Summer Reading: Vacationing with Saint Augustine


t. Augustine’s Confessions do not repeat DO NOT make for light summer reading but there are times when one must do what one must do, so the Confessions have been on my agenda for the past while.

It all started with Stephen Greenblatt’s article in the June 19/2017 issue of The New Yorker. Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, cites Sarah Ruden’s brand, spanking new translation of said Confessions, which the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee says “may well reflect Augustine’s meaning more accurately then any other translation hitherto.”

But Greenblatt’s piece is neither a review nor a critique of Ruden’s work, but rather a lengthy insight into his own soon-to-be-released book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, an exploration of the “enduring story of humanity’s first parents,” which should also make for interesting reading, (perhaps through the long winter evenings.)

What caught my eye in the article was the fact that Augustine — who had lived a life of debauchery for so long his mother, Monica, had feared for his soul — had devoted at least 15 years “post Confessions” to writing “The Literal Meaning of Genesis.” In so doing, says Greenblatt, Augustine “shaped his most influential idea, one that transformed the story of Adam and Eve and weighed down the centuries that followed.”

That idea?

“Original sin.”


 had never given the sainted Bishop of Hippo any attention whatsoever, beyond an awareness of his mother, St. Monica, who was presented to Catholics as a faithful Christian who prayed daily that her son would leave behind his belief in the Manichaean religion — a dualistic faith pitting a good, spiritual world of light against an evil, material, world of darkness — and convert to Christianity. Her prayers also included a fervent desire that Augustine would turn from a life of (to use his own word) “concupiscence,” a desire that wouldn’t be satisfied quickly or without heartache for her.

While Augustine’s mother taught him the basics of her own faith, his father, a pagan, displayed no interest in Augustine’s faith journey, but “was over the moon,” according to Ruden’s translation, when his son displayed signs of “restless young manhood” which meant Patricius would one day be a grandfather.

Early in the Confessions, Augustine tells God that as a youth he felt “the flame of desire to glut myself on the pit of hell, and recklessly grew a whole grove of shady love affairs, several species of them. Any beauty in me ran to ruin, and in your eyes I rotted from the inside out while I approved of myself so much, and yearned for approval in human eyes.”

Monica, very much aware of her son’s promiscuity and disapproving of Patricius’ joy in his son’s becoming a man, attempted to place a “wedge between father and son.” Augustine, says Greenblatt, wrote “admiringly” that his mother had made a “considerable bustle to ensure that you, my God, were my father, rather than him.”


Monica of Hippo by Benozzo Gozzoli, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Monica of Hippo by Benozzo Gozzoli, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

oth parents, however, were in total agreement that their son should have every chance at an education, given his many gifts, and Patricius scrimped and saved so that Augustine was able to depart for Carthage and a university education, leading to a career in public speaking.

His Confessions, addressed to God, reveal that Augustine’s promiscuity, already a problem in his life, reached new heights in Carthage, although after a couple of years, he settled down with one woman to whom he was faithful for the next 14 ears. This both pleased Monica and produced a grandchild. The child’s mother is never named in the Confessions, as Augustine “expects readers to understand the difference between the sanctioned scope of marriage, a bond contracted for the purpose of producing children, and a deal arising from lustful infatuation.”

Augustine eventually ended up in Milan, where “he took up an illustrious professorship of rhetoric” and came under the influence of Ambrose, the bishop of that city. Having allowed Monica to engineer a separation from his mistress and their child, Augustine “soon took another mistress.” But not long after, he converted to Catholicism, broke off the relationship with his mistress, resigned his professorship, vowed himself to perpetual chastity and founded a monastic community in Africa. By then, Monica had died and his Confessions, according to Greenblatt, became a philosophical meditation on “memory and an interpretation of the opening of Genesis.”


reoccupied with sexuality and procreation, Augustine zeroed in on the story of the first couple, Adam and Eve — a story Greenblatt says had become “something of a an embarrassment” for the Church, ridiculed by Pagans as “primitive and ethically incoherent” but which Augustine came to maintain was “the key to everything.”

While allowing that the occasional word might be taken metaphorically, Augustine insisted Genesis be taken literally. Greenblatt says “sustained reflection” on Adam and Eve and his own youthful memories convinced Augustine that what was important was not his “budding sexual maturity” but its “involuntary nature.” For Augustine, arousal was lust and “surely any friend of wisdom and joy…would prefer, if possible to beget children without lust.”

As Catholics, we were taught that the sin of Adam and Eve was pride — they ate the forbidden fruit because the serpent told them it would make them “like God and they would know good and evil.” According to Scripture, after eating the fruit, both hid from God and tried to cover themselves because “they were ashamed.”

According to Augustine (who knew a thing or two about it) what Adam and Eve felt after they had eaten the apple was lust, and had they not eaten it, “They would not have had the activity of turbulent lust in their flesh” and would have been able to exercise control over their genitals just as they did over other bodily parts. (Augustine uses as examples how some can move their ears while others — get this — “can produce at will such musical sounds from their behind that they seem to be singing from that region!” This could be an example of what Ruden terms Augustine’s “vital wit,” but it was not obvious to me as a reader!)


God (in the form of Jesus) chides Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit. (Master Bertram, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

God (in the form of Jesus) chides Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit. (Master Bertram, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

nd what was the significance of his conclusion that procreation was meant to be completed without arousal or lust? Greenblatt believes it was to substantiate the story of Jesus being born of a virgin “who became pregnant without ardor.”

That Augustine was able to make the idea of “original sin” a cornerstone of “Christian orthodoxy,” even though its acceptance came only after decades of controversy, says much for the persuasive abilities of his rhetoric and writing. According to Greenblatt, four in 10 Americans believe in the ‘literal truth’ of the story of Adam and Eve and no doubt share Augustine’s belief that there always was and always will be something very wrong with all humans. Strange, given his belief in God as our all-knowing and all-perfect creator that Augustine would convince himself (and eventually Christianity) that we all come into this world marked by the sin of the first inhabitants of The Garden of Eden.

Knowing that he would later spend years contemplating the story of Adam and Eve makes Augustine’s first mention of the “sin of Adam” in his Confessions’ all the more interesting. Recounting his time in Rome, he recall being taken ill and “heading for the underworld with the load of all the evil I’d done, to you and myself and others – a great many crimes to carry – besides the shackle of original sin, by which all of us die in the person of Adam.” It might very well be that Augustine, having lived so much of his life in lustful fashion, had an overwhelming desire to blame someone else for his own sinful choices.

Original sin is not a topic of homilies these days, nor is it taught with the emphasis to which, as Catholic school children studying our Baltimore Catechisms, we were subjected so many years ago. Infant baptism, so necessary then, since the tiny baby had to be cleansed as soon as possible of Adam and Eve’s sinful legacy, has now become far less of a parental obligation and is often administered months after the child’s birth, affirming them as “children of God.”

When one considers that Limbo, some dark corner of somewhere to which the souls of the unbaptized, babies and all, were condemned for eternity, is no longer a familiar phrase in the Catholic lexicon, it means, hopefully, that brighter, more merciful minds have long since abandoned Augustine’s notions about “original sin” and humanity’s sinful beginnings.


Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



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