In the words of that most honest, dauntless, and frighteningly eloquent of men, a “true autobiography is almost an impossibility”. Man, in the telling of his own tale, isn’t an author upon whom we can confidently rely. We know this well, but this knowledge is our own. It’s seldom shared with the autobiographical artist, the man through whom we hope to gaze, until after his portrait goes to print. Thinking himself as transparent as can be, so ostensibly frank an artist is vulnerable to countless intrusions, all of them subjective, and all of them indulgent toward his virtues and blind toward his vice.
So, as in most every other case, Dostoyevsky is again correct. No man, setting our timeline from Shakespeare till today, was better able to measure the dimensions of man than was he. In conclusion of the aforementioned quote, Dostoyevsky goes on to warn us that man, this most consciously perfidious of beasts, is bound inevitably to lie about himself, and to do so quite often. That which should be the most accessible of subjects—namely his own self—turns out to be, when brought before the eyes of his fellow creatures, the most unreliable. What a strange observation made of man by man! It’s almost always the case that bias invades his candor, self-regard supplants his truth, and his amour propre, so restless wherever it rests, struggles to climb and mount its ascent. The desirability of posterity’s immortal renown is too tempting a goal to remain wed to the truth on the cold, hard ground. And so, he doesn’t.
All that being said, not all autobiographies should be automatically dismissed. Such an approach would be far too abstemious, plenary, and complete. We ought, however, to taste these works with care and discrimination—with a palate in possession of itself, though confessedly prone to being fooled.
In particular, two autobiographies should, indeed must be read. If not for their joined commitments to veracity, they must be read for their integral additions to philosophy, for their enduring elevations of beauty. These two autobiographical works are, as they allege themselves to be, confessions. As such are they named. The first, in both time and significance, is that which was written by Augustine—the fifth-century African churchman of unequaled import. The second, unrivalled in verbosity and sentimental scope, is that which was written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau—greatest of French feelers, if not thinkers as well.
Rousseau, it might be said, had a father but no mother. Of course, if we as humans are to live, we must have the philoprogenitive influence of both, but Suzanne Bernard—the homely Genevan from whose diffident womb Rousseau descended—wasn’t to live to see all of her son’s wondrous victories and follies, his varied conquests and excommunications. Her absence from his life, however, does little to explain what was to become the unique literary style for which her son became so extraordinarily famous. The femininity of his thought, the depth of his sentiment, the propinquity to his beloved nature, and the refined grace of his expression all have stamped upon them the nurturing imprint of a mother’s constant counsel. Yet, in his life, he benefited from this oversight not.
Alas, having brought into the world this boy—who himself would soon beget the school of the Romantics and, a bit later, the French Revolution—she failed to survive the young Rousseau’s infancy. He was a sickly child, as was, a century earlier, the deservedly-decorated Descartes, but his mother would be the one most prematurely to succumb to her fate. She was the victim, as too many of her age were, of the deficiencies of the mid-eighteenth-century’s attention to post-partum care. For the first decade of Rousseau’s life (and, lamentably, not a minute longer), the patriarchal influence was the only one of which the young philosopher had any knowledge. Prematurely bereft of his mother’s warm touch, he had only the insensate solicitude of a father busy with his work. In time, that work consumed him—and I mean by this no pun; the elder Rousseau was a watchmaker by trade—a job for which that ever punctual, ever neutral nation of Switzerland was (and continues to be) so deservedly renowned.
Being that he was more occupied with his chronometers than his son, and being that fatherhood suited his inconstancy and his restive nature ill, the elder Rousseau left his boy when the latter had reached the age of ten. He decided to embark upon a parenting approach as ancient as it is negligent; to keep his distance and to influence the boy in absentia. As any product of a dead-beat-dad well knows, this is a futile approach to the fostering of a child’s love and to the development of his juvenescent character—however conducive it might be to the prioritization of the old man’s work. At the conclusion of his tenth year and, concordantly, of his tenure beneath his father’s distracted gaze, Rousseau was given to extended family members by whom he was to be raised. Perhaps this cold treatment of which his warm spirit was the recipient determined, at a frighteningly young age, the later disregard with which he welcomed his own forgotten children into the world.
Contrary to that of Rousseau, the familial history of Augustine is not only the better known of the two (both in and outside of the halls of Christendom), but the one by which we’re far more encouraged and inspired. Similar to the situation in which Rousseau found himself, Augustine lived under the roof of a less-than exemplary father. An African pagan who preferred the gods of old, the culture of cupidity, and to the lucre of the Roman king, Patricius was a successful member in the world of Carthaginian politics. That said, by Augustine’s own frank admittance, he was a rather dissolute infidel of a man. A Berber by birth and an Algerian by modern geographic boundaries, Augustine thought him a barbarian in his conduct and his creed. The best of his qualities, as is so often the case for us men, were to be found in that treasury of merit that emanated from his wife. She, his other half, was the only prepossessing and redeeming part of him.
To the more pious parts of the western world, she’s known as St. Monica. Her hagiographic celebration is held annually, in accordance with the liturgical calendar, on the fourth of May. To Augustine and his siblings, however, she was amor matris—the very definition of motherly affection and love. Perhaps throughout the annals of the history of motherhood, so long as it’s stretched beyond our pre-historic past into the depths of our oceanic and prokaryotic roots, there’s never been a mother as doting, loving, attentive, solicitous, overbearing, anxious, and persistent as was Monica. So perturbed was she by her son’s blatant impiety that she worried herself literally sick. She argued for his early baptism into the Catholic church (then still an inchoate creed) but was refused—at first by her husband and later by her son. He was a rowdy, lascivious, and intemperate boy whose personality bucked against all attempts at control.
With the passage of time by which all boys are made to feel, if not to be, somewhat more mature, Augustine calmed the feverish desires of his youth by looking ahead to his future. Seeking the opportunity of a career advancement at the center of the world, he decided to leave his provincial Thagaste and Carthage in hopes of arriving—both professionally and personally—in the city of Rome. There, amongst the colonnaded atria and stoic stoa of that ancient town, he’d be able to sell his erudition at a proportionate price. Heretofore, the Numidian and Punic students to whom he lectured, though acquisitive of knowledge and the fruits of that tree, were unforthcoming in their payments for his service. Worse still, they were unbecoming in their behavior. Under his tutelage, these North African rapscallions proved reticent not in speaking—for, as a rhetorician, that was Augustine’s expertise and the skill he implanted into their mouths—but in untethering their pockets and paying his fees.
And so, frustrated by the early failures of his pedagogical career, a move across the Mediterranean was needed. But Augustine’s mother, loath to be detached from her unrepentant son, attempted to intercept him at the port out of which he was planning to sail. She wanted to stop his voyage, surely further into sin, by keeping him at home and closer to her own bosom and creed. This is the one frailty of which all mothers—regardless of how Spartan their nature and stoic their resolve—are in universal possession. They can’t bear to watch a son go. It’s the scene to which they all lugubriously and movingly succumb, as mine did when I left the house and hearth, as surely did yours. Thus, to leave behind his mother and forge his own road to Rome, Augustine submitted to trickery. Concealing from her his actual departure time and inviting the useful deception of a friend, he embarked upon the adventure for which he had so long yearned while she innocently recited her prayers in a church.
Inconsolable, she tearfully resolved once again to reunite with her itinerant, irreverent son. After the passage of some number of years, she followed her Augustine to Italy and settled in that soon-to-be papal state. Quiet in the face of his multiple, corporeal infractions and hopeful for the reformation of his lustful ways, Mother Monica proved to be an importunate and, more significantly, an important presence in her son’s wayward life. His ascension toward saintliness and his climb to world-reverence passed only through her. She was the ladder by which he arrived to Heaven, the crutch on which he so often landed and stood.
Be their motherly figures present or absent, doting or devoid, it mattered not for the early conduct of these boys. Both Augustine and Rousseau, though separated by the deep chasm of time and faith, of centuries and creeds, shared in enjoying throughout their youth wholly vagrant and lawless lives.
Rousseau, if the two are to be compared, must be judged the more deviant. Arrested, as Freud might say, in the anal stage of his development, Rousseau had a tendency of displaying to the horror or laughter of the young ladies of Geneva his bare buttocks. A proper “spanking” was the corporal punishment of which he was always desirous—precociously sexually so, if we’re to be uninhibitedly honest.
That said, he wasn’t completely indiscriminate in the display of his flesh; he was a scrupulous and considerate nudist, if ever there was such a being. He was strict and specific with what parts he would or wouldn’t reveal. Upon encountering a passer-by from the vantage point of the dark alley in which he stood, he would leap out, frighten the genteel lady, arrest her unassuming gaze, and display his “ridiculous” part (i.e. his buttocks). He’d then await, doubled over with a smile and barren anticipation, the girls’ exuberant or terrified response. Either way, it was always a lively scene. To note, Rousseau, upon his reflection of this display of anatomy and deviltry, is at pains to tell us that he never once revealed to these young women his “obscene” part—or that trinity of masculinity located just anterior to the pubic bone. Such a display would be unforgivably uncouth and Rousseau—though bawdy—was himself no barbarian.
Augustine, at least to our knowledge, was never so blatantly obnoxious. One could imagine, however, especially in the heat of the north African sun, the future saint opting to clad himself in the prelapsarian clothing of Adam, the wardrobe of the First Man—sans the fig leaf and the shame. But the two boys, much like that inquisitively hungry Adam, held a shared infatuation for the sport of petty larceny—especially when it came to the stealing of fruit.
Rousseau, in a moment of modest contrition and candor, describes to us how he would steal from his patrons their apples and their sundry sweets and goods. He did it not out of animus toward those to whom he was unwittingly bound, but out of idleness for its own sake. It was an act of tedium more than anything else.
Augustine, more infamously, stole the ripened and delicious product of an innocent pear tree. Satiated merely with the act of the crime, he took the fruit not for his own bodily consumption, but for the fulfillment of his naughty soul. Perfunctorily taking at most one bite, he would toss the partially eaten fruit—the product and treasure of an industrious man’s work—to some ungrateful swine. With voracious acceptance and gustatory glee, the pigs to whom he was tossing these goods—knowing not the provenance of that which rolled toward their dirty snouts—ate ravenously and ate well. At the same time, however, Augustine’s decency, much less his later divinity, were defiled. His conscience was covered in mud.
Progressing from petty crimes to mild misdemeanors to consequential carnal affronts, the two partook of numerous sins of the “flesh”—and I don’t mean those sophomoric ones of which the trouser-less Rousseau was very publicly guilty. Both men, in the opinion of that honest Augustine, were “bound most straightly to carnal concupiscence”. Indeed, it was a binding from which neither man could extricate himself with ease. Neither Christianity nor philosophy proved a capable and lasting remedy to the intoxicating pleasures of the skin. So completely dependent was Augustine on his enticing inamoratas, his countless concubines—be they in the torrid streets of Africa or the bustling brothels of Rome—that he felt his happiness inextricable from their presence. He thought that he would become utterly miserable, unless “folded in female arms”. Thus, like a cheap lawn chair, he was fell upon himself in two.
He begot at least one child, about whom he speaks only in passing. He does so without even a scintilla of paternal care. Not surprisingly, this was the result of a liaison out of wedlock, for the good saint never did take in marriage a wholesome wife. He preferred his paramours unattached (and, if possible, nubile), but was almost induced to plunge into that solemn, inviolable union between wife and man.
Augustine, we’re told, very nearly submitted to matrimonial vows, which would’ve been a stark deviation from his later imitation of Christ. Endowed with money disproportionate to her years, a young girl (aged but ten) was chosen to be the saint’s pre-pubescent bride. He decided, at least for two years, to dither and to see if this fleeting desire wouldn’t yield. It did. History, looking back, smiles upon his delayed commitment to chastity and his hesitation to be made pure. All the world, educated in the rudiments of Western thought, knows of the plea for which, in hopes of a response, he looked to God. Make me pure, said the desperate Augustine, but not yet. Not yet. Those two words, simply but honestly spoken, make the statement recognizable in the heart of every man. They resonate in every soul. That line is the most candid expression of ambivalence ever to have trickled out of a man’s mouth. A man, one might add, who is maybe the first to be so completely self-aware. Yet, in being so entirely known to himself, he’s known to all of us, because his struggle lives within all of us. At least, from time to time, that ambivalence does. As such, Augustine’s supplication is one with which we can all empathize—even after a thousand years.
Unfortunately, Rousseau—though raised in the rugged and temperate clime of Geneva—proved himself far more fecund. I say unfortunately because his children—a brood about whose names and whose destines we know next to nothing—were never given the chance to meet their biological father. Considering his situation in life always to be unconducive to the rearing of a family, he sent all of his offspring to foundling asylums and never heard from them again. These orphanages, then as now, were notoriously under-funded. They also seldom attracted the necessary numbers of sterile or simply charitable parents. These children were the recipients of scant food, blankets commodities, and love as the asylum managers under whom they lived sought desperately for funds to sustain their superfluity of kids. Expectedly, the mortality rate of those unwanted children was discouragingly high. It’s unlikely that any of them, in the case of Rousseau’s children, even survived long enough to foster an angry disposition toward their absentee dad.
Rousseau did this against the wishes of the children’s grandmother—herself a shrew with whom the beleaguered philosopher quarreled daily. The woman from whose womb these unwanted children infelicitously yet continually dropped, was called Thérèse. After a long and amorous affair with an older woman named Maman (an uncomfortable sobriquet reflective of her relatively advanced age), Rousseau took as his lover—never as his wife—the homely Thérèse.
The two made a decent pair. She was not quite commensurate with him in terms of intellect, eloquence, and taste—but who, outside of Voltaire, could claim in that age of Enlightenment to be? Innocent of philosophy, and—by Rousseau’s estimation—of nearly every other sin, she was a simple (and obviously fertile) girl with whom he got along well enough. Deviations from his devotion to her were infrequent and cautiously concealed, proving once again that philosophy and fidelity can sometimes co-exist. Only once did he deign to dally with a prostitute—a lapse in judgment for which he felt, much later in life, an inescapably heavy weight of remorse.
As you can see, both Augustine and Rousseau suffered from ailments of the soul. For Augustine, the remedy was a bishopric and a forgiving God. For Rousseau, the cure was solitary confinement and endless rumination about the original, guiltless state of man. But neither was immune to the decay of his own body. Sinners and saints alike join in their submission to maladies and anno domini. No amount of religion nor fame can provide so impregnable a shield as to halt the ravages of time and disease.
Augustine, by all evidence, was a robust and vivacious youth. Indeed, he had to be, if he were to evade—as all boys are wont—the smothering solicitude of his mother’s tender touch. It wasn’t until he acquired a post as a professor at the University of Milan that he developed an enigmatic pulmonary condition by which he was rendered breathless. That which ailed him continues to perplex modern doctors (of medicine, not of the church) as they persist in their pursuit of a post-mortem diagnosis. Perhaps, as is my hunch, the debilitating disease by which he was temporarily rendered voiceless was factitious in nature; he wanted nothing more than to be liberated from his professorial commitments, as a truant seeks any path by which to circumvent his school. And so, he “faked”, if you will, a tickled throat and a cough, and his future outside the university was cleared.
He was, at the time, teaching rhetoric to students desirous to pursue careers in such unsavory fields as government, diplomacy, chicanery, and law. The ability to make the worse argument the better was his expertise, and the spoken word—whose sole intention was, then as now, to inflate one’s power and one’s purse—was the means by which he buttered his bread. Disillusioned with that which occupied his working life, this profession no longer appealed to him. No word, save that which exalted God, could carry for him henceforth any significant meaning or weight. Short of breath, still shorter of patience, he was able to walk away from his position on what we might now call a “medical leave”. He went from sabbatical to sacerdotal, from professor to priest. The rest, as they say, is history; he rushed off to Hippo and became his religion’s second greatest man—the first place, at least at the time of this writing, still belonging to Christ.
Shifting our gaze upon the Swiss musician Rousseau, we see that his disease never did leave him. Aside from the often mawkish, always contagious, emotion that coursed through his throbbing veins, he was ailed by the bothersome retention of his urine. It is, we must admit, a far less poetic malady by which one can hope to be infected. But not every ailment, be it penile or pulmonary, can be so nobly attractive. We must suffer our lot. That said, this problem, as did all his others, began when Rousseau was but a child. Micturition was, at that sensitive age of his youth, an immense struggle from which he found little relief. Every gulp of water and sip of cider portended an inevitable bout of pain. Hydration was, for him, no consolation—the lavatory no sanctuary from his distress.
Upon entering his teenage and early adult years, he enjoyed a brief respite. Unmercifully, it lasted not nearly long enough. The ailment, so torturous and chronic, was later to return. It recrudesced as he gained in maturity and renown. Stridently opposed to medical intervention of any type (he thought it an infringement on the natural resilience and vitality of man), he never did seek for his issue the proper avenues and pharmaceuticals of help. He opted instead, with philosophical endurance and stubborn resolve, to combat the problem on his own. Though, ultimately, it wasn’t the cause of his death (an apoplectic stroke, arriving in his sixth decade of his life, sealed his fate), it did pester him for many miserable years.
I said at the outset that autobiographies aren’t always to be trusted. I won’t depart from Dostoyevsky on this point. I admit that this remains the case, but that doesn’t mean we can help ourselves from being moved—especially when caught in the gravity of so massive a store of genius—to places of credulity, acceptance, and belief. Perhaps it’s here worth noting that Rousseau never openly promised us the truth. We merely expected it of him (in rejection of Dostoyevsky’s maxim to which we thought ourselves devoted). As for Augustine, a veritable saint would never lie. The object of Rousseau’s confessions, as he warned us early in his work, was to “reveal my inner thoughts exactly in all situations of my life”. His Confessions was to be “the history of my soul that I have promised to account”. Yet the soul, for all its perpetual intrigue and ethereal clout, is never so easily grasped. Less so is it ever fully to be believed.
I leave you now to enjoy, in your own good time, these two immensely important autobiographies. By knowing them, you’ll know more of yourself. And, if so compelled, you can even make some of your own confessions—a welcome addition to the volumes that exist. We will read them, smile, and cringe. But as for the investment of our belief, that we must reserve; we can’t hope to know others until we move, if only an inch closer, toward a fuller knowledge of ourselves.