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Pure Confessions

That the issue of continence arose and became central to the decision in the Milan garden that we call Augustine's conversion, this was not part of what Augustine had bargained for when he set out to search for wisdom, nor was it what most people approaching Christianity in this period were worrying about. To understand the issue's place in the Confessions , we must pay attention to a lost work of Ambrose's, written while Augustine was in Milan.

Phrased that way, the relevance to Augustine's position is clear. In order to present himself for baptism, Augustine felt that he had to have achieved a degree of moral self-control that assured him of a lifetime of continence. What then of the apparent pattern of the work as a whole, the depiction of the ascent of the mind? Though Augustine in the years after the Confessions will drift away from the ascent-vocabulary of his youth, he certainly adhered to that way of speaking throughout his literary works of and in the Confessions themselves.

It must also be recognized that the substance of the ascent remains central to Augustine's activity. What is presented to us in the Confessions is the transformation of the traditional philosopher's ascent of the mind to the summum bonum into a uniquely Christian ascent that combines the two paths that Augustine had followed in his own life. The exegesis of a chapter of scripture that fills the last three books itself displays the union of the intellectual and exegetic, the Platonic and Christian, approaches to God, setting a pattern that becomes the center of Augustine's life's work, to be fulfilled only eschatologically - a goal anticipated but not reached on the last page of this text.

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The form is exegetical, the content apparently philosophical; but on closer examination the content turns out to be more theology than philosophy. He sees traces of God the creator in Bk. He sees God the Son in the Word of revelation, and understands his own relation to that revelation by unraveling in Bk. God the spirit animating history emerges in Bk. The Confessions , then, present themselves to us a book about God, and about Augustine: more Augustine at the beginning, more God at the end. But Augustine does not disappear in this work.

Properly speaking, Augustine is redeemed, and insofar as he is redeemed and reformed according to the image and likeness of God, he becomes representative of all humankind. When the same line a scriptural text is brought back at the beginning of Bk. The reader is expected to share the last three books, for if all persons are created no less in the image and likeness of God than Augustine, and if his readers are bound to Augustine through God in caritas , the image to use the right word of Augustine in these last three books is at one and the same time an image of what his readers are themselves.

In this way the work is both itself an act of confession, and at the same time a model and pattern for other acts of confession, by Augustine and by his readers, at other times and places. There is no paradox in suggesting that this intricate interplay of images and patterns is both the culmination of Augustine's theological meditations and at the same time a feat possible in the fourth century only for someone who had read Plotinus, and read him very well.

The date of writing has been repeatedly canvassed and consensus achieved. Argument from the retractationes places the work between and , while the way Augustine refers to Ambrose and Simplicianus makes us think that he had not yet heard at the time of writing of Ambrose's death and Simplicianus' succession to the see of Milan in April Rhetorical and stylistic unity and the intensity that runs through the book like an electric current make it easiest to read as a work written entirely in Few proponents of Christian humility have obtruded themselves on the attention of their public with the insistence to say nothing of the effectiveness that marks this work.

For a man who felt acutely the pressure of others' eyes and thoughts, 64 Augustine was often unable to refrain from calling attention to himself. What his flock thought, for example, of the long, magnificent sermon he once gave on the anniversary of his own episcopal ordination 65 is impossible to recover at this distance. It is not that Augustine was unaware of the irony and room for self-contradiction that his habit of confessio gave - far from it - but he was unable to refrain. His best defence is in the idiosyncratic notion of confessio that he uses to explain and guide his own words.

The corpus of his earlier writings, seen in this light, offers a picture of development that is hardly a linear progression. The conversions of Augustine were many, and they did not end in the garden in Milan. It is conventional to think that marked an important turning, with formal affiliation to the ecclesiastical hierarchy through ordination. Two events of the mids conspired to worsen the crisis and propel it toward resolution: his new reading of Paul at the urging of Simplicianus, which included a rediscovery of the importance he would attribute to Paul in telling the story of his Milan conversion, and his ordination as bishop.

Other lines converge on the Confessions. The commentary on 7.

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Augustine's readings at Milan included Porphyry, but in a non-threatening way. He found there a Platonism that led him towards Christianity and that he would criticize mainly for not going far enough in that direction. The achievement is a subtle one, for his reading of Rom.

It was courageous of Augustine to cling to the truths he thought he had found in Platonism at this point, and not merely to reject the whole package of Plato, Plotinus, and Porphyry. Augustine's signal contribution to Christian thought lies in the success of the great works in which he achieved his own synthesis.

Doubt remains just when and how he came to reassess his Platonic authors, but the Confessions are intimately bound up in this process. He turned away more or less completely from the concerns and expressions of his Platonic period in the years after ordination, as he struggled to find ways to write as a Christian clergyman ought to write. With the Confessions he returned to his Platonic period and put a whole new reading on it.

The Augustine of the Confessions has drawn a clear line separating him from the Platonists. In that difference, to say nothing of the content of Bks. Cause and effect here are not to be traced, and matters are confused by the ambiguities of the evidence see on 7. If that occurred in the early s, i. What is clear is that already the Confessions mark a step away from the Christian Platonism of Milan, and of Augustine's works from to His presentation of Platonism in the Confessions is marked by his later discoveries, and the Platonism he found at Milan is criticized in the Confessions on terms that were only possible after leaving Milan.

The Confessions shows Augustine in the act of re-integrating elements of his thought and life that had begun to come apart for him, and it is that re-integration that is the foundation of his mature achievement. The motif of confession itself was importantly adumbrated in Augustine's earlier works in various ways. Two particular cases require comment here.

One of the first works Augustine wrote at Cassiciacum Nov. The opening paragraphs sol. The soliloquia lack the power and assurance of the Confessions , and they have accordingly found little modern audience. We are fortunate in having one passage from before the Confessions that shows Augustine doing exactly that - recounting his life story, howbeit briefly, and howbeit veiled as a hypothetical case. The veil indeed is so heavy that the passage has not been noticed by earlier students of the Confessions , but once the pattern is detected it cannot be ignored.

The passage may not antedate the Confessions by more than a couple of years, 93 but it reflects a rehearsed narrative that would be developed more fully in the writing of the Confessions. From Cassiciacum or perhaps from the writing of the de pulchro et apto : see on 4.

There are places where Augustine writes about the idea of the mind's ascent to God, and places where in his writings he is himself clearly attempting an elevation of that sort: so the episodes recounted in Bks. The success of the Confessions , seen in those terms, is that the work integrated the private intellectual and religious experience of Augustine with the public responsibilities of the bishop. How far the discipline of the pulpit 98 helped Augustine find this voice can only be a matter of speculation. The Confessions are the last product of Augustine's youth and the first work of his maturity.

His familiar pattern of the six ages of life see on 1.

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His narrative of infantia , pueritia , and adolescentia ends in the first years of iuventus with a clarification and strengthening of will; the narrative was written just on the cusp between iuventus and the variously named fifth age. All other impulses that gave rise to the Confessions notwithstanding, it is not surprising that Augustine would have found the years around his forty-fifth birthday congenial to renewed introspection.

It is impossible, then, to take the Confessions in a vacuum, and it is impossible to give any single interpretation that will satisfy. Even these few paragraphs of summary give a misleading impression of simplicity and directness, for a work that draws its rare power from complexity, subtlety, and nuance. In uncovering one or another device of construction or suggestion that Augustine employed, it may be that we do neither him nor his intended readers - if there are many such yet with us - any favor. He was assuredly the heir of an ancient rhetorical tradition that did not write to prove but to persuade, that knew that a work must have its effect on a reader or hearer directly or it is unlikely to have the desired effect at all.

To take the Confessions apart piece by piece is to run the great risk that when all the pieces are put back together the marvelous machine will not run as it did before. But that is the task of the philologist: to take texts already in danger of demise from great age and remoteness, dismantle and study them, and then reassemble them and set them ticking.

The only goal of interpretation is reading: exegesis leads to the Word, and not the other way round. If it often seems depressingly otherwise, then a renewed attention to our greatest master of exegesis, hermeneutic, reading - call it what you will - cannot fail to be instructive, even especially? The textual tradition of the Confessions is generally sound. All critical editions of the last century have been based on the same i.

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The fullest description of the manuscripts utilized by editors is found in the preface of the CCSL edition by L. Verheijen, though it should be borne in mind that no modern editor has seen all the manuscripts he cites, and that they have not been collated afresh since Skutella. The description and discussion that follow are derivative.

The script is half-uncial and difficult to date. Lowe CLA 4. Early ninth century, southern France. Early ninth century, western Germany. Reported by the editors together with two eleventh-century manuscripts Bambergensis 33 [B] and Turonensis [Z] with which it is closely related. Mid-ninth century, Auxerre. C and D are virtual twins, but both are conventionally reported because C lacks the last two-thirds of book VII and the first third of book VIII, where D is the sole witness to their common exemplar.

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Part from the late ninth century and part from the early tenth, from Tours. E and G are the two best representatives of a common tradition. End of the ninth century, eastern France. Toward the middle of the ninth century, near Lyons. Late ninth century, northern Italy. AHV taken together represent another common tradition, of which V is the least reliable witness.


Gorman's stemma reproduced below represents the most developed view of the tradition. Where S has the advantage of great age, it has the disadvantages of haste and carelessness; it not only omits and iterates words and phrases, but it substitutes synonyms particularly particles and conjunctions. It is the work of a man in a hurry. O is perhaps the best single MS, and presents a perfectly readable text. It was the favorite of Verheijen.

There is general consent that CD provide independent testimony that can be used to control the differences between S and O.

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