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Extended Remarks On Augustine's Confessions

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He who makes the truth comes to the light.' The truth that

Augustine made in the Confessions had eluded him for years. It

appears before us as a trophy torn from the grip of the unsayable

after a prolonged struggle on the frontier between speech and

silence. What was at stake was more than words. The `truth' of

which Augustine spoke was not merely a quality of a verbal formula,

but veracity itself, a quality of a living human person.

Augustine `made the truth'Ð"Ð"in this sense, became himself

truthfulÐ"Ð"when he found a pattern of words to say the true thing

well. But both the `truth' that Augustine made and the `light' to

which it led were for him scripturally guaranteed epithets of

Christ, the pre-existent second person of the trinity. For

Augustine to write a book, then, that purported to make truth and

seek light was not merely a reflection upon the actions of his life

but pure act itself, thought and writing become the enactment of


Behind this fundamental act of the self lay powerful and

evident anxietiesÐ"Ð"evident on every page. Augustine is urgently

concerned with the right use of language, longing to say the right

thing in the right way. The first page of the text is a tissue of

uncertainty in that vein, for to use language wrongly is to find

oneself praising a god who is not God. The anxiety is intensified

by a vertiginous loss of privacy. Even as he discovers that he

possesses an interior world cut off from other people, he realizes

that he lies open before God: there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to


Anxiety so pervades the Confessions that even the implicit

narrative structure is undermined. When on the first page we hear

that our heart is restless until there is repose in God, the

reasonable expectation is that the text will move from restlessness

to rest, from anxiety to tranquility. In some ways that is true:

on baptism care flies away, and the last page looks forward to the

tranquility of endless praise in heaven. But the conversion story

leaves the Augustine of this text far more uneasy than we might

have expected. The proper culmination for an optimistic

Confessions would be mystic vision as fruit of conversion (see

preceding 10.ÑŠ1.ÑŠ1). But instead the last half of Bk. 10 and the

whole of Bks. 11 to 13Ð"Ð"not incidentally the parts of the work that

have most baffled modern attempts to reduce the text to a coherent

patternÐ"Ð"defy the expected movement from turmoil to sedation and

show an Augustine still anxious over matters large and small. It

is unclear at what date it became possible, or necessary, for

Augustine to endure that continuing tension. At the time of the

events narrated in the first nine books, he surely expected more

repose for his troubles.

The book runs even deeper than that. Augustine believes that

human beings are opaque to themselves no less than to others. We

are not who we think we are. One of the things Augustine had to

confess was that he was and had been himself sharply different from

who he thought he was. Not only was this true of his wastrel youth

(to hear him tell it), but it remained true at the time of

confessingÐ"Ð"he did not know to what temptation he might next submit

(10.ÑŠ5.ÑŠ7). We are presented throughout the text with a character

we want to call `Augustine', but we are at the same time in the

presence of an author (whom we want to call `Augustine') who tells

us repeatedly that his own view of his own past is only valid if

another authority, his God, intervenes to guarantee the truth of

what he says. Even the self is known, and a fortiori other people

are known, only through knowing God. So Augustine appears before

us winning self-knowledge as a consequence of knowledge of God; but

his God he searches for and finds only in his own mind.

His God is timelessly eternal, without time's distention and

hence anxiety, but also without the keen anticipations and rich

satisfactions, of humankind; his God is perfection of language

incarnate, without the ambages, and thus without the cunning

texture and irony, of human discourse; his God is pure spirit,

without the limitations, and thus without the opportunities, of

fleshliness. That God is in every way utterly inhuman; and yet

(here we approach



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