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Monica as Socrates in Augustine's Confessions IX

Thomas Miller

The death of Augustine’s mother Monica is the last event to be recounted in the autobiographical portion of the Confessions and the climax of the entire work. In the fall of 387, Augustine and his companions stop to rest at Ostia on their voyage back to Africa from Milan, where Augustine was baptized following his embrace of Christianity during the previous year. At Ostia, Augustine experiences together with his mother a mental “vision” of the vita aeterna sanctorum, of which the description is clearly indebted to the Platonist philosophical texts that laid the intellectual basis for his conversion. Then Monica falls ill and dies.

The extended description of Monica’s passing (Confessions IX.11.27-13.37) should be seen as belonging to a long tradition in Latin literature of portraying death “as a privileged moment which has the capacity to reveal the true character of the dying subject” (Edwards 5). In such contexts Roman writers often make comparisons to the famous death of Socrates. In this paper I argue that Augustine likewise uses details ultimately drawn from Plato’s Phaedo to create a parallel between Socrates and Monica. In particular I call attention to Monica’s indifference to the arrangements for her burial (IX.11.27, cf. Phaedo 115c-d) and Augustine’s painful repression of quiddam puerile within him that encourages him to weep (IX.11.29, cf. Phaedo 77d-e, 117c-e).

Of course, according to the current consensus, Augustine could not read Greek at the time when he wrote the Confessions and never had more than a very limited acquaintance with Plato’s own texts. I show how the most direct parallels to the Phaedo in the Confessions were in fact drawn from the first book of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations and the Enneads of Plotinus. I also entertain the possibility (once widely assumed but later influentially denied by Courcelle) that Augustine could have been acquainted, at least in the 380s, with the lost Latin translation of the Phaedo by Apuleius, which could have shaped his overall conception of the scene.

Recognizing the link with the death of Socrates illuminates our reading of the scene in the Confessions in two ways, in both cases extending insights from work by Conybeare. First, it demonstrates the complexity of Augustine’s portrayal of his mother as a participant in philosophical and theological discussion. That Monica takes on the role of Socrates and leads a discussion de contemptu vitae huius et bono mortis (IX.11.28) creates a striking contrast with the Phaedo, where Socrates’ wife Xanthippe is banished from the scene before the philosophical conversation begins. Second, the comparison tells us something about Augustine’s retrospective representation in the Confessions (composed after 397) of his intellectual development. His writings from the pivotal year before Monica’s death, notably the Soliloquia and the short treatise De immortalitate animae, show that he was then deeply interested in developing philosophical proofs of the immortality of the soul, in imitation of Plato and the Platonists. Yet this intellectual project is barely even hinted at in the ninth book of the Confessions, from which the terminology of immortalitas is entirely absent – an absence that the details from the Phaedo serve to make particularly salient. I argue that this silence illustrates an important evolution in Augustine’s thought, namely a loss of confidence in the power of ratio

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Innovative Encounters between Ancient Religious Traditions

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