On Reading All of Augustine

“The man who claims to have read all of Augustine is a liar”

And, of course, Isidore of Seville is pretty close to right. I haven’t touched the Ennarations on the Psalms, nor about half the other sermons, nor a couple other minor works, but 30-odd other volumes? Not right short, I undertake! Now that I’m all but done with this super-secret press project I’ve been working on for a year and a half now (because of course there won’t be any revisions at all…), it’s time for a few observations:

—There’s a special place in Heaven reserved for Patristics scholars and translators. I wasn’t even through the first volume of the letters before I was tired of hearing about the Donatists. “Why won’t the Donatists just go away? NO MORE DONATISTS!” About a volume later, I think Augustine, even with his saintlike patience, starts to admit he’s just a wee bit tired of writing about the Donatists himself. Sister Wilfrid Parsons still has three volumes to slowly, painfully, and accurately get through. Spending all that time with everyone’s least favorite group of fifth century North African heretics, working through Augustine’s sometimes very floral Latin, trying to make something that will sound good in English, even sixty years later? That’s impressive.

—It’s a bit interesting to read a series of works—like all 270 of Augustine’s letters, before the new ones were found—that were translated by the same person. You know that all three of you—author, translator, and reader—are, at the risk of sounding really corny, gradually changing as you work, becoming (hopefully) better at writing, translating, and reading, making slow progress together. It’s one thing for a book to be a way for people of all times and places to travel to us, as Augustine says in Contra Julianam; it’s quite another to be traveling along with two other people from different times and places. I even grew a Donatist tolerance by the end.

—While not all translations age gracefully, not all of them age poorly. In addition to Sister Parsons’ translations of the letters, John Gavigan’s translation of De doctrina Christiana is, as befits a rhetoric textbook, extremely enjoyable to read (especially the examples Augustine uses from Cyprian and Ambrose in Book IV), and, while each volume of City of God has its own subtle difference in voice because of the different translators, Augustine’s sarcasm, his winking wit, and his joy and wonder at the marvels of creation come through clearly in all of them.

—Which leads to something else people don’t tell you: Augustine can be quite witty. For a dour, sex-hating, humorless church father, he sure does like his rhetorical devices, biting sarcasm, and truly hideous puns. Everybody who studies Augustine for five minutes knows about That Infamous Passage in City of God where he says that, in the Garden of Eden, Adam had full rational control of all of his body…yes, especially that part. What people seem to miss—or at least missed telling me!—is that Augustine was clearly enjoying himself when he was writing it. All those rhetorical devices, all those witty turns of phrase, all those little allusions straight out of Cicero’s playbook; this is writing meant to entertain as much as edify. Trust me, the man can be quite dull when he wants to be (On Music, his Biblical commentaries, the Tractates on John, reading about what the number 153 means for the umpteenth time); this ain’t one of those times. Perhaps, knowing that there was no possible way he could make it through this discussion without his audience squirming a bit, he didn’t even try to dodge the issue; perhaps he even enjoyed a chance to use his rhetorical skill to make something unseemly beautiful.

—I’m also pretty sure he gets a bum rap as being “the reason why Christianity hates sex/women/emotions.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he and the radical feminists on my twitter feed would get along—if you’re looking for a “sex positive” version of Augustine, you need to look somewhere other than any book by Augustine—but he certainly had no tolerance for anyone using the “boys will be boys” or “you know how men are, a bit of harmless straying’s to be expected” excuses. In general, seeing any mention of anyone bringing up something like that was a good cue to brace yourself for an epic snarkfest. There’s a lot of pretty egregious sexism you’d expect to see from a late Roman aristocrat with a somewhat complicated personal backstory that you just don’t find in Auggie. Yes, every man has to be on guard against Eve in every woman, but being female is part of humanity’s nature, not part of humanity’s blemish. As for him being an unemotional logic-chopper, Confessions. And everything he ever writes about his mother and son, both of whom he clearly adored and admired. While informal biographical speculation on Augustine seems to center on who his all-but wife was and how things might have been different if Monica had approved (or if classism hadn’t gotten in the way of them marrying) and didn’t force her son to leave her, I wonder about what  the life of Adeodatus would have been like had he lived. Clearly, Augustine had a very high opinion of his son, and often praises his intelligence and wisdom; what place would he have found in the last days of the decaying Empire, in a time even more turbulent and violent than his father’s, a world no longer ruled by Rome but by the Arian Vandals?

—Now, if you’re looking for something he really didn’t like, try the theater. All actors are liars, and proof that Plato was the wisest of the pagans is that he tried to ban ’em.

—Speaking of things he didn’t like, curiosity. “Ah!” I hear my straw man interlocutor say, “he’s an oppressive Dark Ages Christian, trying to keep the light of knowledge down! I knew it!” Yeah, well, the oft-lambasted vice of curiosity doesn’t quite mean what we think it does. Trying to find out about the world is good; this is the man who includes several long (and, to our eyes, odd) passages of the wonders of the natural world and strange races who live in distant lands, who encourages learning, and, really, seems pretty intellectually engaged and curious. So what is “curiosity,” then, curiosity in the bad way? As best I can tell, it deals with trying to find out things one Ought Not to Know, which generally boils down to one of two things: Stuff what deals with demons and divination, and Stuff what’s pointless. Now, I’m not sure how many of us go about trying to contact demons or conduct black magic these days (though I suppose there are some—and telling people you want a pack of cards for playing Tarot generally leads to telling them that Tarot is a game, not just a way of telling fortunes), but I know lots of us find Wikipedia surfing to be a Problem. Let’s be honest, there’s no real reason I should be spending time reading about naval tactics used by World War II carrier groups, the five US states that were independent nations before joining the Union, proper ways of cooking Bavarian sausages that you can’t find in this country, or scholarly hats of the Chosun dynasty that I might look good in. It’s wasting time, it’s useless knowledge (yes, even by the standards of someone with multiple philosophy degrees), and there’s no reason why I should even want to know about such things except to best people in cocktail party discussions (which would lead us to the archvice of pride) or because I’m avoiding harder work and learning, like finishing a book of Augustine quotes. Curiosity is a particularly diabolical vice for those of us who fancy ourselves well-read intellectuals; it leads to pride, to greed (that “poor student” excuse only lasts until I’m at Full Circle or Kramerbooks), to sloth, to vanity, and to procrastination. Let’s face it, I really don’t have all my books because I honestly anticipate ever reading them in their entirety ever again. Some of them, I’ve never read, and actually intend to never finish. There’s even a word in Japanese—tsundoku—for the act of buying books you don’t read, or for making piles of unread books. There’s a certain vanity to having walls of books that I read once, cite rarely, and always think I’ll need to cite at a moment’s notice (I swear I’m not a grad student anymore!); it’s a way of puffing myself up, of convincing myself that I’m more cultured and refined than the unbooked masses who don’t have volumes in languages they can’t read on their shelves. Oh sure, it makes me look smarter, but, since there’s no possible way I could possibly reread all of those books (and it’s pretty unlikely I’ll need to cite that French copy of Rousseau ever again), what real use do I have for most of them? Pride and procrastination, probably.

—Having finished all of this, I realize that what I probably should have done, were I a properly self-promoting and self-important blogger, is to have blogged each individual volume, cataloguing my impressions of each, as well as my misadventures and Unique Insights from spending Good, Insightful time with a spiritual master. Eh, I might do that for the sequel (although Megaboss has already told me “nobody cares about Cyprian,” and, probably quite rightly, didn’t think “they should!” was reason enough), but let’s face it: much as Auggie liked writing about books that lead him to spiritual revelations, I don’t think he much cared for narcissists talking about how Enlightened they were. Lord knows what he’d think of this here blogge.

Postscript: All this is to say that I’m really sorry about the lack of posts for the last three months, those of you who actually read this; there’s a book with my name on the front cover coming soon, and even Megaboss thinks it’s pretty good (and not just because it’s kinda his idea). There’s more coming—another post on bad philosophy of science in popular culture, stuff on the philosophy of bicycling and whether “automotive privilege” is a thing, much less a useful thing, the aesthetics of experimental narrative media (yes, I’m making it sound pretentious so I don’t sound lowbrow for my comics and computer game habit), the medievalism of Crusader Kings II and its kinda insane forums, maybe even something about this weird interpretivist theory of law/religion/art/everything I’ve been trying to figure out for the last few years (if anyone needs a good insomnia cure)—but only if I can stop procrastinating on my procrastinating.

5 thoughts on “On Reading All of Augustine

  1. So good to have you back. And congrats on the bookstuffs. Exciting!

    I love Augustine’s sense of humor too – totally underrated. Help me remember something: I have this really clear memory of reading a passage in City of God where Augustine goes on this tangent about a friend of his who can make his farts sound like animal noises. Am I crazy?

    Also, vis a vis curiosity (which, yes, people always misunderstand): I remember Hittinger explaining it as part of the “tripartite” sin of pride, with curiosity being the future tense expression of the libido dominandus, the desire to dominate over things. Again, this is me drudging up years-old memories, so no promises on reliability. Thoughts?

    • The latter part, I’ll have to think about (though understand, I’m not *about* to disagree with the Warren Chair of Catholic Studies, formerly of the School of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America—Hittinger’s right, I just have to figure out why), but as for the former, it’s a good thing I have a searchable database of Augustine quotes handy, including that very one—so, from City of God, Book 14, Chapter 24:

      “Even in our fallen state, everyone knows that there are human beings so unlike ordinary people that, whenever they want, they can do tricks with their bodies so unusual that practically no one can imitate them or even believe they can be done. There are people who can swallow an enormous number and variety of objects and then, by a slight contraction of the stomach, bring up as from a bag whichever object they want, and in good condition. There are even individuals who can make musical notes issue from the rear of their anatomy, so that you would think they were singing.”

      • Okay, thinking some more about Hittinger’s summary of curiosity: yes, that’s part of it, though I don’t think Augustine ever says as much explicitly. It is implied, though, and I don’t think he’d disagree with that assessment. However, the other part of the equation is the “concupiscencia oculorum,” the lust of the eyes, in addition to the pride of life. There’s a desire to see and know things one ought not know or see, things that are unsuitable and unfitting for anyone to gawk at. Perhaps it’s a poor use of time and leisure, perhaps it’s because the things under investigation are useless and unenlightening or flat-out sinful, perhaps the ways you’d investigate certain questions are immoral, perhaps it’s just because some things are just none of your business, but there are limits on what Augustine thinks one should inquire after—though, given his own knowledge and desire to know things, those limits are pretty broad. I can’t see Augustine having any problems with, say, physics, but peering into your neighbor’s back window, reading celebrity mags, or procrastinating on Wikipedia? I can hear the sainted snark from here.

  2. Pingback: Build It and…Will They Come?: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 4 | Intentio Lectoris

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