Per Caritatem

Black grief closed over my heart and wherever I looked I saw only death. […] Everything I had shared with my friend turned into hideous anguish without him. My eyes sought him everywhere, but he was missing; I hated all things because they held him not, and could no more say to me, “Look, here he comes!” as they had been wont to do in his lifetime when he had been away. I had become a great enigma to myself, and I questioned my soul, demanding why it was sorrowful and why it so disquieted me, but it had no answer.[1]

In this passage, Augustine the narrator reflects upon the all-consuming grief coloring his world following the death of his beloved friend. Here Augustine pours out his heart to God as he does throughout the book, confessing his sorrows and his struggles, posing philosophical and theological questions to God, himself, and his readers. Augustine’s soul, however, when it comes to providing the answers for which he longs, has no idea how to respond [nihil noverat respondere mihi]. That is, contrary to commonly accepted modern and postmodern interpretations of Augustine, painting him as the precursor to psychoanalysis, I argue that Augustine’s multiple confessions were not primarily about himself; rather, his narrative, which no doubt includes soul-searching, personal stories, and so forth, was first and foremost about God, the unfolding narrative of redemption, and how the self, left to itself, turned in upon itself does not give rise to greater self-revelation and liberation; rather, Augustine’s confessions announce repeatedly that the self-absorbed, incessantly introspecting self—the self whose inward turn does not have as its goal a deeper union with the Christian God—is ultimately left famished, speechless, and restless—“inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te” (“Our heart is unhinged, forever moving to and fro, until it finds in You a peaceful, resting abode”).[2]

Against the rather entrenched view that a more or less straight line can be drawn from Augustine to Cartesian inwardness and thus to the modern introspecting subject, in this post I offer a counterargument, based upon a reading of select texts from the Confessions, that Augustine’s narrative and his understanding of the self has little in common with modern autobiography, autonomous notions of the self, or staticized views of selfhood and subjectivity.[3]

Returning to the passage from book four, we have Augustine’s phenomenological description of grief, his own grief over the death of his beloved friend. “Black grief closed over my heart [quo dolore contenebratum est cor meum], and wherever I looked I saw only death.”[4] As O’Donnell points out, Augustine draws upon language from the Old Testament, specifically Lamentations 5:17,[5] where we read: “Because of this our hearts [cor nostrum] are sick, because of these things our eyes have grown dim [contenebrati]” (NRSV).  In a way similar to the New Testament authors’ appropriation of the Old Testament, Augustine weaves together Scriptural fragments and metaphors, expanding their meanings and applying them for his present purposes. In context, the Lamentations passage speaks of the suffering of God’s people as a result of their turning away from God. Their sins, as Lamentations 5:16 explains, are the cause of their heart sickness and lack of vision. In both the Old and New Testaments, descriptions of darkened eyes and obscured vision are often used metaphorically to connote negative spiritual and moral conditions. Thus, in Scripture we find images depicting a lack of sight and consequent dwelling in darkness set in contrast to living in the light—itself a metaphoric description of God. Whether penned by the Psalmist or St. John the Apostle, to dwell in the light is to live in God and to see oneself, others, and the entire created order in his light.[6]

With the Lamentations connection in mind, that Augustine chose the Scriptural image of a darkened, grieving heart [quo dolore contenebratum est cor meum] suggests a desire to communicate something more than his own pain.  In fact, as the chapter unfolds, Augustine the narrator states explicitly that his sorrow had become excessive and self-focused. In addition, he loved his friend without taking account of the latter’s finitude, and he failed to acknowledge the friendship as a gift which must some day return to its Giver. Discussing why his grief had so overwhelmed him, Augustine asks rhetorically: was it not “because I had poured out my soul into the sand by loving a man doomed to death as though he were never to die?”[7] Then in the following paragraph, Augustine highlights the proper way to love another deeply, namely, the other must be loved in God. “Blessed is he who loves you, and loves his friend in you […] He alone loses no one dear to him, to whom all are dear in the One who is never lost. And who is this but our God.”[8]

Here we should note that Augustine affirms the value and goodness of friendship. Loving others deeply is not in itself problematic or to be avoided.[9] Rather, Augustine is at pains to stress that only God, given his nature and character, can provide the solidity we seek, the abode for our unhinged hearts. On the one hand, that all creation, including human beings, is good, Augustine in no way denies. It must be good because its very existence comes from a God who is good.[10] On the other hand, our loves must be properly ordered, and when we love the creature in place of the Creator—that is, as the final goal or ultimate meaning of our lives—we set ourselves up for sorrow upon sorrow. Whether or not we agree with Augustine’s assessment of his grief is beside the point. Perhaps he is at times too hard on himself when it comes to his emotional life. What is to the point given our present purpose is to foreground Augustine’s primary aim in recounting and analyzing his grief over the loss of his friend.


[1] Augustine, Confessions (trans. by Maria Boulding), 4.4.9; 97 [CSEL 33, 70]. Unless noted, all subsequent references are to this edition. As Boulding explains in her Introduction, the earliest manuscripts of the Confessions were simply divided into thirteen chapters. Then in the fifteenth century chapter numbers were added, and finally with the Maurist edition of 1679 paragraph numbers likewise were added. Boulding’s translation includes all three sets of numbers; thus, I have adopted the following system to reflect all three numbers and to conform to Boulding’s text:  4.4.9; 97 means book 4, chapter 4, paragraph 9, page 97. My Latin citations are from the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, vol. 33, which shall be abbreviated, CSEL 33, followed by the corresponding page number.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1 [CSEL 33, 1]. My translation. We find variations on Augustine’s “enigmatic self” theme, at 4.4.9 [CSEL 33, 70] (factus eram ipse mihi magna quaestio), 2.10.18 [CSEL 33, 43] (factus sum mihi regio egestatis), and 10.33.50 [CSEL 33, 264] (mihi quaestio factus sum).

[3] For an argument in favor of the Augustine-Cartesian continuity thesis, see Stephen Menn, Descartes and Augustine. For an argument against Menn’s continuity thesis, see Michael Hanby, Augustine and Modernity. See also, Chloë Taylor, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault, esp. 26–46. In addition to her helpful discussion on Augustine and interiority, Taylor offers her thesis for the absence of Augustine in Foucault’s writings.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 4.4.9; 97.

[5] O’Donnell, Augustine: Confessions, commentary on 4.4.9, (accessed 3/11/11).

[6] Thus, the Psalmist writes, “in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9, NRSV).

[7] Augustine, Confessions 4.8.13; 100.

[8] Ibid., 4.9.14; 101.

[9] Schuld elaborates Augustine’s position as follows: “[e]ven the most intimate and heartfelt affection between friends or lovers can remain viable only if it continually streams through and is by the love of God […] To love something other than God for its own sake as a solitary entity does not allow a circular form of love but only a stagnated one that cannot move far from itself, caught up, as it always becomes, in the standing pools that collect around self-absorbing persons and ends” (Foucault and Augustine, 40).

[10] Cf., Augustine, Confessions 4.12.18 for a similar description of Augustine’s view of the created order as good.


6 Responses so far

[…] Nielsen argues that Augutine’s ”confessions” were primarily about God rather than himself. That is, contrary to commonly accepted modern and postmodern interpretations of Augustine, […]


great work on this. i’m just starting my diss. where I will be using a similar trajectory regarding Augustine, that he is not a precursor to modern subjectivity, contrasting this with Hegel.

are you reading Aug. through people like Barnes, Ayers, and Cavadini, or just coming to these insights on your own?

Thanks, Geoff. I haven’t read any of the authors you mention on this topic, although I am familiar with Ayers’ excellent work on Augustine.
I read several years ago, M. Hanby’s book on Augustine and Modernity, but the contemporary book most influencing my thought on
Augustine at present are by Chloe Taylor, Joyce Schuld, J-L. Marion, and Robert Dodaro. As to older works, you can’t get much better than R.A. Markus.
This series is from the penultimate chapter of my dissertation, which I hope to defend in August!


Thanks. Yeah, I love Markus (until the last chapter I suppose…). Have they translated Marion’s new work on Augustine yet? And I’ll have to check out Taylor and Schuld.

I love Dodaro on the city of God.

it seems part of our projects will overlap. I’ll comparing Augustine’s understanding of subjectivity via “conversion” to Hegel’s understanding. but regarding Augustine, I’ll be taking a similar route as you that Aug. is not the father of modern subjectivity (as argued by people like C. Taylor or Menn in his Descartes/Augustine book). I also appreciate Hanby’s book.

I’ll have to check out your diss. when it comes out. did I see that it will be with W&S?

Hi Geoff,

What’s your critique of Markus’s last chapter? As to Marion’s book, I am working with the French and am
not aware of any English translation. Your project sounds interesting–Augustine and Hegel on the topic
of subjectivity–very cool. Regarding my dissertation, it is a separate project from my forthcoming
book with W&S; although the latter has some overlap with the former and arose out of my
dissertation research. My dissertation may be published by another at this point “unnamed” but
well-known publisher : ) If that doesn’t work out, I’ll submit selected chapters (slightly reworked) for publication
as journal articles.


I only have questions about Markus’ linking, or not, of Augustine to liberalism in various forms and his critique that Aug. doesn’t have a fully formed concept of the state. But it’s not really a big deal, the historical analysis is great.

Glad to hear that you Diss. might be coming out (we hope) with a “well-known” publisher. I hope you land it.