If Augustine was ever embarassed by his nine years’ devotion to Manicheaism, the Confessions prove that he long ago had gotten over his public association with this weird, pseudo-Christian sect. These middle chapters of book three provide the natural conclusion to his intellectual quest for personal satisfaction, the Sacrilega curiositas that threatened ut deserentem te deduceret me ad ima infida et circumventoria obsequia daemoniorum (III.3.5) The empty emotion he felt while watching stage plays, the studied deception of his chosen profession, even the inspiration of Cicero’s Hortensius (a work he admired his entire life, but recall at this time he rejected scripture because it seemed indigna quam tullianae dignitati compararem)–all of this fits the pattern of a college sophomore’s crude, overly-intellectual search for personal meaning in the world.
In book III, the escapades of the 19/20-year old Augustine sound a lot like those of a college freshman. He wasted his days at the shows, fell in with a rough crowd (the Eversores), stumbled across a book that changed his life, used his newfound knowledge to examine his traditional beliefs, and joined a cult. OK, that last one was a cheap shot, but you can almost see the bemused older Augustine shaking his head at the young man who spent nine years with the Manichees. The bishiop is far more polemic in texts like Contra Manichaeos; here he sounds like a middle-aged man laughing at some old college photos he and his wife found while cleaning out the attic.
The brief opening of book III provides perhaps the best of Augustine’s Latin. The famous initial sentence Veni Carthaginem, et circumstrepebat me undique sartago flagitiosorum amorum gives the reader an immediate thrill; note the bustling effect of the ingenious pun Karthago/sartago and the unusual, onomatopoeic verb circumstrepo.
…quo etiam nos puniendi sumus? I don’t think the mountain of commentary regarding the most famous pear-theft in history really needs another contribution. But let me point out just a few observations from our seminar:
1. Augustine’s commentary on the crime covers the whole second half of book II, some 1,500 words. Compare that with the spare dismissal defuncto patre in book III.
2. It’s tempting to say Augustine is simply neurotic, but another more charitable interpretation is that the bishop is using the specific case to draw conclusions about sin in general. Basically, sin can be its own attraction (ipsum furtum amavi, nihil aliud II.8.16), and one shouldn’t underestimate the power of peer pressure (solus omnino id non fecissem Ibid.).
3. Still…there’s a lot of truth in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ observation: “Rum thing to see a man making a mountain of robbing a pear tree in his teens".
I’m entirely sincere when I say I don’t know which is correct. Neither view by itself seems satisfactory, which is probably why clerics, critics, and amateur psychologists have been commenting on this passsage for centuries. And that, my friends, is what the comments section is for…
In a passage that always makes Latin students smile, Augustine admits the problems he had learning Greek in school:
Videlicet difficultas, difficultas omnino ediscendae linguae peregrinae, quasi felle aspergebat omnes suavitates Graecas fabulosarum narrationum. Nulla enim verba illa noveram, et saevis terroribus ac poenis ut nossem instabatur mihi vehementer. (I.14.23)
quasi felle - “as if with vinegar” seems to be a simile for difficultas - “difficulty". So why then is felle ablative? Because quasi is used to introduce a similarity of action, not things; if Augustine were directly comparing difficultas with fel, he would have a parenthetical sicut fel. Instead he’s saying the difficulty was such that it was “as if it sprinkled all the charms of celebrated Greek stories with vinegar.” Note also the transferred epithet Graecas, a word which grammatically belongs to suavitates but more naturally describes narrationum.
Augustine makes an ironic social commentary in this amusing passage. Like most boys then and now, Augustine preferred a day at the games to a day in school. Parents footing the bill for their education naturally (sometimes violently) disapproved their ditching for the games, but (quos = ludos - “the games"):
Quos tamen qui edunt ea dignitate praediti excellunt, ut hoc paene omnes optent parvulis suis, quos tamen caedi libenter patiuntur, si spectaculis talibus impediantur ab studio quo eos ad talia edenda cupiunt pervenire.
In last week’s reveiw of Augustine’s Confessions, we ran across this difficult sentence in section I.9.15. Augustine had just described how he prayed to God that he wouldn’t be beaten in school, and that when he described the nature of his prayers ridebantur a maioribus hominibus usque ab ipsis parentibus. An indignat Augustine summons his complete rhetorical arsenal to vent his childhood frustration:
Estne quisquam, Domine, tam magnus animus, praegrandi affectu tibi cohaerens, estne, inquam, quisquam (facit enim hoc quaedam etiam stoliditas: est ergo), qui tibi pie cohaerendo ita sit affectus granditer, ut eculeos et ungulas atque huiuscemodi varia tormenta (pro quibus effugiendis tibi per universas terras cum timore magno supplicatur) ita parvi aestimet, diligens eos qui haec acerbissime formidant, quemadmodum parentes nostri ridebant tormenta quibus pueri a magistris affligebamur?
This is an extremely difficult sentence for sight translation, but it is essential to follow this path if we want to appreciate the effect.
This week we discussed Conf. I.6.7-8, a passage where Augustine discusses his infancy. Of course he has no memory of this part of his life, but he relies on the testimony of his parents and his own observations of babies (remember, he fathered a son out of wedlock). We remarked on the scientific bent in the closing words in the passage:
For our first class on Augustine, we completed a sight translation of the introduction. The invocation to God in this opening paragraph seems natural given the Christian context, but students should also be aware there were also precedents for this type of opening in Greek philosophy.
Here’s another grammatical “oddity” from St. Augustine’s Confessions, in a chapter where he describes his life with the Manichees:
Alia erant, quae in eis amplius capiebant animum: …docere aliquid invicem aut discere ab invicem (IV.8.13)
Invicem here is used like a pronoun - “each other". Classically I think inter nos is preferred for such a reciprocal relationship, though it’s not as if Augustine never uses inter nos/vos/se (e.g., on his confusion in reading the philosophers tam multa (quaestiones) quae legeram inter se confligentium philosophorum - VI.5.7). Perhaps Augustine invicem as a makeshift pronoun to emphasize the back-and-forth of the docere/discere process, while inter se is limited to more “static” relationships like the standing contradictions of various philosophical books.
In preparation for my “Latin of Augustine” class this fall, I’ve been re-reading the Confessions. Along the way I’ve been noting constructions that, to my ear, are “non-classical". A look at the syntax of Augustine’s first paragraph provides a few common examples:
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