Men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves.
– Augustine Confessions Book 10
In the summer of 386 CE Augustine, then Professor of Rhetoric at Milan, sat with his friend Alipius in a small garden. He was in such turmoil about whether to convert to Christianity he was quite unable to relate to his friend, and moved away to be alone. Bursting into tears, he threw himself under a fig tree. Lying there, he heard the voice of a child chanting: ‘Tolle, lege’: ‘Take up and read.’ Interpreting the phrase as a divine command, Augustine rushed back to his friend. Picking up Paul’s Epistle to the Romans he opened it at random: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.’ Even before he had reached the end of the passage, Augustine experienced, in his own words, a light flooding his heart, dispelling all remaining doubts. He then handed the epistle to Alipius who, reading the lines that followed – ‘Him that is weak in the faith receive thee’ – also immediately converted.
Augustine’s conversion had momentous consequences. For he was not only to become the Bishop of Hippo but, drawing the philosophy of Plato and the theology of Paul into a most unstable synthesis, he was to become the most influential theologian of Christianity. At the same moment he became, almost unwittingly, the founding father of autobiography. His Confessions, telling at length the troubled story of his life and offering a full account of his conversion in the garden at Milan, came out around 400 to startle their Roman readers. The book constituted a new genre, a new kind of writing for relaying spiritual life as a continuous personal narrative of inner change and development. With no comparable counterpart in either the Classical or the Hebraic traditions, the Confessions narrated with a lyrical directness and sustained subjectivity the life of the author, from his birth, through his childhood and early manhood to his anguished conversion to Christianity in Milan and the death of his mother at Ostia. As Augustine was to urge Darius, his friend and reader: ‘Look upon me and see what I was in myself and of myself.’
Even if the genre had to wait centuries for its full humanist flowering, a distinct literary form for the development and understanding of the self had broken into the republic of letters. It was a form in which the life of the author could be confessed, explored, narrated, queried, relived and judged, and in that vexed movement somehow developed further, integrated and taken forward. It had now become possible to take infinitely further what Sappho had courageously inaugurated in her erotic lyrics and what many of the Biblical books, from Job to Paul, had begun to approach: the expression of the self overhearing itself, the charting of the inner continents and chasms of the soul, the telling of the story of an individual life with its conflicts, confusions and aspirations. Frequently in Augustine’s Confessions the author turns inward, only to find himself a bewildering enigma: ‘I had become a puzzle to myself, asking my soul again and again: “Why are you downcast? Why do you distress me?” but my soul had no answer to give.’
In the Confessions the problematic nature of the self is not to be escaped; it has to be confronted and brought before God. The aim of Augustine’s writing is, at times, unremittingly reflexive; its aim is self-investigation directed at an understanding that must remain forever imperfect. Thus it was that the Confessions fashioned a new kind of poetic-philosophical writing from the depths; a prose-poem-psalm-prayer that, relying on the recollective power of memory, wove the tenses of time into one fabric. Not memoir, not apologia, but autobiography: the writing (graphein) of the life (bios) of the self (autos). Augustine’s book is nothing less than a canonical text in the life of western consciousness, disclosing something like a mutation in self-interrogation, however problematic the text, however flawed some of the informing conceptions.
What were the conditions that made such a literary innovation possible? To answer this question we must see that Augustine’s work, like so many other masterpieces, was also, paradoxically, an act of inspired conservation, drawing on both Classical and Hebraic traditions. If it was a work of astounding originality, it was at the same time a profound inner sublation of all that had gone before. Augustine is the most exuberant of plagiarists. In the first chapter of the Confessions, consisting of four short paragraphs, the Bible is quoted five times; while in the work as a whole there are nearly six hundred direct citations and countless allusions. The book is inconceivable without the cadences of the Prophets and the Psalms, the parables of the Gospels, or the climactic epistles of Paul. But the chords of classical literature, rhetoric and philosophy vibrate through the symphony of the text as well, not only in direct quotations from such Latin writers as Horace, Cicero, Virgil and Sallust, but also in the constant adaptation of Platonic and Plotinian arguments, as also in the frequent application of a logical analysis quite alien to Hebraic sensibility. Clearly, both the analytic Professor of Rhetoric and the evangelical Bishop of Hippo are at work. Two distinct traditions of language are in operation. The Biblical forms of narration allow Augustine to recreate his experience as a turbulent reality with the gusto of immediate speech, while the classical forms of philosophy and rhetoric allow him (at his best) to analyse and understand its import with memorable precision.
Yet the dominant note of Augustine’s Confessions, established in the very first sentence of the book, remains unmistakably Biblical. The reader recognises it at once: that intimate tone of Jacob and Job, of Isaiah and Ezekiel, that urgent voice addressing a mysterious personal God under the rule of absolute faith: ‘Hinne-ne’ – ‘Behold, here I am.’ It is the very intimacy of Biblical address that allows the author to speak openly, to confess himself, to begin the task of telling his convoluted story. The original Latin text makes clear that all the active verbs involve utterance: speaking, confessing, invoking, asking, saying, pleading. The prevailing rhythm is that of immediate talking with an all but breathless listening. For Augustine the heart speaks and then listens with its ears. And as the heart speaks and listens, so the spiritual protagonist – in the manner of Paul and the Biblical Prophets – longs to encounter the very face of the living God he addresses. This speaking out of consciousness, this pleading before the intimate God who is, at once, most secret and most present, creates a style of writing which can catch the fluidity of immediate consciousness, the spontaneous currents of elusive and shifting feeling.
At times, the words flow almost in the manner of stream of consciousness writing; almost like a child speaking, discovering his material as the words rush from the tip of the tongue, occasionally faltering at the edge of the unknown, and starting again. Instead of looking down at his feelings from an impersonal distance and soberly placing them in a system of syntactical qualifications, as was the practice of classical composition, Augustine recreates his emotions from within. The poetic pattern of parataxis allows him to capture the thick and quick of emotion; the words not only denote, they race electrically along the tracks of feeling as they are recollected and confessed. There is nothing Stoical here. Far from wanting to root out the affective life, Augustine endorses the realm of immediate feeling – ‘heart’ remains his constant metaphor – and, in his long conversation with God, he relishes the bitter tears of remorse. Hellenic composure has been erased and in its place there opens an infinite depth, resonant with emotion, if also harrowed by guilt and edged with fear.
Here one of the dominant models for Augustine was the Psalms – a work which opens the Confessions and forms a sublime counterpoint running through the whole polyphony of the book. But the urgent speaking voice also derives from common religious practices of Augustine’s own historic period: particularly those of the public confession, the conversion testimony and, less obviously, the contemplative prayers of the Neo- Platonists. Once again, one locates in Augustine’s work both a clear continuity with established practices and a remarkable transformation; for he internalises all of these symbolic forms to forge out of them a higher level of self-interrogation and a new literary genre, pregnant with possibilities – possibilities which he himself was barely able to grasp and which took centuries to unfold.
Most tangibly, the Confessions draws on the early Christian sacrament of Confession in which the believer brought transgressions, committed in the past, to consciousness and begged God for forgiveness. Most often, this ritual confession would be performed before a congregation of believers and culminate in a prayer of thanksgiving and praise. It can be seen, at once, that the early confessional possesses the quintessential rhythm of what will become, in the first instance, spiritual autobiography and then, later, under the humanist and refining powers of Petrarch, Montaigne and Rousseau, deep personal autobiography. Through the power of memory the penitent confronts past sins, then struggles to declare the various transgressions with heart-felt sorrow. In this way the past is brought fully into the present (a telling now of how it was then), allowing the repentant soul to face the future with a sense of atonement (at-one-ment) and inner renewal – a sacrament, yes, but also an act of therapeia.
It was part of Augustine’s artistic achievement to make the confessional voice a literary voice. In his ‘talking’ he made palpable the story of his life, not only with its deeds and thoughts, but also with the accompanying flow of sensations, feelings and apprehensions. Like nobody else before him, Augustine was able to represent his own life as a single unfolding drama. He permitted himself to speak his bewildering existence before God and used his quill to scrawl down the conversation. The colloquy released a remarkable authenticity. It gave Augustine the courage to probe his existence. He could openly acknowledge his greed, his desire for fame, his lasciviousness, his wet dreams, his love of flattery, the weakness of his will against the claims of his appetites; in short, the compulsions and contradictions that made him often an enigma to himself.
It was as if God in the dialogue held up a mirror in which Augustine could glimpse himself more objectively, and that such perception was possible only because the one who held the mirror loved the man who was painfully struggling for self-knowledge. The feeling of being ontologically affirmed enabled Augustine to penetrate far into the psyche, without being drowned in the polluted whirlpools he encountered. There were still defences in place and unconscious resistances; but he could bring much that he found there back to his attentive Creator, where it could be placed in the crucible of their relationship for further reflection or postponed for later reference. At times, Augustine invites God to share his flawed nature while, in an uneven act of reciprocity, he contemplates God’s beauty and plenitude. He writes: ‘My heart lies before you, O my God. Look deep within’ only to continue: ‘Cleanse me … by drawing my eyes to yourself.’ The movement is two-fold: down into the dark labyrinth of his soul and then up into the transcendental unity of the divine nature. The dialectic is crucial for Augustine’s growing self-awareness; it enables the introvert in him to analyse himself with a rigour and intensity not seen before in either Classical or Hebraic culture, while it allows the Christian convert in him to advance towards that life of transparent being before the divine, which is seen as the purpose and culmination of life. In such an encounter the infinite value of the individual soul emerges.
It is in this confessional matrix of faith that Augustine’s psychology is born, though it required the language of classical rhetoric and philosophy for its conceptual elaboration. He is generally regarded as a theologian, but from our perspective Augustine enters the cultural arena as one of the first cartographers of inner space – an early psycho-analyst and the first existentialist. His concern with mood and feeling is manifest on every page. Heraclitus had been named the weeping philosopher, but the epithet fits Augustine far better. Augustine is forever weeping. In this he is the very antithesis of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. He tells us how as a youth he measured the power of actors on the stage by the number of tears they could jerk from his eyes: the more tears the greater the performance. At his conversion in the garden in Milan he sheds, he tells us, a deluge of tears; while as a writer of confessions he relishes the tears of penitence that flow as he lists his various transgressions. Tears are the outer manifestation of inner emotion; almost their therapy. For Augustine feelings are essential to the growth of the individual; they possess meaning; their voltage moves and motivates. Part of the permanent value of the Confessions is the way it identifies and scrutinises these feelings and emotions – not as they might be tabulated in an elementary text-book on psychology, but as they are experienced in the agitated stream of life; not an objective taxonomy, but a subjective recreation of their nature requiring recognition and reflection. Here Augustine’s lucid account (in Book IV) of the grief he felt at the loss of a close friend is exemplary.
The analysis of feeling is, though, part of a much wider, more encompassing, psychology. For Augustine is concerned with the whole cosmology of the inner life: the character of the will, the nature of motive, the meaning of dreams, the power of compulsions, the drive of sexuality, the fact of ambivalence, the force of habit, the existence of the unconscious, the place of memory. (His sustained account of memory remains, after nearly two thousand years, a tour de force.) His personal re-creation of the inner life changed the dominant philosophical question from the classical form: What is man? to the existential: Who is man? It was, in a sense, the Biblical engagement with the nature of being turned speculative and introspective.
Thus Augustine, when he is at his least hectoring and at his most profound, came to exemplify a method of thinking within existence. The approach is caught well in his aphoristic formulation: ‘I wrangled with myself, in my own heart, about my own self.’ It is this introspective ‘wrangling’ with himself which empowered him to dissect the soul in an unprecedented manner and enabled him to suggest a more dynamic image of being. The classical question: What is man? tended to lure the individual thinker away from his own existence, turning him into an object among objects: a petrified thing to be classified in an exterior world according to moral types and moral ends, more a static zoology on the surface, than a pulsing psychology with depth. Augustine, in contrast, discloses the self as a hidden subject, full of contrary impulses, subject to compulsions, inherently mysterious, dangerously unstable and, finally, unknowable. These penetrating insights, drawing on both the Hebraic tradition of faith and the Hellenic tradition of speculation, constituted a huge advance in the story of the self.
And yet it has to be admitted, at the very same moment, that these strides in reflexive understanding are blackened by some of the darkest shadows ever cast upon the nature of human nature. No account of Augustine’s Confessions would be adequate that failed to touch on these negative aspects. In truth, the story of reflexive consciousness clamours for another reading of Augustine’s Confessions; a reading that refuses to coincide with the author’s assumptions and judgements, a reading ready to draw out the various contradictions that limit and subvert the conscious intentions of the work. I have considered the work as an act of literary and cultural integration, pointing to Augustine’s continuous internalisation of his own complex dual cultural heritage: the Hellenic and the Hebraic. But a more comprehensive study would have also to isolate the cracks and fissures – the blistered and tense places in the text where one discerns problems and pathologies, repressions and omissions. Indeed, it is equally as revealing to look at the Confessions in terms of discontinuities, fragmentations and irresolutions – to see the book, not as necessarily providing comprehensive responses to the questions posed by the reflexive self, but as forming (in part) a depository of misconceptions and pathologies destined to have an enormous influence on the western notion of identity and its ‘salvation’.
One of the great shifts recorded in the Confessions relates to the body and sexuality. The shrill condemnation of the carnal runs through the entire book. Yet Augustine’s actual experience escapes any discerning scrutiny. The negation expresses itself as an unquestioned loathing and an immediate distaste; a pre-judgement which declares itself in the bombastic manner of the writing and the extremity of the metaphors. The autobiographical art of precisely re-creating what memory yields – the art of which, at times, Augustine is such a master – deteriorates into a turgid rhetoric of selfdisgust, a hectoring battery of emotive words which effectively screen the experiential content.
Following the apostle Paul, Augustine viewed the temptation in the Garden of Eden not as a primordial myth but as a literal historical event, which carried in its wake the darkest genetic consequences. The moment Adam and Eve defied God by picking and eating the forbidden fruit, their nature was seen by Augustine as being permanently deformed. From that point onwards, the corruption was transmitted through the male sperm to every member of the human race. Each and every child was born in the state of Original Sin, possessing an innate tendency towards depravity. Augustine was convinced that, from the moment Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation, their sexuality slipped beyond the control of their will. After the Fall they became self-consciously aware of disturbing sensations over which they had no rational power: the male erection, the female orgasm, the nocturnal emission. In its catastrophic state of exile the erotic body had gained the power to defy human intention. As an outcome, all subsequent sexuality was interpreted as inherently anarchic: a quivering canker at the heart of natural existence. This reading of the Fall permeates Augustine’s personal account of his conversion in the garden at Milan; the will that resists his conscious intention to convert to Catholicism is the will of fallen human nature and is clearly seen as being welded to sexual desire and the illicit pleasures of the body.
It is illuminating to see how the Augustinian notion of salvation through the steadfast denial and overcoming of ‘The Flesh’ stands in marked contrast to the classical tradition of eudaimonia. The concept of eudaimonia pointed to the harmony of existence, to the development of each part of the self in relationship to an evolving whole; a human flourishing in the stream of time; an alert readiness before the world. In Augustine, salvation is a more intense but narrower concept. It is constricted in its range of interests and gazes inexorably, beyond the natural and the historical domains, to a fallen world where supernatural forces contend for the individual soul. Under the aegis of such thinking, the classical daimon (the good spirit, that mysterious inner voice whispering to the puzzled Socrates) became the Christian demon, while the Greek Hades, the shadowy home of wraiths after the death of three-dimensional individuals, became the Christian Hell, the place where transgressing souls would be tormented for all eternity – and with an intensity far greater than anything experienced in this passing world. In eudaimonia it is fulfilment in this world that matters; in salvation the fulfilment that is prayed for is mostly deferred to a spiritual world that comes into its own after death.
The particular form of Augustine’s preoccupation with salvation reveals further seismic shifts from classical philosophy and Stoic praxis. It manifests in the Confessions as a certain dissociation of consciousness. Constantly, in his praise of God, Augustine disparages his own humanitas. He resembles the worm of Job, which crawls along the ground powerless before its God who, in contrast, effortlessly mounts his cosmic displays of sublime beauty. All that is good is done by God; all that is evil is done by man. Such projection and dissociation are central to the theology of the Confessions, creating a number of images of self – as ‘the least of men’, as ‘the worst of sinners’ – which will become the standard tropes of subsequent spiritual autobiography. In the emerging Christian world this overwhelming sense of sin before life and of guilt before the body seemed to have penetrated the deepest recesses of human consciousness.
Certainly, reading the Confessions one becomes aware of terrible contradictions and burning tensions, aware of a writer who, for all his literary brilliance, cannot quite unify the many disparate elements he has brought into play. The phenomenological analyses of states of consciousness do not sit easily with the submissive acts of unquestioning faith or the occasional attacks on intellectual curiosity; the philosophical language of Plotinus does not integrate with the evangelical language of Paul, or with the literal reading of the Fall; the cultivated hypotaxis of rhetoric does not mesh with the demotic parataxis of the Bible. For all its originality the book remains unwieldy and diffuse. The unstable Semtex of the work explodes in the hands of the reader releasing the discords of two seemingly irreconcilable cultures and a number of irreconcilable Augustinian selves. Textually, if not intentionally, there are multiple identities at work, speaking with diverse tongues, tense with ambivalent and, even, contradictory meanings. In its conflicting registers and dislocated tones – of pious self-abasement and cantankerous fanaticism, of conditional reason and unconditional faith – we become aware of those warring energies which will run like a turbid river through western culture. At the same time, the book provided the dialectical conditions for the further growth of the reflexive self, which centuries later brought about the flowering of personal autobiography.