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The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 5, Sections 14–25 (Faustus at Carthage, Augustine to Rome and Milan) | Summary

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Summary

Augustine has to lie to his mother, Monica, to leave Carthage. She follows him to the seashore, but he pretends he is waiting with a friend for a favorable wind. While she is praying in a chapel, he boards the ship and joins a community of fellow Manichaeans when he gets to Rome. He claims that he holds on to the teachings, although half-heartedly, because he doesn't have anything better to replace them with. Nonetheless, he has a brief period in which he reads the Academics—the Greek skeptics with ideas similar to those he encountered in Cicero. He is still averse to Catholic doctrine, particularly the teaching on God's incarnation, and is still thinking about God as an immanent mass and evil as "a malevolent mind creeping about through the earth."

Augustine begins teaching rhetoric in Rome, and while the students are better behaved, they have a tendency to skip out before paying their fees to the teacher. Once again, the Manichaeans are instrumental in getting the Roman prefect Symmachus to recommend him for a high-level position in Milan, working for Emperor Valentinian II as a master of rhetoric. Upon arriving in Milan, he seeks out Bishop Ambrose, a man renowned for his preaching, and he is not disappointed. At first he is not interested in what the bishop is actually saying, since he assumes he won't find it compelling. But by degrees he realizes Ambrose is "speaking the truth." He is most impressed with Ambrose's explanations of passages from the Old Testament, which he interprets figuratively rather than literally. He finally leaves the Manichaeans and decides to "live as a catechumen in the Catholic Church" until he feels certain about what his next steps should be.

Analysis

The degree to which Monica is attached to her son is revealed in Section 16. She has been a widow (Augustine's father, Patricius, died when he was 16) and seems to have pinned all of her hopes on this talented son. Although she has two other children, she has followed him to Carthage. While Augustine feels a need to escape, he appreciates what she has done for him: "I can find no words to express how intensely she loved me: with far more anxious solicitude did she give birth to me in spirit than she had in the flesh," he comments. Indeed, Monica and Augustine appear to have a unique spiritual bond, and they will share a vision in Book 9, shortly before Monica dies.

Augustine is perhaps a little insincere in saying he remained with the Manichaeans because he didn't know what else to do. While people will often stay in a faith after they lose faith, simply by dint of habit or because they don't have an alternative, it is also true that the Manichaeans provided Augustine with invaluable career connections. Interestingly, he is able to drop them once he gets a position in Milan that does not depend on them.

Augustine notes that he cannot accept the Incarnation, the doctrine that the Second Person of the Trinity took on human flesh to deliver human beings from original sin. This idea disgusts him as a Manichaean because he can't imagine God in a sexual body. His inability to accept that God can become man is tied to his failure to imagine God as anything but a mass of substance. Only after he accepts an immaterial, all-pervasive God will he be able to embrace the idea of the Incarnation.

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