Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Reformed Irenicism

Robert Louis Stevenson on Augustine (Updated)

In a letter of 1884 to Sidney Colvin, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the following:1

Did you ever read St. Augustine? The first chapters of the CONFESSIONS are marked by a commanding genius. Shakespearian in depth. I was struck dumb, but, alas! when you begin to wander into controversy, the poet drops out. His description of infancy is most seizing. And how is this: ‘Sed majorum nugae negotia vocantur; puerorum autem talia cum sint puniuntur a majoribus.’ Which is quite after the heart of R. L. S. See also his splendid passage about the ‘luminosus limes amicitiae’ and the ‘nebulae de limosa concupiscentia carnis’; going on ‘UTRUMQUE in confuso aestuabat et rapiebat imbecillam aetatem per abrupta cupiditatum.’ That ‘Utrumque’ is a real contribution to life’s science. Lust ALONE is but a pigmy; but it never, or rarely, attacks us single- handed.

The first passage Stevenson cites is from 1.9.15: “But the trifles of adults are called ‘business’; however, when such behavior [to avoid one’s duties for the sake of playing games] is found in boys it is punished by adults.” Stevenson is quite sympathetic to Augustine’s concern about the hypocrisy of adults who punish children for things that they do themselves, only with much higher stakes and more disastrous consequences.

The second passage is from 2.2.2, but there is a crucial ellipsis in Stevenson’s citation which may obscure its point. Stevenson refers to the “light-filled boundary of friendship” and “the vapor from the muddy lust of the flesh”; he then goes on, “Both were seething in confusion and were driving my weak age over the precipices of my desires.” Stevenson lays much stress on utrumque (“a real contribution to life’s science”). This is perhaps because he believes that the point is that lust is almost always accompanied by other sins and temptations, and therein lies a great deal of its danger; or else he takes utrumque as a reference to amicitia and concupiscentia, which would be closer to the mark, but would require us to see friendship, amicitia, as an ally in the attack of lust, concupiscentiaUpdate: Returning to this three years later (retractatio!), I’d like to clarify two things from the previous sentence. First, taking utrumque as a reference to amicitia and concupiscentia would indeed be closer to the mark, but what I should have added is that Augustine’s reference with “each” (utrumque) is to serenitas dilectionis and caligine libidinis, “the serenity of friendship” and “the fog of lust,” and that that is what is contained in the ellipsis in the citation. Second, I misunderstood–I think–what Stevenson meant: not that “friendship” or “the serenity of love” would properly be “allies” of lust but rather that part of the difficulty of lust is precisely the way in which it becomes confused with and embroiled in other innocent affections and so makes its attack. If we could see it with clear eyes, we would see it for the mean and squalid thing it is, and would more easily resist it. When it becomes confused with love, things go awry. If I was going to use the term “ally,” I should at least have said “unwitting ally” in order to make Stevenson’s meaning clear.

Here is a fuller version of the text:

…sed exhalabantur nebulae de limosa concupiscentia carnis et scatebra pubertatis et obnubilabant atque obfuscabant cor meum, ut non discerneretur serenitas dilectionis a caligine libidinis. utrumque in confuso aestuebat et rapiebat imbecillam aetatem per abrupta cupiditatum….

…but a vapor was rising from the muddy lust of the flesh and the gushing of puberty and was overclouding and was darkening my heart, with the result that the calm of love could not be distinguished from the fog of lust. Both were seething in confusion and were driving my weak age over the precipices of my desires….

What the utrumque actually refers to, then, is dilectio and libido (which are parallel to limes amicitiae and limosa concupiscentia). Everything in Augustine was in such a state of confusion that he couldn’t tell love from lust; all was disordered. This may not be quite the point that Stevenson was making in referring to a manifold rather than single-handed attack.2 Still, I was very happy to learn of this discussion in his letters, and he is doubtless correct to call it a “splendid passage.’ And, while I may be over- or misreading Stevenson, I agree with his observation in and of itself, that the utrumque is, in fact, “a real contribution to life’s science”3

  1. I owe the reference to a note on Confessions 2.2.2 in the commentary of John Gibb and William Montgomery (Cambridge, 1908).
  2. Interestingly enough, James O’Donnell, in his commentary on the Confessions, refers to Stevenson in his remarks on the preceding paragraph, 2.1.1, for a completely different reason: the adolescent Augustine, rotting on the inside while trying to be pleasing to the eyes on the outside, is like Jekyll and Hyde.
  3. Stevenson’s closing paragraph is worth quoting, not because it is relevant to the foregoing, but just because it is interesting: “I also read PETRONIUS ARBITER, which is a rum work, not so immoral as most modern works, but singularly silly. I tackled some Tacitus too. I got them with a dreadful French crib on the same page with the text, which helps me along and drives me mad. The French do not even try to translate. They try to be much more classical than the classics, with astounding results of barrenness and tedium. Tacitus, I fear, was too solid for me. I liked the war part; but the dreary intriguing at Rome was too much.”

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

2 replies on “Robert Louis Stevenson on Augustine (Updated)”

E.J., I wonder if ‘limes’ should be ‘path’ or ‘track’ rather than ‘boundary’. While the latter is an extended meaning of limes, the former definitions seem to set a better pun with the subsequent ‘limosa’ and better able to bear the adjective luminosa. I first thought you had misread limen, but then I saw that limes can bear that meaning.

Dear David,

Yes,Chadwick and Pilkington both translate as you suggest; Pusey translates “boundary”; I haven’t checked any others. But I think that both meanings are present, actually. There’s a good bit of talk about “measure,” “boundary,” etc. in these paragraphs, so: sed non tenebatur modus ab animo usque ad animum right before what is cited above, and in the next paragraph he refers to the proper finis of marriage (si tranquillitas in eis non poterat esse fine procreandorum liberorum contenta). But Augustine at this point did not observe these proper boundaries (and paths)–e.g., intellectual friendship (ab animo usque ad animum) or marital fidelity–choosing confusion and fornication instead. Since he was both off the track and past proper limits, I’d say, he drove himself headlong over the precipice (a good boundary if ever there was one!). So I would want to say that there is perhaps a purposeful ambiguity here (transgressing God’s boundaries is a way of wandering off to a far country for Augustine), and (luminosa) limes is especially useful because of the soundplay with limosa.

Thanks for your comment.


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