Wednesday, October 27

Augustine: Confessions Book 4

Before diving into book 4 of the Confessions and the companion volume, I thought I'd recap where I am so far, why I'm doing this in the first place, and where I hope to go.

I was in a conversation recently and the person I was talking with wondered why "close reading" was an important skill. He maintained that an author should always endeavor to write clearly, and that life is too short of obfuscated writers. However, it must be noted that when in Physics, one suggests that for instance there is a local U(1) gauge symmetry obeyed by Nature. This may be a simple statement and clear to the (prepared) reader what this means. However, this statement takes a lot of work to glean from it all of the implications of that claim. One must do some work to find Maxwell's equations and from there, your even more work to explain your TV set. Just as in Physics, in theology and philosophy "close reading" is required. This is because even if the statements an author makes are clear the implications of those statements may not be as obvious.

Why am I even reading the Confessions in the first place? Well, as happens to so many people when they reach middle age, I too have (re)discovered my faith. As a result, as the saying goes "when a child I thought as child ...". It turns out my powers for study and thinking have outstripped those I had when I did "study" theological matters (which were back in the days of high school and earlier), and so now I return. However, now that I am older, I have also developed a mistrust of the work of most 20th century thought. So I figured, if I'm going to re-visit Christianity to re-examine the important questions, I better start at the beginning. So, I'm re-reading the bible and reading the works of the "Early Christian Fathers". Augustine, I hear, is one of the most important. Hence, I'm studying this book now.

The previous posts cover the previous 3 books:
Again, if you are just joining in this exercise of reading the Confession then, please start here and here, Then this post, here, and then at last book 3 will bring you up to date and set the stage for this exercise.

Book 4 (of 13, almost 1/3 of the way!)

In our Companion we are guided in book 4 by James Wetzel. Mr Wetzel hails from Colgate University where he is Assoc. Prof. of Philosophy and Religion. He studied at Princeton and Columbia.

Mr Wetzel tells us that Book 4 is a book about Grief. In fact he entitles his essay: The Trappings of Woe and Confession of Grief. Again, I note this is very different from the structure outlined by our last two guides. I feel at this point, that this is perhaps both an advantage and disadvantage of having a different "guide" for each book. We lose the sense of over-arching structure which is surely there. Peeking ahead, I note that some of the further essays will give us references to other commentaries on the Confessions so perhaps I may pick them up (or not). At any rate, Mr Wetzel quickly tells us that Book 4 covers 9 years of life, from age 19-28 where publicly he taught the liberal arts and privately he "bound himself to the false religion of Manicheism". During this time, he informs us he was not alone in this, Augustine uses "we" when referring to his time spent. However the heart of this book for Mr Wetzel is the relationship with a close friend, whom Augustine convinces to be converted to Manicheism and who then dies of a fever. The grief he suffers, Manicheism did not prepare him to bear.

Mr Wetzel proposes we muse what connection exists between Augustine's seeking Manicheism and his misfortune (that is the death of his friend). How are these connected. Mr Wetzel warns us that Augustine (and we) do not take the "easy" route and assume that like a OT prophet we are to take his state of unbelief as his cause for his distress. Mr Wetzel directs us to try to understand Augustine's heart as he in seeking found a false religion. How at the same time his grief for his friend was false, because not having found God, his love was "false".

A second part of Book 4 concerns itself with a book (now lost) which Augustine authored when he was 26. It was entitled, "On Beauty and Aptness" in which he discusses Abstract and Concrete (or relative) concepts of Beauty. He digresses for some time reconstructing the arguments he presented only to ultimately conclude, "I didn't know what I was talking about." Why then, the digression? Mr Wetzel suggests that the arguments he presented may not be totally strange to the reader. Augustine wants to draw us along in the further books, to the same conclusion he has reached.

Recall Mr Cavadino of Book 2 had told us this book would be about "concupscience of the eyes", and in fact, in chapter 13 the love of beautiful things is discussed. However, as Mr Wetzel points out that isn't the main thrust of the book. But, to give him his due, Augustine is relating his life's Confession to God and as such, it is a stretch to expect blatant overarching thematic structure. Finding threads is a good approach.