The second installment in prolific classicist and political theorist Wills’s ongoing, thoroughly brilliant translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions (St. Augustine’s Childhood: Confessiones, 2001).
“The scope of memory is vast, my God, in some way scary, with its depths, its endless adaptabilities—yet what are they but my own mind, my self?” Thus Augustine of Hippo, on the road to sainthood, contemplating himself contemplating the divine. Two-thirds of Augustine’s 13-volume Confessions (which Wills also renders as Testimony), written in the fourth century, concerns his life before his conversion to Christianity. Book Ten, which takes up most of the present volume, is, as Wills (Why I Am a Catholic, p. 870, etc.) notes, a hinge, “making the turn between an account of God’s graces shown to Augustine before his baptism . . . and a meditation on his life as baptized into the Trinity.” Concerning memory and the innermost workings of the human mind, Book Ten is notoriously difficult: it seeks to establish the memory not just as a vast warehouse wherein unordered experiences are stored and retrieved, but as one of the many dwellings of God. Augustine writes with crystalline clarity of the contents of his own memory: “I can, while smelling nothing, identify the wafture from a lily, contrast it with that of a violet.” But, turning from his own experience to the universal, he sometimes wanders into snarls of prose: “So if I remember not forgetting itself, but forgetting’s representation, then forgetting must have been present when the representation was formed from it.” Wills helpfully guides his readers through such knots in his endnotes, remarking, “Chesterton said that we tend to call this an odd world, though it is the only one we know. This is akin to Augustine’s discussion of the experience of remembering that we forgot, which is almost like sensation in a lost limb.”
Essential for students of the Church, and a vigorous and readable version of one of Western literature’s canonical works.