The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Main Ideas


God's Solace

Augustine's Confessions clearly espouses the view that the only true solace in life can be found in God. Like all philosophers, he begins with the perennial problem of being a self-conscious creature in a body that will live, relatively speaking, only a short time and then die. What are human beings to make of this tragic fate, this universal existential dilemma? Like most people, he first follows the path laid out by his culture: go to school, get a good job, marry, and have children. But early on, he realizes that living life strictly in the material realm will not satisfy him. He wants to know what life means and why there is evil in the world. He first turns to Greek philosophy, in the form of Cicero's Stoicism, which leads him to Manichaeism. Eventually, Greek philosophy in the form of Neoplatonic ideas leads him back to Christianity, and he has two mystical experiences in which he finds himself in the presence of God, although not entirely united with him or subsumed by him. Afterward he clearly understands that the only thing that will make him happy is being in communication with God. While living in a human body, union with his Beloved will be sporadic and limited, but once he embraces the Christian belief system, Augustine looks forward to life after death, in which he believes that he will make his way to God's house (heaven) and find himself never separated again from the fullness of his creator.

Grace and Salvation

One of the themes that Confessions considers at length is how God's grace plays a role in salvation. Christian Catholics and Christian Protestants have been arguing for centuries about Augustine's view on grace, and at times he may contradict himself. His ideas about grace were refined during the many years he spent as a devoted Catholic, and since he wrote millions of words, they reflect multiple views on the subject of grace. In Confessions, Augustine shows that God's grace is essential for salvation; it is not possible to be saved without it. When he first takes up Neoplatonic contemplation, Augustine has a wonderful vision of the divine, and he has a second vision in the company of his mother, Monica. Nonetheless, he cannot remain in this vision or sustain it for any length of time, and he asserts that it is only through Jesus Christ, the Second Person of God and the mediator between God and humanity, that a person can attain salvation. For him, salvation is completed only in death, after a Christian who has led an exemplary life finds himself abiding in God in heaven.

To get on the right path to salvation, a human being needs the grace of God working in his or her life. Thus, Augustine the pilgrim sets off to find God with a pure heart that wants the truth, even if his actions keep him in a sinful state. His longing for God first guides him to Cicero's Stoic text and then to the misguided Manichaeans. But his Manichaean community is the vehicle for bringing Augustine to Italy and eventually to Milan, where he finds Bishop Ambrose and begins reading the Neoplatonic texts that will help him resolve his qualms with the Bible. In Augustine's view, God's grace was working in his life to lead him on the path toward salvation. At the same time, Augustine never could have found that path without using his free will to look for God, even when he wasn't sure what God was or where he might find him. Thus, grace and free will work together in the cause of reuniting the soul with God.

Good and Evil

Augustine is concerned, as many people are, about why there is so much evil in the world. He is drawn to Manichaean belief because the Manichaeans come up with a seemingly plausible answer to this question. In their dualistic view, there is a good deity and a bad deity, each living in its own realm. However, on earth the good and bad deities mix, which is how evil comes into the world. In the Manichaean view, the manifest world is already bad, since it holds the ready possibility of mixing with evil. This is why the inner circle of believers remains celibate and does not procreate, eats only vegetarian food, and attempts to live a life with as little contact with the temptations of the world as possible. When people act immorally, the Manichaeans attribute this to the bad deity working in them; thus, to some degree they absolve themselves of responsibility for their bad deeds.

When Augustine embraces Christianity, he finds what seems to him a more reasonable answer to the problem of evil. The Christian intellectuals in Milan have been reading the Neoplatonist philosophers and incorporating their monist (one God principle) perspectives into Christian theology. First, the Neoplatonists help Christians move from the idea of an immanent God to a transcendent deity. Augustine works out that everything that comes from God must be good, and that what is called evil or bad is the turning away or distancing oneself from God. Evil is a perversion of the will and an absence of God. God did not make evil, but where he is absent, evil finds itself. Evil is the deprivation of what is good, which results in pain. Since evil is an absence and not a presence, people cannot choose evil. Rather, they choose the lesser good, and the degree to which they choose that determines the depth of the darkness or emptiness they fall into.

Meaning of the Incarnation

According to Catholic theology, Jesus, the Christ (the "anointed" one), also called the Second Person of God, takes on human flesh as a man to pay humanity's debt to God, incurred after the first parents commit original sin. Humanity falls into error and becomes separated from God through this sin, an attempt by the first parents to assert their free will and put themselves on the level of God by disobeying him. The story that allegorically demonstrates this archetypal fall from grace is found in the Book of Genesis, when Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She shares the fruit with Adam, and the two, as a result, are expelled from Paradise and alienated from God. Original sin brings death into the world and must be atoned for to bring about man's redemption. However, humanity is not equal to God, and only a divine being can pay the debt. Thus, God sends his son (the Second Person) into the world to die for humanity's sin (to balance the books with God, as it were, for man's disobedience); the Son then reenters heaven, paving the way for humanity to follow him. This belief is central to Augustine's personal pilgrimage from sin to redemption. He believes that human beings have a natural tendency toward sin because everyone comes into the world with the stain of Adam. For Catholics, baptism washes away that sin as well as any actual sin committed before baptism. Augustine makes a difficult journey away from what he considers to be a sinful life and into a more wholesome existence and reconciliation with God. In Augustine's view, salvation occurs only after death, when a righteous Christian has a final reunion with God.

The Operation of Free Will

Free will is given to human beings by God, who gave them the freedom to choose him or turn away from him. In the fall of humanity's first parents, humanity chose to turn away and fall into sin and death. The same thing happens to anyone who makes this choice. Through the perversion of will, people make bad choices, which then become habitual. Only though God's grace can human beings find themselves on the path to salvation, says Augustine. However, it is only by freely choosing God over the fleeting and temporal satisfaction of this world that they may put themselves on the right path.

Transcendent God

An important theme worked out through The Confessions is determining the nature of God. Although Christians and Jews are monotheists, their conception of God even in the 4th and 5th centuries was not that different from that of the Greeks and Romans. All these peoples conceived God as a material entity that abided either in heaven or the world in some way. The Manichaeans took this to an extreme, imagining two types of deities of substance: one good and one bad and both permeating the world. The Platonists (called the Neoplatonists after the fact) who continued in Plato's school of philosophy (although they advanced new theories) had a different idea, perhaps learned from philosophers further east: that God was transcendent and did not have a material body. Rather, the essence of God existed in a nonmaterial realm that human beings did not live in but could access. Augustine reads the Neoplatonist philosophers when he gets to Milan and, like the other Christians there, applies their idea of a transcendent deity to Christian teachings.

Sexuality and Celibacy

Augustine is often blamed for bringing to Christianity the idea that sex and the body are bad and sinful, but this charge is laid at his door because of others who followed him and misunderstood his theology. First, Augustine does not think that sex in itself is sinful. The problem with sex as well as other sensual pleasures is that, when misused, it can lead to the sin of concupiscence, which is greedy addiction to a sensual pleasure that subordinates rationality. Moreover, he got the idea that celibacy is a preferable state from the Greeks, who considered sex a serious distraction to a rational, philosophical life. The later Greeks equated wisdom with nonattachment to the material world, much as the philosophers of India did, and sex is perhaps the greatest attachment of the physical body. Thus, Augustine first thinks of leading an ascetic life, which includes celibacy, when he reads Cicero, a Roman Stoic.

For Augustine, converting to Christianity had to include a personal commitment to celibacy because he found himself extremely attached to sex, particularly with his common-law wife of 15 years (whom he was forced to give up when he entered into an engagement with a young woman of his own class). He likely felt hypocritical for giving up this person and wanting to marry a more suitable partner in the eyes of the world. Moreover, he wanted to devote himself entirely to God once he converted to Christianity. Thus, celibacy was the logical choice for him. Celibacy was not a strict requirement of the Catholic clergy until the 11th century. For Augustine, celibacy was not a categorical rejection of sexual intercourse nor a judgment about sex as something bad or evil.

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