ST. AUGUSTINE: Confessions [Book IX-XIII]

I read Books I-VIII of St. Augustine’s Confessions more than one year ago in June of 2013. The first eight Books recounted Augustine’s transformation from an immoral youth to a pious man. At the end of Book VIII, Augustine fully embraces the Christian religion after receiving a vision in a garden.

Book IX recounts his subsequent actions, which includes being baptized, quitting his job as a teacher of rhetoric, and his involuntary grief over his mother’s death. I write that his grief was involuntary because Augustine’s beliefs regarding death and the grieving process are similar to those of Claudius in Hamlet. Claudius admonishes Hamlet for grieving over his father’s death, stating that “to persever/ In obstinate condolement is a course/ Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief./ It shows a will most incorrect to heaven.” Augustine reflects that he ought to be happy because his mother is in Heaven, and criticizes himself for weeping and harboring “impious stubbornness.” Finally, he reasons that his sorrow will be forgiven by God because God is infinitely merciful. This type of behavior, in my humble opinion, is detrimental to happiness and could result in neurosis. Freud demonstrated that the act of repressing certain emotions aroused by traumatic events is the primary catalyst of neurosis.

In Book X, St. Augustine shifts the focus of his writing from autobiographical information to philosophical and theological themes. He searches for God in the physical world, but soon realizes that He is not to be found there. Then he searches for God within his mind, specifically within his memory. His reflection on knowledge being remembrance is clearly influenced by Plato. The most striking insight he makes is that all men seek happiness; and therefore all men must have been happy at one time in the past because one cannot seek for what one does not know, but most men are mistaken about what constitutes a happy life. According to St. Augustine, happiness is the joy one finds in communion with God and the Truth. One attains communion with God by abstaining from the pleasures of the flesh. Consequently, St. Augustine proceeds to confess his past immoral indulgences, and prays to God for the strength to overcome his frailties. He constantly worries about sinning. He cannot walk abroad without fearing to be distracted by some idleness such as children playing or a dog chasing a rabbit. Frankly, I do not know how one could live with such a feeling of persistent guilt. If only “the Everlasting had not fixed his canon against self-slaughter,” I am certain that St. Augustine would have joyfully committed suicide.

St. Augustine discusses the nature of time in Book XI. He raises many of the same paradoxes cited by Aristotle in his Metaphysics. One such paradox is the non-existence of time. There are three parts of Time – past, present and future. The past and future clearly do not exist because the past is that which was but is not, and the future is that which will be but is not. Then Augustine considers what the nature of the present. The present cannot be a year because the year can be divided into months, the present cannot be a month because it can be divided into days, and so on until we finally come to the conclusion that the present has no duration – it does not exist in any space because if it did, it could be divided into past and future. Despite the apparent non-existence of time, we still can measure time. Augustine explains that we measure time with our souls. The soul is distended or stretched across eternity in the contemplation of the past and the future. The idea that the soul is stretched across time is fascinating. It does not produce any practical solutions, but it is nevertheless pleasurable to contemplate.

In Book XII, St. Augustine discusses the creation of the universe. He interprets the opening verses of Genesis to mean that God created all things out of a formless matter. The phrase ‘formless matter’ has no meaning for me. It is the same as a ‘square circle.’ Regardless of his nonsensical explanation of the creation of the universe, he does make a remarkable insight about eye witness testimony. He asserts that there are two kinds of disagreements that can arise when events are related by a true reporter – one disagreement occurs as to the veracity of the things related, the other disagreement occurs as to the meaning of the reporter. For example, a man might state that he had a “bad childhood.” Two other people who are listening to the man may come to entirely different conclusions about the truth of the man’s statement, and what the man meant to convey to the other two people. Applying this to the Bible, St. Augustine argues that there is no way to determine what the ancient writers meant. He then commits the fallacy of asserting that all interpretations of the Bible are true, even those interpretations that contradict one another.

St. Augustine continues his figurative exegesis of Genesis in Book XIII. For example, he argues that God’s command to increase and multiply means that man ought to increase and multiply one’s own rational thoughts, which will lead him to the Truth, to God. He also makes a distinction between gifts and biblical ‘fruits.’ He argues that the physical item that satisfies the necessities of life – money, food, water, clothing, etc. – are gifts when given to impoverished men and women without the right will, but these necessaries become ‘fruits’ when the person providing the necessaries gives them in the name of righteousness. In this way, he is very much like Kant, who favored a deontological moral system.

“This world with all its delights became contemptible to us.”

“My soul is on fire to know this most intricate enigma.”

“Two sorts of disagreements arise when a thing is in words related by true reporters; one, concerning the truth of the things, the other, concerning the meaning of the relater.”

“So when one says, ‘Moses meant as I do’; and another, ‘Nay, but as I do,’ I suppose that I speak more reverently, ‘Why not rather as both, if both be true?’ And if there be a third, or a fourth, yea if any other sees any other truth in those words, why may not he be believed to have seen all these, through whom the One God hath tempered the holy Scriptures to the senses of many, who should see therein things true but divers?”

“Fire tends upward, a stone downward. They are urged by their own weight, they seek their own places. Oil poured below water, is raised above the water; water poured upon oil, sinks below the oil. They are urged by their own weights to seek their own places. When out of their order, they are restless; restored to order, they are at rest. My weight, is my love; thereby am I borne, whithersoever I am borne. We are inflamed, by Thy Gift we are kindled; and are carried upwards; we glow inwardly, and go forwards. We ascend Thy ways that be in our heart, and sing a song of degrees; we glow inwardly with Thy fire, with Thy good fire, and we go; because we go upwards to the peace of Jerusalem.”

“By hope we are saved.”

“The soul lives by avoiding what it dies by affecting. Contain yourselves from the ungoverned wildness of pride, the sluggish voluptuousness of luxury, and the false name of knowledge: so that the wild beasts may be tamed, the cattle broken to the yoke, the serpents, harmless. For these be the motions of our mind under an allegory; i.e. the haughtiness of pride, the delight of lust, and the poison of curiosity, are the motions of a dead soul; for the soul dies by forsaking the fountain of life, and is taken up by this transitory world, and is conformed unto it.”

8 thoughts on “ST. AUGUSTINE: Confessions [Book IX-XIII]”

  1. “He interprets the opening verses of Genesis to mean that God created all things out of a formless matter. The phrase ‘formless matter’ has no meaning for me. It is the same as a ‘square circle.’ ”

    “Formless matter” might make more sense if you think about this in terms of Plato’s Timaeus. There, you have non-being (necessity) and being (reason) merging to create the world of becoming, what we live in for the most part, like when we’re playing Super Mario instead of reading the Timaeus. Plato’s creation mythos was meant to be a sort of apology to Parmenides, who thought everything was being, and movement (the world of becoming) was an illusion. But Plato really wanted to account for this visible world; hence, non-being was reluctantly included in Plato’s cosmology.

    But whatever. I’m gonna go steal a pear just for the heck of it. And then I’m gonna eat it and not feel guilty. And it will taste even more delicious because I stole it.

    1. I appreciate your attempt to clarify the “matter” for me 🙂

      Unfortunately, I still believe the term ‘formless matter’ is nonsensical, especially because I just finished reading a Montaigne essay. His skepticism is so convincing that I often have difficulty accepting any assertion to be logical for at least a week after reading one of his essays.

      With regards to the pear, don’t forget to feed the pigs.

  2. Perhaps I exemplify Augusine’s point about different readers having different interpretations of a text. The Confessions to me are Augustine baring the dark recesses of his soul and it is this aspect of his identity through which Augustine is understood. There is another Augustine the practical administrator and politician in his role as the bishop of Hippo and the teacher in ‘On Christian Teaching’ and philosopher in ‘The City of God’. The Augustine I see in one with a multifaceted personality, a confident successful individual reader who suffers as we all do from dark moments and periods.
    Can I recommend one of my favorite books to be added to your reading list? Erasmus’s ‘The Adages’ particularly his essay entitled ‘War is sweet to those who have never tried it.’

    1. Erasmus is certainly an influential writer of the Western World. Many of the Greek and Latin proverbs that he compiled in his Adagia have become commonplace in our language. Without his work, I believe that many of those proverbs would have been lost or would have faded away in obscurity.

      I will definitely seek out the essay you mentioned.

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