The Confessions of Augustine

Augustine’s Confessions is what I would call truly establishing a genre – that of the personal narrative. Despite being written over a millennium and a half ago, it surprised me with its thoroughly modern candidness and accessibility. Augustine goes into lucid detail at many points, showing varied facets of his life and struggles which are no different to that of the modern person and modern Christian. For example, he talks frankly about his powerful sexual appetite, a desire so powerful that up until the moment of conversion he lived with a girlfriend out of wedlock and even had a child by her. In another more amusing episode, he relates a plan he concocted with his friends to create a philosophers’ commune where they and other philosophy-obsessed friends would live together philosophizing all day long. Everything had already been planned out: all the finances would be put together, “magistrates” would be appointed to administer the commune, and so on – until they realized that their wives would never agree to it. The plan collapsed quite quickly after that, and “thereupon we returned to sighs and groans and careers following the broad and well-trodden ways of the world” (book VI).

Ultimately, Confessions is at its core a redemptive story about Augustine’s personal spiritual journey, from young child to Manichean philosopher to Neo-Platonist professor to finally a Christian who would eventually become a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the greatest and most influential theologians in Christian thought. Learning more about this personal journey, we learn more about the background for some of the theological positions he is associated with. Augustine’s views regarding interpretation of Genesis have been brought up by theistic evolutionists (most notably by Francis Collins in The Language of God) as evidence that a strictly “literal”, non-negotiable interpretation of Genesis was never a foundational pillar of Christian thought. Indeed, it may seem remarkable to encounter passages such as these in the book:

When I hear this or that brother Christian, who is ignorant of these matters [referring to scientific matters] and thinks one thing the case when another is correct…it becomes an obstacle if he thinks his view of nature belongs to the very form of orthodox doctrine, and dares obstinately to affirm something he does not understand.

Confessions, book V

Augustine came to this view after his personal experience of being forced to believe many scientifically implausible things as part of being a Manichean. He then verified for himself that many of the astronomical beliefs turned out to be false, and that no Manichean philosopher or theologian could answer his questions. For him, the general credibility of Manichaeism was severely undermined, even regarding theological manners, not necessarily because of Mani’s ignorance itself but because “his impudence in daring to teach a matter which he did not understand shows that he could know nothing whatever of piety.”

The Skeptical Christian

It’s clear that despite the copious outpourings of emotion and devotion to God throughout the Confessions, Augustine’s fundamental mindset towards anything is that of a skeptical philosopher and seeker of truth. This is seen in the last few chapters of the work, which contain long passages of almost pure, academic and dispassionate philosophical reflection on the nature of memory, time, and creation. It is both mind-boggling and wonderful that such a critical and brilliant mind could be led through various stages and schools of thought to finally resting in Christianity.

The central question of the book then becomes, how and why does Augustine eventually convert to Christianity? A cynic might argue that there was little alternative in a cultural setting where Christianity was quickly becoming the dominant faith. But Augustine could have easily remained a Manichean, Neo-Platonist, or picked up any of the various philosophies which were freely available in his time. He could have remained a “pure philosopher” and become an agnostic of some sort. It’s indeed true that the argument could be made that Christianity is objectively more sophisticated compared to all the the above philosophies, and so Augustine was naturally attracted to the most advanced ideology of the time, but that doesn’t imply anything – if agnosticism or atheism were around then he would have become one. Such an argument neglects the passionate side of Augustine’s faith, which truly betrays the genuine, full-hearted nature of his conversion, as opposed to merely a persuasion of the mind. As he puts it himself at the very beginning,

Our heart is restless until it rests in you.

Confessions, Book I

Augustine’s passion and devotion to the Lord permeates the entire work, making it a true confession instead of an intellectual apology for Christianity.

While the Confessions may help explain what facets of Augustine’s mind and personality, the theme that he develops throughout is that his conversion is the result of God’s own providence and care. It’s true that this was accomplished not without the crucial roles of other people who show up prominently in Confessions, most of all his devout mother, Monica. Monica’s presence pervades Confessions, both implicitly and explicitly. Explicitly, she shows up at various points in Augustine’s life – most notably when she moved to Milan to live with her philosophically desperate son, and her tireless efforts to slowly nudge him closer and closer towards The Way. In one moving passage, she is exasperated at Augustine’s association with the Manicheans, and implores a Christian bishop to talk to him and hopefully convince him to leave the sect. But the bishop refuses, telling her to let him be to mature by himself. Augustine claims that this was another form of the Lord’s providence, as he was still “unready to learn” at the time. (As a young man, he had tried reading the Bible but found it not as rhetorically polished as the writings of Cicero.)

And indeed, Monica’s implicit presence works in the background as Augustine moves from Manichaeism to Neo-Platonism, still dissatisfied and searching. She had instilled in him the seeds of faith since childhood, both through her own example and explicit instruction. It seems almost certain that her words are what made Augustine come back multiple times in his life back to the Bible, before making the final decision to convert.

The role of other people such as bishop Ambrose also cannot be underestimated. Ambrose is portrayed by Augustine as a sort of brilliant Christian apologist, the ideal Christian intellectual that many young people like me are told to aspire to – rhetorically brilliant yet also knowledgeable and nimble in intellectually defending the faith. The sheer beauty of Ambrose’s preaching is such that Augustine went to listen to him regularly in Milan purely for the rhetoric (presumably as Augustine was a teacher of rhetoric), but Ambrose turned out to be able to explain the Christian scriptures in a way that made sense, and this made Augustine enroll in the catechism class at the church, a small but integral step in his faith-journey.

That being said, Augustine views all of these as ultimately the work of God. The hand of God is present even throughout Augustine’s childhood and youth years.

For even then I was, I lived, and felt; and had an implanted providence over my well-being – a trace of that mysterious Unity whence I was derived; I guarded by the inward sense the entireness of my senses, and in these minute pursuits, and in my thoughts on things minute, I learned to delight in truth, I hated to be deceived, had a vigorous memory, was gifted with speech, was soothed by friendship, avoided pain, baseness, ignorance.

Confessions, Book I

My own story is of course vastly different from Augustine’s. For once, I never went through the perilous intellectual journey he went through: I have been a Christian throughout my entire intellectual life. But in terms of actual beliefs, I have evolved a lot, as I have mentioned in various posts in this blog – most notably my journey from young earth creationism to old earth creationism to theistic evolution. My general opinions on apologetics, Christian philosophy, and various issues within Christianity (such as worship, music, salvation, the question of women, and so on) have gone through various changes and continue to develop each day. Reading Augustine made me thankful for the strong influence of my parents and those people around me who also continuously reminded me of the presence of God. But even importantly, it made me more thankful for God Himself who has preserved me as one of His children throughout my life, especially throughout the usually perilous years of college and now graduate school.

Extremes of Desire and Piety

A different idea that emerges throughout the book is Augustine’s growing obsession with ascetic lifestyle practices after his conversion. It shows that Augustine is a man of extremes. Before his conversion, he had a powerful desire for sex, knowledge (inspired by reading Cicero’s Hortensius at the age of 18), and worldly academic success. After the conversion, he discards all of these things, with the exception of his love for philosophy (although he does resign his position as a teacher of rhetoric straight away). He then becomes convinced that any remaining desire for pleasure is a form of prideful sin. This applied even to the simple phenomenon of having one’s hunger sated by eating, or even grieving the death of one’s mother, as seen in Book 9, where Monica dies, and Augustine feels ashamed that he has the urge to cry and grieve, because rationally there seemed to be no reason for it – wasn’t his mother going to heaven? It’s striking that in this case, the story doesn’t end with Augustine realizing that it’s OK, after all, to cry – instead, he simply feels better after a long sleep.

The basic premise of Augustine’s asceticism has something to it – that a desire for anything else other than God has the dangerous potential to take over our desire for God. But the pleasures of everyday life were created by God also, and there is no reason to actively avoid all of those except if one’s desires for them are really uncontrollable, which may have been the case with Augustine. It is of course important to train our minds and bodies to not be blindly enslaved to these desires – if one is hungry, one should be freely allowed to take steps to sate that hunger, but one should also possess the ability to hold on while being hungry if there is a compelling reason to do so. Such is the purpose of activities such as fasting. In fact, enjoying the little pleasures of life (in moderation, of course) may be a form of worship to God as well. As Paul puts it,

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

Corinthians 10:31, NIV

Augustine’s Philosophy

The last four chapters of Confessions contain much pure philosophizing on the nature of time, memory, and interpretations of Genesis 1:1-2. There are many interesting points, although there are some questions that seem “obvious”, ridiculous, or uninteresting for a modern reader; for example, Augustine wonders how we are able to remember if we are being forgetful, since forgetfulness should cause us to everyone to forget about forgetfulness as well. This to me seems like a nonsensical conversation for me, as now we are used to think the X-ness of something is not necessarily X itself, much less having the capability to cause X in the reader or something similar. But perhaps such a viewpoint is merely a reflection of hidden modern philosophical prejudices – a certain worldview and collection of viewpoints I’m not sure of.

There is also a long passage where Augustine considers different interpretations for Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” After this follows the account of the seven days of creation. Many people including myself read 1:1 as a general foreword which summarizes the events which are to be described in more detail afterwards – an abstract of sorts. Augustine acknowledges this interpretation, but he himself believes that 1:1 refers to some other creation that happened before the main event – “heavens” is interpreted as “heaven of heaven,” defined as “the intellectual, non-physical heaven where the intelligence’s knowing is a matter of simultaneity…” Or in other words, “a kind of creation in the realm of the intellect.” The result is a formless matter that would then be subsequently shaped by God in the “main” seven days, where He created the physical world. What’s remarkable about this long discussion is that Augustine lists multiple alternatives, presumably offered by his opponents and other theologians of the day, but doesn’t commit to any one interpretation (even his own is subject to change). Augustine’s skepticism and caution still reigns even after his conversion.

Interspersed with dispassionate discussion about inert things in the universe, there are many short interludes, describing the intensity of Augustine’s love for God. Here we have him lyrically explaining what his love is like:

Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odour, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.

Confessions, Book X

This constant interplay between rational detachment and passionate outpourings to God is the defining hallmark of the Confessions, which differentiates it from any dialogue by Plato or the other Ancients. In particular, he addresses God in the second person throughout the book. Thus Confessions is unlike the various “Confessions of a …” series we see today. The main purpose is not a tell-all spiritual autobiography that seeks to uplift or even edify its readers, as is commonly encountered in contemporary Christian literature. Instead, Confessions is literally a confessing to God, a vehicle for Augustine to improve his own spiritual well-being:

I will now call to mind my past foulness, and the carnal corruptions of my soul; not because I love them, but that I may love Thee, O my God.

Confessions, Book II

Final Words

It took me about a week to complete Augustine’s Confessions. Initially I tried reading the public domain translation of J.G. Pilkington, which was too archaic for a seamless reading, and finally gave in to purchasing Henry Chadwick’s modern translation. This was a crucial decision that made the rest of the book enjoyable.

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