Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Sort of Book is Confessions?

The Genre of Confessions

James J. O’Donnell comments; “Augustine never practices the humility of the man who would escape attention. In prostrating himself before the divine in the Confessions, Augustine performs an astonishing act of self-preservation and self-justification and paradoxically, self-aggrandizement.”[i] Charles T. Mathewes has pointed out that our perception of St. Augustine precisely at this point is clouded by our modern notions of autobiography. Is the act of writing one’s story down not inherently vain? Mathewes argues that Augustine’s work “is not in fact merely autobiographical, it is properly speaking anti-autobiographical”[ii] The aim is pedagogical and psychological, helping us to recognize negatively that our sinful lives are far less intelligible than we presume and positively that our existence is a gift of sheer grace on God’s part. There is no presumption that we narrate our own lives, but rather that the story is only intelligible from the perspective of salvation.[iii] Does this allow St. Augustine to escape O’Donnell’s criticism? Augustine is probably not completely free of vanity, but Mathewes’ point is well taken and topic of grace is one of Augustine’s most prevalent themes.

Although parts of the work may have been published previously the work as a whole has a definite unity. The work seems to be divided into three parts. Books I-IX discuss Augustine’s past life, Book X his present life and books XI-XIII are a commentary on Genesis 1 and some philosophical issues. Scholars are not agreed on a single unifying theme. The ascent of the soul to God (or the fall and return of the soul to God) is one prominent theme. Others have focused on Book XI.2.26 and Augustine’s treatment of memory. Augustine discusses a memoria (memory) of the past (Books I-IX ), a contuitus (an intensive look) of the present (Book X) and an expectatio (anticipation) of the future (Books XI-XIII).[iv]

John Cavadini has suggested that although Augustine follows the ancient custom of not speaking directly about the secrets of the Eucharistic rite, he is nonetheless alluding to a Eucharistic understanding throughout this discourse.[v] The theme of memory is in fact Eucharistic. He notes that, “the Eucharist is at the intersection of memory and hope.”[vi] In fact, “the person bound to the Eucharist in faith is bound to the memorial of God’s mercy that configures or even defines all of one’s own memory.”[vii]

A related theme is St. Augustine’s connection between the vices of 1 John 2:16 “the desire of the flesh, and the desire of the eyes, and the arrogance of a life” (concupiscentia carnis est, et concupiscentia oculorum, et superbia vitæ) and the triple concupiscence of the vices libido (lust of the flesh), curiositas (curiosity) and superbia (pride of life)[viii] O’Donnell sees this triadic pattern as the key to the first eight books and part of Book X. In Book X Augustine discusses each of the five senses as concupiscence of the flesh. He discusses touch (X.30.42), taste (X.31.45), smell (X.32.48), hearing (X.33.50) and sight (X.34.53) before moving on to curiosity (X.35.57) and finally worldly ambition (ambitio saecula) in Book X.38.63.[ix]

In the end, Augustine’s ‘confessions’ are not his alone but those of Adam and Eve and of the whole human race. The Confessions are rather the story of God’s own saving action and gracious work of forgiveness which culminates on the cross and is made present to us in the Eucharist. It is the story of our fallen state and of the “healing remedy who hung upon a tree, the medicine for our wounds” (Conf. X.13,35).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011



[i] O’Donnell, Augustine, p. 36.

[ii] Charles T. Mathewes, “Book One: The Presumptuousness of Autobiography and the Paradoxes of Beginning” in A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, Ed. Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy, (Louisville: Westminster Press, 2003), p. 8.

[iii] Ibid., p. 8-9.

[iv]Van Fleteren, “Confessions,” 227-232, esp. 28.

[v]John C. Cavadini, “Eucharistic Exegesis in Augustine’s Confessions” Augustinian Studies 41:1 (2010) 87-108, esp. p. 89.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii]Cf. 1 John 2:16 “sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life (NAB).” N. Joseph Torchia, “Curiositas In The Early Philosophical Writings of Saint Augustine” Augustinian Studies 19 (1988) 111 – 119. Torchia notes, “curiositas is intimately connected with Augustine’s theory of the soul’s fall. Curiositas abets the fall in several ways. In epistemological terms, it inspires the soul’s interest in lesser realities; such an interest manifests itself in natural science and those intellectual pursuits which direct the soul to vain, empty images. In a metaphysical sense, it prompts the soul to abandon a “higher”, contemplative mode of being in favor of a “lower,” temporal one. In a moral context, curiositas fosters the soul’s commitment to partial, limited goods in opposition to an abiding commitment to a greater, all-encompassing Good,” p. 118.

[ix] Cavadini, p. 100 n. 53.

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