Stephen Greenblatt & Old School Text, Messaging About Our Future

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Poring over the story of Adam and Eve, Augustine came up with original sin. Illustration by Malika Favre

I recall the odd thrill of almost missing The Swerve and then realizing that in my remote location in the East, the classical canon of the West was more important than ever. And this scholar has a way with words, which now more than ever is much-needed balm. So, I am looking forward to this new installment of his work:

…Hardly a world-historical event, but the boy was named Augustine, and he went on to shape Christian theology for both Roman Catholics and Protestants, to explore the hidden recesses of the inner life, and to bequeath to all of us the conviction that there is something fundamentally damaged about the entire human species. There has probably been no more important Western thinker in the past fifteen hundred years.

In the “Confessions,” written around 397, Augustine described what happened in the bathhouse many years earlier. That day, Patricius, his father, saw in him the signs of inquieta adulescentia, restless young manhood, and was—in Sarah Ruden’s new, strikingly colloquial translation—“over the moon” at the thought of someday soon having grandchildren. It is easy, even across a vast distance in time, to conjure up a teen-ager’s exquisite embarrassment. But what fixed itself in Augustine’s memory, instead, is something that happened when they got home: “In his glee he told my mother—it was the sort of tipsy glee in which this sorry world has forgotten you, its creator, and fallen in love instead with something you’ve created.” (Augustine’s “Confessions” are addressed to his God.) His mother, Monica, was a pious Christian and responded very differently. Since God had already started to build his temple in her breast, she “endured a violent spasm of reverent, tremulous trepidation.” The unbaptized adolescent’s sexual maturity had become the occasion—not the first and certainly not the last—for a serious rift between his parents.

Patricius did not concern himself with his son’s spiritual development in the light of Jesus, nor did he regard the evidence of his son’s virility with anything but delight. In response, Monica set out to drive a wedge between son and father. “She made a considerable bustle,” Augustine writes, admiringly, “to ensure that you, my God, were my father, rather than him.”

About one thing the father and mother agreed: their brilliant son should obtain the education his gifts deserved. The young Augustine had been sent to study in the pleasant town of Madauros and had shown remarkable facility in literary interpretation and performance. The university at Carthage seemed within reach—followed, possibly, by a lucrative career in law or public speaking. Patricius, a man of modest means, scrimped and networked for a year to collect the needed funds. When Augustine left Thagaste, he must have seen his father for the last time, for in the “Confessions” he mentions that when he was seventeen Patricius died. The mention is a conspicuously cool one.

If the grieving widow also felt some relief at his death—given that he was a dangerous influence on her beloved son—any hopes she might have had that Augustine would embark at once on the path of chastity were quickly dashed. “I came to Carthage,” he writes, “to the center of a skillet where outrageous love affairs hissed all around me.” His confession that he polluted “the shared channel of friendship with putrid rutting” sounds like an overheated account of masturbation or homosexuality; other, equally intense and equally cryptic phrases evoke a succession of unhappy affairs with women. The feverish promiscuity, if that is what it was, resolved fairly quickly into something quite stable. Within a year or two, Augustine had settled down with a woman with whom he lived and to whom, in his account, he was faithful for the next fourteen years…

Read the whole article here.

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