The Context of the Milan Ascent

Although commentators have largely overlooked the fact, Augustine plays fair with us from the outset. He warns us that the story of his reflections in Milan will be the story of a failure, not of a success:

And first, because you desired to show me how you resist the proud but give grace to the humble, and how much your mercy has been shown to men by the path of humility, because your Word was made flesh and dwelt among men, you procured for me...certain books of the Platonists.2 (7.9.13)

God resists the proud: and what is the characteristic moral failure of the "mere" Platonists, if not pride? God gives grace to the humble, where humility shines forth above all in the Incarnation: and what is the characteristic intellectual failure of the "mere" Platonists, if not their blindness to the God-Man? After he has learned everything he can from the Platonists, he is still proud, and still ignorant of the Incarnation. So of course God resists him; his reflections in Milan leave him feeling empty, hungry, and vaguely wistful. Perhaps O'Donnell is right to insist that the "ascent" of 7.17.23 was "successful—on Plotinian terms as Augustine understood them" (O'Donnell 1992, 2:435, emphasis in original); but if so, we are bound to believe that Augustine regarded Plotinian success as being an elaborate and impressive form of failure.

There are a number of reasons why commentators overlook Augustine's caveat. In O'Donnell's case (which I choose as the most useful for structuring my own argument), I suspect it comes from an over-enthusiasm for the three-temptations structure he so brilliantly exploits in his commentary. The narrative books of the Confessions, he explains, are structured according to the three temptations of 1 John 2:16. In the story of his moral decay, Augustine falls first into the lust of the flesh (concupiscentia carnis, Book 2), next into undisciplined curiosity or "lust of the eyes" (concupiscentia oculorum, Book 3), and finally into secular ambition (ambitio saeculi, Book 4). Mirroring this moral degeneration in the first half of the narrative books is a moral regeneration in the second half, where Augustine overcomes the three temptations in reverse order.

With this reading in mind, we expect Book 7 to narrate an intellectual accomplishment in which the undisciplined curiosity of Book 3—where Augustine's restless questioning led him to the Manichees—is overcome. To some extent, that is precisely what we find. By the end of Book 7 the three questions of Book 3 have been given satisfactory answers; Augustine has taken full advantage of the intellectual resources provided by the Platonists. Nonetheless, we can't really say that he has overcome concupiscentia oculorum. And we surely shouldn't be expecting him to—in Book 6, after all, he doesn't actually overcome ambitio saeculi. He becomes disillusioned, to be sure; but he doesn't actually quit his job until Book 9. No sin is fully overcome until his conversion.

So on a properly nuanced account of the structure of the narrative books, we should look in Book 7 for an intellectual accomplishment that is merely an intellectual accomplishment, not a moral one. Moral regeneration comes through faith in the Incarnate Word; it is the fruit of a humble heart, not of an exalted mind. The Platonists will exalt his mind; but God, who resists the proud, will throw him right back down. No sooner has he reached this intellectual height than he is pulled back down by his own weight—'weight' being a standard Augustinian conceit for the will. Intellectual achievement is barren without the humble will that alone invites divine grace.

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