29 June 2009

'Augustine, and the Rest Who Sit Successively Beneath'


In the aftermath of the initial St Augustine post, I had planned to do a big post on the controversies over his theology (which I’ve touched on briefly here, and slightly more here). But I have changed my mind about this. For one thing, it hardly seems fitting to discuss the errors of a Saint and Father of the Church on the occasion of his feast. Better, is it not, to concentrate on celebrating his memory? Besides, my position on the matter should be clear, both from the posts above, as well as from my frequent reference to Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) in connection with St Augustine but also in general. Suffice to say that I agree with Archimandrite Placide (Deseille) when he says, Ὁ Αὐγουστίνος κάθε ἄλλο παρὰ αἱρεσιάρχης ἦταν, ‘Augustine was anything but a heresiarch’ (‘Ἀποκλίσεις καὶ συγκλίσεις ἀνάμεσα στὴν ὀρθόδοξη καὶ τὴν δυτικὴ παράδοση’, Ἀνατολικὴ καὶ Δυτικὴ Χριστιανοσύνη [Athens: Armos, 2001], p. 24). I also concur with Gilson that 'the history of Augustinianism is by no means the history of the thought of St Augustine' ('The Future of Augustinian Metaphysics', A Gilson Reader: Selections from the Writings of Etienne Gilson, ed. Anton C. Pegis [Garden City, NY: Image], p. 84), and with Olivier Clément that 'it is important today to reinsert his voice into the patristic symphony from which his work was isolated by the barbarian invasions' (The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Text and commentary, trans. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone [London: New City, 1005], p. 312). I will say no more for now!

But I did have at least one more thing that I wanted to post about St Augustine: the question of his relationship to the Divine Comedy. It may seem an odd question at first. The only mentions of the Bishop of Hippo’s name in the whole poem are 1) in Parad. x.120, in which Paulus Orosius is called ‘That pleader for the Christian age, whose learning / Provided lore from which Augustine learned’ (The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine: Cantica III—Paradise (Il Paradiso), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds [London: Penguin, 1962], p. 138), and 2) in Parad. xxxii.35, where we read:

The rose in its two sections severeth
With Francis, Benedict, Augustine, and
The rest who sit successively beneath. (p. 335)

Thus, as Peter Hawkins points out, ‘He neither speaks nor is spoken about. It is almost as if, despite his choice seating in paradise, he had been judged to be some minor citizen of the City of God rather than the theologian who described it at such imposing length’ (Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination [Stanford, CA: Stanford U, 1999], p. 197). Although, ironically, he doesn’t seem to pick up on the absence from the poem of St Augustine the man as much as John Freccero, of whom he is almost entirely critical, I feel quite certain of how Harold Bloom would explain this. Certainly, since he himself does ‘not hear the voice of God in Augustine’, it is not much surprising that he seems to think Dante doesn’t either (The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages [NY: Riverhead, 1995], p. 79). For Bloom, St Augustine’s absence would be neatly explained by the overriding fact of Dante’s daring triumph over his ‘anxiety of influence’. If, as Bloom believes, Dante’s purpose in writing was first and foremost to assert his own massive ego and impose ‘his vision on Eternity’ (p. 78), since his is a ‘poem that prefers itself to the Bible’, then it is not the least bit surprising that it also ‘prefer[s] itself to Augustine’ (p. 79).

But while it is true that one is hard-pressed—Charles Williams’s valuable approach in The Figure of Beatrice notwithstanding, for even he has difficulties with St Augustine—to see Beatrice, Dante’s ‘own conversionary personage’, as ‘a very Augustinian personage’, Freccero has made an observation right at the start of his study of conversion in Dante (Dante: The Poetics of Conversion [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1986]) that I find to be fraught with significance. In Purgat. xxx.61-3, we read (The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine: Cantica II—Purgatory (Il Purgatorio), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers [London: Penguin, 1955], p. 308):

So, at the car’s left rail, when thitherward
At sound of my own name I turned to look
(Name that at this point I must needs [di necessità] record),

It is the moment when Dante’s self-assertion is most evident, for he is in direct ‘defiance of medieval convention’, as Freccero himself notes (p. 2). Yet the latter goes on to show that it is precisely here that we find a direct connection to St Augustine’s Confessions, for ‘It happens that in the Convivio Dante had discussed the circumstances under which it might be considered necessary to speak of oneself’ (p. 2). Here is the passage as Freccero gives it:

Speaking of oneself is allowed, when it is necessary [per necessarie], and among other necessary occasions two are most obvious: One is when it is impossible to silence great infamy and danger without doing so . . . The other is when, by speaking of himself, the greatest advantage follows for others by way of instruction; and this reason moved Augustine to speak of himself in his confessions, so that in the progress of his life, which was from bad to good, and from good to better [di buono in migliore], and from better to best, he furnished example [essemplo] and teaching which could not have been obtained from any other equally truthful testimony. (qtd. in Freccero, p. 2-3)

Freccero then drives the point home. He writes, ‘Furthermore, the three stages of Augustine’s progress are described in the Convivio in terms that are partially echoed in the Paradiso’ (p. 3):

’Tis she, Beatrice, she that wafteth so
From good to better [di bene in meglio], with a flight so keen,
The act is done ere time has time to flow.
(Parad. x.37-9; Sayers, p. 136)

I shall quote Freccero’s conclusion about the significance of this passage in full:

The phrase ‘di bene in meglio’, for all of its apparent banality, has technical force, describing the second stage of the pilgrim’s progress. Beatrice is virtually defined here as the guide for the second stage of spiritual progress in terms that the Convivio had used for the second stage of Augustine’s conversion from sinner to saint: ‘di buono in migliore’. It seems likely that in the Convivio Dante perceived in Augustine’s life the same pattern of conversion that he was later to read retrospectively in his own experience. (p. 3)

I find this extremely persuasive. It seems to me that, despite valuable insights, Bloom fails to take into account two closely related things. First, while the desire to aid in the enjoyment of the Comedy by any relatively educated reader is admirable, we should not be at all surprised to find Dante, a mediæval author, ‘so abstrusely learned and so amazingly pious that he can be fully appreciated only by . . . professors’ or their equivalent (Bloom, p. 75). He is in the first place merely a typical example of what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the overwhelmingly bookish or clerkly character of medieval culture’ (The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature [Cambridge: Canto, 2002], p. 5). In the second, isn’t it Dante’s mediæval piety that modern readers have so much trouble ‘mustering enthusiasm’ for and feeling ‘at ease’ with (Mark Doty, ‘Rooting for the Damned’, The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses, ed. Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff [NY: Farrar, 2001], p. 375)?

Second, it seems to me that this refusal to believe in Dante’s learning and piety (whether or not they are fairly characterised as ‘abstruse’ and ‘amazing’ respectively) is closely related to a mistake Bloom makes about tradition. He claims, ‘No one can deny that Dante is a supernaturalist, a Christian, and a theologian, or at least a theological allegorist’ (p. 74), but then he points out ‘that originality is not in itself a Christian virtue, and that Dante matters because of his originality’ (p. 85). Surely if Dante is a Christian in any sense, then it is going too far to say that he displays nothing of the Christian humility before tradition, or what Lewis calls the mediæval difficulty in believing ‘that anything an old auctour has said is simply untrue’ (p. 11)? Indeed, Lewis elsewhere concludes that ‘a man whose mind was at one with the mind of the New Testament’ would likely affirm ‘the maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom’ (‘Christianity and Literature’, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis [NY: Inspirational, 1996], pp. 176, 177).

Unlike Bloom, however, Freccero has taken precisely this into account. Immediately after his remarks about the echo of the Convivio in Parad. x.37-9, he writes:

Dante speaks of Augustine’s life as giving an ‘essemplo’ [see the passage qtd. above from Convivio], implying the transformation of personal experience into intelligible, perhaps even symbolic, form. We may observe in passing that it is the exemplary quality of the Confessions that distinguishes it from its modern descendants. Augustine’s purpose is not to establish his own uniqueness . . . , but rather to demonstrate how the apparently unique experience was, from the perspective of eternity, a manifestation of Providence’s design for all men. . . . The point is that in the ‘then’ of experience, grace came in intensely personal form, whereas in the ‘now’ of witness, the paricular event is read retrospectively as a repetition in one’s own history of the entire history of the Redemption. For both Dante and Augustine the exegetical language seems to structure experience, identifying it as part of the redemptive process, while the irreducibly personal elements lend to the exemplum the force of personal witness. Together, exemplum and experience, allegory and biography, form a confession of faith for other men. (pp. 4-5)

Thus, in my view, Dante need not be read as a proto-Nietzschean prophet to be considered ‘great’, and certainly not to be considered ‘interesting’. One can affirm, with Freccero, ‘There is good evidence, . . . for considering Dante’s poem as a spiritual testament in the manner of Augustine’ (p. 2), and still grant a remarkable originality in the wood as well as the trees of his achievement.


P.S. I'm afraid I must apologise to anyone that was waiting for me to reference Umberto Eco here. I had meant to dig through him for a minute or two to look for anything promising, but didn't get around to it. Perhaps he would have disappointed me anyway!

7 comments:

Death Bredon said...

Thank you for emphasizing the distinction between St. Augustine's well-intended speculative theology and subsequent the Carolingian dogmatization of Augustinian-ism or the Augustinian Synthesis. I do believe that Augustine expressly wrote that his writings were subject to the judgment and evaluation of the Church and not the other way round. Indeed, one would except as much from a man who bemoaned his own lack of facility in Greek -- the primary theological language of the Church in his time. Hence, I (too) believe that the Christian East ought to seriously begin work on separating wheat from chaff in his original works -- as is done with all the Fathers.

+Bishop SAVAS of Troas said...

Excellent, Aaron. The opening paragraph is among your best. Are you aware that Fordham University hosted a conference a couple of years ago on Orthodox thought on St Augustine? Here's the link to the conference: http://www.fordham.edu/mvst/conference07/augustine/index.html. I believe SVS published the papers.

Your thoughts on Augustine in Dante remind me that I have unfinished business to take care of. Try as I might, I haven't been able to get out of Purgatory and into Paradise! I must resume my efforts in earnest this summer.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks guys. I WOULD like to write a post about the arguments over St Augustine's theology sometime, I just decided the occasion of his feast was not really the most appropriate time to do it (a policy I intend to follow for most of the Saints that I write about, although it's a particularly acute problem with him).

Also, while I would like to see someone do a balanced Orthodox treatment of St Augustine's account of the OT theophanies in De Trinitate, dogmatic controversy is not really my bailywick. I find the debate over St Augustine's influence on Dante much more interesting!

Despota> I do recall hearing of that Fordham conference, but I never got the chance to read any of the papers. I'd like to see them sometime.

Death Bredon said...

I was at the Fordham Conference, and unfortunately it didn't have much to do with Orthodoxy and Augustine -- probably because, as a matter of historical happenstance, Orthodoxy really hasn't had much to do with Augustine! D.B. Hart spoke and generally indicated that Augustine was entirely Orthodox done to the last jot. Dr. David Bradshaw spoke and indicated that, from the perennial Orthodox pov, Augustine has some serious deficiencies in his theology proper. And Dean Behr of SVS spoke indicating that Orthodoxy probably needs a few more centuries of engage with Augustine's text before coming up with even a provisional consensus view! Oh well -- all in God's time.

Regarding OT theophanies, a very balanced and accurate treatment of Augustine's ON THE TRINITY was recently published in SVS's Journal. The author's name is something like "Bocus," I think.

aaronandbrighid said...

Interesting to hear your summary of the conference! I'll have to look for that article you mention on the OT theophanies. Thanks for the tip!

Studyta said...

Regarding St. Augustine and OT theophanies you may also read this paper.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the link, Studyta, it looks great! I look forward to reading it.

Your work, by any chance?