Augustine’s Confessions and Contemporary Concerns, ed. David Vincent Meconi, SJ. Saint Paul: Saint Paul Seminary Press, 2022.
Saint Augustine is one of those names that just about everyone has heard but fewer and fewer people have read. A lot of misattributions are given to him: the man who invented original sin; denied free will; or that he was the inventor of the practice of infant baptism. Beyond misattributions, Augustine is most famous for his quasi-autobiographical work Confessions, a common reading for students in theology, religious studies, and philosophy. Augustine is everywhere, even if many haven’t read him—though readers should.
In a new edited anthology, Augustine’s Confessions and Contemporary Concerns, David Meconi, the leading Jesuit scholar of Augustine, gathers a thematic and chronological reading through Augustine’s most famous work from leading Augustinian scholars in the United States. “Every generation brings a new story with which to read Augustine’s story and the narrative of the twenty-first century is yet again that of a generation unrestful and unsure…As such, the cultural emptiness of the twenty-first century offers a space where Augustine’s voice can be heard anew.” All I can do, here, is nod my head in agreement.
Amid the wilderness of the twenty-first century, Augustine’s Confessions and Contemporary Concerns is an important work that not only provides a window into understanding the immense depths of Augustine’s Confessions but also serves as a medicinal work meant to heal the wounded and restless souls of hypermodernity wrestling with sex, love, transcendence, good and evil, and the yearnings of the human heart—the perennial realities that Augustine dealt with so poignantly and perceptively which has made him into a perennial author. Confessions is truly an enduring work worthy of reading, or rereading, in today’s desolate wasteland.
This anthology is more than just a chronological reflection on one of the greatest texts of human thought and literature; it also engages with some of the best and controversial Augustinian scholarship over the last 50 years. Names like Robert J. O’Connell, James J. O’Donnell, and Phillip Cary need no introduction to those of us who have been engaged in Augustinian study and scholarship in recent years but seeing our many authors dialoging with these scholars (and many others, including Charles Taylor) brings a tour de force of Augustinian interpretations to the fore for the reader. Although I am something of an O’Donnell critic (O’Donnell marvels at Augustine’s genius and influence but ultimately hates him and Christianity), what cannot be disputed about O’Donnell’s commentary on Augustine’s Confessions is how we all fail Augustine in interpreting the great saint and having many interpretations of Augustine’s multifaceted work in this single volume helps both the lay reader and serious student of Augustine to dialogue with the masterful bishop.
Here I will take the time to dialogue with some of our authors. First, John W. Martens attempts to de-theologize Augustine’s critical comments on infancy and sin in the first chapter by explaining Augustine in the context of early childhood imperial educational culture. For many of us today, Augustine’s seemingly scathing reflections on his infancy and own depravity is a hard pill to swallow. It is for Martens, who attempts to offer a de-theologized reading (rejecting original sin in the process) while reframing Augustine’s critical infancy narrative as that of an imprisoned man ensnared in late antique Roman ideology and so abused by his early childhood trauma he couldn’t escape its acidic effects on his intellect and, therefore, his writing. As Martens notes, “Augustine agrees with ancient medical and scientific culture that the adult in totality already exists like a seed in the child, and so Augustine finds it reasonable to attribute to the little child motives, schemes, and sinfulness that one might properly attribute to forty-year-old, eighteen-year-old, or even ten-year-old Augustine” and “Augustine on this issue is an ancient Roman man: childhood is just preparation, a stage to pass through to adulthood, void of its own value or goodness.”
While this is undoubtedly true, just as much as Roman juridical law and jurisprudence influence Augustine’s theology of judgement and justification, Martens’s one-sided reading misses what Jeffrey Lehman hints at in his grand re-reading of Augustine’s pursuit of wisdom and Cicero’s Hortensius that I will discuss momentarily: Augustine’s reflection and critical commentary on his infancy and childhood education can be read as a systematic deconstruction of the bankruptcy of Roman imperial culture and its cruelty and emptiness and how it shattered lives (it clearly shattered Augustine’s life who is still bitter about his childhood experiences more than thirty years later). Martens is right to point out how Augustine’s childhood trauma under the strictly punitive Roman imperial ideology of childhood development influenced his attitudes on childhood and judicial theology (Augustine considers himself worthy of the punishment as a sinner despite feeling abused by his mentors and father at the same time), but it is also the case that Augustine’s undressing of the cruelty of the Roman childhood educational program serves to expose its horrors to readers. Rome wasn’t so great after all. Martens missed an opportunity to offer a deconstructive reading of the mythological grandeur of imperial Rome in his focus on dismissing Augustine’s theology of infant sin and other reflections on childhood philosophy.
This deconstruction of the “myth of Rome,” as Ernest Fortin has called Augustine’s critical project in Confessions and City of God, helps us understand what Jeffrey Lehman rightly sees in Augustine’s conflicted relationship with ancient education and pedagogy: the sophistic oratory of Isocrates and even the mere Sophia of the Platonists are ultimately insufficient for forming souls. While Lehman correctly sets the stage that Augustine’s conversion to monotheism through reading Cicero is “an intellectual conversion away from the rhetorical tradition [of education] and toward the philosophical,” he also points out that Augustine’s innovative reading of Cicero offers a “third ‘way of life’… one grounded in an intimate, personal encounter with the triune God who is Truth and Love.”
In my master’s thesis at Yale on Augustine’s deconstruction of Roman culture as a form of political theology, I argued that Augustine’s critical treatment of classical works wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the classical tradition but a deconstructive exposé of its shortcomings. Without Christ, the goodness, truth, and beauty of the Platonists and Virgil cannot not provide the satisfaction that their disciples are seeking. The Platonists and Virgilians need Christ, and that is what Lehman highlights in his remarkable chapter on “Augustine’s pedagogy of presence.”
The careful reader of Augustine will note that even as our young saint flees from God, God never flees from Augustine. Thus, although Augustine credits Cicero with turning his mind to higher and better things, he ultimately realizes God’s hand, rather than just Cicero’s human hand, in his conversion—his reorientation away from mere material goods to the ultimate Transcendental Good. As Lehman writes, “Looking back on the episode, Augustine the author confesses that at the time, he did not understand how God was at work in the situation. Nevertheless, he affirms the agency of God in the Hortensius episode and establishes a crucial connection between philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, and Wisdom itself, which comes from God.”
While Augustine deconstructs the emptiness of Roman culture without Christ, by keeping Christ tied to Cicero and Virgil (in the City of God most notably), Augustine’s third way allows us to see the beauty, goodness, and truth in classical authors as imperfect expressions of the Beauty, Goodness, and Truth of the Triune Deity made known to the world in Christ. Augustine deconstructs then Christianizes the classics in the process—Cicero is good when we see the revelation of Christ in Cicero whereby Cicero can be understood as an unknowing student of the only True Teacher: Jesus. Today’s humanistic renaissance in Christian education stands squarely on Augustine’s pedagogy of omnipresence.
Meconi’s chapter dealing with the “acidic allure of self-loathing” and the reality of misdirected love as causing one’s suffering, is, without doubt, the definitive understanding of Augustine’s seemingly complicated and at times contradictory theology of love. In highlighting the centrality of beauty to Augustine’s theology and how the desecration of beauty to make one’s self-loathing feel better Meconi writes, “The more I can destroy the beautiful the better I can feel about my own ugliness.” (This also helps explains the ugliness and self-loathing alienation of Dante’s hell vis-à-vis the beauty of paradise.)
Meconi also rebuffs the bad readings of Augustine’s pear tree incident inherited by Nietzsche and Oliver Wendell Holmes among others:
[Augustine] engaged in this communal act of theft not because of any real reason—he had better fruit at home, he wasn’t hungry, and so on—but simply because he loved tasting his own destruction…Augustine steals not out of inordinate love of some perceived good, but out of a twisted fascination with evil, and such dissolution raises a very important question in Augustine’s mind that he is still wrestling with decades later.
The question at hand during the pear tree incident concerns itself with the nature of pride, the self-love turned to an all-consuming destructive appetite to destroy the world and cut off the possibility of relationships, thus destroying any possibility of having a relationship with the good and beautiful that comes with intercommunal love. (Here, again, we see the traces of Augustine’s shadow over Dante’s Divine Comedy where pride and alienation dominate hell and the path to paradise is blazed through intercommunal relationships: Dante with Virgil in hell; Dante with Virgil and Statius in purgatory; Dante with Beatrice in heaven; Dante with the communion of saints and angels at paradise’s consummation.) Augustine singles out the pear tree incident not as his own confused ramblings of teenage fun (the common, and bad, misreading since Nietzsche), but because he identifies “psychic isolation” and the “powerful allure of decay” in his action. Augustine was so in love with decay and destruction that he even forgets his fake friends in the incident and focuses solely on his own self-destructive appetite to reveal to posterity how such a fascination with destruction ends up blotting everything else out and how you in your own destructive isolation become the focus of the anti-creation: deception, destruction, death.
Erika Kidd’s chapter on Augustine’s philosophy of “fugitive beauty” in Confessions helps illuminate De Trinitate, De Musica, and De Genesi ad litteram, for it reveals how Augustine’s enamored heart with beauty was a permanent fixture of his thought from early years to end of life. Contrary the easy misreading of dualism in Augustine which is thoroughly rebuffed in Kidd’s careful and insightful reading, Augustine’s treatment of creaturely love in De Trinitate and, especially, De Genesi ad litteram are made easier to understand through Kidd’s analysis of beauty in Confessions. Augustine’s grief over material, fleeting, beauty is that he didn’t love the beauty of the creature and creation properly—that their beauty is found in the source of beauty itself: God. It is not, as a cursory reading improperly gleans, that Augustine shuns his creaturely affection for the solely immaterial beauty of Transcendence. Rather, Kidd convincingly shows that Augustine didn’t love beauty enough because he had forgotten the source from which beauty came and is ultimately sustained: God. In God, the beauties of the creature and creation are magnified and made wholesome. To leave out God in the equation of creaturely and material beauty is to not actually love beauty at all but a phantom of one’s imaginative lust! That is what Augustine came to realize.
Given that this book deals with “contemporary concerns,” the gentle reader may now ask what have these chapters to do with contemporary issues? Martens chapter, while offering a limited and one-sided reading of Augustine’s critical commentary on childhood, also dialogues with the prevailing ideologies of children in the modern world and rejects the idolatry of autonomous children as problematic and argues that Augustine’s reflections show the need for good mentorship rather than the abuse he received in late antique Roman society and the hands-off ideology of autonomous children the contemporary world now embraces. Lehman’s hermeneutic of divine presence gleaned from Augustine’s reading has direct implications for Christian humanities education which remains the rare bright flame in America’s declining educational culture. Meconi’s chapter dialogues with the glamorized and heroic presentation of self-loathing and destruction found in Hollywood and popular music, especially pop-country: don’t fall for the acidic allure of self-loathing as Augustine did, there is nothing romantic about it. Kidd’s chapter shines a light on the struggle with creaturely grief we all go through and why it’s not a bad thing as various Augustine scholars have previously said (reading Augustine as offering a dualism of false beauty and love in the creature vs. the permanent beauty and love in God) and how Augustine’s theology and philosophy of beauty remains relevant to a contemporary world starved for beauty and love.
I will now turn to two more chapters that I think have the most pertinence to our culture and why Augustine remains and indispensable voice in our contemporary concerns.
In 2014, Joseph Bottum published An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. Bottum’s core thesis is that as Protestant (specifically, Calvinist) Christianity has receded, the spiritual concern of Americans hasn’t, and, as such, the restless anxiety of the sons and daughters of the Puritans have transmigrated into other mediums: environmentalism, politics, identity-affirmation, etc. Anxiety, however, isn’t new. Anxiety pervades the Confessions; Augustine’s restless heart is an anxious heart.
We tend to look upon anxiety as something negative. Andrew Hofer, in reinterpreting the theme of anxiety in Augustine, wants to redeem the anxious heart: “Anxiety sounds awful, but it varies considerably and always affirms to protect our existence when we perceive ourselves to be vulnerable or under attack.” Augustine was vulnerable and under attack: his spiritual uncertainty but craving for certainty was how he hoped to alleviate his intellectual and spiritual vulnerabilities and assailment. Wander though he did from sophistry to Manichaeism to Christianity, the anxious pilgrimage was motivated to protect his own soul. Embracing anxiety led Augustine to salvation.
In some ways, Hofer’s reading complements Lehman’s reading of Augustine’s theology of presence. The anxiety pervading Augustine’s heart inevitably leads him to recognize God’s presence in his life though he had been running from God then frantically searching for God through the philosophers and Manicheans before finding that final rest in the Triune God of Christian revelation. “God’s present Word removes anxiety and does something greater,” Hofer writes. Finding God confers peace through love and stills the anxious heart and soul.
Our own anxious age shouldn’t, therefore, see anxiety as wholly negative. The experience of anxiety is a warning, as it was for Augustine, of our spiritual desires and sickness of soul. The reason why Augustine is perennial is because in the mirror that is the Confessions, we don’t just see Augustine—we see ourselves. Whether in our pursuit of earthly vainglory, sexual debauchery, spiritual wandering, struggles with reading Scripture, moving from one friend to the next in search of companionship, Augustine’s life of anxious dread mirrors the various anxieties we ourselves feel and embody. Augustine can be a healthy antidote to our anxious age: Augustine’s peace in God is still an option anxious souls today.
Lastly, John Kenney’s chapter on the vision at Ostia dealing with Christian Transcendentalism in dialogue with contemporary materialism and secularism offers an insightful reading of that infamous event. Despite “rapid and sweeping secularism in the Western world” which has seemingly killed the possibility of an intellectual acceptance of Transcendence, Kenney notes what so many others have argued: we are still intensely spiritual despite the façade of secular materialism that is now so pervasive in our society. Young people, especially, may be disaffiliating with religion, but those same studies and surveys indicate these “nones” are still deeply spiritual: many still pray, want to live a life of goodness, and disavow atheism.
Furthermore, “Augustine was no stranger to materialism, relativism, and skepticism.” Sometimes we forget this in thinking our world of materialism, relativism, and extreme skepticism is something new. It isn’t. The world Augustine lived and moved in was a world not wholly dissimilar from ours: skepticism and impiety ran rampant, an imperial order constructed on war and slavery was decaying, new age spiritualities presented relief to souls ensnared in the maelstrom of chaos and confusion. There’s nothing new under the sun after all. Kenney’s reading of the vision at Ostia reminds us of the fundamental distinction between Platonic transcendentalism and Christian transcendentalism: relational love. In that distinction major implications follow.
The Plotinian ascent is that of a lonely intellect, as Augustine himself recounts in his famous solitary transcendental experience earlier in Confessions. What Augustine was missing was the communal experience of transcendental love and companionship. Only now, at the close of his autobiographical narrative, in the bosom of the church and the arms of his mother whom he dreamt of earlier, does Augustine finally experience transcendence rather than read about it and conceptualize it in the isolation of his mind. Transcendence, in Christianity, is an experience of relational love and not loneliness. Moreover, it is an experience with friends and lovers united in a human instantiation of the Trinity: Augustine, Monica, and God. The Christian experience of God is never lonely, it is not a journey of the alone to the alone, it an experience of relationship—one that is ultimately intimate and personal in nature.
Insofar that we who live in the atomistic hollowness of the empty rainbow, Augustine’s transcendentalism of loving experience in companionship remains as relevant now as it did 1600 years ago. The false hope of contemporary new age spirituality in search of cosmic experience is the isolative loneliness that it endorses. Much of contemporary self-help spiritualism is an atomistic vision enslaved to the atomism that it is rebelling against. “The transcendentalism of Augustine,” Kenney writes, “invites us to remove the buffering surrounding the atomized modern self and search out the interior depths of the soul, directing the soul through meditation on scripture and disciplining it through ethical precents found there. In that sense, the interior turn of the soul is a communal one, nesting in the book and the ethical practices of the Church.”
Augustine’s Confessions and Contemporary Concerns is not just a great exposition and critical commentary on the bishop of Hippo’s most enduring work, it is a great reminder of why the work is still so relevant after nearly two millennia. The perennial struggles recounted in the Confessions, Augustine’s wrestling with God and human nature, are still the contests we struggle with today despite our pretensions declaring otherwise. Most of the chapters are deeply insightful, not just in understanding the Confessions but also in understanding the world around us. So, in the words of the great saint himself: Tolle Lege.
*This review was first published at VoegelinView, 11 December 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of Finding Arcadia, The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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