Saint Augustine's Conversion
The fourth and final volume of Garry Wills's acclaimed translation of Saint Augustine's Confessiones
As relevant today as it was when it was originally written sixteen hundred years ago, Augustine’s Confessiones continues to influence contemporary religion, language, and thought. Reading with fresh, keen eyes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills has brought his superb gifts of analysis and insight to bear on this classic of Western tradition in a series of ambitious and critically acclaimed translations and interpretations. In Saint Augustine’s Conversion, Augustine’s story draws to its dramatic conclusion in what Wills calls the “hinge” chapter of the bishop’s confessional opus. With an illuminating introduction and extensive notes throughout, Wills provides a richly rewarding and inventive interpretation of Augustine’s seminal work for a new generation of readers.part i
1. The Book of Conversions
Book Eight of The Testimony tells the second most famous religious conversion story in Western literature, second only to that of Saint Paul, on which it is modeled. These two accounts have jointly determined much of what has been thought and written on the whole subject of conversion—in such classics on the subject as William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) or Arthur Darby Nock’s Conversion (1933). The stories of Paul and Augustine have led to a belief that “real” conversion is sudden, effected by the incursion of an outside force, and emotionally wrenching. Certainly Augustine does everything he can to create that image in the emotional paroxysm of the garden scene that closes Book Eight. He prepares for that moment by an elaborate arrangement of conversion stories—seven of them, with his own coming as the climactic eighth case, and with Paul’s as a ninth one implicit in the text that Augustine reads in the garden. The artistry of Augustine’s presentation as well as the gripping nature of its contents has made Book Eight the most famous and most cited book in The Testimony. Among other things, it contains the most frequently cited sentence—“Lord, give me chastity and self-control, but not just now” .
But what does conversion mean here? We often use the word to indicate the adoption of a new religion. One is a Jewish convert, or a Muslim convert. But Augustine tells us he had accepted the Christian faith before he went into the garden. He already believed in the basic doctrines of the church [1, 18]. In fact, only one of the conversion stories he uses involves the acceptance of a new creed, and that one, exceptionally, is not recounted to Augustine by another person but inserted by him into one such reported story. This tale- within-a-tale (of Sergius Paul’s conversion at Acts 12.6–12) is used to show that celebrity conversions are worth encouraging. Everyone else “converted” here was already a Christian in belief, and most of them (Anthony, the four in Trier) were not only doctrinal believers but had been baptized. The only such “convert” who had not been baptized is the subject of the first and longest story, about Victorinus, who was a believer though he did not want to sacrifice his worldly position by open profession of Christianity. His is a baptism story, and the story is expressly told to Augustine (by Simplician) to make him give up worldly ties by undergoing baptism.
With the exception of this baptism story, the other conversion narratives are more properly vocation narratives, telling how a person already Christian (and already baptized) receives a higher calling—to the monastic life (Pontician’s friends) or to a hermit’s life (Anthony). Augustine has chosen his parallel narratives carefully, since his own case will combine both kinds of spiritual change—he will come not only to accept baptism, but to undertake a further commitment, to celibacy. These are separate matters, as Augustine tells his mother in reporting the garden struggle’s outcome. He reports that her prayers have been rewarded beyond her own expectation. She had wanted him, when she had a dream about him (T 3.19), to be converted from Manicheism to Christianity, joining her on the ruler’s edge of belief in Jesus. He now tells her that the garden experience has gone beyond the conversion she prayed for, giving him the further call to celibacy . This is more properly a vocation story than a conversion one—which is why he chose six of his seven parallel narratives from people already converted to the faith.
Of course, conversion in the broad sense does not necessarily entail a change of creed. It can refer to any significant spiritual reorientation (whether sudden or gradual). In that sense, Augustine’s life up to the garden scene was one long tale of conversions—from Christianity to Manicheism, from Manicheism to a Ciceronian Skepticism, from Skepticism to Materialism, from Materialism to Neoplatonism, and from Neoplatonism to Christianity. None of these breaks was absolutely clean. As a Skeptic, he still felt a need for the savor of Christ’s name (T 5.25), something that had retained its hold on him from the time when he begged for baptism during a childhood sickness (T 1.17). And he would always retain a Manichean sense of the struggle with evil (O 3.48). The Christianity he embraced in Milan retained for a long time as many Neoplatonic as gospel elements. “The conversions of Augustine were many, and they did not end in the garden in Milan”
(O 1.xlii). There was as much continuity as disjunction in his life’s development—which makes the clean break described in Book Eight so striking by its contrast with what went before.
It is a contrast striking enough that one must ask whether Augustine has not, for theological or other purpose, exaggerated its suddenness and violence. This suspicion is reinforced by the conflict between what he was writing, in or near Milan, at the time of his conversion and what he tells us, over ten years later, in Book Eight. The garden story has long been doubted—at least from 1888, when Boissier and Harnack challenged it, and that has involved Book Eight in controversy. It is hard to sort out all the problems of the book because so many of us first approached it with presuppositions derived from what we knew, or thought we knew, or had been told, about Augustine’s life and conversion. There are many myths that have accumulated around this subject. In calling them myths I do not claim that they lack truth of some order—just what kind and degree of order will be the matter for decision—but that they do not give a literal report of what was happening or being thought at the time being described. There are at least four such myths—that of Monnica, that of Ambrose, that of Paul at Damascus, and that of Augustine in the garden. In order, then:
He did not initially share her admiration for Ambrose, the bishop of Milan who would baptize him. He did not join her in the church when Ambrose held his long vigil of defiance against the empress Justina (T 9.15). He did not, at that point, believe in church miracles (as opposed to gospel miracles), and he no doubt differed with her on Ambrose’s theatrical introduction of miracle-working martyrs’ bodies into his fight with the empress (T 9.15).3 This attitude toward miracles would not have made him well-disposed to his mother’s claim that she could tell divine visions by their odor (T 6.23). Nor would he have sympathized with her semi-Manichean rites at martyrs’ tombs, from which she would not have desisted but for her reverence toward Ambrose (T 6.2).
These misgivings, no doubt stronger at the time than when he records them a decade later, are countered, of course, by the marvelous tribute he pays to Monnica in Book Nine of The Testimony. But that tribute follows on his rediscovery of Monnica at Cassiciacum, just before his baptism, when for the first time she was included in the discussions of his philosophical friends. Before this, he had the prejudice of his time and class against the intellects of women. His first plan of a philosophical community, formed in Milan, fell through over the issue of including women (T 6.24). O’Donnell suggests that Monnica may have been illiterate (O 3.115). Monnica at first resisted her inclusion in the Cassiciacum discussions, but Augustine encouraged her.4 He laughed with surprise at her earthy wisdom, on this first occasion of her displaying it to him.5 He tells her, “I am daily struck anew by your natural ability.”6 The sexist compliment he pays her is itself revealing: “Forgetting her sex, we almost thought that some important man had joined us.”7
On the basis of his new respect for Monnica, the mystical experience he shared with this unlettered woman (as first reported a decade later from his bishop’s residence) is meant to destroy the presumption that soul- culture demands exercise in the liberal arts—though he continued to hold that view for some time after the reported experience. Monnica did not lead him to baptism. Rather, baptism led him to Monnica. The long excursus on her in Book Nine is very likely derived from a eulogy composed first for the benefit of her children and grandchildren. We know how much his own son loved his grandmother (T 9.29). Presumably, Augustine’s sister and brother had the same feeling for her, as did his brother’s children. If, as Courcelle plausibly maintained, Augustine could write the tribute to Alypius (T 6.11–16) for Paulinus of Nola, surely he could have done the same for his own relatives.8 Augustine only realized her worth in Monnica’s last months, after his conversion—for which she was not responsible, except by prayer.
Except for brief interviews on business, there was clearly no occasion to pursue fully all that I desired from that oracle of yours, his breast. To pour out my needs would have taken up time that was simply not available (T 6.4).
Those passages are enough to refute the old idea that Augustine was referring to Ambrose when he wrote his Neoplatonist mentor, Mallius Theodore, about “conversations held with you and our priest friend” (presbyter noster).9 The man referred to is clearly Simplician, Ambrose’s Neoplatonist teacher, who baptized Ambrose and succeeded him as bishop of Milan. Augustine went to him for spiritual guidance. He corresponded with Simplician in later years (Epistle 37), something that Augustine never did with Ambrose.10 It was as the doyen of Milan Neoplatonists that Simplician would have known and conversed with Theodore. And Theodore, to whom The Testament makes only glancing and denigrating reference (T 7.13), is described by Augustine, when he was at Cassiciacum, as a leading force in his conversion and Christian aspirations.11
Ambrose no doubt did have an influence on Augustine, but only after the garden scene. Augustine did, finally, get a very full sample of Ambrose’s symbolic reading of Scripture—but only during his intensive preparation for baptism, six months after the garden scene—and he did, finally, come to realize the importance of that indoctrination. He first acknowledged its importance five years later.15 Indeed, Ambrose became increasingly useful to Augustine after he became a bishop himself and had to address many issues of power that he had scorned in his fervent days after baptism. Then, when Augustine’s consecration as a bishop was challenged, it became important that he be known as Ambrose’s convert. Furthermore, in the fight with the Pelagians over continence, Ambrose was a powerful and moderate alternative to Jerome’s views on virginity and sex (O 1.xxxix). But it is anachronistic to read such indebtedness back into Augustine’s state of mind before and during the garden scene.
James admits the existence of more gradual, conscious, and self-governing conversion, which he calls the “volitional” change of the “once-born.” But he prefers the sudden, semiconscious, and self-surrendering type of the “twice-born,” because it is more radical and more “interesting.”19 He thinks it is more authentic because less consciously controlled: “self surrender has been and always must be regarded as the vital turning point of the religious life.”20 Protestantism lacks some of the aesthetic awareness of Catholicism, “however superior in spiritual profundity it may be to Catholicism”—but that is a small price to pay for profundity.21 Which should one prefer, better art or “spiritual profundity”?
James was drawing on a burst of new interest in conversion at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1881, Granville Stanley Hall had delivered at James’s own university, Harvard, a series of public lectures on the religiosity of the young. He concluded, from surveys and interviews, that conversion is most common in and around puberty, a thesis he developed in his two-volume work Adolescence.22 He also found that more conversions are gradual than sudden (two thirds to one third). Hall’s work was extended and verified in 1897 by Edwin Starbuck, from whom James took the terminology of two types of conversion, those of “volition” and of “self-surrender,” while he ignored Starbuck’s finding that the average age for conversion of females was 13.8 years and of boys 15.7.23 Of Starbuck’s study, expanded later into the two-volume Psychology of Religion (1899), a later scholar wrote: “His work remains today as the most complete and authoritative of its kind.”24
Starbuck, too, found that most conversions are gradual, not sudden. Though James refers to Starbuck’s findings on adolescent conversion, he preferred to collect and study adult accounts of sudden conversion, since they seemed to him more interesting and profound than adolescent stories.25 That means he is studying the least common type of conversion in the age group where it least occurs. Survey after survey, subjected to analysis after analysis, found the average age of conversion somewhere in the span between ten and nineteen. Paul Emanuel Johnson, conflating the findings of five major studies of conversion, pinpointed the average age at 15.2 years.26
Naturally, the experience is not uniform for all teenagers entering into this average—there are variables by class, locale, and education.27 As James Bissett Pratt put it, conversions come most often to those “brought up in a church or community which taught them to look for it if not to cultivate it.”28 And Johnson says: “The type of conversion is influenced by social expectation. There are styles of conversion, as there are of worship and theology.”29 He thought that adolescent conversions would decline in numbers as “sterner” religion faded in America; but cults, Eastern spirituality, Transcendental Meditation, and New Age concepts continue to provide ample opportunity for teenage conversions. Later studies of converts have confirmed the basic outline of these pioneer investigations.30
James’s emphasis on suddenness is misleading, since “With most religious people conversion (of the genuine moral sort) is a gradual and almost imperceptible process, with an occasional intensification of emotion now and then during adolescence.”31 James’s celebration of crisis-conversions may be unfortunate since it could lead to complacency about the sudden feeling of being saved. One of the most frequent and most studied forms of conversion in our time is the treatment of addiction by “twelve step” programs, where one is warned against the feeling that one heady moment of resolve is an adequate “cure.” The emphasis on “steps,” on social reinforcement, on mentoring, on “one day at a time,” is meant to dispel the illusion that a quick reorientation can be effected. James noticed the conversion experiences of alcoholics—indeed, he quoted an unnamed “medical man” as saying, “The only radical remedy I know for dipsomania is religiomania.”32 But he did not let that distract him from the study of conversions he found “interesting.”
Why did James so exclusively direct his attention to sudden conversion? The reason for that must go farther back than sociological studies at the end of his own century. He grew up in a culture that staked a great deal on the “saving experience” of Puritan culture. He was not raised in a Calvinist family—quite the opposite—and he did not belong to any Congregationalist church. But the individualism, the introversion, the autobiographical urges of the New England region pervaded the culture. The private and temporally precise experience of “being saved” was the condition of membership in Congregationalist churches. This need preyed on the minds of young people, whether they were yearning to join the church, afraid that they could not do so, or determined to defy expectation.
Each person had to meet the Spirit alone, and then give a convincing account of this transforming moment to the examiners of the church. The specific time and place of the rescue were important—as they were in Augustine’s garden experience. Joseph Addison, in The Spectator, mocked this obsession with the timetable of a Calvinist’s conversion, asking a character in one of his essays “what was the occasion of his conversion, upon what day of the month and hour of the day it happened.”33 What Edmund Morgan calls the “demonstration of saving grace” became an art form as well as a personal rite of passage in seventeenth-century Massachusetts.34 It was something no one else could do for the individual. Even those born into God-fearing families were not presumed to be saved, and therefore qualified to join the church’s “visible saints,” until the conversion had been privately experienced and publicly aired. It was considered a backsliding, a tainting of the church, when later “halfway covenants” let children of the saved take communion without undergoing their own saving moment.35
These conversions would seem to come as close as anyone could wish to the pure model James presents. They are highly conscious, tested by the one undergoing the experience and by those best qualified to judge its nature and effects. Many of them were keyed, like Augustine’s conversion, to the impact of a single verse from Scripture.36 If anything could heal the sick soul and give permanent comfort, it should be this. But the diaries of the time show that the sudden stroke was not as efficacious as the theology shaping it would suggest. Even that paragon of Calvinist awakening, Jonathan Edwards, could never be sure his conversion “took.” After he became a pastor in the church, he could still write:
Drawing on her extensive use of the letters and diaries of the saints, Patricia Caldwell concluded “that the failure of New England, of state and country alike, to meet the spiritual expectations of the individual who is trying to articulate his experiences, devolves back upon that person and presses him into a doubtful limbo of semiconversion or even nonconversion.”38 The stakes placed on conversion were so high that they induced the very anxieties conversion was meant to dispel. This record makes it seem that James was too sunny-minded himself on the efficacy and permanence of sudden conversions. Conversion was a process, even for those who felt that they must be changed suddenly. Edwards deplored the way fervent mass conversions during the Awakening led to relapse. All things considered, it seems that James underestimated what the great Quaker Anthony Benezet called “the inward gradual work of grace.”39
It is significant that Paul himself, in all his extensive writings, never tells the story of his experience on the road to Damascus. He tells of other mystical revelations (II Corinthians 12.2–4). He says that Jesus appeared to him (I Corinthians 9.1, 15.8), and that he received his teachings direct from him (Galatians 1.12). But he connects none of his own visions to a conversion experience in general, or to the Damascus road in particular. That story is told only by Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, where the story is told three different times, a little bit differently each time (9.1–19, 22.1–21, 26.15–18)—which suggests that literal reporting is not the main concern. The important thing for consideration here is that none of Luke’s three versions of his tale matches anything Paul says of his mystical experiences. He says later that he saw Jesus, but he does not see anyone in the Damascus event, which involves not a vision but a photism (bright light) and an audition (disembodied voice). Nor does a conversion take place on the spot. Saul is told that he should go to the city and await further enlightenment. It is only after Ananias heals his blindness that Saul is baptized. This seems to be shorthand for a gradual teaching and healing process that takes place after the photism.
Sending Paul to a city resembles the messages sent to prophets in the Scripture, who are given a mission and a message to deliver. Though Saul is told to receive a teaching rather than to deliver a message, the literary genre that Luke is using to create a double ministry—one for Peter, with direct experience of Jesus, and one for Paul, with indirect experience—seems to draw on vocation stories, not conversion ones. Alan Segal argues that Luke is using the genre of prophetic commissionings as his model in Acts—the Damascus story is especially close to that of Ezekiel’s calling.40 After being stunned by a vision of God’s glory (Hebrew kavod), Ezekiel says:
That Segal is not just making a wild guess is confirmed by Luke’s third telling of the Damascus tale. In the first two, the voice says simply, “I am Jesus, whom you persecute. Rise up and enter the city and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9.6). But in the third account, a long speech is recorded, and it is clearly a vocation statement, the call to a mission:
It is important, for Luke’s purpose, that all three versions of the Damascus experience begin with the question “Why do you persecute me?” Paul’s former persecution is the recommendation he himself uses to show the authority of a gospel even he has come to receive. That is how Paul uses his earlier life as a teaching credential (Galatians 1.13). In the same way, Augustine uses the fact that he was not only a heretic but a sinner to show that grace can redeem even him. This is typical of the evangelical use of conversion stories (a tactic Augustine justifies in his citation of celebrity converts like Victorinus and Sergius Paul). It is most reasonable to conclude that the Damascus story is Luke’s theological construct to give the inner meaning of Paul’s ministry its supernatural credentials.
We should also note that the recruiting of other apostles came from a vocation call that only gradually led to conversion in their beliefs: “Come with me, and I shall make you fishers of men” (Mark 1.17). The “conversion” of the disciples, the revelation of the meaning of Jesus, was gradual, and was not completed even by Christ’s passion and resurrection—since they were told that the full meaning of these would be revealed to them only by the Paraclete, sent after Christ’s ascension (John 15.26, 16.7–9). Even if we take the Damascus event as literally true, therefore, Paul would be the exception among apostles in undergoing a sudden conversion, as Pratt noticed.41 But there are many reasons for not reading Luke literally. Paul himself does not use conversion language (metanoein, epistrephesthai) of his response to God, but mission and vocation language (kl¯etos, apostolos).42 The Luke story is misleading if it is used to say something not only about sudden conversions but about conversion itself. It is mainly a tale of vocation, not of conversion.
The vocation to which Augustine felt called used celibacy only as a means—as one of the disciplines to free the mind for philosophical adventures. Augustine shows his bent at Cassiciacum in the Dialogue with Myself (line 20) where it is the intellectual life that concerns him.
Augustine, like many Christians and some non-Christians, took the view that concupiscence in marriage was sinful. Admittedly, one was allowed to indulge in sex for procreation, though even that should be done in a decorous way, without losing self-control (T 6.22). But where procreation was not possible, sex in marriage was a sin, though a venial one, for the one demanding the act, though not sinful for the one acceding to the demand (out of what Paul called the marriage “debt”—I Corinthians 7.3).45 Augustine knew himself well enough to recognize that he would not find it easy to be as close to a woman as he was to his son’s mother and abstain from sex on all occasions when procreation was not desired and possible. Even if this was only a venial sin in itself, inordinate repetition of the demand could become a more serious matter.46 Besides, repeated sinfulness and indulgence of the flesh would clash too painfully with the pure aspirations he was entertaining for himself and his intellectual soul mates. Marriage would make a mockery of those ideals. If he could not be “chaste in marriage,” it were better to forgo marriage entirely. It was a matter of all or nothing. His attitude at the time of his conversion is plainly stated in the Dialogue with Myself (17), When asked by Reason if a beautiful and virtuous wife would appeal to him, Augustine answers:
The doubters of the garden story so far cited all work from the contrast between the writings at Cassiciacum and The Testimony. But some have been troubled, more generally, by the artificial presentation of the tale, the pat way conversion narratives surge up opportunely and converge on the dramatic climax to Book Eight. Even the highly wrought rhetorical presentation makes some uneasy about the sincerity of the account. Book Eight does not give us a spontaneous account, but a calculated one. Augustine relishes his storytelling gifts—the heightened alliteration, for instance: volvens et versans me in vinculo (churning and chafing in my chains). Or the epigrammatic paradoxes: “crazed to be sane ... dying to be alive.” Or the patterns of antithesis: “aware of how bad things were with me, unaware of how good ...” But if rhetoric of itself precludes truthfulness, then we had better give up on Augustine entirely. He cannot speak at all without using his inmost language, which is rhetoric.
The idea that calculation cannot go with sincerity is naive. Bach’s religious music is not insincere because of his immense technical cleverness. Nor is Fra Angelico lacking in piety because he learned Florentine perspective and sophisticated color harmonies. Augustine, in the same way, is a master of words because he sees in their paradoxes the mysteries of the Word. He could describe the soul’s interior only through convolutions of language he had mastered as a tool for knowledge, not a mere exercise in ornament. The rhetorical presentation of his own turmoil is no different from his highly rhetorical presentation of the life and suffering of Jesus. He is entirely serious and sincere in both.
Of course, everyone admits that some points in Augustine’s treatment of the garden scene are a matter of imagery, not of reportage—the way lusts pluck at his garment, for instance, or attack him from the back; or the way God wields over him a “double whip.” No one could think those things were actually seen or suffered in a literal sense. Even more striking is the “revelation” of Self-Control as a female beckoning him to cross over into the company of the pure. Such personification as a way of representing a moral problem was traditional—like the appearance of the Laws to Socrates, asking if he will disobey them by escaping the verdict of his fellow citizens.49
Well, what about the fig tree? Was that real or figurative? Why mention it at all if it were real? This was not a moment to digress into dendrology. What relevance can the species of tree have to Augustine’s inner state? Courcelle argued, convincingly, that the fig tree was charged with such scriptural symbolism in sermons and Bible commentary, that Augustine must have that tradition in mind when he refers to the fig tree.
In that case, which scriptural reference was foremost in his mind—the fig tree under which Jesus saw the disciple Nathaniel (John 1.47–48), or the blasted fig tree of the parable (Matthew 21.19–21), or the fig tree from which Adam and Eve took leaves to cover their nakedness (Genesis 2.7)? Courcelle thinks it is the first of these.50 O’Donnell says that it is all three (O 3.57–58).
One could go along easily with the idea that Self-Control was figurative, as well as the nagging lusts, and the “double whip,” and even the fig tree. But Courcelle destroyed the last vestige of literalism when he said that even the voice telling Augustine Tolle! Lege!, even the reading of a crucial Pauline verse, were also figurative. He said that the voice was internal, and the reading was a summary of longer delvings into Paul’s work. He found support for this in a textual variant. Instead of saying that the voice came from vicina domo (a nearby house), one manuscript said that it came from divina domo (God’s house).51 But the computer indexing of Augustine’s words now establishes that domus divina was not a locution Augustine used, with one possible and partial late exception—his preferred form for God’s house was domus Dei (O 3.59–61).
Besides, if the voice were coming directly from God, why would Augustine not only take the singsong as being chanted by a child, but search his mind to decide whether this was a chant connected with any childhood game he knew? Augustine treats this voice in a way different entirely from the way he responds to his own image of Self-Control. He did not ask himself whether that virtue normally had her arms full of temperate people. He says that Self-Control addressed him in “some such words” as the ones used, not in the direct but puzzling quotation Tolle! Lege! Unless that quote were exact, Augustine could not have asked himself to make sense of it. The whole presentation of the child’s voice is meant to emphasize its literal reality. If there was no such literal reality, then Augustine has been at some pains to deceive us. If we are not to call Augustine a liar, then, we must conclude, as unambiguously as Courcelle concludes the opposite, that the voice was real.
But that does not mean that Courcelle’s approach is fundamentally wrong. The point is not whether the voice occurred, but what Augustine made of its occurrence, both at the time and in writing The Testimony. After all, other events actually occurred, but were used retrospectively to make theological points in Augustine’s program for The Testimony. The pear theft’s meaning is elaborated far beyond the literal facts involved, presuming (as I do) that there were some literal facts at the base of the elaborations. The same is true for his father’s comment in the public baths, for the death of Augustine’s friend, and for the garden experience with Monnica. All are the subject of later reflection on their ultimate meaning for Augustine; yet all depart in some way from what can be accepted as a real event.
I would go further, and say that they all have meanings that are linked with the overall structure of The Testimony, and therefore with the book of Genesis. The entire Testimony moves toward the probing of the mysteries of God to be found in the opening book of the Bible. Augustine’s Testimony is an act of purification from sin, of the kind priests invoke as they prepare to read Scripture in public. It is, then, a prayer to be made worthy, a petition for entry into the sacred revelation. In this light, Augustine is approaching Genesis by a process that attunes him to it, makes him see its patterns in his own life, revealing the relevance of what he has undergone to what he is proposing. It is a case of ontogeny forecasting phylogeny. Each of the events in the book that is given profound theological reflection has a relationship to the Genesis mysteries.
Why is this vivid scene included in the book? Various psychosexual explanations have been resorted to; but the norms of inclusion in this book are primarily theological. Considering how much is omitted—all about his siblings, for instance, or his life under Romanian’s patronage in Thagaste—one must ask why this, of all things, is reported. Those who think Augustine is obsessed with sex have answers for this—too many answers, in fact.52 Few concentrate on what is the most surprising and revealing word in the passage, indutum. Augustine says that he was nude but was “clothed in unstable young manhood.” “Unstable” (inquietum) because man is fallen, no longer secure in the garden of Eden—our heart, Augustine memorably says, is unstable (inquietum) until stabilized in God (T 1.1).53 He is clothed, as the naked Adam was “clothed,” in the shame of a damaged humanity—which Adam tried to cover with fig leaves.
The encounter with his father in the public baths looks forward to Book Eight’s garden scene, where he moves from the fig tree to Paul’s admonition to “be clothed (induite) in Christ.” That is what happens at baptism. The baptizands, after undergoing a scrutatio—an inspection of the body, like (but how unlike) his father’s gaze—went naked into the water, to come out on the other side and be clothed in Christ, wearing white robes of regained innocence.
Of course, after long psychological rumination, Augustine concludes that his sin was not really motiveless—he would not have done it alone, so his motive was solidarity with his fellow delinquents (T 2.17). That, too, brings the sin close to Adam’s, since Augustine argued that Adam was not swayed, as Eve was, by the Devil’s spurious promises—Adam knew they were false. Then whey did he sin? He did it for the comradely compulsion (socialis necessitudo) of solidarity with Eve.54 There can be no doubt that Augustine wants this scene to be read as referring back to the sin of Adam. He says that the young felons took away huge loads (onera ingentia, T 2.9) of pears, and the hell-raising would hardly have made its mark if only one tree were stripped—yet Augustine refers to a symbolic single tree, to underline its relationship with the tree in Eden. A passionless sin is what is at issue when Augustine takes up the heritage of original sin by, in effect, repeating its commission. This puts the pear scene in alignment, as well, with the scene in the baths that preceded it in Book Two. The shame-in-nudity at the baths showed the potential of sin inherited from Adam. The pear theft shows that potential becoming a reality.55
Is the garden scene not true, then? Only if we assume, as too many do, that Augustine is writing an autobiography. He is not. The whole work, and not just the final books, is a theological work, a preparation for the reading of Scripture, for an entry into God’s mysteries which God must himself make possible. The God of Genesis is not a text in the past, but an unrecognized constant in Augustine’s life, “deeper in me than I am in me” (intimior intimo meo, T 3.11). The garden scene is based on a real event, as were the scenes in the public baths, in the pear orchard, at his friend’s deathbed, or with Monnica in Ostia. But they all fit into a larger testimony that celebrates the word of God more than the life of Augustine.
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