Language in the Confessions of Augustine. By Philip Burton


Pp. ix, 198 , New York , Oxford University Press , 2007 , $36.00 .

Philip Burton has written a thoroughly researched book that is sure to impress any reader of Augustine who appreciates both the nuances of language and the subtlety of argument weaved within Augustine's writings. In this book Burton insightfully illustrates Augustine's use of language and attitude towards it throughout the Confessions by way of providing a thorough examination of the linguistic choices that Augustine makes throughout the text. While this book can be appreciated by many who enjoy reading Augustine's Confessions, the specificity of the material covered in this book such as the extensive references to the Latin and the presumed knowledge of the classical literary canon, means that this piece of scholarship is clearly intended for those with a background either in classics or in early Christian studies.

Burton's book is divided into seven chapters, which includes the epilogue, and each chapter addresses a specific theme on Augustine's use of language. In Chapter 1 Burton continually reveals instances in the Confessions where Augustine cites biblical passages as a way to demonstrate that language, used rightly, is a gift from God that partakes in the beauty of an orderly creation. On this topic, Burton makes some astute observations on Augustine's use of the word sermo as double-edged; like the vain speech of the Manichees, language can be treated as an end in itself, but used rightly language is a means to expressing truth. The difference between these two extremes hinges on the use of language and the voluntas of the reader. In Chapter 2 Burton discusses Augustine's view of comedy by examining the language of the theatre in the Confessions. Reading the Confessions against classical accounts of comedy and narrative, Burton argues that Augustine uses comic language and scenarios, notably, the scene of the student and the axe (Book VI, Section IX), as an alterative form of comedy. While cautiously aware of the seductive pleasure of the theatre, Augustine's alternative form of comedy in the Confessions illustrates ones recognition (cognitio) of misfortune and as a corollary of such misfortune ones eventual awareness and turn (conversio) towards God.

Chapter 3 which examines Augustine's selective use of Greek and Latin words when writing on the seven liberal arts is a very informative but dense chapter. The spectrum in which Burton examines Augustine's choice of language on this subject is divided between an ‘ornamental’ use of Greek, that is, when the Greek is not necessary, and a ‘functional’ use of Greek, namely, when it is impossible to discuss the topic without using the Greek. One example of many in this chapter may suffice to enforce Burton's argument in this chapter: Augustine's use of artes instead of dialectica. The Augustine of the Confessions, argues Burton, is one that is less optimistic about the Christianization of the arts. Augustine's pessimism on the role of the arts is evidenced in his preference for the word artes instead of dialectica because the former word enables him to link dialectic with specific Biblical passages as a way to support his belief in the ultimate authority (auctoritas) of Scripture. The title of Chapter 4, ‘Talking Books,’ builds on the insights of scholars like Stock and O'Donnell along with the current discussion surrounding the polarity between the spoken vs. the written word. According to Burton, Augustine collapses the rigid distinction between the oral and literate and argues instead for a dialogical approach to reading: books are a medium for debate rather than objects d'art and to illustrate his point Burton turns to the story of Ponticianus in Book VIII. This story for Burton is representative of Augustine's belief on the delicate counterpoint between the written and the spoken word.

Turning to Augustine's use of biblical idioms in Chapter 5, Burton carries the reader through Augustine's many references to the biblical custom of speech (consuetudo). Again, Burton provides many examples of Augustine's subtle use of non-idiomatic plurals and unusual Greek lexical items which allows him to ‘signal a switch into biblical quotations, or a generally biblical register’ (p. 131). The final chapter covers Augustine's references to the paralinguistic activities such as singing, weeping, groaning, and laughter in the Confessions. As a thinker for whom the Psalms had such a prominent place in his thought, Augustine's comments on singing in the Confessions suggest that he preferred to internalize and spiritualize the act of singing. This section on singing will hopefully prove to be invaluable for research on Augustine's Enarrationes in Psalmos, a text which has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. Another section in this chapter that deserves mention is Burton's section on laughter as a paralinguistic activity. Augustine's treatment of laughter in the Confessions, writes Burton, ‘may best be understood in terms of the antithesis between benign, edifying laughter and its malign counterpart’ (p. 167). While this view of laughter was certainly not shared by Christian contemporaries of his time, the references to Augustine's positive appraisal of laughter throughout the Confessions demonstrates that the ascetic rejection of laughter is far from his mind and that the overarching concern of Augustine resides in the use or aim of amusement.

Burton's epilogue concludes by noting the importance of the fractured will (voluntas) of readers/writers to Augustine's view on language. One noteworthy comment made here notes the parallels in the Confessions between the acquisition of language in infancy to the development of form out of formlessness in the Genesis creation narrative. Burton notes that Augustine unambiguously makes clear that the pre-linguistic stage of infants, in particular, their ‘ugly noise’ (informis vox), parallels the opening verses of Genesis, a subject that consumes the last three Books in the Confessions, when creation was without form (sine specie et informis). As one acquires language and enrols in a particular social bond as the inevitable result of learning language one ultimately needs to decipher, much like one needs to decipher the movement of the creation narrative, whether language leads to God or for Augustine the feigned belief in self-sufficiency. Overall, this book is a must read for those who wish to gain a deeper and richer appreciation Augustine's Confessions. While Burton certainly mentions the importance of the opening chapters of Genesis in Augustine's Confessions one criticism would be that a more systematic analysis on this subject was needed. Nonetheless, Burton's attentive reading of Augustine's use of language in the Confessions will most certainly prove to be helpful to anyone with a vested interest in the enduring legacy of Augustine.