History in the “Confessions” of St. Augustine

St. Augustine in his study.

St. Augustine in his study. Source: Wikipedia

Saint Augustine’s Confessions is a book about the early life and conversion to Christianity of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most famous Christian scholars of antiquity. The book starts off with a description of childhood, then moves on to describe Augustine’s quest for knowledge both among the Manichees and through study of the traditional liberal arts, including oratory and rhetorical skills. An intensely personal account by design, Augustine reveals his internal struggle as he reminisces about the loss of his childhood friend, whose name he does not reveal, as well as his struggles with sexuality and his doubts about the nature of God. Essentially, the book is meant to show Augustine’s path from a confused childhood to a position of solid conviction in the Catholic faith, but Confessions can also be used as a source of historical information. This essay will examine the first seven chapters of Confessions to discover what it implies about the late 4th and early 5th century Roman society that shaped Augustine’s life.

One of the more interesting things that can be discerned from the book is the potential for mobility available in Roman society, both in terms of physical and social movement. Of course, Augustine’s case is not indicative of the norm, but he was able to advance from being the son of a modest family in Tagaste (in modern day Algeria) to being a well-respected and socially connected professor of rhetoric in Milan, before his conversion, which is related in chapters outside the scope of this essay. Augustine’s reasons for leaving his home village were originally related to study opportunities and a need to leave a place that reminded him strongly of the death of a childhood friend. His ability to travel within the empire for education purposes is interesting because it implies that there was a system in place that allowed for the boarding and education of students during his time. His ability to rise through the ranks of society based on his intellectual abilities shows that class distinctions were not set in stone and he specifically mentions that many Roman offices were available to anyone with the right amount of money. In a modern context, this has a negative connotation, and perhaps it did in Augustine’s time as well, because in his writing he felt the need to explain that as a system it allowed the state access to needed revenues and acted as a pathway to success for those born to lower classes.

In his writing, Augustine mentioned that not all families were willing to support their children’s education outside of their local towns, even when they were better-off economically than Augustine’s own family. Augustine did not go into detail about this point, but it leaves the reader wondering what motivations a family might have for not wanting to promote the education of their children at all costs, as Augustine’s did, when it might lead the family to greater success. If the story about Alypius and the responsibility of a “house” for a crime is any indication, the Roman family unit probably shared equally in success as well as culpability for crimes and failures.[1] Was it a cultural expectation that children would follow in the footsteps of their parents, leading to a lackadaisical attitude towards aggressive social advancement, or was the lack of interest in education outside of Tagaste something specific to that locality?

Much of Augustine’s writing in Confessions deals with education, because he wrote about both his time as a pupil and as an educator. His writing makes it clear that corporal punishment was a well-used form of discipline that acted as a motivator for children to pay attention to their studies. The fact that Augustine and, presumably, other children endured caning as a punishment and prayed for respite instead of abandoning school indicates that there was some measure of compulsion in attendance, either from families or from the state. Also, unless the phrase was added by the translator, the inclusion of the “three Rs” as a figure of speech (reading, writing, and arithmetic) shows that areas of study for primary school students in the late 4th century were fairly consistent with modern education standards.[2] His later education reveals a break with modern ideals about the purpose of studying the liberal arts, however. According to Augustine, forming logical arguments that revealed the truth about a matter were of secondary importance to style and delivery. Eloquence and the ability to convey a sense of conviction were more important than being able to logically argue a truth.

Similarly related to education, student culture in Roman society is revealed through Augustine’s writings. Bullying was alive and well in the 4th century. Schoolyard gangs even had nicknames, like “The Wreckers”, who would find “shy and unknown freshmen… to persecute…by mockery…to feed their own malevolent amusement.”[3] Augustine dealt with this group as a student by staying on friendly terms with them, but refused to participate in their mockery and acts of vandalism. Augustine wrote that in Carthage, students would burst into a classroom and purposely disrupt it with “mad behavior.”[4] Later, as an adult, Augustine complained of a practice common among Roman students, who would sit with a teacher for a number of classes and then transfer en masse to another instructor to avoid making payment.[5]

Augustine’s writing reveals quite a bit about religion during the late 4th and early 5th centuries in the Roman Empire, most obviously because the book is about his journey to conversion to Catholocism, but the first seven chapters of the book also discuss the Manichees and give an example of religious syncretism among professed Catholics. Augustine wrote that he spent nine years as a follower of the Manichee religion and through his writings, we can see that it was institutionally similar to the Catholic Church, including having Bishops, but professed very different concepts of God. The instance of religious syncretism that Augustine took time to mention was his mother’s practice of tomb veneration through the offering of plates of fruit and the ritual sipping of wine at the burial sites of Catholic martyrs. Augustine mentioned that his mother was not alone during these ceremonies, so the practice must have been widespread. I also make this conjecture based on the fact that in later centuries, and continuing up to the present, Islamic scholars in the Middle East have been condeming the same practice among Muslims regarding veneration of the tombs of saints, martyrs and especially Sufi pirs.

This brief selection of information from the first seven chapters of Saint Augustine’s Confessions shows how historical information about an author’s society can be revealed by analyzing that author’s work, even when recording historical information is not the main purpose of the work. This essay examines the chapters on their own, but by comparing what Augustine wrote to other available information, one could further the process of reconstructing Roman society and elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Augustine’s life and conversion to Catholocism.



[1] Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford University Press, 2009), 101.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid., 80.

[5] Ibid., 86.

 

References

Saint Augustine. 2009. Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics). Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

 

The Great Cat Reunion and Christmas in Georgia

View from plane window.

The view from the plane window en route from New York City’s LGA to Atlanta’s Hartford Airport.

For the week of Christmas, my wife and I flew down to Georgia to visit relatives. It was the first time I’d been there in about two years. It was really nice to get out of the city, see my family and relax. Going around town, looking at the places I went to school, the places I used to hang out, and sharing those memories with my wife was a good experience for both of us. She left feeling like she knew me better and I came away from the trip feeling a bit more grounded. Going to college and taking heavy course-loads with only short breaks between (I’ve been cramming in Summer and Winter classes as well) had me feeling like I was mentally flying off the rails for a while there. I’m also not taking a class this Winter. That’s mostly because I have Grand Jury Duty but I don’t think I would have taken a course anyway. I just need time to let everything I’ve learned sink in, and time to just unwind.

Highway signs in Alabama. Some of my family lives over there too, right on the border with Georgia.

Highway signs in Alabama. Some of my family lives over there too, right on the border with Georgia.

The National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning Georgia.

The National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning Georgia.

While we were in Georgia, my wife and I visited Sand Hill on Fort Benning, where I did my basic combat training back in 1998. We also went to the National Infantry museum. I’ll be posting about those experiences over the next couple of days. I can’t believe how much Sand Hill has changed, or how nice the Infantry Museum turned out to be. I was expecting something, but not something that well put together. It’s the Army, after all!

Carting our cats over to my mom's apartment.

Carting our cats over to my mom’s apartment.

Anyway, before we left for Georgia, we had one small issue we had to take care of: the cats. Dapper and Thumper probably wouldn’t have wanted to fly with us to Georgia, even if it had been affordable, not to mention the fact that I don’t think my family would want cats running around their houses anyway. So, they had to stay at my mom’s place with their long-lost sister, Marble. They hadn’t seen each other in about six months and Thumper hasn’t gotten along with Marble since I left the Philippines with Marble instead of her back in 2010 and she had to sit there for a year waiting on me to bring her to NYC. I think she got jealous!

Marble, pissed off about unwanted house guests.

Marble, pissed off about unwanted house guests.

Dapper, taking up a position on the high ground.

Dapper, taking up a position on the high ground.

Thumper, in solitary confinement because she likes to fight.

Thumper, in solitary confinement because she likes to fight.

So, throwing them all back together for a week was probably not the best idea, but cat-sitting is so expensive these days, and I trust family more than I trust a pet-sitting service anyway. I figured they’d be ok. Everything seemed to have gone ok, anyway. Bringing them back was entertaining. We had to wrap the carrier up in blankets because it was about 24 degrees outside that night with a brisk wind. When we exited my mom’s building, one of our cats gave this horrified meow when she felt the breeze. Then she buried herself in blankets!

I hope everyone had as good a time over the holidays as we did, and that everyone’s year is off to a good start!

World Wide Open

Cocktail Munchies at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City

Cocktail Munchies at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City

Earlier tonight, my wife and I met up with a friend of hers that she hadn’t seen in about 15 years at the Waldorf=Astoria.  While we waited on her friend to get back from her day of sight-seeing, we walked around the hotel looking at the stuff behind glass in and around the main lobby.  The hotel is almost like a mini-museum. I was especially interested in the old ledger from 1915 they had on display.

When her friend arrived, we exchanged gifts, she introduced us to her family, and we sat down for cocktails and to trade stories.  She’s living in Japan and listening to her stories about working there and living there revived my interest in the country and my desire to travel.  She was telling me about how easy it is to get a job teaching English there.  The salary isn’t that bad either, compared to what I might make here teaching full time in a college.  I’m not opposed to moving again.  Japan would be a fascinating place to live and with a master’s degree under a TESL certification under my belt, I could probably get my foot in the door there without too much trouble, according to her.

More than anything, the conversation my wife and I had with her friend reminded me of how un-tied down I am to living in any one place for a long period of time.  I suppose that’s a result of growing up in a military family and being in the military myself; I just don’t really feel like I belong to any one place.  How do you even say you have a hometown, or say where you’re ‘from’ when you’ve never lived in one place for more than about 5 or 6 years?  Or maybe I’m just not used to staying in one place for long, since I’ve never done it.

Either way, New York City is a great place, but I’m open to leaving, given the right circumstances.  Whether that move would be to Japan or somewhere else remains to be seen, but after living in NYC, there aren’t many places that would be a step up in terms of excitement and things to do.

Oh, and after a great conversation and some really great cocktails at the Peacock Alley in the Waldorf=Astoria, my wife and I had our first celebrity sighting on our way home.  We stepped out of the hotel and turned down the street to go to Grand Central.  About a block down from the hotel, I was talking to my wife when I looked up and saw the actor from Terra Nova.  Then my mind quickly jumped and I was thinking, ‘Hey, he was in Avatar too.’  Then he passed us and I turned to look back.  He looked over his shoulder, as if he were wondering if we were going to stop him and hit him up for photos, etc., but we kept going and so did he.  Then I said to my wife, “That guy is an actor.”  Who, she wondered.  I actually didn’t know his real name.  I just remember him as Commander Taylor from Terra Nova, which, for some stupid reason, was canceled.  His name is Stephen Lang.  From the way he strutted down the sidewalk, I bet he’s a pretty cool dude.

Welcome To New York City, Marble!

The neighborhood my mom's apartment building is in, Marble's new home.

This is another post about Marble, the cat I brought with me to New York City and gave to my mom.  She’s done quite a bit of traveling and this last trip was hard on her, because she was in the plane for so long, but now she’s adjusting quite nicely.  She seems to not mind being in an apartment or mind the noise of the city.  Like one of my friends said, she’s a city girl at heart.  She grew up in Singapore after all.

She’s still in that ‘adjustment’ period when it comes to my mom’s cat.  They haven’t quite become friends yet.  Marble doesn’t seem to want anything to do with him, but he’s been really aggressive and we have to keep an eye on him constantly.  It seems like every time we turn our backs he’s trying to go after her.  I’m sure that will stop after a while, but he’s been the lone king of this apartment for over a year, since his older brother passed away from old age.  It’s typical cat behavior, not wanting to concede territory to another cat, but it still seems bizarre, because in human terms it would be like a retiree beating up a 10 year old child brought into his house by a relative.  Marble is barely over a year old, so she’s still a young cat.

Marble sitting on the window sill over the radiator.

To that end, she’s taken to staying high up, where that big fat cat can’t reach her.  She stays on an armchair next to me, or sits on the shelf over the radiator by the window.  She really enjoys that spot because it lets her look out onto the street below.  Sometimes she goes onto the balcony and sits on the freezer too.

Marble looking out the window at the city street below.

So far I haven’t done much in the city except random errands, but I’ll definitely start posting some stuff soon.  Tomorrow I want to write a bit about the flight from Manila to New York and Narita airport in Tokyo.  To end this post, though, I’ll leave you with a not so good photo of the beast of a cat that my mom already had:

Pichi examining the cat carrier Marble rode in on her way from Manila to New York City.

Now use the following photo for a size comparison:

Dapper and Thumper, my other two cats sleeping in the carrier that was later used to bring Marble to NYC.

Dapper, the cat on the left, is about the same size as Marble.

Cat Export – Complete! But… Minor Disaster At The Airport!

Cats in Changi Airport

So, the great saga of exporting cats from Singapore is now complete, but it ended in near disaster.

Everything was going great.  We got up on time.  We got to the airport on time.  The Philippine Airlines attendants saw us in the line and pulled us into the business class line to have the cats taken care of.  We wound up paying 330 SGD for the cats to get on the plane.  The rate was about 20.50 SGD per kilogram.

Then, they were tagged and wheeled away in their carriers.  We were assured that they would be taken good care of.  I’m not sure where things went wrong, but I think it must have been with the ground crew that loads the planes.

IMG_0055

We were already on board and seated when we looked out the window and saw one of those baggage trucks with the cat carriers pulled up alongside the plane.  I even took a photo, thinking it was neat that we had such good seats for watching them get put on the plane.

That’s when disaster struck.  We saw a guy holding up a broken carrier.  The carrier was broken in the middle.  I don’t know how they managed to do it, other than to think that maybe they put something too heavy on top of the carrier and it caused it to fall apart.  Why would they be putting something heavy on top of a cat carrier that has a live animal in it in the first place?

A guy bolted out of view, presumably chasing Marble.

I thought I was going to have a heart attack.  I put all that effort into securing my pet’s passage to the Philippines and she almost ran off into the airport somewhere, to meet who knows what kind of fate.  I ran back out of the plane and into the boarding area to ask the women there just what was going on.  I told them what the situation was, and that I saw the empty carrier and pressured them to get everything taken care of.

My wife called me on my mobile from her seat in the plane and said that she saw them bringing the carrier back with Marble inside of it.  The attendant then talked to someone on her walkie-talkie and confirmed what my wife had said.  So, relieved, I went back down the boarding ramp and back to my seat.

That wasn’t the end of the drama though.

There was some banging around under the plane and I started to wonder just what the hell they were doing to my cats.  Then, about 5 minutes later they began to unload all of the cargo from the plane.  They had broken the carrier again and Marble was running amok under the plane.

I offered to go under the plane myself and secure the carrier because I figured I’d have an easier time of it than they would, but they said that for security reasons they couldn’t let me do that.  So, we sat there.  Eventually the pilot made an announcement about why we were still sitting there 30 minutes after the plane was supposed to have taken off, and everyone got a good laugh out of it, but I didn’t think it was all that amusing.  I was worried about my cat.

At about 11:30 AM, 45 minutes after the plane was supposed to take off, they finally had Marble secured in her carrier, the cargo reloaded and they were closing the plane doors.

IMG_0057

I spent the entire flight worrying about how my cats were.  After a fiasco like that, I didn’t have much confidence in the airline’s ability to handle my pets properly.

Thankfully, things went incredibly smoothly in Manila.  We rushed off the plane to the baggage area, but our cats still beat us to the baggage claim area.  It seems like NAIA knows what ‘Priority’ tags mean.  It means take care with these animals, and move them along quickly, rather than put heavy stuff on the carrier and crack it open.

By the way, this is what the carrier looked like after the ‘fix’ at Changi Airport:

IMG_0062

Anyway, the paperwork was done in a matter of minutes.  We didn’t even have to take the cats anywhere.  The workers came to us and helped us get through the paperwork while I was pulling our luggage off the carousel.  That’s some good service!

The cats were a little terrified, but when we got into the taxi the quiet and the air conditioning put them right to sleep, all the way to Antipolo.

Stay tuned for more updates on how the cats are adjusting to their new home!