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A Philosophy of Paradox in Augustine's Confessions

Phoebe Wing

Christendom College

A profound personal examination, Augustine’s ​Confessions​ pays tribute to the art of rhetoric which was central to a large part of the saint’s life. Though we are continually made aware of Augustine’s mixed feelings regarding his former craft and its ultimate disappointment, he nevertheless incorporates rhetorical devices—particularly that of paradox—in a way that expresses philosophical substance, rather than the sophistical emptiness he often condemns. The device of paradox features prominently throughout the narrative of his life, giving fitting expression to two fundamental conflicts in the human journey. Augustine first wrestles with the problem of how man can come to know a God who shows apparently contradictory attributes. The ​ Confessions​ bluntly gives voice to this struggle when it directly juxtaposes these attributes in the form of a paradox. These devices stimulate the mind of the reader to rise out of intellectual complacency and invite logical implications about how a God who is truly transcendent can be encompassed by a mind that is limited by language. Second, paradoxes also illustrate and reflect Augustine’s inability to uncover a real logic behind sin. They examine sin as the denial of one’s own nature when the sinner treats a particular emptiness as though it were a positive being. Borrowing a process of Scriptural interpretation from Augustine's own writings aids in choosing how to resolve—or leave unresolved—the ambiguity of paradoxes, while also giving insights about how deep a relation forms between the mind of a speaker and the object of his speech.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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