Year: 385 ad locations: Carthage, Rome, Milan

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Augustine, Confessions
Book V
Year: 385 AD

Locations: Carthage, Rome, Milan

Age: 29
Book V follows the young Augustine from Carthage (where he finds his students too rowdy for his liking) to Rome (where he finds them too corrupt) and on to Milan, where he will remain until his conversion. Manichean beliefs begin to lose their luster for him during this period, and by the end of the Book he considers himself an unbaptized Christian (a "catechumen": a beginner who is being taught the principles of Christianity; a neophyte). Augustine encounters a number of important figures during this period of relentless searching, including Ambrose (the Bishop of Milan, who will eventually baptize Augustine) and Faustus, a Manichean luminary. He also encounters the profound doubt of the skeptical school and comes close to total skepticism in his own philosophy.

  • Faustus, a bishop of the Manicheans, comes to Carthage.

  • Augustine is disappointed on finding that Faustus cannot settle the discrepancies between the doctrines of the Manicheans and known scientific facts.

  • Against the wishes of his mother he leaves for Rome, where he still associates with the Manicheans but no longer believes in their doctrines.

  • Becomes attracted by the “Academics”—a bunch of radically skeptical Neo-Platonists.

  • Obtains an appointment as professor of rhetoric at Milan.

  • Listens to the sermons of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and finds them impressive in content but is not entirely convinced. He’s especially taken with Ambrose’s figurative (i.e., spiritual) interpretation of scripture over against the literal one Augustine had followed up until then.

  • Finally and completely disassociates himself from the Manicheans. Remains a catechumen.

1. Natural Level and Supernatural Level

Augustine uses the literary, imaginative frame of two ‘realms’ interpenetrating each other simultaneously to construct Book V. He will make this structure the centerpiece of City of God, and it will inform the work of Dante, just as the Bible gives it to Augustine. Throughout Book V, he moves between narrating the flow of life events that (from the fallen, earthly perspective) stem from material causes and human will, to the divine perspective (which hindsight and grace make available) that illumines these events as ordained by God as part of the divine plan for directing Augustine to the Church. He uses this interpretative lens to demonstrate that what can look good or true on a sensible, natural level does not on the supernatural.
a) After waiting for nine years, Augustine finally meets Faustus, the Manichean bishop. He had hoped Faustus would satisfactorily answer many questions he had about Manichaeism stemming from Augustine’s study of math and science (which offer more accurate accounts of the operations of nature). But to his disappointment he learns that Faustus cannot do so. Even though the bishop is a sincere man, he’s just not that smart. This experience ends Augustine’s intellectual belief in Manichean doctrines, but he can’t find anything else to do and so continues to associate with their cult. In hindsight, Augustine sees that Faustus, “unwittingly and without intent” had begun to release Augustine from the “trap” in which he had been caught. (§§1-7) On the natural level, Faustus merely disappoints the smarter Augustine. On the supernatural, he plays into God’s plan to bring Augustine to the Church by affirming the inadequacy of Manichean doctrines.
b) After his encounter with Faustus, Augustine sails for Rome. On the natural level, he goes because he hears that students behave better in Rome than those in Carthage. On the supernatural, God leads him there, as Augustine realizes: “But it was to save my soul that you obliged me to go and live elsewhere.” He marvels how God worked things out so that Augustine’s own natural desires carry him on a journey that ends those desires. Monica doesn’t understand, however, and weeps bitterly at his departure (§8). In Rome, Augustine falls deathly ill. On the natural level, he approaches death. But on the supernatural, God heals him through Monica’s prayers (§9).
c) Augustine finds the pupils in Rome better behaved but more devious. So when he hears of an opening for a professor in Milan, he seizes it. On the natural level, he does so to advance his career. But on the supernatural, God lets him go there to meet Ambrose, the Catholic bishop. Ambrose, Augustine writes, has not “the same soothing and gratifying manner” of rhetorical style that Faustus had. But as to the content of their doctrines, “there could be no comparison between the two.” Ambrose teaches truth and its meaning penetrates Augustine’s mind in spite of himself—he tries to focus only on Ambrose’s style. A ‘double vision’ is at work everywhere here: Ambrose is the foil to Faustus; the latter looked and sounded better from the natural perspective, but Ambrose is actually more good and true, which Augustine learns once he gets over the natural perspective and enters the supernatural (§13-14).
d) Finally, Augustine has adopted a natural perspective in reading the Bible up until this point. He reads it ‘literally’ and finds it nonsensical as a result. But Ambrose teaches him the spiritual interpretation, giving him a supernatural perspective. Through this lens, Augustine begins to comprehend the truth in the scriptures. What from the natural perspective looked like a book full of logical inconsistencies from the supernatural (or spiritual) perspective manifests itself in its truth.
2. Philosophical Issues
§10 contains the philosophical discussions of the Book. Even though Augustine has abandoned Manichean doctrine at this point, the Manicheans had left him plagued by images when he thought of God or of evil: God as "a physical mass" or "a luminous body," even evil as "a malignant mind creeping through the earth." Even worse, his lingering dualism (the idea that God and evil are two warring substances) meant that he still took no real responsibility for his sins. Worse still, he accepted the Manichean disbelief in Christ's incarnation in human form, picturing him instead as a wholly divine being "emerging from the mass of [God's] dazzling body."
a) Augustine encounters the Academics, a group of radical skeptics in Plato’s academy who assert that man can attain no certain truth or knowledge. He thinks the them "shrewder than others," and their pervasive logical challenges to any belief at all further devastate Manichean doctrine.
b) He is still unable to conceive of a non-material realm and continues to think of God in images. Imagines both God and evil as actual bodily substances in conflict with each other, each infinite but the evil in a lesser degree than the good.
c) Because he conceives of evil as a substance (rather than a privation of good), he is caught between believing that God created it (and thus is not good) or that it has its origin somewhere else and battles God (meaning God is not omnipotent). He chooses the latter option because it preserves God’s goodness.

d) Also thinks of mind as a “rarefied body somehow diffused in space.” Thinks of Christ as “extended or projected” from the good substance that is God. Cannot understand how God could become flesh without defilement, so rejects the doctrine of the Incarnation.

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