Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I started re-reading Augustine's Confessions last night ....

I could not honestly claim that my past readings of it were terribly profound. The first time I read it, I skimmed it so as to be prepared for a university lecture. The second time I read it was about fifteen years ago. I long had thought that I should re-read it and one day I saw a beautiful, leather-bound copy of it in a bookstore. I bought that copy and brought it home and read it in the bathroom. It's a good book for bathroom reading as most of the chapters are short enough to read during a visit to those facilities.

That second time I read it "looking for wisdom", which is to say that, much like a westerner who "goes Buddhist", I read it look for bits that would confirm the things I already wanted to believe. Not surprisingly, I found what I was looking for.

Reading the first ten chapters last night, I was struck by two things. The first is that Augustine is not an individualist. Well, duh! I know but "individualism" is usually just a word. We don't think of meaning when we say it so much as we think of any of a number of well-worn clichés.

Augustine's first remarks about his sins are about his sins as a baby. He admits that he doesn't remember any of these sins but concludes that they were there based on his observations of other babies. That's a rather staggering thing. Right from the get-go he assumes that sin is an aspect of our nature as human beings. This is clear if we ask a question that Augustine doesn't ask himself (probably because it didn't occur to him as a question worth asking): How do you know know that you sinned if you can't remember? Augustine's implied answer: Because that's what babies are like; they are sinners.

He does give us examples of what he means. He mentions that babies will resent another baby having access to the breast. Why, he asks, given that the breast is abundantly flowing, would a baby want to deny another baby access to what it needs.

For us, that is a bizarre way to see things. We tend to think that the baby couldn't know any better. It is unaware of the needs of others; it may even be unaware of the existence of others as separate beings. We would be inclined to argue that the baby couldn't sin because it was incapable of making a decision about how it responds to others.

Augustine would be more likely to respond by saying that in exempting the baby we are exempting sin. His view was that sin was a kind of disorder that inclines us to do bad things. It's not the decision that makes us sinful, it's our desire. That's the second thing that struck me. What follows from that, it seems to me, is that our modern understanding of morality is completely at odds with what Augustine would have imagined as the goal of being cleansed from sin. Our modern morality (whether deontological or consequentialist) is all about making better decisions. Augustine sees sin as part of our very make up. And I'll leave it there for now because I have only read the first ten chapters. Of course, I have an idea of what is coming but I'm am trying to reread the Confessions as if for the first time so I am going to try and forget what I think I know.

Oh yeah, before getting to the sins of his youth, Augustine goes through a series of meditations on the incomprehensibility of God. Nothing finite could understand what it cannot contain and the finite cannot contain the infinite. That must, of course, connect to sin but I don't know how yet, so I just note it.


  1. I read a book of the Confessions a couple years ago, later finding out that it was a volume containing only books I-X (why would such a volume exist?...) so I've never even read the whole thing. (And I definitely think I read it pretty cursorily, which is probably true of a depressingly high proportion of stuff I read, especially stuff which I read because out of a sense of obligation.) Anyway, I was flipping through the beginning over Christmas and I had a similar reaction: I was really stunned at the part where he accuses himself of sin over not wanting to do his Greek homework! Also, I was really intrigued by the part in which he speculates about how babies learn to speak. It's really interesting, and in a way charming, and I think it's a good reminder to us contemporary people, that ancient people were also intelligent and thoughtful and curious.

    1. The section about how babies learn to speak is (famously) cited at the beginning of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. People generally take Wittgenstein to be disagreeing with Augustine but that is only true in part. He deeply admired Augustine and once described the Confessions as the most serious book ever written.

      I have to say that the more I read of it, the more I am stunned at the depths that I failed to notice before. For example, after running himself down for not wanting to do his Greek, Augustine immediately allows that any Greek student would have been similarly reluctant about studying Virgil. And then, after all this, he turns around and says that, while he could have learned better and that he sinned by not doing so, he, nevertheless, learned an incredible amount and all this is to the praise and glory of God. Which is to say, none of this stuff is nearly as rigoristic as I keep expecting it to be.