By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Misimpressions About Augustine

The well-known writer Garry Wills recently wrote a book review that a friend brought to my attention. The review itself is not so interesting; but, in the course of the book review, Wills makes some misleading observations about Augustine and his world that beckon for some adjustment. Now, since Augustine, unlike the book review itself, is in fact very interesting, I, for one, find details about Augustine worth correcting.


First, I think Wills is wrong to give the impression that Augustine read no Greek--my own reading indicates that he had at least some rudimentary or greater knowledge of Greek (see 10th paragraph of the book review). 

Biographer James O'Donnell, Augustine, p. 126, writes: "A word on Augustine's Greek; pathetic. This is not to say that he was completely ignorant of the language, but he had resisted it at school and never mastered it. All his life he seems to have been able to look at a Greek text of Scripture and make some sense of it if he had a Latin translation at hand . . . ." 

But the eminent, late Henry Chadwick is more generous, saying that Augustine "was . . . able to use a Greek book whenever necessary, and in his maturity he was competent to make his own translation of quite technical philosophical texts," in Augustine: A Very Short Introduction, p. 8 (Oxford Univ. Press). 

Second, the famous passage about Augustine being surprised to find Ambrose reading silently (Confessions, Bk 6.3.3) has been misused by both sides of that little debate (see, for an example of this debate, the article by A.K. Gavrilov, with whom I do not fully agree but who provides a nuanced argument). The surprise at Ambrose's silent reading does not necessarily mean that the ancients did not read silently; but can reasonably imply, at the least, that in certain contexts, reading out loud was expected where for us moderns it would not necessarily be expected or customary. 

In contrast, when Augustine is going through his famous conversion moment in the garden (Confessions, Bk 8.12.29 ; a scene I have recently translated for a class presentation), Augustine himself reads the Bible silently because he is in a very emotionally charged state and in a highly personal context in which, presumably, he is not interested in being overheard by his friend Alypius, who is sitting nearby. 

On the related issue of silent reading in the ancient world, Wills is also wrong to give the impression that the 1968 article by Bernard Knox is the last word on the issue (see 11th paragraph of the book review). One scholar, in Wills'  own hometown of Chicago, makes the case for reading out loud in the ancient world because of the difficulty of silently reading texts where the words are not separated by spaces ("scriptura continua"). This scholar's 1997 book is published by Stanford Univ. Press (see this link and this link).