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On Augustine's "Confessions"

Published on 29 September 2021

"For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee." Confessions is one of the first known literary autobiographies, written around 397 AD, detailing the life and conversion of St Augustine of Hippo. In the book, Augustine recalls many episodes of his own life, but also does not hesitate to spiral into more philosophical topics. Issues such as the allegory of Genesis, the original sin, or even less theological concepts such as memory or time are examined through the lens of his own life and experience.

Augustine is a foundational figure to early Catholicism and Christianity as a whole. Confessions is a much less technical work than his other theological treatises (On Christian Doctrine, City of God), it is a moving account of a humble man who did extraordinary spiritual work on himself, and his ability to examine and question the matters of body, mind and soul eventually elevated him to sainthood and he is now counted as one of the thirty six Doctors of the Church.

Augustine is also responsible for bringing neoplatonic thought in line with Christian orthodoxy. Possibly the second largest, after the Bible, source of inspiration and cross-reference is Plotinus and his Enneads. Much like St Thomas a few centuries later with Aristotle, Augustine helped place Christian philosophy on solid, philosophical grounds and ensured that we did not dismiss the wisdom of those who came before us.

Introduction to Confessions

Aurelius Augustinus is born in 354 AD in Thagaste, a small town in the Roman province of Numidia in present-day Algeria. His father was called Patricius, and his mother was St Monica. In childhood he studies briefly in the town of Madaura, and then in Carthage, but he returns to his town of birth often. As one of his early literary influences he cites Cicero's Hortensius, which he explicitly names as the reason why he became interested in philosophy.

Also in his adolescence he becomes interested in an eastern dualistic religion called Manichaeism. He becomes involved in the practices of manicheists and eventually meets one of their bishops, Faustus of Milevis, by whom he is greatly disappointed, recognising him as a good rhetorician but a poor thinker. He later moves to Rome and then Milan with a couple of his friends. His mother later follows him to Milan.

Throughout his time in Carthage and Italy he struggles with sexual immorality — he takes on several mistresses and has an illegitimate child. His sins of this nature later serve as his general exploration for why men sin.

He works in Milan as a professor of rhetoric and meets St Ambrose there, the bishop of Milan. Due to the influence of Ambrose's speeches, his reading of the Platonists (including, presumably, Plotinus) which enabled him to understand immaterial reality, miraculous discovery of relics of saint Gervasius and Protasius, as well as reading some of St Paul's epistles, he converts to Christianity.

On the Easter Vigil of 387 AD, he and two of his friends are baptised by St Ambrose in the Milan cathedral. Shortly after, he leaves Milan.

On the way back to the coast, in Ostia, he and his mother share a mystical vision in a garden. Shortly after, St Monica dies and is buried in Ostia. Augistine returns home to Thagaste and founds a monastic community with his friends. He writes many of his philosophical treatises there.

About fifteen years later he is ordained as a priest by Valerius, bishop of Hippo Regius. He continues to write philosophical and theological treatises, sermons and explanations of biblical stories. On multiple occasions he writes refutations of Manichaeism. Five years later Augustine is ordained a co-bishop of Hippo. A year later, St Ambrose dies, and in the same year, Augustine writes the Confessions.

Confessions consists of thirteen books. Books one to nine are almost entirely autobiographical, detailing episodes from Augustine's life and some of his reflections on the issues that he faced. Books ten to thirteen, significantly longer than the first nine, venture more into the realm of philosophy and theology and include a lengthy explanation of the first chapter of the Genesis.

Notes

This post is going to consist of a few notes I took during reading of Confessions. I typically put up my book reviews on Instagram, but this one is too long for that. Note, though, that this is just a loose collection of musings on specific fragments rather than a coherent story, and is therefore unlike most things you might read on this blog. The parts recalled below are not necessarily in the same order as they are encountered in the book.

Religious zeal

He told her that I was as yet not ripe for teaching because I was all puffed up with the newness of my heresy and had already upset a number of insufficiently skilled people with certain questions.

Once Augustine discovered Manichaeism, his mother, a devout orthodox Christian, became worried and asked a local bishop to do something about his heretical views. The bishop told her that due to Augustine's new-found zeal as a recent convert, there was little that he could do. Instead the bishop hinted that Augustine, thanks to his own cleverness and inquisitiveness, will find questions that the manicheans will not be able to answer. He was later proven correct.

I regret to say that I was caught up with something similar during my adolescence, once I discovered figures such as Dawkins and other such priests of the contemporary secular religion. As a literal fedora-tipping atheist at the time, I thought most people stupid for believing these "Christian superstitions." The reason for this is, of course, not that the people themselves are stupid, but rather they just have more interesting things to do with their lives than discuss religion with someone who had just recently read The God Delusion.

Indeed, my own story in this regard progressed very much along the lines of St Augustine's — I found some questions which the rationalist secularism could not answer, I turned to the wisdom of the ancients. I started reading the Ancient Greeks, the Church Fathers, the apologetics, and eventually discovered the answers to what I looked for.

Popular orator

And I know now and with sure confidence confess to You that I loved the man more for the love of those who praised him than for the qualities for which he was praised.

In Carthage Augustine meets an orator called Hiereus, a Greek-educated Syriac who made a career in Rome. He was someone who we might these days call a celebrity. Augustine admired Hiereus not really for his ability or virtue, but rather "went with the crowd," and considered him to be at the apex of worldly honour and glory. It was something that Augustine desired for himself early on.

This is a trap that we ourselves fall into every day. We follow the crowd instead of seeing the world for what it is. We make our decisions based on popularity instead of any serious objective metrics.

His experience with Hiereus put first significant dents into his understanding of Manichaeism and its materialist view of the world.

Foretelling eclipses

And men who do not know this art marvel and are amazed, and those that know it boast and are made much of, in their evil pride turning from You and losing Your light: an eclipse of the sun they see so long before it happens, yet they fail to see their own eclipse actually present.

Having met the bishop of the Manichees, Faustus, Augustine becomes sorely disappointed because it turned out that they were proud "snares of the devil," and their teaching held no substance. Manichaean hierarchy was also such that parts of their philosophy were restricted to those not initiated beyond a certain level. Augustine compares this to astrologers, who can predict eclipses and exploit the people who do not know how eclipses work.

This is also a caution against those who dictate actions of others from within an opaque circle that cannot be seen or understood from the outside. We should be careful when taking advice or acting upon orders of people whose motivations are unclear or fake.

Arena

His curiosity got the better of him, and thinking that he would be able to treat the sight with scorn — whatever the sight might be — he opened his eyes and was stricken with a deeper would in the soul than the man whom he had opened his eyes to see got in his body.

Augustine recounts a story of a friend of his, Alypius, who struggled with the sin of concupiscence. Alypius very much enjoyed watching gladiatorial battles in the arena, a barbaric pastime which was forbidden to Christians. He wanted to stop, but was encouraged by his friends to go. So he went, but decided to keep his eyes shut so as to avoid seeing the brutality of the games. At some point, though, he heard a loud noise and, ovecrome by curiosity, he opened his eyes "just for a glance," but having seen the scene, he could not close them again.

This is related to Augustine's later attempt to explain his trouble with sexual immorality. His conclusion is that all it takes is a first step to become sinful and therefore we should avoid as much as possible taking that first step. That first step is the moment where we choose to defy the Christian morality and we become like Eve in the Garden.

Also, listen to your parents and don't do stupid things just because your friends want you to.

Pear tree

But what delight did I find in that, which I would not equally have found if I had done it alone?

Almost half of book two is devoted to an incident of robbing a pear tree — a memory Augustine admits that he remembers very well, even though it was something as a matter of fact insignificant. He and a group of friends stole pears from a tree in a neighbour's garden. As he notes, they did not want to eat the pears, they weren't poor or hungry, and in the end the just threw the pears to the pigs. He wonders why he chose to do what he did, which was of course immoral.

Robbing the pear tree lays the foundation for what will later become his examination of original sin. Due to the fallen nature of man, there are sometimes inclinations in us to do things which are forbidden merely because they are forbidden. There was no practical reason for stealing, but he and his friends did it anyway.

This seems to contradict the common idea we hear these days that people commit crimes merely because they are in need. People steal because they need food, they excessively drink or do drugs at the behest of "friends", they commit sexual transgressions for want of love. This is all true, and there certainly are many people whose crimes like this might be excused — but there also is in us a perverse proclivity towards sin which is inexcusable in itself, and it needs to be fought on a personal level. All of us have a tendency to do wrong if circumstances present themselves, even if we do not stand to gain or lose anything, and for that we should also avoid finding ourselves in such circumstances.

Enemy insults

Just as the flattery of a friend can pervert, so the insult of an enemy can sometimes correct.

Augustine recounts an incident from his mother's life, where, while in service in a local lord's household, whenever she would be sent to the basement to draw wine from a barrel, she'd take a little sip. Eventually the habit worsened so much that she would drink full cups before returning. One day she had an argument with one of the maids who, in a fit of rage, called Monica a drunkard. Realising the fault in her behaviour, she stopped drinking immediately.

We should sometimes pay attention to our enemies, because even if their criticisms are entirely malicious, there might be a grain of truth in them that we might learn from. Likewise, we should not only listen to those who flatter us, because flattery is often insincere.

Measure

For the passage is itself a pleasure, yet there is no other way to achieve sufficiency than that which necessity forces us to travel.

Now in the theological/philosophical second part of Confessions, we find Augustine musing over the right measure of things that fulfil our bodily functions. We need to eat, but we also derive enjoyment from eating. When do we know that we have gone past the health threshold and are now eating merely for pleasure?

We are evolutionarily predisposed to derive pleasure from things which are good for us. We enjoy the taste of foods that we, at least historically, needed to be able to function properly, hunt, and so on. However, in the modern world of omnipresent abundance, we must take care to only derive pleasure from things which are rightly ordered and not overindulge. Gluttony, pride and lust are not only sins, they are also unhealthy.

Bible

I know no books so destructive of pride, so destructive of the enemy who stands up in the justification of his sins, resisting reconciliation with You. I know, Lord, no writings so pure, none that have so powerfully persuaded me to confession, and bent my neck to Your yoke, and invited me to worship You for worship's sake alone.

The Bible is the best book. It is a source not only of wisdom, but spiritual joy. And, what's more important, it's the foundation of our civilization, the most important text in the history of mankind. Read it often, lest you become consumed by sin.

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