Ancient, But Ever New

Reading St. Augustine in Latin
Jusepe de Ribera, “Saint Augustine Praying,” c. 1636 (classicpaintings/Alamy Stock Photo)

Princeton University’s Department of Classics just announced that its majors will no longer be required to know Greek or Latin. One reason proffered is that the language requirement discriminates against economically disadvantaged students, who don’t have access to those languages in their high-school education.

I don’t buy that argument, for two reasons. First, Princeton can easily afford to send smart, interested students to intensive summer language programs to bring them up to speed. Second, the argument proves too much. Very few public schools, particularly those in economically disadvantaged communities, offer Chinese or Arabic. But no one would say that students majoring in Asian Studies or Middle East Studies don’t need to learn them; in these cases, languages are rightfully considered essential to understanding different people and their culture.

I suspect there’s another, deeper reason for Princeton’s decision. It came at a time of a growing concern about the moral status of the field of classics itself. For critics, classical languages and traditions are the source of Western hegemonic thinking, which the requirement to learn them perpetuates. We need to keep Greek and Latin at a safe distance, then, because they are ultimately inseparable from our society’s entrenched racism, sexism, and other forms of structural injustice. I don’t buy this argument either—even on its own terms. What it misses is the fact that reading important texts in the original language is rarely a staid endeavor, let alone a reactionary one, but rather an unsettling intellectual challenge.

No translation, no matter how fine, can fully communicate Augustine’s intellectual power and exquisite control of Latin.

Over the past year, I’ve been taking a class that’s working through Augustine’s Confessions in Latin. I have read the Confessions at least ten times in several different translations. But it is only close scrutiny of the text in Augustine’s own words that has allowed me to get to know him in an unmediated way. No translation, no matter how fine, can fully communicate Augustine’s intellectual power and exquisite control of Latin.

If you read him slowly and carefully, as you have to if Latin isn’t your native tongue, Augustine not only tells you who he is and what he is capable of doing, but he also shows you. He is beguiling and terrifying, sometimes simultaneously. You can see why he became the father of Western Christianity. You can also see the need for some intense family therapy.

Augustine is a master rhetorician. Even as he complains that the game of rhetoric is all smoke and wind (“nonne ecce illa omnia fumus et ventus?”), he repeatedly reminds us that he is very good at it indeed (“et maior etiam eram in schola rhetoris, et gaudebam superbe et tumebam typho”). Although he heavily criticizes students of rhetoric for their focus on money and fame, Augustine candidly admits that he now uses the same skills for divine ends (“tibi serviat quod loquor et scribo et lego et numero”). 

So caveat lector. The adolescent who excelled at evoking the emotions of a weeping goddess will not hesitate to use those skills to move his audience to love him, and through him, to love God the way he does. He told us as much. But what if all that sweet talk doesn’t work? 

Here is where things get interesting. Many people attempt to distinguish the earlier, dialogical Augustine we see in the Confessions from the later, coercive Augustine who justified the use of force to keep the schismatic Donatists in the Church (Letter 93 to Vincentius). But a slow, careful reading of the Confessions in Latin reveals that they are one and the same ambivalent man. 

Who, exactly, is Augustine’s God? And is He worthy of worship? I glided over the question in English. But the Latin forced me to face it head on.

In Book I, Augustine describes the regular beatings he received as child from his teachers—wondering, even thirty years later, how his parents could have laughed at his sufferings, which he compares to torture (“quemadmodum parentes nostri ridebant tormenta quibus pueri a magistris affligebamur?”). As a small boy, whose dread was far from small, he asked God to rescue him (“rogabam te parvus non parvo affectu, ne in schola vapularem”).

As he tells us, God did not heed his prayer. The adult Augustine acknowledges he was sinning by disobeying his parents, implying that the beatings were justified. But he undermines that implication by pointing out the ways in which adult business dealings are very similar to the games of children that take them from their studies—and no one beats them. 

More troublingly, Augustine groups the beating of school children and the torments of the martyrs together under the jurisdiction of God’s strong laws (“valentibus legibus”). He describes these laws as healing harshnesses (“salubres amaritudines”), calling us away from destructive delight (“iucunditate pestifera”) and back to God. 

Really? I found myself talking back to Augustine at this point, for the first time in years: Do you really want your readers to believe that beatings and torture are both to be counted as healing harshnesses? Even after you’ve waxed eloquently about how most adults do everything they can to avoid the instruments of torture (“eculeos et ungulas atque huiuscemodi varia tormenta”)? Now, it’s true you say that the faithful think little of these tortures (“ita parvi aestimet”). But that’s just a throwaway line, in the middle of your bitter complaint against your parents for ridiculing your pain. 

The Confessions, of course, are addressed to God; in its first sentence, Augustine tells God that He is great, and strongly worthy of praise (“Magnus es, domine, et laudabilis valde”). And indeed, Augustine lavishly praises God throughout. But Book I also gives the reader reason to worry that God’s dealings with us are not entirely praiseworthy. Indeed, in Augustine’s telling, they border on abusive, and can be used to justify our abuse of one another. Who, exactly, is Augustine’s God? And is He worthy of worship? I glided over the question in English. But the Latin forced me to face it head on. 

Published in the July/August 2021 issue: 

Cathleen Kaveny teaches law and theology at Boston College.

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