Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2017-18: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
2017

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October

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November

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December

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2018

January

8   15   22   29  

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5   12   19   26  

March

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April

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May

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Unit VII: Christianity and Late Antiquity to A.D. 600

Week 24: Augustine of Hippo, 354-430

For this week, please read, in one of the linked versions of Augustine’s Confessions, or in a book from the library or your own collection:

Then also read Auerbach, Mimesis, Ch. III: “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres”

St. Augustine is one of the giants of Christian thought and spirituality in the West, and his legacy has been felt throughout both the Catholic and Protestant churches. He came slowly and reluctantly to the faith after a tumultuous early life, and eventually became the bishop of the North African town of Hippo. Of all the spiritual autobiographies ever written, his Confessions is one of the most penetrating and revealing. It conceals little, and represents a new kind of writing altogether unknown in any branch of the ancient tradition — the only possible exception being some of the confessional writing in the Psalms. Augustine was learned in Latin and loved literature, though he became somewhat suspicious of it after his conversion. Still, his fundamentally literary approach to the exegesis of scripture continued to color how people read it for nearly a thousand years. Here as always, he is a mass of contradictions, brought into concord ultimately only in the light of his own faith.

There are many available translations of the Confessions, and I recommend that many have found this exemplary Lenten reading at any time. So you may wish to own your own copy. Of the materials available on the Web, the best I have found are available through Prof. James O’Donnell’s Augustine page at Georgetown University, which deserves a look in any case. Those with plenty of Latin and ambition may wish to take a crack at the Latin text, available there. Probably the best currently available edition of the Latin Confessions is the one by Prof. O’Donnell, published through the Oxford University Press.

There are two English versions available there for you to use; one is the older translation by E. B. Pusey, a nineteenth-century Catholic figure at Oxford. It is not bad, but it is rather overly burdened with flowery language.

The other version is by Albert Outler, and dates from 1955. It is (obviously) more recent and (certainly) more readable: it is available as a PDF file.

Once again, consider the presentation of character, and how the style of the author affects that presentation. How does Augustine’s depiction of character — his own and others’ — differ from all the classical models you have encountered so far? Don’t limit yourself to this, of course: Augustine’s spiritual insights will take you a long way if you let them.

Late mediaeval statue of Augustine, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photograph © Copyright 1999 by Bruce A. McMenomy