On Reading St. Augustine’s Confessions

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This essay is intended as a guide for beginning readers of Augustine, for teachers charged with helping these readers understand Augustine, and for those interested in a problem that confronted Augustine first as a reader and eventually as an author: how do books help us understand ourselves even as we understand their author? A famously dysfunctional reader, Don Quixote de la Mancha, opens the essay as an example of a soul imprisoned by books because subject to slavish imitation. With this caution firmly in view, I offer a series of tips on how readers of the Confessions can approach the work with appropriate freshness, developing strategies for reading not only Augustine but also other great authors as well. I stress especially the dialogical character of Confessions and, with it, Augustine’s qualified continuity with the Platonic-Socratic tradition of text-as-conversation. In so doing, I emphasize Augustine’s emerging pedagogy based on his understanding of the function of signs and the affective character of the poetic imagination. In this way, Augustine translates the Socratic tradition into a distinctively Christian idiom while providing a prospective antidote to Quixote’s misplaced flights of intellectual and moral fancy, inviting the reader to begin his own independent spiritual journey.

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