Augustine’s Confessions as a Re-Write of Virgil’s Aeneid

St. AugustineMany scholars have commented on the polyphonic (using Bakhtin’s term) character of Augustine’s Confessions, particularly his use of biblical allusions, quotations and the like.  In this post, I focus on Augustine’s superimposition of key texts from the classical tradition, specifically, Virgil’s Aeneid. If we consider some of Augustine’s main geographical movements, we see that they mirror Aeneas’ journeys.  For example, Augustine moves to Carthage, one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire, in order continue his studies.  In the opening paragraph of book III, he describes Carthage in a not so positive light:

So I arrived at Carthage, where the din of scandalous love-affairs raged cauldron-like around me.  I was not yet in love, but I was enamored with the idea of love, and so deep within me was my need that I hated myself for the sluggishness of my desires.  In love with loving, I was casting about for something to love; the security of a way of life free from pitfalls seemed abhorrent to me, because I was inwardly starved of that food which is yourself, O my God (III.1, 1; Boulding trans., p. 75).

When Augustine moves to Carthage, he is a young man and describes himself as “in love with being in love.”  He finds himself enticed by certain activities available in the city and is particularly fond of the theater.  He enjoys “connecting” with the characters on the stage and even weeps at their misfortunes.  But as he reflects on his activity, he finds a contradiction of sorts.  He weeps for these imaginary, non-historical characters, but he fails to weep for his own, very real wanderings from God.  Literarily speaking, Augustine has focused on Carthage because Carthage is where Aeneas landed and began his love-affair with Dido.  Augustine is in a sense replicating Aeneas’ journey.  So the question becomes, what will Augustine do? Will he follow the way of Aeneas, leave his own Dido, and ultimately do what he is destined to do, or will he be ruled and enslaved by his own (mis-directed) passions?

In book V, we have a second Aeneas-inspired movement, viz., the journey from Carthage to Italy (then eventually to Milan).  Again, we find a parallel with Aeneas’ life. The move from Carthage to Italy is the same one that Aeneas makes after his affair with Dido.  In other words, Augustine, like Aeneas, is leaving something/someone behind, and is on the way to better things.  Aeneas’ destiny was fated by the gods and one wonders whether his path could have been altered.  In Augustine’s case, though no doubt guided by God’s providence and strengthened by God’s grace, a genuine choice was involved.  In book V, after his disappointing encounter with Faustus, Augustine meets Bishop Ambrose, who teaches him how to read Scripture “spiritually,” and he eventually comes to know the One to whom Scriptures point, Jesus Christ.

Augustine’s use of Virgil’s text is a continuation of a long tradition of taking up various threads, narratives etc. from previous texts and then re-writing them for one’s present purposes.  Virgil does the same thing with Homer, as Aeneas non-repetitively re-traces Odysseus’ steps. Of course, Virgil re-writes his story in order to bring the past to bear on the present (the glorious reign of Augustus).