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Who would dare interrupt

February 9, 2015

There’s a curious moment in Book VI of Augustine’s Confessions where he describes a visit he made to Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, to ask for his advice. Ambrose had no door blocking the entrance to his study, and Augustine simply walked in, only to find Ambrose reading:

Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room–for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him–we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence–for who would dare interrupt one so intent?–we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business.
–VI.iii

A lovely description of perhaps the first recorded act of silent reading. But what does it mean? Despite Augustine’s obvious desire to portray Ambrose in as positive a light as possible, the behavior he describes doesn’t seem particularly charitable. So why mention it at all?

Well, maybe Augustine felt obliged to defend Ambrose against a criticism that had already been leveled against him. Or maybe silent reading really was a novelty whose historical importance Augustine realized. But if we go looking for a less deflationary explanation, it’s easy enough to find; just compare Augustine’s description, in Book IV, of the reason why grief fades with the passage of time:

This is the way of things. This is the lot thou hast given them, because they are part of things which do not all exist at the same time, but by passing away and succeeding each other they all make up the universe, of which they are all parts. For example, our speech is accomplished by sounds which signify meanings, but a meaning is not complete unless one word passes away, when it has sounded its part, so that the next may follow after it. Let my soul praise thee, in all these things, O God, the Creator of all; but let not my soul be stuck to these things by the glue of love, through the senses of the body. For they go where they were meant to go, that they may exist no longer.
–IV.x

And he goes on to wonder, not only why he failed to understand this at the time, but why he still fails to understand it:

Why then, my perverse soul, do you go on following your flesh? Instead, let it be converted so as to follow you. Whatever you feel through it is but partial. You do not know the whole, of which sensations are but parts; and yet the parts delight you. But if my physical senses had been able to comprehend the whole–and had not as a part of their punishment received only a portion of the whole as their own province–you would then desire that whatever exists in the present time should also pass away so that the whole might please you more. For what we speak, you also hear through physical sensation, and yet you would not wish that the syllables should remain. Instead, you wish them to fly past so that others may follow them, and the whole be heard. Thus it is always that when any single thing is composed of many parts which do not coexist simultaneously, the whole gives more delight than the parts could ever do perceived separately. But far better than all this is He who made it all. He is our God and he does not pass away, for there is nothing to take his place.
–IV.xi

So the world is like a sentence (spoken, presumably, by God); and to hold on too tightly to any one object within it, would be like interrupting the speaker mid-sentence because you wished he had not moved on from a word you liked. Or, what is the same thing, would be like paying no attention to the rest of the sentence because the sound of a word sent you into a reverie.

Perhaps no one can listen with complete attention to the entirety of God’s world. But when reading the Scriptures, at least, Ambrose knows how to pass silently, without rhetorical distraction, from the syllables to the sense, in a way that makes it unthinkable to interrupt him. No wonder Augustine admired him most of all his teachers.

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