Summary

(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...

(The entire section is 2014 words.)