Augustine: Journey of the Self

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The search for truth is a most compelling tale. And that is perhaps not quite strong enough – it makes for the most compelling of tales. Can you recall any gripping stories of searches for lies or deceptions? It is in fact quite the opposite – from murder mystery novels to lone individuals battling against powerful and deceptive organizations, it is the search for the truth of things that keeps the reader glued to the page.  Dorothy Sayers, mystery novelist and Christian apologist contemporary with C.S. Lewis, was reported to have enjoyed this very aspect of the murder mystery – that there was a truth that inevitably emerged from the fog of circumstance.[1] Such is the nature of the spiritual autobiography – the tale of a life in which the truth of meaning and purpose peeks like sunshine through the clouds.

Consider how Augustine anguished for the truth, the truth of the meaning of his existence:

O Truth, Truth, how the deepest and innermost marrow of my mind ached for you …   I was hungering for you, but their teachings were like plates on which they served  me not you but the sun and the moon, which are your beautiful works, to be sure, not yourself[2]

In the chronicle of his spiritual journey, The Confessions,  Augustine shows how he wandered through many of the philosophies of his day before his heart famously found its rest in God.[3]  In his search for truth, Augustine journeyed through the philosophies of the Manicheans, Neo-Platonists and skeptics before finally returning to the Catholic church and the Christian faith of his youth.  As Bishop of Hippo from 397 A.D. until his death in 430 AD.,  Augustine helped the church battle the errant and heretical wanderings of the Pelagians, Donatists, Arians and Manicheans; he also critically contrasted the life of faith with that of secular society, or church with (Roman) empire, with his classic City of God. But the particular genius of Augustine lies with the very personal nature of his spiritual journey.

The Confessions was “a strange work” for its time, “an intensively personal document,” and considered “the West’s first autobiography.”[4] The spiritual autobiography pioneered a genre that would include accounts as John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding (1666; the 1600s saw a number of Christian autobiographies) and C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy (1955). Augustine’s Confessions  also provided the title for Rousseau’s humanist, secular Confessions (1781) which helped usher in the era of Romanticism with its focus on intense emotional, individual experience, in the early nineteenth century.[5]

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The spiritual autobiography is further considered by some as a precursor to the modern novel, as an integration of transcendent values with the experience of life.[6]  But Dorothy Sayers perhaps made the case most incisively here for comparing a book or work of art to the embedding of truth we find in the incarnation of Christ. Sayers argued in The Mind of the Maker that the Christian Trinity provides the model that infuses art, novels and life in general with its creative and spiritual dynamism.

God the Father is the Idea … God the Son is the Energy that Incarnates the Idea …  God the Spirit is the Power that  enables the Incarnate Idea to be experienced directly… Or, to put it another way, God is the Book as thought, Nature is the Book as written, but we are the Book as Read.[7]

Or to put it perhaps less astutely, it is, from You’ve Got Mail, as Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly character  responds to Joe Fox’s (Tom Hanks) disclaimer to ‘not take things personally:’ “if it’s not personal, what is it?”[8]

The apologetic worth of Confessions lies in both its intense devotional nature as well as how it shows that philosophies and religions can find their fulfillment in Christian faith. It makes sense to first consider the philosophies with which Augustine wrestled, as many of his devotional statements respond significantly to the incomplete promises they offered.

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Even in the Roman era of Augustine’s time (4th and 5th centuries A.D.), the Greek philosophical inheritance was still influential, providing the language in which so many philosophies were articulated.  The Manichees provided one such philosophy, as Greek thought on matter and form were adapted by Mani, the 3rd century A.D. Iranian ‘prophet’ who taught that the material world was evil and in constant battle with the spiritual world (and the battle was over the possession of light). Evil was also envisioned by the Manicheans as a spirit inhabiting matter, “a malevolent mind creeping about through the earth.” [9]   Augustine lamented that “the Manichees had turned me away from the Church, and I thought it contemptible to believe that you (God, to whom The Confessions was addressed) bore the appearance of human flesh and were confined to our bodily shape and members.”[10] Augustine thus offers the incarnation as both the correction and solution the central tension of Manicheanism.  Augustine further reduces Manichean doctrines to a vacuous rubble when he states “I did not know that evil is nothing but the diminishment of good to the point where nothing at all is left,” thus forming his privatio boni position on evil.[11]

Other articulations of Augustine’s devotion and faith show similar, nearly direct, response to positions held during his journey.  Astrological argument and prediction were prevalent among the teachings of mathematicians, Mani as well as the Platonists, often attended with the pronouncement that “the sky is responsible for your sin, so you cannot avoid it … Venus did this, or Saturn, or Mars.”[12] To this, Augustine counters with “humans, who are flesh and blood and putrid pride!” are themselves this cause of sin, whereas the abiding power that does rule, from these lines by Ambrose, is instead:

            Creator God, O Lord of all

            who rule the skies, you clothe the day

            in radiant color, bid the night

            in quietness serve the gracious sway of sleep[13]

            And in contrast to teachings about the soul grasping towards and ascending to the ethereal realm, finding the source of light, Augustine declares “They do not know him as the Way whereby they can climb down from their lofty selves to him, and thus ascend to him. Of this way they know nothing; they think themselves exalted to the stars and brilliant.”[14]

Augustine in fact betrays all these philosophical traditions when he breaks into praise.  From his opening words, “Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise, your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning,” Augustine shows a God who will transcend all the attempts of philosophy to describe Him.    Refuting Aristotle’s notion of a thing’s soul being embedded in its form or matter (and so just as perishable as that matter), he states “from the core of my being, I believed you to be imperishable” and “anything perishable is inferior to that which is perishable.”[15]  As he read the ‘books of the Platonists,’ their unredeemed philosophy almost doesn’t appear in his discussion. Instead, Augustine sees in these books not the visitation of Plato’s eternal forms of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, but the Word made flesh, “the Light (that) shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to master it”[16]  The actual content of Plato’s books instead offer him only the “exchanging of your glorious, imperishable nature for idols and a variety of man-made things … the food of the Egyptians for the sake of which Esau bartered away his dignity as the first-born.”[17]

But beyond the apologetic task of showing how these philosophies find their completion in Christ, Augustine shows how our faith and devotion lead us into the rich pastures of this knowledge.

Even the ecstatic vision that is to bring knowledge of the eternal, ethereal source of the soul, Augustine finds fleeting:

and then my mind attained to That Which Is, in the flash of one tremulous glance. Then indeed did I perceive your invisible reality through created things, but to keep my gaze there was beyond my strength. I was forced back tough weakness and returned to my familiar surroundings, bearing with me only a loving memory, one that yearned for something of which I had caught the fragrance, but could not yet feast upon.[18]

Instead, Augustine found that it was “the Word become flesh so that your Wisdom, who created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy”[19] that nourished him, and was ‘attainable.’  Christ as the divine Logos sent from God not only provides the language of God, so to speak, but is the very image by which we grasp God.  With language we can reason, but with image, or the imagination, we actually understand the terms we reason about; and Christ provides both for us.

Augustine’s devotional insights, which so enrich The Confessions and make it such a treasure, continually reinforce the fundamental insight that the good of the human creature is found in its Creator. This fundamental relation between creature and Creator undergirds Scripture, the first chapter of Romans in particular, where Paul emphasizes our avoiding of lies that “serve the creature more than the Creator.”[20]   For instance, Augustine finds “my true joy was your very self.”[21] On the contrary, our true good is not found outside of our Creator: “turn us toward yourself, for wheresoever a human soul turns, it can but cling to what brings sorrow unless it turns to you,”[22]  and this description, “while I myself was abandoning you to seek the last dregs of your creation.”[23]  Perhaps the most descriptive account of the vaporous gains made from such diversions is “Those who want to find their joy in externals all too easily grow empty themselves. They pour themselves out on things which, being seen, are transient.”[24]

Throughout Augustine’s devotional statements, he either redeems or entirely abandons the philosophical inheritances of the pagans.  Aristotle’s notion of virtue as the mean between vices of excess is used when he describes himself as the mean between creation and the Creator: “I was nobler than they, but lowlier than you … The happy mean, the central region where I would find salvation, was to preserve your image in me.”[25]  Otherwise, he tosses aside the Manichean doctrine of evil as a substance, Augustine shows how it is the creature’s turning aside from its Creator that constitutes ‘evil:’ “I inquired then what villainy might be, but I found no substance, only the perversity of a will twisted away from you, God, the supreme substance, toward the depths – a will that throws away its life within and swells with vanity abroad.”[26]

Finally, Augustine provides the insight that the soul, bereft of its anchor in its creator, begins to lose itself and its own coherence.  Consider the following discussion:

I  was at odds with myself, and fragmenting myself. This disintegration was occurring without my consent  … the sin that dwelt within me … partial willing and partial non-willing, not so bizarre, but a sickness of the mind, which cannot rise with its whole self on the wings of truth    because it is heavily burdened by habit.  There is but one soul, thrown into turmoil by divergent impulses… Claimed by truth for the one, to the other clamped by custom, the soul is torn apart in its distress.[27]

The fragmented self resulting from its many attachments: Augustine here describes the sorrows and angst of modern man as well as Karl Marx or Soren Kierkegaard ever would. The solution, when considered in Augustine’s terms, is in fact quite simple: “Let the soul pass through these creatures to you who have made them so wonderfully. There is will find refreshment, there its true strength.”[28] But perhaps the most succinct is “You are the life of souls … the life of my own soul.”[29]

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Nude Sad Young Man on a Train (both 1912)

But it is in the journey of Augustine that we can see the role of spiritual autobiography most clearly.  The personal desire, and anguish, reach out to the reader throughout The Confessions.  This is seen perhaps nowhere else so clearly as in the following passage:

I feverishly searched for the origin of evil. What agonizing birth-pangs tore my heart, what groans it uttered … Yet even as my heart roared its anguish my clamor found its  way to your hearing, and all my longing lay before you… as long as I was subject to you, my true joy was in your self.[30]

Augustine presages Lewis’s apologetic argument from desire here, as Lewis’s description of his own desires provides the clue to a meaning beyond creation and in a Creator:

These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire;  but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[31]

The life details Augustine gives follow what by now is nearly standard pedagogic practice: it is much more engaging to explain a person’s theories by situating them in their particular historical context.  For instance the teachings of Plato make eminently more sense once one has considered the historical and societal backdrop in, or against, which Plato was writing. But Augustine’s Confessions go beyond simple contextualizing: yes, an apologetic component of his wrestling with philosophies of the day is undeniable, but it is the timeless, tireless search of a soul for its author that The Confessions offers for any reader in any time or place.  As Augustine writes this autobiography from ‘the other side’ of the story, he is able to constantly reveal his life as following the wisdom of revealed Scripture.  Passages such as “instead I was striving to reach you by my own efforts, and you thrust me away to death, because you ‘thwart the proud’  (James 4:6)”[32] are found on nearly every page, and the wisdom of Scripture interlaced throughout his biography – as an Orc might say, ‘the air is thick with it.’

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The Confessions of Augustine thus offer the reader a unique experience in seeing the wisdom of Scripture embodied in a life.  Apologetically, we see Augustine showing the truths of the Christian faith able to answer the challenges of alternate philosophies, in some cases fulfilling the philosophical backdrop, in some cases rewriting it. In its exhibition of the devotional journey, The Confessions is perhaps unparalleled: the fears and longings of Augustine’s journeying soul (and journey it did!) help the reader feel Augustine’s pain, as it were, as well as his joy. Timeless truths of the Christian faith were thus related in a most timely fashion – that of a life embroiled in the questions and answers of its time. The result is similar to the lifetime of memories embedded in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Captain Jean Luc Picard when a dying race captures his mind and simulates an entire lifetime of memories in him, leaving him with an indelible imprint of their experience, their truths (and a flute).[33]

[1]    I am without specific reference here, having heard it in a radio sermon once I believe, though it certainly rhymes with here views that shortly follow.

[2]   Augustine, The Confessions, trans. M. Boulding,Vintage Spiritual Classics (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), III.6.10.

[3]   Ibid., I.1.1 “You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” Augustine declares in his opening statement.

[4]   Patricia Hempel, “Preface to the Vintage Spiritual Classics Edition” in Augustine, The Confessions, trans. M. Boulding,Vintage Spiritual Classics (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), xiii.

[5]    Louis Markos, “Wordsworth, Coleridge and British Romanticism” in The Great Courses, From Plato to Postmodernism (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 1999), lecture 13.  Markos cites the storming of the Bastille in 1789 as well as the publication of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798 as influences concurrent with Rousseau’s work in fostering an individualist and imaginative consciousness that expressed itself in the literary movement of post Enlightenment ‘Romanticism’ of the early nineteenth century Europe, and in Britain in particular.

[6]    G.A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography ( ew York: Gordian Press, 1979), 11. Starr here notes how fictional accounts of spiritual journeys such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) claimed to be a case of English Protestantism’s rejection of Catholic “otherworldliness” in favor of “the compatibility of earthly and spiritual callings.

[7]    Louis Markos, Apologetics for the 21st Century (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 94-95. Markos discusses  the Dorothy Sayers book Mind of the Maker (1941).

[8]    You’ve Got Mail, directed by Nora Ephron (Warner Brothers, 1998), DVD (Warner Brothers, 1999).

[9]   Augustine, The Confessions, V.19.

[10]  Ibid., V.20.

[11]  Ibid., III.7.12.

[12]  Ibid., IV.3.4

[13]  Ibid., IX.32.

[14]  Ibid., V.5.

[15]  Ibid., VII.1.1.

[16]  Ibid., VII.13.

[17]  Ibid., VII.15.

[18]  Ibid., VII.17.23.

[19]  Ibid., VII.18.24.

[20]  Romans 1:25.

[21]  Augustine, The Confessions,VII.7.11.

[22]  Augustine, The Confessions,  IV.19.15.

[23]  Ibid., I.21.

[24]  Ibid., IX.10.

[25]  Ibid., VII.7.11.

[26]   Ibid., VII.16.22.

[27]  Ibid.,  VIII.9.21-24.

[28]  Ibid., V.1.

[29]  Ibid., III.10.

[30]  Ibid., VII.7.11.

[31]  C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays, ed. W. Hooper (New York: Collier, 1980), 7.

[32]  Augustine, The Confessions, IV.26.

[33]  I will not be able to find the specific episode reference in time here, and I am not sure I could end the paper more poetically, or so some might say. It was perhaps my favorite episode.

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