Sunday, November 7

Augustine: Confessions Book 8

My project here continues with Book 8 of the Confessions. See below for links to my previous essays on this project (the 13 books of the Confessions), why I'm doing this project, and to get caught up.

  1. Book 1. part 1 2 and 3.
  2. Book 2
  3. Book 3.
  4. Book 4
  5. Book 5
  6. Book 6
  7. Book 7

Book 8 of Augustine's Confessions covers his conversion to Christianity. Our guide in the Companion is Leo C. Ferrari. Mr Ferrari is Professor Emeritus at Saint Thomas University in Fredericton (Canada). He has a twin background in modern science and Medieval studies. He has written extensively on the Confessions

Alas, Mr Ferrari is not the best guide for me in my enterprise. Mr Ferrari it seems some years ago, came to the surprising conclusion that the dramatic scene in Book 8 was fabricated by Augustine. I will discuss this more later. However, what he seems to gloss over is the actual meaning of the text. How and why Ausgustine comes to the conclusions he does is more important to me than showing that one of the scenes is an exaggeration.

This Book is the one in which Augustine converts to Christianity. He does not yet meet Ambrose. In the next book he is to be baptized. However, it is in this book that he decides to take the plunge and is converted. Two main events spur this on. First he meets Simplicianus (Ambrose father). Simplicianus relates a story of Victoranius conversion. Victoranius was a Roman scholar who publicly professed to be pagan, but in private claimed to be Christian. Eventually, Victoranius realized the public/private dichotomy was not healthy and "came out" of the closet with respect to his Christianity. This was seen as a big victory for the Christian community as Victoranius was a well a respected Roman. The second visitor he meets at a friends house, Ponticanius. The biggest factor at the time holding Augustine up, is his famous quote with respect to chastity and continence, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." Ponticanius relates to him the stories of Saint Antony (which were related from the writings of Athanasius). After returning from this visit with Alypius, Augustine is thrown into turmoil. He spends a impassioned night in the garden attached to his house. He recounts hearing voices (children's as if in a game), chanting, "pick up and read. Pick up and read." He rushes to Alypius and takes a Bible from him. Opening to a random verse, he alights on Romans 13:13-14 "Not in riots or drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts." It is worth noting that Antony had a similar account of conversion wherein he alighted on a different verse, Matthew 19:21 a call to poverty.

Mr Ferrari's insight or controversy arises in that he made the assumption that if this is indeed the pivotal verse upon which hinged Augustine's conversion to Christianity, then he would have referred to it with some frequency in his post-conversion writings. This is not the case so Mr Ferrari concluded the story is a fabrication.

For my part, I don't really care one way or the other. The point is to understand why Augustine felt that Christianity came to a decision of celibacy or nothing. I think it may perhaps be admirable of Augustine, in that he felt the highest calling of a Christian as explained by the apostle was to celibacy. And furthermore if he couldn't aspire to the heights, then he wasn't sure he could commit. Arete (a Greek ideal) seems to be a driving ethic of Augustine. If he couldn't be one of the best Christians then perhaps Christianity wasn't right for him. But on reconsidering this impulse, I think that paints the wrong picture. Christianity as expressed by Paul, has a ascetic impulse. Augustine's nature was at war with that. He wrestled with this conflict and in a long night, came to the decision abruptly that the spirit should be ascendant over the desires of his flesh. I think the statement that if Augustine felt that the highest calling of Christianity was foreign to him, then perhaps Christianity was not "right".