In this episode of Literary Tales, we read one of the great classics of the Western world from the man whom Robin Lane Fox called one of the smartest and most insightful men who ever lived: St. Augustine’s Confessions. In exploring the Confessions we concentrate on the so-called mystical visions of Augustine and how they are intimately tied to Augustine’s own physical life and pilgrimage from Carthage to Milan to Ostia.

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The infamous painting of Augustine crying in the Garden of Milan. Augustine’s Confessions is more than a “spiritual autobiography.” It is a prayer, one long, giant, prayer to God. But in that prayer we also witness a monumental pilgrimage of the interior and the exterior. Augustine not only journeys inwardly to find himself and his God, but he also journeys externally: from Carthage to Milan to Ostia.
Seghers, Gerard, 1591-1651; The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
Gerard Seghers, “Saint Augustine,” 1650. Of all the Church Fathers, Augustine is preeminent in influence and legacy. Although contested in the east (Eastern Orthodoxy), Augustine remains sainted and a church father. Nevertheless, Augustine’s influence over Western Christianity is immense. Outside of Jesus and Paul, no other figure has so shaped Western Christianity than St. Augustine. He is, after all, one of the four original Doctors of the Church, and specifically the “Doctor of Grace.” Augustine’s legacy is sharply contested by Catholics and Protestants, especially Calvinists and confessional Lutherans.
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Philippe de Champaigne, “Saint Augustine,” 1650. Augustine was the most studied and cited figure of antiquity into the Renaissance before the “rediscovery” of the ancient Greek sources. Even after the Renaissance, Augustine remained preeminent in scholarship and education. Some philosophers and psychologists joke, somewhat seriously, that if philosophy is a “series of footnotes to Plato” all psychology and phenomenology is a “series of footnotes to Augustine.” Augustine’s influence is enormous. He has touched a diverse range of figures even into modernity, from Siegmund Freud and Charles Baudelaire to Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. There is another joke in French philosophy that all French philosophers, when push comes to shove, are either Cartesians or Augustinians. Several of the most prominent “postmodernists” have all acknowledged their debt to Augustine.
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Peter Paul Rubens, “Saint Augustine Between Christ and the Virgin,” ca. 1615. Augustine is famous for his anthropology. In essence, Augustine defined man’s essence as relating to his love. What you love defines you. He also argued strongly that self-identity is tied to memory. Memory and love are the quintessential defining themes of Augustinian “selfhood.” Your loves and your memories constitute the basis of your identity.
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Ary Scheffer, “Saint Augustine and Saint Monica,” 1845. Monica features prominently in Augustine’s Confessions. The weeping and praying mother, Augustine was very much “a mama’s boy.” Wherever Augustine went, Monica wasn’t far behind.

I have written on Augustine extensively. I am currently contracted for a chapter on Augustine in an upcoming book with Lexington Press, due out in late 2021. I wrote my thesis on Augustine while a grad student at Yale. Some of my writings on Augustine are available here, and have been academically cited in Augustine studies:

Augustine of Hippo: Patron Saint of Political Criticism (20 Aug 2020)

Augustine’s City of God: The First Culture War (15 Aug 2020)

Augustine and the Politics of Love (1 November 2019)

An Invitation to Augustine’s City of God (24 August 2019)

From Diotima to Christ: Augustine’s Visionary Ascents in Confessions (9 March 2019)

Augustine on Love, Justice, and Pluralism in Human Nature (5 December 2018) *

Augustine: A Saint for Eternity (27 August 2017)

*Article is based on my Yale thesis, albeit in much more limited form.

 

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