Reading for the first time St. Augustine’s Confessions, I come to the startling realization that, despite the tack of modern secularists to reject all knowledge before Descartes — and even then to regard Descartes as something of a funny-smelling befuddled grandfather — people knew things back then anyway, and true things. In the first hundred pages of Confessions we have a forceful denunciation of throwing our lives away on a circus of sophistries, a sharp understanding of what moderns call early childhood development, and a keen insight into the chalk today’s Manichees falsely offer in the name of real food. Replace his contemporaries’ artifice with ours and we at each point have a strong portrait of the human condition today. Demonstrably eternal is the condition of man, and demonstrably great are those who break that cycle.
Augustine’s early life is piercingly familiar, and he rings true on so many levels and in so many ways. Speaking from my life, it wasn’t long after hanging around adults that I realized what some call quirks and others vices are no less an influence upon us when we turn 18 years old than they were a decade earlier. In reading this book I found only the latest of many fine examples of occasions when after believing to have finally thought something both true and original I find this prized thought of mine was not only unoriginal but better understood in the fourth century.
Is there anyone, O Lord, with a spirit so great, who cleaves to thee with such steadfast affection (or is there even a kind of obtuseness that has the same effect) — is there any man who, by cleaving devoutly to thee, is endowed with so great a courage that he can regard indifferently those racks and hooks and other torture weapons from which men throughout the world pray so fervently to be spared; and can they scorn those who so greatly fear these torments, just as my parents were amused at the torments with which our teachers punished us boys? For we were no less afraid of our pains, nor did we beseech thee less to escape them. Yet, even so, we were sinning by writing or reading or studying less than our assigned lessons.
For I did not, O Lord, lack memory or capacity, for, by thy will, I possessed enough for my age. However, my mind was absorbed only in play, and I was punished for this by those who were doing the same things themselves. But the idling of our elders is called business; the idling of boys, though quite like it, is punished by those same elders, and no one pities either the boys or the men. For will any common sense observer agree that I was rightly punished as a boy for playing ball — just because this hindered me from learning more quickly those lessons by means of which, as a man, I could play at more shameful games? And did he by whom I was beaten do anything different? When he was worsted in some small controversy with a fellow teacher, he was more tormented by anger and envy than I was when beaten by a playmate in the ball game.
Cogent also was the idea that in finding entertainment in the performance of a tragedy we participate in a kind of self worship. (I’m having a heck of a time finding a citation. Any takers?)
Scenes with which we are familiar riddle the book, and a self-awareness and honesty seen only elsewhere in Lewis are the foundation of Confessions. I’m only a third of the way through and already I see barrels of lessons. Principal among them in the story of Augustine up to his conversion to Christianity: We must not fall prey to the rehearsed lies of profiting comforters like the Manichees of his day with their nonsensical fables. We must always and in every way pursue truth.