Jump to content
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...

Welcome to The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Register or login now and gain instant access to our features!

Sign in to follow this  
Cyril Darkcloud

Words Provoked By Augustine

Recommended Posts

A prefatory note: Augustine is widely considered to have invented with his Confessions the Western literary genre of autobiography – the writing of a narrative of one’s life in the attempt to understand and express one’s self. The following is a reflection upon the way words not only are employed by Augustine as the medium of his narrative, but are also in a mysterious way the very matter of his life. While the Confessions is a widely acknowledged classic of spirituality, it is also a work of no small philosophical and literary power whose use of words to construct an understanding of self and life has valuable lessons for any who would take the task of writing seriously.


B) All of that formal academic language to say that this is posted simply because I believe Augustine does some really cool things with words that are well-worth a written exploration and response. And, since the bulk of my own writing is in the form of the reflective essay, this is my first attempt at sharing that aspect of my work online.


Perhaps the most fitting place to begin a consideration of Augustine’s Confessions is with its most obvious element -- it is a composition of words. A single composition in that it forms a single documentary reflection upon a singular life, but also a composition possessing something of a plural character. The words of the Confessions are arranged in turn to produce narrative, soliloquy, philosophical discourse and prayer. These words are, as well, words of address directed to a multiplicity of dialogue partners. Providing structural and thematic continuity to the work is the “conversational monologue” of Augustine’s speech to God. This is not, however, a private conversation as Augustine himself is all too aware of his audience, an audience in whose presence and hearing these words are delivered, for whose benefit this conversation takes place, and, arguably, the true addressee of his speaking. There are other conversations as well, that of Augustine with the ideas of time and beauty and goodness and evil; of a man with his past, with the restlessness of his life and the rest he has come to desire; that of a child with his mother and of this same mother with the God to whom Augustine so deliberately addresses his words. It is a work of conversations within conversations, a multi-level discourse, perhaps even a multiplicity of discourses, in which the disparate elements of a man’s experience seemingly grope for the words that will allow them to articulate themselves in a unified voice.


Augustine’s life was, in fact, a life of words. A life of struggling to articulate needs and desires, of seeking adequate expression, adequate words, with which to form questions and propose ideas. His education was one of the mastery of words and the diverse modes of human expression. His relationship with his mother is described frequently in terms of words spoken between them and her words, spoken to God, on his behalf -- indeed, her very tears are described as if they were speech. Friendship for Augustine seems to find its greatest articulation in depth of conversation, as if the exchange of words somehow involves the exchange of life. The desperate seeking after love which dominates his life, his journey simultaneously away from and toward the beautiful Mystery he names God, is a seeking through words, a journey of words, a questing by means of words in pursuit of truth. It is the misuse of words that seduces and enslaves him, his inability to comprehend the words of the Old Testament that prevents him from embracing Christianity, the words of Cicero that turn his heart to the pursuit of truth, the emptiness of the beautiful words of Faustus which cannot satisfy him and the fullness of the likewise beautiful words of Ambrose that entices him with the promise of the eventual satisfaction of his deepest hungers.


From his groping after words that would allow him to give utterance to something concerning the Ineffable that begins his work to the emptiness of his hearing being gradually penetrated and filled by the words of Ambrose, Augustine’s inward journey to the truth about himself and his God and his outward “Aeneid” to Rome are described in terms of the emptiness and the fullness of words. Words, Augustine asserts repeatedly, are vessels, containers that may be filled with the rich wine of truth or the illusory goodness of fiction. Indeed, for Augustine, the notion of evil as non-being and the non-reality of fiction are closely related. It is the emptiness of his words, the emptiness of fiction masquerading as truth, that leads Augustine into the strange nothingness of a life built upon a dream mistaken for reality -- an emptiness underscored by Monica’s dream disclosing more of truth than the ‘reality’ constructed by the words of the Manicheeism he had come to embrace. Like words, however, one’s hearing may be empty or full, a hearing disposed to emptiness or to fullness. The Old Testament was closed to Augustine as his life was not disposed to the fullness of its words, hearing only a literalist emptiness. It was his seeking after truth, for vessels that are not simply beautiful but are also filled, that gradually changed the disposition not simply of his speaking but of his hearing as well. The Confessions, then, are an account, in words, of a life shaped by words, words of truth and words of fiction, words that may resonate in one’s depths or simply ring with hollow echoes. It is also a work whose words claim for themselves the resonance of truth and demand that the reader hear their fullness.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites
Sign in to follow this  

  • Create New...