Sunday, September 13, 2015
Confessions by Saint Augustine
A sophisticated Roman is torn between worldly things and God
Augustine, living around 350 AD, a smart kid, is urged to be successful by his devoutly Christian mother and his pagan rather dickish father. In an early important scene, he maliciously swipes some pears with a gang of other boys. Little by little Augustine expands his provincial horizons, leaving Africa to make his mark in the big city, finally ending up in Milan, running a school of rhetoric. Urged on by his saintly mother, he is attracted to Christians by their earnestness, their seeming happiness, but intellectually looks down on them for the crudeness of their beliefs. Also, Augustine likes girls and finds the concept of celibacy to be at first strange, then, obviously, impossible. One day, in a garden, in a moment of despair, he hears a child in the adjoining yard sing a child’s song (although a children’s song he had never heard before), Tolle Lege (Take and Read). There is a book on the ground, the New Testament (natch), he takes it up and reads. An inner peace fills him and he spends the rest of his life firmly committed to the Church.
Is this considered the first memoir? It certainly is constructed in an artistic manner, with early chapters filled with insightful comments about education and childhood. What really struck me is that this life of an ancient Roman, which I expected would be utterly alien to me, filled with atavistic beliefs, did not seem alien at all. (For the most part.) Apparently humanity, the family, ambition and the search for meaning hasn’t changed all that much. Another thing I thought was interesting is how he discusses addictions – sex, alcohol and interestingly enough, addiction to gladiator contests. The conversion, a powerfully dramatic scene, is the climax. The last couple of chapters are very metaphysical and hard to read. Or at least hard to read quickly.