Confessions, Book 10: XXVII, XXXIII XXXIV

St. Augustine

From F. J. Sheed, trans., The Confessions of St. Augustine (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), pp. 236, 242-44.


Aurelitis Augustinus was born in 354 A.D. in what is now Algeria. His mother was a Christian, his father a pagan. Monica, his mother, convinced her husband to convert shortly before his death, and her influence on her son was a strong factor in his own conversion. Augustine received a Roman education. After completing his elementary education, he was sent to Carthage to study rhetoric and later became a teacher of rhetoric at Carthage, Rome, and Milan.

During his youth he was not only a pagan, but lived a dissolute life as well. He had strong feelings of guilt and was ready to reform when he came under the influence of St. Ambrose and read Christian literature. In 387 he converted to Christianity. He was ordained to the priesthood in 392. In 396 he founded a monastery in Hippo (Algeria), and in 396 became bishop of Hippo. He died in 430 during the sacking of Hippo by the Vandals.

Augustine was a prolific writer and had great intellectual influence on Christianity. It was he who developed the intellectual framework that allowed Christianity to become the predominant European religion. He wrote on a wide variety of subjects, and although his attention to education was a relatively minor part of his total effort, his thoughts are important because they influenced European education throughout the middle ages. During that time education was, for the most part, a function of the church rather than of the secular state.

Augustine's educational beliefs are revealed in De Magistro (The Teacher), but it is his thoughts on music and his reaction to it that are of central interest here. In the Confessions he discusses several aspects of the weakness of the flesh, one of which is music. The following excerpts reveal his belief concerning the function of music and the danger that it represented to the devout Christian.

Chapter XXVII

Late have I loved Thee, 0 Beauty so ancient and so new; late have 1 loved Thee! For behold Thou were within me, and 1 outside; and 1 sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou hast made. Thou were with me and 1 was not with Thee. I was kept from Thee by those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou didst call and cry to my and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and 1 drew in my breath and do not pant for Thee: 1 tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.

Chapter XXXIII

The pleasures of the ear did indeed draw me and hold me more tenaciously, but You have set me free. Yet still when I hear those airs, in which Your words breathe life, sung with sweet and measured voice, I do, I admit, find a certain satisfaction in them, yet not such as to grip me too close, for I can depart when I will. Yet in that that they are received into me along with the truths which give them life such airs seek in my heart a place of no small honour, and I find it hard to know what is their due place. At times indeed it seems to me that I am paying them greater honour than is their due-when, for example, I feel that by those holy words my mind is kindled more religiously and fervently to a flame of piety because I hear them sung than if they were not sung: and I observe that all the varying emotions of my spirit have modes proper to them in voice and song, whereby, by some secret affinity, they are made more alive. It is not good that the mind should be enervated by this bodily pleasure. But it often ensnares me, in that the bodily sense does not accompany the reason as following after it in proper order, but having been admitted to aid the reason, strives to run before and take the lead. In this matter I sin unawares, and then grow aware.

Yet there are times when through too great a fear of this temptation, I err in the direction of over-severity-even to the point sometimes of wishing that the melody of all the lovely airs with which David's Psalter is commonly sung should be banished not only from my own cars, but from the Church's as well: and that seems to me a safer course, which I remember often to have heard told of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who had the reader of the psalm utter it with so little modulation of the voice that he seemed to be saying it rather than singing it. Yet when I remember the tears I shed, moved by the songs of the Church in the early days of my new faith: and again when I see that I am moved not by the singing but by the things that are sung-when they are sung with a clear voice and proper modulation-I recognize once more the usefulness of this practice. Thus I fluctuate between the peril of indulgence and the profit I have found: and on the whole I am inclined-though I am not propounding any irrevocable opinion-to approve the custom of singing in church, that by the pleasure of the ear the weaker minds may be roused to a feeling of devotion. Yet whenever it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by the thing that is sung, I admit that I have grievously sinned, and then I should wish rather not to have heard the singing. See in what a state I am! Weep with me and weep for me, all you who feel within yourselves that goodness from which good actions come. Those of you who have no such feeling will not be moved by what I am saying. But do Thou, 0 Lord my God, hear me and look upon me and see me and pity me and heal me, Thou in whose eyes I have become a question to myself: and that is my infirmity.