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  • The Past as Text and the Historiography of Tomorrow: Notes on a Recent Book
  • Eugene Vance (bio)

Shortly after his conversion in 386, St. Augustine expressed doubts about the truth value of historiography as a written commemoration of the past—about the past as text. Speculating in his De ordine about the origins of writing (which he calls the “infancy of grammar,” grammaticae infantiae), or what the Latins also called “literature” (litteratura), he says of grammatica that

since by its very name it proclaims that it knows letters [litteras]—indeed on this account it is called “Literature” in Latin—it came to pass that whatever was committed to letters as worth remembering, necessarily pertained to it. And in this way history [historia]—whose name is one, but whose subject matter is undefined [infinita] and many-sided [multiplex], and which is filled with more cares than with enjoyment or truth, and more burdensome [laboriosa] to grammarians than to historians themselves—was added to this science [huic disciplina]. 1

The Augustine writing so skeptically about the worth of historiography was the recent heir to a Christian neoplatonism whose otherworldly [End Page 951] orientation included much speculation about spiritual motion; but spiritual motion was neither local nor temporal, and it had nothing to do with the bumps and squeaks of material history. 2 For such platonists as Plotinus and Proclus, loving and knowing were all that mattered. To turn away from the knowledge of all exterior things and inward to the presence of the unmoving, timeless and ineffable Idipsum in the human soul was Augustine’s only goal. In his Soliloquia (I. 8), written about the same time as the De ordine, the personified figure of Reason asks Augustine what he most wants to know, and he answers, “God and the soul, that is what I desire to know.” “Nothing more?” “Nothing whatever.”

This was more than two decades before Alaric and the Visigoths, who were Christian, sacked Rome in 410. The Roman empire was ruled by a single emperor, Theodosius I, and he was a Christian. The young Augustine’s scorn for social history was directed, of course, against pagan historians who were the fare of Roman education that Christians as well as pagans continued to receive. However, as a Pauline Christian and bishop of a now-Christianized empire, Augustine could not ignore the question of his own participation in the linear and eschatological trajectory of history first prophetized by Judaism, and still very much in the making. He came to believe that history was not merely a fallible narration of worldly wretchedness, but the embodiment of a divine institution whose eschaton would be the Last Judgment. The key to understanding salvation history lay in an enlightened understanding of Scripture, according to the letter and the spirit—that is, literally and figuratively (or typologically). Pagan history was now worth knowing, though only insofar as it might help Christians grasp the larger historical plan in Scripture. Writing in 396 in his De doctrina christiana, he said, “Thus whatever evidence we have of past times in that which is called history helps give us a great deal in the understanding of the sacred books, even if we learn it outside of the Church as a part of our childhood education.” 3 Christian history was no longer a mere memorial record of the past: it was now a pledge of faith and an agenda for “remembering” a future beyond time, to be fulfilled as a return to the transcendent One. As he put it in the De doctrina christiana, [End Page 952]

Although human institutions of the past are described in historical narration, history itself is not to be classed as a human institution; for those things which are past and cannot be revoked belong to the order of time, whose creator and administrator is God. It is one thing to describe what has been done, another to describe what should be done.

(II. xxviii. 44, italics mine)

History, then, was now the expression of the variable relationship between humans and their unchanging God, and the point of convergence was the individual human soul. Within a year (397), the young bishop suddenly interrupted the writing...

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