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St. Augustine

“‘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.’…

When in the classical period we reach the first works to be designated as autobiographies, we can only be confounded by their impersonal tone…

Then we reach Augustine, who tells us everything–his jealousies in infancy, his thieving as a boy, his stormy relationship with his over-bearing 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 of me a cut and a 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 the autobiography but of the modern novel. He is also a distinguished forebear of the modern science of psychology.”

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From part one of Thomas Cahill’s very accessible and illuminating How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Saint Augustine