One of the handful of books every liberal education must have at its center is Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine was a man of wide learning, of excellent and elaborate Latin style, whose life was itself one of the greatest adventure stories ever told. The Confessions is one of the first great Christian epics in prose. The professor who opens to its first books is bound to feel a little embarrassed, therefore, to see the scorn Augustine heaps upon his own education precisely because it was all just a bunch of stories.
Was Augustine a prude? A philistine? “I was forced to memorize the wanderings of some fellow called Aeneas,” he complains, dismissing, as if it were tawdry gossip, The Aeneid, the story of Rome’s founding hero and its greatest poet, Virgil. Such “tall stories. . .only made” his ears “itch more hotly,” he writes, recalling Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, which warns against those who reject sound doctrine and, with “itching ears,” seek only teachings that satisfy their debased desires.
For Augustine, studying literature meant reading blasphemous tales about misbehaving gods and then composing exercises that imitated the great poets’ refined rhetoric, while echoing their wretched details. Education was morally indifferent; his teachers cared only for techniques of speech, which the student would use for the sake of career, money, and worldly ambition, ignoring both the condition of his own soul and the wisdom that transcends the world.
Yes, it was good to learn to read and to write, but Augustine seems to wish that these abstract exercises had been severed from Virgil’s prurient content. Later, as an adolescent student in Carthage, he will become “spellbound” by tragic plays. How absurd, the mature, Christian Augustine reflects, that “one likes being moved to grief at the sight of sad or tragic events on stage.”
Why make a pleasure of sadness? Why be moved to pity watching events on stage that one would, out of mercy or compassion, seek to end? What “incredible stupidity” that, if the paying spectator is not moved to tears, he will walk out the theater in disgust at the bad job of the performers.
Well, there is something a little silly about the vicarious passions, the voyeuristic indulgence of literature, to be sure – at least when one frames it all as Augustine does. But most of us will feel niggling us the judgment that Augustine is just being a little narrow-minded: “Can’t you just enjoy the show and leave it at that?”
In a similar manner, I have witnessed young people proclaim, for a moment, that they have found an ally in Augustine. Why should they have to read useless books in order to be called educated, they wonder? But Augustine abandons them as fast as he joins them in their complaint: they want to study useful things, things that will help them get ahead in the world. It was precisely because his education was merely of the world that the mature Augustine found it wanting.
The Confessions is about a man born into the world, into time and history, and who lives for the pleasures of the world and of the moment; of one who gradually discovers that happiness is to be found only in what is eternal, everlasting, and the ground of all things. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” Augustine cries out to Our Lord.
When we realize this, his early complaints about his education almost make sense—almost. God is eternal; the world is temporal and, so, temporary. Pleasure passes through us as an insect buzzes by the ear: we see it coming, hear its arrival, and then it’s off again, and gone forever. Should we not eschew stories, which merely imitate the passing of things, in favor of the wisdom that lifts the soul out of time and allows it to rest in God’s eternal love?
Something rings false here. Augustine is telling us a story – the story of his life. While teaching in Milan, he discovers Neo-Platonic philosophy, which has the unexpected effect of convincing his intellect of the truth of Christianity. He knows the truth, but does not approach it.
Then he hears the story of Victorinus, a great rhetorician like Augustine himself, who claims to believe the truth – in private – but is unwilling to enter the “walls” of the Church and bear public witness. When he is converted at last, the whole Church rises up in joyful tears of thanksgiving. Soon after, Augustine meets a prominent bureaucrat named Ponticianus. This man had once come across Athanasius’s The Life of Antony. Reading the story of the desert father, he and the friends who were with him were moved to tears. Two became monks immediately, while Ponticianus returned to the world, but with a heavy heart.
As Augustine listens, he feels God “wrenching” him back toward himself. He goes out to the garden to think, finds a book of Paul’s letters, and, at the command of a childlike voice in the trees, “takes” and “reads.” His heart burns. On the spot, he gives himself forever to the rest of Christ.
So we realize that Augustine was never against stories. He just found the Roman theory of literature inadequate: to enjoy a spectacle for the sake of being moved to tears – while not being much “moved” elsewhere. But Aeneas went somewhere: from Troy to Rome. Augustine follows him, with a difference. The Aeneid must be reimagined as the parable of the prodigal son.
The Christian theory of literature acknowledges that we begin, at the moment of our creation, in a departure from God. We wander away, through the world. But, gradually, we return to “rest” in God’s eternal love. Tragic tears are useless; they leave us where we are. Christian tears are tears of repentance, tears of joy. They lead us, “wrench” us, through the story of our lives until we arrive, at last, at that which stands eternally beyond all story: the everlasting comedy for which we were born.
*Image: Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1645 [Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA]