Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part Three)

Augustine continues his exploration of the nuances of sin throughout his Confessions, however, as he ventures to Carthage for the continuation of his studies, a tangible shift occurs in his search for Truth. It is a new stage in his life in which he shifts his focus to the Great Ideas of Good and Evil which compel and elude him as he continues his spiritual autobiography. Also in play is Augustine’s themed continuation of his own life as a parable. He becomes the Prodigal Son or the wayward sheep that strays from the herd with God the ever present herdsman. Augustine states that, "Yet all the while, far above, your mercy hovered faithfully about me." (III, 3) Alas, Augustine had no eyes to see that God was with him throughout his life and, due to his own misperceptions, God seemed totally absent during his years as a young adult in Carthage and beyond.

Augustine describes Carthage as an, "hissing cauldron of lust" (III, 1) where he became addicted to the pursuit of love or, as he later came to know it, lust. He fell in love with the theatre, poets, philosophers and astrologers (sensualists) who he credits with leading him further and further away from the Truth of God.

Truth! Truth! How the very marrow of my soul within me yearned for it as they dinned it in my ears over and over again. To them it was no more than a name to be voiced or a word to be read in their libraries of huge books...while my hunger was for you, for Truth itself, they served me up the sun and the moon...not you yourself nor even the greatest of your created things. (III, 6)

Augustine describes himself locked in a world starved of anything real or true and yet he also finds companionship with friends and with a concubine who bore him a son. It is interesting to note that Augustine claims to have been totally faithful to his concubine (for more than ten years) and that he was with her only due to his own lustful nature. Augustine never names this woman and scholars will probably never know more than what Augustine shares about her in his Confessions. Yet, he was faithful to her and to the son she bore him and after he decides to abandon her he speaks of her with words of respect and love.

During his time at Carthage, his father dies (which he barely mentions) and he abandons his study of law, turning instead to the study of literature and public speaking. He finds himself inspired by the words of Cicero. He would eventually also enjoy the works of Plato who would lead him back to Paul of Tarsus. It would be Paul who inspired him to begin studying the scriptures for pure novelty's sake. His mother continued to support him financially after his father's death and she also continued with her prayers that he would find his way back to Christ. As mentioned in our previous segment, Augustine's relationship with his mother begins to mirror that of his relationship with God. Turning his back on his mother and her stalwart prayers for him becomes equivalent to turning his back on God. After completing his studies at Carthage, Augustine journeyed home to Thagaste where he began teaching literature and public speaking. However, he lamented the lack of discipline his students showed in Thagaste and so took a job teaching in Rome. The correlation between the relationships he had with his mother and with God became very apparent in a literal sense when he lies to his mother and leaves her weeping on the banks of Thageste after he sneaks away in the middle of the night for his journey to Rome.

The polarity through which Augustine views himself is absolute and finds its manifestation no place more apparent than during the many years he spent as a part of the Manichean cult. Augustine says, "I was trying to find the origin of evil, but I was quite blind to the evil in my own method of research". (VII, 5) The Manicheans believed in the concepts of Good and Evil as separate and disparate entities who lived and clashed with each other within every human soul.

For this same reason, Augustine states, I believed that evil, too, was some similar kind of substance, a shapeless, hideous mass, which might be solid or air..This they imagine as a kind of evil mind filtering through the substance they call earth. And because such little piety as I had compelled me to believe that God, who is good, could not have created an evil nature, I imagined that there were two antagonistic masses, both of which were infinite, yet the evil in a lesser and the good in a greater degree. (V, 10)

The Manicheans claimed to resolve questions of religion with that of science and visa versa. This claim was alluring to Augustine for many reasons as during his studies he had become quite fond of the sciences and, quite apparently, continued to struggle within himself over all things religious. Slowly, however, Augustine began to turn his back upon the Manicheans who he found to make grandiose claims about astrology, God, Christ, Good and Evil that were not backed up by the sciences of the day and they also made claims about theology which had no direct correlation to his studies or his experiences. Yet, he did not break ties with them completely as they were useful to him during his short time in Rome.

Augustine fell ill almost immediately upon reaching Rome coming once again close to death. But, he believed he was saved by God despite their prolonged separation because God was ever watchful of him. It is at this point we begin to see changes in Augustine, his continued struggle with his own ideas of Good and Evil and, most importantly, his relationship with God.

It was made clear to me also that even those things which are subject to decay are good. If they were of the supreme order of goodness, they could not be corrupt; but neither could they become corrupt unless they were in some way good, (VII, 12) Augustine states he did not know that, Evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains," (III, 7) and "So, we must conclude that if things are deprived of all good, they cease to be; and this means that as long as they are, they are good. (VII, 12)

This realization helps Augustine to understand that despite his corruptible nature, or actually, because of it, he can be redeemed in the Truth and light of God. Yet, his true conversion to the Christian God would be made manifest through a heavy grief through which Augustine was unsure of his ability to endure.

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