It is hard to imagine a single text more influential than the Confessions. Of course there is the Bible or the Declaration of Independence, but, Confessions rivals any text apart from divine revelation or nation forming documents.
Contributing to the allure of the Confessions is the autobiographical nature of the work. Not entirely an autobiography, the first half recounts Augustine’s life. Secondly, there is a diversity of disciplines which are attracted to the Confessions. One only has to look at Rousseau’s Confessions to witness these two factors.
These elements are also present in Augustine’s Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography (Oxford, 2014; source: publisher). The perspective of these philosophers provides a welcome contribution to the study of Augustine’s Confessions.
Peter King starts things off with a case against the over-emphasized Platonic strand in Augustine’s thought. There is a historical and philosophical connection between Augustine and Plato/Plotinus. However, at times this connection is too heavily weighted, skewing Augustine’s thought. King traces Augustine’s Platonic heritage through Ambrose. This path alters Plato’s understanding of ascent, or the soul’s approach to the divine. Eros, or erotic love, is not understood as a medium to ascent, as in Plato’s Symposium, but rather, as a hindrance to ascent. In Book 7, Augustine suggests contrary to Platonic ascent. In addition, Augustine advocates divine aid to overcome eros.
Any good collection of Augustine studies usually contains an address of the will. This task falls to Tomas Ekenberg. His reading of Book 8 presents an organic understanding of the will that should not be dissected from reason or emotions. Ekenberg follows an earlier understanding in De libero arbitrio, which continued into Augustine’s Confessions. Rather than an abstract position that exaggerates the will, Ekenberg argues for the integral relationship between the will, reason, and emotions.
A repeated theme within the Confessions is the issue of eudaimonism or happiness. Augustine conveys an inner turmoil over the balance of happiness in life. Should one pursue happiness in life? Is happiness in this life possible? What about misery? Misery, being one of the factors leading Augustine to face his peril and seek salvation, one would assume that post-salvation would provide relief from misery and usher in happiness. Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that Book 10 shows a transformation of misery rather than an extinguishing. Misery continues as the ramification to the struggle with sin and the subsequent separation from God. Hence, complete happiness in this life is not possible.
How does one seek God when knowledge or experience with God is completely lacking? The question forms the crux of Stephen Mann’s chapter. Mann argues that Augustine utilizes an aporetic method throughout the Confessions, especially in Book 10. Rejecting Plato’s Recollection doctrine, Augustine addresses this paradox by emphasizing God as truth. If God is truth and humans constantly seek truth, we can seek God without actually knowing God. The paradox continues in that to know God we must confess our ignorance and the prevention of knowing God is a result of being content with falsehood.
At first, one would not associate plays with dreams. William E. Mann posits that Augustine’s discussion of drama and plays in Book 2 relates to the issue of erotic dreams in Book 10. Though the emotions and actions of a play are not real, and the audience enjoys the play knowing so, there is a playwright responsible for the play. Dreams, erotic in nature or not, also are not real. The dreamer knows this as well. However, just as there is a playwright there too is a dreamwright. Hence, responsibility for the unreal dream falls to the dreamwright or the dreamer.
Paul Helm brings together the modern B-series of understanding time with Augustine’s ancient position. B-series continues the traditional B-theory, in that time is understood from an outside perspective resulting in a de-emphasis of tense and a focus on simultaneity. B-series differs from older B-accounts by holding to the necessity of the language of tense: past, present, future. Though the reality of time is B-series, the language of A-theory helps us understand this reality. Augustine differs from B-series in at least one significant way. The simultaneity of time is not a temporal simultaneity, at least not in its most significant way. The simultaneity of time is based on the personal nature of God. It is the personal, “ineffable, immediate knowledge of all the times of creation” that defines the simultaneity of time (Augustine’s Confessions, 152).
The issue of biblical interpretation, specifically when interpretations differ from one another, is addressed by Blake D. Dutton. Augustine admits that his interpretation of Genesis 1:1 will not be accepted by all. Drawing on the doctrine of the Privacy of the Mind, Dutton argues that knowledge of authorial intent cannot be known. We can know our own minds but not the minds of others. Thus, an approvable interpretation is based on the reader taking the text’s propositions as true.
Augustine ‘ s works such as Confessions, On Christian Teaching, The City of God, or biographies on Augustine will probably be where most begin their Augustine research. This comes at no surprise and for good reason so. This does not in any way take away from the merits of Augustine’s Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography. A collection of essays by philosophers may not be the best entry to Augustine research, but this particular collection is a great volume for those who desire to expand their understanding of Augustine.
I appreciate the diversity of Augustine’s Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography. It is not often that I read philosophical treatments of Augustine, so I welcome the change from my normal reading patterns. It is helpful then that the volume is not a monograph, but a collection of various essays addressing a wide assorted topics on the Confessions. This allows readers who are not regularly reading philosophical works be able to approach top-notch research without getting lost in a long monograph.
Passing up a treatment of the Confessions does not come easy for me. Pivotal to understanding Augustine, it is unimaginable, or at least undesirable, to study Augustine without taking a long look at the Confessions. Of course, I would suggest to begin with the autobiography if you have not already. Then, perhaps read a biography on Augustine. If you desire a different perspective of this crucial text then Augustine’s Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography easily fits the bill. A philosophical approach will contribute to a historical understanding of Augustine’s Confessions and you will not find a better collection of philosophers.