The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Context


Quoting Scripture in The Confessions

Augustine continually interweaves quotations from both the Jewish and Christian scriptures (the Old Testament and the New Testament) into his own language in The Confessions. These references to scripture are identified variously in translations of Augustine's work. He uses many quotations from the Book of Psalms in The Confessions. All of Augustine's references come from his memory; he could hardly reference an unwieldy scroll (which was the book format of the day) every time he needed a quotation. Moreover, in ancient times oral literacy meant having what nowadays would be a prodigious memory. Sometimes he quotes exactly from his version of the Bible, and sometimes he changes a quotation slightly when he interweaves it with his own language.

Augustine did not actually write his own books; rather he dictated them to scribes in his native Latin. The scribes did not use quotation marks or any punctuation; nor did they put spaces between letters or even words. This was one reason most people read aloud, even when they were alone, since text was hard to decipher. Understanding how the original text was composed helps modern readers understand why the translations in English differ widely in how they are divided, numbered, and named, since modern organization came later—notably in the 18th century, when French Benedictine monks completed a translation of all of Augustine's works.

The Roman Empire in Augustine's Time

The Roman Empire began in the West in 31 BCE and ended in 476 CE, some 50 years after the death of Augustine. Thus, Augustine lived through the era in which the Western world became Christianized and the Roman Empire experienced its final years of decline. This was a period of great transition, and Augustine's writings were instrumental in establishing a new moral order. In the East the Roman Empire continued as the Byzantine Empire until the fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) to the Ottoman Turks in the middle of the 15th century. The Ottoman Empire's official religion was Islam, while Christianity was the preferred religion of the Roman and Byzantine Empires after 313 CE.

The Roman Empire spent much of the third century in civil war and became fragmented, but it was reunited under Emperor Diocletian in the beginning of the fourth century. Nonetheless, to rule effectively, he divided the empire administratively into Eastern and Western Empires. After his death in 311, two Roman generals, Maxentius and Constantine, fought a civil war, with Constantine prevailing. Both Christians and Jews had been persecuted by Rome in the first centuries of the Common Era (dating from the birth of Jesus), but Constantine attributed his victory to divine intervention of the Christian God. He became a Christian shortly before his death in 337. After his death Constantine's sons squabbled, and for a brief time Julian, called "the Apostate," ruled and attempted to root out Christian influence. Augustine was born in 354, during a period of turbulence, and he was a child during Julian's reign (361–63).

When Augustine went to Rome in 383, Valentinian II was emperor of the West and resided primarily in Milan, which is where Augustine traveled to become his chief teacher of rhetoric. Theodosius, emperor of the East, had declared in 380 that all subjects were bound by the Nicene Creed, which gave equal divinity to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Eastern emperor took a stand against the Arian heresy, which claimed that Jesus was not equal in divinity to God the Father. Augustine was 26 at that time and still a Manichaean, a follower of a rebel Christian sect that believed there was a good and an evil god running the universe. He wrote The Confessions in his 40s, many years after he converted to mainstream Christianity. At that time he was a bishop battling the various "heresies" that challenged orthodox Christianity (Catholicism; later called Roman Catholicism), including the Arian heresy. Thus, The Confessions takes pains to uphold the orthodoxy of the Trinity.

Roman Games

Roman games largely catered to a cultural taste for brutal and bloody spectacle: gladiatorial fights where men fought to the death, hunting and killing of exotic animals, staged battles on the water with real casualties, and public executions. There were also chariot races and theatrical productions. Christianity did not put an end to the Roman games, although some clergy condemned these activities. Nonetheless, many Christians attended them anyway. Augustine attended such spectacles before converting, but not as much as his friend Alypius, who became somewhat addicted to watching these brutal entertainments. His fascination with the games is a form of concupiscence, a disordered appetite contrary to reason. With the help of Augustine, Alypius learns to avoid the games. Later, he follows his friend in converting to Catholicism.

Christianity in the Early Centuries

Christianity was a monolithic religion, roughly from the sixth until the 11th century, when the Eastern Orthodox church split off from Roman Catholicism. The next splintering came in the 16th century, with the Protestant Reformation when the Protestants split off from the Roman Catholics, followed by a great variety of new formulations of Christianity up to the modern era.

Still, many people forget that the religion that came into existence in the first century of the Common Era, after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, also called the Messiah (translated from Hebrew into "the Christ," or anointed one), was a work in progress, and early "Christians" considered themselves to be Jews. Saint Paul and his followers and the disciples of Jesus brought his teachings as they construed them to the people of Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy. Followers of this new religion—at that point simply "the Jesus movement"—wrote contradictory texts about the meaning of the teachings and the life of the movement's founding prophet. Some in the Jesus movement combined ideas from Greek philosophy or from other religions with the new teachings as well. For example, a variety of "gospels," now called "the Gnostic Gospels," circulated during these early days of Christianity and were banned around 200 CE, as the new religion began to congeal. As time went on, the religion became more institutionalized. Constantine's acceptance of Christianity facilitated this process, along with his and other Roman emperors' demand that the church fathers regularize their belief system and root out heresies. Saint Augustine was a key figure in formalizing and clarifying what would become orthodox Roman Catholic practice.

Augustine's Philosophical and Religious Influences


Augustine was much taken with the philosophy of Cicero, a Roman philosopher, especially his work entitled Hortensius (written in 45 BCE), a text written in praise of philosophy as a method of arriving at true happiness. According to religious historian Garry Wills, his call to asceticism—or leading a simple, celibate life—"pierced Augustine's soul." Cicero recommended the wisdom of renunciation of all ambition and pleasure and the use of reason to overcome the passions. Augustine aspired to chastity (celibacy, or abstention from sexual intercourse), because he sought to tame the body, which seemed to run roughshod over the mind in fulfilling its needs and desires.

Cicero subscribed to the Greek school of philosophy called Stoicism, founded in the third century BCE. However, many of the later Stoics were Romans. This school of thought emphasized moral conduct, acceptance of the human condition, and detachment, which would make one immune to misfortune. Scholars say that Augustine initially could not accept the Jewish scriptures (i.e., the Hebrew Bible) because he was reading bad Latin translations that could not stand up to the elegant language of Roman writers like Virgil. In addition, Wills argues that the stories seemed "childish" to Augustine, in comparison to Manichean cosmology. Later, Bishop Ambrose would teach Augustine a new approach to reading scripture.


Founded in Persia (now Iran) in the third century by the prophet Mani, Manichaeism presents a dualistic vision of good and evil, associating the spirit with good and the material world of matter with evil. Mani was likely brought up in a Judeo-Christian sect but saw himself as one in a long line of prophets. He believed that previous revelations were partial and that it was his mission to bring them together into a universal religion. The Manichaeans were enthusiastic missionaries and took their teachings regarding one good and one evil god west into the Roman Empire and east as far as China. The religion took on the "flavor" of the existing traditions wherever it went, which is why it is possible to talk about "Christian Manichaeans." Manichaeism was a Gnostic teaching, i.e., that special knowledge of spiritual truth (gnosis) is the means to salvation.

According to Mani, life is painful and evil, and the divine soul had fallen into this evil world of matter, but it could be liberated by the spirit. First there was light and darkness; then the two were mixed in the material world; in the end the two will again be sorted out, and the soul will be able to return to paradise. Those attached to the material world are condemned to a succession of rebirths. Asceticism (including celibacy) was an advanced spiritual practice of "the elect." A second tier of "hearers," to which Augustine belonged, supported their work and could be purged of their sins through service to this higher class of religious practitioners. He could also lay the blame for his sins at the door of his lower nature, which was separate from his pure spirit. Augustine practiced as a Manichaean between 373 and 384, but as time went on he struggled more and more with elements of the belief system that didn't add up to a coherent philosophy.

Neoplatonism of Plotinus and Porphyry

Neoplatonism is a modern coinage, and the so-called Neoplatonic philosophers thought of themselves as latter-day Platonists, distinct from the pre-Socratic philosophers. (Socrates was the teacher of Plato, and Plato was the teacher of Aristotle.) The Neoplatonists were active from the mid-3rd to the mid-7th century CE. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Neoplatonism brought several hundred years of intellectual culture and the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics into "fruitful dialogue with literature, myth, and religious practice."

The Neoplatonists argued that consciousness exists before the physical realm comes into being. Physical reality depends on a unitary and singular principle—a single cause that is divine and can be referred to as "the First," "the One," or "the Good." The Neoplatonists sought to understand how the material universe could emerge from this singularity of consciousness, which was not material. Egyptian-born Plotinus is considered the founder of this school, and his pupil was Porphyry. Neoplatonism had a profound influence on both mainstream Christianity and the ideas of certain Christian mystics. Augustine was introduced to Neoplatonism in Milan and likely read both Plotinus and Porphyry; these ideas helped him reimagine the scriptural tradition of Catholicism and provided the language for the spiritual experiences he describes in The Confessions. Perhaps most important, Neoplatonism taught Augustine to reimagine God as an immaterial being rather than as the anthropomorphic, material being often depicted in the stories of the Hebrew Bible. He learned from the Neoplatonists to imagine a transcendent realm outside space and time where God existed.

Christian Heresies Battled by Augustine

Many of the arguments against schismatic Christians (those who disagreed with the mainstream Church as it was evolving) in The Confessions are directed against Manichaeism, the religion Augustine subscribed to for a decade or more. These additional heresies (teachings contrary to orthodox Christian doctrine) are also the target of Augustine's apologetics, or justifications for his own beliefs.


A schismatic version of early Christianity that broke with the Catholic Church in 312, Donatism is named for the movement's leader, Donatus. In Carthage (now Tunisia), the center of African Christianity, Caecilian was elected bishop over the protests of Donatus and his followers. They objected to him because he had allowed himself to be consecrated by a bishop who had surrendered his copies of scripture (sacred books) to the authorities during a Christian persecution under Emperor Diocletian. The African church stressed that the Holy Spirit (the third Person of the Trinity of God) had to be present in priests and other clergy for their acts to be spiritually valid, and members of the community felt that this bishop had relinquished his spiritual authority in caving to the Romans. A bishop from Numidia (in what is now Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia) arrived in Carthage to stop Caecilian's elevation to bishop. Those of the Donatist party honored the martyrs who had died for their Christian faith under Diocletian and had no respect for those who had renounced their faith to stay alive. Constantine, who became emperor in 306 and decriminalized Christianity in 313, called a council to decide the matter, ruling in 316 that Caecilian's ordination was valid. (Constantine became a patron of Christianity and was baptized shortly before his death.)

Donatus had been elected bishop in 315; after Constantine's declaration, he and his supporters continued to spread their views. They opposed state interference in their affairs and followed a strict form of Christianity. The Donatists were periodically persecuted but gained solid footing in Africa in 361, returning from exile when Julian the Apostate became emperor—the last of the pagan emperors who followed the Roman religion. When Augustine became bishop of Hippo in 396, the Donatists represented the majority of Christians in the city. He spent a great deal of energy trying to bring the Donatists back into the orthodoxy of Catholicism. While Augustine doesn't specifically mention the Donatist controversy in The Confessions, he implicitly criticizes their view that the Church has no room for sinners.


Arianism was defined as a heresy at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The emperor Constantine called this first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church to rule on the idea, first proposed by Arius of Alexandria, that Jesus Christ was not divine. In the fourth century the priest Arius claimed that God is unique and alone, and his godhead cannot be shared or communicated; thus Jesus, called the Son of God, is not of the same substance as God the Father and cannot be equal to him: he is finite and was created by God. According to the bishop Athanasius, Arianism made it impossible to believe in human redemption through Jesus, since only God could reconcile humanity with himself.

Arian doctrine did not disappear, nor did followers of the heresy; traces of Arianism exist even today, in the beliefs of Unitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses. Augustine takes a strong stand against Arianism in The Confessions, and he writes extensively on the three persons of God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—(also known as the Trinity). The doctrine of the Trinity pervades the Confessions.


The Pelagian heresy was taught by Pelagius (360–418), a British ascetic. Pelagianism stressed humanity's essential goodness and freedom and the idea of free will; Pelagius taught that people could attain righteousness on their own, without reliance on God's grace. Since God gave people the ability to choose between good and evil, sin is a voluntary act against God's commandments. Celestius, a disciple of Pelagius, went so far as to deny the doctrine of original sin—a result of the fall of Adam and Eve, according to orthodox Christian theology—and the need for baptism, which removes original sin. Augustine strongly opposed the Pelagian view, arguing that human beings could not be good solely through their own efforts but depended on the grace of God. Augustine tackles this subject in The Confessions and wrote widely on it in his other works.

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