October 20, 2018

Augustine on Truth in Confessions

A Short Paper for Westmont's Interdisciplinary Studies
class on Augustine and the Christian Tradition

         When Saint Augustine was a young boy, his mother Monica believed that literary education could send him on “the way towards [God]” (28). Apparently, she was right. Indeed, throughout his Confessions, Augustine repeatedly connects his secular endeavors with spiritual revelation. Using an analogy of light, he ultimately acknowledges the pursuit of truth as a means to God, the Source of all truth (123, 200). As a young Manichean, Augustine is encouraged by Cicero’s writings to “hold fast and strongly embrace” wisdom wherever it might be found (39). Following the Roman orator’s advice, Augustine darts down the winding streets of epistemology, taking care of the “integrity of [his] senses” and delighting in truth, “even in [his] little thoughts about little matters” (22).

        While he is still a boy, Augustine glimpses truth in books on the liberal arts (70). In Rome, he observes that certain philosophers judge the world properly, in contrast to the Manicheans, and that “the proud”, using their strange rules, predict the movements of the stars (73-74).

        In Milan, Augustine is “delighted” to hear Ambrose’s sermons in which a “mystical veil” is removed and spiritual matters do not hinder him (94). Initially, Augustine under Ambrose’s tutelage is neither Christian nor Manichean. Interestingly, he acknowledges that “there was no certain source of light” which he could grasp after abandoning his “worldly activities” (104). Soon, Plato’s works encourage him to engage in introspection. Through a monumental inward ascent, Augustine beholds light with much more intimacy than he had before. Concerning this revelation, the bishop of Hippo writes, “What I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being” (123). It is not long before Augustine gives up his secular ambitions in surrender to God.

        After leaving Milan, Augustine begins to reflect on his conversion in the garden. He claims that he knew nothing of himself that he hadn’t learned from God and that he was “granted” this knowledge (182-183). He states that “truth replies” to humankind’s call, but “not all hear [the call] clearly” (201). In contrasting his newfound knowledge with others’, he considers all people vain who do not know things of God (134).

        Throughout his life, Augustine peered down the many avenues of truth, sometimes lingering at alleyways, hoping for more than a mere glimmer of light, but often disappointed. Although complicated and sometimes mysterious, in the end, his epistemological journey found its terminus in Christianity.

        Undoubtedly, Augustine’s Confessions contains unique insight. Having pursued truth from both sides of salvation, he had the ability to articulate exactly how his conversion changed his perception. Considering the bishop of Hippo’s deep intellect and honest narration, his autobiographical account is certainly worth examining.

        It is important to note that, throughout his work, Augustine writes about his journey with two differing understandings: one, as a secular student who foolishly pursues truth, and another, as a predestined Christian who is being led towards God all along. Augustine’s first understanding acknowledges his dissatisfaction with each of his endeavors. The Manichean ideals are appealing, but Mani “was not in agreement with” rational explanations Augustine came up with (75). Platonists’ works are true, but lacking important theology (130-131). The philosophers judge correctly and the proud predict the movements of the stars, but they all are “crushed to the ground” because of their darkened hearts (75). With this understanding, Augustine goes as far as to write that “all men are vain in whom there is no knowledge of God” (134).

        Augustine’s second understanding seems quite different. Looking back on his journey, he admits his foolishness, yet discerns God’s intention to lead him to Himself. In contrast to the first understanding, the second one sees that the Manicheans reveal his need for a “solid rock” upon which his foundation might be built, one that could possibly be found in the Christian faith (66, 95). Additionally, Plato’s works affirms certain Biblical claims (121). Finally, the philosophers and the proud show that the observable world can be explained with laws (73-74). Through his more optimistic understanding, Augustine shows that, despite his ignorance, his secular endeavors were always bringing him closer to salvation.

        Augustine’s two understandings of his epistemological journey seem to be contradictory. The first one describes the futility of his desires outside the scope of religion. The second understanding, however, proves that God was “using [those] ambitious desires” as a means towards completing His overarching plan (82). How can the tension between these understandings be justified? One way to justify this tension is to show that God chooses certain individuals to reveal Himself to. This attempt at justification implies that God’s elect, including Augustine, would not be vain, and that those whom God does not choose are thereby vain. However, all people have some knowledge of God due to their ability to compare ideas and create hierarchies of truth. Augustine states that, by inspecting created order, one could come to know its Creator (184). Therefore, this attempt to justify the tension between understandings is textually invalid.

        In Book X, Augustine shows that all humanity has a desire for “the happy life” or “joy based on truth” (198-199). This natural desire is described as being universally fulfilled in God. The bishop of Hippo explains that many “love truth for the light it sheds, but hate it when it shows them up as being wrong” (199-200). According to Augustine, many humans would rather settle for light than surrender to its Source. Aha! the tension between the two understandings is almost justified. But, what of Augustine’s conversion? In his account, he showed that God was revealing things he couldn’t have known apart from Him (152-153). Therefore, the epistemological nature of his conversion, from beginning to end, was inseparable from the spiritual.

        It must be proposed, then, that the apparent contradiction in Augustine’s articulation can be explained with the following conclusion: although all humankind receives knowledge of God through created order, only some people choose to surrender to Him, and those who surrender to Him respond in humility to His revelations.