Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 3 Sections 12 21 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 3, Sections 12–21 (Student Years and Carthage) | Summary



The Manichaeans make fun of Old Testament stories, criticizing the practices of polygamy (plural marriage) and animal sacrifice, and introduce Augustine to their ideas about good and evil. He did not know (contrary to Manichaean belief) that "evil is nothing but the diminishment of good to the point where nothing at all is left." Nor did he know that "God is spirit," not a being with arms and legs and a certain size. Nor did he understand the symbolic meaning that human beings are made in God's image and likeness. Later he understands that he can't judge the acts of the people in the Bible. They cannot be assessed by man's law, which changes from time to time, but only by God's law, which is eternal.

While people have vices, they cannot touch God, who is incorruptible. No crime can be committed against God, but he gets vengeance anyway because sinning damages a person's soul. "Iniquity plays itself false when it corrupts and perverts its own nature, to which you gave life and order," he says.

Monica is upset by her son's conversion to Manichaeism, but she is consoled by a vision that comes in a dream, in which she is standing on a ruler. A radiant young man tells her to cheer up and look where she is standing. At that point she sees that her son is standing beside her. Augustine says he spent nine years as a Manichaean, during which he "floundered in the mud of the deep and the darkness of deception."


In these sections Augustine again refutes the Manichaean notion that God is corporeal, which, in truth, was an idea they held in common with Christians and Jews of the period. He continues to deride the fantastic beliefs of the Manichaeans. For example, in Section 18 he regrets criticizing "your holy servants and prophets" of the Bible and instead believing that "a fig wept when plucked" as did the tree it was plucked from. Nonetheless, if the fig were eaten by one of the "elect," he would eventually "spew out angels, or even particles of God." Moreover, if such a fruit were given to an unbeliever, the spirit in the fruit would die and be unable to return to heaven.

While Augustine doesn't actually explain the Manichaean belief about good and evil, which the practitioners of this faith harp on ("they constantly asked me about the origin of evil," says Augustine), he refutes it by saying evil is a diminishment of good. The Manichaeans believed there were a good deity and an evil deity in the universe with equal power. The manifest world is a mixture of the two, perfection and imperfection, good and bad. Thus, in his assertion that God cannot be touched by vice, Augustine is refuting this idea of a good deity who has been mixed with an evil deity in the manifest world.

According to Christian doctrine, all that God creates is good, but this doesn't answer the problem of evil, which Augustine spends a lot of time wrestling with. Later, Augustine develops his idea of evil as the absence of good after he reads the Neoplatonists.

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