Thursday, October 26, 2006

Augustine on self-criticism

Cicero, the prince of Roman orators, says of someone that "He never uttered a word which he would wish to recall." High praise indeed! - but more applicable to a complete ass than to a genuinely wise man ... If God permit me, I shall gather together and point out, in a work specially devoted to this purpose, all the things which justly displease me in my books: then men will see that I am far from being a biased judge in my own case. ... For I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress - by writing.

-Augustine, Epistle 143.2-3.

Augustine kept his promise too, publishing a book called Retractiones (Retractions). In a massive exercise in self-criticism, during the last years of his life the old bishop went back through all his published books pointing things he'd said over which he had now changed his mind (along the way gaving historians invaluable autobiographical information about the dating and purpose of many of them). And that was no small task, as he'd been a prolific wrier. Leaving aside everything of doubtful authenticity, his surviving output includes over 100 books and lengthy treatises, more than 200 hundred letters and over 500 sermons.

The composition of so much by someone with a demanding full time position of public responsibility (and he was no slouch as a bishop!) is astounding. Its preservation by countless monks and scribes and academics for hundreds of years is a minor miracle, particularly since Hippo (the location of his Episcopal See and library) was under seige by Vandals as Augustine lay dying, and fell into their hands not long after he died. Thanks to this heroic scribal effort, we now have more writings from the hand of Augustine and know more about his life than any other figure from antiquity.

I really should have picked someone more obscure for my project...
Ten points for the city. Twenty for who is buried directly underneath the gold dome. Hint: the tenuous link between the picture and the post is the lack of self-criticism exercised by the guy under the dome. I was really suprised to find how popular he remains in this city.


One of Freedom said...


Emma said...

hey Byron,
I liked the quote at the top, I think I regard blogging (while much less sophisticated than what Augustine actually achieved) in a similar way to the way he regarded writing his prolific tomes...
i wonder what background Augustine would have chosen on blogger?
anyway, likening ourselves to the big guy can puff us all up with self-importance as we post and comment this week!
thanks for the book by the way, am looking forward to finishing the two books I have to read first and then getting on to it. i hope that you're not in a hurry to get it back!?! :)

hope the project is going great guns!
love em

byron smith said...

Frank - thanks for trying again! Right continent. I've added another hint or two to the bottom of the post.

Em - Not quite sure any of us have written enough (or of enough quality) to be likening a blog to Retractiones! I'm sure Augustine would have loved blogs given the amount of personal correspondence he wrote (much of which he would then make copies of and send off to other random people since he was so happy with what he'd written).

No hurry on the books. Enjoy them. Project is going, but don't know about great guns...

-bw said...


go well

byron smith said...

Before we get too excited about Augustine's Retractiones, I've just found that not only did he not complete the work before his death (though he kept working on it by candlelight during the seige!), but that it was as much (or more) apologia than self-criticism. A polemicist to the end...

Though that said, here is how Possidius, his first biographer, a priest who worked with Augustine in Hippo, recorded his final days:
'This is what he did in his own last illness: for he had ordered the four psalms of David that deal with penance to be copied out. From his sick-bed he could see these sheets of paper every day, hanging on his walls, and would read them crying constantly and deeply. And, lest his attetnion be distracted from this is any way, almost ten days before his death, he asked us that none should come in to see him, excecpt at those hours when the doctors would come and examine him or his meals were brought. This was duly observed: and so he had all that stretch of time to pray.'

Soon after he died, Hippo fell to the seiging Vandals (Arian heretics, who had slowly made their way west across Europe into Spain, then crossed the straights of Gibralter and came East to Hippo). Parts of the town were burned (Augustine's library was miraculously preserved). All the remaining Catholic clergy were killed or chased out.

Someone really should make a movie about Augustine's life.

byron smith said...

Thirty points to Bec.

Yes, it is a church that Napoleon commandeered to hold his enormous tomb, in which he is buried in the innermost of five coffins inside one another (of various expensive materials - the visible one is marble), directly underneath the main golden dome. The floor has been excavated so that the 'crypt' is no longer so cryptic (i.e. the basement of the building is exposed). It is in the middle of this that his tomb lies, raised up to almost ground level. Circling his tomb at basement level are a series of reliefs depicting him as a god giving the law, bringing prosperity, defeating France's enemies, etc. I expected him to be something of an embarrassment, seeing as his lust for conquest (libido dominandi Augustine called it) had brought death and havoc to much of Europe. But in numerous places in Paris he was openly celebrated as a hero. Wish we'd met more Parisians to ask them about it.

David W. Congdon said...

I love that he calls one who never uttered something disagreeable to oneself a "complete ass." The life of a student is one that continually reveals how much I change my mind. When I look back on things I have written in the past, I sometimes cannot believe I once thought this to be a bedrock belief of mine.

byron smith said...

David - Love to hear some examples... :-)