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...
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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 hear Faustus, the Manichaean bishop of great reputation, develop the theory of Mani. When at last the opportunity came, great disappointment accompanied the event. “He was a great decoy of the devil,” Augustine decided, one who was able to win disciples through charm rather than reason, his scholarship being very weak.
After this experience, Augustine decided to teach in Rome, and he left Carthage. On arrival in his new home, he became very ill but still had no desire to be baptized. On recovery, he began teaching literature and public speaking but later applied for work in Milan where he met Bishop Ambrose, who was to have a profoundly positive impact on him. Augustine’s interest in the Church grew, and he became a catechumen but chose not to go beyond that preparatory step at that time.
The faith and faithfulness of Augustine’s mother is told in book 6. Her remarkable devotion to her son is indicated, as is the influence of Bishop Ambrose, which was hinted at in the previous chapter. Augustine went to hear the great preacher every Sunday, and he came to realize that the web of deception woven around him by others could be broken. “From now on I began to prefer the Catholic teaching.” However, there was no instantaneous change in Augustine’s habits. He calls himself eager for fame, wealth, and marriage. An obstacle to this last was his mistress, who left him, with their son, vowing to accept the affections of no other man as she returned to Africa. Now thirty, Augustine was increasingly attracted to the Church, “But not so fast! This life is too Sweet.” So Augustine prepared to marry; his proposal was accepted, but the nuptials were put off for two years. Returning at least in part to his old ways, he took another mistress.
The author recognizes in the next book that his adolescence was gone and he was approaching maturity, yet his behavior grew more disgraceful and his self-delusion greater. From such introductory remarks, Augustine makes the transition to a discussion of the nature of evil, concluding that evil is the absence of good, and not caused by God. As this segment ends, Augustine tells how he was slowly being drawn into Christ’s orbit, particularly through intensive reading of the Scriptures.
The story of the episode that finally led to Augustine’s total embracing of Christianity comes in book 8. He writes of the influence that he felt from talking with Ambrose’s spiritual father, Simplicianus. Augustine was moved, too, in reading the story of Saint Anthony, the Egyptian monk who struggled so long and successfully to remain chaste, a condition the narrator admits to having approached this way in prayer: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” A terrific struggle, sometimes manifesting itself physically, took place in Augustine as he seemed to undergo a spiritual tug-of-war for his soul’s commitment. He got to the point where he tore his hair, hammered his forehead with his fists, and the like. The future saint was at once both attracted to heaven and resisting the call. The final push came when he randomly opened up a book containing the epistles of Saint Paul and read the first lines his eyes fell on, lines counseling against reveling and drunkenness. Needing no further sign, Augustine rushed to tell his mother of his newfound strength in faith, much to Monica’s great joy.
Book 9 may be considered the last chapter of the first—and considerably longest—section of the Confessions. Here Augustine describes his surrender to God: through Ambrose, through the Scriptures, and through like-minded companions who were baptized into the faith as Augustine was. This proved an emotionally overwhelming experience for him. He also tells of particular miracles: of Ambrose’s vision telling him where the uncorrupted bodies of two holy martyrs were to be located and how these “relics” were the occasion of cures of various physical maladies for a number of persons. While once again praising the virtues of his mother—who, like other good women of that era, understood her subservient role to her husband (master, according to the author)—Augustine renders a quite unflattering description of his father. However, the writer believes that through the efforts of the former, who died at age fifty-six, the latter was “won” for Christ.
There appears to be quite a break in the Augustinian technique beginning with book 10. The emphasis now is not so much on what happened but on examining what certain experiences might mean. What is God? he asks, having searched among all the things of the earth, the sea, the chasms of the deep, even into himself. The conclusion is that “He is the Life of the life of my soul.” Then comes a relatively long reflection on memory, where Augustine sees all as being preserved separately, according to category. He marvels at this ability to store up enormous treasures of knowledge and the senses, even suggesting that certain things must have been in his mind even before he had learned them. However, God lies beyond memory, in himself, above us, because “You are Truth.” God’s existence is not established by logic but must be accepted as a premise. Augustine asks the question why it is that when he preaches truth it sometimes engenders hostility, “although men love happiness which is simply the enjoyment of truth”? He decides that we love what is not true by pretending that it is.
One of the best-known sections of the Confessions is next, containing the author’s attempt to come to grips with the idea of time. He is moved to deal with this question because the Bible mentions creation but does not say what came before it. He concludes that time is nothing except in relation to temporal events.
Books 12 and 13 both contain analyses of creation with a look also, into the validity of the Scriptures. Most of Augustine’s efforts here are concentrated on the opening of Genesis. Yet the two chapters are quite different in approach. In the first part of this volume (1-9), the author describes his life as if he were an objective viewer, almost another person looking in on himself. In the next part (10-12), the narrator and the person whose life is being retold are one. The final section (13) still finds the “two Augustines,” but the tone here is considerably altered. As critics have observed, the writer is no longer presented as one in pursuit of a heavenly goal but rather as one who communicates and confesses to God directly his own understanding that faith is wisdom. The entire volume leads to this final point. Some have suggested that the last book, perhaps even the final four, was appended to Augustine’s work in later editions. However, the lack of unity of tone and voice is diminished in importance when the unity of approach leading up to the final confession of faith is noted.