Augustine's Vergilian Retreat: Reading the Auctores at Cassiciacum by Joseph Pucci
After his conversion in summer 386, Augustine left Milan for Cassiciacum. There, in a friend's country house, he stayed with his closest relatives and confidants until he returned to the city for his baptism during the Easter vigil of 387. During this period of seclusion, Augustine produced his first extant writings Contra Academicos, De beata vita, De ordine, and the Soliloquia, in which the author, in dialogic form, reflects on the fundamental questions of happiness and truth in a way that starts from pagan philosophy and leads to God. In his book, Pucci takes both these dialogues from Cassiciacum and the De doctrina Christiana—composed a [End Page 285] decade later and sketching the hermeneutics of a Christian (reading) culture—and focuses on the use of classical literature, especially of Virgil. He attempts to show "a pedagogy in place devoted to making Virgil possible for Christianity" (xiii).
Pucci ("Confessiones: The problem of reading Virgil," 1–32) starts from the famous passage Confessiones 1.13: Augustine condemns the vanity of Virgil's Dido tale which deeply impressed him as a schoolboy, but he does so using poetic style and quotations. This requires, as Pucci argues, a hermeneutic model for rereading ancient authors. In Cassiciacum, Augustine developed a philosophical and pedagogic program of reading and understanding classical authors in a specifically Christian way, based on the traditions of ancient philosophy and of ancient classrooms, both referring to poetry. Pucci finds this model revealed in Contra Academicos 2.4.10 by recensere, tractare, and congruere. The author supposes these verbs to be something like termini technici ("to review," "to ponder," "to suite to") sketching the way "in which Virgil's words were in some way fitted to the larger project of engaging the skeptical tradition" (25). Subsequently ("Contra Academicos: Recuperating Virgil," 33–71), Pucci delves deeper into the text in order to make clear what he supposes to be Augustine's method of reviving Virgil: Licentius, he argues, in Contra Academicos 1.5.14, quotes Aeneid 1.401 perge modo et, qua te ducit via, dirige gressum, which, however, fits with the philosophical point his opponent Trygetius had made rather than with his own. Within the rest of the work, Pucci argues, Augustine presents his disputants using poetry and especially Virgil, often in a superficial way, which does not yet meet the ideal of revival the author has in mind. In the end, Augustine (Contra Academicos 3.4.9) alludes to Eclogues 3.104–107 in order to reveal through Damoetas's and Menalcas's competition, which cannot be judged by Palaemon, his own dissatisfaction with the state of the philosophical debates which the participants had reached up to this point.
The next chapter ("De beata vita: Remedial Recuperation," 72–86) starts from a comparison between Contra Academicos and De beata vita: Although both dialogues, of course, deal with happiness, the first one ends with an aporia, the latter one, however, tends to show consensus and solution. Pucci supposes this to be a pedagogic development. Part of it, he argues, is the use of Terence whose sententiae harmoniously fit into the philosophical discourse. In the chapter "De ordine: Recuperating at night" (87–126), Pucci analyses the nocturnal scenery in the beginning of the dialogue: Augustine fears that Licentius's enthusiasm for "poetics" (see Pucci's semantic differentiation, 98–99) might separate him from philosophical thinking. The author supposes this to refer to a wrong use and understanding of poetry, which separates it from the seeking of truth like the wall that separates Thisbe from Pyramus, whose name the pupil is singing (De ordine 1.3.8). Licentius's subsequent (1.3.9) use of a quotation from Terence, Eunuchus 1024, however, hermeneutically characterized by the verb vertere ("to turn"), introduces and shows his "philosophic progress" and "seems in league with his [sc. Licentius'] new found recuperative abilities" (107). Delighted by this pedagogic success, Pucci argues, Augustine reacts with "turning" a Virgilian verse (1.4.10, Aeneid 10.875). The Soliloquia ("The philosophical Bases of Recuperation," 127–139), according to [End Page 286] Pucci, contain "[t]he philosophic basis for recuperation […] in Augustine's notion of verbal mimesis" (128): as language in general, poetic words can convey falseness and truth. In the last chapter ("De doctrina christiana: Recuperation and Charity," 140–178), Pucci shows how the concept of recuperation, developed at Cassiciacum, fits with and is continued in Augustine's teaching on redemption as a way from paganism to Christianity, and thus to truth. The book ends with a chronological list of poetic quotations in the Cassiciacum dialogues, an index and a bibliography.
Looking at Augustine's Vergilian Retreat as a whole, one can first say that Pucci is innovative and helpful in drawing the reader's attention to Augustine's repeated meta-intertexual remarks on the reading of Virgil during the stay at Cassiciacum and in the dialogues taking place there. Partially, the author offers exciting reinterpretations of Augustine's hermeneutic semantics (e.g. 59–68). On the other hand, however, he does not pay much attention to the philological details of individual quotations. Just to give an example: Dealing with Augustine's quotation (De beata vita 4.25 verissima est enim illa sententia: nam tu quod vitare possis, stultum admittere est.) of Terence, Eunuchus 761 tu quod cauere possis, stultum admittere est (79–81), the author neither discusses the change of the wording nor the question whether, as Pucci supposes, a reader can be expected to recontextualize a moral commonplace ("if you can avoid an evil, do so") within the notoriously complicated plot of a comedy. This does, of course, not weaken the general line of argumentation (in fact, the quotation fits with Augustine's philosophical purpose at this point), nevertheless, the inspired interpretation could here and in many other cases have been supported by some reflections concerning the philological aspects of intertextuality. There is, of course, scholarship dealing with these questions, which might have been taken into account. The bibliography lists titles which are not actually referred to, e.g. G.A. Müller's important book Formen und Funktionen der Vergilzitate bei Augustin von Hippo (Paderborn, 2003). Furthermore, the pedagogic recuperation of Virgil at Cassiciacum which Pucci tries to outline could also have been examined against the background of the earlier Christian appropriation of Virgil—strategies of recuperation of Virgil can already be found in Minucius Felix and Lactantius. But on the other hand, one must confess that one of the several assets of Pucci's book is its clear focus. The most important innovation made in Pucci's book is his pedagogic reading of the Cassiciacum dialogues and the use of Virgil and, more generally, the pagan poetry within them. Thus, Pucci gives an impressive example of how Christian thinking has been cultivated on a pagan cultural substrate.