In De cura pro mortuis gerenda, Augustine addresses the issue as to whether burial ad sanctos contributes to the well-being of the spirits of the deceased. In this context, he also discusses the value of burial in general. Augustine not only uses logical and biblical arguments, but derives some essential arguments from narratives as well. Up to now, the rhetorical force of the narratives in De cura and in other works by Augustine has been underexposed.
The approach to narratives proposed by Labov in Language in the Inner City (1972) may elucidate the argumentative function of Augustine’s narratives. The analysis by Labov of the global structure of oral narratives, which has been adapted for written narrative by, among others, Fleischman (1990: Tense and Narrativity), focuses on the alternation between the consecutive ‘phases’ or ‘episodes’ in a narrative, such as preparatory events, complicating acts, evaluating elements and the culmination or climax of the narrative.
One of Augustine’s narratives in De cura deals with the hermit John of Lycopolis appearing to a woman in her dream. This story also occurs in the Historia monachorum, a writing which Augustine may have known in the Latin translation by Rufinus. A comparison between the version in Historia monachorum and that in De cura along the lines of the analysis proposed by Labov and Fleischman shows how Augustine shifts the culmination of the events to another point in the story, and in this way carefully moulds the story into a narrative that fits in with the argument of De cura. Contrary to the narrative in Historia monachorum, in Augustine’s version of the story the climax does not coincide with the dream, but occurs earlier in the narrative, when John of Lycopolis announces his appearance in the woman’s dream and, at the same time, interprets the nature of this appearance as a mere image. As I intend to show in my short communication, Augustine’s rearrangement of the narrative is consistent with one of the important statements in De cura, viz. that a deceased appearing in a dream and asking to be buried does not coincide with the deceased in person, but is just an image.