Brian Horne’s essay “Person as Confession” is an interesting look at what Augustine was perhaps “doing” in writing his Confessions. This has clearly been a source of debate among scholars of Augustine for some time, but Horne’s analysis certainly poses some interesting questions. Why, for example did Augustine assume that people would be interested in reading about his own spiritual development? Did he even have an audience in mind?
Horne suggests that Augustine’s unstated motivation in writing the confessions is actually quite different. Augustine was not primarily writing for others but rather for himself. What is going on in the Confessions is “the deliberate creation of a ‘persona’, the ‘I’ or subject of the narrative.” Horne goes on:
It is no accident that so many writers on ‘narrative theology’ go to Augustine’s Confessions as a primary text, the classical example (outside the biblical text) of the genre of ‘narrative theology.’ It does exactly what narrative theologians want a text to do: it presents a theology by telling a story, or, perhaps, to put it the other way around, it tells a story in such a way that the theological implications are unmistakable. We take this further: in the Confessions we have the attempt at discovering meaning in a life and imposing an order on chaos by means for relating and forming into a narrative (a human history) selected pieces of previous experience. It is, in a real sense, the re-creation of the person by the recollection of the past; and the process by which this is done is highly selective. (p. 68)
What Augustine in doing in the Confessions is an act of constitutive self-narration. Augustine is constructing his persona, his very self in recounting his story. This is seen most clearly in the central role that memory plays in the Confessions. This trajectory reaches its apogee in Book X, chapter 17 when Augustine actually identifies personality with memory:
O my God, profound infinite complexity, what a great faculty memory is, how awesome a mystery! It is the mind, and this is nothing other than my very self.
Thus, for Augustine, personhood itself is found in memory. To be a person is to remember. As such, Augustine’s exercise in telling his story is, in a very real sense, Augustine’s own exercise of becoming a person:
Memory and personhood are co-terminous, hence the necessity for the subject to tell his own story. The ostensible motive for Augustin’s writing of the Confessions was the ethical one: the encouragement of his readers in their struggle to live the Christian life; but might not the real, though unacknowledged, motive have been the ‘achievement’ of his own personality? Like Proust who has to relate the middle-aged Parisian Marcel to the Marcel who was a child in Combray, the Marcel who was an adolescent in Balbec, and the Marcel who was obsessed with Albertine; so Augustine has to integrate the various Augustines of the past (the Manichee, the neo-Platonist, the youth of powerful sexual energy and emotion) with the man who finds himself Bishop of Hippo. And it is only memory that can be used for this function: without memory the person cannot exist. (p. 71)
If this sort of reading is correct, perhaps we can say that Augustine is the first “pure” narrative theologian in the modern sense. And it also rasies questions about the nature of the Augustinian self and what relation it has to the modern self.