Wednesday, October 13

Confessions (with a Companion)

Chapter 1

I'm going to try reviewing/summarizing my reading of both Saint Augustine's Confessions and at the same time a book I picked up, A Readers Companion to Saint Augustine's Confessions (Edited by Paffenroth and Kennedy). Keep in mind, I'm just a pseudo-Polymath and not the real thing.

The structure of the Companion is that the editors selected a different scholar for each chapter of the Confessions. Chapter 1's essay is by Charles Mathewes. Mr Mathewes is Assistant professor at the U of Virginia in Religious Studies. I found his essay in the whole very illuminating. Mostly because close reading of philosophical text is not a talent I have ever developed. This is arguably a talent required of a "true" polymath. Perhaps when I master that, I can drop the "pseudo" prefix. This skill (or lack) is the main reason I sought out a Companion. However, with the able assistance of Mr Mathewes, it seems I can simulate close reading (or at least it feels like it).

Mr Mathews begins by warning us, that like some of Augustine's other works (e.g., City of God, and The Trinity) beginnings especially important. In the his text, Augustine begins his autobiography thusly:
Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and infinite is thy wisdom.” And man desires to praise thee, for he is a part of thy
creation; he bears his mortality about with him and carries the evidence of his sin
and the proof that thou dost resist the proud. Still he desires to praise thee, this
man who is only a small part of thy creation.
No on reading that, one would be tempted to think, ok, start with a Psalm praising the lord and get on with real work of the autobiography. However, Mr Mathewes (rightly I think) points out that this opening is "fascinating on several levels". Two items come to light right off, Augustine begins his work quoting from another source (a Psalm attributed to King David countering the "auto" part of the biography), and the subject of the quote is not himself but another, namely God. It also becomes quickly very clear that this in not an ordinary biography. It is not a narrative just telling about his life, external and/or internal, but much more. At the start of a biography it is natural to discuss origins. Chapter 1 of Confessions includes discussions of the origins of thought, language, sin. This is not your standard autobiography.