Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume I/Confessions/Translator's Preface
“If St. Augustin,” says Nourrisson, “had left nothing but his Confessions and the City of God, one could readily understand the respectful sympathy that surrounds his memory. How, indeed, could one fail to admire in the City of God the flight of genius, and in the Confessions, what is better still, the effusions of a great soul?” It may be safely predicted, that while the mind of man yearns for knowledge, and his heart seeks rest, the Confessions will retain that foremost place in the world’s literature which it has secured by its sublime outpourings of devotion and profound philosophical spirit. There is in the book a wonderful combination of childlike piety and intellectual power. Desjardins’ idea, that, while in Augustin’s other works we see the philosopher or the controversialist, here we see the man, is only to be accepted as a comparative statement of Augustin’s attitude in the Confessions; for philosophy and piety are in many of his reflections as it were molten into one homogeneous whole. In his highest intellectual flights we find the breathings of faith and love, and, amid the profoundest expressions of penitential sorrow, gleams of his metaphysical genius appear.
It may, indeed, be from the man’s showing himself so little, as distinguished from the philosopher, that some readers are a little disappointed in the book. They have expected to meet with a copiousness of biographic details, and have found, commingled with such as are given, long disquisitions on Manichæanism, Time, Creation, and Memory. To avoid such disappointment we must ascertain the author’s design. The book is emphatically not an autobiography. There is in it an outline of the author’s life up to his mother’s death; but only so much of detail is given as may subserve his main purpose. That purpose is clearly explained in the fourth section of his Tenth Book. It was that the impenitent on reading it might not say, “I cannot,” and “sleep in despair,” but rather that, looking to that God who had raised the writer from his low estate of pride and sin to be a pillar of the Church, he might take courage, and “awake in the sweetness of His grace, by which he that is weak is made strong;” and that those no longer in sin might rejoice and praise God as they heard of the past lusts of him who was now freed from them. This, his design of encouraging penitence and stimulating praise, is referred to in his Retractations, and in his Letter to Darius.
These two main ideas are embodied in the very meaning of the title of the book, the word confession having, as Augustin constantly urges, two meanings. In his exposition of the Psalms we read: “Confession is understood in two senses, of our sins, and of God’s praise. Confession of our sins is well known, so well known to all the people, that whenever they hear the name of confession in the lessons, whether it is said in praise or of sin, they beat their breasts.” Again: “Confession of sin all know, but confession of praise few attend to.” “The former but showeth the wound to the physician, the latter giveth thanks for health.” He would therefore have his hearers make the sacrifice of praise their ideal, since, in the City of God, even in the New Jerusalem, there will be no longer confession of sin, but there will be confession of praise. It is not surprising, that with this view of confession he should hinge on the incidents of his life such considerations as tend to elevate the mind and heart of the reader. When, for example, he speaks of his youthful sins, he diverges into a disquisition on the motives to sin; when his friend dies, he moralizes on death; and—to give one example of a reverse process—his profound psychological review of memory recalls his former sin (which at times haunts him in his dreams), and leads up to devout reflections on God’s power to cleanse from sin. This undertone of penitence and praise which pervades the Confessions in all its episodes, like the golden threads which run through the texture of an Eastern garment, presents one of its peculiar charms.
It would not be right to overlook a charge that has been brought against the book by Lord Byron. He says, “Augustin in his fine Confessions makes the reader envy his transgressions.” Nothing could be more reckless or further from the truth than this charge. There is here no dwelling on his sin, or painting it so as to satisfy a prurient imagination. As we have already remarked, Augustin’s manner is not to go into detail further than to find a position from which to “edify” the reader, and he treats this episode in his life with his characteristic delicacy and reticence. His sin was dead; and he had carried it to its burial with tears of repentance. And when, ten years after his baptism, he sets himself, at the request of some, to a consideration of what he then was at the moment of making his confessions, he refers hardly at all to this sin of his youth; and such allusions as he does make are of the most casual kind. Instead of enlarging upon it, he treats it as past, and only speaks of temptation and sin as they are common to all men. Many of the French writers on the Confessions institute a comparison in this matter between the confessions of Augustin and those of Rousseau. Pressensé draws attention to the delicacy and reserve which characterise the one, and the arrogant defiance of God and man manifested in the other. The confessions of the one he speaks of as “un grand acte de repentir et d’amour;” and eloquently says, “In it he seems, like the Magdalen, to have spread his box of perfumes at the foot of the Saviour; from his stricken heart there exhales the incense most agreeable to God—the homage of true penitence.” The other he truly describes as uttering “a cry of triumph in the very midst of his sin, and robing his shame in a royal purple.” Well may Desjardins express surprise at a book of such foulness coming from a genius so great; and perhaps his solution of the enigma is not far from the truth, when he attributes it to an overweening vanity and egotism.
It is right to point out, in connection with this part of our subject, that in regard to some at least of Augustin’s self-accusations, there may be a little of that pious exaggeration of his sinfulness which, as Lord Macaulay points out in his essays on Bunyan, frequently characterises deep penitence. But however this may be, justice requires us to remember, in considering his transgression, that from his very childhood he had been surrounded by a condition of civilisation presenting manifold temptations. Carthage, where he spent a large part of his life, had become, since its restoration and colonization under Augustus Cæsar, an “exceeding great city,” in wealth and importance next to Rome. “African Paganism,” says Pressensé, “was half Asiatic; the ancient worship of nature, the adoration of Astarte, had full licence in the city of Carthage; Dido had become a mythological being, whom this dissolute city had made its protecting divinity, and it is easy to recognise in her the great goddess of Phœnicia under a new name.” The luxury of the period is described by Jerome and Tertullian, when they denounce the custom of painting the face and tiring the head, and the prodigality that would give 25,000 golden crowns for a veil, immense revenues for a pair of ear-rings, and the value of a forest or an island for a head-dress. And Jerome, in one of his epistles, gives an illustration of the Church’s relation to the Pagan world at that time, when he represents an old priest of Jupiter with his grand-daughter, a catechumen, on his knee, who responds to his caresses by singing canticles. It was a time when we can imagine one of Augustin’s parents going to the Colosseum, and enjoying the lasciviousness of its displays, and its gladiatorial shows, with their contempt of human life; while the other carefully shunned such scenes, as being under the ban of the teachers of the Church. It was an age in which there was action and reaction between religion and philosophy; but in which the power of Christianity was so great in its influences on Paganism, that some received the Christian Scriptures only to embody in their phraseology the ideas of heathenism. Of this last point Manichæanism presents an illustration. Now all these influences left their mark on Augustin. In his youth he plunged deep into the pleasures of his day; and we know how he endeavoured to find in Manichæanism a solution of those speculations which haunted his subtle and inquiring mind. Augustin at this time, then, is not to be taken as a type of what Christianity produced. He is to a great extent the outgrowth of the Pagan influences of the time. Considerations such as these may enable us to judge of his early sin more justly than if we measured it by our own privileges and opportunities.
The style of Augustin is sometimes criticised as not having the refinement of Virgil, Horace, or Cicero. But it should be remembered that he wrote in a time of national decay; and further, as Desjardins has remarked in the introduction to his essay, he had no time “to cut his phrases.” From the period of his conversion to that of his death, he was constantly engaged in controversy with this or that heresy; and if he did not write with classical accuracy, he so inspired the language with his genius, and moulded it by his fire, that it appears almost to pulsate with the throbbings of his brain. He seems likewise to have despised mere elegance, for in his Confessions, when speaking of the style of Faustus, he says, “What profit to me was the elegance of my cup-bearer, since he offered me not the more precious draught for which I thirsted?” In this connection the remarks of Collenges are worthy of note. He says, when anticipating objections that might be made to his own style: “It was the last of my study; my opinion always was what Augustin calls diligens negligentia was the best diligence as to that; while I was yet a very young man I had learned out of him that it was no solecism in a preacher to use ossum for os, for (saith he) an iron key is better than one made of gold if it will better open the door, for that is all the use of the key. I had learned out of Hierom that a gaudry of phrases and words in a pulpit is but signum insipientiæ. The words of a preacher, saith he, ought pungere, non palpare, to prick the heart, not to smooth and coax. The work of an orator is too precarious for a minister of the gospel. Gregory observed that our Saviour had not styled us the sugar but the salt of the earth, and Augustin observeth, that though Cyprian in one epistle showed much of a florid orator, to show he could do it, yet he never would do so any more, to show he would not.”
There are several features in the Confessions deserving of remark, as being of special interest to the philosopher, the historian or the divine.
1. Chiefest amongst these is the intense desire for knowledge and the love of truth which characterised Augustin. This was noticeable before his conversion in his hungering after such knowledge as Manichæanism and the philosophy of the time could afford. It is none the less observable in that better time, when, in his quiet retreat at Cassiciacum, he sought to strengthen the foundations of his faith, and resolved to give himself up to the acquisition of divine knowledge. It was seen, too, in the many conflicts in which he was engaged with Donatists, Manichæans, Arians, and Pelagians, and in his earnest study of the deep things of God. This love of knowledge is perhaps conveyed in the beautiful legend quoted by Nourisson, of the monk wrapped in spirit, who expressed astonishment at not seeing Augustin among the elect in heaven. “He is higher up,” he was answered, “he is standing before the Holy Trinity disputing thereon for all eternity.”
While from the time of his conversion we find him holding on to the fundamental doctrines of the faith with the tenacity of one who had experienced the hollowness of the teachings of philosophy, this passion for truth led him to handle most freely subjects of speculation in things non-essential. But whether viewed as a controversialist, a student of Scripture, or a bishop of the Church of God, he ever manifests those qualities of mind and heart that gained for him not only the affection of the Church, but the esteem of his unorthodox opponents. To quote Guizot’s discriminating words, there was in him “ce mélange de passion et de douccur, d’autorite et de sympathie, d’ctendue d’esprit et de rigueur logique, qui lui donnait un si rare pouvoir.”
2. It is to this eager desire for truth in his many-sided mind that we owe those trains of thought that read like forecasts of modern opinion. We have called attention to some such anticipations of modern thought as they recur in the notes throughout the book; but the speculations on Memory, Time, and Creation, which occupy so large a space in Books Ten and Eleven, deserve more particular notice. The French essayists have entered very fully into these questions. M. Saisset, in his admirable introduction to the De Civitate Dei, reviews Augustin’s theories as to the mysterious problems connected with the idea of Creation. He says, that in his subtle analysis of Time, and in his attempt at reconciling “the eternity of creative action with the dependence of things created,…he has touched with a bold and delicate hand one of the deepest mysteries of the human mind, and that to all his glorious titles he has added another, that of an ingenious psychologist and an eminent metaphysician.” Desjardins likewise commends the depth of Augustin’s speculations as to Time, and maintains that no one’s teaching as to Creation has shown more clearness, boldness, and vigor—avoiding the perils of dualism on the one hand, and atheism on the other. In his remarks on Augustin’s disquisitions on the phenomena of Memory, his praise is of a more qualified character. He compares his theories with those of Malebranche, and, while recognising the practical and animated character of his descriptions, thinks him obscure in his delineation of the manner in which absent realities reproduce themselves on the memory.
We have had occasion in the notes to refer to the Unseen Universe. The authors of this powerful “Apologia” for Christianity propose it chiefly as an antidote to the materialistic disbelief in the immortality of the soul amongst scientific men, which has resulted in this age from the recent advance in physical science; just as in the last century English deism had its rise in a similar influence. It is curious, in connection with this part of our subject, to note that in leading up to the conclusion at which he arrives, M. Saisset quotes a passage from the City of God, which contains an adumbration of the theory of the above work in regard to the eternity of the invisible universe. Verily, the saying of the wise man is true: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
3. We have already, in a previous paragraph, briefly adverted to the influence Christianity and Paganism had one on the other. The history of Christianity has been a steady advance on Paganism and Pagan philosophy; but it can hardly be denied that in this advance there has been an absorption—and in some periods in no small degree—of some of their elements. As these matters have been examined in the notes, we need not do more than refer the reader to the Index of Subjects for the evidence to be obtained in this respect from the Confessions on such matters as Baptism, False Miracles, and Prayers for the Dead.
4. There is one feature in the Confessions which we should not like to pass unnoticed. A reference to the Retractations will show that Augustin highly appreciated the spiritual use to which the book might be put in the edification of the brethren. We believe that it will prove most useful in this way; and spiritual benefit will accrue in proportion to the steadiness of its use. We would venture to suggest that Book X., from section 37 to the end, may be profitably used as a manual of self-examination. We have pointed out in a note, that in his comment on Ps. 8 he makes our Lord’s three temptations to be types of all the temptations to which man can be subjected; and makes them correspond in their order, as given by St. Matthew, to “the Lust of the Flesh, the Lust of the Eyes, and the Pride of Life,” mentioned by St. John. Under each of these heads we have, in this part of the Confessions, a most severe examination of conscience; and the impression is deepened by his allegorically likening the three divisions of temptation to the beasts of the field, the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air. We have already remarked, in adverting to allegorical interpretation, that where “the strict use of the history is not disregarded,” to use Augustin’s expression, allegorizing, by way of spiritual meditation, may be profitable. Those who employ it with this idea will find their interpretations greatly aided, and made more systematic, by realizing Augustin’s methods here and in the last two books of the Confessions,—as when he makes the sea to represent the wicked world, and the fruitful earth the Church.
It only remains to call attention to the principles on which this translation and its annotations have been made. The text of the Benedictine edition has been followed; but the head-lines of the chapters are taken from the edition of Bruder, as being the more definite and full. After carefully translating the whole of the book, it has been compared, line by line, with the translation of Watts (one of the most nervous translations of the seventeenth century), and that of Dr. Pusey, which is confessedly founded upon that of Watts. Reference has also been made, in the case of obscure passages, to the French translation of Du Bois, and the English translation of the first Ten Books alluded to in the note on Bk. ix. ch. 12. The references to Scripture are in the words of the Authorized Version wherever the sense will bear it; and whenever noteworthy variations from our version occur, they are indicated by references to the old Italic version, or to the Vulgate. In some cases, where Augustin has clearly referred to the LXX. in order to amend his version thereby, such variations are indicated. The annotations are, for the most part, such as have been derived from the translator’s own reading. Two exceptions, however, must be made. Out of upwards of four hundred notes, some forty are taken from the annotations in Pusey and Watts, but in every case these have been indicated by the initials E. B. P. or W. W. Dr. Pusey’s annotations (which will be found chiefly in the earlier part of this work) consist almost entirely of quotations from other works of Augustin. These annotations are very copious, and Dr. Pusey explains that he resorted to this method “partly because this plan of illustrating St. Augustin out of himself had been already adopted by M. Du Bois in his Latin edition…and it seemed a pity not to use valuable materials ready collected to one’s hand. The far greater part of these illustrations are taken from that edition.” It seemed the most proper course, in using such notes of Du Bois as appeared suitable for this edition, to take them from Dr. Pusey’s edition, and, as above stated, to indicate their source by his initials. A Textual Index has been added, for the first time, to this edition, and both it and the Index of Subjects have been prepared with the greatest possible care.
J. G. P.
St. Mark’s Vicarage, West Hackney, 1876.
- Philosophie de St. Augustin, Preface.
- Essai sur les Conf. de St. Aug. p. 5.
- Confessions, x. sec. 4.
- See the passage quoted immediately after this Preface.
- Ep. ccxxxi. sec. 6.
- Enarr. in Ps. cxli. sec. 19: see also in Ps. cxvii. sec. 1, xxix. sec. 19, xciv. sec. 4, and xxix. sec. 19.
- Enarr. in Ps. cxxxvii. sec. 2.
- Enarr. in Ps. cx. sec. 2.
- In Ps. xliv. sec. 33, xcix, sec. 16.
- Book ii. secs. 6-18.
- Book iv. secs. 11-15
- Book x. secs. 41, 42.
- Book x. sec. 4.
- In addition to those referred to, there is one at the beginning of vol. ii. of Saint-Marc Girardin’s Essais de Litérature et deMorale, devoted to this subject. It has some good points in it, but has much of that sentimentality so often found in French criticisms.
- Le Christianisme au Quatrième Siècle, p. 269.
- Essai sur les Conf., etc. p. 12.
- He concludes: “La folie de son orgueil, voilá le mot de l’ênigme, ou l’ênigme n’en a as.”—Ibid. p. 13.
- Compare Confessions, ii. sec. 2, and iii. sec. 1, with iv. sec. 2.
- In vol. i. of his Crit. and Hist. Essays, and also in his Miscellaneous Writings.
- Herodian Hist. vii. 6.
- Le Christianisme, etc. as above, p. 274.
- Quoted by Nourrisson, Philosophie, etc. ii. 436.
- Ibid. ii. 434, 435.
- See Confessions, iii. sec. 2, note, and vi. sec. 13, note.
- See Poujoulat, Lettres de St. Augustin, Introd. p. 12, who compares the language of the time to Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones, and say Augustin inspired it with life.
- Confessions, v. sec. 10.
- The Intercourses of Divine Love betwixt Christ and His Church, Preface (1683).
- See Confessions, iv. sec. 1, note.
- Ibid. ix. sec. 7, note, and compare x. sec. 55, note.
- Philosophie, etc. as above, i. 320.
- See Confessions, xiii. sec. 33, note.
- Ibid. xi. sec. 3, note 4.
- Histoire de la Civilisation en France, I. 203 (1829). Guizot is speaking of Augustin’s attitude in the Pelagian controversy.
- A portion of this introduction will be found translated in Appendix ii. of M. Saisset’s Essay on Religious Philosophy (Clark).
- Essai, etc. as before, p. 129.
- Essai, etc. p. 130.
- Ibid. pp. 120-123. Nourrisson’s criticism of Augustin’s views on Memory may well be compared with that of Desjardins. He speaks of the powerful originality of Augustin—who is ingenious as well as new—and says some of his disquisitions are “the most admirable which have inspired psychological observation.” And further, one does not meet in all the books of St. Augustin any philosophical theories which have greater depth than that on Memory.”—Philosophie, etc. as above, I. 133.
- Book xii. chap. 15.
- This position is accepted by Leibnitz in his Essais de Théodicée. See also M. Saisset, as above, ii. 196-8 (Essay by the translator).
- Eccles. i. 9.
- Quoted immediately after this preface.
- 1 John ii. 16.
- See Confessions, v. sec. 4, note, and x. sec. 41, note.
- See ibid. vi. sec. 5, note.
- See Confessions, xiii. sec. 20, note 3, and sec. 21, note 1.
- “St. Augustin’s Confessions translated, and with some marginal notes illustrated by William Watts, Rector of St. Alban’s, Wood St. (1631).”
- For whatever our idea may be as to the extent of his knowledge of Greek, it is beyond dispute that he frequently had recourse to the Greek of the Old and New Testament with this view. See Nourrisson, Philosophie, etc. ii. p. 96.