Confessions Book 3

[For links to the rest of this series, click here.]

As Augustine continues the story of his pre-conversion life, all the themes introduced thus far intensify. Augustine’s exposition of sin showcases here the elements of deception and, consequently, bondage. Sin so affects the human soul through its disordering of loves that the slave of sin cannot even recognize the ravages it inflicts on him. Were he to glimpse them, he would not change: “I was in love with love, and I hated safety and a path free of snares…. My love was returned and in secret I attained the joy that enchains. I was glad to be in bondage, tied with troublesome chains, with the result that I was flogged with the red-hot iron rods of jealousy, suspicion, fear anger, and contention” (i.1).

Augustine’s pondering on the deceptiveness of sin leads him to emphasize the element of deception in theater, by which he was captivated. The capacity of theater for truth or falsehood is a worthy discussion, but Augustine gives a one-sided explanation of it, likely because his participation in it was largely sinful. He relates the purpose of theater as producing tragic passions in people. How absurd! People go to a show to enjoy being mad to feel grief, “and the more anyone is moved by these scenes, the less free he is from similar passions” (ii.2).

Perhaps people do not go to feel miserable, but instead to feel mercy. It is an empty compassion, though. The spectator has no intention to help someone out of their misery, but rather to enjoy it! What would we think of someone who acted like that in real life? “Even if we approve of a person who, from a sense of duty in charity, is sorry for a wretch, yet he who manifests fraternal compassion would prefer that there be no cause for sorrow. It is only if there could be a malicious good will (which is impossible) that someone who truly and sincerely felt compassion would wish wretches to exist so as to be objects of compassion” (ii.3). One could ask, though, if Augustine’s doctrine of predestination does not imply God to be such a person. In any case, the Christian Augustine points us to true compassion: “Today I have more pity for a person who rejoices in wickedness than for a person who has the feeling of having sufferd hard knocks by being deprived of a pernicious pleasure or having lost a source of miserable felicity” (ii.3).

[Note: Augustine’s castigation of the theater may sound strange to our ears, but it was a common position in his day. His animosity may derive from three sources: 1) his personal experience, partly related in Confessions; 2) the ecclesiastical tradition of preaching against the theater, which can be seen, for example, in the writings of Tertullian and the sermons of John Chrysostom; 3) Platonic philosophy, which Augustine relied on at times and which saw art as an imitation of an imitation (the visible world), and therefore even farther removed from the world of eternal truth.]

Theaters are not the only places of deception. No, such seemingly respectable pursuits as education and law are just as tainted. Augustine then desired to become distinguished in the law courts, “where one’s reputation is high in proportion to one’s success in deceiving people” (iii.6). Certain students, aptly styled “Wreckers” for their vandalism, “are themselves wrecked first of all and perverted by evil spirits, who are mocking them and seducing them in the very acts by which they love to mock and deceive others” (iii.6). Religious people, too, deceive and are deceived. Probably referring to the Manichees, Augustine relates “men proud of their slick talk, very earthly-minded and loquacious,” who speak about the Trinity, “but it was no more than sound and noise with their tongue” (vi.10).

Throughout his life, Augustine opposes the Manichees perhaps more consistently and vehemently than any other heretics, doubtless because of his own association with them. Some of their beliefs are mentioned in Confessions, but two areas of deception stand out. First, Manichees ridiculed portions of Scripture, particularly Old Testament passages depicting God in human bodily form. The idea of a wholly spiritual being with no extension or shape whatsoever was puzzling to Augustine. (He wasn’t the only one struggling with this concept; Tertullian appears to have thought of God as a very refined physical substance.) Second, Manichees attacked  Old Testament moral laws as either wrong or contradictory. Augustine would later refute these objections decisively, but at that time he lacked replies.

A second theme intensifies in book 3, God’ faithful pursuit of a runaway. I’ve commented previously on Augustine’s propensity to describe himself as a wayward Christian even before his conversion; such language comes to the fore now. “Your mercy faithfully hovered over me from afar….I pursued a sacrilegious quest for knowledge, which led me, a deserter from you, down to faithless depths and the fraudulent service of devils…. And in all this I experienced your chastisement” (iii.5). When he encountered Cicero, it awakened him from puerility, but it lacked one thing, the name of Christ. “This name, by your mercy Lord, this name of my Saviour your Son, my infant heart had piously drunk in with my mother’s milk, and at a deep level I retained the memory. Any book which lacked this name, however, will written or polished or true, could not entirely grip me” (iv.8).

The counterpoint to Augustine’s deception is Monica’s assurance, received both from a dream and from the words of a bishop. Augustine tries to dissuade her, but her faith is superior to his wit (xi.20). She, in her humility, receives the truth from God; he, despite his intellect and searching, is unable to find this truth because he is proud and polluted by carnal lusts. Yet, once again, Augustine does not let the book close on his rejection. Instead, his conversion is predicted in words seemingly “sounded from heaven.”

Additional interesting features for discussion:

  • the moral uses of art, particularly dramatic theater
  • Augustine’s ethics (vii.13-x.18)
  • the use of secular philosophy in Christian wisdom (iv.7-vi.10)
Published in: on October 11, 2010 at 9:10 am  Leave a Comment  

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