On the Readings of Astonishment in Augustine’s “Confessions”

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One of the most often quoted lines from Aristotle comes from “The Metaphysics” where he writes: “for it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and first began to philosophize.” In the same section, Aristotle tells us that mythology and religion also start with wonder. The only difference is that while philosophy starts with wonder it ends with knowledge not…more wonder.   In contrast to Aristotle, latter day religious thinkers (Jewish and Christian), like Rudolf Otto and A.J. Heschel, as well as philosophers like Martin Heidegger and John Sallis (whose work is very influenced by Heidegger) have argued that wonder needs to be preserved.   What makes their call for more wonder so relevant is that by doing so, they take wonder out of the box it has been put in by philosophy and expose it to art, poetry, literature, and folklore which are filled with stories of wonder and astonishment.

What literature and art, in contrast to philosophy and even theology, can give us are detailed explorations of astonishment. By doing so, they open our eyes to the many different kinds of astonishment out there, kinds that can prompt us to think more deeply about the meaning and place of astonishment in our lives.

What makes Augustine’s Confessions so fascinating is that they detail his journey toward religion in terms of one astonishment after another. To be sure, the varieties of astonishment that Augustine comes across prompt him to think in a more deeper manner about himself, his predicament, and his meaning vis-à-vis friendship, culture, language, time, and God.   I will briefly touch on a few kinds of astonishment so as to illustrate. They are temporal, moral, and sexual.

After describing his friendship with Alypius, who traveled with him to Milan and lived with him, Augustine turns to himself and finds that, in the wake of passing time he is astonished at how he was still in the “same mire,” still “indecisive,” and still obsessed with “fugitive delights”:

I was exceedingly astonished as a I anxiously reflected how long a time had elapsed since the nineteenth year of my life, when I began to burn with a zeal for wisdom, planning that when I had found it I would abandon all the empty hopes and lying follies of hollow ambitions.   And here I was already thirty, and still mucking about in the same mire in a state of indecision, avid to enjoy present fugitive delights which were dispersing my concentration. (104)

But what astonishes him more about this is that he does all this while he is hopeful that “tomorrow” he shall see the truth and change. In other words, he is astonished at how ironic and self-contradictory he still is. His thoughts and his will are disconnected. And he realizes that this is the case because he has lost his innocence. And this is linked to the second kind of astonishment which he shares, in asymmetrical ways, with his close friend Alypius. The astonishment is marked by the difference between innocence and experience, in general, and chastity and the desire for sex, in particular.

After Augustine tells us of how he was “fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness.” He “dragged the chain” but was “afraid to be free of it.” Alypius is astonished by Augustine’s words and desires (which Augusine articulated in terms of words, which he calls “snares,” that he used to “entrap” Alypius’ “honest and unfettered feet”):

He was astonished that I, for whom he had so deep a regard, should be stuck in the glue of this pleasure. Whenever we argued on this subject among ourselves, I used to assert that it was out of my power to live a celibate life. I defended myself when I saw his amazement, and used to say that there was a vast difference between his hurried and furtive experience… and the delights of my own regular habit. (106)

And his mind “being free of that chain was astonished at my bondage, and from amazement he passed into desire to experience it.” In other words, Alypius wants to experience and know the bondage to pleasure and sex that Augustine experiences after being astonished by it. Alipius was not, according to Augustine, fascinated with sex so much as fascinated with death; he wanted to fall into it, and make a pact with it (106).

Although Augustine lacks the same astonishment as Alypius, later in The Confessions we learn that what really astonishes Augustine are words that seem to be spoken to him by God by way of this or that book or person. Augustine, in the presence of Alypius, has an emotional breakdown that leads to an encounter with a voice that astonishes and saves him from a kind of self-destruction that emerges out of intense struggle with himself and “self-examination”:

The debate in my heart was a struggle of myself against myself. Alypius stood quite sill at my side, and waited in silence for the outcome of my unprecedented state of agitation.

From a hidden depth a profound self-examination had dredged up a heap of all my misery and set it ‘in sight of my heart’ (Ps. 18:15). That precipitated a vast storm bearing a massive downpour of tears. To pour it all out with the accompanying groans, I got up from beside Alypius (solitude seemed to me more appropriate for the business of weeping), and I moved further away to ensure that even his presence put no inhibition in me. (152)

And this is when he is surprised by the voice of a child:

As I was saying this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from a nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl…saying and repeating over and over again ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.’ At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant was used. But I could not remember having heard of one….I interpreted it solely as a divine command to open the book and read the first chapter I might find. (153)

Instead of this astonishment leading him to knowledge, as Aristotle would suggest, it leads him to the Bible. And the first words he reads, tell him of what he must do. He takes the Bible from Alypius and reads the words of Paul. He is astonished by them because they seem to be meant specifically for him:

“Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ (Rom. 13; 13-14)

This is Augusine’s conversion moment and marks a movement from doubt, anxiety, perplexity and amazement to certainty and faith:

I neither wished nor need to read further. At once, 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 were dispelled. (153)

Alypius, who bears witness to all this, is also transformed. They both, so to speak, “mature” together. The interesting trope to take note of (and lest we not forget, Augustine was a teacher of rhetoric) is that of the movement from childhood to maturity. Astonishment is what children have and remain in. But it is also where philosophers, for Aristotle, begin. Overhearing the children’s song he hears a directive to read the book and be converted or “turned” away from darkness to light.

In the end, Augustine sees astonishment as having its place but he doesn’t think one should remain in it as it will only lead, later in life, to anxiety and self-doubt. To be sure, his first astonishment, regarding his age and state of being indecisive and unclear, was positive (in the sense that it prompted him to see himself in a sad state) but it was ultimately a negative astonishment because he realizes that he hasn’t changed. The second kind of astonishment, on behalf of Alypius, was also positive but mostly negative. Because Alypius was so innocent, he couldn’t understand Augustine’s voracious appetite for sex.   But Augustine took advantage of this astonishment to ensnare Alypius. And, apparently, it worked.

What I find so fascinating about this astonishment is that it is read in an Arisotelian manner. It may have different manifestations but they all point to leaving astonishnent behind. In contrast, the schlemiel is a character whose astonishment is a virtue. And it remains as much as does his state of goodness or trust. In the end, the question that writers, philosophers, and theologians share is what to make of astonishment which, as Aristotle knew, was one of the most powerful engines of religion, myth, and philosophy.   But while Aristotle employed it for philosophical ends, Augustine employed in the name of Christian faith and the certainty that, he believed, goes along with it.

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