Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Books 1 through 9 of Saint Augustine’s Confessions are a kind of backward reflection, covering the period from the author’s birth to his religious conversion to Christianity. In books 10 through 12, Augustine no longer tells us about his past life but exercises a theological inquiry into memory, time, and creation. The final chapter, book 13, is also on the creation theme but as a confession to God, in rather direct style, of his faith.
Augustine begins by wondering whether one should first pray to God for help or to praise him and whether a person must first know God before calling on him for aid. In humility the author asks if there is something in himself that is fit to contain the infinite God. Also, he asks, why does God show such concern for this finite person? We learn that Augustine came from a household of believers (with the exception of his father) and learning was an important aspect of his early life. However, we read of what Augustine considers the sins he committed as a baby: crying too much over insignificant things, being selfish, and experiencing jealousy. Later he sinned by disobeying his parents. Even when his learning went well, he was guilty of more concern over the fate of characters in classic literature than in the state of his own soul. In games he cheated to win and asks, ironically, if this is the innocence of childhood. His sin, he concludes, was in looking for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in God but in...
(The entire section is 2014 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Augustine wrote Confessions when he was in his mid-forties, after he had joined the Church. He writes openly about his experiences, undaunted by those who, remembering his past life, would challenge the sincerity of his convictions. He traces how the power of God’s word can give victory over sin, closely following St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
In titling his book Confessions, which he intends to be plural, Augustine drew upon Latin words signifying more than the word “confession.” For him, confession means the admission or confession of sin; the profession, demonstration, or conviction of faith; and the praise of God. It also implies the sense of agreement that results when the believer accepts what the Bible says about sin and salvation. Augustine’s book registers confession, testimony, or witness in all of these ways.
In composing his Confessions, Augustine drew upon Roman and Greek literary forms, including the meditation, a personal and philosophical or spiritual reflection and self-examination, in the manner of the meditation written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Augustine also drew upon the dialogues of the Greek philosopher Plato and the Roman dialogues of Cicero.
In addition, Augustine includes qualities of prayer as a direct expression of an individual’s heart and mind to God, like David in the Psalms and Christ in the Gospels. He imparts a sense of spontaneous...
(The entire section is 1062 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Confessions was a new form in literature. Others, like Marcus Aurelius, had set down meditations, but this was different. Others had written biographies and autobiographies, but Saint Augustine did not follow that model exactly. True, he does tell about his life, but his method is a departure from a narrative of dates and events. He is more interested in his thievery of pears than in more important actions, and he makes the fruit as meaningful in his life as the Old Testament symbolism of the apples in the Garden of Eden. Other episodes are selected because of their revelation of the grace and provision of God. “I pass over many things, hastening on to those which more strongly compel me to confess to thee,” he tells the reader.
“My Confessions, in thirteen books,” writes Saint Augustine, looking back from the age of sixty-three at his various writings, “praise the righteous and good God as they speak either of my evil or good, and they are meant to excite men’s minds and affections toward him. . . . The first through the tenth books were written about myself, the other three about the Holy Scripture.” In the year before his death, writing to Darius, he declared: “Take the books of my Confessions and use them as a good man should. Here see me as I am and do not praise me for more than I am.” One may argue that it took the invention of the Christian faith to lead to the creation of the confession as a genre...
(The entire section is 1610 words.)