Augustine's "Confessions": Language vs. Literature

The Confessions of Saint Augustine of Hippo constitutes the world's first autobiography and has been perhaps one of the most influential pieces of biographical literature in the Western world. It has changed lives, shaped monasteries, influenced philosophy, and inspired theology. There are few books in the world that analyze with such honest frankness the wounds which humanity inflicts upon itself, and the rationalization we use to run from God only to be thrust back into His arms again. The first time I read it cover to cover, I was just emerging from a rather painful place in my life where I was in a prime position to look over my own self-inflicted wounds, and so I could recognize much of my own "wandering by the way" in Augustine's life story. It was a book of profound movement for me, an impetus to move myself to a place of rest where I could find peace for my troubled heart. But I won't get into that. There are a hundred and one things I could talk about when it comes to Augustine's Confessions, but that would make for an incredibly long post, so I plan to look at one small element of interest here and will perhaps return to look at others in future posts. For now, I'd like to muse on some of the things Augustine has to say about both the dangers and the goods involved in language and literature

Within the first three books of the Confessions, Augustine charts the development of his first sins from childhood to adolescence, critiques his early education and later schooling, and describes his first friendships and his adoption of Manichaeism. Within these first three books, Augustine lays the foundation, and even gives some very detailed accounts, of his need for God's mercy and salvation. There is this beautiful line near the beginning of the book that explains Augustine's entire purpose in writing: "Through your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, I am your salvation." The entire Confessions is Augustine's revelation of the sinful depths to which he had fallen, and his joyful discovery of God's abundant love and mercy for him. He expresses this reality of God in some of the most beautiful language, making full use of his extensive education in Roman rhetoric, which qualifies him as one of the most compelling authors in all of Christendom. This, perhaps, is what distinguishes the scholastic from the mystic in Christian theology: our rational soul may be convinced by scholastic logic and methods of reasoning, but it is the beautiful love language of the mystical soul that moves our hearts to long after that same love.

However, Augustine is not the most positive of literary theorists; in fact, he utters some pretty harsh invectives against the Greco-Roman epics and tragedies. As a teacher of rhetoric -- what we would probably consider "literature" in the modern university -- Augustine has a deep preoccupation with language and how we use it. He spends a large portion of the first three books discussing the difference between literature and literacy. Literacy is the ability to read and write, to spell correctly and maintain good grammar, so we can make ourselves understood to others and so that we can understand them. Literature, for Augustine, is the fictional stories that people tell for education, for entertainment, or for some sort of remuneration in the form of money or fame. For Augustine, literature is tied very closely to sin: it often tells lies by presenting immoral behavior as something desirable. Literature can be a grave spiritual danger. Literacy, on the other hand, is simply the accumulation of words and language, and there is nothing immoral about that. But is it true that all literature is an evil that should be avoided? Does Augustine subscribe to what Socrates says in Plato's Republic that story-tellers should be banished from the city, and that even stories mothers tell to their children should be censored?

Augustine begins with musings on what it must have been like to be a baby, an infant. The word "infant" in Latin, infans, literally means "one unable to speak". This is how we all start out: we have no command of language, no way to express ourselves, no speech, no words, no literacy. But Augustine points out that just because we were not able to express ourselves in words does not mean that we did not have desires within us that we longed to communicate to others. This is central to Augustine's conception of what it means to be human: we are created beings that long to be in communion with others; we long to know and be known; we want to make known our inner thoughts and desires so that they may be fulfilled. And the way by which we do this is through the acquisition of language. Even God makes Himself known to us in this way through His Word, both in Scripture and in His living Word, Christ Himself. Words are the building blocks of communion with both God and our fellow man.

Augustine speaks of the frustration of being a baby who has no words to communicate its desires. All a baby can do is cry for what it wants and get frustrated when it is misunderstood. We are probably all familiar with this feeling, even though we are fully capable of speech. Sometimes we get in arguments with others and it seems that, no matter what we say, we can't get through to them. We can't make our inner thoughts known to them in a way that they can comprehend. I've seen the frustration on my younger sister's face when she tries to speak to me and I can't understand her. She's fourteen years old, but she has Down Syndrome and her speech is underdeveloped, so oftentimes I don't always understand what she's telling me. Especially because her mind has developed faster than her speech, it's difficult to see her struggling to make her thoughts understood. It's as if there is a block between her and me which keeps me from truly coming to know her, to be in communion with her. I find it easy to agree with Augustine that the acquisition of language is a primary good because it makes possible the acquisition of so many other goods, including the primary good which is God.

As a toddler, Augustine begins to learn to speak organically by watching others and imitating the sounds they make, learning what words indicate what things and how they are strung together to make coherent sentences. He speaks of how he "schooled" his mouth to make the same sounds that other people made so that he could communicate his ideas to them. This is a natural form of "schooling" that grows from Augustine's natural, God-given abilities, unlike the schooling he will receive as he grows up. But, as often happens in the Confessions, a greater ability often provides a greater danger of abuse, so that Augustine can say, "I waded deeper into the stormy world of human life" at the same time as he rejoices in gaining mastery over his native language. With every gain in ability for good, human beings are also granted a greater ability for evil. While a small child with a limited capacity for speech, with a limited ability to work his will on other people, Augustine was also limited in his ability to sin. Now that he has mastered language, he has been opened up to a larger world of both virtue and vice. His exposure to abuses in language, such as lying, false praise, boasting, descriptions of immoral acts, and other vices, create that "stormy world" into which he describes himself wading.

As a young boy, Augustine is sent to school to learn grammar, but he finds it boring and painful because the children must learn by constraint and punishment. He enjoys reading literature more than learning to spell because the stories are entertaining. This is hardly surprising, perhaps, but Augustine is troubled by this because the stories through which he was taught the nuances of fine rhetoric centered on immoral stories of the gods. Augustine mentions specifically some of the Greco-Roman myths that he read about as a boy: Aeneas and Dido's love affair, Aeneas's later abandonment of Dido, and Dido's suicide; one of Jupiter's many adulterous relations with human women in which he impregnated Danae by sending a golden shower into her lap. Learning these stories as a boy only served to put Augustine's mind "in the gutter", as the saying goes, before he had the opportunity to build up any of the opposing virtues, thereby planting the seeds of greater sins in his adolescence. Augustine says he thoroughly enjoyed reading the Greco-Roman epics and tragedies, but that he learned things from them that greatly damaged his spiritual welfare. Because of this experience with literature in his youth, Augustine struggles with this difference between literacy and literature. On the one hand, literacy is a good thing, objectively good; it is good to be able to read and write and express the thoughts inside our hearts. On the other hand, literature can be corrupting: it can tell stories about immoral or evil things, while making them seem good or useful or entertaining.

Augustine shows us another aspect of literature that can become a danger to our souls when he talks about some of his experiences when he had gone on to what we would consider nowadays as "university". He left home to move to Carthage around the age of nineteen to continue his schooling in rhetoric and lived an admittedly dissolute lifestyle. One aspect of this lifestyle that Augustine dwells on at length is going to see plays, tragedies particularly, and being emotionally moved by them. He liked to see dramas that would inspire strong emotions in him, especially melancholy ones. This is one of the powers of literature, of good story-telling, that we become emotionally invested in the characters and in their joys and sorrows. Augustine looks specifically at the content of these tragic tales: Aeneas and Dido engage in fornication, Aeneas abandons Dido and breaks his vows to her, and Dido kills herself in grief. The tragic drama of the story is supposed to makes us feel sympathy and sadness for these characters, but the reality of their tale is that they were committing grave sins with one another, against one another, and against themselves. Their souls were already dead long before their bodies were. But the emotional connection that we can form with these characters and their sorrows can warp our apprehension of the realities of sin and death. This is what Augustine finds so repulsive about these tragedies he used to love. Their emotional content warped his ideas of what is truly lovable and what is truly sorrowful in this life. The very thing that sets literature apart from the other sciences -- theology, philosophy, and so on -- is also the very thing that can make it truly dangerous to the life of the soul. Nothing makes a more compelling argument to the will than emotional investment. Therefore, Augustine says, literature that aims at making us sympathetic to sin or emotionally invested in the plight of sinners as heroes instead of sinners can be damaging to the life of our souls. In Augustine's own life, he saw such investment blind him to the tragedy of his own sinful life and provided justification or, even worse, affirmation of his dissolute lifestyle.

Does Augustine have anything redeeming to say about literature at all? Well, he wrote the Confessions, for one thing, which, although it is obviously not meant to be "fiction", is indeed a story, the story of a soul's journey from darkness to light, sickness to health, agitation and despair to peace and joy. The Confessions are also filled with some of the most beautiful examples of poetry in praise of God, poems that express the depth of love and gratitude that comes from a heart that was restless until it found its rest in Him. Augustine gives two reasons for why he is writing this book: to praise God for the wonders He has worked in Augustine's life by saving him from his sins and bringing him into the light of truth; to share with anyone who might read them the depths to which God is willing to come to save us from ourselves. Literature, then, for Augustine, should be edifying and didactic; it should build us up and teach us something. And, above all, it should glorify God. In his Confessions, Augustine attempts to do for literature what God has done for him: convert it to God's use and transform it into a vehicle by which humanity can grow in virtue rather than vice, in truth rather than lies. Literature needs a firm foundation in philosophy, an experience of which Augustine describes in emotional terms: "I was aroused and kindled and set on fire to love and seek and capture and hold fast and strongly cling ... to wisdom." Philosophy keeps literature honest and helps it to actively seek universal truth in its depictions of the human condition, whatever it might be. Literature also needs a firm foundation in the Scriptures, from which so much of literature's goodness and beauty can flow. Scripture is, in its essence, a love song written by God for humanity to express His deep desire to be one with us and His never-failing commitment to our salvation: "He brought me forth into a broad place; He delivered me, because He delighted in me" (Ps. 18:19); "You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride" (Song 4:9); "I have taken you by the hand and kept you" (Is. 42:6); "I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who raises an infant to his cheeks" (Hos. 11:4); "I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you" (Jn. 14:18); "As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you; abide in My love" (Jn. 15:9). When the beauties of Scripture are kept at the heart of literature, the literary work will become life-giving and enriching; it will reflect the beauty and goodness inherent in the love story it imitates. God, as the greatest Author of all, gives us a pattern on which to base our own sub-creations in the world of art. When these principles are applied, literature takes on its most fruitful and dynamic form, and becomes a medium by which we can eventually find rest for our restless hearts.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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