Monday, 25 October 2010

Summary of Book III

Carthage. Cicero and scripture. False seeking. Justice. Reading.

Love remains a major theme as Augustine gives an account of his time in Carthage. But so does confusion about the true nature of love. The account of his student days continues the story of how created things failed to satisfy a hunger within. Theatre provides an opportunity to analyse the nature of true compassion. Love of theatre led to a life that was not real life at all. Yet even though God punished, the punishment was not equivalent to the guilt. Mercy hovered over Augustine even as he wandered far from God.

Study involved textbooks on eloquence. Cicero captured Augustine, and encouraged a return to God. He discovered a longing for the immortality of wisdom. His values and priorities changed. Reading Cicero encouraged Augustine to seek wisdom wherever found. Yet the lack of Christ’s name in Cicero’s work dampened enthusiasm. This deficiency led Augustine to read the holy scriptures to find out what they were like. In his youthful pride what he discovered disappointed him. The scriptures seemed unworthy of comparison with Cicero.

This disappointment explains the attraction of the Manichees. They combined “slick talk” with reference to Christ. They spoke much of truth but actually knew nothing about it. Augustine continued in confusion. Desire for God was frustrated through seeking God in created things. Just as food in dreams does not nourish the body, so the wisdom of the Manichees did not satisfy. Augustine was seeking God, yet he was travelling further away from the truth he sought.

One consequence of this waywardness was ignorance about the nature of justice. The art of poetic composition becomes an illustration of how justice is prescribed at various times in different contexts. Augustine’s youthful and foolish reading of the scriptures made him highly critical of biblical heroes. They simply acted according to God’s timely commands. What God commands has to be done, even if it has never been previously done.

There are proper good actions that people do not approve. And there are many actions praised by humankind which on God’s testimony are to be censured. For Augustine, a just human society is one which submits to God. Happy are those people who know that God is the source of moral precepts. As a young man Augustine was not happy.

Monica’s vision pictured her son’s restoration. But for nine years he would remain in the deep mire and darkness of falsehood. Seeking advice from a bishop, Monica is told that her son remains unready to learn. Earlier we read Augustine confess how unprepared he was to read and understand holy scripture. Monica is told to pray. She is encouraged to think that by his reading her son will discover the error of his ways. Reading becomes a significant theme in Augustine’s salvation and success.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Summary of Book II

Wicked ways. Streets of Babylon. Stealing pears. Friendship a dangerous enemy.

Perhaps the key idea is described in the opening line of paragraph 2. As a young man Augustine wanted to love and be loved. This desire was the motivation for all of his wicked ways as he walked the streets of Babylon. All his sinful acts were ways of seeking to fulfil a need for companionship. In order to avoid being despised and rejected Augustine would pretend to acts of depravity.

Love was confused with lust. There was conflict between acceptable human solutions to the problem of lust, and God’s design for holy marriage. To be chaste and virginal was beyond Augustine. Yet he had no desire to fulfil what he perceived to be the obligations of holy matrimony. Augustine’s monogamous relationship with his concubine would last for several years. The son from that relationship no doubt inspired the infancy narrative in Book I. Far from being a sex crazed maniac before his conversion, as a young adult Augustine would settle into a socially acceptable domestic relationship.

But God’s anger was upon him without his awareness of it. It was as if God was silent. The words of Monica to restrain his disorder were God’s words. In Augustine’s waywardness God was always present, “mercifully punishing” with the intention of turning his desires to purer objects. For all that Monica was concerned for Augustine, this concern was not a pure concern. Augustine’s parents were more concerned for his worldly success than his devotion to God’s ways. Although Monica had fled from the heart of Babylon, she still lingered in the outskirts of the city.

Augustine’s confession and recalling of his wicked ways suddenly shifts from lust to theft. The sole reason for his crime was the wickedness of his heart. There was a love of falling into ruin and sin. What good thing was being perverted in the sin of stealing pears? If all sin is some perversion of good, what was the motive in this seemingly pointless misdemeanor? Augustine had access to better pears. If all the perverted ways of humanity imitate the Lord in some manner, in what way was stealing the pears a reflection of God’s high and true goodness?

Augustine was conscious at the time that he would not have committed the crime alone. The crime was committed for a laugh. Bad company corrupts good character. But in Augustine’s experience it was wickedness not goodness below the surface. At the end of his analysis of the crime, Augustine admits that he is unable to understand the foul affair. Yet he now knows the forgiveness and joy of God. He is no longer fearful of that wrath which once hovered over him.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Summary of Book I

Prayer. Nature of God. Infancy. Childhood and early education.

Each book in Confessions begins with a prayer. The opening prayer of Book I is fuller than most of the other prayers. It leads into a brief discussion of the nature of God. From the opening paragraph the reader is confronted with Old and New Testament verses, in particular references to the Psalms. Prayer is a call for God to come to (even to enter into) the one praying. The act of prayer requires some sort of pre-existing faith and belief.

However to call on God is to request something beyond comprehension. The one who calls only exists because of the presence of the One called. The One called is the One who fills all things already. In asking who God is Augustine introduces a minor theme of the whole work. He calls on God the Lord, citing Psalm 17:32. He describes the One he is calling by listing attributes of the Lord God. But then Augustine hints at the impossibility of communicating anything about God. God is unique. God cannot be fully described or known. The whole creation cannot contain God fully, even though God is fully present everywhere in all space and time. How, then, can words contain God?

Yet Augustine writes words and sentences. And he quotes words and sentences from Scripture. And he prays to be given words. Words can be signs of what the indescribable God is. Early in the account of infancy, Augustine writes of speechless infants making wordless signs in communication. As the infant grows the mind learns to recognise and understand humanly determined word signs. The infant learns to use them to enter “more deeply into the stormy society of human life.” Human society is stormy because of the battle between sinful wills trying to gain supremacy. In his early education, and even in his infancy, Augustine thinks he was a sinner trying to persuade people to bow to his will: “so tiny a child, so great a sinner.”

Though the content of his education included vanities (his exercises “mere smoke and wind”) Augustine asks the Lord to turn his learning to good use. God the Lord gave him good gifts. Augustine then used those good gifts for sinful ends. Although the Lord reigns in silence, He will not always be silent. In fact, the passions and delights of men in their judicial word games are signs of the penalty of God’s law. And so Augustine prays to be kept through the proper use of his gifts.

Much of the writing appears mere rhetoric. We are not provided with theories of God, language, infancy, education or sin. But every paragraph contains subtle qualified statements of wisdom. Comments on this post can take up some of those statements. Group members should feel free to contribute their own posts. For the moment let’s stick with themes and content from Book I. I've posted this summary a little earlier than originally planned. Expect my summary of Book II before the end of October 2010.