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Best Paper at the 2011 Convention

Learning to Speak and Pray in Confessions, Book 1

Theodore Harwood of Eta Delta at Hillsdale College

St. Augustine opens his Confessions with a
very simple statement: magnus es, domine
(“You are great, Lord”; 1.1.1). Yet, as Christian
Lotz notes, Augustine’s invocation, in
bringing into speech the invisible, intangible,
and divine Other who is unbounded
by the mind, raises the very question of
who and what God is.1 Augustine’s attempt
to praise God immediately falls flat, not
only because of man’s ignorance of the
divine Other, but also because man himself,
though he wishes to praise God, bears
in himself the testimony of his enmity with
God.2 Arguably, Augustine will spend the
rest of the Confessions considering these
two issues, and in this paper I shall examine
them through his account of learning
to speak as an infant. As the infant learns
to speak a natural language through imitation
of an adult model, thus escaping the
problem of his own impermeable interiority,
so fallen man learns to praise God
through a type of imitation of both Christ
and the praedicator or “preacher” (1.1.1)
and thus is saved from his own inner corruption
which keeps him from communing
with God. For both man and infant, a
divinely-granted desire to speak and to find
rest in their particular fulfillments motivates
these processes. I shall argue, then,
that Augustine uses his description of the
infant’s problems in acquiring speech in
Book One of the Confessions to investigate
by analogy the difficulties of fallen man’s
spiritual situation as set out in the first
chapter of that book and that through this
linguistic paradigm he leads the reader
toward an understanding of how the very
salvation of the soul is effected.
Augustine uses parallel language in
his description of the initial situation of
the both the infant and fallen man in
order to set up the broader comparison
between them. In general, we note that as
man wishes (vult, 1.1.1) to praise God, so
the infant wishes to express his volitions
(voluntates and volebam, 1.6.7; vellem and
volebam, 1.8.13). God has made man to
delight in praising Him (delectet, 1.1.1), be
cause by so doing man fulfills his desire for
rest in God (requiescat, 1.1.1). So also the
infant desires to speak to obtain the things
he naturally (that is, according to God’s
providence) delights in (delectationibus,
1.6.7), and God has made him desire no
more than he needs (nolle, 1.6.7), so that in
fulfillment of these desires the infant also
rests (adquiescere, 1.6.7). Augustine uses
this parallel language to establish a foundation
for comparing the distinct problems
of infant and man. First, the infant’s
interior, where his thoughts are, cannot be
penetrated by other minds, just as man’s
interior, which is corrupt, cannot welcome
God. And as the infant does not know
how to speak in order to escape his interior
prison, man also does not know how to
praise God so as to rest in him.
The infant’s problem touches on Augustine’s
notion of “inner speech” (locutio
interior), a common concept in his work
which stands behind his description of
his infancy.3 Augustine’s account of his
infancy assumes the presence of this locutio
interior in the infant’s mind, since the
infant can form a desire but cannot express
it. As Augustine says, “Those desires were
inside, but those people were outside, and
they were not able to enter into my soul by
any sense of their own” (illae [voluntates]
intus erant, foris autem illi [homines], nec ullo
suo sensu valebant introire in animam meam,
1.6.8). God has given the infant a mind
(mente quam dedisti mihi; 1.8.13) and in it
the capability of locutio interior which, to
draw a parallel to God’s inspiration of man,
stirs him up to speak. The infant’s desire
and ability to speak, therefore, depend on
God’s grace.4
As the beginning of the Confessions
makes clear, fallen man also suffers from
an interior problem, an isolation from God
which results from the testimony in himself
of his enmity with God (homo circumferens
mortalitatem suam, circumferens testimonium
peccati sui et testimonium quia superbis resistis,
1.1.1). Man is also trapped in himself,
unable to communicate with God because
of an inner contradiction between himself
and the divine. This problem, however,
has a notable difference from the infant’s:
others are not epistemologically
able to enter the infant’s mind, the holy
God’s “entrance” into man’s interior5 is
prevented primarily by the moral problem
of sin. Yet Augustine also questions
the (metaphorically) spatial and, more
profoundly, ontological possibility of calling
God into himself: “How will I call upon my
God [call my God into me]…how may God
come into me, God who made heaven and
earth?” (quomodo invocabo deum meum?…
quo deus veniat in me, deus qui fecit caelum
et terram? 1.2.2). The infant, whose desires
are inside, seeks a way to externalize them.
Man, however, seeks not only to externalize
his desires through prayer and speech,
but also to find a way for the external God
to enter him.
The second problem for both infant
and man is tied into the solution to the
first. The infant, in order to make his
desires known to others, must externalize
his locutio interior through speech. But
in order to do so, he must learn to speak.
This obviously creates a problem, since
learning something from someone requires
an agreed-upon system of signs, that is,
a language. But language is precisely
what the infant needs to learn. When, as
Augustine asserts, there is no inherent link
between signs (signa) and things signified
(signifilibilia), how can one have any hope
of learning a language?6
Man’s second problem, like his first,
arises in the beginning of the Confessions.
Man wishes to praise God, but in analyzing
how to do so, Augustine must immediately
say, “Grant it to me, Lord, to know and to
understand whether it be first to call upon
you or to praise you, and whether it be first
to know you or to call upon you” (da mihi,
domine, scire et intellegere utrum sit prius
invocare te an laudare te, et scire te prius
sit an invocare te, 1.1.1). Through a long
train of such questions Augustine resolves
the problem into: praedicare→ credere→
invocare→ requirere / quaerere→ invenire→
laudare (1.1.1).7 Before man can praise
God, therefore, or do anything which leads
to praise, someone must preach to him.
The solution to the problem then is both
and linguistic, which encourages us
to examine the man’s situation in light of
the infant’s.
Speech, of course, allows a sort of
entrance into the soul, and clearly speech
plays a part in Augustine’s relationship
with God, since, after all, he wrote the
Confessions. Though the first few chapters
of the work use etymological and epistemological
questions to emphasize the poverty
of man’s condition, the lesson of the infant
shows the reader that language can also
help man’s situation. Without language
man cannot communicate with other men,
which would cut him off from the praedicator
who could lead him to belief and praise.
Unfortunately, Augustine leaves the role
of the praedicator somewhat vague, at the
most describing him as a giver of knowledge
or inspirer of belief (credens in te: praedicatus
enim es nobis and fides mea, quam
inspirasti mihi…per ministerium praedicatoris
tui; 1.1.1). But by analyzing the solution to
man’s problem in relation to that of the
infant, we can see that the praedicator
is more than simply a “preacher”; he is a
model for the man seeking to praise God,
just as the adult is a model for the infant
trying to learn a language.
As already noted, the lack of any necessary
connection between signs (signa) and
meanings (signifibilia) necessitates that
the infant learn a natural language (for
example, Latin) from other people, so that
he can know which sounds and meanings
are connected by convention. But in
order to learn something from someone, a
conventional form of communication must
already exist. While in the De Magistro
this leads Augustine to the conclusion that
only Christ’s illumination of the mind can
connect the ideas of the mind (the verba
mentis) with the words of natural language,
in the Confessions he concedes the ability
to connect a word to a meaning through
the use of ostension.8 He describes how he
began to learn language thus:
When they named something and
when, following this sound, they
moved their body to something,
I watched, and I understood that
by them this thing was called that
[name], which they were sounding
out when they wished to point it out.
cum ipsi appellabant rem aliquam et
cum secundum eam vocem corpus
ad aliquid movebant, videbam et
tenebam hoc ab eis vocari rem illam
quod sonabant cum eam vellent
The point-and-say approach of ostension
enables the infant Augustine (now obviously
leaving his infans stage, but we will
retain the term) to learn nouns with which
to begin learning more language.10 He can
learn language because, as already noted,
he states: “I myself with my mind which
you have given me, my God…was grasping
the words with my memory” (ego ipse
mente quam dedisti mihi, deus meus…prensabam
[verba] memoria, ibid).11 The infant
recognizes the significance of the sound
made, connects it to the thing physically
pointed out, and remembers the associated
sound as itself “pointing” to the meaning.
The infant then imitates the sound of the
adult in order to reverse the direction of
communication. The ostentive method, of
course, looks a lot like the infant’s “various
groans and sounds and various motions of
[his] members” (gemitibus et vocibus variis
et variis membrorum motibus, 1.8.13), but
in that case the infant was trying to use
signs like his desires, though they were not
really like them (signa similia voluntatibus
meis…non enim erant vere similia, 1.6.8).
But while the infant does not know the
conventions of communication, the adult
does comprehend the infant’s attempt at
communicating. The adult descends to the
level of the infant’s communication but
corrects the infant’s usage. Instead of using
gesture to imitate the desire, the adult uses
it to point attention to the desired thing.
Once the infant has understood this, he
not only learns a word, but also learns the
proper use of gesture. Language develops in
a sort of upward spiral for the infant: as the
adult both descends to the infant’s level of
communication and introduces a new form
of communication, he raises the infant to
the adult level more and more.
As the adult must descend to the infant’s
level in order to teach him to speak,
the praedicator must descend to the man’s
level in order to teach him to praise God.
As O’Donnell notes, when Augustine says,
“My faith calls upon you, Lord, which you
have given me, which you have inspired
through the humanity of your son, through
the ministry of your preacher” (invocat
te, domine, fides mea, quam dedisti mihi,
quam inspirasti mihi per humanitatem filii
tui, per ministerium praedicatoris tui, 1.1.1),
we could think of the praedicator as Paul
(in scripture), Ambrose (in preaching), or
Christ (whether in Scripture or in Augustine’s
personal experience).12 Scripture is
the divine presentation in human words of
the means of praising God and of spiritual
models to follow.13 The contemporary
praedicator can function in the same way,
though he can present an interpretatio in
addition to the evangelium and can adjust
his speech and action to teach and model
on a more individual basis.14
Christ, however, does something more
than either of these, as Augustine suggests
through his special emphasis (per humanitatem
filii tui, 1.1.1), though we see it only
by recognizing the linguistic analogy. His
faith, he says, is inspired by the humanity
of Christ, by the perfect model of a human
praising God and by the descent of God to
the human level in order to raise humanity
to the divine. As Augustine writes, “When
you are poured out above us, you do not
slump down but you raise us up” (cum
effunderis super nos, non tu iaces sed erigis
nos, 1.3.3). Just as the adult descends to
the infant’s level in order to model proper
language and lift him out of his interior
prison, so Christ descends to the human
level to model proper praise and living and
raise him from his human interior to rest
in God.
Augustine’s faith (that is, his believing),
inspired by Christ and the praedicator,
calls on God, following the train of action
already laid out (praedicare→ credere→ invocare).
Fallen man needs the intervention
of Christ to first raise him out of his interior
prison, but he also requires the continued
modeling of a godly life by the ordinary
preacher and the examples of Scripture in
order to generate a faith that can call upon
God. Yet even his faith, just like the infant’s
mind, is given by God, as Augustine shows
with his parallel phrasing (mente quam
dedisti mihi, 1.8.13; fides me, quam dedisti
mihi, 1.1.1). As the infant’s mind connects
its locutio interior to the words taught by the
adult, so man’s faith connects his inner reality
to a divine understanding of the world
taught by the praedicator. But once we
understand faith by this linguistic model,
we see how it also outstrips that model, for
the infant merely learns to externalize his
verba mentis, but man learns to confess his
sins and change his inner self. Here again,
man requires a praedicator, a teacher and a
model, in order to understand what confession
is and what must be confessed. Confession
is a form of praise,15 and the one that
Augustine himself engages in as a model to
his readers, but it also allows man to praise
God through the removal of his offensive
sin, the testimony of which — mortality
(mortalitatem…testimonium peccati
sui) — Christ also removes.
Through drawing a parallel between the
infant’s desire to speak to fulfill his wish
for food and man’s desire to praise God to
rest in him, Augustine creates a means of
discoursing about the human problem of
how to praise God. He can thus provide
a solution to man’s inability to praise God
based on the model of language acquisition,
which then adds another, deeper
dimension to his description of man’s
spiritual plight. Throughout his analysis,
Augustine shows that man depends on
God’s grace in order to live and function,
both physically and spiritually. Man needs
to speak to other men in order to live, but
just as much so does he need to praise
God, and for either to happen, he needs
God’s help. As Augustine writes early in
the Confessions and so sums up his great
work, miserere, ut loquar: “Have mercy on
me, that I may speak.”16

Bubacz, Bruce. Saint Augustine’s Theory of
Knowledge: a Contemporary Analysis.
Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press,
Fodor, Jerry A. The Language of Thought.
The Language and Thought Series, Jerrold
J. Katz et al. (eds.). Cambridge:
Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Inc.,
Lotz, Christian. “Responsive Life and
Speaking to the Other: A Phenomenological
Interpretation of Book One of
the Confessions.” Augustinian Studies
35:2 (2004): 89–109.
Markus, R. A. Signs and Meanings: World
and Text in Ancient Christianity. Liverpool:
Liverpool University Press, 1996.
Nash, Ronald H. The Light of the Mind:
St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge.
Lexington: The University of Kentucky
Press, 1969.
O’Donnell, James J. Augustine: Confessions.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Toom, Tarmo. “Augustine Becoming
Articulate: Confessions 1.8.13.” Studia
Patristica XLIX, 2010: 253–258.

1 “Responsive Life and Speaking to the
Other,” 95–6. Lotz, according to his
phenomenological reading, holds that
incomprehensibility is in fact the nature
of otherness and so cannot be overcome.
Augustine would seem to have sympathy
with this view (in relation to God), as he
demonstrates in the next two sections,
but the knowledge about God that he
here seeks is only an attempt to differentiate
God from other others, as he says, “for
unknowingly he could call upon another
instead” (aliud enim pro alio potest invocare
nesciens, 1.1.1).
2 1.1.1: quis te invocat nesciens te? aliud enim
pro alio potest invocare nesciens (“Who, not
knowing you, calls upon you? For he may,
not knowing it, call upon another instead
of you”). Homo…circumferens testimonium
peccati sui et testimonium quis superbis resistis
(“Man, carrying around the testimony
of his sin and the testimony that you resist
the proud”). Translations throughout are
my own.
3 Inner speech is thought, and a single
inner word can stand behind many words
from different languages (Bubacz, 180).
Cf. De Trinitate 15.10.19, De Catechizandis
Rudibus 2.3, Tractatus in Johannem Evangelistam
4 Toom, 255.
5 Augustine does not talk about God entering
man in his initial description of man’s
situation. But his following comments in
1.2.2 concerning how God can enter him
lead us to reread his use of invocabo in
the first section in this sense. Augustine’s
clear concern is, after all, to review his
inner life before God, which requires calling
God into that inner life, as we shall
see more clearly later.
6 Nash, The Light of the Mind, 85–89. Cf.
De Magistro 13.
7 I borrow the initial idea for this reduction
from O’Donnell, ad loc., though he
restricts his schematic to organizing the
scriptural statements which Augustine
quotes. For my argument, though, the elements
which Augustine invents are also
8 De Magistro 11.38, cited in Markus, Signs
and Meanings, 84. Cf. 79–84, his discussion
of the process by which Augustine
comes to his illuminationist theory of
language. By illuminationism, I mean the
theory at least some knowledge requires
the direct and immediate intervention of
Christ in the mind. Although in the De
Magistro, Augustine seems to hold that
some of our cognitive operations require
illumination, in the Confessions he more
or less concedes to the infant the ability
to learn language based only on his innate
abilities and human ostention. Of course,
both innate ability and illumination still
depend on God’s grace.
9 He continues, hoc autem eos velle ex
motu corporis aperiebatur tamquam verbis
naturalibus omnium gentium (“And that
they were wishing this was revealed by
the motion of their body—as it were,
the natural words of all peoples,” 1.8.13).
Augustine elsewhere thoroughly denies
that the meaning of an ostentive act is
necessary from the act itself, but I think
that here he (especially since he says
tamquam) means that this method is
prone to work, at least by trial and error,
since it is the simplest and perhaps best
reflects the referential nature of concrete
10 Ostension seems to break down when one
tries to apply it to anything but nouns.
But Augustine does not say that he
learned all language in this way, just that
he learned his first words thusly. Toom
notes (253) that contemporary cognitive
science confirms this idea, believing twoyears-
olds (the Romans’ age of transition
between infancy and childhood) to be
capable of learning mostly just nouns.
11 Perhaps with this statement Augustine
means to endorse an illuminationist
theory rather than an innatist one, since
the God-given mind does not know the
objects inherently, but catalogs experiences
(an ability which he does not
debate) and connects them to signs.
12 O’Donnell, ad loc.
13 Augustine notes that Scripture presents
models to be imitated in, e.g., De Doctrina
Christiana 2.6.7. Augustine himself also
provides a model of using the language or
Scripture in one’s own speech through his
frequent quotations of the Psalms in the
14 Augustine describes the proper use of
scriptural recitation, interpretation, and
adjustment to individual needs in, e.g.,
De Catechizandis Rudibus 3.5, 5.9–6.10,
15 Cf. O’Donnell 1.1.1
16 1.5.5.

About the Author
Born in Portugal and raised in Wisconsin,
Theodore Harwood was homeschooled for
all of his primary and secondary education,
beginning Latin in the third grade.
Though he long regarded Latin as a dreadful
subject, he acquired a sudden love for
the language in sophomore year of high
school, whereupon he decided to be a Classics
major in college. He attended Hillsdale
College in Hillsdale, Michigan, graduating
this past spring with a major in Latin and
minor in Greek. His great affection for late
antique literature and philosophy has convinced
him to attend graduate school, and
so he will be entering Cornell University
this fall to begin his Ph.D program, focusing
on early Christian attitudes towards
Classical Philosophy and Rhetoric and, in
particular, St. Augustine’s appropriation of
these two traditions in his vast corpus.

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