Augustine and the Power of Reading

I like reading. To be honest, I’d probably be in the wrong profession if I didn’t, as texts are a vital part of the work of anybody in the humanities. Books have an amazing power to make us think, to challenge us, to encourage us to change. Books can therefore be profoundly dangerous: their ideas do things, piercing through the papier-mâché screens of our ill thought-out preconceptions and opening our mind to new, potentially revolutionary ideas. It’s no coincidence that in the early modern period the moveable type used to print books was likened to “shot” used in muskets – words, just as easily as bullets, could rip apart a social, political or religious order.

Reading is also essential to Augustine’s conversion in the Confesssions. When Ponticianus visits Augustine and Alypius he was drawn into deep conversation with them on the basis of his discovery of a book. This, the life of the Egyptian monk Antony, recounted the ascetic ideal of a man “held in high honour among your [God’s] servants”. It was this act of reading that filled Ponticianus with “holy love and sobering shame”. The act of reading was not just about absorbing the details of the story, but acted as a kind of mirror for Ponticianus: “…he read and turned over and over in the turbulent hesitations of his heart…then he perceived the choice to be made and took a decision to follow the better course”. As Augustine felt the same feelings that Ponticianus had originally felt he was reminded of another book that had influenced him. This was Cicero’s Horensius, the book that had originally spurred the young Augustine to seek after wisdom. Yet now, some twelve years later, he felt no closer to achieving this aim. The influence of the two books—the philosophy of Cicero and the story of Antony—gnawed at Augustine and led him to an experience of physical and mental anguish: “Uneducated people are rising up and capturing heaven, and we with our high culture without any heart—see where we roll in the mud of flesh and blood”. As he approached the moment of existential crisis that would lead to his salvation Augustine heard his old lusts whispering in his ear: “from this moment this and that are forbidden to you for ever and ever”. The fear of losing the pleasures, which had once brought him such joy, filled Augustine with terror. How could this crisis be resolved?

The answer was found in another book, the same one that had begun Ponticianus’ discourse in the first place: the bound copy of Paul’s epistle to the Romans sitting on the gaming table in Augustine’s villa. Hearing the cry to “pick up and read”, Augustine stopped his tears and ran inside. For he had heard from Ponticianus’ description of the book on Antony that the monk had been converted when he had, by chance, heard a reading from the gospel of Matthew. Perhaps, thought Augustine, the same might happen to him? Grabbing the book, he fell upon Romans 13:13-14: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts”. This reading at once stilled Augustine’s heart: “with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled”.

What’s so interesting about this conversion experience is the number of different readings that influence Augustine. So Ponticianus was converted through reading, as was Augustine. But books also play a circular role in this narrative: Ponticianus only begins his story when he spots the bound copy of Romans on Augustine’s table. This book therefore inadvertently begins (and directly ends) the conversion narrative. Indeed, Augustine’s entire quest for wisdom was inspired by his encounter with a book:  Cicero’s Horensius. The search that began in Cicero ends in Paul, as the search for knowledge began in philosophy and Manichaeism and ended in Christianity.

Of course, the other thing to remember about books is that they can deceive. As somebody commented to me after the lecture today, Augustine’s self-presentation in the Confessions might well be just that – a presentation, an image that he wants us to accept that does not accord with reality. There are certainly some hints of malicious gossip in the background: Augustine needed to defend his decision not to quit his position of rhetorician immediately on his conversion (he preferred to wait until a vacation period so as not to appear to be making a scene) and was a little over zealous in defending Monica from the accusation that she was overly fond of wine (only a sip, apparently). Nonetheless, the fact remains that whatever image Augustine was trying to project, he was wildly successful. For it is the Augustine of the Confessions that we remember today, a persona who has influenced theologians from John Calvin to Robbie Williams (No, really. See Confessions VIII.vii (17) and Mr. Williams). Whether the image he presented is true or not, Augustine’s own literary efforts serve as a fantastic testament to the enduring power of reading in inspiring, challenging and changing us. Why not read the conversion narrative for yourself in Confessions VIII?

[NB: I’ve linked to a free online version of Confessions here. I would advise you to get the more readable (and more contemporary) version by Henry Chadwick published in the Oxford World Classics series.]

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About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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