Remembrance of Things Blessed

By Elshtain, Jean Bethke | The American Conservative, October 2011 | Go to article overview
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Remembrance of Things Blessed


Elshtain, Jean Bethke, The American Conservative


Remembrance of Things Blessed Augustine's Confessions: A Biography, Garry Wills, Princeton University Press, 166 pages

Augustine wrote 5 million words that have come down to us, Garry Wills reports with the appropriate tone of astonishment. He notes that in a recently discovered letter, we learn that Augustine dictated some 6,000 lines of text in less than three months. Wills describes the fascinating "literary industrial complex" of late antiquity, still an oral culture, and the many scribes that Augustine kept busy with his massive outpouring. Writing in that period was in the service of oral delivery and this, Wills contends, conveyed "more inwardness to his original audience" than writing alone would do.

Thus Wills opens this brief, beautifully written story of the Confessions themselves, how they have reached us and how they been understood and misunderstood over time. He is a prolific writer who has tackled an extraordinary range of topics. Unfortunately, in recent decades Wills has become a rather shrill partisan in his political writings, casting anathema on those who dare to disagree with his basic liberal-left orientation on nearly all matters.

None of that polemical acerbity is on display in this work. Wills clearly loves his subject-as his earlier short biography of Augustine demonstrated-and that admiration is tied to a clear-headed examination of the many ways Augustine's critics have gone astray over time, beginning with a radical misinterpretation of what sort of text the Confessions is in the first instance. One cannot compare it to an autobiography like Rousseau's endlessly self-referential Confessions; instead, Augustine's work is best read as a prayer. Wills is not the first to make this observation, but it is one worth noting many times over. To fail to understand Augustine's primary purpose is to misread the book, often egregiously.

In my 1995 book, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, I describe a few of these wild misreadings that tend toward the psychologically reductive: Augustine was sex-obsessed; Augustine was warped by a monumental Oedipus complex; Augustine's was an immature personality; and the coup de grace, Augustine was a narcissist. I taught my precocious 4-year-old granddaughter about narcissism recently by coming up with a ditty about an iguana: "I'm an iguana/I like what I see/I'm an iguana/looking at ME!" She now uses the word correctly much to the astonishment of adults and the utter bewilderment of other children her age. But Augustine never "looks at Me": he looks to God; he offers a long discourse against self-esteem, an unwarranted, overinflated celebration of the self. His heart goes into labor, he tells us, and gives birth to humility. I wish Wills had spent a bit more time on this, on the multiple loves that constitute the Self, loves framed by the love of that alone which is immutable and does not pass away.

Primarily, however, what Wills seeks to do is to justify the presence of the final three books of the text that stand outside Augustine's stirring narrative of the self coming to love rightly-an exegetical exercise on the opening of Genesis. Some translations of the Confessions even omitted these books from the text. Why did Augustine include them? Wills is articulate and persuasive, insisting that only if we see the book as one long prayer can we appreciate fully what the blockbuster discussions of memory and time are all about.

A bit of philosophical backdrop is helpful: Augustine was shaped by philosophy-and it was from philosophy, as well as his devotion to Manicheanism, that he drew an ascetic orientation, sending back to Africa the common-law wife with whom he had cohabited faithfully for 15 years-not from some alleged anti-body Christianity.

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