Saint Augustine: Confessions
translated by Henry Chadwick
Oxford University Press, 311 pages, $24.95
Translating Augustine’s Confessions is much like playing Hamlet: many feel called to the role, but few prove equal to its blistering demands. A professional knowledge of Latin is only a start; one must also enjoy an intimate acquaintance with Augustine’s thought and style and with the cultural, philosophical. and theological background of his time. In addition, the translator must also be a master of his own language: a great stylist, after all, deserves a translator-stylist of mark. Anyone familiar with Henry Chadwick’s contributions to patristic studies over the years has had to look forward to this translation as to a rare treat. His learning is legendary, his acquaintance with Augustine as intimate as one could wish, his control of Latin equaled by the effortless urbanity of his English prose.
Chadwick’s learning is displayed in the introduction and the notes, but it shows up also in the artful headings in his summary of the contents of Augustine’s work. “Theft of pears: ‘alone I would never have done it,’” or “Manichee and Astrologer,” or “His concubine back to Africa.” Here Chadwick already reveals his personal settlement, bold but at the same time pondered, of some large and neuralgic questions of Augustine interpretation: the key element accounting for that puzzling boyhood escapade was bad companionship; Augustine, at one stage of his life, was indeed given to astrology; and his unnamed consort of all those years may correctly be termed a “concubine.”
These, however, are only a few of the numerous junctures where Chadwick takes positions on disputed points of Augustinian interpretation, so that the reader aches to know where in the broad expanse of Augustine scholarship he has found support for the positions be espouses. Perhaps it is due to the nature of the series envisaged by Oxford University Press of which this book is part, but all too often the reader’s hunger is left annoyingly unsatisfied. One does not expect the book to rival the scholarly plenitude of the French Bibliotheque Augustinienne translations, but something like the relatively modest format of Vernon Bourke’s translation in the Fathers of the Church series might have served as a useful model. Chadwick’s “Bibliographical Note,” which runs to a little over a page, is spare at best; the reader might well have been served more generously on that score. In that case, too, the translator would have been able to refer back when appropriate to the studies he commends.
As it stands, the footnotes too seldom supply enough information to answer the questions raised by Chadwick’s frequently challenging translations and comments. The result is that the currency of his vast erudition is inevitably debased. He is like that prodigally good-natured uncle many of us had the happiness to know and love when we were children; he scatters his goodies with lavish abandon and in all directions, but leaves us wondering which of his gifts, if any, he values more than the others. When Chadwick tells us, apropos of a saying of Augustine’s, that “Plotinus says this also,” or suggests that we compare a phrasing or allusion in Augustine with one in Cicero, Plotinus, or Porphyry—or indeed, in more esoteric sources such as Terence, Atnmianus Marcellinus, or Palladas—it is not always easy to tell how strongly he is standing behind these various recommendations.
Chadwick’s introduction runs to some twenty-six pages, and its richly textured density almost promises to make up for any skimpiness that may bother at other points. So textured is it that the unwary reader might underestimate the amount of sheer information conveyed by a number of its carefully shaped assertions. Chadwick gives us a thoroughly informed view of the background and motivations behind Augustine’s writing of his Confessions, as well as a pointed summary of his family background and the high points of his life story. He also includes observations, both sensitive and sensible, on Augustine’s experience with women, most notably with the mother of his natural son, Adeodatus.
The judgments on Augustine’s dramatic encounter with the Neoplatonic philosophy that was to shape so much of his subsequent thinking are keen and responsibly nuanced, even if they leave some nagging questions unanswered. One is left wondering, for instance, about Chadwick’s substantial fidelity to Pierre Courcelle’s version that the Neoplatonic writings provoked a series of “frustrated attempts at ecstasy,” or about how Chadwick himself discriminates between Augustine’s borrowings from Plotinus and from Porphyry. He closes his introduction with brief but helpful remarks on the text of the Confessions and its fifteenth to seventeenth-century divisions into chapters and paragraphs, and on the Old Latin version of the Bible Augustine was citing. Again, though, questions remain: did Augustine stay solely with the Vetus Latina in writing his Confessions, and does Chadwick adopt a consistent policy in translating biblical citations—or, indeed, in rendering Augustine’s own semi-technical terms?
In dealing with the structure and literary “point” of the work, Chadwick’s opinion is that the Confessions recounts Augustine’s “wandering away” from God up until the disillusioning encounter with the Manichee bishop Faustus in Book V, where the “gradual ascent towards conversion” begins. This is a respectable view, certainly. But Chadwick has also observed, correctly, that Augustine “found his story especially symbolized” in Luke’s account of the parable of the prodigal son. This might have provoked him to acknowledge the surprising anomaly, noted by other scholars, that Augustine depicts himself two books earlier as reading Cicero’s Hortensius and “rising up” (exactly as Luke describes the Prodigal doing) to begin his homeward journey back to the Father (surgere coeperam ut at Te redirem).
This suggests the remarkable conclusion that Augustine intended us to interpret the incidents portrayed in Books III and IV—including his conversion to Manichaeism!—as progressive steps in his “gradual ascent” (or reascent) to his eventual conversion under the influence of Ambrose in Milan. It also suggests that something may be askew in Chadwick’s proposal that the theme of “wandering away” is “picked up” only at the beginning of Book III, when Augustine encounters the “sexual provocations” of student life at Carthage. Do we have solid evidence for speaking in this connection of Augustine’s “wild years”? More substantively, where and when did Augustine’s “wandering” set out from?
One answer to that question—an answer that has been knocking about in the literature for some thirty years or so and to which this reviewer impenitently subscribes—is that Augustine is depicting his soul as having preexisted its entrance into its “mortal body.” In that preexistence it “turned away” from the divine splendor it contemplated and wandered off, like the prodigal son, from that heavenly home into this “far country,” the “region of unlikeness” of the lower, visible world.
In relation to this hypothesis, Chadwick appears to be somewhat astraddle. If Augustine did hold a preexistence view, that might help explain why, right in the middle of his discussion of infancy, he raises, not once or twice but three times, the strikingly odd question of “whence” he came into this mortal life. Before he existed in his mother’s womb, was he, he asks, “anywhere or anyone”? And, since Scripture tells us we were all “conceived in iniquity,” “where and when” could he ever have been innocent?
Chadwick writes that Augustine raises these questions without immediately answering them. Likewise, he notes that at the end of Book IX Augustine asserts that he “does not know” how God brought him “into this life” through the carnal union of his fleshly mother and father. On the other hand, Chadwick calls attention to how Books X to XIII serve to “make explicit” the “favorite Neoplatonic theme that is only hinted at in the autobiographical parts” represented by Books I to IX, namely, the fall and return of the soul along with the entire created order. In line with this, he notes that in Books XI and XII “the language of the soul’s lapse from a divine eternity to the disruptive successiveness of temporal things is very close to Plotinus.”
But that immediately raises another question. Could it just be that it was Augustine’s intention to make the first nine “autobiographical” books into an “exercise of the mind” (his favorite teaching device), so that the fall-return theme, among others, would become a more and more gnawing question for his readers, a question to be answered only in the course of the final four books? Chadwick loyally raises the question, but one wonders how alertly he searched for the clues that might confirm or disprove that possibility.
One of the most suggestive texts in this regard occurs at the end of Book IV. We need not fear, Augustine reflects, “that there is no home to which we may return because we fell from it,” and he immediately goes on to identify that un-ruined “house” with God’s own “eternity.” Unlike many a translator before him, Chadwick renders the Latin with bold exactitude, and even notes that this puzzling identification of God’s “house” with His “eternity” will be made clear in paragraph 19 of Book XII. There Augustine does indeed clarify matters: the “house” of God is none other than the “Heaven of Heaven,” the original community of created spiritual beings, including both angels and human souls. But from that Heaven of Heaven, Augustine says in the following book, both “the angel [and] the human soul fell.” One way of obscuring this issue would have been to fudge the translation of one or several of these connected passages. That has been done more than once in the past. Chadwick translates them faultlessly. How, then, is he able to avoid the obvious connection: that the soul must once have existed in the Heaven of Heaven, if indeed it has fallen from that condition into the kind of existence we now experience?
One of the most striking merits of this new version is how regularly Chadwick takes on the toughest translation nuts that Augustine offers for the cracking, and bravely cracks them. For instance, while discussing the series of insights he gleaned from reading those famous “platonic books,” Augustine tells us that he came to understand “that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being.” Now this is a baffling statement, so baffling that legions of translators before him have shied away from adopting Chadwick’s disarmingly straightforward solution—that of translating Augustine’s Latin simply and literally. Chadwick declines to cheat on accuracy in order to produce a version that turns out to be less or, preferably, not at all baffling to the incurious reader. But Augustine makes no apologies for baffling his readers with such dense and lapidary formulations. It is all part of his “exercise of the mind” technique. He means to get his readers to puzzle, ponder, and read on until such time as he is ready to reveal the answer to the questions he has left scattered, like so many intellectual land mines, along the route of his personal Odyssey.
In the case of the “ Being” passage, as with a number of others, readers who have encountered four or five different translations of the text will be on the alert to the modest triumph represented by Chadwick’s version. In its riddling way, it tells us something quite enlightening about how Augustine viewed that magna quaestio, that “vasty deep,” the human being. And yet there is not a footnoted word of justification for the rendition offered. Chadwick does not say how he came to jettison so many former versions in order to adopt this one. Scholars have a certain obligation to tie down, as Socrates would have put it, such elegant statues of Daedalus, to prevent their flying off into the blue of forgetfulness.
Chadwick is not always so felicitous in his renderings as in this instance. To stay with the central “Neoplatonic” section, for example, he makes the same desperate stab as others have done at Augustine’s puzzling qualiscumque, rendering it “such as it was” and not the more correct, and far more intriguing, “of some sort or other.” If he does not “abide in God,” Augustine says that he will not be able to “abide in [him]self.” In that connection, the statement in John’s gospel, “I can do nothing,” has, pace Chadwick, little to do with the case. Chadwick’s gift for freshness of phrase normally makes reading him a pleasure, but occasionally he slips. One wonders, for instance, whether “conflict of interest” may not be a shade too contemporary for Augustine’s sober “lack of convenientia.”
One could cite other examples where Augustine’s “difficult” coinages might have been caught more exactly, and yet it is especially in those difficult passages where the Latin is most demanding, that Chadwick tends to outstrip the competition. That being so, it is mildly surprising that in the less demanding portions of the text a certain slackness seems to creep into his performance. He may have assumed that these portions are less critical for understanding Augustine’s thought and allowed himself to “coast.” Or perhaps he made an overall decision in favor of an elegant and varied English, rather than aiming (as others have tried to do) at a translation that would enable the serious student of Augustine’s thought to divine the Latin terms that lay behind it.
Consider one of many possible examples. In the opening paragraph of the book, Augustine characterizes “man” as aliqua portio of God’s creation, and Chadwick translates that as “a little piece.” But the term porlio resonates, in Augustine’s Latin, not with associations of chance fragmentation as in “piece,” but rather with implications of fairness, measure, pro-portion. A careful reading of the Confessions will confirm, I submit, that Augustine is here issuing the first of many admonitions to his former coreligionists, the Manichees, that man—this amalgam of spirit and matter—has been divinely accorded a “due portion,” a just part in the orderly hierarchy of the “all things”—visible and invisible—that makes God’s creation “very good.”
This human creature, Augustine has been saying, desires to praise God: et homo, he now adds, circumferens mortalitatem suam. Exactly. That et (which Chadwick elides) proclaims that “even man” desires to praise God. And man does so despite the fact that the Manichees are at least partially right in detesting man’s embodied condition. What the Manichees do not see, or will not admit, is that we are right to detest, not body as such, but the mortal body (mortalitatem) that we “carry”—not with us, as Chadwick renders it, but “about us” (circum-ferens). The image Augustine wishes to suggest—and later pages of the Confessions will confirm this—is that of our mortal body being like a garment or cloak that has been wrapped around us. That cloak, in turn, recalls the eloquently symbolic “coats of skins” in which God clothed Adam and Eve after they had sinned, had become mortal, and, in consequence, had received their “due portion” of being justly dismissed to the opaque, bodily region of creation. Portio, et, circumferens—three seemingly inoffensive terms. Chadwick appears to have taken them as having little real significance. And yet, translated attentively, they at once lay bare Augustine’s masterful power to make the prelude to his Confessions create the mood and predict the master-themes of the entire work.
But how can a reviewer wind up with so many reservations about a book that gave him so much pleasure? Perhaps because the translator succeeds in being nearly as stimulating as the original author. Perhaps, too, because Chadwick’s translation, overall, has allowed Augustine to remain as enigmatically subtle as, centuries ago, he chose to be.
Robert J. O’Connell, S.J., is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University and author of The Origin of the Soul in St. Augustine’s Later Works.