"There are a thousand hacking at the
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Loss and Recovery of Full Self -Consciousness
How the Irish Saved Civilization, chapter II What was Lost, pp, 39-43
Just thirty years before Patricius was brought in chains to Ireland, another teenager with a similar background—a Romanized African whose father was a petty official—came all too willingly, not to an impossible hinterland, but to the seething capital of Roman Africa. "To Carthage I came," recalled Augustine later, "where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. As yet I loved no one, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated need, I hated myself for not being needy. I pursued whoever-whatever might be lovable, in love with love. Safety I hated and any course without danger. For within me was a famine."
This is clear, poignant, ruthless prose. But though it still reads awfully well, the words of Augustine's Confessions no longer jump with the fresh shock they held when he published his memoir in 401--probably the same year Patricius was kidnapped. The reason for this is that Augustine's is a sensibility that has since become so common that we no longer experience the Confessions as the earthquake they were felt to be by readers of late antiquity. For Augustine is the first human being to say "I"--and to mean what we mean today. His Confessions are, therefore, the first genuine autobiography in human history. The implications of this are staggering and, even today, difficult to encompass. A good start is made, of course, by reading the Confessions themselves and falling under their spell, But in order to grasp the immensity of Augustine's achievement, one must read the "autobiographies" that went before him.
Open any collection of Great Thoughts or Great Sayings--especially one that, like Bartlett's, goes in chronological order--and let your eye pick out the I's. In the oldest literature their paucity and lack of force will begin to impress you. Of course. characters in Homer refer to themselves occasionally as "I." Socrates even speaks of his daimon, his inner spirit. But personal revelation, such as we are utterly accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. Even lyric poems tend to be objective by our standards, and the exceptions stand out: a fragment ("The moon has set . . ."), attributed to Sappho, and the Psalms, attributed to King David.
Was Augustine the first person in all of recorded
history to fully embrace self-
When in the classical period we reach the first works to be designated as autobiographies, we can only be confounded by their impersonal tone. Marcus Aurelius, by Gibbon's standards the most enlightened emperor and the great philosopher of Roman antiquity, speaks to us in epigrams, like Confucius and Ecclesiastes before him: "This Being of mine, whatever it really is, consists of a little flesh, a little breath, and the part which governs"—he means his mind. This is as confidential as Marcus gets. Or how about this for a personal revelation? "All that is harmony for you, my Universe, is in harmony with me as well. Nothing that comes at the right time for you is too early or too late for me." For all their ponderousness, the great emperor's thoughts are never more personal than a Chinese fortune cookie.
Then we reach Augustine, who tells us everything—his jealousies in infancy, his thieving as a boy, his stormy relationship with his overbearing mother (the ever-certain Monica), his years of philandering, his breakdowns, his shameful love for an unnamed peasant woman, whom he finally sends away. His self-loathing is as modern as that of a character in Camus or Beckett--and as concrete: "I carried inside me a cut and bleeding soul, and how to get rid of it I just didn't know. I sought every pleasure—the countryside, sports, fooling around, the peace of a garden, friends and good company, sex, reading. My soul floundered in the void—and came back upon me. For where could my heart flee from my heart? Where could I escape from myself?"
No one had ever talked this way before. If we page quickly through world literature from its beginnings to the advent of Augustine, we realize that with Augustine human consciousness takes a quantum leap forward—and becomes self-consciousness. Here for the first time is a man consistently observing himself not as Man but as this singular man—Augustine. From this point on, true autobiography becomes possible, and so does its near relative, subjective and autobiographical fiction. Fiction had always been there, in the form of storytelling. But now for the first time there glimmers the possibility of psychological fiction: the subjective story, the story of a soul. Though the cry of Augustine—the Man Who Cried "I"--will seldom be heard again in full force until the early modern period, he is the father not only of autobiography but of the modern novel. He is also a distinguished forebear of the modern science of psychology.
What prepared Augustine to be Augustine? What was the ground, and what the seed?
Augustine was among the last of classically educated men. Born in 354 into what all believed to be a stable world, he would witness in old age--in the 420s--the last days of the grammaticus. His Latin has a refinement and a piquancy that few could match in any period of antiquity. The delicate changes rung on three words—love, need, hate—in the famous passage from the Confessions quoted above mark him as adhering to the highest standards of classical rhetoric. What Ausonius wore like a medal Augustine bears stamped on his heart: the show-off accomplishments of Ausonius are for Augustine honored disciplines of the spirit.
Augustine gives us the world's first description
of how a child may fall hopelessly in love with literature—a fall so
palpable it is almost carnal. Like creative children in every age, he
despised his first school assignments in "reading, writing, and
arithmetic" because they were nothing but rote: " 'One and one are two;
two and two are four'—what hateful singsong." Nor did he like any better
his first lessons in Greek, accompanied by the teacher's "punishments
and cruel threats"; and he states succinctly the complaint of numberless
generations of students before and after him: "Mastering a foreign
language was as bitter as gall, for not one word of it did I
understand." But then, after all the dreary classes of grinding
recitation, he is handed real literature in his own tongue: "I loved
Latin . . . and I wept for Dido slain, she 'seeking by the sword a
stroke and wound extreme.'"
So, what is going on here? Was Augustine the first person in all of recorded history to fully embrace self-awareness and self-consciousness? To contemplate this to be true is nothing short of astounding and profoundly disturbing or disruptive to the existing thinking!
Profound questions come rushing forth, and dismissal is tempting. But the evidence is too concrete and stark for mere dismissal, so lets deal with the most basic questions and see where a responsible explanation can take us. The three fundamental questions are:
1. Does this development support and find its answer in the
evolutionistic paradigm where this can be seen as just a later step in the
evolution of Man?
Mankind was devastated a few thousand years ago by the globally remembered "great catastrophe". The premise--not fostered but supported by the findings of Jaynes and the bicameral mind--is that humans lost a great deal of racial and individual self-awareness, self identity and empowerment. The premise is also that the human race is staggering toward recovery. Where some cultures and individuals achieve various levels of it?
A further question can be whether an expanded self-awareness and a fully developed self-consciousness can exist without going hand in hand with an ego problem?