We have just started working on Book 2 of Augustine’s Confessions in my upper level Latin prose course. My choice of this text was sort of the result of a perfect storm last spring. I was teaching a course, Intellectual Traditions II – Medieval to Renaissance, for the Honors Program here at the U and the Confessions was one of our common texts. I also had a student in my second year Latin poetry class who was interested in working on Augustine.
We’re just a week into the text, but it is one of the best things I have read in Latin in quite a while. I'd read bits and pieces of Augustine over the years, but I'd never really sat down and worked through a big chunk like this. His language is viscerally descriptive and his style is clear and straightforward. The biggest difficulty for my students, and myself too, is the vocabulary. We spent the first ten weeks of the semester reading Cicero's Pro Caelio. Augustine uses words that often seem familiar at first glance, from English derivatives, but they are Latin words that aren't encountered in Cicero or have unexpected nuances. It's a great read for someone who likes to pour through dictionaries, because the definition one needs is often near the bottom of the entry.
The real draw back to reading the Confessions with undergraduates, who have essentially studied only Latin texts from the late first century B.C.E., is that there is not a good student commentary. O’Donnell's text and commentary is great for tying the text into the traditions of early Christianity and the philosophical context, as is Gillian Clark's Cambridge edition, but they aren't of much assistance to a student who is still mastering grammar and dealing with the overload of new vocabulary and idiom. So over the weekend I started thinking about what a good student commentary would consist of, and today I proposed to my students that we could develop a commentary on Book 2 for students like themselves.
We did a little brain storming in class about what a good commentary should look like. I took in half a dozen commentaries of various sorts and had my students flip through them and identify the things they liked and didn't like. Perhaps not surprisingly they were very much in favor of those texts that included a bit of Latin, vocabulary notes, and grammar explanations in separate sections on facing pages, like Cerutti's Pro Archia (2006) published by Bolchazy-Carducci or Steadman's self-published Plato's Symposium (2009). Besides the obvious convenience of this layout, one student pointed out that since there is relatively little Latin text on each page it makes you feel like you’re really making progress on the text. They were also in favor of diagrams of complex sentences. Specifically for Augustine we agreed that it would be nice to have a vocabulary that included definitions that would be appropriate for the specific context of the confessions, but also include a follow up of basic or classical definitions that one might have encountered, or will, in reading other texts as they continue their studies. We're working largely from O’Donnell’s commentary via stoa.org and we also decided we’d like to have more on the Roman side of things in terms of cultural content. These are students who are not exposed much to material from the later Roman Empire due both to the research interests and scholarly strengths of the faculty and also the design of our curriculum. So some contextual essays would also be helpful.
I left them to ponder this ideal commentary until our meeting on Wednesday. I offered to substitute working toward creating such a commentary for their planned translation final. In addition, I suggested that we could do this work with the aim of publishing an open access student commentary on Book 2 of the Confessions, with all contributors getting publication credit to add to their CV. I really like this idea for a number of reasons. First and foremost it will get them working with their dictionaries and grammars and then making the hard choices about meanings of words and types of constructions. Depending on how we break down the work, they will also have the chance to think and write about the cultural context of the text.