The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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The Confessions | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The Confessions is a collection of autobiographical religious teachings, musings, and insights by Augustine of Hippo, who was later canonized as Saint Augustine. The Confessions was written between 397 and 400 CE and contains a wide variety of Christian theological discernments explained through the narrative of the author's own life. Born in North Africa during the Roman Empire, Augustine traveled far and wide seeking religious understanding, finally finding peace in Christianity. The Confessions was like nothing the world had seen before—a spiritual narrative based on the author's own trials, hardships, mistakes, and revelations. The Confessions was regarded as a fundamental part of Christian education during the Middle Ages in Europe, and it remains read and taught as a cornerstone of Western philosophical and theological thought.

1. Many consider The Confessions to be the first Western autobiography.

In addition to being one of the earliest and most fundamental works of Christian philosophy, The Confessions is also often viewed as the earliest autobiography of a Western figure. Augustine used a narrative method, which hadn't been seen before in Europe, to convey his theological and philosophical revelations: the use of his own life story to provide context for his teachings. The Confessions is not just a theoretical work of religious insight, but a demonstration of how Augustine's journey, choices, and mistakes led him to Christianity. (It's not really an autobiography, since it stops while Augustine is still in his 30s, after his conversion to Christianity.)

2. One famous monk hated The Confessions so much he tried to sue the man who read it aloud.

The Confessions was not entirely well received in ancient Rome. One notable religious figure, the monk Pelagius, took offense to a particular line when he heard it being read aloud in Rome: "Give me what you command, and command what you will." Pelagius believed this line marked a reinterpretation of the idea of grace that broke with traditional doctrine. In retaliation, Pelagius threatened legal action against the bishop who read the passage. Eventually Pelagius was accused of heresy by Augustine himself, and he faced numerous trials for leading an allegedly heretical sect of traditionalist Christians.

3. Manichaeism—which Augustine briefly followed—was banned from Europe to China.

During his quest to understand religious truths, Augustine briefly followed Manichaeism, a religious movement characterized by the belief in an inherent duality between forces of good and evil that are represented by the sun and moon, respectively. Because the religion was considered heretical by Christians, it was banned in the Roman Empire by the 6th century. Manichaeism spread far beyond Europe, however. The sect became well established in parts of Central Asia and China, notably popular with traveling merchants who would undertake the perilous journey across the continent. Manichaeism's popularity in Asia led the Tang Emperor Hsüan-tsung to address its spread in 732 CE, declaring:

Manichaeism was originally a heretical religion. As it claims Buddhism to confuse people, it should be banned. However, because it is the home religion of the Western barbarians, they are allowed to follow it among themselves without punishment.

4. The Confessions miraculously survived a brutal invasion.

The Roman Empire's great fall came at the hands of a succession of invasions from German peoples, groups most Romans had previously considered barbarians. The Vandals—whose chaotic brutality gave rise to the English word vandalism—raided and sacked cities in Roman North Africa in the early 5th century. Augustine was residing in Hippo when the Vandals attacked the city, but the library containing his entire body of works was remarkably and miraculously spared. Although most buildings in the city were burned, pillaged, or looted, the library remained untouched during the invasion. However, Augustine caught a terrible fever during the siege and died after 10 days, likely unaware that his writings would be kept safe.

5. Augustine inspired Martin Luther.

The Confessions inspired another famous Christian theologian centuries later. Martin Luther, leader of the Christian Reformation and the rise of Protestant Christianity in Europe, was heavily influenced by Augustine's writings, which he began studying in 1509. Luther was particularly entranced by Augustine's idea of divine grace, and he found Augustine's personal, anecdotal depiction of Christianity to be in line with his own rebellion against papal corruption and statist religion. Luther spoke of Augustine's influence on his personal religious thought, noting:

I do not defend Augustine because I am an Augustinian; before I began reading his works he meant nothing to me.

6. Augustine's The Confessions was originally intended to be read aloud.

When The Confessions is taught in philosophy classes, it is generally read as a text; however, this wasn't the author's original intention. Because the text was written long before the invention of the printing press, only handwritten copies of The Confessions were transmitted during Augustine's lifetime. Because these were hard to come by, most readers of the The Confessions actually heard the text being read aloud in public. Augustine intended for the reader to assume the perspective and voice of Augustine himself, as the work was written primarily in the first person. The religious scholar Thomas Martin explained:

The pervasiveness of the first person singular throughout the narrative, when read aloud, cannot help but reverberate back upon the one speaking.

7. There have been disputes over the proper wording of the title of The Confessions.

There have been many acceptable variations of the wording for the title of The Confessions. The text has been referred to as "Augustine's Confessions," "The Confessions," or simply "Confessions." Augustine's original title for the work was somewhat longer, as he named it Confessions in Thirteen Books.

8. Pope Francis declared that more modern Christians should be "restless" like St. Augustine.

Pope Francis, who rose to the papacy in 2013, has shown admiration for Augustine's lengthy and philosophical search for meaning in religion and the true nature of God. The pope noted that contemporary Christians had become "anesthetized" to religious thought. Pope Francis praised Augustine's spiritual journey in a sermon, explaining:

He was educated by his mother Monica in the Christian faith, although he was not baptized, but as he grew he moved away from it. He didn't find in it the answer to his questions, to the desires of his heart and he became attracted to other things. But in his heart, there remained the restlessness of the search for the profound meaning of life. His heart was not asleep, it was not anesthetized by success, by things, by power.

9. Augustine said slavery was the result of sin.

Slavery was common practice in the Roman Empire, and during Augustine's lifetime, slaves were often people from conquered nations. Augustine was not proud of Rome's legacy of slavery, but he regarded it as an inevitability of sinful human nature. He noted that although slavery was contradictory to natural order, it was an unavoidable consequence of mankind's spiteful and evil disposition. In The City of God, Augustine wrote:

It is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin. And this is why we do not find the word 'slave' in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature.

10. Augustine's parents were of different faiths.

Augustine spent much of his life experimenting with different religious traditions before converting to Christianity. Although his mother, Monica, raised him as a Christian, Augustine was actually exposed to religious difference from birth. His father followed the Roman pantheon, known as paganism by Christians. Many scholars speculate that being raised in a religiously diverse household inspired Augustine's quest for religious understanding.

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