Part I: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word
One way of viewing the organizing structure of the Confessions is to see it as an engagement with various texts at different phases of Augustine’s life. In the early books of the Confessions, Augustine describes his dis-ordered state, which resulted in his inability to read any text (sacred or profane) properly. Yet, following his conversion, his entire orientation not only to texts, but to reality as a whole is changed. In this series of posts, I attempt to trace the winding paths that lead up to Augustine’s conversion through his various encounters with texts (and individuals) and to examine his struggles both intellectual and spiritual along the way.
Prior to his joining the Manichees, Augustine had come across one of Cicero’s works, the Hortensius. Having been educated in the liberal arts and himself a rhetor, Augustine was trained to appreciate eloquent writing and speech. Yet, this emphasis on eloquent style was often to the neglect of content, as the goal of acquiring eloquence was not to further some higher end, but to promote selfish ambition and advance his career. In fact, Augustine seems to indicate that his pride and love of form hindered him from appreciating (and perceiving) the rich depths of Scripture given its simple style. However, as Augustine reflects on these events, he sees God’s providential hand cultivating in him a hunger and thirst for that which lasts, for the eternal. Interestingly, when he reads Cicero, which contained an exhortation to philosophy, Augustine, who was then unconverted, describes this experience as a turning point in his pilgrimage.
“The book changed my way of feeling and the character of my prayers to you, O Lord, for under its influence my petitions and desires altered. All my hollow hopes suddenly seemed worthless, and with unbelievable intensity my heart burned with longing for immortality that wisdom seemed to promise. I began to rise up, in order to return to you. My interest in the book was not aroused by its usefulness in the honing of my verbal skills […]; no, it was not merely as an instrument for sharpening my tongue that I used that book, for it had won me over not by its style but by what it had to say.”
Here Augustine indicates that his encounter with Cicero’s work, was unique in that the content “won him over.” Instead of seeking to acquire more polished skills as a rhetor, Augustine perceived that his reading of Cicero had deeply affected him—his desires were changed and he now longed for eternal things and saw his former pursuits as worthless. Alluding to his likeness to the prodigal son, Augustine marks this event as the beginning of his return to God. Though Augustine understands his reading of Cicero as the commencement of his ascent to God, we must keep in mind that Augustine’s return journey was one of winding and arduous paths. In fact, whatever change occurred in Augustine as the result of his introduction to Cicero (and there is no reason to doubt that a change indeed took place), it was not sufficient to prevent him from joining the Manichean sect, and as we have mentioned, remaining with them for nine years.
Augustine. Confessions. Trans., Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997.