A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Graced bodies: Augustine, Cavell, and Malick

The great twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that Augustine's Confessions is possibly the most serious book ever written. The operative word, of course, is "possibly," but I have to say I'm inclined to agree. I have been reading the Confessions regularly since I was 16, and one of the great joys of my position at Villanova University is that I get to teach it each fall. As my teacher John Cavadini taught us, learning about Augustine is like learning about yourself. And I think my students see that. Many parts of Augustine's story resonate with them: here is a person who also had questions about God, who got caught up with some strange groups of people, who both revered his mother and thought she was a little simple, who was caught up in lusts and didn't always like his school studies, who mourned the death of friends, who was on the fast track to a bright career but gave it all up. He is so human that they are often surprised he is a saint.

I don't know what exactly led Wittgenstein to say what he said, but I do know that he begins his magnum opus, the Philosophical Investigations with a quotation in Latin from the Confessions about how Augustine learned language. My guess is that Wittgenstein saw the deep humanity in Augustine and admired how Augustine struggled with perennial human questions. As one of the great readers of Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell once wrote,

For Wittgenstein, philosophy comes to grief not in denying what we all know to be true, but in its effort to escape those human forms of life which alone provide the coherence of our expression. He wishes an acknowledgment of human limitation which does not leave us chafed by our own skin, by a sense of powerlessness to penetrate beyond the human conditions of knowledge.

The same could be said, I would argue, about the Confessions.Cavell has written perceptively about Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, JL Austin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Soren Kierkegaard, and Shakespeare. He addresses them all in his fine book Must we mean what we say? His writing tends to explore an acknowledgment of human limitation that does not leave us chafed by our own skin. I have not yet read his latest book, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, which in the manner of Augustine, Rousseau, and Emerson, is an autobiography in the form of a series of philosophical journal entries.

Cavell spent most of his academic career at Harvard, where he taught a future Rhodes scholar and translator of Martin Heidegger named Terrence Malick, whom we know today as the director of The Tree of Life. At Oxford, Malick began but did not finish a dissertation on Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein.

The Tree of Life, like the Confessions and like the work of Wittgenstein and Cavell, helps us to contemplate two things worth contemplating: the wonder of creation (although I dont know if Malick, Wittgenstein or Cavell would use that word) and the wonder of human embodiment. (Of course, here I am merely building on posts by Imbelli, Domestico, and Moreland.)

The famously reclusive Malick will never tell us what exactly he was thinking when he made the film, but I am convinced The Tree of Life can helps us to come to a greater appreciation of the Confessions and vice versa. In both works, Biblical quotations suffuse the narrative; in both, the narrator continually address God as You; in both, the narrative plays out in the main characters memory; in both, the main characters mother plays a central role; in both, the main character mourns the dead. Both works share the hope of resurrection. And both works are importantly set against the backdrop of the universe. Malick shows us scenes of the depths of outer space and the depths of the oceans; in the last three books of the Confessions Augustine contemplates creation through an exegesis of the beginning of Genesis. Both works, we might say, are deeply incarnational. Bodies -- human bodies, dinosaur bodies, or celestial bodies -- matter. They matter because they depend on something beyond themselves. Such dependence, in Augustine and the Christian tradition, is one way to understand grace.Whether set in Texas in the mid-twentieth century or the Mediterranean in the late-fourth and early-fifth century The Tree of Life and the Confessions celebrate those human forms of life which alone provide the coherence of our expression. They teach us that these forms of life are themselves a part of a cosmic order much bigger than we are. Not only do they not leave us chafed by our own skin, they allow us to wonder at that skin and the universe that contains it. I'm eager to see what my students think when we spend an evening watching the Tree of Life during the two weeks we spend on the Confessions. I hope they'll end up agreeing with Wittgenstein.

About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches classes on Catholic theology and religion and literature.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Scott,Your article reflects the unique popularity of Augustine who clearly spent half his life writing. Whether the Confessions is the most serious book ever is another question. Most consider Augustine the most influential person in the Western Church if not the entire Western world. Peter Brown, Robert Marcus have written ground breaking books on Augustine. John O'Donnell, with a sharp razor approach, has written bluntly what Brown and Marcus have couched in less combative language. Yet the whole Catholic world has ignored this research and continues in unabashed adulation as you do in this article. The reason, as I see it, along with Catholic scholars apologetic approach to Church history, is that many would have little to write about if they do not quote Augustine. Jesus wrote nothing while Augustine wrote volumes. There have been movements in history to squash Paul and go back to Jesus. Ill advised in my opinion. Yet there should be a campaign to downplay Augustine and go back to Jesus. In contrast to your fervent regard for it, the Confessions can be considered the greatest piece of self promotion in history. Without the Confessions Augustine would be a minor factor in church history. Although Augustine writes about theology, he is more a rhetorician than a theologian. His mother sought to put him on the fast track while both of them had little regard for the mother of Augustine's child. Augustine approve of force to bring Donatists and others in the Church. He did not exegete Genesis. He opined on it. One thing Augustine said was that others are free to differ from what he wrote. Catholic scholars should follow that advice and show more analysis in their coverage of him.

Bill,I appreciate your comment. Does your last sentence mean that you consider me a "Catholic scholar" who should show more analysis in my coverage of Augustine? As you know, I wasn't "covering" Augustine. I was merely making a connection between the _Confessions_ and the _Tree of Life_. By mentioning Wittgenstein and Cavell, I was able to connect Augustine and Malick. If you do not see similar themes of embodiment and wonder at work in the book and the movie, I'd be interested to know why.I have read Brown and Markus and O'Donnell, and I know many scholars -- Catholic and non-Catholic alike -- who have benefited from their scholarship and built on it. I disagree with Augustine's view of state power when it came to the Donatists. I'm intrigued by Garry Wills's suggestion about Adeodatus's mother. There are many authors and artists whose work I admire but with whom I disagree on any number of points.Of course, I didn't mention Jesus in my post, but I'm happy to go back to him. It is difficult to go back to him, though, without taking seriously Church history, which is, in part, the history of Biblical exegesis. And, love him or hate him, a certain self-promoting bishop from North Africa has played an oversized role in that history. As for "unabashed adulation," how's this for a critique: there are times when I wish Augustine's Latin was less Ciceronian and more Vergilian. It would make it a touch easier to find his verbs.

Scott, Thanks for your response. Especially since you did not skirt the questions raised in my post. I liked your connection of similar themes of embodiment and wonder among those you mentioned. The Universe does proclaim the wonders of God. But too often church writers have talked too much about the last stage of Maslow's hierarchy while too many people are mired in the first stage. There is a reason so many clergy and religious were killed in the French revolution. Exegesis has been written mostly by men in comfortable surroundings while the poor and downtrodden wrote no exegesis but are entering heaven in greater numbers. Augustine certainly "has played an oversized role" in Catholic history. With some seriously harmful results, I contend. My criticism is not aimed at you but at a Western Catholic tradition that has been too accepting of that complicated person at Hippo.Perhaps there are some. But I have not seen one serious scholarly review of O'Donnell's book. Except for flippant dismissals and superficial ridicule. As I see it this is a watershed book with unsurpassed scholarship. Since you have read it, perhaps you can review it here for our consideration

Bill, James O'Donnell has a web page where he has collected links of reviews to his book. You do not characterize the reviews accurately. is much in O'Donnell's book that is flippant, and so perhaps the reviewers couldn't resist.

Scott,You should know that if you ever mention Augustine, you will always get the same comments from Bill Mazzella.

JC,Ex ore tuo, te judico. I wrote there was not one "serious scholarly review." Unlike you Scott gave a serious reasoned response to my post. There is no touch of ad hominem in his response. Which you can learn from.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment