Wrestling with Divine Epistemology in Saint Augustine’s Confessions, Book I

Saint Augustine’s Confessions is the great autobiography of the Western Canon. It is composed of thirteen short books, each offering a unique glimpse into Augustine’s personal story: his early life of sin and hedonism, as well as flirtations with popular dogmas of his day. The crescendo of the text occurs in Book VIII in which Augustine describes his conversion to Christianity. The Confessions is brilliantly rife with theological reflections, thanksgiving, and penitence. He uses the form of autobiography to discuss and dismiss certain philosophical schools, such Manichaeism and Neoplatonism. However, he shares a certain kinship with certain classical philosophers from antiquity, namely Plato. Augustine brings a version of Platonism to the Christian perspective, in the same way that Aquinas brings an interpretation of Aristotle to Christianity. Christianity is unique in this way -rather than rejecting classical philosophy in the vein of Judaism and Islam, Christianity reinterprets the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Christianity makes room for philosophy and attempts to make it consistent with theology.

The Confessions is not a proper defense of Augustine, nor of the Christian life (it is not an apologia in the Socratic sense), but rather it is one man’s exposition of his sins. It is a public display of human shortcomings in an effort to appeal to the better angels of our nature. Human beings, after all, learn by example and habit. Augustine addresses the text to God, almost as if in a letter, yet he offers his his own life for consideration by the broader public. He writes it so that God will take pity on him and also so that God will grant him rewards. Notably, the Confessions was published without the threat of persecution (it was published after Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313, freeing Christians from state-sanctioned persecution).

In Book I of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, he opens the text with the central epistemological question. How does a person gain knowledge? And, in particular, how does someone gain knowledge of the divine? This questions is the mirror of the same question wrestled with by Plato and Aristotle (i.e. the struggle to define doxa versus episteme). It is the same question discussed in Plato’s Meno and also Plato’s Theaetetus -however in both of the latter cases theology is not the central focus. However, the theological project requires an exploration into knowledge of the supra-human, or the divine.

Near the beginning Saint Augustine asks:

“Grant me Lord, to know and understand whether a man is first to pray to you for help or to praise you, and whether he must know you before he can call you to his aid. If he does not know you, how can he pray to you? For he may call for some other help, mistaking it for yours” (Book I, Section 1, pp 21).

Said in another way: can humans willfully acquire knowledge of God, or does God freely dispense of his knowledge regardless of human prayer? In the Meno, for example, Socrates posits knowledge as recollection, a solely human activity. In Augustine’s Confessions, however, in order for someone to have divine knowledge of God, there is a problem: he must, in fact, contain within himself the understanding of God. Said in another way: in order to recollect, or gain knowledge of God, a human being must contain within himself the whole concept of God. If that is true, why does any human pray to God instead of working hard to recollect true things? Why does he ask God to come into him? The idea of prayer brings to light a certain cosmic separation between man and God that is somehow bridged by speech, or the human willpower. However, Augustine also claims that all life is merely an apportionment toward God (i.e. ‘without God I am nothing’).

God comes to light in section 4 of Book I as a collection of seeming contradictions: Unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, yet never old, active, yet at rest, hidden from us, yet ever-present; and so on. Augustine desires closeness to God, and yet he longs to expose his sins so that God will take pity on him (hence the reason for writing his Confessions). For all the questions pertaining to God, Augustine says it is better for people search for God, as a first principle, rather than pursue human questions.

“I do not remember that early part of my life, O Lord, but I believe what other people have told me about it and from watching other babies I can conclude that I also lived as they do. But, true though my conclusions may be, I do not like to think of that period as part of the same life I now lead, because it is dim and forgotten…” (Book I, section 7, pp 28).

Augustine admits that sins first began unknowingly at birth – he asks God when he was ever innocent? Even as a child, are human beings condemned by God? Why, Augustine asks, was I born guilty? In boyhood, Augustine was a sinner by not studying enough and playing with other boys in school. “every soul that sins bring its own punishment upon itself” (Book I, section 12, pp. 33). According to these criteria, every human is both born guilty and also behaves in accord with sinfulness. In this way, Augustine espouses his doctrine of “Original Sin” even in unknowing children. In school, Augustine describes his distaste for the Greek language, and the punishments he once received when learning Greek. He also his preference for the Latin language (as in the writings of Virgil) and his advocacy of an education based on incentives rather than punishments –“this clearly shows that we learn better in a free spirit of curiosity than under fear and compulsion” (Book I, section 14, pp 35). The models of Greek and Latin gods led Augustine to look for pleasure in in himself and other creatures, not in God. Augustine ends Book I by forecasting the next several books which detail the sins of his youth, particularly lust. Hence his famous phrase: “Lord make me chaste and continent but not yet” (“Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo” Book VIII, Section 7, pp. 169). He refers to his inner self as a house divided -a person in extreme inner turmoil. However, he also praises this turmoil. Augustine suggests that true learning comes from the pain that God teaches -he claims real tragedy and suffering is a greater teacher than the tragic poets of ancient Greece (hence why evil exists, despite all things coming from God and being apportioned toward God).

The beginning of the Confessions offers a rich fertile ground for philosophic inquiry.

For this reading I used the Penguin edition of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin.

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