Tag Archives: classics

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapter 9

The biography is wrapping up now. Augustine has converted to Catholicism once and for all, and retires from his job as a teacher of rhetoric to devote himself full-time to philosophy, along with several of his friends. He is catechized and baptized by Ambrose.

Memento Mori, Monica

Augustine closes out the autobiographical portion of the book with his mother’s death in Ostia. The occasion prompts him to review a few significant events from her life. When she was a child, she had developed a habit of sneaking wine from her parents’ cellar. During an argument, a maid made a snide comment to her about this. Monica was so ashamed that she gave it up at once, prompting Augustine to remark “as flattering friends pervert, so reproachful enemies mostly correct.” Note that this follows the same pattern found in the earlier stories about Alypius’ circus addiction and Monica’s habit of making offerings to the martyrs. Augustine attributes much of Monica’s discipline later in life to this incident.

Monica’s relationship with her husband also stands out (Page 136). Augustine holds up her model of servitude to him, which is all the more impressive because Augustine does not for a moment pretend that his father was a good husband. Monica was clearly the better partner, and suffered a good deal of injustice and infidelity from her husband, yet was determined to be a good model of Christian humility and servitude, something that very few of us in the modern age would be likely to commend. However, the approach does bear fruit for her: she is reconciled to both her mother-in-law and her husband, and even wins him over to Christ in the end. By the end of their marriage, Augustine reports that “they lived in great harmony together,” and after her husband died, Monica took special care of the grave where she hoped to be buried next to him.

When the time came for her to die, however, Monica no longer considered it important where her body ended up. She was entirely focused on Heaven, and faced her death without fear. Augustine tried to do the same and hold back his grief, but was ultimately unable to (Page 147). He wraps the chapter up with a prayer for his mother.

Do you see what I see?

Monica and Augustine have a shared vision in Chapter X, the only instance of a shared vision that I am aware of. Now that Faith (Monica) and Reason (Augustine) are united, they are able to soar together above this world and glimpse the one beyond.

Post-Confessions

After his conversion, Augustine went back to his native Africa in 387, where he was ordained a priest in 391 and consecrated bishop of Hippo in 396. It was not his intention to become a priest. He was visiting the town of Hippo, was in church hearing a sermon, and the bishop, without warning, said, “This Church is in need of more priests, and I believe that the ordination of Augustine would be to the glory of God.” Willing hands dragged Augustine forward, and the bishop together with his council of priests laid hands on Augustine and ordained him to the priesthood. (The experience may have colored Augustine’s perception of such questions as, “Does a man come to God because he has chosen to do so, or because God has chosen him, and drawn him to Himself?”) A few years later, when the Bishop of Hippo died, Augustine was chosen to succeed him.

Timeline of Augustine’s life

Nov 3, 354 Is born at Tagaste
c. 371–373 His father dies, son Adeodatus is born
386 Is converted, retreats to Cassiciacum
387 Returns to Milan, is baptized by Ambrose. Monica dies at Ostia
391 Is ordained priest at Hippo (against his will)
396 He becomes bishop of Hippo
c. 400 Writes his Confessions
c. 403–412 The Donatist controversy
410 For health reasons, spends winter at villa outside Hippo
412–421 Pelagian controversy
413–426 Writes The City of God, On the Trinity, and The Enchiridion
427 Writes his Retractions
Aug 8, 430 Dies at Hippo

Homework

Read a little of what Augustine wrote regarding the Donatists. We will go into detail on who they were and how to respond to their challenge next week.

We also took some time this week to discuss Augustine’s principles for Scripture Interpretation, which I stole shamelessly from here.

If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy.

The Stoic Failure

“I shall take every liberty; for I do not love this one if I am unwilling to hurt his feelings.”

Recently I managed to scrounge up enough time to make it through the Letters of Seneca. Truly a worthy classic, and another one to add to list of books I’m going to force my kids to read. You should read it too. It’s short, and all the shorter because it is divided into letters of only a few pages apiece. It’s also highly quotable; I found myself highlighting dozens of pithy sayings for later usage.

“‘If you wish,’ said he, ‘to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.'”

Anybody who knows me would agree that “stoic” is a good way to describe me, so it’s no surprise that I would find Seneca and the original Stoicisim which he represents appealing. But that’s not merely my temperament talking. The Stoics really did strike pretty close to the truth, especially when it comes to ethics and their embrace of reason. Early Christians recognized this as well, applying bits of their philosophy where appropriate, and sometimes even trying to induct them into the ranks of “pagans so close to the Truth that they were really basically Christians” (Plato got similar treatment). Even the term “logos” probably comes to us through the Stoics.

“I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, -not as a deserter, but as a scout.”

I was enjoying Seneca so much that I decided to learn more about him, and what do I find but this:

He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero.

That really puts a damper on my admiration. Seneca had noble ideas, but when it comes to implementation, you can’t fail much worse than bearing responsibility for Nero. (Yes, he probably didn’t approve of Nero’s actions, and yes, Nero eventually had him killed, but still.)

“You are better at approving the right course that at following it out. You see where the true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it.”

This is a repeated problem with the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is another Stoic classic which I will force-feed my children, and has rightly been highly regarded throughout the Church. But if you look at Aurelius’ reign as emperor, his record is not nearly so great. He is credited with initiating the fourth persecution of Christianity, and it was under his reign that the Lyon massacre occurred.

“Let another say ‘Perhaps the worst will not happen.’ You yourself must say ‘Well, what if it does? Let us see who wins!'”

It’s a sobering reminder of the limits of human effort. Even having seen and understood so much about virtue, the Stoics still fell dangerously short. We cannot get there on our own. Without a divine hand reaching down to pick us up, we really are lost.

“Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long.”