Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 1 Sections 1 16 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 1, Sections 1–16 (Infancy and Boyhood) | Summary

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Augustine's scribes wrote in Latin and did not use quotation marks or any punctuation; nor did they put spaces between letters or even words. Thus, the original work did not have the divisions that have come down to the modern reader. Medieval manuscripts have only book divisions. Chapter numbers were inserted in the late 15th and 16th centuries, while paragraph numbers were provided in the complete works of Augustine published in Paris by the French Benedictines of Saint-Maur in 1769. In addition, translators subsequently added book, chapter, and sub-chapter titles in some cases. Today's translations of Augustine differ in their divisions as well as their book and chapter titles, although almost all translations retain the paragraph numbering of each book created in the French Benedictine translation. This guide references the text by book and then by paragraph numbers and retains the book titles of the translation by Maria Boulding. The paragraph numbers are called "sections" here because they sometimes include more than one actual paragraph. This is the case in many translations, although the subdividing of the original "paragraph" (seemingly devised by the French translation of 1769) may differ slightly from English translation to translation.

Summary

The author begins with an opening prayer, addressing God and praising his power and wisdom. God draws human beings to himself. In Section 1 Augustine says, "Our heart is unquiet until it rests in you." Augustine asks God whether he must know God before he calls upon him, or whether invoking God will make him known. He concludes he will seek God even while calling upon him and call on him even as he believes in him. Next, he asks where God is and if he can come into a person. He concludes that God is everywhere and in all things.

In Section 6 Augustine begins his personal story. He was frustrated as an infant because his desires were inside of him and no one could enter his mind and understand them. He then begins musing about where people come from and notes that they derive their existence from God, who is ever existent in an eternal present. People experience temporality (the passage of time), but everything is occurring in God's "today."

Augustine explains that he moved from infancy to boyhood using the mind that God gave him, by observing and imitating others. As time went on, he learned he must obey his elders. Sometimes he did not attend to his studies and was punished as a result. As Augustine grew, he loved to play games and win glory in contests and also developed a "lust for the public shows."

Analysis

Augustine's Confessions has sometimes been called the first autobiography or a spiritual biography, but in fact, it is neither. Augustine drew from earlier models of biographies and conversion stories, even if his exquisite Latin prose and deep philosophical and religious understanding were unparalleled. He addresses God in an extended prayer throughout the text, but his purpose is to present his life as an example of how the individual soul can ascend to a spiritual state in which it rests in God. Thus, The Confessions is a conversion tale, which takes the reader from Augustine's beginnings until his baptism into Catholicism in his early 30s. The Confessions is also much more than a conversion tale; it is a philosophical and theological text as well as an argument against ideas he believed subverted or distorted true Christianity.

In these first sections Augustine introduces some important Neoplatonic ideas that help him move away from Manichaeism and toward Christianity. He immediately points out the nonmaterial nature of God, which is why God can be everywhere and in all things and exist in an eternal present. The idea that God existed in a material realm, although not accessible to human beings, was common in the ancient world and not just a notion held by the Manichaeans: pre-Socratic Greeks and Romans imagined such a God, as did Jews and Christians. Even though Christianity and Judaism are monotheistic, in Augustine's time Christians and Jews were similar to polytheists in the way God was conceived as an immanent (material) being in the universe. "The materialist interpretation of Christianity was so widespread that Augustine could reach his early 30s before encountering the idea of transcendence," explains John Peter Kenney, an Augustinian scholar and the author of The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading the Confessions. Augustine is introduced to this nonmaterial God by Neoplatonic philosophers. This new way of thinking about God opens the door for Augustine to experience contemplation (a direct experience of God) and to move toward an allegorical understanding of the Old Testament, which previously made no sense to him. Thus, Augustine puts Western Christianity on the road to transcendent monotheism (one immaterial God) once he had grasped the ideas of the Neoplatonists. Nonetheless, he diverges from the Neoplatonists when it came to the idea that contemplation brought salvation (see Book 7).

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