Peter Brown

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Con­fes­sions by Au­gus­tine, trans­lated from the Latin by Sarah Ru­den

Con­fes­sions by Au­gus­tine, trans­lated from the Latin by Sarah Ru­den. Mod­ern Li­brary, 484 pp., $28.00

In 2012, Sarah Ru­den brought us, in a crack­ling trans­la­tion, the sec­ond­cen­tury-AD Latin novel known as The Golden Ass of Apuleius. The Golden Ass is full of im­pu­dent in­con­gruities. A topsy-turvy tale about a hap­less young man turned into a don­key is com­bined with a love story (of Cupid and Psy­che) as bright and de­light­ful as the ta­pes­tries that would il­lus­trate it through­out the late Mid­dle Ages and the Re­nais­sance. Ut­terly un­ex­pect­edly, the book ends with the vi­sion of a god­dess ris­ing from the swell of a moon­lit sea.1 Ru­den now leads us to a yet more in­con­gru­ous mas­ter­piece. A lit­tle over two cen­turies af­ter The Golden Ass, we dis­cover a per­son who ap­pears to be a highly Lati­nate North African such as Apuleius had been—a prod­uct, in­deed, of a school es­tab­lished in Apuleius’s own home­town, Madau­ros (mod­ern M’Daourouch, in Al­ge­ria, near the tense bor­der with Tu­nisia)—only to learn that he was a mid­dle-aged Chris­tian bishop, with his back turned to us, speak­ing end­lessly, ur­gently to his God. We call this riv­et­ing di­a­logue with God the Con­fes­sions of Saint Au­gus­tine. It was prob­a­bly writ­ten in 397 AD, a few years af­ter Au­gus­tine had be­come a Chris­tian bishop in Hippo (mod­ern Annaba, in Al­ge­ria: one of the few good ports avail­able west of Carthage, shel­tered by a row of promon­to­ries that pro­trude into the Mediter­ranean like a fleet strain­ing at an­chor to take sail for Rome). The Con­fes­sions is as much a jum­ble of con­trasts as is Apuleius’s dirty, courtly, and ec­static tale. We try to an­chor it by call­ing it the first Chris­tian au­to­bi­og­ra­phy—even, in more heady moods, the first au­to­bi­og­ra­phy ever. But to call it an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is a mis­lead­ing half-truth. In the first nine books of the Con­fes­sions, Au­gus­tine does in­deed de­scribe his life from his birth in 354 to his con­ver­sion in Mi­lan in 386, and the death of his mother, Mon­nica, at Os­tia, in late 387. Only these books, ac­count­ing for slightly more than half of the text, deal with Au­gus­tine’s past life. Af­ter that—for a fur­ther 206 pages in Ru­den’s trans­la­tion—the great work floats tri­umphantly out to sea, ever fur­ther

1The Golden Ass, trans­lated by Sarah Ru­den (Yale Univer­sity Press, 2012), re­viewed in these pages by G.W. Bow­er­sock, De­cem­ber 20, 2012. away from mod­ern ex­pec­ta­tions of an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

In books ten and eleven, we are treated to minute self-ex­am­i­na­tion and to spells of philo­soph­i­cal heavy lift­ing on the na­ture of mem­ory and time. In the last two books, Au­gus­tine plunges into the shad­owy, mag­i­cal for­est of the He­brew Scrip­tures to med­i­tate on what Moses had re­ally meant when he de­scribed the six days of Cre­ation.

So what is the cor­rect re­ac­tion when we open the Con­fes­sions? It should, per­haps, be one of acute em­bar­rass­ment. For we have stum­bled upon a hu­man be­ing at a pri­mal mo­ment— stand­ing in prayer be­fore God. Hav­ing in­truded on Au­gus­tine at his prayers, we are ex­pected to find our­selves pulled into them, as we lis­ten to a flow of words spo­ken, as if on the edge of an abyss, to a God on the far side—to a be­ing, to all ap­pear­ances, ver­tig­i­nously sep­a­rate from our­selves.

The mea­sure of the suc­cess of Ru­den’s trans­la­tion is that she has man­aged to give as rich and as di­verse a pro­file to the God on the far side as she does to the ir­re­press­ible and mag­net­i­cally ar­tic­u­late Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most trans­la­tions of the Con­fes­sions fail to do this. We are usu­ally left with the feel­ing that one char­ac­ter in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-hu­man Au­gus­tine, with whom it is easy to iden­tify even when we most de­plore him. But we meet him perched in front of an im­mense Baroque can­vas called “God”—suit­ably grand, of course, suit­ably florid, but flat as the wall.

How does Ru­den rem­edy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She re­names Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharp­ness has been blunted by pi­ous us­age. Au­gus­tine’s God was a domi­nus—a mas­ter. And a Ro­man domi­nus was a mas­ter of slaves. Un­like “Lord,” the Latin word domi­nus im­plied, in Au­gus­tine’s time, no dis­tant majesty, muf­fled in fur and vel­vet. It con­jured up life in the raw—life lived face to face in a Ro­man house­hold, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punc­tu­ated by bursts of rage.

In the house of Au­gus­tine’s par­ents, slaves were well thrashed for gos­sip­ing. Mon­nica her­self con­fronted wives whose faces bore bruises from an­gry hus­bands, with the grim re­minder that, af­ter all, their mar­riage con­tracts had handed them over to these men as so many “slaves.” One should add that brilliant re­cent stud­ies of the later Ro­man Em­pire by Kyle Harper and oth­ers have left us in no doubt that slav­ery was alive and well in Ro­man Africa and else­where, adding a bitter taste to the so­cial life, to the sex­ual moral­ity, and to the imag­i­na­tions of Ro­mans of the age of Au­gus­tine.2 In her in­tro­duc­tion, Ru­den writes: “This im­agery...may be harsh and off-putting, but a trans­la­tor must gov­ern her dis­taste

2Kyle Harper, Slav­ery in the Late Ro­man World, AD 275–425 (Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press, 2011) and From Shame to Sin: The Chris­tian Trans­for­ma­tion of Sex­ual Moral­ity in Late An­tiq­uity (Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 2013); see my re­view of the lat­ter in these pages, De­cem­ber 19, 2013, and Brent D. Shaw, “The Fam­ily in Late An­tiq­uity: The Ex­pe­ri­ence of Au­gus­tine,” Past & Present, Vol. 115, No. 1 (May 1987). and try to make her author’s thought and ex­pe­ri­ence as vivid and sym­pa­thetic as it plainly was to his con­tem­po­raries.” To do oth­er­wise would be “con­de­scend­ing, ma­nip­u­la­tive, and anachro­nis­tic.”

To make God more of a per­son, by mak­ing Him a mas­ter, does not, at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Au­gus­tine to life. In re­la­tion to God, Au­gus­tine ex­pe­ri­ences all the ups and downs of a house­hold slave in re­la­tion to his mas­ter. He jumps to the whip. He tries out the life of a run­away. He at­tempts to ar­gue back. Al­to­gether, “Au­gus­tine’s hu­mor­ously self-dep­re­cat­ing, sub­mis­sive, but boldly hope­ful por­trait of him­self in re­la­tion to God echoes the rogue slaves of the Ro­man stage.” (In­deed, the thought of the bishop of Hippo as hav­ing once been the slip­pery slave of God—like Zero Mos­tel as the plump and bouncy Pseu­do­lus in A Funny Thing Hap­pened on the Way to the Fo­rum—some­how light­ens the im­pres­sion of a seem­ingly in­ex­tri­ca­ble roller coaster of sin and pun­ish­ment that we usu­ally de­rive from read­ing the first part of the Con­fes­sions.)

For God can change His mood. Like any other free per­son, He can show a dif­fer­ent side. The Con­fes­sions is about the marvelous emer­gence of new sides of God as Au­gus­tine him­self changes in his re­la­tion to God, over the years, from slave to re­pen­tant son to lover. Ru­den may have to de­fend her re­trans­la­tion of the name of God from “Lord” to “Mas­ter.” But her ap­proach is a thought­ful one. It is gov­erned by a de­ter­mi­na­tion to present Au­gus­tine’s re­la­tions with his God as en­dowed with the full emo­tional weight of a con­fronta­tion be­tween two real per­sons. She takes no short­cuts. Small de­par­tures from con­ven­tional trans­la­tions show her con­stant ef­fort to cap­ture an un­ex­pected di­men­sion of ten­der­ness (very dif­fer­ent from that of the slave owner) in God’s re­la­tion to Au­gus­tine and in Au­gus­tine’s to God.

To take small ex­am­ples: Ru­den does not have Au­gus­tine “em­brace” Je­sus as if He were a propo­si­tion. He takes Him in his arms. When Au­gus­tine looks back at his first mys­ti­cal awak­en­ing, he cries: Sero te amavi: “Late have I loved you!” It is a fa­mous cry. But it is a lit­tle grand. You and I would say: “I took too long to fall in love.” And this—the less dra­matic but more hu­man turn of phrase—is what Ru­den opts for. Re­peated small acts of at­ten­tion to the hum­ble, hu­man roots of Au­gus­tine’s im­agery of his re­la­tions to God en­able Ru­den to con­vey a liv­ing sense of the Be­ing be­fore Whom we find him trans­fixed in prayer: “Silent, long­suf­fer­ing and with so much mercy in your heart.”

A re­viewer may add some touches to this pic­ture. Af­ter the rude shock of meet­ing God as a slave mas­ter, some at­ten­tion might also have been given, in Ru­den’s in­tro­duc­tion, to Au­gus­tine’s im­ages of the ten­der­ness of God. I think par­tic­u­larly of the im­age of the doc­tor and the eye salve. In the an­cient world, the doc­tor was not the icy

pro­fes­sional that he or she has be­come in the mod­ern imag­i­na­tion. Un­like the sur­geon, with his dreaded bag of knives, the doc­tor en­tered the house as a fig­ure of mag­i­cal, ten­der care. In a world with noth­ing like mod­ern anes­the­sia, the doc­tor stood for the one prin­ci­ple of gen­tle change made avail­able to bod­ies all too of­ten held rigid on the rack of pain. His skilled words brought com­fort, if only to the mind. His skilled hands played across the body, un­ty­ing, where pos­si­ble, the knots of pain. His drugs al­ways car­ried with them re­as­sur­ing traces of oc­cult en­er­gies culled from herbs, which worked slowly and silently to bring the pain-wracked body back to its nat­u­ral state.

As for the eye salve: the bitter mix­ture known as col­lyrium was known to ev­ery­one. Eye dis­eases (glau­coma and con­junc­tivi­tis) were ev­ery­where in the dusty land­scapes of the Mediter­ranean. The dan­gers to the eye of in­fected water were ex­po­nen­tially in­creased in every Ro­man city by the splen­dor of their public baths. Even in the brac­ing at­mos­phere of Hadrian’s Wall, 12 per­cent of the Ro­man gar­ri­son of Vin­dolanda (near Hous­es­teads Ro­man Fort in Northum­ber­land) were out of ac­tion, with eye in­fec­tions pre­dom­i­nat­ing. Hence the supreme skill with which Au­gus­tine uses med­i­cal ter­mi­nol­ogy in books six and seven of the Con­fes­sions to de­scribe the last, al­most sub­lim­i­nal stages of his con­ver­sion. Here the crack of the whip is silent. Nor does truth dawn sud­denly for him in the gar­ish, bro­ken-light man­ner of con­ven­tional con­ver­sion nar­ra­tives. In­stead, we en­ter the gen­tle half-light of a Ro­man sick­room, as God, the supremely ten­der doc­tor, tip­toes in to place his hand, at last, on Au­gus­tine’s heart:

My swelling set­tled down un­der your un­seen medic­i­nal hand, and the . . . dark­ened eye­sight of my mind, when the sting­ing salve of . . . suf­fer­ings was ap­plied, was heal­ing day by day.

Ru­den also might have ex­plained even more fully the care­fully con­structed sense of ver­tigo in­duced by the di­rect en­counter of two to­tally in­com­men­su­rable be­ings—a storm-tossed hu­man and an eter­nal God. She presents this supreme in­con­gruity al­most as an oc­ca­sion for mer­ri­ment. In de­scrib­ing Au­gus­tine’s in­tel­lec­tual fire­works, she stresses the el­e­ment of freefloat­ing, al­most child­like in­tel­lec­tual play be­neath the eyes of God. Here was a Be­ing so dif­fer­ent from us that even the most se­ri­ous in­tel­lec­tual en­deavor on our part was vaguely lu­di­crous.

But Au­gus­tine also uses this sense of ver­tigo in a dif­fer­ent way. He has a deadly gift for minia­tur­iz­ing sin. There are no large sins in the Con­fes­sions. Those that he ex­am­ines most closely are tiny sins. He spends a large part of book two (nine en­tire pages) ex­am­in­ing his mo­tives for rob­bing a pear tree. Mod­ern read­ers chafe. “Rum thing,” wrote Jus­tice Oliver Wen­dell Holmes to Harold Laski in 1921, “to see a man mak­ing a moun­tain out of rob­bing a pear tree in his teens.”

But Holmes was wrong to be im­pa­tient. Only by win­now­ing every mo­tive that played into that ob­scure act of small-town van­dal­ism was Au­gus­tine able to isolate the very small­est, the most toxic con­cen­trate of all—the chill­ing pos­si­bil­ity that he had acted gra­tu­itously, sim­ply to show that he (like God, and then like Adam) could do what­ever he wished. The pub­lish­ers were right to put on the jacket of this book, which con­tains a suc­ces­sion of sins, each re­duced to chill­ingly minute pro­por­tions, the im­age of a half-eaten pear.

The pub­lish­ers would have found it much harder to il­lus­trate the mid­dleaged Au­gus­tine’s no­tion of sex. By the time the bishop ap­proached his sex­ual temp­ta­tions as he wrote book ten of the Con­fes­sions in 397, they had thinned out for him so as to seem next to trans­par­ent. He had aban­doned sex for a decade. Sex­ual scenes ap­peared only in his dreams. But they were there. They still spoke of forces in him that were all the more en­dur­ing for be­ing next to im­per­cep­ti­ble.

He speaks of these urges as a vis­cum—as a form of birdlime. We should note the ter­ri­ble pre­ci­sion of this word. Birdlime is not only sticky. It is trans­par­ent. This barely vis­i­ble sub­stance would be placed at the end of a rod that would then be in­serted among the boughs of a tree in such a way that the un­sus­pect­ing bird would hop with­out notic­ing from the liv­ing branch on to the ad­he­sive sur­face. (In the fresco in a fourth-cen­tury bath­house at Sidi Ghrib, nine­teen miles south­west of Carthage, the owner of the villa is shown set­ting out for a bird hunt fol­lowed by a slave car­ry­ing a bun­dle of these deadly rods.) This barely per­cep­ti­ble, cloy­ing glue— and not the hot plea­sures of the bed, as we might ex­pect—was what pre­oc­cu­pied the bishop. It might still brush against the wings of his soul, slow­ing, if only a lit­tle, his as­cent to God. Al­to­gether, in read­ing book ten of the Con­fes­sions, we find Au­gus­tine look­ing at his sins as if through the di­min­ish­ing end of a tele­scope. They are dis­turb­ing pre­cisely be­cause they are so very small but so very tena­cious. Con­fronted by sen­su­al­ity and vi­o­lence, an­cient moral­ists and Chris­tian preach­ers had tended to de­ploy an “aver­sion ther­apy” based upon rhetor­i­cal ex­ag­ger­a­tion. They pulled out all the stops to de­nounce the shim­mer of or­na­ment, the drunken roar of the cir­cus, the rip­pling bod­ies of dancers and wrestlers, the sight of beau­ti­ful women, and the lan­guid se­duc­tion of per­fumes. With Au­gus­tine, all this falls silent. The ef­fect of the bale­ful glare of ma­te­rial beauty be­comes no more than not­ing in him­self a touch of sad­ness when he was de­prived for too long of the African sun: “The queen of col­ors her­self, this or­di­nary light, sat­u­rates ev­ery­thing we see . . . and sweet-talks me with the myr­iad ways she falls on things.”

Even the nois­i­est, the most colos­sal place of all, and the place of great­est cru­elty—the Ro­man am­phithe­ater— seems to shrink dras­ti­cally. Au­gus­tine knew only too well what a glad­i­a­to­rial show was like. He de­scribed his friend Alyp­ius in Rome “guzzl[ing] . . . cru­elty” as he watched the glad­i­a­to­rial games. But had the cruel urge to watch gone away? No. No longer does Au­gus­tine fol­low the ve­na­tiones, the mata­dor-like com­bats of skilled hunts­men armed with pikes and nets against lithe and sav­age beasts that had re­placed glad­i­a­to­rial shows all over Africa:

[But] what about the fre­quent times when I’m sit­ting at home, and a lizard catch­ing flies, or a spi­der en­twin­ing in her net the flies fall­ing into it, en­grosses me? Just be­cause these are tiny an­i­mals doesn’t mean that the same pre­da­tion isn’t go­ing on within me, does it?

For Au­gus­tine, this is no idle lapse of at­ten­tion. It is a re­al­iza­tion of con­tin­ued urges that is as dis­turb­ing as the thin voice of a ghost in a lonely room: “You see, I am still here.”

But de­spite the eerie hiss of sin, Au­gus­tine also re­mem­bers that he had tasted a lit­tle of the sweet­ness of God:

And some­times you al­low me to en­ter into an emo­tion deep in­side that’s most un­usual, to the point

of a mys­te­ri­ous sweet­ness, and if this is made whole in me, it will be some­thing this life can’t ever be.

And what is more, he re­mem­bered that he had once tasted this sweet­ness in com­pany. The as­ton­ish­ing (and lit­tleno­ticed) fact about the much-de­bated vi­sion of Os­tia, which oc­curred on the eve of Mon­nica’s death in 387 and of­fered a view of “what the eter­nal life to come would be like,” was that Au­gus­tine had ex­pe­ri­enced it along with his mother: “We con­versed to­gether alone, very gen­tly,” and the vi­sion had come to them both.

At the end of time, a vast com­pany of hu­mans and of an­gels would share for­ever the same vi­sion that Mon­nica and Au­gus­tine had shared, if only for a fleet­ing mo­ment. And they would do it all to­gether. That is the whole point of the last, tri­umphant book of the Con­fes­sions: for, up above the heav­ens, “they al­ways see our face...and they lose them­selves in love for it.”

Mean­while, there was a church to run. A body of hith­erto un­known let­ters writ­ten by Au­gus­tine in his old age, dis­cov­ered and pub­lished by the Austrian scholar Jo­hannes Div­jak in 1981, has been much dis­cussed and used by schol­ars, but has yet to re­ceive its due weight in our gen­eral im­age of Au­gus­tine. Pun­dits our­selves and the stu­dents of pun­dits, we like to think of our heroes and hero­ines in an el­e­vated light. We ex­pect the author of a Great Book such as the Con­fes­sions to re­main in his study—lu­cubrat­ing darkly, for good or ill, on weighty top­ics such as sex, sub­jec­tiv­ity, and the self. It should come as a salu­tary sur­prise to learn, from Let­ter 10 of the Div­jak col­lec­tion, that in 428 AD—thirty years af­ter the writ­ing of the Con­fes­sions, that is, and maybe only two years be­fore his death—Au­gus­tine, now sev­enty-four, was deeply en­gaged in an at­tempt to block the slave trade out of the port of Hippo. Sent in­land by slave traders, gangs of slavers had scoured the iso­lated ham­lets in the moun­tains be­hind Hippo, ship­ping car­goes of ter­ri­fied peas­ants across the sea. They may have sold them to landown­ers in Italy and Gaul who were anx­ious to re­stock their es­tates af­ter the dis­rup­tion caused by the bar­bar­ian in­va­sions ear­lier in the cen­tury.

Au­gus­tine re­ported the af­fair to his old friend Alyp­ius, who was in Rome once again—no longer to watch the games, but to search the li­braries of the city for copies of im­pe­rial laws that might be used to put an end to this “evil of Africa.” The church of Hippo had al­ready ran­somed 130 of these cap­tives. Well lawyered-up, the slave traders had re­sponded by su­ing Au­gus­tine for theft of their prop­erty. Ever con­sci­en­tious and on his guard to make a wa­ter­tight case, Au­gus­tine noted for Alyp­ius the tes­ti­mony of those res­cued by the church:

Once when I was with some of those who had been freed from their wretched cap­tiv­ity by our church, I asked a young girl how she had come to be sold to the slave dealer. She said she had been taken from her par­ents’ home . . . she said that it was done in the pres­ence of her par­ents and broth­ers. One of her broth­ers...was present [while Au­gus­tine spoke to the girl] and, be­cause she was lit­tle [and may well have known no Latin: the hin­ter­land of Hippo was still Pu­nic­s­peak­ing], . . . he re­vealed to us how it had been done. He said that thugs like these break in at night. The more they are able to dis­guise them­selves, the less likely the vic­tims are to re­sist: since they think they are a bar­bar­ian band. But if there were not traders such as these [back on the docks of Hippo] things like this would not hap­pen.

For Au­gus­tine, ser­vice to the church had come to in­clude such hu­man­i­tar­ian work, among so many other things. But it also con­tin­ued to mean the at­tempt to find, some­where in this world—in com­mon prayer, in the col­lec­tive singing of the Psalms, in the high drama of saints’ feasts, and in the gath­er­ing for the Eucharist—some place for the shared sweet­ness of God. A few years be­fore his in­ter­ven­tion in the slave trade at Hippo, Au­gus­tine con­cluded one of his ser­mons on the Gospel of John:

I sense your feel­ings of yearn­ing, of ea­ger­ness, be­ing lifted up with me to what is above .... But now I will put away the copy of the Gospel. You are all go­ing to de­part as well, each to your own home. It has been good, shar­ing the Light to­gether, good re­joic­ing in it, good ex­ult­ing in it to­gether; but when we de­part from each other, let us not de­part from Him.

It is good to be re­minded of such a man by a trans­la­tion of his mas­ter­work that does jus­tice both to him and to his God.

Saint Au­gus­tine of Hippo; paint­ing by El Greco, 1590

Fra An­gelico: The Con­ver­sion of Saint Au­gus­tine (de­tail), circa 1430s

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