Augustine: confessions



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32. I have heard and considered these theories as well as my weak apprehension allows, and I confess my weakness to Thee, O Lord, though already thou knowest it. Thus I see that two sorts of disagreements may arise when anything is related by signs, even by trustworthy reporters. There is one disagreement about the truth of the things involved; the other concerns the meaning of the one who reports them. It is one thing to inquire as to what is true about the formation of the Creation. It is another thing, however, to ask what that excellent servant of thy faith, Moses, would have wished for the reader and hearer to understand from these words. As for the first question, let all those depart from me who imagine that Moses spoke things that are false. But let me be united with them in thee, O Lord, and delight myself in thee with those who feed on thy truth in the bond of love. Let us approach together the words of thy book and make diligent inquiry in them for thy meaning through the meaning of thy servant by whose pen thou hast given them to us.

CHAPTER XXIV


33. But in the midst of so many truths which occur to the interpreters of these words (understood as they can be in different ways), which one of us can discover that single interpretation which warrants our saying confidently that Moses thought thus and that in this narrative he wishes this to be understood, as confidently as he would say that this is true, whether Moses thought the one or the other. For see, O my God, I am thy servant, and I have vowed in this book an offering of confession to thee,492 and I beseech thee that by thy mercy I may pay my vow to thee. Now, see, could I assert that Moses meant nothing else than this [i.e., my interpretation] when he wrote, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” as confidently as I can assert that thou in thy immutable Word hast created all things, invisible and visible? No, I cannot do this because it is not as clear to me that this was in his mind when he wrote these things, as I see it to be certain in thy truth. For his thoughts might be set upon the very beginning of the creation when he said, “In the beginning”; and he might have wished it understood that, in this passage, “heaven and earth” refers to no formed and perfect entity, whether spiritual or corporeal, but each of them only newly begun and still formless. Whichever of these possibilities has been mentioned I can see that it might have been said truly. But which of them he did actually intend to express in these words I do not clearly see. However, whether it was one of these or some other meaning which I have not mentioned that this great man saw in his mind when he used these words I have no doubt whatever that he saw it truly and expressed it suitably.

CHAPTER XXV


34. Let no man fret me now by saying, “Moses did not mean what you say, but what I say.” Now if he asks me, “How do you know that Moses meant what you deduce from his words?”, I ought to respond calmly and reply as I have already done, or even more fully if he happens to be untrained. But when he says, “Moses did not mean what you say, but what I say,” and then does not deny what either of us says but allows that both are true--then, O my God, life of the poor, in whose breast there is no contradiction, pour thy soothing balm into my heart that I may patiently bear with people who talk like this! It is not because they are godly men and have seen in the heart of thy servant what they say, but rather they are proud men and have not considered Moses’ meaning, but only love their own--not because it is true but because it is their own. Otherwise they could equally love another true opinion, as I love what they say when what they speak is true--not because it is theirs but because it is true, and therefore not theirs but true. And if they love an opinion because it is true, it becomes both theirs and mine, since it is the common property of all lovers of the truth.493 But I neither accept nor approve of it when they contend that Moses did not mean what I say but what they say--and this because, even if it were so, such rashness is born not of knowledge, but of impudence. It comes not from vision but from vanity.

And therefore, O Lord, thy judgments should be held in awe, because thy truth is neither mine nor his nor anyone else’s; but it belongs to all of us whom thou hast openly called to have it in common; and thou hast warned us not to hold on to it as our own special property, for if we do we lose it. For if anyone arrogates to himself what thou hast bestowed on all to enjoy, and if he desires something for his own that belongs to all, he is forced away from what is common to all to what is, indeed, his very own--that is, from truth to falsehood. For he who tells a lie speaks of his own thought.494

35. Hear, O God, best judge of all! O Truth itself, hear what I say to this disputant. Hear it, because I say it in thy presence and before my brethren who use the law rightly to the end of love. Hear and give heed to what I shall say to him, if it pleases thee.

For I would return this brotherly and peaceful word to him: “If we both see that what you say is true, and if we both say that what I say is true, where is it, I ask you, that we see this? Certainly, I do not see it in you, and you do not see it in me, but both of us see it in the unchangeable truth itself, which is above our minds.”495 If, then, we do not disagree about the true light of the Lord our God, why do we disagree about the thoughts of our neighbor, which we cannot see as clearly as the immutable Truth is seen? If Moses himself had appeared to us and said, “This is what I meant,” it would not be in order that we should see it but that we should believe him. Let us not, then, “go beyond what is written and be puffed up for the one against the other.”496 Let us, instead, “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourself.”497 Unless we believe that whatever Moses meant in these books he meant to be ordered by these two precepts of love, we shall make God a liar, if we judge of the soul of his servant in any other way than as he has taught us. See now, how foolish it is, in the face of so great an abundance of true opinions which can be elicited from these words, rashly to affirm that Moses especially intended only one of these interpretations; and then, with destructive contention, to violate love itself, on behalf of which he had said all the things we are endeavoring to explain!

CHAPTER XXVI
36. And yet, O my God, thou exaltation of my humility and rest of my toil, who hearest my confessions and forgivest my sins, since thou commandest me to love my neighbor as myself, I cannot believe that thou gavest thy most faithful servant Moses a lesser gift than I should wish and desire for myself from thee, if I had been born in his time, and if thou hadst placed me in the position where, by the use of my heart and my tongue, those books might be produced which so long after were to profit all nations throughout the whole world--from such a great pinnacle of authority--and were to surmount the words of all false and proud teachings. If I had been Moses--and we all come from the same mass,498 and what is man that thou art mindful of him?499--if I had been Moses at the time that he was, and if I had been ordered by thee to write the book of Genesis, I would surely have wished for such a power of expression and such an art of arrangement to be given me, that those who cannot as yet understand how God createth would still not reject my words as surpassing their powers of understanding. And I would have wished that those who are already able to do this would find fully contained in the laconic speech of thy servant whatever truths they had arrived at in their own thought; and if, in the light of the Truth, some other man saw some further meaning, that too would be found congruent to my words.

CHAPTER XXVII


37. For just as a spring dammed up is more plentiful and affords a larger supply of water for more streams over wider fields than any single stream led off from the same spring over a long course--so also is the narration of thy minister: it is intended to benefit many who are likely to discourse about it and, with an economy of language, it overflows into various streams of clear truth, from which each one may draw out for himself that particular truth which he can about these topics--this one that truth, that one another truth, by the broader survey of various interpretations. For some people, when they read or hear these words,500 think that God, like some sort of man or like some sort of huge body, by some new and sudden decision, produced outside himself and at a certain distance two great bodies: one above, the other below, within which all created things were to be contained. And when they hear, “God said, ‘Let such and such be done,’ and it was done,” they think of words begun and ended, sounding in time and then passing away, followed by the coming into being of what was commanded. They think of other things of the same sort which their familiarity with the world suggests to them.

In these people, who are still little children and whose weakness is borne up by this humble language as if on a mother’s breast, their faith is built up healthfully and they come to possess and to hold as certain the conviction that God made all entities that their senses perceive all around them in such marvelous variety. And if one despises these words as if they were trivial, and with proud weakness stretches himself beyond his fostering cradle, he will, alas, fall away wretchedly. Have pity, O Lord God, lest those who pass by trample on the unfledged bird,501 and send thy angel who may restore it to its nest, that it may live until it can fly.

CHAPTER XXVIII
38. But others, to whom these words are no longer a nest but, rather, a shady thicket, spy the fruits concealed in them and fly around rejoicing and search among them and pluck them with cheerful chirpings: For when they read or hear these words, O God, they see that all times past and times future are transcended by thy eternal and stable permanence, and they see also that there is no temporal creature that is not of thy making. By thy will, since it is the same as thy being, thou hast created all things, not by any mutation of will and not by any will that previously was nonexistent--and not out of thyself, but in thy own likeness, thou didst make from nothing the form of all things. This was an unlikeness which was capable of being formed by thy likeness through its relation to thee, the One, as each thing has been given form appropriate to its kind according to its preordained capacity. Thus, all things were made very good, whether they remain around thee or whether, removed in time and place by various degrees, they cause or undergo the beautiful changes of natural process.

They see these things and they rejoice in the light of thy truth to whatever degree they can.

39. Again, one of these men502 directs his attention to the verse, “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth,” and he beholds Wisdom as the true “beginning,” because it also speaks to us. Another man directs his attention to the same words, and by “beginning” he understands simply the commencement of creation, and interprets it thus: “In the beginning he made,” as if it were the same thing as to say, “At the first moment, God made . . .” And among those who interpret “In the beginning” to mean that in thy wisdom thou hast created the heaven and earth, one believes that the matter out of which heaven and earth were to be created is what is referred to by the phrase “heaven and earth.” But another believes that these entities were already formed and distinct. Still another will understand it to refer to one formed entity--a spiritual one, designated by the term “heaven”--and to another unformed entity of corporeal matter, designated by the term “earth.” But those who understand the phrase “heaven and earth” to mean the yet unformed matter from which the heaven and the earth were to be formed do not take it in a simple sense: one man regards it as that from which the intelligible and tangible creations are both produced; and another only as that from which the tangible, corporeal world is produced, containing in its vast bosom these visible and observable entities. Nor are they in simple accord who believe that “heaven and earth” refers to the created things already set in order and arranged. One believes that it refers to the invisible and visible world; another, only to the visible world, in which we admire the luminous heavens and the darkened earth and all the things that they contain.

CHAPTER XXIX


40. But he who understands “In the beginning he made” as if it meant, “At first he made,” can truly interpret the phrase “heaven and earth” as referring only to the “matter” of heaven and earth, namely, of the prior universal, which is the intelligible and corporeal creation. For if he would try to interpret the phrase as applying to the universe already formed, it then might rightly be asked of him, “If God first made this, what then did he do afterward?” And, after the universe, he will find nothing. But then he must, however unwillingly, face the question, How is this the first if there is nothing afterward? But when he said that God made matter first formless and then formed, he is not being absurd if he is able to discern what precedes by eternity, and what proceeds in time; what comes from choice, and what comes from origin. In eternity, God is before all things; in the temporal process, the flower is before the fruit; in the act of choice, the fruit is before the flower; in the case of origin, sound is before the tune. Of these four relations, the first and last that I have referred to are understood with much difficulty. The second and third are very easily understood. For it is an uncommon and lofty vision, O Lord, to behold thy eternity immutably making mutable things, and thereby standing always before them. Whose mind is acute enough to be able, without great labor, to discover how the sound comes before the tune? For a tune is a formed sound; and an unformed thing may exist, but a thing that does not exist cannot be formed. In the same way, matter is prior to what is made from it. It is not prior because it makes its product, for it is itself made; and its priority is not that of a time interval. For in time we do not first utter formless sounds without singing and then adapt or fashion them into the form of a song, as wood or silver from which a chest or vessel is made. Such materials precede in time the forms of the things which are made from them. But in singing this is not so. For when a song is sung, its sound is heard at the same time. There is not first a formless sound, which afterward is formed into a song; but just as soon as it has sounded it passes away, and you cannot find anything of it which you could gather up and shape. Therefore, the song is absorbed in its own sound and the “sound” of the song is its “matter.” But the sound is formed in order that it may be a tune. This is why, as I was saying, the matter of the sound is prior to the form of the tune. It is not “before” in the sense that it has any power of making a sound or tune. Nor is the sound itself the composer of the tune; rather, the sound is sent forth from the body and is ordered by the soul of the singer, so that from it he may form a tune. Nor is the sound first in time, for it is given forth together with the tune. Nor is it first in choice, because a sound is no better than a tune, since a tune is not merely a sound but a beautiful sound. But it is first in origin, because the tune is not formed in order that it may become a sound, but the sound is formed in order that it may become a tune.

From this example, let him who is able to understand see that the matter of things was first made and was called “heaven and earth” because out of it the heaven and earth were made. This primal formlessness was not made first in time, because the form of things gives rise to time; but now, in time, it is intuited together with its form. And yet nothing can be related of this unformed matter unless it is regarded as if it were the first in the time series though the last in value--because things formed are certainly superior to things unformed--and it is preceded by the eternity of the Creator, so that from nothing there might be made that from which something might be made.

CHAPTER XXX
41. In this discord of true opinions let Truth itself bring concord, and may our God have mercy on us all, that we may use the law rightly to the end of the commandment which is pure love. Thus, if anyone asks me which of these opinions was the meaning of thy servant Moses, these would not be my confessions did I not confess to thee that I do not know. Yet I do know that those opinions are true--with the exception of the carnal ones--about which I have said what I thought was proper. Yet those little ones of good hope are not frightened by these words of thy Book, for they speak of high things in a lowly way and of a few basic things in many varied ways. But let all of us, whom I acknowledge to see and speak the truth in these words, love one another and also love thee, our God, O Fountain of Truth--as we will if we thirst not after vanity but for the Fountain of Truth. Indeed, let us so honor this servant of thine, the dispenser of this Scripture, full of thy Spirit, so that we will believe that when thou didst reveal thyself to him, and he wrote these things down, he intended through them what will chiefly minister both for the light of truth and to the increase of our fruitfulness.

CHAPTER XXXI


42. Thus, when one man says, “Moses meant what I mean,” and another says, “No, he meant what I do,” I think that I speak more faithfully when I say, “Why could he not have meant both if both opinions are true?” And if there should be still a third truth or a fourth one, and if anyone should seek a truth quite different in those words, why would it not be right to believe that Moses saw all these different truths, since through him the one God has tempered the Holy Scriptures to the understanding of many different people, who should see truths in it even if they are different? Certainly--and I say this fearlessly and from my heart--if I were to write anything on such a supreme authority, I would prefer to write it so that, whatever of truth anyone might apprehend from the matter under discussion, my words should re-echo in the several minds rather than that they should set down one true opinion so clearly on one point that I should exclude the rest, even though they contained no falsehood that offended me. Therefore, I am unwilling, O my God, to be so headstrong as not to believe that this man [Moses] has received at least this much from thee. Surely when he was writing these words, he saw fully and understood all the truth we have been able to find in them, and also much besides that we have not been able to discern, or are not yet able to find out, though it is there in them still to be found.

CHAPTER XXXII


43. Finally, O Lord--who art God and not flesh and blood--if any man sees anything less, can anything lie hid from “thy good Spirit” who shall “lead me into the land of uprightness,”503 which thou thyself, through those words, wast revealing to future readers, even though he through whom they were spoken fixed on only one among the many interpretations that might have been found? And if this is so, let it be agreed that the meaning he saw is more exalted than the others. But to us, O Lord, either point out the same meaning or any other true one, as it pleases thee. Thus, whether thou makest known to us what thou madest known to that man of thine, or some other meaning by the agency of the same words, still do thou feed us and let error not deceive us. Behold, O Lord, my God, how much we have written concerning these few words--how much, indeed! What strength of mind, what length of time, would suffice for all thy books to be interpreted in this fashion?504 Allow me, therefore, in these concluding words to confess more briefly to thee and select some one, true, certain, and good sense that thou shalt inspire, although many meanings offer themselves and many indeed are possible.505 This is the faith of my confession, that if I could say what thy servant meant, that is truest and best, and for that I must strive. Yet if I do not succeed, may it be that I shall say at least what thy Truth wished to say to me through its words, just as it said what it wished to Moses.

BOOK THIRTEEN


The mysteries and allegories of the days of creation. Augustine undertakes to interpret Gen. 1:2-31 in a mystical and allegorical fashion so as to exhibit the profundities of God’s power and wisdom and love. He is also interested in developing his theories of hermeneutics on his favorite topic: creation. He finds the Trinity in the account of creation and he ponders the work of the Spirit moving over the waters. In the firmament he finds the allegory of Holy Scripture and in the dry land and bitter sea he finds the division between the people of God and the conspiracy of the unfaithful. He develops the theme of man’s being made in the image and likeness of God. He brings his survey to a climax and his confessions to an end with a meditation on the goodness of all creation and the promised rest and blessedness of the eternal Sabbath, on which God, who is eternal rest, “rested.”

CHAPTER I


1. I call on thee, my God, my Mercy, who madest me and didst not forget me, though I was forgetful of thee. I call thee into my soul, which thou didst prepare for thy reception by the desire which thou inspirest in it. Do not forsake me when I call on thee, who didst anticipate me before I called and who didst repeatedly urge with manifold calling that I should hear thee afar off and be turned and call upon thee, who callest me. For thou, O Lord, hast blotted out all my evil deserts, not punishing me for what my hands have done; and thou hast anticipated all my good deserts so as to recompense me for what thy hands have done--the hands which made me. Before I was, thou wast, and I was not anything at all that thou shouldst grant me being. Yet, see how I exist by reason of thy goodness, which made provision for all that thou madest me to be and all that thou madest me from. For thou didst not stand in need of me, nor am I the kind of good entity which could be a help to thee, my Lord and my God. It is not that I may serve thee as if thou wert fatigued in working, or as if thy power would be the less if it lacked my assistance. Nor is the service I pay thee like the cultivation of a field, so that thou wouldst go untended if I did not tend thee.506 Instead, it is that I may serve and worship thee to the end that I may have my well-being from thee, from whom comes my capacity for well-being.

CHAPTER II


2. Indeed, it is from the fullness of thy goodness that thy creation exists at all: to the end that the created good might not fail to be, even though it can profit thee nothing, and is nothing of thee nor equal to thee--since its created existence comes from thee.

For what did the heaven and earth, which thou didst make in the beginning, ever deserve from thee? Let them declare--these spiritual and corporeal entities, which thou madest in thy wisdom--let them declare what they merited at thy hands, so that the inchoate and the formless, whether spiritual or corporeal, would deserve to be held in being in spite of the fact that they tend toward disorder and extreme unlikeness to thee? An unformed spiritual entity is more excellent than a formed corporeal entity; and the corporeal, even when unformed, is more excellent than if it were simply nothing at all. Still, these formless entities are held in their state of being by thee, until they are recalled to thy unity and receive form and being from thee, the one sovereign Good. What have they deserved of thee, since they would not even be unformed entities except from thee?

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