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Confessions and Othello: A comparative study

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Abstract

Augustine treats this autobiography as much more than an opportunity to recount his life, however, and there is hardly an event mentioned that does not have an accompanying religious or philosophical explication. Othello, a tragic play demonstrates three kind of powers:- Wit, which discovers partial likeness hidden in general diversity; subtlety, which discovers the diversity concealed in general apparent sameness;—and profundity, which discovers an essential unity under all the semblances of difference.

Confessions and Othello: A comparative study

Augustine’s Confessions is a diverse blend of autobiography, philosophy, theology, and critical exegesis of the Christian Bible. The first nine Books (or chapters) of the work trace the story of Augustine’s life, from his birth (354 A.D.) up to the events that took place just after his conversion to Catholicism (386 A.D.). Augustine treats this autobiography as much more than an opportunity to recount his life, however, and there is hardly an event mentioned that does not have an accompanying religious or philosophical explication. In fact, the events that Augustine chooses to recount are selected mainly with a view to these larger issues.

Othello, a tragic play demonstrates three kind of powers:- Wit, which discovers partial likeness hidden in general diversity; subtlety, which discovers the diversity concealed in general apparent sameness;—and profundity, which discovers an essential unity under all the semblances of difference. Give to a subtle man fancy, and he is a wit; to a deep man imagination, and he is a philosopher. Add, again, pleasurable sensibility in the threefold form of sympathy with the interesting in morals, the impressive in form, and the harmonious in sound,—and you have the poet. But combine all,—wit, subtlety, and fancy, with profundity, imagination, and moral and physical susceptibility of the pleasurable,—and let the object of action be man universal; and we shall have—O, rash prophecy! say, rather, we have—a SHAKSPEARE!

Like a colossus bestriding two worlds, Augustine stands as the last patristic and the first medieval father of Western Christianity. He gathered together and conserved all the main motifs of Latin Christianity from Tertullian to Ambrose; he appropriated the heritage of Nicene orthodoxy; he was a Chalcedonian before Chalcedon–and he drew all this into an unsystematic synthesis which is still our best mirror of the heart and mind of the Christian community in the Roman Empire. More than this, he freely received and deliberately reconsecrated the religious philosophy of the Greco-Roman world to a new apologetic use in maintaining the intelligibility of the Christian proclamation.  At the same time, it was this essentially conservative genius who recast the patristic tradition into the new pattern by which European Christianity would be largely shaped and who, with relatively little interest in historical detail, wrought out the first comprehensive “philosophy of history.”  He was less a reformer of the Church than the defender of the Church’s faith. His own self-chosen project was to save Christianity from the disruption of heresy and the calumnies of the pagans, and, above everything else, to renew and exalt the faithful hearing of the gospel of man’s utter need and God’s abundant grace. Wherever one touches the Middle Ages, he finds the marks of Augustine’s influence, powerful and pervasive–even Aquinas is more of an Augustinian at heart than a “proper” Aristotelian. In the Protestant Reformation, the evangelical elements in Augustine’s thought were appealed to in condemnation of the corruptions of popular Catholicism–yet even those corruptions had a certain right of appeal to some of the non-evangelical aspects of Augustine’s thought and life. A succinct characterization of Augustine is impossible, not only because his thought is so extraordinarily complex and his expository method so incurably digressive, but also because throughout his entire career there were lively tensions and massive prejudices in his heart and head. His doctrine of God holds the Plotinian notions of divine unity and remotion in tension with the Biblical emphasis upon the sovereign God’s active involvement in creation and redemption. For all his devotion to Jesus Christ, this theology was never adequately Christocentric, and this reflects itself in many ways in his practical conception of the Christian life. He did not invent the doctrines of original sin and seminal transmission of guilt but he did set them as cornerstones in his “system,” matching them with a doctrine of infant baptism which cancels, ex opere operato, birth sin and hereditary guilt.  He never denied the reality of human freedom and never allowed the excuse of human irresponsibility before God–but against all detractors of the primacy of God’s grace, he vigorously insisted on both double predestination and irresistible grace.

IT has been said that tragedy purifies the affections by terror and pity. That is, it substitutes imaginary sympathy for mere selfishness. It gives us a high and permanent interest, beyond ourselves, in humanity as such. It raises the great, the remote, and the possible to an equality with the real, the little and the near. It makes man a partaker with his kind. It subdues and softens the stubbornness of his will. It teaches him that there are and have been others like himself, by showing him as in a glass what they have felt, thought, and done. It opens the chambers of the human heart. It leaves nothing indifferent to us that can affect our common nature. It excites our sensibility by exhibiting the passions wound up to the utmost pitch by the power of imagination or the temptation of circumstances; and corrects their fatal excesses in ourselves by pointing to the greater extent of sufferings and of crimes to which they have led others. Tragedy creates a balance of the affections. It makes us thoughtful spectators in the lists of life. It is the refiner of the species; a discipline of humanity. The habitual study of poetry and works of imagination is one chief part of a well-grounded education. A taste for liberal art is necessary to complete the character of a gentleman. Science alone is hard and mechanical. It exercises the understanding upon things out of ourselves, while it leaves the affections unemployed, or engrossed with our own immediate, narrow interests.—OTHELLO furnishes an illustration of these remarks. It excites our sympathy in an extraordinary degree. The moral it conveys has a closer application to the concerns of human life than that of almost any other of Shakespear’s plays. “It comes directly home to the bosoms and business of men.”

The picturesque contrasts of character in this play are almost as remarkable as the depth of the passion. The Moor Othello, the gentle Desdemona, the villain Iago, the good-natured Cassio, the fool Roderigo, present a range and variety of character as striking and palpable as that produced by the opposition of costume in a picture. Their distinguishing qualities stand out to the mind’s eye, so that even when we are not thinking of their actions or sentiments, the idea of their persons is still as present to us as ever. These characters and the images they stamp upon the mind are the farthest asunder possible, the distance between them is immense: yet the compass of knowledge and invention which the poet has shewn in embodying these extreme creations of his genius is only greater than the truth and felicity with which he has identified each character with itself, or blended their different qualities together in the same story

Augustine had no system–but he did have a stable and coherent Christian outlook. Moreover, he had an unwearied, ardent concern: man’s salvation from his hopeless plight, through the gracious action of God’s redeeming love. To understand and interpret this was his one endeavor, and to this task he devoted his entire genius.

 

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