CAMBRIDGE is having another shot at the Confessions. Gillian Clark’s short account (1993) is excellent. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (2001), however, contained only a few disparaging pages on his most-read book. Now Cambridge has this collection of essays in its Companions to Religion series, which contains only one other study of a single book outside scripture, Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, 60 demanding volumes in the standard Latin and English edition. Augustine’s Confessions is quite short, and can be read without difficulty by any reasonably bright person with an interest in human beings and God. City of God would have been a better choice.
How much light is shed by the 19 international scholars who have contributed? Some of their chapters are clearly intended mainly for other specialists in a field that, even if fenced off from the huge literature on Augustine in general, is thickly populated. These would be testing for anyone who has read the Confessions once, or might try it. Not everyone attracted by Augustine’s account of his youth, his protracted rescue by God from sin and error — “Grace abounding to the chief of sinners” — or his extraordinarily original reflections on memory and time (well described here) can cope with words like “aporetic”, “protreptic”, “paraenetic”, “lemmata”, and “stemmata”. Sarah Catherine Byers makes heavy weather of the so-called “mystical” experiences recalled in the Confessions — not hard to grasp unless you care only how Plotinian Augustine’s understanding of them is.
Other chapters are more approachable. Carolyn Hammond suggests how much of what is to come in Augustine’s career is prefigured in the Confessions, and Giovanni Catapano gives a clear philosophical context for the book. Phillip Cary, writing on “Soul, Self, and Interiority”, produces a straightforward elementary exhortation to read, understand, and even follow Augustine. Marie-Anne Vannier on “Aversion and Conversion” manages, by examining pairs of concepts, humility and pride, freedom and grace, morning and evening, extension and intention, to give a brief account of much of Augustine’s text.
Other chapters, by imposing a single frame of significance over the whole book, exclude too much. An essay on “Sin and Concupiscence”, takes us back to the limiting assumption that Augustine was obsessed with sex, and one on “Creation and Recreation” is harder to understand than Augustine ever is. One or two, notably the chapter on “God”, include too many mere lists of references to passages in the Confessions.
The last section, five chapters on “Reception and Reading Strategies”, is as mixed as the whole Companion: between a technical survey of manuscript families and a maddeningly up-to-the-minute piece on the Confessions as “an experiment in criticism . . . productive of theory”, are an investigation of three French Enlightenment views (negative) of Augustine, with a note on Rousseau, a mixed survey of work influenced by the Confessions in the “Period of Reformations” , and an over-cautious look at “Reception in the Middle Ages”, which downplays the importance of the book even to Anselm and Aelred, who died with the Confessions at his bedside.
There is much to be learnt from this Companion by a variety of readers, but the book is marred by too much incorrect English and too many slips. Where were the copy-editor and the proofreader?
Lucy Beckett is a novelist and a historian.
The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s “Confessions”
Tarmo Toom, editor
Cambridge University Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70