Context

Saint Augustine, the greatest theologian of the disintegrating ancient Roman world, came to Christian faith partly “from the outside” after a trying spiritual and intellectual pilgrimage. His Confessions recounts episodes from a restless life finally blessed by religious peace and certainty. The work opens and closes with ardent praise for God’s goodness and mercy. The details of Augustine’s autobiographical passages achieve significance only in the focus of a deeply experienced conversion. After the conversion, Augustine sees everything from a new perspective.

The book is the first and perhaps most universally read of its genre. Examples of this type of literature in the modern world can be found in aspects of the novel and in straightforward autobiographies. Perhaps no other Christian writing of its kind has so influenced despairing persons or suggested so wide a range of psychological insights into the human quest after religious meaning in existence. Augustine writes of guilt and forgiveness from the vantage point of one who, threatened by the apparent worthlessness of life and haunted by a terrifying realization of the nature of human egoism, overcomes anxiety through a self-authenticating faith in Christ. In a world of chaos and impending destruction this faith speaks out joyously and compellingly in the Confessions.

Reinterpreting the Past

The psychology of human belief is such that, given any series of experiences, people can reinterpret the significance of earlier items in the light of later ones. Likewise, people can judge the significance of any later experience in terms of an earlier one. People’s judgments about what is important in their experiences need not follow a simple chronological ordering. Augustine writes like a man who obviously judges that an item in his experience is not only centrally but also, in some sense, finally crucial. He reports this conversion experience in book 7 of his Confessions. The significance of all his experiences is to be decided in relation to his achievement of God’s “grace”; however, that experience is final, self-authenticating, and in principle beyond any possibility of doubt or reinterpretation. It is also the standard measure of value. Consequently, Augustine’s conversion to the Christian faith leads him to reconsider even selected aspects of his earlier life in its light. Among these are his childhood sins, including a youthful theft of some pears; his strong sexual appetites, which drew him to concubines and produced an illegitimate son; his philosophical “errors” prior to the discovery of his Christian “truth”; and his relations with a beloved Christian mother and half-pagan father.

The Confessions includes confidential admissions of a man who seems preoccupied with the problem of human guilt, even inordinately so. Augustine’s association of Christian faith with sexual abstinence explains the extent of his guilt feelings—though, of course, it does not explain the Christian emphasis on asceticism. So difficult and austere a standard of human conduct, once applied in human practice, may well cause even earlier slight transgressions to appear momentous. Such reasoning may well enable an unsympathetic reader to understand Augustine’s otherwise puzzling concern about a childish theft of pears. Given a Christian belief in the basic sinfulness of human acts, even seemingly trivial actions may take on great personal significance—since formerly trivial items making up a great part of an individual’s personal life will be those very ones over which convinced Christians will think they should have control. It is as if, following his conversion, Augustine wants to say that how sinful humankind really is may be learned from an examination of seemingly unimportant acts of his, including those of his childhood.

An Intellectual and Spiritual Quest

Two major currents dominate the predominately autobiographical books of Confessions (books 1 through 9). One current is an apologetic account of Augustine’s intellectual search after comprehension or wisdom among some of the important “schools” popular in fourth century Roman civilization. The other is a current of continuous intellectual rootlessness—a sense of “being taken in” by a philosophical position that proves only temporarily satisfying. He describes the reasoned effort to understand the meaning of human existence in philosophical terms, which goes side by side with the experienced failure of each tentatively grasped solution. The certainty for which Augustine thirsts is not to be found in philosophy alone. Faith, and only Christian faith, is able to bring certainty, but his intellectual restlessness continues even after conversion. This restlessness receives serious attention in the contents of books 10 through 13. Nonetheless, even the philosophical quest has altered. Where previously faith was to be judged by reason, now reason is to be employed in a context involving faith.

Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual quest lasted from his nineteenth until his thirty-third year. At that age, he experienced total conversion to Christianity. He tells how, reading from Cicero, he earlier became interested in religious issues and even turned to the Scriptures without understanding; he “was not such as could enter into it, or...

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Evil, Time, and Memory

The remainder of the Confessions is devoted to discussions of specific religious and philosophical topics. Three problems dominate the later books. One is the problem of evil, which had proved such a stumbling block to Augustine’s acceptance of the Christian faith. Two others are time and memory, discussed in books 10 and 11, respectively. Divorced from the autobiographical nature of the earlier books, books 10 through 13 contain some of the most significant of Augustine’s intellectual reflections. These books indicate the extensiveness of Augustine’s intellectual questioning following his emotional conversion. These books also discuss the biblical notion of the creation of the world as well as the ways in which Scripture may be interpreted.

Because the Christian faith requires beliefs that do not always seem to meet the demands of reason, Augustine’s anguished effort to understand the origin and nature of evil proved a persistent one. His first step involved denying the Manichean dualism that made God finite and evil an objective reality. If evil were real, then God as the cause of all created things would have to contain positive evil. Intellectually, a part of Augustine’s development here resulted from his reading of Platonist writers. God is to be viewed as eternal rather than as infinite. Therefore, no spatial or temporal being could be God. Yet the problem of evil remained. How can an eternal God as creator of a temporal-spatial order produce anything evil? The demands of the Christian faith permitted only one solution—the denial that evil is a substance, a genuinely objective existent.

Augustine later confesses: “And I sought whence is evil,’ and sought in an evil way; and saw not the evil in my very search.” There can be no positive evil in the world, according to Augustine’s final position on the matter. There is corruption, of course. This includes the corruption of people’s will. However, the perversion of the human will is a human responsibility; God cannot be seen as the cause of such perversion. Corruption is rather the absence of good, a privation and a lack rather than a positively existing thing. It is the failure of parts of the system of Creation to harmonize for which God is not causally responsible. It is doubtful that Augustine’s “solution” of the problem of evil is a clearly rational one. Rather it seems to follow from the need of faith to discover a satisfactory position that will not involve denial of God’s immutability. Whatever has been caused by God to exist must be good. Evil cannot therefore possess a positive existence. It must be treated as an absence of positive goodness. Because God is a creator—though not of a universe in time since there could have been no time before the world’s existence—his immutability and absolute goodness exclude the possibility that anything could be evil from God’s perspective. The parts alone and not the whole of Creation can include evil even as privation. If one’s faith demands the denial of genuinely existing evil, clearly, then, whatever corruption may exist results from humankind’s will. This corruption is to be cured, for Augustine, by faith in “my inmost Physician.” In other writings, he defends his argument that God’s foreknowledge of events is not incompatible with human freedom; God’s foreknowledge of how people will act is not the cause of such action.

Yet Augustine’s mental inquiry continued long after his conversion. The philosopher in him would not completely give way to faith. One example is his discussion of the human memory. Although inconclusive, this discussion raises a number of fascinating questions about the phenomenon of human mental activity. The fact of faith is that Augustine loves his God. However, what is it that he loves? He knows this is a unique kind of love, but he desires some clear notion of the nature of its object. He does not love bodily beauty, light, melodies, harmony of time, or the earth when he loves God. What then can he love? The earth answers when asked:...

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Additional Reading

Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1946. Out of fifty-seven volumes in this collection of early Christian theologians, eight volumes (9, 12, 15, 22, 29, 30, 41, and 42) are devoted to Saint Augustine. Includes background and biographical material. Helps in understanding Augustine’s doctrinal views.

Augustine, Saint. The Essentials of Augustine. Selected with commentary by Vernon J. Bourke. New York: New American Library, 1964. A topical collection of excerpts from Augustine’s major writings.

Augustine, Saint. Saint Augustine’s Childhood: Confessiones. Edited and translated by Garry Wills. New York: Viking, 2001....

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Bibliography

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Sources for Further Study

Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1946. Out of fifty-seven volumes in this collection of early Christian theologians, eight volumes (9, 12, 15, 22, 29, 30, 41, and 42) are devoted to Saint Augustine. Includes background and biographical material. Helps in understanding Augustine’s doctrinal views.

Augustine, Saint. The Essentials of Augustine. Selected with commentary by Vernon J. Bourke. New York: New American Library, 1964. A topical collection of excerpts from Augustine’s major writings.

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(The entire section is 743 words.)