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...
(The entire section is 4,090 words.)