on 19 March 2014
There are quite a lot of translations of Augustine's Confessions around, so it’s worth pointing out to you that this review relates to the Henry Chadwick translation. I can’t comment on whether or not it is a particularly faithful translation as I haven’t attempted to compare it to the original. What I can say, however, is that it rendered Augustine eminently readable. There were a few instances where I suspected some inference on Chadwick’s part; one that comes to mind was the phrase “hodge-podge” which was rather unexpected. That said, for a relative newcomer to Augustine, I had no major issues with it and would not hesitate to recommend it.
What, then, of Augustine himself and what he wrote? The whole book is written as a poem addressed to God. Thankfully, Chadwick hasn’t tried to give it rhyme or rhythm in English, though I am assured that this existed in the original Latin. As the title suggests, it largely consists of Augustine confessing what he sees as his past sins.
But to imagine that it is simply a list of wrongdoing would grossly mislead you. It is, however, very difficult to summarise. That is because the book is no one thing; it is many. But those multiple aspects are not sequential items; they are layers and threads that are intertwined and overlaid in a majestic tapestry. The autobiography aspects include his very frank and rather modern view of sexuality, some close friendships and what they meant to him, especially moving when the friendship as terminated by mortality.
There is some theological disputation here, particularly against the Manichees, a group that Augustine first joined and later rejected. Mixed in with this then are Augustine meditations on the nature of good and evil, God, mankind, the universe and the like. It is not, however, a systematic work of philosophy. Though writing centuries after the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the stylisation is totally different. I read it mostly whilst commuting, with some excerpts whilst sat in a local park (yes, there has been a gap between finishing reading it and getting round to publishing the review - I didn't sit in the park in November). As such, I was sort of swept away by it and can offer little by way of detailed critique. It is a book to return to and dissect at some point in the future, possibly with the aid of further writings of someone who is more familiar than I with the full depth and breadth of Augustine's thoughts.
Being swept away however does not imply drowning. The text was not so obfuscating but provided some fascinating insights into Augustine's mind. For me, one of the more intriguing aspects was his musings on space and time. Though, with the hindsight of the discoveries of modern physics, some of it looks a little wide of the mark, it would be anachronistic to dismiss his ideas as irrational. Instead, it is quite a remarkable feat considering when it was written, and one could easily think him a thousand years ahead of his time.
The end of the book trails off somewhat with a look at the early chapters of Genesis. Again, here the modern reader may be tempted to look at him out of his time, though it is really not clear, given the modern polarisation between good science and creationism/ID, what box he might seem to fit in. I have for some time failed in my efforts to get my hands on his 'The Literal Meaning of Genesis', but this seems to cover similar ground. It is a thoughtful consideration of what Genesis means, but though Augustine doesn't explicitly refer to the creation story in modern terminology as a myth, he focuses on the meaning of it. Again, though it is hard to summarise and would hope you may do a better job than I did of getting your head around it.
There can be little doubt that this was the product of a great thinker of his time. The early emphasis on his struggles as a young man had strong resonances with me, making me wish I had read it in my late teens or early twenties. If you are reading this and you are in that age bracket then I would recommend this to you with some urgency. To anyone else, it is still a majestic piece of writing. Even if you are predisposed to disagree with Augustine, I would recommend it to you as an insight into the mind of one of the most influential figures from that time whose legacy has endured. If nothing else, the topics covered will almost certainly prompt you to think for yourself.