Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, Garry Wills, Princeton University Press, 166 pages
Augustine wrote 5 million words that have come down to us, Garry Wills reports with the appropriate tone of astonishment. He notes that in a recently discovered letter, we learn that Augustine dictated some 6,000 lines of text in less than three months. Wills describes the fascinating “literary industrial complex” of late antiquity, still an oral culture, and the many scribes that Augustine kept busy with his massive outpouring. Writing in that period was in the service of oral delivery and this, Wills contends, conveyed “more inwardness to his original audience” than writing alone would do.
Thus Wills opens this brief, beautifully written story of the Confessions themselves, how they have reached us and how they been understood and misunderstood over time. He is a prolific writer who has tackled an extraordinary range of topics. Unfortunately, in recent decades Wills has become a rather shrill partisan in his political writings, casting anathema on those who dare to disagree with his basic liberal-left orientation on nearly all matters.
None of that polemical acerbity is on display in this work. Wills clearly loves his subject—as his earlier short biography of Augustine demonstrated—and that admiration is tied to a clear-headed examination of the many ways Augustine’s critics have gone astray over time, beginning with a radical misinterpretation of what sort of text the Confessions is in the first instance. One cannot compare it to an autobiography like Rousseau’s endlessly self-referential Confessions; instead, Augustine’s work is best read as a prayer. Wills is not the first to make this observation, but it is one worth noting many times over. To fail to understand Augustine’s primary purpose is to misread the book, often egregiously.
In my 1995 book, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, I describe a few of these wild misreadings that tend toward the psychologically reductive: Augustine was sex-obsessed; Augustine was warped by a monumental Oedipus complex; Augustine’s was an immature personality; and the coup de grace, Augustine was a narcissist. I taught my precocious 4-year-old granddaughter about narcissism recently by coming up with a ditty about an iguana: “I’m an iguana/I like what I see/I’m an iguana/looking at ME!” She now uses the word correctly much to the astonishment of adults and the utter bewilderment of other children her age. But Augustine never “looks at Me”: he looks to God; he offers a long discourse against self-esteem, an unwarranted, overinflated celebration of the self. His heart goes into labor, he tells us, and gives birth to humility. I wish Wills had spent a bit more time on this, on the multiple loves that constitute the Self, loves framed by the love of that alone which is immutable and does not pass away.
Primarily, however, what Wills seeks to do is to justify the presence of the final three books of the text that stand outside Augustine’s stirring narrative of the self coming to love rightly—an exegetical exercise on the opening of Genesis. Some translations of the Confessions even omitted these books from the text. Why did Augustine include them? Wills is articulate and persuasive, insisting that only if we see the book as one long prayer can we appreciate fully what the blockbuster discussions of memory and time are all about.
A bit of philosophical backdrop is helpful: Augustine was shaped by philosophy—and it was from philosophy, as well as his devotion to Manicheanism, that he drew an ascetic orientation, sending back to Africa the common-law wife with whom he had cohabited faithfully for 15 years—not from some alleged anti-body Christianity. The Gnostic aspiration proclaimed a higher enlightenment, available only to a few philosopher-king types who had freed themselves from the body’s toils. Manicheans also rejected Jewish scriptures as primitive.
Then there were the Christians, represented by the great St. Ambrose of Milan and Augustine’s mother Monnica—the African spelling of her name—who had embraced the Old Testament as part of their canonical scripture. For Augustine, a classically trained rhetor, the Old Testament had been a stumbling block, written in what he deemed a crude and clumsy style. But irritants in the Gnostic image grew: he could get no answer to the problem of evil, among other things, a point Wills might also have brought into sharper relief. Meeting with the great Manichean leader, a man named Faustus, Augustine finds himself disappointed. Basically, he could run circles around Faustus, and he emerged no wiser from the encounter. He finds his way to scripture, to making his own a Christian identity, after he recognizes that evil does not flow from some separate nature in us tied to our body, the source of wickedness, but is instead part of a single yet divided will, an inheritance of sin.
Wills is correct: “more than Bergson, even, or Proust—memory is the key to Augustine’s thinking because he thought it the key to his own identity.” This point, too, is one made by others. In 1995, I wrote that Book X of the Confessions is “an evocation of memory unsurpassed in Western literature save, perhaps, in the works of Proust.” I have subsequently decided that Proust does not surpass Augustine here—his discussion of memory is unsurpassed. Period.
The Confessions culminates with a complex reading of the Bible through a rich, flexible hermeneutic. The Bible cannot, by definition, conflict with reason. God does not endorse literalism but speaks to us in a variety of figurative and symbolic ways, including offering intimations of the Trinity at various points in scripture well before the Incarnation. A timeless God creates and time unfolds. Because we are made in God’s image, the place to look for God is in the human soul or psyche or self so long as we are then drawn from the self to God, to the Creator.
Wills puts paid to much nonsense in this briskly written text, including the claim that Augustine was obsessed with sex. The record supports none of this: Wills points out (citing Augustine biographer, Peter Brown) that in the massive work The City of God out of 16 lines devoted to deliberate human sins, only two refer to sexuality. Augustine eludes his commentators and he stymies his most bitter critics. He was, Wills concludes, inventing a new form “and people try to read it as something other than the unique thing it is—as an autobiography, or as a treatise, or as an amalgam of different genres with different purposes.” And that is one reason so few read about the Trinity in the final books of the Confessions. Yet this, Wills insists, is key to the whole work: “It should be not be surprising that a long prayer should end in the presence of the God being prayed to.”
Jean Bethke Elshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics, The University of Chicago and Leavey Chair in the Foundations of American Freedom, Georgetown University, emerita. Her most recent book is Sovereignty: God, State, and Self.