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A very Christlike kiss’n’tell

Modern readers often take Augustine’s <em>Confessions</em> to be an account of a saint’s struggles w

How did Augustine write Confessions? Well, in the strict sense, he didn't - he didn't set words down on papyrus or parchment. Augustine has been painted, by artists as great as Botticelli, Carpaccio and Benozzo Gozzoli, seated at a desk and writing. He did not do that. Oh, he undoubtedly wrote notes to himself or lists of items or instructions to individual brothers in his monastic community. But the books, sermons and letters that have come down to us were all dictated to scribes. Even a book that feels as intimate as Confessions was spoken to several of the many scribes Augustine kept busy. That was the normal practice in antiquity. Even in prison, Saint Paul had a scribe on hand. Even when living as a hermit, Saint Jerome had teams of scribes. The population of ancient scribes was a vast one.

Writing was a complex and clumsy process. That was especially true in the classical period, when papyrus scrolls were used. One needed at least three hands to unroll the scroll on the left, to roll it up on the right, and to write a series of columns in the intermediate spaces. Besides, even the mixing of the ink and trimming of the reed pens (quills arrived in the Middle Ages) had to be done while the scroll was held open at the spot reached by the scribe. Since the rolls were written on one side only, they could run to great lengths, as much as 30 feet long.

Obviously, the author could not be doing all this and composing in his mind. The only efficient way to function was for the author to dictate to a shorthand writer (tachygrapher), who took the text down on tablets of wax or wood. Then this first scribe, with the help of assistants, would write the text on a scroll. Other scribes would copy this text on other scrolls - the only way to duplicate a text in the age before printing presses. A man would read slowly from the master text while a number of scribes created their own copies. There was no need for these secondary scribes to decipher the first man's shorthand signs. After he made the master copy, multiple facsimiles were needed. Paul sent copies of the same letter to several places - to the churches of Galatia, for instance. He sent his Epistle to the Romans to Jerusalem as well as to Rome. He also had to keep copies by him, for his own reference and to supply those asking for clarification of the record.

Writings, created with such labour, could be lost in transit where couriers were careless or in peril - Augustine's first letter sent to Jerome did not reach him, causing endless later trouble. Books could easily disappear if there were not enough copies made or preserved. Even though Augustine kept his own archives in good order, his very first book is irretrievably lost. Teams of scribes had to be kept at work all the time to bring a book into existence and keep it there. In his History of the Church, the Late Antique church historian Eusebius tells us that the church father Origen had seven tachygraphers and a horde of other scribes and calligraphers to replicate what the shorthand experts took down and wrote out.

The making of books was an expensive as well as laborious and time-consuming process. One of the principal costs of Augustine's
Episcopal establishment was the production of his many books. He wrote five million words that have come down to us, most of them after he became the bishop of Hippo. Isidore of Seville famously said that anyone who claims to have read all of Augustine must be a liar. In a recently discovered letter, Augustine says that in less than three months he had dictated 6,000 lines of text - the scholar James O'Donnell suggests he made the count for payment to his scribes.

Augustine had never written anything like Confessions. In fact, no one had ever written anything like this book. O'Donnell points out that its very opening has no parallel in classical or Christian literature: "No other work of his begins with direct address to God . . . Augustine invented a form and style unique in his own oeuvre and in the traditions he inherited." How did his other work lead to this odd product?

His writing career was at this point uneven. He wrote only one book before the age of 32, The Beautiful and the Decorous, a lost work he called a show-off piece and sent to a celebrity rhetorician, hoping to attract his attention. (It didn't.) But then in 386, when he was preparing for baptism, there was a spurt of dialogues recording discussion with his friends, students and mother. At this point Augustine planned a cycle of works on the liberal arts seen from a Christian perspective. Only one of these books, Music, was completed. When he went back to his birthplace in Africa, he was caught up in controversy with his former fellows in the Manichaean movement. It was partly because he was seen as a champion against these dissidents that he was dragooned into the priesthood in 391 (public demand was the normal path to ordination then).

Though Augustine was popular enough in Hippo - the town where he became a priest - to be further recruited as a bishop four years later, his identity was not firmly established outside his immediate flock. For all his early adult life in Africa he had been a Manichaean, an active proselytiser of that faith throughout his twenties. He went off to Italy under Manichaean patronage when he was 29, and returned five years later, after baptism in Milan, as the member of a new faith. But what was that faith? It is not enough to call him a Christian, since Manichaeans were Christians (but of a heretical sort).

The majority Christian faith in Africa at the time was Donatist, a purist body that had re­sisted the Emperor Diocletian's persecution at the beginning of the 4th century. These purists accused other Christians of collaboration with the persecutors. These laxer sorts were asso­ciated with Bishop Caecilian, so some historians call the minority Christian body in Africa Caecilianists. That was the faction that Augustine joined, though members of his family had been Donatists (including his mother), and some still were.

How was Augustine, a member of the minority Christian branch with compromising past ties to Donatists and Manichaeans, to distinguish his own religious stance? It was not enough to argue with the Manichaeans, who claimed he was a turncoat. There was also a problem with his consecration as a bishop.

Augustine had left his home town to recruit a man in Hippo. Travelling could be dangerous when communities could appoint a man a priest against his will. That is what happened to Augustine in Hippo, a modest town of perhaps 30,000 people, one-tenth the size of Carthage, Africa's leading city. Once Augustine became a popular preacher in Hippo, the bishop there, Valerius, came to rely on his services, since Valerius was a native Greek speaker with shaky Latin. It was against the canons of the African church for a bishop to allow a priest to preach in his own church - but Valerius not only did this, he hid Augustine from visiting clerics, lest he be spirited away to a more flourishing environment.

Valerius wanted to keep Augustine in his dim place, and there was only one way to do that. A priest could always leave a town, but a bishop could never leave his community; he was "married" to it for life. So Valerius made Augustine his associate bishop. The problem here is that the Council of Nicaea had decreed there could be only one bishop in a community. Accusations of irregularity would haunt Augustine even after Valerius died, a year after consecrating Augustine.

There were, therefore, many reasons for Augustine to establish his identity in his new office as bishop. He had become a Christian in far-off Milan, in circumstances few in Africa could know about until he explained them. This leads some students of Augustine to think of Confessions as a defence of an embattled figure, much like John Henry Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua or the Apology that Plato puts in the mouth of Socrates. But Augustine had other things in mind, too. He had reached a stage where he wanted to define his role in a new way.

Bishops in the Africa of his time were rarely great preachers and never great theologians. Augustine now wanted to be a philosopher-bishop, of a type he had encountered in Ambrose at Milan, but one that was a novelty in his home country. To this point he had had little time to do serious immersion in scripture. He had to change the rhythms of his life. Confessions was a kind of retreat into himself, to prepare himself for the ambitious theological works coming up - On the Trinity, especially, and First Meanings in Genesis.

The first thing that sets Confessions apart from books such as Newman's Apologia is its audience. He addresses himself to only one hearer, God. The whole book is one long prayer, perhaps the longest literary prayer among the great books of the west. As James O'Donnell says:

[Augustine] gestures in our direction and mentions us from time to time, but he never addresses his readers. As literary text, Confessions resembles a one-sided, non-fiction epistolary novel, enacted in the presence of the silence (and darkness) of God. What he attempts is a radical turn away from common sense - seen as tragically flawed by mad self-love - towards the wholly other, and thus towards the true self - for to him, we are not who we think we are.

The prayer genre sets this book apart from other self-examinations, including Augustine's early Dialogues With Myself (Soliloquia) or the To Myself of Marcus Aurelius (most often translated as Meditations). There the author is speaking to himself, not to God.

Confessions is commonly read as an autobiography - some even call it the first autobio­graphy. It does not fit into that genre. God does not need to learn anything about Augustine's life. Augustine is trying to acknowledge the graces that make his life part of sacred history - whence the constant use of scripture. Things that we expect, or even demand, from autobio­graphy are missing here.

We learn nothing about Augustine's sister, almost nothing about his brother. The names of his best friend and his common-law wife are never given us, nor is the name of Mallius Theodore, the man he attributed his conversion to at the time. We are not told of his dealings with the emperor whose court he graced in Milan, or of the Christian communities he met with in Rome and Ostia. Worse than that, this account is different from what Augustine said in his early letters. He had, for instance, a low opinion of Ambrose as a demagogic miracle-monger in the days right after the man had baptised him. What has changed in Confessions is that Augustine now sees Ambrose as part of God's plan for him, and thanks God for the blessing.

If Confessions is not an autobiography, what is it (aside from its overall framework as a prayer)? It relives the drama of sin and salvation, in the form of a journey towards God. It stands closer to The Pilgrim's Progress, or even to the Divine Comedy, than to Rousseau's Confessions. It is a theological construct of a highly symbolic sort. An example of what might be called the autobiographical fallacy in dealing with Confessions concerns the famed scene in the baths of Tagaste. His father sees the 16-year-old Augustine naked and rejoices that he will soon have a grandson from this sexually mature youngster. Augustine says of that moment, "I was clothed in unstable [inquieta] manhood." One psychiatrist, Dr Charles Kligerman, takes inquieta to mean that Augustine had an erection. Two other psychiatrists take it to mean he was masturbating.

The masturbation fantasy shows a basic ignorance of the place of public baths in ancient life. They were very public, almost like our malls. Dinner guests met there for lavations before going to a man's house for dinner. Schoolboys were taught the decorum of the baths. Martial, the naughty Roman poet who revels in sexual scandal, finds little hankypanky going on at the baths but towel-stealing. In Augustine's Africa, there were even hours set aside for nuns to attend the thermae.

The modern psychiatrists do not notice the truly odd thing about Augustine's phrase. If he is naked, why does he say he is "clothed" (indutum) in unstable manhood? He is thinking of a later "bath", in which he will go into the baptismal pool naked and come out clothed by Ambrose in a white garment, signifying that he is now "clothed in Christ". The text that hit him at the height of his crisis in the garden was St Paul's "Clothe yourself [induite] in Jesus Christ" (Romans, 13:14). This is also the first covert reference to Genesis, where Adam after his sin clothes himself in fig leaves, since he has lost the clothing of grace. Adam had become inquietus - Augustine's term for fallen mankind's heart, according to his statement at the opening of Confessions, usually translated as "Our heart is restless [inquietum] until it rests [requiescat] in you". Augustine's unquiet manhood is the sinful fallen manhood he inherited from Adam.

His father's look at his nakedness also has a parallel in Augustine's later "bath" with his spiritual father, Ambrose. The baptisand of that time had to undergo a physical inspection of the naked body (scrutatio) to see if any marks of diabolic affliction were present. Every aspect of the baths scene is part of an antitype to the baptism that will reverse the effects of sin, which the worldly bath could not cleanse away.

The psychiatrists who read the text as auto­biography felt free to dig for deeper meanings of their own modern invention. The higher meanings that Augustine indicated by his language they missed entirely. We have to read Augustine as we do Dante, alert to rich layer upon layer of scriptural and theological symbolism. We are not in the realm of autobiography but of spiritual psychodrama.

This is an edited extract from "Augustine's Confessions: a Biography" by Garry Wills (Princeton University Press, £13.95)
© Princeton University Press, 2011

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special