Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 1 Sections 17 31 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 1, Sections 17–31 (Infancy and Boyhood) | Summary



Augustine notes that he was given instruction in Christian ideas as a child and "regularly signed with the cross" although he was not baptized. He was a believer, and when he had a serious bout of sickness even asked to be baptized, but his baptism was held off with the thought that sinning after baptism was even more perilous for the soul. Augustine claims to be "a great sinner for such a tiny boy." He did not like to study and particularly avoided his Greek lessons, although he loved Latin. He regrets that he could weep so pitifully over the death of Dido in the Latin classic The Aeneid, yet he did not cry about the death he brought on himself by not loving God.

"Free play of curiosity is a more powerful spur to learning ... than is fear-ridden coercion," he notes, yet the beatings he received were "bitter draughts of salutary discipline." He prays to God to allow his soul to endure the Creator's discipline and wishes to confess the "acts of mercy" by which God "plucked" him from his "evil ways." As a child he believed living a good life consisted in winning favor and praise. Thus, he was competitive at games and even cheated when necessary to dominate. He notes that small sins can blossom into even worse crimes as one grows older. He thanks God for allowing him to live past boyhood, but even if God hadn't, he would still be grateful for the life he'd been given.


In the days of the early Church, the Catholic sacrament (ritual) of "Confession," in which a person goes to a priest and confesses sins and then receives absolution (forgiveness and reconciliation with God), did not exist. Rather, baptism was the sacrament that washed away sin, and Christians were expected to stay on a straight and narrow moral path after receiving it. They could stray perhaps once and be absolved of serious sin. Such a failing required a public penance and formal reacceptance back into the community. But if a baptized Christian fell a second time, he would be kicked out. For this reason, people waited for baptism, sometimes until they were close to death. Thus, Augustine's mother, Monica, holds off Augustine's baptism, since her son will likely commit serious sins before he grows to manhood.

In fact, Augustine catalogs some of his early, childish sins, noting that little sins lead to big ones, and on balance he doesn't blame his caregivers for attempting to beat him into submission. He reveals himself to be an intelligent, stubborn, and sociable child with a strong streak of competitiveness. Although he had a happy childhood, he regrets remaining in a state of sin and is grateful to God for saving him from ignorance about what was the highest good in life.

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