MLA: Thanks for reading. I’m very grateful. I’m going to return to sending this to members only (with occasional exceptions) on Wednesday. Do join us.
The narratival portion of Saint Augustine’s Confessions begins, as one might expect, by inquiring into where Augustine was prior to his memories of himself. It is an investigation doomed to failure, as Augustine notes at the outset: “What, Lord, do I wish to say except that I do not know whence I came to be in this mortal life, or as I may call it, this living death?,” he writes: “I do not know where I came from.” Augustine’s efforts end in frustration: having to account for such a season as a part of his own life “irks” him, he writes. Because there are no vestiges of his time as an embryo or early infant that he can recall to his memory, he effectively omits it from his purview.
That is not to say such a time is a completely blank screen. Augustine has his ‘conjectures’ about his early life, which are derived from two sources: God has given humanity the “capacity to understand oneself by analogy with others, and to believe much about oneself on the authority of weak women.”
That’s a striking description of a group of people that doubtlessly includes Augustine’s own mother, Monica, of whom he speaks in exclusively reverent terms. The juxtaposition is also jarring: these ‘weak women’ who tell us about ourselves have the authority to do so, and that which is given them from God. There’s more at work here, I think, than it seems from the pejorative tone on the surface of Augustine’s description.
It turns out, Augustine rarely uses muliercularum—‘weak women’—only a handful of times. In his treatise against lying, he considers why the women of Egypt and Jericho are given a reward, even though they break the absolute prohibition on lying. His answer is that the question of whether it Is ever permissible to lie wearies even the most learned, and so is utterly beyond the ken of those ‘weak women.’ God demonstrated his patience with them by rewarding them for their choice.
In his brief against his Pelagian nemesis Julian, Augustine accuses him of not being candid about their opinion that infants should not be baptized. On Pelagius’ view, children who are baptized into the savior, but not saved—and redeemed by the deliverer, but not set free. Augustine thinks he is driven such absurdities because he is afraid to be open about not baptizing children, as doing so will cover their faces “with the spit of men” and mean that their “heads will be beaten to mush by the sandals of [weak]-women.”
At the outset of Book II of City of God (which was written after Confessions), Augustine contends that the weak understanding of his interlocutors causes them to resist logic and truth—which means Augustine has to belabor the obvious. Augustine contends tha the hopes that those who read him will not be like those critics who are always looking for a rejoinder—that they will not be like those ‘weak women’ Paul writes about in 2 Timothy 3:6-7, who are “always learning but never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”
It seems evident, then, that Augustine has 2 Timothy 3:7 in the back of his mind when he marvels that humanity is such that we learn about ourselves from ‘weak women.’ Augustine inverts the terms of Paul’s critique: those women who are always learning, but never arriving at the truth, are precisely those from whom we must learn about ourselves. More than that, even those ‘weak women’ will rise up and protect the church from Julian’s heretical ravings. What seems nakedly pejorative turns out to be something less than that.
Yet we can take one step further, I think: Augustine is himself one of those ‘weak women.’ He employs the phrase in the midst of an inquiry which cannot be answered, as he says at both its outset and conclusion. Yet that does not preclude him from the responsibility of inquiring, nor nullify what he learns as a result: for he encounters within his investigations his own dependency upon the one who bore and nursed him.
Augustine does not, in one sense, come to the knowledge of the truth by the end of Confessions: the ‘peace’ which he longs for remains an object of hope, which cannot be seized but can only be given. God’s restful delight in His goodness remains, for us, a mystery: “What man can enable the human mind to understand this? Which angel can interpret it to an angel? What angel can help a human being to grasp it? Only you can be asked, only you can be begged, only on your door can we knock. Yes indeed, that is how it is received, how it is found, how the door is opened.” If there is a way out of being one of those ‘weak women’ who are always inquiry, and never coming to a knowledge of the truth, it can only happen by joining with them by relentlessly and restlessly chasing hard after the God who gives, reveals, and opens the door.