Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 6 Sections 1 17 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 6, Sections 1–17 (Milan, 385: Progress, Friends, Perplexities) | Summary

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Summary

Monica ends up following her son to Milan and is overjoyed to hear he has given up Manichaeism but is not surprised, since she has been praying for him and feels certain that he will eventually convert to Catholicism before he dies. "So much she said to me," Augustine says, "but to you, the fount of all mercy, she redoubled her prayers and tears, imploring you to make haste to help me and enlighten my darkness." Monica reveres Ambrose and even stops her practice of making offerings at the tombs of the martyrs when she learns he forbids it.

Augustine devotes Section 3 to his relationship with Ambrose, which remains distant. Because Ambrose is very busy, Augustine gets little opportunity to see him alone through his spiritual crisis. He continues to listen to Ambrose's sermons, however, and learns that Catholics have misunderstood the meaning of Genesis's assertion that man was made in God's image. Upon hearing Ambrose's exegesis (explanation of the meaning of a spiritual text), he now sees as holy and profound the parts of scripture he thought silly.

Beginning in Section 11, Augustine begins speaking about his friends Alypius and Nebridius, both from Africa. He tells a few stories that testify to Alypius's noble character. For example Alypius worked as an assessor in Rome without ever taking a bribe or enriching himself. His one weakness is an addiction to gladiatorial games. Both follow Augustine to Milan and become one of his band of like-minded brothers mutually sharing a quest for truth and wisdom.

Analysis

Book 6 begins by asking God where he was when Augustine looked for him. However, this book also answers that question by showing how God's grace is working for his salvation. First, the prayers of his mother have been heard by God and are now bearing fruit, as Augustine moves to Milan with the help of his heretical friends, unknowingly extricating himself from what he considers harmful doctrines.

Second, once Augustine gets to Milan, he is introduced to the preaching of Ambrose, and for the first time he realizes that he has been incorrect in his thinking about Catholicism. The Catholic intellectuals in Milan have been exposed to Neoplatonist ideas and a new way of conceiving God, even if most people in the congregation have yet to catch up with them. He says that those who "had been brought to a new grace from their mother, the Catholic Church," did not rightly understand the meaning of Genesis's statement that human beings are made in God's image. Ambrose explains in his sermons that God is not material; he teaches that the statements in the book of Genesis must be understood metaphorically. As Ambrose leads his congregation in envisioning a transcendent God, he quotes from Saint Paul, saying, "The letter is death-dealing, but the spirit gives life." Ambrose's approach becomes a door through which Augustine can enter into scripture and understand it in a new way. "Although I had not even a faint or shadowy notion of what a spiritual substance could be like, I was filled with joy, albeit a shamefaced joy, at the discovery that what I had barked against for so many years was not the Catholic faith but figments of my carnal imagination." He now addresses God as nearer and most hidden, whole but not confined, not with a human form and yet having made humans in his image.

Some scholars have questioned why Augustine breaks off to suddenly talk about his friends, especially Alypius, in Book 6. The consensus is that, during the time he was writing The Confessions, his friend Alypius, by now a bishop at Thagaste, wished to interest Paulinus, a rich benefactor who had renounced the world, in supporting ascetic monasteries in his town. Paulinus asked Alypius for an accounting of himself and how he came to the ascetic life, and Augustine was perhaps trying to help his friend. Similarly, he may have inserted the biography of Monica found in Chapter 9 for the benefit of her children and grandchildren.

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