Part II: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

During his time with the Manicheans, Augustine began to grow increasingly dissatisfied with their teachings and had accumulated a number of questions that none of his fellow Manichees were able to answer adequately. His friends, however, assured him that when Faustus arrived, he would be able to sufficiently address and respond to Augustine’s questions. Yet, when Augustine met Faustus and had the opportunity to engage him on various issues, he found Faustus wanting. Indeed, Faustus lived up to reputation as a gifted orator, but his content had no substance. This marks another significant turning point in Augustine’s journey. In fact, as he looks back on this event, he again sees God’s providential care and guidance. As Augustine explains, God himself had been teaching him to listen with a spiritually attuned ear and to recognize that God alone is the (true, inner) teacher of truth.

“I had already learned under your tuition that nothing should be regarded as true because it is eloquently stated, nor false because the words sound clumsy. On the other hand, it is not true for being expressed in uncouth language either, or false because couched in splendid words. I had come to understand that just as wholesome and rubbishy food may both be served equally well in sophisticated dishes or in others of rustic quality, so too can wisdom and foolishness be proffered in language elegant or plain.”

Augustine has clearly made progress at this point, as he is less attracted by mere external adornments, and continues to long for that which truly feeds his soul—whether it be served in sophisticated or rustic dishes. Augustine’s thirst for content over form (as conveyed in his judgment of Mani), however, should not be taken as a wholesale dismissal or repudiation of the importance of articulate rhetorical style.

In light of Faustus’ inability to answer Augustine’s questions, Augustine entertains for a brief period of time Academic skepticism, and as a result, considers the possibility that perhaps truth cannot be obtained. Yet, he does not seem to take the skeptical position too much to heart, as he continues to wrestle with theological questions (e.g., God’s omnipresence, the nature of evil etc.) and even longed to discuss the scriptures with someone who knew them well. After a brief teaching stint in Rome, Augustine moves to Milan and there meets this “someone,” viz., Bishop Ambrose, whom God will use to help Augustine overcome the many false views that he had acquired through the Manichean teachings on Scripture. As Augustine himself admits, he first came to hear Ambrose with less than virtuous motives; however, as he sat under Ambrose’s teaching he began to be drawn in not only by his rhetorical skill but likewise by the weightiness of his content. Describing his experience of listening to Ambrose’s orations, Augustine writes:

“[A]s his words, which I enjoyed, penetrated my mind, the substance, which I overlooked, seeped in with them, for I could not separate the two. As I opened my heart to appreciate how skillfully he spoke, the recognition that he was speaking the truth crept in at the same time, though only by slow degrees. At first the case he was making began to seem defensible to me, and I realized that the Catholic faith, in support of which I had believed nothing could be advanced against Manichean opponents, was in fact intellectually respectable.”

What proved to be a particularly important breakthrough for Augustine was Ambrose’s explanation of the figurative or “spiritual” interpretation of Scripture. The Manichees had interpreted a number of texts from the Old Testament in a strictly literal sense, which caused serious problems in Augustine’s understanding of God’s nature and character. Now that Augustine had (through Ambrose) gained this new hermeneutical approach to Scripture, many of his former objections and misunderstandings were swept away. Although now Augustine has more or less repudiated his Manichean beliefs and has significantly less “intellectual” excuses for rejecting the Catholic faith, his flirtation with skepticism rears its head and allows him to remain at a distance from a more intimate embrace of Christianity. One of his chief stumbling blocks—itself a hangover from his now abandoned Manichean worldview—is Augustine’s inability to conceive of God as immaterial. This barrier will be removed in his encounter with the writings of the Platonists, which will be covered in the next post.

Augustine. Confessions. Trans., Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997.

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.

Augustine On Interpreting Scripture: Always a "Plus" of Meaning

As Michael Hanby notes, in the Confessions, Augustine teaches that there is a “plenitude of true meanings for a single text” […] The ontological warrant that underlies this insistence throughout the Augustinian corpus derives, in part, from the very nature of truth’s oneness, which defies its circumscription or possession” (Augustine and Modernity, p. 34). For example, in Confessions XII, Augustine writes:

“Having listened to all these divergent opinions and weighed them, I do not wish to bandy words, for that serves no purpose except to ruin those who listen. The law is an excellent thing for building us up provided we use it lawfully, because its object is to promote the charity which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and unfeigned faith, and I know what were the twin precepts on which our Master made the whole law and prophets depend. If I confess this with burning love, O my God, O secret light of my eyes, what does it matter to me that various interpretations of those words are proffered, as long as they are true? I repeat, what does it matter to me if what I think the author thought is different from what someone else thinks he thought? All of us, his readers, are doing our utmost to search out and understand the writer’s intention, and since we believe him to be truthful, we do not presume to interpret him as making any statement that we either know or suppose to be false. Provided, therefore, that each person tries to ascertain in the holy scriptures the meaning the author intended, what harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you, the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?” (Augustine’s Confess. XII.27, pp. 327-328, M. Boulding translation).

Maria Boulding (the translator) adds the following note in regard to the passage above, “Augustine’s recognition that meanings other than those intended by the writer can legitimately be discovered in the sacred text is grounded in his conviction that the God of truth who inspired the writer and guarantees the text abides in the minds of believing readers, and that though God makes use of human words, they are never adequate to fully express his mystery; there is always a ‘plus’ of meaning” (p. 323, note 71).

We definitely have something more than gramatico-historical hermeneutics in place here. (Anachronistically speaking, our apologies to Spinoza and company).