The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | Summary



Augustine's Confessions appears at first to be a spiritual autobiography, but it is rather an extended prayer to God in which the author presents himself as an object lesson of how an individual soul becomes a pilgrim seeking the path to God. The author tells of his conversion to Catholicism in his early 30s. The human audience for the text is other would-be pilgrims whom he wishes to convert to Catholicism. Thus, The Confessions is also a theological and philosophical text.

Book 1

Augustine begins by immediately introducing the concept of a transcendent God who is everywhere and exists in the eternal present. He then launches into his personal story, describing himself as an infant and toddler and noting that he learned how to speak using the mind God gave him. He was given instruction in Christian ideas, but his baptism was put off. A curious and lively child, he came to believe that the good life consisted in winning praise and favor from others.

Book 2

In adolescence Augustine has a year at home, when he is brought back from school before being sent farther away to Carthage. He uses that time unwisely, engaging in furtive love affairs and roaming the streets with his companions and playing pranks. One involves stealing pears, which Augustine marks as a serious crime, since he did it just for the fun of breaking the law. Moreover, he would not have done it if he weren't part of a group from which he craved acceptance. Augustine equates himself to the prodigal son of the Gospel, wandering away from God until he became to himself "a land of famine."

Book 3

When he is about 17, Augustine moves to Carthage to study literature and rhetoric. He does well in his studies and happens upon Cicero's Hortensius, which urges him to take up philosophy and put aside worldly ambition. Not long after, he joins the Manichaeans, Gnostic Christians with heretical ideas about God and spirituality. They teach him that God is material and that there are actually two Gods: a good one and a bad one. The Manichaeans also disavow much of the Bible, mostly the Old Testament. In looking back on this period of error, Augustine reiterates the idea that God is incorporeal (without a physical body).

Book 4

Augustine continues with the Manichaeans for about nine years, and he becomes so enthusiastic about the religion that he convinces some of his friends to convert. He now reports that previously he had taken a lover (at about age 17) and has had a child with her. He stays faithful to this woman for the entire time they are together, 14 or 15 years. After finishing school, Augustine returns to his hometown of Thagaste. Soon after, he loses a dear friend, and to recover from his death he leaves again and returns to Carthage.

In this period he still thinks of God as material, a kind of distended mass, and believes in the Monad and the Dyad (supreme good and supreme evil). As he recalls the past, he is amazed that he could master Aristotle's ten categories but still thought God was an "immense luminous body" of which he was a particle.

Book 5

Augustine opens Book 5 with praises of God and reiterates his omnipresence. He then narrates that in his 29th year he meets a Manichaean bishop, Faustus, who he is hoping will clear up his doubts about the religion, which are multiplying. Augustine has been reading science, which in no way squares with the myths he has been taught by the Manichaeans. Faustus is no help and actually becomes Augustine's pupil.

The saint is disgusted with the students in Carthage, who are unruly, and decides to move to Rome. He lies to his mother and sneaks out of Carthage, not wanting her to follow him. He boards with other Manichaeans in Rome, although the thrill of Manichaeism has gone and he is following the doctrine half-heartedly. Next, he begins reading the Stoics (Greek skeptics), the school to which Cicero had aligned himself. He is not happy with the students in Rome, who don't pay their teachers, and he is offered a position in Milan as the emperor's master of rhetoric. When he gets to Milan, he leaves the Manichaeans and decides to become a catechumen in the Catholic Church (one preparing for baptism) until he decides what his next step will be.

Book 6

Monica, Augustine's mother, follows her son to Milan and is overjoyed to hear he has at last given up Manichaeism. A devout Catholic herself, she has been praying for his conversion for years. In Milan he also meets Bishop Ambrose, whose sermons help him understand the Hebrew Bible metaphorically, and he is introduced to Neoplatonic philosophy, which helps him reconceive his relationship with God as a transcendent being. He also hears from Ambrose about a new way of reading the Bible, which is allegorical. Having always thought the Scriptures silly, he now begins to see them as holy and profound.

Augustine is thinking more about the way he has been living and remembers that as a younger man he had wanted to take up philosophy, but instead he has been caught in the world of ambition. He would like to become an ascetic, but his mother has lined up a young girl who, in two years, will be of age to marry him. She is of his class and can bring him a dowry. He must now give up his common-law wife, so he gives her a dowry and sends her home. Although this was common practice among men of the upper classes, to take a concubine and then dismiss her when it was time to marry, Augustine is heartbroken. His mistress vows to live a celibate life after she leaves him, which makes him feel worse. To satisfy his urges until he can marry, Augustine now takes another mistress to fill the physical and emotional void.

Book 7

While Augustine is beginning to digest some of the Neoplatonic ideas, he's still stuck on the corporeal God and the problem of good and evil. He finally reads some books on Neoplatonic philosophy, getting first-hand exposure to their ideas, and he realizes that much of what they say is identical to what Saint John says in his gospel. Not long after, he attempts Neoplatonic contemplation and has a vision of God, in which he "sees" God above him as divine light. He is irrevocably changed by this experience, although he cannot hold on to it. As a result of the vision, he now understands that God is transcendent, not immanent. He discerns that God's creation is good, finally understanding that evil is an absence of good and a turning away from God. He also concludes that Neoplatonists go only so far, since they are missing the knowledge of the Word, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Book 8

Now that Augustine has fallen in love with God, he no longer wants to pursue worldly ambitions, but he is still struggling with committing to celibacy, which he feels he must do if he accepts baptism into the Catholic faith. Augustine is inspired by talking to a court official who tells him about the famous monk, Antony of Egypt. Simplicianus, the mentor of Ambrose, tells him the story of Victorinus, a famous orator who converted. Augustine keeps struggling, and one day goes into the garden of his house to sort it all out. He receives a message from God, in the form of a child's song he hears. When he opens up Paul's letters (a section of the Christian scriptures), he receives a second message, which tells him it is time to give up his old life. He immediately feels sure about what he is supposed to do and tells his friend Alypius and his mother, Monica.

Book 9

Augustine again begins by praising God and then tells of how he retired to a villa to prepare himself for baptism. He does this by meditating on the psalms—poetic prayers found in the Hebrew Bible. He also inserts a short biography of his mother, Monica, in Book 9. Augustine returns to Milan and is baptized with his son, Adeodatus, and his friend Alypius.

Augustine and his family members, preparing to return to Africa, are staying in Ostia, near Rome. One day he and his mother are speculating on what heaven is like, and the two of them simultaneously have a vision of God, ascending to the joy of "That Which Is." They reach the summit of their own minds and transcend that as well, touching that land of never-failing plenty" where God has created his celestial city. A few days later Monica gets sick and dies soon after. Augustine is disappointed that he feels his grief so keenly, but he finally gives into it and then prays to God for his mother's salvation.

Book 10

Augustine shifts to theology and philosophy, beginning in Book 10. He begins by explaining his motives for confession. To understand himself even further, it is necessary to delve into memory and understand what memory consists of. What follows is a long and remarkable philosophical discussion on memory that explains something of how the mind works. Augustine also covers three major categories of sin and tells how he has sinned in all three. He ends by praising God, who has led him into inward experience, but asks Jesus for help to break the cycle of sinful habituation.

Book 11

Book 11 covers time, and Augustine's discourse begins by examining what Genesis could possibly mean when it says "In the beginning God created heaven and earth." The move from memory to time is logical, since the felt sense of time is produced in the memory. Augustine presents an extended analysis of time and answers the Manichaean question, meant as a taunt, which asks where God was before creation. Augustine shows that God is outside of time and existing only in the now; therefore, it is silly to ask where he was before he created time.

Book 12

Augustine now turns to other parts of Genesis to demonstrate the allegorical meaning of the creation story. He distinguishes between God's manifest creation (earth and the heavens, containing the stars and planets) and the unmanifest creation (where angels live). The unmanifest or immaterial creation is synonymous with God's house, which is itself synonymous with the Catholic Church in heaven, which is perfect. He also acknowledges that there can be many interpretations of holy scripture, so long as all of them are true, i.e., that they demonstrate the foundational truth of what they are trying to explain.

Book 13

Augustine continues with his allegorical analysis of the creation as described in Genesis and says that God created the universe because of his "abundant goodness." He also explains the meaning of the Trinity, giving particular emphasis to the meaning of the Third Person, the Holy Spirit.

Augustine notes that as God rested on the seventh day, human beings will also rest when their work is finished. The creation will pass away when it has served its purpose, and the human beings who have returned to God will spend eternity with him.

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