“Monday Musings” for Monday May 15, 2017
Volume VII, No. 20/332




by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

Augustine, A New Biography
By James J. O’Donnell
USA $26.95
336 pages of text
Four pages of explanation of abbreviations, 36 pages of notes and 20 pages of index
HapersCollins, Publishers Inc., NY

If there were a Mount Rushmore for scholars of Saint Augustine, the four heads would be the likeness of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) Benedictine Monk, Guibert de Nogent  (1115-1195) Thomas Merton (1915-1968) and James J. O’Donnell (1950-) the author of this deeply scholarly, yet delightful book.

But there is something different about O’Donnell.  He is an Augustinian scholar with an attitude.  His day job is the difficult and demanding post, Provost of Georgetown University in DC, dealing with faculty hiring, appointments, administration and all the things provosts of vast and complex universities do.  Besides, he serves on many boards dealing with the classics and the humanities, among them the National Humanities Center Board where as a fellow Board member, I came to put a face on the vast body of his writings on various subjects, including Augustine, philology and classics. O’Donnell is a product of Jesuit education.  He seems to be on a mega dose of intellectual steroids.  I have attempted, yes, attempted, to read his extensive commentary about Augustine, in Latin, which he edited in three volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992) with only a moderate amount of success.  The first volume of this monumental work contains the Latin text of the thirteen books that comprise Augustine’s Confessions.  The second and third volumes are a systematic, line by line commentary, with particular emphasis on the relationship between Confessions and other works of Augustine.  Some of the Augustinian scholars, including the very learned Maria Boulding, O. S. B., refer to O’Donnell’s three volume work as “magisterial writings.“ “Professor James J. O’Donnell’s three volumes…Will transform the task of translation for generations to come…” she said.  I am still reading them, and will let you know when I finish.  You are in for a treat when my review of those three volumes comes out.

The book starts with a prologue, followed by 12 chapters, and an epilogue.  We are accustomed to think of Augustine’s Confessions as his autobiography with the first nine books as narratives and the last four books, meditative and reflective.  The last four books discuss philosophical and theological issues of timeand memory.  They expose the reader to Augustine’s deeply moving and intellectually rich Biblical interpretations.  In this book, O’Donnell brings the essence of Augustine’s Confessions on stage, just like the unfolding of a theatre masterpiece, with intact dialogue and superb scenery.  It demonstrates Augustine’s painstaking attention and almost obsession with confession of sins, confession of faith and confession of praise.  O’Donnell, a master rhetorician, himself, skillfully demonstrates his subject’s reverential devotion to the notion that it is the redemptive power of God which ultimately brings mankind grace and salvation.

During my student days at College Saint Louis, a French Jesuit school in Tehran, I bought a copy of Augustine’s Confessions not for scholarship and a burning desire to acquire wisdom, but for the purported sexual and salacious material.  I was disappointed that I did not find any, and to this day I have not found any.  I am happy to report that reading the Confessions invariably makes the reader a better and a wiser person!

Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, born November 4, 354, in Tagaste, modern Souk Ahra, or Annaba, was an extremely intelligent young man, an “A” student through and through.  His father, Patricius, not a Christian, was a minor landowner and middle class citizen.  In Confessions, he is only a bit player, although often praised for providing money to buy his son a superior education.  However, Augustine’s mother, Monnica, a Christian by birth and upbringing, was an influential woman in her son’s life.

Having been exposed to many religions including the mysticism of Sufi, Transcendence of Buddhist; persuasive, disciplined and focused approach of the Jesuits, consequential and pragmatic teachings of Moses and his followers, stoicism of monastic monks, in my mind, the road to matters Godly may be through mysticism, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, faith, and even physical fusion with God.  What I have learned from Augustine and his writings is that it is possible to embrace all these modalities at once.  Augustine teaches me, while thinking about the destination, how to enjoy the trip and the process of getting there.  Augustine is a consummate planner, traveler and traveling companion.  It is perfectly fine to get addicted to Augustine, as it is permissible to get addicted to opera, classical music, poetry and dance.  The tapestry of erudition, eloquence and faith, woven by Augustine is all of that to me.

Augustine died in 430, after a most interesting and fruitful life.  His influence, not only in the life of the church, but in literature, philosophy, linguistics and shaping of the intellectual lives of many generations after him, is remarkable.  While enamored by the teachings of Mani, he explored the ancient Greek philosophers and Platonists to find wisdom and truth, the truth, the ultimate truth.  He eventually found them in Christianity and was converted at the age of 31 in 386 A. D.

Many politicians and leaders who are war mongers, to justify their hostile policies and actions, often use the phrase “just war” which Augustine coined.  He coined another phrase, “original sin,” the bread and butter of generations of theologians to this date, and possibly for eternity, and “concupiscence” tendency for humans to be attracted to evil.   These commonly used concepts remain Augustine’s leitmotifs, just as Kleenex is to “tissue,” Freud to “psychoanalysis,” and Ford to “automobile.”  Augustine’s name is also eponymous with grace and salvation.  Regardless of what religion one practices, or in what part of the world one travels, when it comes to discussing grace and salvation, even in India and Southeast Asia, the name of Augustine surfaces automatically.  One can not resist admiring Augustine’s courage to lay his life on line, air all his dirty laundry, and tell all, including fathering a “bastard son,” discussing his “sexual addiction,” having a hard time resisting temptation.  The first nine books of Confessions are narrative and reportorial delving at length into his dalliance, and sexual misconduct.  By telling his life story, he wanted to altruistically benefit his fourth century Christian flock, immediately, and future generations of believers subsequently, if not eternally.  Stealing from his parents, having two mistresses and fathering a son out of wedlock, as will follow, occupy a great deal of space inConfessions.

Yet, O’Donnell brilliantly argues that Confessions is not about Augustine, his life, or his biography.  It is about his god (interestingly, god with little ’g’, and not ‘God’.)  The author claims that everything Augustine wrote, the corpus of his work exceeding 5.3 million words, compiled in more than 48 volumes of written work goes back to his god.  O’Donnell calls it Augustine’s “obsession.”  The author calls Augustine’s Confessions,written between 397 and 401, completed when he was 46 years old, “the first modern biography, and a classic of modern literature.”   The way O’Donnell presents Augustine’s writings is very interesting in that ultimately Augustine makes “god the center stage character of the discourse…”

Confessions” does not start with some lofty mystical premise, pontificating, preaching, or sounding like a commencement address, given by some wise and renowned theologian.  The entire 13 books is really a prayer that starts with the humble declarative sentence “inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te,“ “our heart is restless, until it rests in you,” and 80,000 words or so later, it ends with “Amen.”

In the course of searching  the ultimate truth and wisdom, Augustine struggled with Manicheans, Donotists, Pagans, Arians and studies of Caecilianism, pelagianism and Platonists.  These studies and encounters led him on the path of maturing intellectually, quieting down his temper and impulsive nature, and ultimately to the satisfying experience of conversion.  Augustine’s work in philosophical reflection of time, memory, and his book on “Trinity,” suggesting Father as memory; Son, as time; and Faith as the Holy Spirit and eternity (time frozen in the present) as well as his pamphlet ,“Teacher,” a dialogue with his son Adeodatus, are penetrating and stimulating reading.  Dante used Augustine’s perception of time in “Inferno,” Circle VI, canto IX and X to describe the nature of purgatory and hell through Augustinian prism.  As indicated above Dante would not be, if there were no Augustine.  As a footnote, another great, Martin Luther who was trained as a lawyer but turned into a theologian and musicologist/composer, and a Augustinian Friar, heavily incorporated Augustine’s style and theology in his prolific output

A Summary of the 13 Books of Confessions:

We must know that in 4th century Carthage was the center of the Roman Empire, which then spanned from the Irish Sea to the Persian Gulf.  Hippo, modern Algiers, was very much a part of Pax Romana.

Book I of the Confessions deals with Augustine’s birth, infancy and childhood.  There are many revealing stories in the pages of this book.  Also, there are many stories that arouse the readers’ antennae that are skillfully unwritten.  To do justice, the uninitiated should take a course on “how to Read Augustine’s Confessions!” The unwritten innuendoes are as important as the written stories.

As a child, Augustine went to a very good private school.   He was an excellent student.  He feared his teachers’ regular beatings. He recalls his first prayers as a child were to besiege god, “Don’t let the teacher hit me!”  He later refers to his childhood prayers as “selfish and self-serving,” concluding that it may be that many of our prayers throughout life are in that childish, self-centered and self-serving mold.  Similarly when in Book 4, he loses a very close friend to an untimely death, he becomes very sad and grief stricken.  Later, he realizes that his sadness was his anger for losing a loved one who was “good to me.”  He considered the whole process of grieving selfish and self-consuming.  The grieving process was not to benefit the lost friend, but to meet his own narcissistic needs.

He reports stealing pears from a neighbour’s yard, not because he was hungry, not because he needed the pears, but because it was “fun” for him and his buddies to steal.  He reports that he felt a sense of independence and freedom when he did what he wanted to do and he knew that he was not supposed to do.  He stole from his parents because it was “cool” and he could brag to his friends about his misdeeds.  Later on in Book VIII, after his conversion, he stated that he truly felt independent and free, what he longed for in childhood by stealing….  The notion of narcissism versus altruism, without using the words, dominates the theme of all 13 books.  In Augustine’s words, he had to struggle between good and evil all of his life.  He repeatedly talks about his prayers in his early youth as “god, what can you do for me?”  This goes on until book IX in which the death of his mother, Monnica, occurs.  He describes the scene with tenderness, shedding tears and experiencing a deep sense of loss.  It was only then that he realized that he was grieving the loss of his mother unselfishly.  This spiritual and personal growth continues through book XIII where his prayers change to “god, what can I do for you?” instead of his previous mode of “god, what can you do for me?”  If spreading the fruits of a penetrating intellect, unwavering faith and influential writings are any measure of unselfish giving, Augustine has given much not only to God, but to hundreds, if not thousands, of generations of mankind.   O’Donnell quotes Augustine, “I sinned in that I sought pleasure, exaltation, and truth not in god but in his creatures, and so I fell into pain,depression, and errors…”

Books II through V deal with Augustine’s adolescence and sexual awakening.  He elaborates on his sexual addiction, taking two mistresses, and engaging in affairs with married women.  He also speaks of his close friend Alypius’ addiction to violence frequenting gladiatorial games, and enjoying the sight of blood.  He also refers to his mother Monnica’s “wine swelling” habit, driving home the issue of addiction comparing it to links that formed a chain of evil suffocating him.

In Book III, Augustine goes to Cartage, a city of 400,000, much more sophisticated than Tagaste, population 44,000.  Possibilities of sexual intrigue were such that Monnica kept telling him not to have affairs, and to marry if he could not handle his sexual impulses.   “To Carthage I came and there crackled around me all sides the sizzling frying pan of sinful loves.  I was not in love, but I was in love with love…”  He took a mistress, lived with her, had a son Adeoditus (God sent) and continued his studies in rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, something akin to our law schools.

By the age of 28, Augustine had become a famous and able rhetorician.  In Carthage, he had a job as a high paying teacher to the children of the rich.  However, he was restlessly intrigued with philosophical issues, such as the nature of evil.  In the Book of Genesis, at the end of the sixth day, God proclaimed that all which He created was “good”.  This was puzzling to Augustine because he could not understand how evil can be good, simply because God created it. And all things created by God are supposed to be good.

This daunting puzzle made Augustine to intellectually fall in love with Manicheans, a branch of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, who espouse the dualistic theory of good and evil.  At the age of 18, he also ran across a book, Hortensius, by Cicero, the famed orator and rhetorician (106-43 BC),which is a brief biography of Quintus Hortensius Hortalus (114-43 BC), and fell in love with Cicero’s writings.  Augustine notes this event “a turning point of my life.”  He had other encounters with significant persons including a highly thought of and famous Manichean Bishop, Faustus.  He found him to be “empty.”   He described Faustus as a “false prophet,” with impeccable style of delivery and command of language, but his sermons and speeches had “no content.”

His road to intellectual inquiry led him to read Platonist philosophy recently translated from Greek to Latin.  Augustine was most impressed by the writings of the Platonists.   He is credited for establishing the historical connection between Athens and Jerusalem.  “I learned the truth of Christianity by reading pagan philosophers,” he professed.  However, while very impressed by the writings of Platonist philosophers, thinking of Socrates and Plato as “saints” of their days, Augustine remained restless and dissatisfied.   He had heard of a fellow rhetorician and colleague, Bishop Ambrose of Milan.  He decided with his friends, Victorinus and Alypius, went from Rome to Milan.  Augustine wanted to check out Bishop Ambrose (b. 337-340; d. 397) and see for himself if he is another phony Faustus, or is he really good as his reputation suggested.  If this were the case, he then wanted to learn to improve his own style.  He wanted to gain more skill in the art of persuasion.  He attended several sermons delivered by Ambrose, and became fascinated not only by Ambrose’s eloquence and style, but also by the content of his speeches.  This was the second most significant “turning point of my life,” he wrote (the first was reading Cicero’sHortensius.)

Books VII and VIII are the culmination of Augustine’s finding Paul, a Fellow convert (From Saul to Paul). In a mysterious possibly hallucinatory moment, he hears the voice of a child or children in a garden telling him “pick it up and read!”  And he did pick up the Bible.  It so happened that he opened the Bible to Paul’s passage in Romans 13, the famous command against “debauchery and lewdness.”  From this point the road for his conversion was wide open.  He, his close friend, Alypius, once addicted to gladiatorial violence, and several other friends, in the presence of his mother Monnica, converted to Christianity. Bishop Ambrose whom Augustine admired and saw as “the beacon of truth” officiated.  After a period of semi-monastic life style reminiscent of his hero, Saint Anthony of Desert, on his way back to Tagaste, Augustine was stopped in the strange city of Hippo.  It was a complete strange place to him.  However, his fame had preceded him.  The townspeople and the ailing Bishop Valerious asked him to stay in Hippo and succeed him as the next Bishop.  Thus was the beginning of Augustine’s service as the Bishop of Hippo (395-96).

Finally, the four meditative and reflective books IX-XIII dealing with time, memory, and theological and biblical issues cap this most fascinating compendium.  O’Donnell’s gift in taking a psychological scalpel and minutely dissecting the individual passages and lines written by Augustine takes the reader into the heart, brain and mind of the famous Bishop.  Augustine often reminds one of another genius, intellectual par excellence, who, too, was a convert.   Lorenzo Conegliano converted from Judaism to Catholicism at age 14.  You might know him as Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist for the three operas, Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutti.  Lorenzo, too, became a Catholic priest.  He, too, was addicted to sex and had many wives; concubines, paramours and mistresses while a priest.  His behaviour caused him to be excommunicated from the Church and defrocked from priesthood.  However, the parallel stops at the conversion.  De Ponte used his conversion narcissistically to advance himself.  Whereas Augustine’s conversion was a cleansing ritual after which he became a Bishop and served his flock.  Augustine chose celibacy and priesthood.  He wrote clearly that an addict can not and may not go back to moderation, and saw priesthood and celibacy as antidotes to his sexual addiction. After his conversion, he lived a semi-monastic life for a few years, and then began writing 48 volumes, more than five million words, now translated into more than 200 languages, in addition to his daily demands of being a Bishop.  There is no book, perhaps except the Bible, that has attracted more world wide attention than Augustine’s work, especially his Confessions and his other work of colossal proportion, over one thousand pages, “The City of God which he completed in 426, four years before his death.

In my daily clinical practice, treating any form of addiction, alcoholism, drugs, sex and our modern obsessive compulsive disorder, I frequently use Augustine’s writings to illustrate ways of correcting an errant and defective will.  After all, Augustine rid himself of his sexual addiction. He saw to it that his mother, Monica, give up her addiction to alcohol and his friend Alypius liberated himself from addiction to violence and gladiatorial fights.

The final colloquy which occurred before Monica’s death is a touching tribute to the uniting of the souls of Monicca and her son Augustine:

”If the tumult of the flesh fell silent for someone,
and silent too were the phantasms of earth, sea and air,
Silent the heavens,
And the very soul silent to itself,
that it might pass beyond itself by not thinking of its own being…”


For further reading:

If you wish to read the original text of Confessionsin Latin by Augustine himself, that would be the finest feat.  There is another version by Paulinus of Milan, who was the original biographer of Augustine.  It, too reads well.  The volume, of course, is available only in Latin.  In English: of all the translations I have seen (and there are literally hundreds of them) the one by Sister Maria Boulding (Vantage Book, 1997) has the highest fidelity to the original text.  Maria’s is a translation and not interpretation.  It is available in paper back.  Another author, Gary Wills, a scholar, has written 13 books each commenting on the individual 13 books of the Confessions. Gary is erudite, wise and “cool!”  I am sure you will enjoy visiting his volumes.  The Confessions are immortal, just like the Iliad and the Odyssey (see the allusion to both in the ‘Sacred Space’ column in the October 2007 issue, of WCP) and Aeneid and Dido…Other sources which I recommend are Pierre-Marie Hombert’s Nouvelles researches de chronology Augustiennes, and Francois Dolbeau.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a dramaturge. Received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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