One of the most influential religious books in the Christian tradition recalls crucial events in the author's life: his mid-4th-century origins in rural Algeria; the rise to a lavish lifestyle at the imperial court in Milan; his struggle with sexual desires; eventual renunciation of secular ambitions and marriage; and recovery of his Catholic faith.
When I first sat down to begin Book One of The Confessions, I was prepared for a war. I figured if I could get through five or ten pages, I'd be doing well. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how readable and compelling this spiritual autobiography is. The work is divided into thirteen separate "books", and it's no problem to lose yourself in one book per sitting—even if you're not trained in history or theology. I'm sure much of this is due to Philip Burton's fine translation.
Speaking of the translator, he did the reader a favour by setting all scriptural quotations in italics. Augustine was pickled in scripture—especially the Psalms. He can't praise God without the Psalmist's phrases springing to his pen. While with some this style could seem cumbersome (little more than parachuting in proof-texts), it's endearing with Augustine. There's no wonder why his name is prefixed with Saint.
Augustine's heart was tender. When he sinned, he grieved over it. Not just so-called big sins, either. In one section he delves into his motives for steeling some fruit he didn't even need from a neighbour's tree. It's encouraging to read someone who takes their spiritual life so seriously, and who admits their faults so freely. (Where else on the spiritual best-seller list can you find a chapter entitled, "Farewell My Concubine"?)
I have to admit that I was frustrated by the last three chapters. They were a reminder that ancient writers don't follow the same conventions that we moderns do. After ten books of beautiful and gripping autobiography he spent the last three explaining his philosophical and allegorical understanding of Genesis 1. I know his break with Manichean philosophy runs through both biography and commentary but it doesn't make it any less frustrating to read. Even so, endure the last three books. There are still gems to be found.
With a work so classic as The Confessions, you can find any number of editions. I choose the cloth-bound Everyman's Edition from Knopf, published in 2001. The binding is solid and the typesetting is elegant. More importantly, the translator was clear and authentic and Robin Lane Fox's substantial introduction helped to put the entire work into perspective.
Don't fear the "classic" moniker. This work is a gem any thinking Christian would do well to read.
I'd not read this classic, even though I long intended to "get around to it." Had it not been mentioned by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster as a great source for meditation and devotional (along with City of God which I will now read expediently), then I might not have gotten it done this year. Confessions is one of the first "Western" autobiographies and I was fascinated that it could have been written in the 1800s just as well as 398. Has the same raw quality of pre-20th-century memoirs that haven't been edited for their PC content and revisionism.
Augustine lives somewhat of a privileged boyhood with good schooling, discipline, and a devout mother. He loves to sin, particularly struggling with lust and theft just for the sake of theft. As a teenager, Augustine joins a cult of Manicheans for 9 years. Like any cult, he finds it intellectually stifling-- he's discouraged from asking questions, or trying to use science or reason. The leaders he is under are not as well-educated as himself, and this makes it difficult. Many of the Manichee, like Mormons or JW's today, were devotees to the writings of Mani, but had not read all of his thoughts or understood them. There appear to be some appeals to astrology in Mani's writings, and the people Augustine is around don't really understand all of what they speak of. Among these were Faustus who was supposed to have all the answers, but Augustine finds generally disappointing. Nonetheless, Augustine finds their message liberating-- "it is not I who sin." Manicheans were dualists--Gnostics -- who believed that Jesus did not inhabit a physical body, and that our souls cannot be corrupted by what is done by our flesh. Even after Augustine rejects their teachings, he does not want to choose Scripture as Truth.
So, Augustine remains fairly closely associated with Manichees while himself a professor of rhetoric both in Carthage and in Rome. Meanwhile, his mother is a devout Christian who prays earnestly for his salvation and implores him to repent.
She follows him to Milan, where Augustine encounters Bishop Ambrose (whose own life seems fascinating), who Augustine respects; he attends every Sunday service. (I found some of the description of church life interesting, there appears to have been some struggles with what role wine should play in the life of the believer-- Ambrose apparently being opposed to Augustine's mother's use of wine in an act of worship.) Augustine is a philanderer, has a child by a "concubine" who he loves, but rejects in order to marry at his mother's behest. He generally hates married life and continues a life of adultery.
Augustine converses with Simplicanius, spiritual father of Ambrose, who tells Augustine of Victorinus, a Roman philosopher and respected teacher of rhetoric in Rome, who toward the end of his life forsakes his career (it was illegal for Christians to teach rhetoric) to become a Christian. Augustine had read books translated by Victorinus, and this makes an impression on him.
"But when that man of Thine, Simplicianus, related to me this of Victorinus, I was on fire to imitate him; for for this very end had he related it. But when he had subjoined also, how in the days of the Emperor Julian a law was made, whereby Christians were forbidden to teach the liberal sciences or oratory; and how he, obeying this law, chose rather to give over the wordy school than Thy Word, by which Thou makest eloquent the tongues of the dumb; he seemed to me not more resolute than blessed, in having thus found opportunity to wait on Thee only."
Augustine also hears of Antony Eventually, Augustine has a conversion experience and repents.
"I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: 'Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence.' No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away."
His son is baptised with him. His mother is jubilant, and dies some time afterwards.
Modernly, Augustine's book is also seen as literature, with and it appears from reading around that modern scholars maintain that looking at his work from our modern lenses misses the overall purpose and meaning. Augustine's book is not some confession and testimony of a sinner, but rather his work was intended to convert Manicheans. After all, the biographical part ends in Book 9 and Augustine launches on a range of topics, including memory and the meaning of time. (Physics tells us that all moments in time already exists, and this is what I hear Augustine saying in Book 11.) It's plausible to me that his intended audience are Manichees since they were interested in times, planets, and creation as Augustine spends a great deal of time on these. He engaged in a lifelong battle against the Manichees in Hippo, and this work certainly seems part of his larger writings to that end. Augustine's philosophical musings are still of great interest today. I would like to read Brian Greene's take on his philosophy of time.
Confessions really drives home the importance of Scripture to me; Augustine was 40 when he wrote it and knew the Scriptures well. Augustine took part in important church councils, and my understanding is that by the time of his ascension to Bishop, the accepted Western canon of scripture was already considered closed. I really enjoy how he writes/prays Scriptures when pouring his thoughts out. He prays the prayers of David, Jesus, Paul, etc. in relation to his own life and salvation. Opens every book with a heartfelt prayer/confession. I would like to read books on the theology of Augustine.
It also inspires me to read more church history. People like Simplicanius could probably trace their spiritual lineage back to the Apostles. Christians like Antony were well-known in Augustine's circles, having also published works (Dallas Willard has a nice critique of Antony and the secular-sacred dichotomy that was probably popularized by Augustine's mention). What can we today learn from these and the controversies faced by the authors? Why aren't we Christians today more scholarly about our ancient heritage?
5 stars out of 5, of course.
Meanwhile, Augustine's arguments against magic, differentiating it from miracle, were crucial in the early Church's fight against paganism and became a central thesis in the later denunciation of witches and witchcraft. In other words, he perhaps unintentionallly contributed to the burning alive of many innocent people.
However, because it is impossible to separate Christianity form European intellectual tradition, we must (for me grudgingly so) acknowledge Augustine's positive role.
1. in bringing Greek thought back into the Christian/European intellectual tradition.
2. his writing on the human will and ethics would become a focus for later thinkers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
3. His extended meditation on the nature of time imfluenced even agnostics such as Bertrand Russell.
4. throughout the 20th century Continental philosophers like Husserl, Heidegger, Arendt and Elshtaing were inspired by Augustine's ideas on intentionality, memory, and language.
5. Augustine's vision of the heavenly city has probably influenced the secular projects and traditions of the Enlightenment, Marxism, Freudianism and Eco-fundamentalism.
Augustine was a medieval thinker who contributed many things, and we must understand he did live in a dark time. I admit his positive achievements (like contributing to my atheism) but we must also realize how his asceticism, fundamentalism and guilt-mongering contributed immensely to some of the darkest moments in history.
4.5 stars for being an important part of history and our understanding of it, whether Augustine's influence is seen as good, bad, or in-between.
Don't expect anything linear, and you'll be all the more impressed when he ends up, every now and then, out-Aristotling Aristotle with arguments of the (x-->y)&(y-->z)&(z-->p)&(p-->q); ~x is absurd; therefore q variety.
Don't expect any modern 'you are a unique and special snowflake and your desires are good it's just that your parents/society/upbringing/schoolfriends/economic earning power have stunted you' self-help guff. It'd be nice to read someone more contemporary who's willing to admit that people do things wrong, all the time, and should feel really shitty for doing wrong things.
Don't expect Aquinas. This is the hardest bit for me; if someone's going to talk about God I prefer that they be coldly logical about it. Augie goes more for the erotic allegory, self-abasement in the face of the overwhelming eternal kind of thing. No thanks.
Finally, be aware that you'll need to think long and hard about what he says and why he says it when he does. Books I-IX are the ones you'll read as autobiography, and books X-XIII will seem like a slog. But it's all autobiography. Sadly for Augie, he doesn't make it easy for us to value the stuff he wants to convince us to value, which is the philosophy and theology of the later books. The structure, as far as I can tell, is to show us first how he got to believing that it was possible for him to even begin thinking about God (that's I-IX). X-XIII shows us how he goes about thinking about God, moving from the external world, to the human self in X and a bit of XI, to the whole of creation in XI and XII, to God himself in XIII. I have no idea if this is what he had in mind, but it roughly works out. That's all very intellectually stimulating, but it's still way more fun to read about his peccadilloes and everyday life in the fourth century.
This was a very difficult read, a chore really, and it took me much longer than its page count warranted. I had to lean on Sparknotes quite a bit to help me navigate it. Merging neo-platonic philosophy with Christianity, Augustine argues that everyone and everything moves towards God, knowingly or not, as part of a quest to achieve near-perfect (only God is perfect) state of being. That is an essential message to be aware of and watching for if you've any hope of getting through this.
The first nine parts are his biography, which serves as a sort of case study. This was the portion that satisfied my amateur interest. Augustine apologizes to God for every sin he can ever remember making, including some (e.g. crying incessantly as a babe) that he can't. Citing the evil sin of taking pride in his grammar lessons and rhetoric skills, etc. makes him sound almost a flagellant. Slightly more legitimate was the minor theft of fruit committed under peer pressure, and more philandering than was strictly warranted. Most peculiar to me was the supposed sin of taking pleasure in watching tragic drama, as he wonders where the pleasure came from to be entertained by tales of others' suffering, albeit fictional.
The last four parts are increasingly obtuse as he lays out his theory of change that moves towards God. I could barely parse these chapters. The first explored memory, the next was on the nature of time, the next the biblical story of creation, and the last ... Sparknotes doesn't cover this one and it lost me so completely, I can't even hazard a guess at what it was addressing even though I read every word. The tenth chapter is also a discussion of temptations and gave me the sad impression that he had built a cage about himself, cutting himself off from every pleasure life has to offer and reducing his experience to mere survival. He writes that of course he knows he cannot permit anyone to dissuade him from this position. It's a typical tenet in any fundamentalist perspectives, this defining anyone who tries to talk you out of your beliefs as inherently evil, permitting your dismissal of their every argument without having to hear or consider (been there, done that, bought the Ayn Rand t-shirt - sold it back.) I have met a brilliant man, one who became deeply inhibited by the self-identity he arrived at.
The scholarly consensus is that the Confessions was meant to be a preamble to a longer work: a detailed exegesis of the entirety of Christian scripture. The last three books cover the first chapter of Genesis, with careful attention given to an allegorical interpretation of the creation story. This is apparently as far Augustine ever got, thus adding to the long tradition of great, unfinished masterpieces.
After an account of his mother's death, the last third of the book shifts from autobiography to a blend of philosophy and theology. Augustine ponders the nature of memory and time, the mysteries of creation from the Genesis account, and an interpretation of the church through the lens of creation. This is heavy going. Readers more interested in history and biography than in philosophy and theology may choose to stop with chapter 9.
Exceedingly eloquent; the entire book is a prayer which reflects on the author's life and the work of God's grace within it.