Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Orals Reading: Saint Augustine and Time

I must have been listening to one of my many medieval-oriented podcasts when I heard someone say something about Saint Augustine being strangely modern. While I do not necessarily agree with that statement, I have to say that although the works of Augustine I read in the last week or so were not the most fun I’ve had in reading for my orals, they were certainly surprising. This post represents the first of my posts dedicated to writing up part of my orals reading in a coherent and helpful format, so the way in which I post about my orals readings will probably change as I become slightly more practiced. This is not exactly a form I’ve seen practiced much.

Discussion Texts: Saint Augustine, City of God (Part II only), The Confessions

Interest: the human experience of time in Augustine’s work.

Thinking about Augustine and time, I find it difficult to begin without referencing a section from Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, Volume III: “The eternity of Jahweh is above all else the fidelity of the God of the Covenant, accompanying the history of his people” (265). Augustine’s thinking on time is, like many of the high points in both works, quite binary – there are two times, if you will, qualitatively different from one another. The first is what I would call Kairos, or time as experienced by God -- though I borrow the definition from Byzantine thinking. The second, Chronos, is the time of the human, the time of the world. I do not think, however, that Augustine thinks of this as a binary – rather, time as God experiences it is with the full meaning of the word kairos -- it is time in its fullness, literally, the right time: “In the eternal nothing is transient, but the whole is present” (Confessions 228).

The human experience of time, however, is limited. There is an inner man and an outer man – the outer man that perceives earthly things, and the inner man that is capable of seeing things for their eternal meanings, and interpreting them accordingly. The difficulty of this doubled-ness experienced by humans in time is that too often they can be lead astray via the surface of the world. Speaking of Manichean learning, Augustine explains: “but it was a mad and seductive ploy which ‘captured precious souls’ that do not yet know how to touch virtue at its depth and are easily deceived by surface appearances. It was only a shadow and simulation of virtue” (Confessions, 100). Similarly, his first encounter with Ambrose, when he goes to learn from him, is not for the beauty or worth of the teaching – rather, though Augustine has the opportunity to learn what was of value in Ambrose’s speech, his interest is wholly for the earthly – the beauty of rhetoric.

Augustine’s sense of this duality – usually between that which is deficient, and that which is endlessly whole – pervades his writing. The earthly city and the heavenly city present another example of this line of thinking. A striking line: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord” (City of God, 593). The denial of the sufficiency of the earthly leads to a concept that is quite useful for Anglo-Saxon literature, as we find that for Augustine, even the City of God is, in a sense, doubled. There is the eternal city – the Heavenly City that exists from the beginning of time unto its end – and the City of God on pilgrimage in the world. These two will be reunited, as it were, at the end of “time” – or, more precisely, time as humans see it.

Hence there is a necessity, in Augustine’s view, for interpretation. I read De Doctrina Christiana as part of my minor list on forms of translation and translation theory, but its discussion of allegory is, clearly, important here, and presents another source for Augustine’s thinking on the inter-relationship between time as humans experience it and time as God experiences it. The City of God and its counterpart, the City of God on pilgrimage in the world are related allegorically, and so the historical narrative of the Hebrews in the Old Testament “always some foreshadowing of things to come, and are always to be interpreted with reference to Christ and his Church, which is the City of God. It has never failed to be foretold in prophecy from the beginning of the human race, and we now see the prophecy being fulfilled in all that happens” (652). However, Augustine leaves room for stories in the Bible that do not hold allegorical significance (a moment I found interesting – City of God, 715).

Single most interesting moment for me in the text? Well, there were two this time around. First – Augustine’s assertion that all humanity was descended from one ancestor so that all humans would recognize one another as kin.

Second: from City of God, 861:

Now the world, being like a confluence of waters, is obviously more full of danger than the other communities by reason of its greater size. To begin with, on this level the diversity of languages separates man from man. For if two men meet, and are forced by some compelling reason not to pass on but to stay in company, then if neither knows the other’s language, it is easier for dumb animals, even of different kinds, to associate together than these men, although both are human beings. For when men cannot communicate their thoughts to each other, simply because of difference of language, all the similarity of their common human nature is of no avail to unite them in fellowship.

And hence an exile from God and Heaven – is an exile in and from language. In language, because we are doomed to repeat words which do not sufficiently mean – from language, because we will always falter and fail when it comes to communication. These lines made me reassess the Babel myth – perhaps the text is attempting to fathom why God would leave humanity with so many different languages. The answer – I’m beginning to think – is that if there were but one language we would be (this is my hook into my earlier meditation on EPCOT center’s Spaceship Earth!) “no longer isolated, no longer alone.” The true pain of the Fall would then be assuaged. All this goes to show, once again, that everything I encounter finds its way back to the work I’m doing.

I’m sure my addled brain has nothing to do with this.


Derek the Ænglican said...

...and thus in the Fathers the miracle of Pentecost is the miraculous understanding of languages--the undoing of Babel.