Augustine, Religious

Master/Slave Language in Augustine’s Confessions (Trans. Sarah Ruden)

Image result for sarah ruden confessionsI just tweeted my initial impression of Sarah Ruden’s 2017 translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Thanks to Spooler for making the unrolling of my thread possible. I hope to write more in-depth blog posts about this translation at a later date.

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Currently reading and loving Sarah Ruden’s recent (2017) translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Her decision to translate dominus as Master rather than Lord is most appropriate for 2 reasons. 1) Augustine’s contemporaries associated dominus w/ the head of a household and slaves. 2) Augustine considers the relationship between God and humanity as a relationship between a Master and a slave. It is this slavery that Augustine believes leads to true freedom. Humans are either slaves of sin or they are slaves to God. There’s no in-between. This is Pauline.

Of course, master/slave language is very off-putting today. Augustine owned slaves, while we rightly condemn slavery. Furthermore, most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves to God. We want to have free choice.

Now, I’m not going to get into Augustine’s teachings on the human will (it’s complicated), but suffice it to say that Augustine does not believe post-Adamic humans have libertarian free will (a will free from all determination). God’s role in human salvation – and conversely, original sin’s role in human damnation – leaves little room for personal autonomy. According to Augustine, conversion entails the exchange of one master for another.

Tl;dr : Sarah Ruden’s translation of dominus as Master and servus as slave perfectly captures Augustine’s theology of salvation.

Because Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey appeared in the same year, Ruden’s translation was overlooked by literary critics. Her translation has received virtually no buzz. That’s too bad. Ruden’s translation is excellent, and everyone should read it!

Augustine, Religious

Augustine and the Bizarre Creatures

I’m currently listening to Augustine’s City of God. It definitely shows its age. His Confessions is much more timeless. LibriVox is a great resource (there is even an app for that). I don’t have the patience to read the work. I listen to it in the background while I’m cleaning. Some passages are brilliant, but most are either outdated, irrelevant, or superfluous. It’s not necessarily Augustine’s fault. He lived in the 4th century and wrote City of God in the early 5th after the sack of Rome by Alaric. If you are interested (as I am) in medieval history you should read it because it was highly cited by theologians, philosophers, and especially political leaders beginning in the Carolingian Empire.

In Chapter 8 of Book XVI, Augustine describes what is taught in the secular histories of his day. These things were believed by people until the modern era. Too funny!

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended.  For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth:  others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies:”they say that in some places the women conceive in their fifth year, and do not live beyond their eighth.  So, too, they tell of a race who have two feet but only one leg, and are of marvellous swiftness, though they do not bend the knee:  they are called Skiopodes, because in the hot weather they lie down on their backs and shade themselves with their feet.  Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbor esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities.  What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?  But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities.

With beliefs such as these it is no wonder that xenophobia reigned supreme.

Augustine, Biography

Review of Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

It may be dated in parts, but Peter Brown’s 1967 classic biography of Augustine remains the greatest biography to date on the bishop of Hippo. Brown gives his reader a human portrait of a complex figure in the history of Western Christianity. Such an engrossing read!

Despite the highly unpleasant teachings in Augustine’s writings against Julian of Eclanum, I feel that the “Augustinian pessimism” is actually quite comforting. Our imperfections, our pride, our lust for power – they are all-too-human. And while we should all aim to overcome our weaknesses, we have to learn to love ourselves and our neighbor despite them.

“Whoever does not want to fear, let him probe his inmost self. Do not just touch the surface; go down into yourself; reach into the farthest corner of your heart. Examine it then with care: see there, whether a poisoned vein of the wasting love of the world still does not pulse, whether you are not moved by some physical desires, and are not caught in some law of the senses; whether you are never elated with empty boasting, never depressed by some vain anxiety: then only can you dare to announce that you are pure and crystal clear, when you have sifted everything in the deepest recesses of your inner being” (432) .

While Augustine certainly does not sanction sin he is more likely to excuse it than many of his contemporaries.

Augustine’s weaknesses are not overlooked by the author. Brown shows us an Augustine who encourages the use of force to suppress the Donatist and Pelagian heresies. Brown may claim that Augustine was no inquisitor, but his tactics are not always the most virtuous. One wonders what Augustine would have done if he had been given more freedom (a concept Augustine has a lot to say about). He does not criticize the atrocities committed by Christian generals, although he asks his fellow monks to refrain from gossip and to live frugally.

Augustine’s last years are a testament to the evolution of his character. As a young man he had illusions of living as a perfect man in a Christian community apart from the world. As Bishop of Hippo, Augustine puts aside these illusions and chooses to remain in North Africa and face the barbarian invasions with his “flock”. He never renounces his ascetic practices, but he does not expect everyone to be a servus dei. 

Augustine’s life and writings have had a huge influence on the West. His commentaries on the human condition in The Confessions have withstood the test of time and have influenced countless philosophers and theologians, both secular and religious (Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, Marcel Proust, Wittgenstein, etc.). It is perhaps for this reason that Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine should appeal to a wide audience.