On 7/16 and then 7/28, we forayed into the Middle Ages for only the second time (our first being Maimonides), hitting the first of the big-time church fathers in the philosophical tradition, Aurelius Augustinus, aka St. Augustine of Hippo, reading his most popular work (then and now), Confessions, from around 400 CE.
It’s known as the first autobiography, and in our first discussion we covered books 1–8, in which he gives a narrative of his life up until age 29, the narrative theme being the steps in his full-on acceptance of Catholicism and celibacy. Despite this rather unappealing theme, and the overall style whereby at the beginning of every chapter he prays to God for a while, throwing in bits of half a dozen Bible quotes (mostly from Psalms) per sentence, the man couldn’t say anything without stopping to reflect on what the words might actually mean, and this makes it pretty darned creative and fun, wandering about in some ways like Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (you may recall that Augustine is one of the only philosophers that Wittgenstein mentions by name in that work, so it’s not an accident). Check out right here in the first chapter of the first book, after he’s invoked the spirit of God to come unto him so that he can confess:
And how shall I call upon my God… since, when I call for Him, I shall be calling Him to myself? and what room is there within me, whither my God can come into me? whither can God come into me, God who made heaven and earth? is there, indeed, O Lord my God, aught in me that can contain Thee? do then heaven and earth, which Thou hast made, and wherein Thou hast made me, contain Thee? or, because nothing which exists could exist without Thee, doth therefore whatever exists contain Thee? Since, then, I too exist, why do I seek that Thou shouldest enter into me, who were not, wert Thou not in me? Why? because I am not gone down in hell, and yet Thou art there also. For if I go down into hell, Thou art there. I could not be then, O my God, could not be at all, wert Thou not in me; or, rather, unless I were in Thee, of whom are all things, by whom are all things, in whom are all things? Even so, Lord, even so. Whither do I call Thee, since I am in Thee? or whence canst Thou enter into me? for whither can I go beyond heaven and earth, that thence my God should come into me, who hath said, I fill the heaven and the earth.
Religious philosophers are often characterized as limited philosophically, because there are limits beyond which they do not question. Now, it’s true that Augustine stops when it comes to questioning God’s existence or goodness, but he pretty much invented hermeneutics for the express purpose of not having to interpret absurd-seeming parts of the Bible literally. While his self-analyses are certainly informed by Catholic doctrine, the way in which he comes up with questions, where he discovers exactly what’s mysterious in how we think about ourselves in the world, is straight-up curious introspection of a pretty insightful character.
The key theme in books 1–8 (episode 121, which will be released by 8/10 for Citizens and on 8/10 and 8/17 for the general public) is that rebellious, sinful will, of course, as just discussed in our current episode, and how our desires connect up with what we think to be right. Is being virtuous more a matter of conditioning our desires to be more rational and harmonious, per Aristotle, or are we fundamentally corrupt, so that the only way to achieve true happiness is to reject our impulses and subvert our will to something higher? And even if we admit the latter, how can we reliably tell what is higher?
In our second discussion, covering primarily books 10–12, but also a bit from 13 and dipping back into previous books (episode 122, to be released on 8/24 and 8/31), Wes, Dylan, and I (Seth actually dropped off in the middle of #121 after basically passing out and opted to take a pass on the second discussion) delved into “confessions about the present,” which are all about (in the spirit of the quote above) confessing how much his limited little mind doesn’t understand about the world, but how he’d like to penetrate into its mysteries as far as is possible. Key in this are his discussions of memory (much of the first half of book 10) and time (book 11), how the creation of the universe must have worked given God’s lack of temporality (books 11–12), as well as language acquisition (from book 1: the account that Wittgenstein complains about, whereby we have thoughts first and then by observation learn the words to attach to them, and how a work like the Bible can have multiple valid meanings).
An interesting, short summary of another Augustine work, “De Magistro” (“On the Teacher”), that I read in preparation gave me some insight into Augustine’s epistemology and helped with all of this: Following Plato (in the Meno), Augustine thought that real knowledge can’t come from the senses, but has to be something we learn from some inner voice within ourselves, which, it turns out, is God (God literally being truth). So, other people can remind us of things, but if we didn’t have this inner source of knowledge, we wouldn’t be able to truly hear or understand them.
Also like Plato, Augustine was fond of apparent paradoxes, such as: Only the present moment has being, i.e., “is.” The past “is” not (currently), and the future certainly doesn’t have this property of being either. So, what is it that we measure when we say we’re measuring time? Augustine ends up prefiguring Kant in saying that really, time is an add-on from the human, finite point of view, really a creation one and the same with the creation of memory and expectation. Likewise prefiguring Schopenhauer, God (Will) would have no sense of time, does not exist in time.
Let me be honest here. The reading was at times brutal, with entirely too much ass-kissing of God to make it a page-turner. He comes up with interesting problems and then pretends to have resolved them merely by bringing up some way of understanding Catholic doctrine that accords with the situation as he’s described it, but his formulations will not and should not be particularly satisfying. Even though he’s not the caricature that many paint of him, he was obsessed with overcoming sexual urges, and really all urges. He saw anything as a potential distraction from God, and his self-flagellation re: his own tendencies toward pride, toward lust (strong when he was young, but still present as of the writing, at least when he was asleep), toward idle curiosity, etc., is pretty irritating. Still, there’s treasure to be had in there, if you’re willing to dig, and it was satisfying to have read a whole book from the Western canon for once instead of picking out select chapters. That said, book 13 is an absolute wasteland: something like 30 chapters knitting out the dreary details of a tedious theology.
Buy the translation/edition we read or read this different translation online. Given how boring and repetitious a lot of the book is, you may want to do what I did and use this Librivox audio version to get past the filler and then when it gets difficult, either stop and start a lot to think or pull out the text.