Language and the Path to Conversion
In St. Augustine’s Confessions, language was necessary on Augustine’s path to conversion, but also caused him to deviate from the same path. By being able to speak and read, Augustine first learned about God, while his final conversion in the garden at Milan involved hearing a child chanting and reading a passage from the Bible. On his path to God, however, language presented a trap for Augustine, when early on, he was unable to look past the physical words in the Bible that were merely representational of God. This brings up the issue of how language can be both helpful and harmful when one is trying to understand God. Language is necessary on the path to conversion, but the use of external words must be combined with internal perception through self-discovery in order to overcome the obstacles that language presents.
Language was a necessary factor in Augustine’s path to conversion. Through language, Augustine was able to enter into “the stormy society of human life” (Augustine 11) and learn about God from other humans and books. Learning how to speak allowed him to interact with humans and develop faith by following the examples of those around him. As a young boy, Augustine was already a believer of God, like his mother and most of his household (Augustine 14). He was able to develop this early foundation for living a faithful life because of interaction with others. Language also allowed Augustine to read the Bible. At this point, the same factor that had led Augustine towards God, led him astray. His focus on language, rather than the internal meaning of the Bible, caused him to be attracted to the Manichees and the way they spoke about God. Augustine was missing internal perception, something necessary to understand God, which was why language became an obstacle on his journey to conversion.
Although language was necessary for Augustine to learn about God, it also presented an obstacle because language is merely representational. When Augustine first read the Bible, he was unable to look beyond the physical words on the page. He thought the Bible unworthy compared to the works of Cicero and noted that his “inflated conceit shunned the Bible’s restraint, and [his] gaze never penetrated its inwardness” (Augustine 40). Augustine was not satisfied with the Bible because he thought the words on the pages were too simple for him, when in reality, he was too concerned with the words rather than what the words meant. The problem with language is that it is inherently distancing, because it is merely a representation of something. For Augustine, this meant that taking the Bible literally in his first reading distanced him from God. Similar to when Augustine first learned to speak and used words as signs of his wishes (Augustine 11), the Bible is a representation or a “sign” of God. Words are not the actual wishes they are describing, just like the Bible is not actually God. Augustine was not satisfied with his first reading of the Bible because he was unable to look beyond the words that were only representative of God.
Language is also harmful because it can hide the fact that something is devoid of truth. Augustine was again distanced from God through language by trying to understand God through the Manichees. He was attracted to the Manichees for their “slick-talk, very earthly-minded and loquacious”, and it is only much later that he realized their hearts were empty of truth (Augustine 40). Even though the words coming out of their mouths sounded good to Augustine, they did nothing more than mask the Manichees’ poor understanding of God. Their words were representing something that was false and presented a trap for Augustine, who at the time, did not know that they were misrepresenting God. Language as an obstacle to imitating God became more apparent with the arrival of Faustus, who was known as “a great trap of the devil” because of his smooth talk (Augustine 73). It is interesting that Faustus’ use of language here is being compared to the devil, because the Manichees’ use of language is something that distanced Augustine from God. Faustus is seen as one of the most respectable Manichees, but it is his fancy words that earn him this reputation, not his understanding of God.
Even when words are truly representational of God, language alone is not enough to understand him. In order to imitate God, one must turn inward, but language is an external, so the two must be reconciled. Augustine witnessed Ambrose reconciling both the inward and outward when he saw him reading silently. When Ambrose read, “his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent” (Augustine 92). Ambrose still processed the words on the page, but his heart is what allowed him to understand God. His silence showed that the physical words on the page were not the most important aspect of what he was reading. Since words are representational, they are not enough for one to come to a full understanding of God. Ambrose’s eyes are what saw the external, the words representing God, but it was his heart that was able to move past representation and sense what was internal, namely God.
Like Ambrose, Augustine was later able to reconcile external language and internal perception, but only near the end of his long journey towards full conversion. Augustine’s final conversion involved reading a passage from the Bible. He read one sentence and did not need to read any further because it was as if “a light of relief from anxiety flooded into [his] heart” and all his doubts were dispelled (Augustine 153). Like in the case with Ambrose, it was Augustine’s heart that was most affected by language. This marked a transformation in the way Augustine understood words as a way to reach God. When he first read the Bible, he could not penetrate deep into the meaning of the text and failed to understand God from it. This caused much doubting in Augustine, as he tried to find a different way to understand the Bible. After a long intellectual journey, Augustine was finally able to turn towards God because he learned that he needed to return into himself and see with his soul’s eye rather than his physical eyes (Augustine 123). Understanding God as a transcendent light that cannot be perceived by bodily senses was what allowed him to read the Bible passage in the garden and experience his final conversion. Since God cannot be experienced through any of the bodily senses, he must be reached through internal means of the heart, mind, and soul.
The internal perception that is necessary to understand the meaning behind language must also involve knowing oneself. The scene in the garden was a pivotal moment in Augustine’s journey. Yet it was the child chanting and the short passage in the Bible, both involving the use of language, that brought about his final conversion. Previously, language had caused Augustine to distance himself from God, but throughout his journey, he was able to learn more about himself. Right before reading the Bible passage, Augustine contemplated why his soul still refused to convert even though there was no excuse for it not to (Augustine 146). He discovered the inner struggle going on within him and his self-examination was interrupted the sound of a child chanting (Augustine 152). The chant was merely words, but Augustine understood it as a sign from God. He was able to understand it in that way because he had been deeply contemplating about himself and his internal struggles. Knowing himself better allowed him to know God better, and this caused Augustine to interpret both the chant and the Bible passage on a spiritual level.
On Augustine’ path to conversion, language posed an issue, because it helped him towards God but also presented obstacles as well. Language allowed Augustine to first learn about God as a young boy, and later experience his final conversion when he read the Bible passage in the garden. Augustine’s focus on language, however, also caused him to shun the Bible’s restraint and turn towards to Manichees, rather than God. This issue of language being both necessary and problematic can be reconciled by combining both the need for language and turning inwards through self-discovery, as demonstrated by Ambrose and his silent reading and Augustine during his final conversion. It is interesting that Augustine addressed God directly when he wrote Confessions, since God already knew all of Augustine’s sins. Even though writing out his confessions involved the use of language, it did not bring him away from God. By physically writing out his confessions, however, Augustine was representing himself through words. This activity of writing his confessions allowed Augustine to better know himself, and in better knowing himself, he was able to get closer to God.
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