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"Et Legebat et Mutabatur Intus:" Reading and Conversion in Augustine's Confessions

Joshua Benjamins

The purpose of this essay is to analyze the relationship between reading and conversion in Augustine’s Confessions and to suggest that incidents of ‘literary conversion’ structure the entire work.  Drawing on the insights of Flores 1-13 and O’Donnell (esp. 2:163), I argue that the Confessions is arranged according to a sequence of text-encounters, arranged in a definable and revealing pattern.  I also show how these incidents of reading poignantly illustrate Augustine’s understanding of written texts as living speech (sermo) with the power to convert the reader.  Augustine’s youthful infatuation with the Aeneid—a sort of negative ‘conversion’—betrays a habit of misreading by which the reader embraces a fictional narrative as literal truth (Conf. 1.13; cf. Bennett 47-69).  Augustine later undergoes a conversion to the philosophic life through reading Cicero’s Hortensius (Conf. 3.4; Mallard 40-45); this text-encounter—in contrast to the former one—reveals the positive (though incomplete) converting power of pagan texts.  When he encounters the Christian Scriptures immediately afterwards, Augustine is stymied by his inability to penetrate to its spiritual depths, suggesting that this is a unique kind of text which demands a new and different mode of reading (Conf. 3.5).  The pattern of Book 3 is repeated, with a different outcome, in Books 7 and 8.  Augustine reads the libri Platonicorum and thereby undergoes another (incomplete) conversion which prepares the way for his transformative encounter with the codex of Paul.  The structure and significance of that final text-encounter are prefigured in the account of Ponticianus’ conversion (Conf. 8.6; Stock 96-102).  Augustine’s encounter with divine sermo in the form of Paul’s writings completes the process of interior conversion (Conf. 8.14).  This last literary conversion initially reduces the reader to silence, but then becomes the catalyst for a new form of reading and a new form of speech, both of which are illustrated in Augustine’s reading of the Psalms (Conf. 9.4; Lehman 160-184).  I argue that this redeemed mode of speech ultimately finds expression in the Confessions itself, which is intended to act as a converting narrative (Flores 2-3).

Session/Panel Title

The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

Session/Paper Number

36.5

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