Study Guide

Confessions

by Aurelius Augustinus

Confessions Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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 himself.

In the second book Augustine confesses two failings, lust and thievery. He admits to having run wild sexually, because he could not distinguish between true love and mere casual sexuality. He thinks that he should have listened more carefully to the scriptural admonition that he who is married will be more concerned with pleasing a wife than with God’s claim. His lust gripped him in his sixteenth year and was to trouble him for some time to come. The youth apparently had it too easy, partly because his father provided for too many of his wants, caring more for his son’s earthly success than for his spiritual growth. As for stealing, Augustine tells of robbing from a pear tree near his family’s property, glorying not in the eating of the fruit but in doing that which was forbidden.

In book 3 we learn that the narrator moved to Carthage and found himself “in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.” Friendship became perverted by lewdness and then, caught in “a snare of my own choosing,” he fell in love. This led to jealousy, fear, anger, and quarreling. At the same time the theater, looked on with great suspicion by the Church, attracted him. Yet in the midst of this, Augustine recognizes that God watched over him faithfully. While pursuing his ambition to be a good speaker, Augustine was introduced to the work of Cicero, and this encounter with the pagan writer had an enormous impact on the future saint. It altered his prayers, and his search turned from empty dreams to the “passion for the wisdom of eternal truth.” With the financial support of his mother, his father having died two years previously, when Augustine was seventeen, he pursued the study of Scripture with something beyond the understanding of the proud. The youth kept to many of his bad habits, however, but his mother, Monica (later to be canonized as a saint), prayed for him unceasingly, particularly after a dream that consoled her about her son and after a bishop told her to persevere in her prayers and they would be answered.

The years from age nineteen to twenty-eight are the time span covered in book 4. During this period, Augustine taught the art of public speaking. It was a time, he writes, when he was led astray and when he led others astray as well. He also had a mistress then, whom he does not name, and she was his only lover at the time—he remained faithful to her. As a writer his skills developed, and he won a poetry competition while flirting with astrology, which he later dropped. The severe illness of a friend was the cause of much reflection for Augustine. What baptism meant to the ill young man impressed the author deeply, and when the friend died, Augustine became frightened in contemplating his own end. This did not keep him from writing a multivolume work he called Beauty and Proportion, the manuscript of which was lost and never recovered. Some thoughts on those topics, however, are shared with the reader of the Confessions. Among the conclusions is Augustine’s notion that in goodness, there is unity, but in evil, some kind of disunion.

The next segment of the Confessions represents the autobiographer’s twenty-ninth year, a time when he was drawn ever closer to God. Initially his interest was in Manichaean theology. (Mani, the founder of this heretical sect, advocated a dualistic doctrine that regarded matter as evil, the spirit as good.) For nearly nine years, Augustine had hoped to...

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Confessions Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 utterance or unstudied outpouring, moving from topic to topic and implying qualities of cross-examination. He depicts faith seeking understanding, with each having its own role, in harmony with the other. Augustine’s address to God proclaims how his confusion and despair were altered into the very means by which he is to see himself clearly for the first time before God and how God’s providence protected him.

Augustine puts readers in the position of hearing a soliloquy, a word he may have invented; it involves preestablished terms of conflict regarding characters and events associated with other times and places. Readers participate with Augustine in his questioning, there being no knowledge without it.

Moreover, in Confessions Augustine combines features of prose and verse. He uses poetic devices—simile, metaphor, rhythm, and literary vocabulary—to convey concentrated imaginative experience. Still, he writes with a quality of realism, of fidelity to fact, in a style close to everyday speech, as in a letter to a friend—in this instance, to God. As a prose poem, Confessions conveys a...

(The entire section is 1062 words.)

Confessions Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)