Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 3 Sections 1 11 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 3, Sections 1–11 (Student Years and Carthage) | Summary



Upon arriving in Carthage at age 17, Augustine wishes to fall in love, not realizing that what he craves is God. Instead, he distracts himself with "theatrical shows," musing on the fact that people enjoy sad feelings evoked by fictional dramas, even though everyone aspires to happiness.

Augustine notes he is the best student at the school of rhetoric and "swollen with pride" as a result, but he avoids the bad behavior of the "wreckers" who hazed "sensitive freshmen," although he kept on good terms with them. He reads as part of his oratory studies Cicero's Hortensius, which urges its reader to take up philosophy. Suddenly Augustine sees his ambition as hollow, and he longs for wisdom. Augustine now turns to the Bible and is disappointed with how it compares with "Cicero's dignified prose." He says, "My intelligence failed to penetrate its inner meaning," and in his arrogance he rejects the Bible as childish.

He then joins the Manichaeans, a Gnostic Christian sect. "O Truth, Truth, how the deepest and innermost marrow of my mind ached for you, even then while they prattled your name to me unremittingly ... though only in words," he says in retrospect. He "ate" what the Manichaeans had to offer, but "derived no nourishment" and "was left the more drained." The Manichaeans taught that God has materiality; they had a number of myths to explain their understanding of the universe and believed the sun and the moon to be gods. Augustine reiterates the idea that God is incorporeal: "Better and more certain than the bodies of material creatures is the soul that gives life to their bodies, yet you are not soul either. You are the life of souls, the life of all lives, the life who are yourself living and unchanging, the life of my own soul."


Augustine reflects that perhaps people like to feel sad at theatrical performances because they elicit compassion, and he uses this observation as a teachable moment, noting that in real life, those who have sincere mercy would rather wish there was nothing to feel sorry for. This is a profound psychological insight, which shows that he understood the idea of schadenfreude (joy in another's misfortune). While schadenfreude generally refers to malicious joy at someone else's fall or bad luck, those who feel "compassion" for other people often do so to feel better about themselves in one way or another.

Augustine returns to the theme of the restless heart and its cure (God). Augustine is taking first steps when he wishes to practice philosophy following Cicero, a Roman who followed the Stoic philosophy.

This school of thought emphasized moral conduct and detachment from the lures of the world. Augustine was no stranger to Christian ideas, since he had learned them from his mother and as a child was enrolled as a catechumen (someone preparing for baptism). But when he turns to the Bible, he is disappointed by the prose. The Latin Bible Augustine read, especially the Old Testament, was badly translated by second-century African and Italian missionaries, according to Augustinian scholar Henry Chadwick. This Bible used informal and sometimes obscure language "to the point of being barbaric." (The Latin Bible was revised by Saint Jerome in Augustine's lifetime.) He had not yet been introduced to Neoplatonic thought in his 19th year, so he can read the stories of the Bible only literally and not allegorically, which is why they seem childish.

Thus, he turns to the complex doctrine of the Manichaeans who hold the physical world in contempt and advocate asceticism and celibacy. Augustine could be a Manichaean without becoming an ascetic (see Context), and he chose to remain in the outer circle as a "Hearer." In these sections Augustine critiques Manichaeism, in retrospect, in the light of his knowledge of God. He wrote The Confessions in his 40s, after he had embraced the idea of an immaterial, transcendent God. Here he criticizes the Manichaeans for imagining God as immanent (material), in his first shot across the bow meant to convince proponents of this faith that they are on the wrong track.

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