Augustine’s Confessions I: Notes

I’m currently rereading Augustine’s Confessions (for the third or fourth time), this time as part of the larger project that is my doctoral dissertation.

Lots going on in Book I. I want to give a quick list of some important themes, and then focus in particular on two: his way of overcoming destructive desires, and his “hermeneutic of suspicion” of the pagan Greek religious deities.

First, the quick list. Augustine introduces several themes which will emerge later in the book, including: the role of memory in the pursuit of God, language acquisition in infants, the pejorative nature of custom (Latin mos: see esp. xvi.25), his opposition to capital punishment, his deferred baptism (xi.17–18) his own identity as both sinner and victim, seeds of grace in the early years of his life.

One riveting theme, however, which I have not noticed in the past: his way of reading the pantheon of Greek deities, and the religious “system” in which they appear. In addition to reiterating his view that the Greek gods are veiled demonic, evil spirits, Augustine actually claims in this early book that a prime motivation for ancient pagan mythology is the need, on the part of the powerful, to justify their own immorality and corruption, particularly their sexual immorality:

Have I not read … of Jupiter, at once both thunderer and adulterer? Of course the two activities cannot be combined, but he was described as to give an example of real adultery defended by a fictitious thunderclap acting as a go-between.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.25.

Here Augustine is participating in the great philosophical work of demythologization, adding his voice to the likes of Xenophanes and Plato before him. As for both predecessors, so also for Augustine: after ridding ourselves of pernicious myth, there is still a substratum of legitimate myth, good and proper myth remaining underneath. It is not the case for any of these demythologizers that once we dispel bad myth we are left with “science” or “pure reason” completely without remainder.

What is the real truth about ancient pagan myth? It underwrites and legitimizes the (sexual) immorality of those in power. “If Zeus can do it, then so can I,” says in effect, not only the likes not only of Homer but also of Terence:

But what a god ([Terence] says)! He strikes the temples of heaven with his immense sound. And am I, poor little fellow, not to do the same as he? Yes indeed, I have done it with pleasure.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xvi.26.

The second point of interest, coming from Book I, is the way Augustine deals with his illicit desires. Far from trying to beat down his lusts, he counters them with a stronger desire, a joyful aching, for God:

Bring to me a sweetness surpassing all the seductive delights which I pursued. Enable me to love you with all my strength that I may clasp your hand with all my heart.

Augustine, Confessions, I.xv.24

And again:

Even at this moment you are delivering from this terrifying abyss the soul who seeks for you and thirsts for your delights (Ps. 41:3), whose heart tells you ‘I have sought your face; your face, Lord, will I seek’ (Ps. 26:8).

Augustine, Confessions, I.xviii.28