Exploring 'Confessions'

Blatant admission: This column is stolen from elsewhere. You gotta problem with that?

I find The New York Times a lousy standard for journalism. It has clearly erased any distinction between news and opinion, crafting its news stories with an underlying confirmation bias that fits its ideological perspective. It does so because it believes that its perspective is right, good and just, and therefore owes no sense of fairness to any differing position. But every once in a while, they publish something really good that you won’t see anywhere else.

“Mihi quaestio factus sum.” That’s from St. Augustine, and it was the first sentence of a review of “Augustine, Conversions to Confessions” (Basic Books, $35), a new book by Robin Lane Fox. “I have become a problem to myself” is the translation, and the reviewer states that he has that very quote on the screen of his laptop.

The reviewer is Mark Lilla, and his article appeared in the Nov. 22 New York Times Book Review section. One firm life lesson: You’ve got to like anybody who begins an article with a quote from Augustine. In Latin.

Augustine’s “Confessions” is the classic biography of a soul and, as Lilla describes it, his relentless seeking for truth.

Lilla spends most of the review analyzing Augustine’s “Confessions” rather than Fox’s book. “His quest for knowledge was really a dodge to avoid experiencing the overwhelming anxiety and despair he felt inside,” Lilla says of Augustine.

When Augustine finally confronts this emptiness, “it was horrifying, unbearable. Something in him said: Enough. At that moment an inner muscle grasping his old life relaxed and he could finally let God in. And a new life began.”

Lilla notes that the weakest chapters in Lane’s book are those devoted to Augustine’s conversion. “Fox is rather obsessed with sex, in the way erudite English scholars tend to get as they age,” Lilla writes.

Fox makes sex so central to Augustine’s struggles that “the future saint comes off as an insatiable, guilt-ridden pickup artist.” But Lilla maintains that in Augustine, “the problem of sex is just the shell around a much deeper mystery, the workings of the human will.”

Augustine could not understand how the “mind commands the body but cannot command itself ... (how can) we will ourselves to do something, but the will proves too weak to follow through?”

Lilla maintains that in answering such questions, “Augustine hit upon an idea that would shape Western consciousness for centuries: the notion that human beings have two wills within, a defiant one that wants autonomy and a chastened one that wants to serve God. The only way to achieve happiness, Augustine believed, was to subordinate the former to the latter.”

This conception of self started to break down in Western culture during the Renaissance. Lilla points to Montaigne’s “Essays,” which “mocked the idea of sin and preached self-acceptance.”

Lilla’s review concludes: “To Augustine’s anxious admission that he was a problem to himself, Montaigne simply responded, So what’s the problem? Don’t worry, be happy. As modern people, we have chosen Montaigne over Augustine. We traded pious self-cultivation for undemanding self-esteem. But is love of self really enough to be happy? You know the answer to that, dear reader. And so did Augustine.”

Again, that conclusion appeared in The New York Times, a newspaper that has reveled in undemanding self-esteem as a positive civic virtue and moral barometer for decades.

And now I’m off to confession for stealing Lilla’s marvelous essay.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.