The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 04, 2015

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Augustine’s Confessions and Voegelin’s Philosophy
(MA 48:1, Winter 2006) - 12/09/08

It is well understood that the Confessions is a prayer, a dialogue with God. Peter Brown notes Augustine’s originality in making prayer the literary form of so long a work and terms it a “lively conversation.”10Solignac also calls the work “a dialogue with God” and, arguing that God is present throughout as “an invisible interlocutor,” he insists that “Throughout these thirteen books, Augustine allows himself to be taught by God” (his emphasis).11G. Bouissou describes the Confessions as “a dialogue in one voice” because “only Augustine speaks—or rather, we only hear his voice—but from his language, his feelings, the tone of his discourse, and in a certain way the reactions of his countenance, we sense the divine replies.”12Scholars have often recorded their understanding and appreciation of this aspect of the Confessions.

But they have not understood its consequences: we must distinguish Augustine the narrator, the voice of the unfolding prayer, from Augustine the author, who designed, wrote, and revised the whole work.13Though historians have often argued for a difference between the occurrences recorded in books 1–9 and what actually happened in the young Augustine’s life, they have neglected the disjunction between the narrator in and the author of the Confessions. The work presents itself as a prayer that unfolds in an ongoing present, in which Augustine the narrator is guided by the spontaneities of his dialogue with God. The work presents itself as though it were an oral dialogue with God, recorded in its unfolding, and as an oral and spontaneous prayer, it is necessarily unrehearsed and unrevised. A dialogue, by definition, cannot be revised by the speakers in it, nor can a genuine dialogue be rehearsed. Augustine the narrator is a literary figure, the persona of Augustine the author, and I use the present tense to describe his activity: he prays the Confessions whenever we read it. Augustine the author, in contrast, was the historical Augustine, and I write of him in the past tense: he designed, wrote, and revised the Confessions as a whole.

Augustine the narrator and Augustine the author thus parallel Socrates and Plato in a Platonic dialogue. The speaking Socrates cannot properly revise what he has spoken: he can only add to it. He may recant, as in the Phaedrus, or rephrase or qualify, but only by speaking further. So, too, Augustine the narrator may correct an earlier statement on, say, the nature of time, not by erasure and revision but only by adding to what he has said. On the other side, we assume that Plato revised his dialogues as he perfected them, as did Augustine the author with the dialogue of his Confessions.

The meditative texture of the Confessions is full of surprises for the reader because full of surprises for Augustine the narrator, praying in an ongoing present. The narrator expresses surprise at what is happening as he prays: “Why do I speak of these things? Now is not the time to be putting questions, but to be making confession to you.” (4.6.11) He affirms that God leads his prayer in surprising directions: “From whence and to what point have you led my memory to include these events in my confession to you, when I have passed over much else I have forgotten?” (9.7.16; cf. 2.7.15) Augustine the narrator is not in full control of his Confessions, because the work unfolds as a prayerful dialogue between him and God. By definition, however, Augustine the author was in full control of the work. Because he stood beyond the shaped whole, as its composer and reviser, it contained no surprises for him.

Why are these distinctions important? We need them for a sure grasp of the meditative texture of the Confessions as a spontaneously unfolding dialogue with God, full of discoveries and surprises, unrehearsed and unrevised by Augustine the narrator. Only from this perspective can we see the crucial parallel between the young Augustine’s life and the narrator’s prayer: just as God led the young Augustine to Christian faith, even through all his moral wanderings, so does God guide the narrator’s ‘Confessions,’ even through all its digressions. In other words, just as the young Augustine’s life, in all its errors, reveals God’s providential guidance, so does the Confessions enact, moment by moment, the same dialectic between divine grace and human freedom in its unfolding prayer. By means of this homology, the Confessions does what it says, is what it talks about. A treatise, featuring its author’s control of his argument, can analyze the dialectic between grace and freedom, but cannot embody it. Only the meditative texture of a spontaneously unfolding dialogue with God can embody and enact this dialectic. The Confessions thereby unites indissolubly logos and ergon, content and form. Its very unfolding manifests the dynamic interaction of the human quest for God and God’s grace drawing it forward.

Voegelin describes a similar indissolubility in what he calls “story.”14As always, he is reflecting on the discovery and the communication of “the truth of reality.” This truth is no mere knowledge-content but a truth to be lived, and in being lived, it brings right order to persons and societies by attuning them to “reality,” the large context that gives meaning to their lives. “The story,” he writes, “is the symbolic form the questioner has to adopt necessarily when he gives an account of his quest as the event of wresting, by the response of his human search to a divine movement, the truth of reality from a reality pregnant with truth yet unrevealed.”15The italicized words are technical terms. The “divine movement” gives rise to a “human response,” because a human being, seeking to attune himself to “the truth of reality,” questions reality in his quest to live truly. This questioner experiences an epiphany, or revelation, or conversion, some life-changing “event.” His “account” of this “event” must take the form of a story because a life-changing event implies a “before” and an “after,” a narrative sequence.

This story embodies the paradox of consciousness in motion. The divine movement engenders the event, or epiphany, in the mode of luminosity. The human response to this movement eventuates in a narrative, in the mode of intentionality. But the story itself is simultaneously luminous event and intentionalist narrative.16These two can be distinguished, but they must not be separated. Without the event in the seeker, he composes no narrative; without a narrative, the event cannot be effective in society and history. The seeker’s “story” unites indissolubly the luminous-divine event and the intentionalist-human narrative. Its language is simultaneously luminous-intentionalist, divine-and-human.

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