This is part 6 of my notes on Augustine’s Confessions.
Monica (6.1.1 – 2.2)
Monica was clearly a little out of her element when she arrived in Milan. She had come from northern Africa, where the Donatists remained very influential, and consequently where veneration of the saints was a much more prominent part of Christian faith and practice. Nevertheless, Augustine says, she managed to adapt to the practices of northern Italian Christianity without too much difficulty. Ambrose had put strict limitations on the practice of venerating the saints, for at least two reasons that Augustine alludes to, and perhaps for a third: (1) It tended to encourage drunkenness; (2) it could easily be mistaken for pagan ancestor worship; and (3) it tended to slide too much towards the Donatist positions.
- What do you think of the current Catholic practice of venerating the saints, whether Mary or St. Francis or any of the others? Do you think it’s OK to pray to the saints?
The Influence of Ambrose (6.3.3 – 6.5.8)
As Augustine spent more time listening to Ambrose, he began to move closer toward Catholic Christianity. Under the influence of Ambrose’s preaching, Augustine realized that he had been badly misinformed on what Christians actually believed. For instance, referring back to the verse in Genesis where God creates man “in His image”, the Manicheans had apparently told him that Christians believed God had a physical body. Augustine was both relieved and mortified to realize that this charge, which he had himself leveled repeatedly, was not accurate.
- Have you ever badly misunderstood a point of Christian doctrine? How did you feel once you had it better explained to you?
In addition, Ambrose employed a very different method of explicating Scripture than Augustine had previously been exposed to. Eventually this worked its way out to a “fourfold sense” of Scripture, which remained the standard medieval doctrine, pretty much up until Luther. Augustine’s basic doctrine of Scriptural interpretation, which presumably had its roots in Ambrose, was not quite so convoluted as this. Rather, he said (in On Christian Doctrine):
“The end of the Law, and of all Holy Scripture, is love… Whoever then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception…. Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether.”
In addition, like St. Paul, Augustine believed that it was legitimate to interpret Scripture allegorically. To take one example, again from On Christian Doctrine:
Why is it, I ask, that if any one says that there are holy and just men whose life and conversation the Church of Christ uses as a means of redeeming those who come to it from all kinds of superstitions, and making them through their imitation of good men members of its own body; men who, as good and true servants of God, have come to the baptismal font laying down the burdens of the world, and who rising thence do, through the implanting of the Holy Spirit, yield the fruit of a two-fold love, a love, that is, of God and their neighbor;--how is it, I say, that if a man says this, he does not please his hearer so much as when he draws the same meaning from that passage in Canticles, where it is said of the Church, when it is being praised under the figure of a beautiful woman, "Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are shorn which came up from the washing, whereof every one bears twins, and none is barren among them?"
- How do you deal with the difficult passages in Scripture? Which passages bother you the most?
Augustine also determined at this point that the εποχη advocated by the skeptics and academics was harder to carry out than it would seem. “My desire was to be as certain of invisible things as I was that seven and three are ten.” For he could not be mathematically confident even of the identity of his parents: yet he had to live as if he did know. In the same way, he could not achieve mathematical certainty about any of the philosophical and theological questions which beset him – but he could quite probably arrive at a reasonable certainty. And at any rate, it simply wasn’t possible to live with all judgment suspended on these questions. Augustine had never ceased to believe that God existed; and he slowly became convinced that this God would not have allowed these Scriptures to attain such authority through all nations if there were not something to them.
- How confident are you that Christianity is true? Why do you believe it?
Ambition and Marriage (6.6.9 – 6.13.23)
Even as Augustine began to work his way up in the circles of the court, he became more and more conflicted about his career choice. He had tasted the good life and wanted more of it: but he was more and more aware that true happiness was not to be found in the pursuit of worldly pleasures, whether the lawful or the unlawful sort.
This particular section is, in some ways, oddly disjointed. At some points, he indicates that he despised the pursuit of trivial pleasures during this point in his life; at others, he indicates that he honored them. Probably this reflects the actual disorder in his mind, the cognitive dissonance he felt between the high honors he was pursuing at court and the moral compromises he was forced to make as a result.
The distress and confusion Augustine felt during this period is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in 6.11.18 – 20, an astonishing (and astonishingly disjointed) passage that nevertheless resonates even today:
O you mighty Academics, is there no certainty that man can grasp for the guidance of his life? No, let us search the more diligently, and let us not despair. See, the things in the Church’s books that appeared so absurd to us before do not appear so now, and may be otherwise and honestly interpreted. I will set my feet upon that step where, as a child, my parents placed me, until the clear truth is discovered. But where and when shall it be sought? Ambrose has no leisure--we have no leisure to read. Where are we to find the books? How or where could I get hold of them? From whom could I borrow them? Let me set a schedule for my days and set apart certain hours for the health of the soul. A great hope has risen up in us, because the Catholic faith does not teach what we thought it did, and vainly accused it of. Its teachers hold it as an abomination to believe that God is limited by the form of a human body. And do I doubt that I should ‘knock’ in order for the rest also to be ‘opened’ unto me? My pupils take up the morning hours; what am I doing with the rest of the day? Why not do this? But, then, when am I to visit my influential friends, whose favors I need? When am I to prepare the orations that I sell to the class? When would I get some recreation and relax my mind from the strain of work?
19. “Perish everything and let us dismiss these idle triflings. Let me devote myself solely to the search for truth. This life is unhappy, death uncertain. If it comes upon me suddenly, in what state shall I go hence and where shall I learn what here I have neglected? Should I not indeed suffer the punishment of my negligence here? But suppose death cuts off and finishes all care and feeling. This too is a question that calls for inquiry. God forbid that it should be so. It is not without reason, it is not in vain, that the stately authority of the Christian faith has spread over the entire world, and God would never have done such great things for us if the life of the soul perished with the death of the body. Why, therefore, do I delay in abandoning my hopes of this world and giving myself wholly to seek after God and the blessed life?
“But wait a moment. This life also is pleasant, and it has a sweetness of its own, not at all negligible. We must not abandon it lightly, for it would be shameful to lapse back into it again. See now, it is important to gain some post of honor. And what more should I desire? I have crowds of influential friends, if nothing else; and, if I push my claims, a governorship may be offered me, and a wife with some money, so that she would not be an added expense. This would be the height of my desire. Many men, who are great and worthy of imitation, have combined the pursuit of wisdom with a marriage life.”
20. While I talked about these things, and the winds of opinions veered about and tossed my heart hither and thither, time was slipping away. I delayed my conversion to the Lord; I postponed from day to day the life in thee, but I could not postpone the daily death in myself. I was enamored of a happy life, but I still feared to seek it in its own abode, and so I fled from it while I sought it. I thought I should be miserable if I were deprived of the embraces of a woman, and I never gave a thought to the medicine that thy mercy has provided for the healing of that infirmity, for I had never tried it. As for continence, I imagined that it depended on one’s own strength, though I found no such strength in myself, for in my folly I knew not what is written, “None can be continent unless thou dost grant it.”168
- How do you deal with all the conflicting claims on your time, attention and effort? How can God help to bring order to these conflicting claims?
One interesting note: in his late 20’s, largely at his mother’s urging, he became engaged to a girl who was not yet old enough to marry. Since the legal age of marriage was 12, this presumably means that she was only 10 years old. This also had the side-effect of Augustine dismissing his concubine, and sending her back to Africa, without even her son to accompany her. It’s uncertain why he did this, since he was obviously torn up horribly about it: “My mistress was torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, and my heart which clung to her was torn and wounded till it bled.” Perhaps his mistress was from another class, perhaps even a slave? Or perhaps she had tired of Augustine’s pursuit of philosophy and ambition more than her, and the choice to leave was as much hers as Augustine’s. Whatever the reasons for her departure, however, Augustine was notoriously unable to maintain continence even for two years, and quickly took another mistress (of whom nothing more is said).
- What do you think of Augustine for sending away his concubine?
- Augustine was conflicted about marriage: it was a path towards lawful sexual fulfillment, but it also promised to interfere with his pursuit of philosophy. In this he echoes St. Paul in 1 Cor. 7. What is your take on marriage? What are the upsides and the downsides to it?
Alternatives (6.14.24 – 6.16.26)
As empty as the pursuit of worldly pleasures and ambitions was proving to be, Augustine was confounded in his search for any alternative. Marriage, he suspected, would be just as much a snare as his concubine had been. He wanted to live with his friends in a sort of proto-monastic commune, pursuing philosophy and supported by rich sponsors, and they had almost decided to start one when someone pointed out, “What do you think our wives will feel about this?” It’s almost comical that in all their planning, this question had never bothered to cross anybody’s mind.
The two sides of Augustine’s mind during this period are expressed well by his claim that Epicurus’ account of human happiness seemed the best – except that Epicurus left out any possibility of the afterlife, and Augustine was convinced of its reality.