This page is part of the Core Book: Confessions series at Wheaton College. The essay below examines Augustine's identity as a life-long reader and his circuitous journey to the Bible, God's Word.
Written by Dr. Benjamin Weber, Assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College.
According to his biographer and friend Possidius, Augustine died as he lived, in the company of books: “…he commanded that the shortest penitential psalms of David should be copied for him, and during the days of his sickness as he lay in bed he would look at those sheets as they hung on the wall and read them; and he wept freely and constantly.” Medieval hagiography tends to depict the deaths of saints as moments of joy, even calm: the saints derive their otherwordly mystique from facing death with a blessed equanimity to which we can aspire, but not attain. Not so Augustine; Possidius shows us Augustine as he weeps, alone with his God, having walled himself off from the outside world with texts. There, experiencing anew the lyrical ecstasies of the penitential psalms, he is overcome with emotion, pouring himself out to God in, to borrow his own words, “a heavy rain of tears” (Conf. 8). In short, Possidius shows us Augustine as we experience him in the Confessions, whose particular force derives from the impression it gives of being a profoundly intimate, honest conversation accidentally overheard.
But Possidius helps us understand the Confessions in another way. The dying Augustine of the Vita (and the living Augustine who wrote the works in the Indiculus) is the logical and utterly satisfying extension of the Augustine who, in the climactic scene in book 8 of the Confessions, responded to the providential command to “take up and read” (Conf. 8). The Scriptures captured Augustine at that moment, so much so that he died, quite literally, in their embrace. That Augustine began and ended his Christian life by reading shows us in turn something else important, and not necessarily obvious to the modern reader focused on Augustine’s fraught relationship with Monica or his desperate struggle with physical desire: books, too, are characters in the drama of the Confessions. From Augustine’s early encounters with the Aeneid in book 1 to his magisterial exegesis of Genesis in book 13, the Confessions envisions Augustine’s journey to—and through—the Christian faith as a series of formative encounters with books. Just as Augustine sees divine providence in his meetings with Ambrose and his friendship with Nebridius, so too does he see God’s hand in the providential arrival of a great book: “I believe, though” he writes in book 7, “that you wanted me to have recourse to those books before I considered your scriptures, so that the way they made me feel would be imprinted on my memory” (Conf. 7.26).
This is not entirely a new insight: the first 100 or so pages of Brian Stock’s magisterial Augustine the Reader offer a rich elucidation of the practices of reading that drive Augustine onward through the early books of the Confessions, tied both to his particular sources and larger intellectual influences, not to mention his other works. Stock’s book is worth the effort, but it does not tell the whole story. Notice Augustine’s emphasis in the quotation above: God put books in his way not only to make him think, he claims, but to make him feel--Augustine’s Christian education, described in detail in Confessions 1-8, was a process of learning to read not just with the head, but with the heart. What follows, then, is the story of Augustine feeling his way to God through books, a story that begins with the ruminations on language at the very beginning of the Confessions and culminates at the moment he obeys the providential urging to “take up and read.”
The Aeneid and Hortensius
That story begins in Thagaste, in Northern Africa, as Augustine paints a picture of disordered loves conceived amid the heat and the noise of late Roman society. Thagaste can only contain Augustine’s desires for so long, however, and he is ultimately drawn to the great city of Carthage: “I came to Carthage,” Augustine writes in Confessions 3, “to the center of a skillet where outrageous love affairs hissed all around me. I wasn’t in love yet, but I was in love with the prospect of being in love, and in my more latent need, I hated myself because that need wasn’t greater” (Conf. 3.1). Even as he arrived in Carthage, Augustine already burned with Carthaginian love: he had learned about it, as he recounts in Confessions 1, from Vergil’s Aeneid, the great Roman epic written in the first century B.C., amid the collapse of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. The Aeneid tells the story of the Trojan Aeneas, who flees the destruction of Troy to settle in Italy, founding the Roman people and setting in motion the wheels of history. The poem played many roles in Augustine’s time: it was a school text at all levels, an apology for Imperial power and a source of Imperial pride, even an instrument of divination. Curious readers would consult passages from the poem at random, hoping to glimpse their future in the lines brought before them by chance, or fate—a practice Augustine derides, even as it sets the stage for his own divinely inspired random reading in book 8. To the young Augustine, though, the Aeneid was the tragic story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, who committed suicide on the shores of Africa as Aeneas abandoned their love affair and sailed to Italy to pursue his destiny. In Confessions 1, the Aeneid symbolizes Augustine’s inability to love properly; he writes that he used to “bewail the death of Dido, because she ‘died for love,’ when all the time I endured dry-eyed the utter misery of myself dying away from you, God, my life” (Conf. 1.20). Dido's own words to her sister Anna in Aeneid 2 become an unexpressed refrain for the Confessions: "the signs of the old flame, I know them well." As Augustine looks back on his youth, he, too, recognizes the signs of the "old flame," kindled by the Aeneid before he ever reached a place in which it might blaze openly.
While Augustine's physical desires caught fire in Carthage, it was there that he learned to burn, too, with another sort of love, mediated by another sort of book. That book was Cicero's Hortensius, a philosophical dialogue that has survived to the present day only in fragments: "in any case, in this book of his, entitled Hortensius, he urgently commends the study of philosophy. That work did renovate my attitude; it changed my pleas, directing them to you, Master, and altered my aspirations and desires…the Greek name philosophia means 'love of wisdom,' and this love set me on fire through Cicero's treatise." (Conf. 3.7-8). The Hortensius taught Augustine to prize wisdom above the various modes of seeking it—he writes that "I was delighted by one thing in Cicero's urgings: I was supposed to conceive an affection for and seek out and grasp and hold and embrace, for all I was worth, not this or that system but philosophy herself, whatever she was; that's why his words instilled such a thrill in me, why such a flame flared up" (Conf. 3.8). Though the Hortensius ultimately plays a crucial role in bringing Augustine to God, in book three, the love of wisdom becomes another sort of Carthaginian love, as Augustine's ardent but arrogant desire leads him to despise the Bible for its simple style and flee instead into the arms of the Manicheans.
While Manicheism initially offered Augustine an attractive means to rationalize the existence of God and the existence of evil, it ultimately brought him to an epistemological crisis that prevented him from coming any nearer to God. In essence, Augustine could not reconcile his belief in God as the highest, unchanging good with his materialistic understanding of the universe, an understanding rooted in Classical philosophy, but nurtured by Manicheism. In Confessions 4, Augustine hangs that crisis on another book, Aristotle's Categories: The Categories is the first part of Aristotle's Organon, a treatise on logic, and it classifies all that exists as either substances or predicates (qualities associated with substances). Aristotle's scheme appealed to Augustine's thoroughly literary mind; Augustine even explains Aristotle with reference to grammatical relationships. But the Categories also exposed to Augustine the roots of his struggle with the philosophy he had come to love. God, naturally, must be a substance, but to accept any of God's qualities as predicates would imply that God somehow existed independently of those qualities. As Augustine himself writes, "I tried to understand even you, my God, miraculously unitary and unchangeable, as if you were 'subject' to your magnitude or to your beauty; that is, if they were attached to you (like predicates to a grammatical subject) and you were their 'subject,' as properties are predicated on material objects—whereas in reality your magnitude and your beauty are you yourself" (Conf. 4.29). Augustine was rightly uncomfortable with a philosophical system in which God's existence as God was independent of His majesty or beauty, but his philosophical understanding offered him no alternatives. Augustine's encounter with the Categories thus ushers in a general critique of liberal learning for its inability to benefit him, caught as he was in the throes of materialism: "but what good did this [learning] do me," Augustine asks, "given that I thought you—Master, God, Truth—were an enormous, shiny material object, and that I was a hunk of that object?"
Augustine arrives in Rome showing the marks of the books he has read, afire with physical lust, drawn to rhetorical excellence, and tormented by philosophical doubt. He continues to live licentiously while investigating the problem of evil with desperate intensity until a climactic encounter in book 7:
At first, you wished to demonstrate to me how you hold out against the arrogant but grant grace for free to the humble; and with how much
compassion the road of humility has been pointed out to mankind, as your
Word was made flesh and lived among them; thus you obtained for me
(through a certain person bloated with the most giant grandiosity imaginable)
certain books by Platonists translated from Greek into Latin, and there I
read—not in these exact words, but it was the same thesis entirely, put
forward with many arguments of many kinds:
"In the beginning was the Word…"
The "certain books" Augustine describes are the works of Porphyry and Plotinus, translated into Latin by Marius Victor. In the Platonic idea of the Logos, Augustine finally found something that allowed him to move beyond materialism, though not without difficulty, by conceiving of God as an unchanging, immaterial light that "with its sheer abundance took possession of all that is" (Conf. 7.16). That clinical description, though, does not capture the sense of wonder Augustine describes as the Platonic logos gives way to the Christian logos, pointing him towards the one truth that would put to rest the doubts inspired by the Categories in book 4. In the idea of God as the divine Word, as a supernal, immaterial light, Augustine finds a way to understand God outside the tyranny of materialistic frameworks, and that understanding sets the stage for a dramatic revelation:
And I recognized how you'd disciplined this human being due to his
wrongdoing; you made my soul shrivel up like a spider, and I said, "The truth
can't be nothing, can it?—because it's spread out neither in finite nor in
infinite space?" But you shouted from far away, "No! In very truth, I am who
I am!" And I heard, the way something is heard in the heart, and there was
now absolutely no way I could doubt; I could more easily doubt that I was
alive than that the truth existed—the truth that is understood and discerned
through the things that have been made.
Augustine's experience of God's words to Moses in Exodus—"I am who I am"—undoes the Aristotelian confusion that has bedeviled him to this point. God's utterance denies that any quality can be predicated to the divine being, and changes Augustine's perspective from a self-centered, proto-Cartesian rationality to a theocentric vision of the universe: "I could more easily doubt that I was alive than that the truth existed" entails a denial of Augustine's contingent, human perspective, limited as it is by his experiences and imaginative capacities.
He has learned the truth, and it has set him free.
And that freedom opens up new vistas of reading, setting the stage for Augustine's dramatic conversion in book 8, predicated—as we have come to expect—upon an act of reading. In fact, book 8 is shot through with acts of reading, which both recapitulate Augustine's earlier experiences and propel him forward. Augustine turns back to Vergil, this time using lines from Aeneid 8 to critique pagan idol worship: "abominable gods of all races, like the yapping Anubis,/ who had once against Neptune and Venus and Minerva/ wielded their spears." After quoting those lines, Augustine offers a trenchant, if uncharacteristically brief, polemic: "Rome, having conquered those gods, now propitiated them" (Conf. 8.3). In using the Aeneid to critique Roman society, Augustine shows that he is now master of his early education; it no longer masters him.
Later in book 8, still preparing for his moment of conversion, Augustine turns again to the Hortensius:
So many years (maybe eleven) had drained out of my life—and I had drained
out with them—since I was eighteen and read Cicero's Hortensius. I'd been
roused by my enthusiasm for wisdom, but I'd put off rejecting earthly
happiness and taking the time to track wisdom down. Yet merely hunting for
it—let alone finding it—now was more important to me than buried treasure
uncovered, or the kingdoms of this world, or a flood of physical pleasures at
my beck and call.
In rereading the Aeneid as an injunction to reject idols, Augustine has finally made good on the promise of the Hortensius, putting aside Carthaginian love in favor of the love of wisdom, which Augustine has come to understand as the pursuit of the eternal, unchanging God.
When we read in Confessions 8.29 about the providential command "take it up! read it!", then, we must understand that it follows on the heels of a lifetime of reading. Romans 13:13-14 speak to Augustine as they do because Augustine has wrestled with books as Jacob wrestled with the angel: they have marked him, humbled him, broken his natural strength, and opened him to the revelation of Holy Scripture. Paul's words both recapitulate what Augustine has learned from his encounters with books and add a distinctively Christian perspective:
Don't clothe yourself in raucous dinner parties and drunkenness, not in the
immorality of sleeping around, not in feuds and competition; but clothe
yourself in the Master, Jesus Christ, and do not make provision for the body
in its inordinate desires.
In his struggles with the Aeneid and the Hortensius, Augustine has already learned to avoid Carthaginian love and its discontents. The revelation of Rom.13:13-14, though, is that Christ provides another way. As Augustine "clothes himself in the Master, Jesus Christ," he denies his own body to claim membership in the body of Christ. Even Platonism, as Augustine points out in Confessions 7, could not bring him to what we could call Christology, the final necessary condition for his embrace of Christian truth.
Romans 13 may be the most important text Augustine reads in the Confessions, but it is not the last: books 9 and 13, in particular, paint a dynamic picture of Augustine as a reader of Scripture—a worthy subject of an essay in its own right. Augustine also becomes, more and more, a reader of the created order (implicit in the Platonism of book 7, when he realizes that "the truth…is understood and discerned through the things that have been made."), and of himself. In fact, Augustine's great accomplishment in the Confessions is a detailed, unsparing exposition of his own memory, chronicled most vividly in book 10, though implicit in every line on every page.
One does not have to pay attention to Augustine's bibliomania to appreciate the Confessions. But if one does, there are treasures to be found. Augustine's struggles with books shape him as we need to be shaped and mark him as we need to be marked. Books clear the way for his apprehension of Biblical truth, but they also awaken in him the desire for that which only God can provide: membership in His body, under the headship of His son, Jesus Christ. Despite the protestations of book 4, Augustine does not see liberal education as vain. Instead, those early, formative encounters with books ultimately prepare him for his incorporation into the incarnate Word itself—a fitting end for a Christian bibliophile.