies now also appeal to women. This welcome development ensures the progress of studies, the tendering of newer perspectives and the submission of newer theses. Lately a spate of ‘companion’ books has entered the marketplace. Of the 38 chapters in Blackwell’s A Companion to Augustine (2012), 11 essays were written by women. Opportunities abound, so Hammond has reason to rejoice as do all other lovers of Augustine’s Confessions.

Biographies of this sort are no longer composed. Wishful thinkers long to see the genre revived; but none is capable of effecting its repair but the incomparable Doctor. So the renewal is just a faint dream because Augustine no longer survives, except through his Confessions.

Permit me, in conclusion, a final citation. In his book Life and Letters in the Fourth Century (1901), T.R. Glover (1869-1943) penned an appropriate thought, “Among all books written in Latin”, Augustine’s book, Confessions, “stands next to the Aeneid for the width of its popularity and the hold it has upon mankind.” Such a remark is strong praise for a Church Father who was truly Roman, truly Catholic and truly African.

Darrell Sutton is rector of the Tabernacle in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small village in the Great Plains. He also teaches Semitic languages and edits an academic bulletin entitled ‘The DS Commentary on Books’

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