Literature Study GuidesThe ConfessionsBook 8 Sections 15 30 Summary

The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Book 8, Sections 15–30 (Conversion) | Summary



Augustine is further inspired by talking to Ponticianus, a court official, who tells him and Alypius about the famous monk, Antony of Egypt. Ponticianus has already been baptized, and he and his friend decide to follow that path of renunciation. Augustine is in anguish, wanting to hand himself over to God as these young men have done, and thinking how many of his years have "gone to waste" since he first read Cicero's Hortensius. He recalls how miserable he was in this period, praying for continence: "Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet." Now his day of reckoning has dawned, and he feels "stripped naked" in the eyes of his conscience. He is out of excuses and has experienced truth. Thus, he runs to Alypius and says, "The untaught are rising up and taking heaven by storm, while we with all our dispassionate teaching are still groveling in the world of flesh and blood."

Augustine goes into the garden of the house, and Alypius follows. Although he is able to will his body to make gestures of despair, he finds himself psychologically and spiritually paralyzed by his tumultuous thoughts. He pauses in his story to analyze the nature of a conflicted mind, noting that often there are many diverse urges and impulses in his mind vying for attention. Thus, a man is always arguing with himself, not with something foreign in his mind. Moreover, there is always only one soul.

In Section 29, in the midst of this mental strain, Augustine hears the voice of a young person, perhaps a child playing a game, singing over and over, "Pick it up and read." Taking this for a divine command, Augustine picks up the text of Paul's letters nearby and reads, "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires." Suddenly his uncertainty leaves him. Alypius also reads a verse that seems to apply to him, and he decides to follow his friend into Catholicism. The two young men immediately go indoors and inform Monica of their decision.


In the second part of Book 8, Augustine finally has his conversion, which is effected by a second spiritual experience, different from his vision in Book 7. Augustine finds himself mentally paralyzed in the garden because of his double mind: "This partial willing and partial non-willing is ... a sickness of the mind, which cannot rise with its whole self on the wings of truth because it is heavily burdened by habit. There are two wills, then, and neither is whole: what one has the other lacks." Who has not experienced this state of mental paralysis? The image of the saint in the garden sweating out a decision is also reminiscent of Jesus's experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which he asks his Father whether he might be spared this ultimate sacrifice. The humanity in Jesus does not want to suffer, but he subordinates his will to his Father's. Similarly, Augustine accepts God's decision that he convert to Christianity and embrace asceticism.

What breaks the deadlock for Augustine is a type of prayer called lectio divina, in which a person reads a passage from Scripture, meditates on it, prays about it, and then contemplates it without words. What is remarkable about Augustine's experience, however, is that he goes through the steps almost instantaneously and is provided with a direct answer from God—one that puts his doubts entirely to rest. From a psychological perspective, it can be argued that Augustine had been preparing himself for this moment over a period of time, and the scriptural reading is the catalyst for his conscious mind to take the momentous decision to convert.

Book 8 once again raises the issue of why Augustine insists on predicating his conversion to Catholicism on a commitment to embrace celibacy. While he certainly embraced asceticism as an ideal when he first read Cicero at age 19, something else seems to be at work as well. After hearing Victorinus's story, he tells Alypius that the "untaught" are taking heaven by storm. Surely he is not referring to Victorinus, but perhaps he means the fiancées of Ponticianus and his friend, mentioned at the end of the story he heard earlier. He learns that both women commit to remaining virgins after their betrothed men decide to become monks. No doubt Augustine is also thinking of his own common-law wife, whom he has sent back home and who has told him that she intends to embrace celibacy and remain unattached. This is the view of Augustinian scholar F.B.A. Asiedu, who notes that Augustine finds himself between a rock and a hard place with regard to conversion. On the one hand, if he does not want to be celibate, he will have to marry to maintain his status in Milan as solid citizen and respectable Catholic. Now, because of his concupiscence (sensual greed), he will have to dismiss a second mistress.

Augustine notes in Book 6 that after his common-law wife was torn from his heart, he could not follow her example and instead took a new lover. Perhaps he does so to help stanch both his physical need and the psychological pain of losing his long-term partner. Asiedu wonders if Augustine would have taken a different view of celibacy if he had been able to enter the Christian community by marrying his common-law wife. Perhaps Augustine also felt it would be too hypocritical as a newly baptized Christian to marry another person when he had rejected what amounted to his real wife. In Book 6 he does refer to his rejection of Adeodatus's mother as sinful ("Meanwhile my sins were multiplying, for the woman with whom I had been cohabitating was ripped from my side."). Asiedu notes that when Augustine wrote a treatise on marriage in 401, he said that a man who rejects a common-law wife in favor of a more advantageous marital partner is "an adulterer at heart." Thus, perhaps a combination of Augustine's desire to embrace the ascetic lifestyle he first learned from Cicero, along with the moral dilemma he finds himself in after he rejects the mother of Adeodatus, leads to his decision to consider celibacy a necessary condition of his conversion to Catholicism.

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