Two important aspects to reading Confessions must always be:
1. It is comprised of the details of his life as he remembers them.
2. He inserts contemporary concerns into the work as they are dramatized or revealed to the reader, retrospectively of him.
In other words, Confessions must be read as both “historical” in its autobiographical context as well as with contemporary reflections.
Dr. Barnes pointed out that some scholars see no connection between the story presented in Confessions and the actual “facts” of Augustine’s life. Mr. Novak asked what the arguments were that supported the position. Dr. Barnes listed three. First, these scholars point to an incongruity between the texts written at the time (such as De magistro and Soliloquies) and the depth of his Christianity as presented in the Confessions. According to the primary sources of the time, Augustine doesn’t seem as Christian as he says he was in the Confessions. Second, Confessions fits nicely into a stylistic genre of the time which leads some scholars to say that he was really just using a rhetorical structure popular at the time. Third, some scholars argue that the theological agenda seems so strong that Augustine would have had to shape the story to fit his theological goals.
Some broad concerns which dominate the contents of Confessions:
1. His rejection of Manichaeism (as in the polemic against it)
2. His attraction to and later rejection of skepticism
3. Add also his rejection of astrology and determinism
I vi (7) Augustine proceeds by recognizing that he does not remember the infant days of his life, but has taken the word of and witnessed the course of other lives and thus acknowledges that he knows how his own life began on the world. This assertion is explicitly against the teachings of the skeptics whose position was that you could believe what you wanted but could not count any belief as knowledge unless you witnessed and could remember it happening.
In this same section we also take note of the presence of Seneca’s influence which appears repeatedly. From Seneca’s Ep. 121 (p. 405): “For nature does not consign boyhood or youth, or old age, to me; it consigns me to them. Therefore, the child is adapted to that constitution which is his at the present moment of childhood, not to that which will be his in youth.” Augustine uses this thinking to attest that it is God who constantly provides the gifts appropriate to one’s needs.
I vi (8) The first paragraph likewise can be read as against the skeptics. Second paragraph see previous comments about Seneca’s Ep. 121. General rule of “what one of us goes through, we all go through.”
Wetzel quotes the long passage in vi (8) and suggests that one way of reading this passage would be that Augustine is not solely talking about infants, but rather an infantile mind. Wetzel proposes that the idea “When I was a baby…” could be read figuratively as “When I become a baby now I…”
Dr. Barnes used this to suggest a more widely applicable analysis of Augustine further exploring the interplay between the literal and figurative. This is in contrast to his earlier, highly allegorical book on Genesis. As such, the content of vi (8) would thus correspond to Augustine’s concerns at the turn of the 4th century into the 5th.
In relation to this point about figurative and literal, Dr. Barnes asked the question, “How do you read the text of one’s life?” The comments in response to Wetzel’s piece attempted to analyze whether he stressed too much the figurative over the literal. Some suggested that Wetzel’s emphasis might give little weight to the literal, as also reinforced by Augustine’s other works such as those on Christian doctrine which emphasized a deeper level of understanding. Indeed, we questioned, should we be investigating this in terms of analyzing Augustine’s inner child? Others argued that we would miss the entire narrative buildup if we solely concerned ourselves with figurative as opposed to literal. Though the discussion also included Wetzel’s use of Wittgenstein who seemed to suggest the topic of a form of cognition prior to infant/adolescent, Dr. Barnes steered the class back with the comment that this seemed to be over-reading on the controversial speculations about Augustine’s thoughts of preexistence. Dr. Barnes also pointed us in the direction of On Christian Doctrine book 2 which identifies, at least for biblical readings, the criteria by which one switches from literal to wholly figurative reading. Namely, if the literal reading does not contribute to the love of God, then read figuratively.
I vi (10) “You have also given mankind the capacity to understand oneself by analogy with others, and to believe much about oneself on the authority of weak women.”
First, Dr. Barnes proposed that a footnote about Augustine’s polemics against the skeptics should accompany this line. Second, he used this passage to bring up an article by Rist which posits Augustine’s association with love to friendship, and friendship to male circles. As such, many suggest Augustine’s limited capacity to appreciate contributions of women to influential relationships (other than his comments about Monica and his concubine). Dr. Barnes stopped for a moment to suggest the possible association of the biblical narrative of the spreading of faith about Christ’s resurrection to weak women. Are we also to read Mary, who returned from the tomb to inform the apostles about the resurrection, into this statement as well?
On page 9 further in this section, Augustine writes about the infant who does not get what he wants and the tantrum that ensues. Dr. Barnes suggested that a figurative reading here would give great insight into our adult relationships with God, which is all too often comprised of the same phenomena.
I ix (15) The following comments about the nature of Augustine’s education as well as the episode with the pears revolve around different notions of the good in Confessions as well as Augustine’s psychological analysis about who is doing the good.
First, perspective is key: no one does right if he is acting against his will.
The example given was:
x is a good
Augustine is doing x
He is forced to do x by adults
Forcing Augustine to do good is not Augustine doing good
So Augustine, though he acknowledges his learning as a good, refuses to acknowledge that he himself was doing good because he was forced into it and presumably would have abandoned it if given the chance. But were the adults doing the good according to Augustine?
Adults are forcing Augustine to do a good (x)
Adults are doing a good?
No, because they give no consideration to how Augustine will USE this good (x)
But, God considers what Augustine will do with good (x)e
Therefore, it is in fact God who does the good for Augustine
We note that this analysis about doing good is prior to the Pelagian controversy. For Augustine here, will has everything to do with it.
I xiv (23) Dr. Barnes pointed to the passage, “This experience sufficiently illuminates the truth that free curiosity has greater power to stimulate learning than rigorous coercion.”
Starting from this passage, Dr. Barnes took note of Seneca’s analysis of the natural movement of animals versus the factor of restraint. He then suggested that according to Augustine, what is nature to us turns out to be not the information that we have, but the means of gathering the information in different ways. Said in a different way, animals are born with their capacities. A chicken for example is born knowing to be afraid of a chicken hawk and not a turtle. What is natural to humans however is not innate data, but the actual process which our developmental constitution (whether it be infantile, adolescent, or adult) develops. Mr. Novak helpfully added the techno-analogy that animals are pre-programmed while humans constantly have someone writing new code. Dr. Barnes noted that for stoics, we are developmental by nature. The earliest stage being that in which we have to be taught, guided, and even preserved.
II iii-v (8-10) The pears
Augustine identifies 2 reasons for his theft. The first being peer pressure, and the second being the buzz of the theft. This led to a somewhat lengthy investigation by the class into the nature of desiring wrong things. Dr. Barnes said that the fact we could/do take delight in destruction indicates how far off our will and objects of desire have fallen. Mr. Mcguire also suggested that physically, the phenomenon is a misuse of the nature as God has given it to us. Namely, adrenaline functions to identify something which we should avoid. Wanting to seek after the rush for its own sake seems to be a misuse of our natural capacity.
The pear tree episode is an example of desiring/delighting in evil, but that which delights by definition is not evil. The point being that the language has difficulties bearing out our situation.
Otherwise stated, a good is that which we will towards.
Our will “towards” = delight in = a good
But, the “good” which we will towards is [not something we should will towards]
Dr. Barnes identified Augustine’s aesthetic argument in light of the previous comments. The following statements have to do with the good as an event in our will and not as a volition-free zone.
Beauty = that which triggers our will towards
Ugly = that which triggers our will away (as in to flee)
However, we do not simply follow the schema of
Good --> Beauty
and Bad --> Ugly.
In point of fact, we often (as seen in Augustine’s desire to thieve for the rush of it) find ourselves with this association:
Bad --> Beauty
This all of course further emphasizes the fallen state in which we find ourselves.
By identifying the discrepancy between what Beauty ought to trigger in us (that being what should be the good) and the actual state in which we find ourselves, we have a good foundation for understanding more deeply the thought of Augustine.