Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Blessed Augustine’s View of Self

Posted in Theology by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 21 May 2010

It has been asserted that Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) has had enormous influence on the formation of Western thought and Western civilization.  Some, as F.J. Sheed, for example, have even argued for St. Augustine’s “towering importance in the history of mankind” (Augustine 323).  It is not my goal in this paper to examine whether St. Augustine’s importance was indeed towering in the history of all mankind.  Nor do I wish to examine Jasper’s assertion that St. Augustine is “by far the most important hermeneut of the early Christian church”[1] (Jasper 39) from the position of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Both issues, however, are of utmost importance to our discussion, but the authors’ statements and my implied questions are merely rhetorical.  One fact cannot be denied: St. Augustine indeed played a prominent role in the formation of the Western mind.   

Sheed notes that St. Augustine’s was “the one light that shone steadily” for the seven centuries between St. Augustine’s death and the twelfth century, when “first-rate thinkers were once more in action in the Church” (Augustine 324).  Despite the lack of an obvious reference to the Western Church, the context of Sheed’s remark leads me to believe that he would not challenge a hypothesis that the East was nourished by its own lights, while being somewhat shaded from the rays of St. Augustine’s “enormous intellect” (Augustine 324) by the cultural and ecclesiastical divide between the two parts of the Roman Empire.  Although, even in the West, such theologians as John Scotus Eriugena, whom Sheed apparently considers a second-rate thinker, were studying the Eastern Fathers (Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, the Cappadocians, and others, in Eriugena’s case), and were not blinded by the illustrious Augustine.  In his discussion on the issue of the filioque, the Irishman apparently was not convinced by the Doctor’s arguments and preferred to search for answers, alas!—self-admittedly, in vain, elsewhere.  

Herein lies the area of my interest: if the East and the West are different (and I choose to presuppose that they are), and if the ecclesiastical, cultural, theological, and even intellectual divides have not been healed, despite centuries of pontifical[2] efforts, then it may be possible to find some early signs, some symptoms of the early stages of the looming Great Divorce, in the persona of St. Augustine of Hippo who “single handed… shifted the center of gravity” for the West (Martindale, qtd. in Augustine 324).  I do not wish to imply that St. Augustine’s work was the sole source of the estrangement between the East and the West—this matter is too complex to be addressed in a short paper.  But if St. Augustine’s influence in the West was as great as it is touted to be, then “cut off from its intellectual sources” in the East (Augustine 324), cut off from the ecclesiastical life within the Grace of concensus patrum, the West may have inherited not only the greatness of Bishop Augustine of Hippo, but also his individuality, peculiarities, oddities, and (ready?!)… flaws (!).  Quite apart from looking for straws in St. Augustine’s eyes—thankless pursuit indeed—I shall embark on a voyage of celebrating some of the differences in his and “the Easterns’” (as Pius IX referred to us in his [in]famous epistle) view of self.

Each person, at least in the Lockean approach,[3] is characterized by self-awareness, and this faculty is thought fundamental for the conscious[4] process of Christian salvation.  In fact, a prominent modern Russian theologian Aleksey Osipov makes a direct link between self-awareness and the ability to accept Christ as savior.  He argues that one accepts a savior only insofar as he sees his own need for salvation (Osipov 319-23).  A person who is not drowning will not call for a life guard, and one who thinks he is healthy will not run to a physician.  Only the person who realizes his doom can accept Christ as the Savior—not king, judge, teacher, revolutionary, reformer, etc.  In other words, the Christian (at least, Orthodox) understanding of salvation is intimately connected to the ancient “gnothi se auton,” and the Church traditionally puts a great deal of effort into the formation of self which it views as proper.  These views in the East and the West have been noted to diverge in rather significant ways.

The differences permeate the two worldviews from top to bottom and place the two cultures “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12).  From the individualist tendencies of Latin theology and ecclesiology juxtaposed against the conciliarity of the Eastern mind to various mystical experiences of saints[5]—all speak of an ever-widening divide, a “divergence of hearts” (Kuraev, Вызов 140).  And while I do not wish to give St. Augustine as much credit in shaping the history of mankind as some have attributed to him, I do believe that it may be possible to identify some specifically Augustinian traits that, left without peer review for a few hundred years, could have potentially influenced the very features that are now identified as the core differences between the Western and Eastern cultures.

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One of the most obvious things that cannot escape our attention is that St. Augustine’s Confessions is nearly the first autobiography that appeared in the West.  The only exceptions are the so-called “apologies” that, although autobiographical in nature, nonetheless had the purpose of excusing the author’s actions in light of accusations or misunderstandings.  Another autobiographical work—Libanius’ Orations—appeared in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire only a few decades before Confessions; but this work was neither intended for public readings, nor did it achieve any notable status in the cultural makeup of either the East or the West.

The very fact that Confessions, a work that has had such a profound impact on the development of the Western mind and soul, is an autobiography, deserves further exploration.  It appears that in his Confessions St. Augustine breaks away from, however rudimentary, the tradition of apologetic autobiographies and proclaims a new era in the development of the genre.  In a commentary on Book I of the Confessions, Charles Matthews argues that

…in terms of genre, the Confessions may be the least apologetic text Augustine ever wrote, despite all those who try to read their way to faith through it; it is not meant for those outside of the church, but for those inside, to help them in their quest to become more fully Christians. (Paffenroth 9)  

At first glance, this style of writing is not entirely new: the Christian Scriptures contain numerous examples of autobiographical notes by those who personally witnessed Christ’s earthly ministry as well as by the Apostle Paul in his epistles to various Christian communities.  But those are exceptions, rather than rules, and have been treated as such by the Christian Church who bestowed upon them the status of Holy Scriptures.  Moreover, nowhere in the period literature do we find as complete a record of anyone’s life—childhood, growing up, formation, conversion, and maturity—as we observe in Confessions.  St. Augustine’s own story, both in its earthly and spiritual dimensions, is at the forefront of Confessions, whereas Paul’s reminiscences, for example, are more apologetic or illustrative in their nature:

For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. (Philip. 3:3-7 NKJV[6])

For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.  And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.  But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Gal. 1:13-17 NKJV)

In the first example, the Apostle uses his autobiographical information in the context of an apparent theological argument in the target community.  In a common pastoral (and rhetorical) approach, Paul places his own life within the value system of the community in order to establish authority for the statement that is to follow.

The second example may be seen as an apology of sorts and an attempt by Paul to show his divine qualifications to be an apostle, where he lacks any of his own.  Despite the fact that Paul may be the least likely to serve as an apostle of Christ in his own right, Paul’s God Himself has commissioned Paul, and it is through this commission that Paul’s authority to establish and instruct Christian communities is exercised.

This pastoral nature of autobiographical-style notes is clearly evident in another early Christian document, the Second Epistle of St. Clement:

Let us also become of the number of them that give thanks, that have served God, and not of the ungodly that are judged. For I myself also, being an utter sinner, and not yet escaped from temptation, but still being in the midst of the engines of the devil, give diligence to follow after righteousness, that I may have strength to come even near it, fearing the judgment to come. (ch. xviii; Roberts-Donaldson translation)  

A considerably shorter statement of a very similar nature can be found in Paul’s letter to Timothy:

This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. (1 Tim. 1:15 NKJV)

Both passages work to detract from the personae of the writers and instead to focus the readers’ attention on Christ and His judgment (Clement) or salvation (Paul).  Because of this quality, both epistles can be (and have been) read aloud to a congregation of the faithful during formal public services.

St. Augustine’s work, on the other hand, not only contains much larger autobiographical sections, but arguably has the intent of capturing the readers’ attention and keeping it focused on the very persona of the famous Bishop.  St. Augustine probably did not intend for his Confessions to be proclaimed from the pulpit.  Just as the Sacrament of Confession had developed into a deeply private rite by the time St. Augustine ascended to an Episcopal throne, his Confessions are to be read in private: in a study, a monastic cell, an eremitic comfort of one’s favorite arm-chair, or, as was Margaret Miles’ choice, in the tight bonds of “pleasure and luxury” at a Mediterranean resort:

In the mornings I read Augustine excitedly, making copious notes, examining Augustine’s language and grammar in detail.  Afternoons, we went to a beach where I sat under a tree and pondered the morning’s reading, sometimes writing pages of ideas I had about it, sometimes writing nothing, but letting ideas float in and out like the softly lapping Mediterranean—the same sea that touched Ostia and Hippo Regius. (Miles 7-8)

Miles suggests that St. Augustine expected his book to be a “good read” (Miles 66); not entertaining per se, but certainly captivating beyond the usual attraction that most people enjoy for theology.  Perhaps the very use of the autobiographical foundation and skillful rhetoric for his writing were tools that allowed St. Augustine to “engage his reader in a dialogue in which the reader’s life could be decisively altered” (Miles 66). 

As in any good adventure story, St. Augustine’s autobiography captivates its readers in as much as his life is different from the mundane and the boring, if only to the degree of that which is desirable and alluring, albeit utopian in its dreamy purest form.  St. Augustine awakes his reader’s imagination and allows it to complete his autobiographical sketches in whatever color appeals to each.  Miles notes, for example, that

Augustine shows remarkable skill in engaging readers’ erotic curiosity only to refuse to satisfy it.  His goal is to produce erotic interest and thus to supplement and intensify readers’ multiple and complex attachments to the Confessions…  Confessions constructs its reader as voyeur in relation to an erotic text, a text full of partial disclosures, vivid sensual metaphors, tantalizing gaps, and earnest appeals for the reader’s understanding and indulgence. (Miles 67-8) 

Is this the secret of the work’s popularity with the learned medieval monks in their darkened and shadowy cells and studies?   

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Might St. Augustine have added a touch of exaggeration to his descriptions for the sake of appeal?  It is not unlikely, nor was it uncommon in antique thought.  The world and the Church look at the same things through two distinctly different lenses.  That which is considered grave by the Church is often discounted by the world; and that which is hailed by the latter receives little acknowledgment from the former.  The closer one gets to the source of light, the more noticeable soiled spots become on one’s baptismal gown.  A person sitting in a dark room may truly feel and confess that the room is relatively tidy, but when the light is turned on, it may reveal a thick layer of dust in place of a soft carpet, dirt covering the intricacies of the wall-paper design, and rotten leftovers on a table in place of fine dishes.  In the East it is believed that the desire to do some housecleaning is proportional to the ability to see the dirt.  Thus, the closer one gets to the bright light of Transfiguration, the more reasons one notices for not publically exemplifying his or her life as a model to follow.  This apparent “delusion” is common among Eastern saints who, having achieved great sanctity, did not count themselves worthy of being followed or emulated.  Analyzing this phenomenon, St. Ignatii Bryanchaninov writes:

The holy fathers of the Eastern Church, especially the ones who dwelt in the wilderness, when they reached the heights of spiritual exercises, then all of these exercises blended into only repentance.  Repentance encompassed their whole life and all of their work: it was the result of seeing their own sin. (Bryanchaninov 2:125-6)

And summarizing the Eastern Christian experience, Kuraev refers to the statement made by St. Ephraim of Syria: “The whole Church is the Church of the repenting; She is wholly the Church of those who are perishing…” (Kuraev, Традиция 210)

The spiritual experience of the West, on the other hand, is quite different.  Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, declared that he did not know of any sin that he had not paid for through confession and repentance, whereas an Orthodox saint is likely to have said that he had not even begun the task of repentance (ibid. 182).  Likewise, during prayer, Francis “altogether transformed himself into Jesus” (Ugolino 166).  On another occasion, he saw two lights, one of which represented Francis, the other—God (Ugolino 163).  A typical Eastern reaction to these visions was noted by Leo Tolstoy in his 1890 [7]short story “Father Sergius”: “He thought himself a shining light, and the more he felt this, the more was he conscious of a weakening, a dying down of the divine light of truth that shone within him” [8] (Part V).  Thérèse de Lisieux wanted to be the love in the heart of the Mother Church—a desire that to an Eastern ear may sound a bit presumptuous, to say the least.  Another Western luminary, Mathilda, is reported to have had a vision of herself being pure and shining, like gold that had been purified (Kuraev, Традиция 182).  She did not see any need for repentance or good deeds, and was ready to die without confession.  A Russian saint, on the other hand, has a very different spiritual experience: “I do not see my sin, because I still sin.  The one who is enjoying sin and the one who allows himself to taste sin, even only in thought or feeling, cannot see the sin” (Bryanchaninov 2:122).

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The Eastern Christian tradition does not know autobiographies, aside from occasional pastoral notes that may be seen as autobiographical in their nature.  Eastern saints do not compose accounts of their own lives.  The right to canonize, to present something as a rule or a model, is not to be usurped by the individual—it belongs to the community.  Eastern Christianity, much like its Western Sister, knows hagiographies, but almost exclusively.  The only notable exception known to me is an autobiography by Fr. Ioann (Krestyankin), a popular modern-day spiritual guide, who, as he himself wrote, undertook the task shortly before his death in order to prevent fables and exaggerated accounts from spreading after his repose.

The West, on the other hand, knows many autobiographies whose post-Augustinian authors viewed their own writings as spiritually edifying for many or in some other sense worth reading.  The “work” of Bishop Augustine was continued by his spiritual descendants: Teresa of Avila and Teresa of Lisieux (both are Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church, like St. Augustine), and others.  An autobiography conveys the idea that the author sets him- or herself apart as an example for others, as a beacon, or a guide whose path though life’s journey must be recorded for posterity.  The very same may be said about hagiographies, but with only one obvious difference: a hagiography is written by another person who recognizes sanctity while the saint him- or herself is oblivious to his or her spiritual achievements.  The closer a saint approaches God, the more dirty he or she finds him- or herself in the ever-increasing brightness of the light of Tabor.  Others, on the other hand, are in the best position to reflect upon the spiritual journey of that person and to note that which is noteworthy.  An autobiography sees its object within and in a direct relationship to its subject—a mixture that is likely to be, perhaps intentionally so, as objective as it is subjective.  The spirit of subjectivity, sometimes masquerading as its counterpart, that an autobiography celebrates, may indeed be seen as one of the defining principles of Western civilization, and, in as much as it is so, St. Augustine may be counted among the forerunners, if not the Founding Fathers, of spiritual relativism.

Western spiritual relativism may be especially evident in the multiplicity of Protestant and Neo-Protestant movements, but it is also present within “Augustine’s own” Roman Catholic Church.  In his doctoral dissertation, Kuraev argues that “today, Catholicism no longer exists as a holistic phenomenon.  The Catholic Church is divided into a myriad of theological schools, traditions, [and] clubs” (Kuraev, Традиция 206), each of which asserts its own unique spiritual path yet happily coexists with others, allowing for a buffet-style practice of one’s Catholic faith.  The main dish of this spiritual feast is the personal and very individual experience of each Catholic.  As a good friend once noted, there are as many ways of being a Catholic as there are Catholics—a statement that may sound absurd within an Eastern paradigm.

I do not want to overemphasize St. Augustine’s influence on the development of Western thought and culture.  Perhaps this may be the never-ending debate of nature vs. nurture, but it seems that many of the prominent features that distinguish the West would have ripened with or without St. Augustine’s Confessions.  In fact, Confessions may arguably be seen an early flower of an already sprouting twig of Western individualism, rather than its seed.  Some people are said to be well ahead of their times, as St. Augustine may have been.  In the modern West it is not at all uncommon for people to be fascinated with their own lives and experiences, including (or, especially?) spiritual ones in just the same way as those who thought of themselves as “great” in any way have always been.  The only difference is that in times long past, few thought of themselves as worth a monument; nowadays, most Westerners are taught to be convinced of their greatness, albeit in their own unique and special way.  But it just may be my Eastern collectivist upbringing that precludes me from fully appreciating the unique place that St. Augustine occupies in the history of mankind.

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We have briefly looked at some of the undercurrents of the interpretation of self in the very genre of St. Augustine’s Confessions.  Of course, in a short paper it is impossible to even begin the examination of such complex and overwhelmingly large issues as the divergence of hearts of the East and West.  St. Augustine’s is certainly not a prime example of this divergence: a well-educated erudite, who was as much under the influence of the East as he was of the West, a man of God who is counted among the saints in both Churches, he found himself in the middle of one of the most devastating life experiences of recorded history—the fall of the Roman Empire.  Did he ever intend for his Confessions to change the world?  Most likely, yes—his own.  Anyone who approaches the Sacrament of Repentance hopes for this change.  And if the illness of sin, the burning of passions is great, equally great is the task of healing, and just as great is the relief.  A pastor who gives his most intimate to his flock, who opens his heart and offers to them his confession is playing a dangerous game with a double-edged sword: he will either be trampled into the dirt at the doorstep of his cathedral, or he will be admired and hallowed. 

But as with any confession, whether public or private in its form, St. Augustine’s is made before God first, man second.  It is a prayer and a contemplation before it is a proclamation or instruction.  It was not intended for a wide audience, but for small circles of like-minded friends “many of whom felt as intellectually isolated as did St. Augustine himself” (Augustine xxix-xxx).  But even more specifically, it is probably intended for the smallest circle, the most intimate meeting of St. Augustine and God face to Face. This, perhaps, explains St. Augustine’s choice of genre—at the meeting of a patient and his physician the attention is on the patient’s illness and its history.  Could it be that St. Augustine’s tragedy is that the generations of Western Christians that followed him mistook some of the symptoms of his illness to be stages of spiritual ascension?    

Aside from focusing on the ills of the two Christian civilizations—whether Western or Eastern (and, yes, the East has its own ills)—it appears to me that many of the divisive differences may have been moderated, had the two Churches found a way to continue to communicate, had the two been convinced that a formal division would not bring understanding and eventual reconciliation, as they undoubtedly hoped, and that the Robe of Christ would be torn for at least the next millennium, perhaps the ancients would have done more to maintain the spirit of conciliarity between the East and the West.  As it happened, the “Westerns” were left in a spiritual and intellectual vacuum with only one light that shone for them—that of St. Augustine.  It is not surprising then that nothing precluded the West from forming a hermeneutical understanding of St. Augustine’s work that reflected the West’s Roman heritage of city-state legalism in theology and philosophy, apart from the Eastern eremitic theology being developed in the deserts of Egypt and Syria.

As for St. Augustine himself, despite the claims made by Western scholars concerning his uniqueness, he embodied some of the best traditions of both the Cappadocian and the Alexandrian hermeneutical schools, moderating between the two, and using this foundation for his own hermeneutical interpretations.  Some of these interpretations, such as St. Augustine’s interpretation of biblical time, follow classical Greek models (Ricoeur 2:47), yet others have been and continue to be questioned.  St. Augustine’s idea of the Limbo, for example, was not formally accepted during his lifetime (the Council of Carthage of 418), nor is it accepted now.  As recently as 22 April 2007, the Vatican released a document which, while not specifically rejecting Limbo, certainly did not endorse the idea, but appeared to steer Roman thought in a somewhat different direction.  Similarly, St. Augustine’s defense of the insertion of the filioque clause was found wanting by such Latin theologians as John “the Irishman” Eriugena, and undoubtedly added to the stubbornness of the opposing sides, adding nothing to the love by which everyone is to know Christ’s disciples (John 13:35).

It may be too late, but if “mankind,” whose history was shaped by St. Augustine, put aside the well-deserved admiration and turned a more critical eye to the saint’s hermeneutical heritage, including the view of self that may have been inspired by his works, the resulting dialogue would benefit not only the task of reconciling the still-divided Eastern and Western parts of the Old Roman Empire, but also help the West to learn about itself—an ancient advice (or was it an ad?) written at the entrance to the Apollo’s temple at Delphi.  And if all mankind—the Westerners, Easterners, Northerners and Southerners, could look deeply and honestly inside themselves, then divisions could cease to exist, because one who has a broken leg does not judge the one with a broken arm, and the one with stomach pain does not look for flaws in the one with a headache—all are ill, and all are in need of a Physician.     

 

Bibliography

Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. Confessions. Ed. Michael P. Foley. Trans. F.J. Sheed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006.

Jasper, David. A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Miles, Margaret R. Desire and Delight. A New Reading of Augustine’s Confessions. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2006.

Paffenroth, Kim and Robert P. Kennedy, ed. A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Trans. Kathleen and David Pellauer McLaughlin. 3 vols. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Ugolino, Brother. Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. Trans. W. Heywood. New York: Cosimo, 2007.

Брянчанинов, свят. Игнатийi. Собрание творений в шести томах. 6 vols. Moscow: Правило веры, 2004.

Кураев, A. Вызов экуменизма. Moscow: Издательский совет Русской Православной Церкви, 2003.

—. Традиция, догмат, обряд. Moscow: Братство Свят. Тихона Задонского, 1995.

Осипов, A. Путь разума в поисках истины. Moscow: Издательство Сретенского монастыря, 2003.


[1] Considering that Jasper referred to “the church,” rather than “the Church,” he may have not been writing of the Universal Christian Church.  The use of the definite article, on the other hand, makes his remark quite ambiguous.

[2] Not to be confused with the efforts of pontiffs or Pontiuses.

[3] There are other approaches to defining a “person”: Neo-Kantian, Cartesian, Aquinian (persona est relatio)  etc. 

[4] I shall not discuss the salvation of those who may not have self-awareness or whose faculties may be limited in some way: infants, mentally disabled, etc.

[5] For a discussion on the differences between the Eastern and Western mystical experiences see the respective chapters in the quoted works by Osipov and Kuraev, as well as my unpublished thesis “Imagine that…”

[6] Since biblical exegesis and linguistic analysis are not the goals of this paper, I chose the NKJV of the Bible.

[7] The story was not published until 1898.

[8] Translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude

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