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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...

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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

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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

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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 stoop my neck to follow its steps.” He turned next to the astrologers, hoping in some material mode to discover deity. In the process, he became obsessed by the problem of evil.

He came to Carthage as a teacher of rhetoric and, while “for this space of nine years . . . we lived seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving in divers lusts,” sought intellectual clarification among the Manichees, a group of people who thought a kind of divine knowledge was possible. He became disillusioned by a Manichee spokesperson, who proved unable to put some of Augustine’s doubts to rest. From Carthage, Augustine traveled to Rome. He did this against his mother’s entreaties. In Rome, he was temporarily attracted to the philosophical Academics, whose chief ability was criticism and whose philosophical tenets tended toward skepticism. Still concerned about evil—which he thought of as a kind of substance—Augustine became a catechumen in the Catholic Church. Moving to Milan, where he was at last joined by his mother, and continuing to live with the concubine who bore him a son, Augustine worried about evil, became attracted to the Platonic philosophers who sensed the ultimate unity of Being, heard Saint Ambrose preach, and after a trying emotional episode was converted to Christianity.

Evil, Time, and Memory

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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: “I am not he”; and heaven, moon, sun, and other created bodies reply only: “He made us.” Yet Augustine is certain he loves something when he loves God—”a kind of light, melody, fragrance, meat, embracement of my inner man.” Eventually, he seeks the answer within his own consciousness. “And behold, in me there present themselves to me soul, and body, one without, the other within.” God made his body, which is the corporeal aspect of his manhood. However, his body cannot tell him what he loves when he loves God. It must then be the soul (“mind”) by which Augustine can love his God. Mental activity must be the means by which one can know the object of one’s love in loving God; yet God must exist “beyond” one’s own mind. This concern with mental activity (“soul”) leads Augustine into his puzzlement over memory.

The memory enables Augustine to recall images rather at will, including images of the different separate senses such as touch and hearing. He can also recall items from his past personal life. He can combine these images freshly as well as consider future contingent possibilities. “Great is the force of this memory, excessive great, O my God”; so great, Augustine concludes, that it appears bottomless. Though it is by memory that Augustine knows whatever he does, he cannot comprehend the full extent of his self. “Therefore is the mind too strait to contain itself.” However, how can one get into one’s own mind? Whatever is known mentally as an image came originally through the senses, as Augustine knows well. Yet he now remembers images even in the dark that are not the objects originally sensed. The memory is also an active capacity that knows reasons, laws, and numbers. It is capable of cognition. His memory recalls notions of truth and falsity. It also contains emotions such as desire, joy, fear, and sorrow—which are the four great perturbations of the mind. He knows what he recognizes in naming memory but only by virtue of that which he names. Puzzlingly, Augustine even remembers forgetfulness. Augustine argues that remembering God is much like rummaging in the memory for something temporarily seeming to be lacking and finally saying, “This is it.” However, one, remembering, can never say, “This is it,” unless it is somehow a remembered thing that has been temporarily forgotten. “What then we have utterly forgotten, though lost, we cannot even seek after.”

Seeking God in the memory is, for Augustine, something like seeking happiness, if indeed they are not the same. However, in seeking, people are “looking” for something. If the mind is essential to this search, then what is sought after must be like something once known but now forgotten. To say that God resides in memory is to assert that God can be known through the agency of mental activity. Yet God cannot reside in a specific part of memory. It is ultimately a mystery. Loving God is like seeking happiness. The soul (“mind”) is nonetheless often tempted to seek knowledge of the object of its love through the senses. However, it is obvious that what the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and fingers sense are specific things—bodily things—greatly unlike God. A mind-body dualism is characteristic of Augustine’s thought. Though bodily things may be aspects of God’s creation, they are not God. Mental phenomena must be the means by which people can know God. Strangely, however, people do not always love God, at least not consciously. God must somehow reside in memory even when people’s mental activities are not searching for him. Coming to know God suggests a discovery. Augustine’s moving words express this: “Too late loved I Thee, O Thou beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! too late I loved thee!”

The nature of time also puzzles Augustine. This puzzlement arises partly from Augustine’s belief that in some sense God created the world from nothing. Yet on the view that time may be infinite, having no beginning or end, a skeptic may ask what God was doing before he created the world. Augustine refuses to commit himself to the notion of a finitely created spatial-temporal world. If time is infinite, then the world is equally so; and both time and the world exist as created by God. God’s creative act stands “outside” time. God is therefore eternal rather than infinite. This view probably stems from Plato’s influence. As eternal, God contains neither spatial nor temporal parts. God exists in an eternal “present,” possessing neither pastness nor futurity.

Augustine attempts to show how this view can prove meaningful through an analysis of the psychology of human time. People speak of things as past, present, and future. Clearly, the past and future are in some sense nonexistent. They do not exist except in relation to some present. The past is finished and done with; the future is not yet here. Time moves only relative to some present measuring unit. What and where is this present for humankind? The present as a unit of measurement can in itself have no parts. Yet no unit of time is in principle removed from the possibility of further subdivision. This suggests that one spatializes time, but even the person who is aware of the movement of time can measure such movement only in the present. This present cannot itself be measured while operating as the necessary norm of measurement. Analogous to this human present, though absolutely unique, is God’s eternity, God’s present. Augustine “sees” an eternal God as involving a timeless present containing no temporal subdivisions whatever. God contains all possible reality and yet has neither past nor future. This view is related to Augustine’s belief that God has complete knowledge of events, including historical ones—as if all events are somehow immediately, nontemporally available to God.

Additional Reading

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

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. Wills’s commentary draws comparison between Augustine’s theory of language and that of Noam Chomsky.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. One of the best biographical accounts of Augustine, this book uses a chronological approach to reveal how Augustine’s writings evolved during his lifetime. Heavily annotated.

Brown, Peter. Religion and Society in the Age of Augustine. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. This volume places Saint Augustine in his historical context.

Clark, Mary T. Augustine. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994. A good biographical sketch of the life of Augustine, including his long search for truth that led to his conversion to Christianity. Evaluates many of Augustine’s ideas. Gives an excellent summary of the nature and impact of The City of God.

Deane, Henry. The Political and Social Philosophy of Saint Augustine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. A treatment of the theological basis of Augustine’s belief about the “fallen man” or the idea of Original Sin and the resulting sinful nature of man. Also covers morality and justice, the state and order, the church, heresy, and Augustine’s philosophy of history.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Augustine and the Limits of Political Power. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. Written to show the relevancy of Augustine’s political theories to modern politics. Author tries to adapt The City of God to twentieth century conditions. Although some of the arguments are good, Elshtain’s conclusions are not entirely realistic.

Evans, G. R. Augustine on Evil. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Begins with Augustine’s thoughts on the nature of humankind as a young pagan philosopher, then shows the changes in his thinking after his conversion to Christianity. Epilogue covers later philosophers and their interpretations of Augustine’s ideas.

Gilson, Étienne. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine. Translated by L. E. M. Lynch. New York: Random House, 1960. Describes Saint Augustine’s central importance in the development of early Christian thought. Describes Confessions as a truly original work of literature.

O’Donnell, James J. Augustine. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Contains a thoughtful and clear introduction to the rich diversity of Saint Augustine’s writings on grace, free will, and scripture. Annotated bibliography. Chapter 5 analyzes the theological aspects of Confessions.

Portalié, Eugène. A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine. Translated by Ralph Bastian. Chicago: Regenery, 1960. Originally published in French in 1923, this work still remains the clearest general survey of Saint Augustine’s life, works, and influence. Examines Saint Augustine’s contributions to Christian theology.

Scott, T. Kermit. Augustine: His Thought in Context. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. Discusses the philosophies and the ideologies that influenced Augustine’s early life, then traces his spiritual search and the results of that search. Interprets Augustine in light of his own time. Good discussion of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination.

Smith, Warren Thomas. Augustine: His Life and Thought. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1980. A very well-written and readable biographical account of Augustine’s early life, home and parents, years of searching, conversion to Christianity, and life as a Christian leader. Puts Augustine’s writings in the context of defending the doctrines of the Christian church.

Starnes, Colin. Augustine’s Conversion: A Guide to the Argument of Confessions I-IX. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1990. Presents a clear exposition of the levels of meaning in the first nine books of Confessions. Describes the theological and the philosophical dimensions of the work.

Clark G. Reynolds Glenn L. Swygart

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743

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.

Augustine, Saint. Saint Augustine’s Childhood: Confessiones. Edited and translated by Garry Wills. New York: Viking, 2001. Wills’s commentary draws comparison between Augustine’s theory of language and that of Noam Chomsky.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. One of the best biographical accounts of Augustine, this book uses a chronological approach to reveal how Augustine’s writings evolved during his lifetime. Heavily annotated.

Brown, Peter. Religion and Society in the Age of Augustine. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. This volume places Saint Augustine in his historical context.

Clark, Mary T. Augustine. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994. A good biographical sketch of the life of Augustine, including his long search for truth that led to his conversion to Christianity. Evaluates many of Augustine’s ideas. Gives an excellent summary of the nature and impact of The City of God.

Deane, Henry. The Political and Social Philosophy of Saint Augustine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. A treatment of the theological basis of Augustine’s belief about the “fallen man” or the idea of Original Sin and the resulting sinful nature of man. Also covers morality and justice, the state and order, the church, heresy, and Augustine’s philosophy of history.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Augustine and the Limits of Political Power. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. Written to show the relevancy of Augustine’s political theories to modern politics. Author tries to adapt The City of God to twentieth century conditions. Although some of the arguments are good, Elshtain’s conclusions are not entirely realistic.

Evans, G. R. Augustine on Evil. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Begins with Augustine’s thoughts on the nature of humankind as a young pagan philosopher, then shows the changes in his thinking after his conversion to Christianity. Epilogue covers later philosophers and their interpretations of Augustine’s ideas.

Gilson, Étienne. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine. Translated by L. E. M. Lynch. New York: Random House, 1960. Describes Saint Augustine’s central importance in the development of early Christian thought. Describes Confessions as a truly original work of literature.

Matthews, Gareth B. Augustine. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. This work, part of the Blackwell Great Minds series, looks at questions such as Augustine’s thoughts on time and creation. Focuses on his theology.

O’Donnell, James Joseph. Augustine. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Contains a thoughtful and clear introduction to the rich diversity of Saint Augustine’s writings on grace, free will, and scripture. Annotated bibliography. Chapter 5 analyzes the theological aspects of Confessions.

O’Donnell, James Joseph. Augustine, Sinner and Saint: A New Biography. London: Profile Books, 2005. This biography of Saint Augustine contains a chapter on the Confessions.

TeSelle, Eugene. Augustine. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2006. This biography, part of the Abington Pillars of Theology series, deals with Saint Augustine’s life and theology.

Portalié, Eugène. A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine. Translated by Ralph Bastian. Chicago: Regenery, 1960. Originally published in French in 1923, this work still remains the clearest general survey of Saint Augustine’s life, works, and influence. Examines Saint Augustine’s contributions to Christian theology.

Scott, T. Kermit. Augustine: His Thought in Context. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. Discusses the philosophies and the ideologies that influenced Augustine’s early life, then traces his spiritual search and the results of that search. Interprets Augustine in light of his own time. Good discussion of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination.

Smith, Warren Thomas. Augustine: His Life and Thought. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1980. A very well-written and readable biographical account of Augustine’s early life, home and parents, years of searching, conversion to Christianity, and life as a Christian leader. Puts Augustine’s writings in the context of defending the doctrines of the Christian church.

Starnes, Colin. Augustine’s Conversion: A Guide to the Argument of Confessions I-IX. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1990. Presents a clear exposition of the levels of meaning in the first nine books of Confessions. Describes the theological and the philosophical dimensions of the work.

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