Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 6 Sections 18 26 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 6, Sections 18–26 (Milan, 385: Progress, Friends, Perplexities) | Summary

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Summary

Augustine now remembers how in his 19th year he was inspired to seek wisdom and how in his 30th year he is still caught in a "muddy bog through my craving to enjoy the good things of the present moment." He asks why people are slow to abandon worldly ambition, answering that the allures of the world are sweet indeed—reputation, influential friends, marriage. Augustine says he talked to himself from both sides, depending on which way the wind was blowing, putting off the day "when I would live in you, though I could not postpone a daily dying in myself." He notes that he was too stupid to realize that celibacy is a gift that must be given by God.

Naturally comfortable with celibacy himself, Alypius discourages Augustine from marrying. While he is held captive by "insatiable concupiscence," his friend Alypius's weakness is insatiable curiosity. Augustine asks his mother to help arrange a marriage for him, even as he continues to talk to his friends about beginning a monastic philosophical community. She goes ahead and finds a bride of his class, a young girl for whom he must wait two years. But Augustine declares, "Meanwhile my sins were multiplying," when the woman he had been living with was "ripped" from his side because she was an obstacle to his marriage. "So deeply was she engrafted into my heart that it was left torn and wounded, trailing blood," he says. His grief notwithstanding, he takes another lover as a stopgap until his bride comes of age.

Analysis

Beginning in Section 18 of Book 6, Augustine portrays his struggle over whether to convert to Catholicism. He indirectly uses imagery of pilgrimage, a motif that is threaded through The Confessions, to depict the soul's wandering until it finds God. For him conversion is coupled with living a celibate life, but this was not a requirement of conversion. In fact, in the early days of the Church, even priests and bishops were allowed to marry; Bishop Ambrose himself is married. The blanket requirement for celibacy for the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church was not imposed until the 11th century. Augustine's yearning to live an ascetic life without attachment, including the renunciation of family life and sex, begins with his reading of Cicero and the Stoics. It was quite common in the ancient world for philosophers and other seekers of truth to commit to celibacy because sexuality was considered to be a disrupter and even destroyer of rationality and equanimity. On the one hand, Augustine the philosopher wants to give up concupiscence (the greedy pursuit of sensuality without rationality), while Augustine the sensualist would like to hold on to the ephemeral pleasures of the everyday man.

Understanding the degree of his sexual need, he asks his mother to arrange a marriage because he cannot marry his lover. He is moving up in the world, and this unnamed woman was likely a member of a much lower class. He needs a wife who can reflect his status as a successful rhetor (master of rhetoric). Furthermore, it was against the law to marry a person outside your class parameters. While common-law marriages were not judged as harshly by the Church as they would be much later in its history, such liaisons were not equal to a lawful compact. This is another reason Augustine would want to be married as a converted Catholic. Moreover, Monica contracts for Augustine with a family that can give his bride a substantial dowry. While Augustine's dismissal of his lover seems cruel to modern readers, he is merely following the custom of his time, in which it was quite common for a man to take a "concubine" before he entered into a contracted marriage. As John Peter Kenney explains, Augustine would have dismissed her with a dowry, not have sent her penniless out into the world. Still, he calls what he does a sin, and in fact his mistress tells him that she will commit herself to celibacy on their parting. Moreover, he clearly states his anguish in separating from this woman.

Augustine mentions his fatal flaw as concupiscence, which is the excessive lust or attachment to the "lower desires," divorced from rationality or clear thinking. Concupiscence is clearly evident, for example, in his immediately taking a stopgap mistress while he waits to be married. He has unfairly been called a hater of the body and sensuality, which he was not. Rather, he saw as his sin the fact that his sensual desires ruled him. In many places in The Confessions, he praises God's creation, and he also commends marriage and family life in other writings, although it cannot be denied that he saw sexual attachment as an impediment in a life of total devotion to God.

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