On Reading Augustine and on Augustine’s Reading

by Margaret R. Miles

Margaret R. Miles is dean of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. A portion of her article is based on her book Desire and Delight: A New Reading of Augustine’s Confessions (Crossroad, 1992).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 21-28, pp. 510-514. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Augustine was astonished to see Bishop Ambrose reading silently, and in private. This was a new style. Reading was nothing short of salvific for Augustine. Books had the power to heal and to transform.

Confessions, by St. Augustine. Translated by Maria Boulding. New City Press, 248 pp., $29.95; paperback, $19.95.

Translation . . . is the creation of something new.

—Michael P. Steinberg

A new translation of a classic text provides an occasion for reading a well-thumbed favorite afresh. Maria Boulding’s translation of the Confessions is the first fruits of the publisher’s ambitious commitment to translate all of Augustine’s voluminous works into English. Boulding’s translation offers English readers the possibility of hearing the voice of an ancient author "speaking in my ear"—just as Augustine claimed, in book 12 of the Confessions, to bear God’s dictation. I will comment on the translation later, but first I would like to consider reading itself, especially Augustine’s experience of reading and his explicit—even anxious—attention to his own readers.

For Augustine, reading was nothing short of salvific. As a young adult, desperately searching for psychological and philosophical orientation, he anguished, "Where can I find the books?," never doubting that books possess the capacity to heal and transform. A bit later Augustine found the books that would excite and incite him—several accounts of people who had abandoned career and family to follow Christ in passionate celibacy. "I was on fire as I read," he recalls. As an author, he expected similar engagement from his readers, engagement that can only be characterized as intense pleasure.

The narrative of another person’s life experience, especially when it is told as dramatically as Augustine’s, holds perennial and intrinsic interest and pleasure for readers or hearers. The Confessions represents one side of an energetic conversation in which the reader’s response is deliberately solicited. The reading pleasure that results from this conversation—different for different readers—is not merely the simple pleasure of hearing a good story, but the complex pleasures of strong feelings—sometimes violent disagreement, sometimes frustration and sometimes a euphoric recognition, produced by Augustine’s text, of the "beauty so ancient and so new," to which Augustine points through the beauty of his prose.

The primary training for any author is reading. From Augustine’s own reading experience, he assumed he knew what any reader expects to experience. And he expected his reader to be as affected as he himself was when he read a powerful book. What was Augustine’s reading practice, and how did it affect not only his authorship but also his idea of the Christian life? Quite simply, Augustine expected reading to be a life-transforming experience. He gives several accounts of such experiences, his own and those of others—experiences that alerted him to the potentially powerful effects of reading. His repeated use of the metaphor of fire in connection with reading points to this. Here is his description of his reading of Cicero’s Hortensius at the age of 19:

The book changed my way of feeling.... For under its influence my petitions and desires altered. All my hollow hopes suddenly seemed worthless, and with unbelievable intensity my heart burned with longing for the immortality that wisdom seemed to promise.... It had won me over not by its style, but by what it had to say.

Augustine was convinced that the truth could be found in books—the right books. But "where are we even to look for the right books? Where and when are we to buy them?" And it was not only a matter of finding the right books; a fruitful method of reading was also essential.

One of Augustine’s most important experiences in his early days in Milan was the discovery of a new method of reading. He had been taught to read in a way that maximally engaged the body and senses: reading aloud, seeing and hearing words, simultaneously moving the lips and projecting the words with one’s breath—an expressive art of tone and emphasis. So he was astonished as a young man, new to the sophisticated imperial capital of Milan, to witness Bishop Ambrose reading silently: "When he read his eyes would travel across the pages and his mind would explore the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent." Augustine and his mother sat watching him for a long time, speculating on why he chose to read in this strange fashion.

In Augustine’s time, reading aloud was a public practice, conducted in a company of people, so that those who were illiterate could benefit. But Ambrose read both in silence and in private, observed but not heard, his thoughts about what he was reading unspoken, inaccessible to others. Fascinated, Augustine immediately began to practice silent, private reading. In the Confessions he reconstructs his first reading of a psalm as a newly converted catechumen. He read, he says, with intense excitement and with a nearly neurasthenic responsiveness:

How loudly I cried out to you, my God, as I read the psalms of David.... How loudly I began to cry out to you in those psalms, how I was inflamed by them with love for you and fired to recite them to the whole world, were I able. ... I shuddered with awe, yet all the while hope and joy surged up within me.... I trembled as I heard these words. ... How these words moved me, my God.. . . As I read these words outwardly and experienced their truth inwardly I shouted with joy. . . . The next verse wrung a cry from the very depths of my heart I read on and on, all afire.

Angels, Augustine comments, read without any such paroxysms of delight and terror. They calmly read an eternal and unchanging word: "Their book is never closed, their scroll never rolled up." Nor are they required to interpret, for what they read is transparent. Human beings, on the other hand, necessarily read discursively, across time in which words sound and pass and perspectives and interpretations change. Somehow it is difficult to imagine that Augustine really envied angels their dispassionate read.

Augustine’s silent reading demonstrated to him that reading could penetrate to and reshape the core of his being. Through this practice he discovered "the eternal reality within." He found the place at which transformation occurs: "There within, where I had grown angry with myself, there in the inner chamber where I was pierced with sorrow. . . and hoping in you I began to give my mind to my new life, there you had begun to make me feel your sweetness and had given me joy in my heart."

Several reading and hearing experiences paved the way for Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. Hearing the story of the conversion of the famous orator Simplicianus, Augustine was on fire to be like him." Shortly before his conversion, Augustine heard about another transformative reading experience. Ponticianus, finding Augustine reading St. Paul’s writings, told Augustine about his own conversion, precipitated by reading a life of St. Antony. Augustine described Ponticianus’s reading as a direct and passionate conversation with the text in which Ponticianus allowed the text to evaluate and judge his life and to point the way to a new life. The metaphor of birth expresses both the labor and the ultimate joy of the experience:

He was in labor with the new life that was struggling to birth within him. He directed his eyes back to the page, and as he read a change began to occur in that hidden place in him where you alone can see.. . . At last he broke off his reading with a groan as he discerned the right course and determined to take it. By now he belonged to you.

Writing the Confessions about a decade after the cataclysmic event that altered the rest of his long and productive life, Augustine gave his readers a detailed account of his conversion—an event intimately intertwined with hearing and reading. The phrase he heard at the moment of his conversion was Tolle, lege; tolle, lege ("Take, read"). To read, for Augustine, was to ingest, swallow, digest and incorporate—to eat the text. Is it accidental that the words ‘Take, read" parallel the central words of the mass, familiar to Augustine from his boyhood, ‘Take, eat"?

Even in his receptivity, however, Augustine was not passive. He considered and consciously interpreted the words, identifying a precedent for his interpretation before he permitted himself to appropriate them:

I stemmed the flood of tears and rose to my feet, believing that this could be nothing other than a divine command to open the book and read the first passage I chanced upon; for I had heard the story of how Antony had been instructed by a gospel text. He happened to arrive while the gospel was being read and took the words to be addressed to himself when he heard, Go and sell all you possess and give the money to the poor: you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

Augustine snatched up the "book of the Apostle" he had been reading, opened it, and read in silence the passage on which his eyes first lighted: "Not in dissipation or drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or for the gratification of your desires" (Rom. 3:13-14). "I had no wish to read further, nor was there need. No sooner had I reached the end of the verse than the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shadows of doubt fled away." Predictably, one of Augustine’s first postconversion initiatives was to write to Ambrose, asking him what books of scripture he should read. Ambrose recommended Isaiah, but Augustine confessed he could not comprehend the first part of Isaiah. He postponed perusal of the remainder of the book indefinitely.

There is no indication in the Confessions that Augustine expected groups of people to read it aloud together. On the contrary, he always addresses the individual, alone with his private thoughts and memories. He expected his reader to practice silent reading—reading addressed to that interior place, the same place in which he first experienced profound anxiety and later sweetness and joy. This was the reading practice for which Augustine wrote; this is what he expected of, and recommended to, his readers. We 20th-century readers, deeply familiar with a private reading practice that in fact developed in the Christian West from devotional reading, need to remind ourselves of the oddity of private reading in Augustine’s time. In writing his confessions, Augustine adopted and adapted an esoteric reading practice and provided one of the texts that would demonstrate and perpetuate this practice.

Does Boulding’s English translation reproduce the color and urgency of Augustine’s Latin? This is, I think, the right question to ask of a text that explicitly endeavors to communicate to its reader in ways that produce transformation through delight. The trick of Augustine’s Confessions is suddenly to shift perspectives from best human guesses about how we should live to an Archimedean point outside time and space, to the God’s-eye view—and to bring this about requires powerful English rhetoric that matches Augustine’s Latin.

Moreover, one of the most difficult—perhaps ultimately impossible—feats a translator must attempt is to retain the colloquial intensity of the original. What were the buzzwords of Augustine’s cultural moment? Can any 20th-century person recognize them when she sees them? But perhaps Augustine’s text gives some clues: language of the body is a constant in the Confessions. Augustine relentlessly observed his body in order to read the state of his soul. After narrating in detail his bodily motions at the time of his greatest torment, just before his conversion—"I tore out my hair, battered my forehead," cried, groaned and thrashed about—Augustine identifies the moment of transformation in a simple phrase: "My face changed" (mutato vultu).

Boulding translates this as "My expression immediately altered"—a slight but significant elision of Augustine’s focus on his body. Similarly, Boulding offers this translation of the famous phrase with which Augustine introduces his project of confession: "Our heart is unquiet until it rests in you" (in quietus est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te). Although the translation is strictly accurate, it does not succeed—as does the term "restless"—in evoking the physical discomfort of the insomniac fretfully tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep. Boulding translates for clarity, and she can seldom be faulted on accuracy. However, she tends to tone down the intensity of Augustine’s vivid prose by obscuring the body he was so consistently attentive to, and reliant on, for the power and immediacy of his communication. In fairness, Boulding’s phrases often do match Augustine’s insistent physicality; for example, consider "the innermost marrow of my mind ached," or "habit’s oozy discharge." But there are crucial passages in which Augustine’s body recedes from his text. Augustine’s use of the language of bodily experience is what makes the Confessions communicable to readers of every age.

It may seem nitpicking to complain that Boulding’s paragraph headings, and sometimes her notes, intrude. Many of the notes consist of fussy reminders that a phrase Augustine uses comes from scripture or from a classical Latin author. The only responsible ground for such a complaint is that headings and notes often distract from the mounting urgency of Augustine’s narration and thereby undermine the text’s ability to confront, seduce and transform the reader. Both headings and notes subtly but surely come between reader and text, directing obedience to traditional interpretations that, for example, target "Neoplatonism" as the source of Augustine’s "dualism," and deflect readers rude questions about Augustine’s sexual experience, his attraction to Manichaeism and his polemical stances. Boulding’s notes adopt Augustine’s perspective uncritically, repeating, for example, his belittling disdain for opponents.

For the 20th-century reader, a strong engagement with the Confessions depends on the reader’s ability to recollect spontaneously her own experience, comparable in intensity to Augustine’s. To deflect that rough encounter by directing attention to explanations is to produce a text different from what Augustine wrote. Similarly, to turn Augustine’s poetic prose into verse, as Boulding does at several points, is to impose on the reader a literary self-consciousness that Augustine knew well but declined to use. Rather, his poetry and prose are merged and submerged in his purpose of carrying his reader to the place to which "the whole torrent of our love rushes," the place of highly energized and pleasurable "rest"—"there," where the apparent contradiction of rest and strongly felt pleasure coincide and can be communicated most adequately by Augustine’s inardescimus et imus: we catch fire and we go.

Having said all this, however, I must confess that I am an extremely demanding reviewer of any translation of the Confessions. I have read the Confessions repeatedly, in Latin and English, over a 30-year period, and I bring the jealous attentions of a lover to any new translation of a text so old and so new.

When I first read the Confessions I was irritated by what I took to be Augustine’s scrupulosity (the redoubtable "pear tree incident," for example) and outraged at his characterization of sex as slavery. Later, I questioned the way his narrative marginalizes the women who nourished and supported him. But finally the transformative injunction Augustine heard in the garden in Milan, Tolle lege, "Take and read" (unnecessarily lengthened and diluted in Boulding’s "Pick it up and read"), has oriented and shaped by life. I have learned from Augustine to read for life, for the motivating ideas and the energetic commitment to richness of experience and understanding Augustine derived from reading.