In a Garden in Milan

Adam Phillips

  • Confessions: A New Translation by Augustine, translated by Peter Constantine
    Liveright, 329 pp, £22.99, February 2018, ISBN 978 0 87140 714 6

Early on in Emmanuel Carrère’s remarkable novel The Kingdom (2014), about the vagaries of Christian conversion, the narrator tells us that his unhappy mother always knew of the ‘inner kingdom’ – ‘the only one that’s really worth aspiring to: the treasure for which the Gospel tells us to renounce all riches’ – but that she had been irresistibly tempted by worldly pleasures. ‘Her difficult personal history,’ he writes, ‘made these riches – success, social status, popular acclaim – infinitely desirable for her, and she spent her life going after them.’ And yet there was always ‘a voice reminding her that … the true combat takes place elsewhere. It’s to hear this voice that she has read St Augustine her whole life, almost in secret’ – ‘almost in secret’ suggesting that she wasn’t quite sure who she wanted to be, or wanted to be seen to be, by herself in particular. Such choices, she would have found by reading Confessions, are utterly spurious; indeed to think of one’s life in terms of them is just one more sign of corruption. You read Confessions to find out what it is to become and to be a believer. To live a life in which there is nothing but God. ‘All my wealth that is not my God is poverty,’ the converted Augustine realised. Only a life lived in the acknowledged service of God had any value. Augustine was not a pluralist.

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