Excerpt from the Confessions
Published in Confessions and Enchiridion, 1955
"I was not in love as yet, but I was in love with love; and, from a hidden hunger, I hated myself for not feeling more intensely a sense of hunger. I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving."
Perhaps no figure in medieval Christianity was as admired and influential as Augustine (aw-GUS-tin; 354–430). Yet he was a man not only of the Middle Ages, but also of ancient times: he grew up in a world still dominated by the Western Roman Empire, but lived to see the beginning of its end. In this confused, changing environment, Augustine's writings presented an all-embracing view of Christian faith as the one solid rock in a sea of uncertainty.
Augustine grew up in North Africa, which was then part of the Roman Empire, and studied in Carthage. The latter city, located in what is now Tunisia, was a great center of learning—but it was also, as he made clear in his Confessions, a place where a young man could get into a great deal of mischief. While there, Augustine became involved in a number of sexual relationships, one of which resulted in the birth of a son; spent time with a gang of troublemakers called the "wreckers"; and flirted with a faith called Manichaeism (manuh-KEE-izm), which the Church later declared a heresy (HAIR-uh-see), or a belief that goes against established teachings. But it was also in Carthage that Augustine was first set
on the path that led to his acceptance of Christianity more than ten years later.
Augustine went on to become one of the greatest defenders of the Christian faith, and after his death he was honored as a saint and early father of the Church. Yet in his Confessions, he laid bare his soul, showing the depths of his inner confusion and the many wrong things he had done in his youth. The book is addressed to God, and is one of the most deeply personal works ever written. In fact, it could be properly called the first real autobiography, or personal history, because it is not nearly as concerned with outside events as it is with the inner life of Augustine himself.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the Confessions
- As Augustine notes in the passage that follows, he became "a master in the School of Rhetoric" (RET-uh-rik)—that is, the art of writing and speaking. The first paragraph is among the most widely admired parts of the Confessions, and indeed of medieval literature, displaying as it does a finely tuned sense of balance: not only are his words well chosen, but his placement of them results in a finely crafted piece of literature. His love of rhetoric and learning, in fact, helped put him on the path to God: in the writings of Cicero (106–43 B.C.), a Roman orator or speaker, Augustine first discovered a hunger for higher things. The work to which he refers, the Hortensius, has been lost to history, and in fact most knowledge of it comes from Augustine's writings.
- Many young people can relate to Augustine's experience of having been "in love with love." In fact, much of what happened to him in Carthage sounds like a tale of troubled youth today: sexual experimentation, unwanted pregnancy, even a brief involvement with a street gang of sorts. The latter were the "wreckers," a group of young student hoodlums, but Augustine never became fully a part of the gang: compared to them, he says, he was "relatively sedate" or calm.
- The Confessions is addressed to God; hence Augustine's use of the second person (e.g., "you"), though in his case he uses the older thou. The passage is also filled with a clear sense of evil's existence: he refers, for instance, to his "obedience of devils, to whom I made offerings of my wicked deeds"—meaning that by committing sinful acts, he was serving the devil.
- At the time of the events described in this passage, Augustine was nineteen, and his father had died just two years before. This meant that his family's financial situation was shaky, and therefore he had to study "not to sharpen my tongue," but so that he could get a job. This passage is the only place in the Confessions where he even mentions the death of his father; by contrast, his mother was a major influence on him throughout his life. As Augustine makes clear throughout the book, in place of an earthly father he found God, the heavenly father.
Excerpt from the Confessions
1. I came to Carthage, where a caldron of unholy loves was seething and bubbling all around me. I was not in love as yet, but I was in love with love; and, from a hidden hunger, I hated myself for not feeling more intensely a sense of hunger. I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving, and I hated security and a smooth way, free from snares. Within me I had a dearth of that inner food which is thyself, my God—although that dearth caused me no hunger. And I remained without any appetite for incorruptible food—not because I was already filled with it, but because the emptier I became the more I loathed it. Because of this my soul was unhealthy; and, full of sores, it exuded itself forth, itching to be scratched by scraping on the things of the senses. Yet, had these things no soul, they would certainly not inspire our love.
To love and to be loved was sweet to me, and all the more when I gained the enjoyment of the body of the person I loved. Thus I polluted the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence and I dimmed its luster with the slime of lust. Yet, foul and unclean as I was, I still craved, in excessive vanity, to be thought elegant and urbane. And I did fall precipitately into the love I was longing for. My God, my mercy, with how much bitterness didst thou, out of thy infinite goodness, flavor that sweetness for me! For I was not only beloved but also I secretly reached the climax of enjoyment; and yet I was joyfully bound with troublesome tics, so that I could be scourged with the burning iron rods of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and strife….
5. And still thy faithful mercy hovered over me from afar. In what unseemly iniquities did I wear myself out, following a sacrilegious curiosity, which, having deserted thee, then began to drag me down into the treacherous abyss, into the beguiling obedience of devils, to whom I made offerings of my wicked deeds. And still in all this thou didst not fail to scourge me. I dared, even while thy solemn rites were being celebrated inside the walls of thy church, to desire and to plan a project which merited death as its fruit. For this thou didst chastise me with grievous punishments, but nothing in comparison with my fault, O thou my greatest mercy, my God, my refuge from those terrible dangers in which I wandered with stiff neck, receding farther from thee, loving my own ways and not thine—loving a vagrant liberty!
6. Those studies I was then pursuing, generally accounted as respectable, were aimed at distinction in the courts of law—to excel in which, the more crafty I was, the more I should be praised. Such is the blindness of men that they even glory in their blindness. And by this time I had become a master in the School of Rhetoric, and I rejoiced proudly in this honor and became inflated with arrogance. Still I was relatively sedate, O Lord, as thou knowest, and had no share in the wreckings of "The Wreckers" (for this stupid and diabolical name was regarded as the very badge of gallantry) among whom I lived with a sort of ashamed embarrassment that I was not even as they were. But I lived with them, and at times I was delighted with their friendship, even when I abhorred their acts (that is, their "wrecking") in which they insolently attacked the modesty of strangers, tormenting them by uncalled-for jeers, gratifying their mischievous mirth….
7. Among such as these, in that unstable period of my life, I studied the books of eloquence, for it was in eloquence that I was eager to be eminent, though from a reprehensible and vainglorious motive, and a delight in human vanity. In the ordinary course of study I came upon a certain book of Cicero's, whose language almost all admire, though not his heart. This particular book of his contains an exhortation to philosophy and was called Hortensius. Now it was this book which quite definitely changed my whole attitude and turned my prayers toward thee, O Lord, and gave me new hope and new desires. Suddenly every vain hope became worthless to me, and with an incredible warmth of heart I yearned for an immortality of wisdom and began now to arise that I might return to thee. It was not to sharpen my tongue further that I made use of that book. I was now nineteen; my father had been dead two years, and my mother was providing the money for my study of rhetoric. What won me in it [the Hortensius] was not its style but its substance.
8. How ardent was I then, my God, how ardent to fly from earthly things to thee! Nor did I know how thou wast even then dealing with me. For with thee is wisdom. In Greek the love of wisdom is called "philosophy," and it was with this love that that book inflamed me….
What happened next …
Augustine went on to become perhaps the greatest of the early Church fathers, men who established the foundations of medieval Christianity. During the last thirty-four years of his life, while serving as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine wrote hundreds of works, of which the Confessions and City of God (De civitate) are the most important.
The latter was a response to the sacking, or destruction, of Rome by an invading tribe called the Visigoths in 410. Whereas many Romans claimed that this misfortune had happened because they had rejected their old gods and embraced Christianity, Augustine argued that God was punishing them for exactly the opposite reason: because they had worshiped their idols for so long before embracing the true faith. Augustine died as his own adopted city of Hippo was being attacked by another tribe, the Vandals.
Did you know …
- The city of Carthage that Augustine knew had been built on the site of another Carthage, destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. Founded by Phoenician (foh-NEE-shun) colonists in the 800s B.C., Carthage had been an extremely powerful city-state, and had vied with Rome itself for control of the western Mediterranean. The two cities fought a series of conflicts called the Punic (PYOO-nik) Wars, of which the most notable figure was Hannibal (247–183 B.C.), a general from Carthage who conducted a brilliant military campaign in Italy. When the Romans destroyed Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, they sowed salt in the ground so that nothing would grow there; but 102 years later, in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.) established the new city of Carthage.
- The oldest city in North America was named after Augustine: St. Augustine, Florida, founded by a Spanish explorer in 1565. The pronunciation of the names is different, however: Whereas Augustine's name is pronounced "aw-GUS-tin," St. Augustine is pronounced "AW-gus-teen."
- There is another extremely well known autobiography called the Confessions, this one by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (ZHAHN ZHAHK roo-SOH; 1712–1778). A French philosopher and author who had a tremendous impact on the French Revolution of 1789, Rousseau deliberately chose the title as a reference to Augustine's earlier work. He, too, talked about the reckless misadventures of his youth—but whereas Augustine was sorry for the things he had done, Rousseau seems to have taken pride in his youthful excesses.
For More Information
Augustine. Confessions and Enchiridion. Translated and edited by Albert C. Outler. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955.
De Zeeuw, P. Augustine, the Farmer's Boy of Tagaste. Pella, IA: Inheritance Publications, 1998.
Hansel, Robert R. The Life of Saint Augustine. New York: F. Watts, 1968.
Augustine: Confessions. [Online] Available http://ccel.org/a/augustine/confessions/confessions-bod.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).