Confessions

by: St. Augustine

Book IV

Summary Book IV

With everything around him looking like death, Augustine again left Thagaste for Carthage. His state of mind at this point was not good, but the lessons he learned from his grief are still with him. The chief lesson, again, is transience. Every material thing, no matter how beautiful, is demarcated by a beginning and an end--no sooner does anything come to be than it is "rush[ing] toward non-being." These things, then, should only be the object of love in as much as one is loving the presence of God in them.

God, on the other hand, is "a place of undisturbed quietness." Though the things of the world pass away, taken together they are part of a timeless whole. Through God, one can perceive this whole, since God is the ground for all existence. If this is recognized, temporality shouldn't be a concern.

There are a few references here to speech and language in the context of transience. Speech for Augustine is problematic in two deeply intertwined ways. Firstly, it is always successive--one cannot say anything all at once. Thus, speech (and writing, for that matter) is always bound in temporality, that state which is unknown to God but suffered by his estranged creation. In addition, speech is incapable of accurately describing God (a concern of the first pages of the Confessions). In both form and content, then, language is a poor tool with which to pursue the truth of God. There is an exception, however: prayer or confessions, forms of direct address to God's mercy. (The Latin for this word carries the double meaning of admitting guilt to God and praising God.) God is always listening, and direct address to him is the format for the Confessions as a whole.

[IV.19-27] Augustine devotes some time to a reappraisal of a book he wrote during this period in Carthage, called The Beautiful and the Fitting. The book argued that there were two kinds of beauty: beauty inherent in the thing itself and beauty by virtue of the thing's use value.

There are a number of retractions Augustine wants to make concerning this work, most of which he now considers "miserable folly." First to go is the dedication, which was made to Hierius, a Roman orator well known at the time. Augustine recognizes that he dedicated his work to this man solely because Hierius was popular: "I used to love people on the basis of human judgement, not your judgement, my God."

In The Beautiful and the Fitting, Augustine also argued that there is an evil substance that causes division and conflict, whereas the nature of the good is the unity and peace whose most perfect instantiation is in pure mind. Two things are wrong with this view, and both are Manichee errors. First, there is the idea of evil as a substance--an impossibility if God is to be omnipotent and omnipresent. Second, there is the idea of the mind as "the supreme and unchangeable good."