Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 4 Sections 1 16 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 4, Sections 1–16 (Augustine the Manichaean) | Summary



By his own account Augustine continues with the Manichaeans from his 19th to his 28th year. He and his fellows were "seduced and seducers ... under the false name of religion." He recalls that he and his co-religionists pursued name and fame, satisfied their lusts, and watched trashy entertainment, even as they hypocritically sought to "purge ... themselves of these defilements" by providing food to the "elect" who would turn it into angels and gods and "be the agents of our liberation."

He now reports on an earlier event: that he took a lover shortly after he got to Carthage (at about age 17) and was faithful to her. This relationship teaches him the difference between a contracted marriage for the purpose of founding a family and a love relationship "charged with carnal desire" and in which children may be born accidentally. After he finishes his education, he teaches rhetoric, which he now thinks of as a questionable profession by which a rhetor tricks people with words. He remembers winning a declamation contest (in which people recite speeches or orations), and the doctor who presented him with the wreath counsels him against wasting his time on astrology, a subject in which he had an avid interest. He was in the habit of consulting with astrologers, and he asks God to forgive him for this sin.

Augustine returns to Thagaste, his hometown, to begin his career, and he relates how he lost a dear friend during this period. This friend, like his common-law wife, remains unnamed. Augustine convinces him to convert to Manichaeism, but when the young man falls ill, someone has him baptized while he is unconscious. When the friend gets well, Augustine tries to joke with him about the baptism, but the friend refuses to disavow the Christian rite, and he dies shortly thereafter. The loss of this friend puts Augustine into a "black grief," so that "wherever I looked I saw only death." Augustine, now recovered, still asks God to "bring the ear of my heart close to your mouth, that you may tell me why weeping is a relief to the wretched." To get away from everything that reminds him of his friend, he moves back to Carthage. He finds "consolation in other friends, in whose company I loved what I was loving as a substitute for you." These young, intellectual men share interests and ideas and support one another, even if they occasionally disagree "without rancor." But this personal love, based on attachment to individuals, is limited and brings a person to grief, as it did Augustine when he lost his friend. "Blessed is he who loves you, and loves his friend in you ... He alone loses no one dear to him, to whom all are dear in the One who is never lost."


Augustine writes through a dual perspective in these sections, clearly depicting his worldly perspective along with his current Christian perspective reflecting hard-won wisdom. On the one hand, he loves his friends, both in Thagaste and Carthage, and he describes them as decent, loyal people. Yet, he also accuses them, along with himself, of indulging in sinful worldly pleasures and seducing people to follow a false spiritual path. No doubt both he and his friends were not behaving in a deliberately evil manner but were simply doing what they thought would bring them happiness, thus violating Augustine's theology. No doubt these friends were Manichaeans, misguided like Augustine. They wished for the good, but they chose a lesser good that turned out to be bad—an idea Augustine will revisit. He also takes an opportunity to disparage the practices of the Manichaeans, in which he and his friends, all "hearers," in the faith, sought to purge their sins by feeding the "elect," whose digestion of these foods was thought to restore wholeness to the cosmos (by releasing good spirits that were in the food).

The reader also learns that the saint took a mistress whom he loved, even if that love was bound up in his sexual desire. He makes a distinction between this type of relationship and marriage, in which two people contract with the intent to start a family. He says having an unwanted child with his mistress taught him "what a difference there is between a marriage contracted for the purpose of founding a family, and a relationship of love charged with carnal desire in which children may be born even against their parents' wishes—though once they are born one cannot help loving them." Augustine stays with this unnamed mistress for 14 or 15 years. Since they had one child at the beginning of their relationship, and from hints that Augustine drops here as well as in other writings, it appears the couple practiced some sort of birth control after the birth of their son Adeodatus (which means gift from God). The Manichaeans looked down on sex and encouraged those who were not practicing celibacy to refrain from having children, since procreation imprisoned souls in a material body. Augustine was a Manichaean during the period in which he lived with his mistress, and he likely followed their teachings in this regard. Later as a converted Catholic, he would preach against the prevention of conception.

These sections also connect the loss of this friend, who is unnamed, with the loss of his mistress, also unnamed, which causes Augustine terrible grief, although he gives her up voluntarily. The key point here, however, is that while personal love is a good thing, a better thing is to love God in the people one cares about. Like all human beings, Augustine struggles with attachment, and the greatest attachment is the need and desire for other people. This attachment to other people is generally not distinguished from disinterested love, in which one person cares for another without need or greed. Some would say such a love is impossible, but Augustine is lobbying here for exactly that when he says one should love God in other people. This will avoid the heartache and sorrow of losing them, since a person will continue to love God in all beings, even after a great loss. Such love also allows a person to feel close to the one they have lost.

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