Getting Dirty With Augutine — The Confessions Book I

In order to write about this next reading coherently, I am going to have to break it up into several parts. So, this time, I will take a look at book I of Augustine’s confessions.

He starts his confessions by exalting God, quoting and paraphrasing the bible to show piety and build his case. Then, he begins talking about his early life and childhood.

What is interesting is that in some ways, Augustine seems to search for the source of human knowledge and development. While he, as expected, ascribes it all to the grace of God, he spends time going through the stages of human development, the beginnings of consciousness, and learning. He describes how babies gesture and cry and gradually learn to speak to make their desires known.

He gives it all over to God, including the milk that comes from his mother and his nurses. Giving thanks to God is one thing. But I think that some question of whether they had a choice is important, if only because they are also actors in the world, and so have shown some obedience or piousness by taking care of a child and not just leaving it. Augustine presents it all as though it were on automatic pilot.

The other interesting part of book I is his discussion of his education. Augustine shows a change in the perception of divinity when he talks about reading Homer’s descriptions of the Gods, including the philandering of Zeus. I really find this part interesting, because the popular description of Greek myths talk about how the Gods were used to explain human behavior. Here is Augustine’s take on that:

“And now which of our gowned masters lends a sober ear to one who from their own school cries out, ‘These were Homer’s fictions, transferring things human to the gods; would he had brought down divine things to us!’ Yet more truly has he said, ‘These are indeed his fictions; but attributing a divine nature to wicked men, that crimes might be no longer crimes, and whoso commits them might seem to imitate not abandoned men, but the celestial gods.'”

So, there is something to watch out for — Augustine is telling us to be careful about our sources to make sure that they do not make the weak argument the stronger. Plato’s shade continues to haunt Christianity and carries on through the Great Conversation here.

Nonetheless, I think this represents a break from the Gods of Ancient Greece and Rome as fallible deities who knew our weaknesses to an infallible God that was truly separate from us in all ways. Seeing as how Augustine was and early bishop of the Catholic church, it leads to speculation about how much he influenced the papal infallibility doctrine. Someone more learned in church history will need to take up that, however.

Instead, my focus in the Great Conversation in these books. Augustine shows us that education can lead to trouble and that the sophists were still around long after Plato. Augustine writes that in a search for eloquence and rhetorical excellence, education can be a bad thing.

“In the quest of the fame of eloquene,  man standing before a human judge, surrounded by a human throng, declaiming against his enemy with fiercest hatred, will take heed most watchfully lest, by an error of the tonue, he murder the word ‘human being’; but takes no heed lest, through the fury of his own spirit, he murder the real human being.”

Augustine warns against the dangers of too much education, writing how he was more concerned about the suffering of Dido and Aeneas from the Aeneid, rather than worrying about his own salvation. It seems that Augustine may be warning us against the Great Books as a whole.

This seems to me a false dichotomy. As Alan Watts once pointed out, God is interested in a lot more than religion, other wise he would have made a world consisting solely of temples, convents, and monasteries.

It seems to be a sin to ignore the world that God created, though Augustine is a strong proponent of turning away from world things. I think that he is too extreme, but there is more to read, so I may be premature in my assessment.

There is one passage that I am still puzzling over.

“For will any of sound discretion approve of my being beaten as a boy because, by playing at ball, I made less progress in studies which I was to learn on that, as a man, I might play more unbeseemingly?”

I think what he is saying is that his education was mostly a waste, and the studies he did undertake took him farther away from God. He has not laid out the ideal education in book one. But maybe he is saying kids are better off playing than studying. Maybe I ought to sell this set and get myself a new glove.

Next Time: Getting Dirty with Augustine Part II — The Teenage Years


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