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Reflections On Augustine’s Confessions9 min read

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Augustine’s work Confessions is one of his major works, and includes not only timeless wisdom comparing this world to the kingdom that is coming, it introduces such imporant concepts as original sin, the timelessness of God, and our disordered loves.

1 Introduction to Confessions

Unlike Augustine’s other works, which were nearly entirely rhetorical and theological, this aptly named confessional is “a direct address of the soul of Augustine to God to praise Him for the graces received during its struggle against sin, weaknesses, and indecisions as it progressed from a state of sin to union with God” (Deferrari, 1968, pt. 2637). Augustine’s purpose in this long reflection and prayer before God is somewhat revealed in Confessions itself, in which Augustine declares, “I…arouse my feelings toward you, and the feelings of those who read this, so that we can all say, ‘The Master is great, and is to be praised loudly’” (Augustine, 2018, p. 344). What is striking about the nature of this work is his unexpected transparency – as an established, public religious and thought leader of his day, it was generally unheard of for any autobiographical memoir to do other than praise the greatness of the man. This book entirely defied the pattern of accolades (self-accolades!) of greatness, and instead declared Augustine’s lifelong moral wretchedness before a merciful God who still loved, preserved, and corrected him.

2 Childhood

Book 1 (chapter 1) of this 13 book missive is both interesting and perhaps unintentionally humorous as he introduces the primary difficulty of humanity – sin, and how our existential suffering is our separation from God by our inborn, original sin, one of his primary doctrinal contributions. From this chapter comes one of his most famous dictums “you have created us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Augustine, 1991a, p. 3). While our plight is not humorous, his descriptions of the evidence of sinfulness in infants (including himself) may come across to readers as over-wrought, yet recognizably true to every parent:

“When compliance was not forthcoming…I was wrathful that my elders wouldn’t submit themselves to me, and that free people wouldn’t be my slaves, and I wreaked vengeance on them – by crying….Being weak, babies’ bodies are harmless, but babies’ minds aren’t harmless. I myself have observed…a tiny child who was jealous: he couldn’t speak yet, but his face was pale and had a hateful expression as he glared at the child who shared his nurse” (Augustine, 2018, pp. 8–13).

Also introduced in childhood are two ongoing sins and temptations that he bemoans plague most of us throughout life – a dislike for learning in favor of the love of leisure and play, and the “extravaganza of emptiness” that is modern entertainment. He declares the sinfulness of his (and our) obsession with these as an “infatuation with playing, and a passion to be a spectator of twaddle.” Our recreational games are often “a brainless lust for superiority,” while we prefer to be transfixed by the superficial pains of theatrical characters, being invited to feel pain without the necessity of being called to help those in real pain. That is, it replaces true compassion for others with the false loves we feel for fictional characters – it replaces true charity. He does not deny some value in theater but asks us to be careful of where it can inevitably lead – to licentiousness.

“Where does it flow? Why does it run down into a scalding torrent of bubbling pitch, an immense seething mass of hideous libidinousness?… Of its own will, it merges into…a twisted and fallen route away from the clear heavenly vault.” (Augustine, 2018, p. 53)

3 Books 2-6

Having set the foundation for human wretchedness, Augustine continues on to perhaps the greatest guilt, regret, and ongoing struggle he has – that of sexual lust and fornication. This grouping of books covers his young adult life up to his conversion at about age 30. It covers not only the ungodliness of his worldly ambitions, but his involvement with the religious cult of the Manicheans as well as the joys of enjoyment of learning and friendship. However, three events during this period point him to God. His reading of Cicero’s Hortensious (now lost to history) and his disenchantment with Manichaeism set him on a quest for true wisdom, the death of a close friend who converted from Manichaeism to Christianity on his deathbed shook him, and exposure to the skilled preaching of Ambrose of Milan pointed him towards the God of Christianity (and of his mother) he had long dismissed.

Many significant philosophical issues surface as part of his wrestling with faith within the Manichean and Catholic views of God. The first is the integration of science and faith, which he chiefly experiences in the combined claims of astronomy and astrology, which were largely integrated during his time and not separate domains. The empirical claims of astronomy, which he accepted, conflicted with Manichaeism, while he had to also separate out and reject the claims of astrology (which he did primarily due to the identical astrological predictions for twins who often have disparate futures). However, Augustine also thought that a literal interpretation of the creation story of Genesis 1-2 was not credible (as do many modern-day Christians).
More importantly, Augustine was wrestling with the problem of evil, though not as we might expect. The Manichaean cult he was a member of taught that evil was a created substance, which presented the problem of God creating evil. However, the preaching of Ambrose in Milan resolved his creation issue by showing him that we can and should often read the bible metaphorically (if not allegorically), and that evil was merely the absence of good and not a created thing, letting God off the hook at least for the creation of evil.

Through his obvious intellectual training and exposition, Ambrose convinced Augustine both that Christianity could be intellectual, but also that it was sublime in that it also went beyond mere intellectualism. Ambrose not only seamlessly integrated pagan knowledge congruent with Christianity, but he also demonstrated the hidden wisdom of scripture, in that it is written in a way that hides itself from the proud and intellectually arrogant:

“The subject matter wasn’t factual in pretentious people’s opinion, or laid straightforwardly bare for children’s eyes, either, but lowly when I stepped toward her, of lofty dignity when I came up close, and veiled in mysteries….My swollen-headed opinion of my own taste recoiled from their mediocre manner, and my critical eye couldn’t pierce into the realities behind that…. Accordingly, I fell in among people who were insanely arrogant…never [advancing] farther than the squawky racket of their own tongues; their hearts were hollow….It was such nullities that I was being fed on then, but I wasn’t being fed” (Augustine, 2018, pp. 59–61).

4 Books 7-10

Herein Augustine’s wrestling crescendos into his surrender of faith to God. The meaninglessness of his ambitions, his sexual pleasures , intellectualism, and the abuse of cults, and his own foolishness are finally answered by the wisdom and person of God. Augustine’s remaiing wrestlings are no longer with the reality of the Christian God, but the enjoyment of goods that God has given us, and specific doctrines, including an almost obtuse amazement and preoccupation with the memory of man, which he supposes is the image of God in man. But all of his questions and tragedies are finally abandoned as reasons to doubt, and Book 10 ends with Augustine declaring, “Here then, Master, I throw my troubles onto you, so that I can live” (Augustine, 2018, p. 343).

5 Books 11-13

Having completed his autobiography, Augustine turns his heart and mind towards contemplating the greatness and nature of God, focusing on God’s timelessness, his acts of creation, the mystery of the Trinity, the Church, and our final end in God’s kingdom. His discussion of the timelessness of God is a seminal contribution in the philosophy of God and the nature of time, and he will later go on to expand his theology of the Trinity (Augustine, 1991b).

6 Epilogue

Confessions did not greatly impact me personally, but I found it enjoyable and plan to return to it devotionally. Augustine, historically speaking, does an amazing job of spiritually analyzing his own life in a Biblical context, being candid if not overwrought about his and our sinful condition (if such a thing is possible), and of allowing his contemplations to wander through our human condition in deeply philosophical ways, sometimes hugely speculative, but always thoughtful and held in light of his conscience before God. The book has been a worthwhile read, demanding a slower pace to follow Augustine’s inner thoughts.

7 References

Augustine. (1991a). Confessions (H. Chadwick, Trans.). Oxford University Press.
Augustine. (1991b). The Trinity: Vol. V (J. E. Rotelle, Ed.; E. Hill, Trans.). New City Press.
Augustine. (2018). Confessions (S. Ruden, Trans.). The Modern Library.
Deferrari, R. J. (Ed.). (1968). The Fathers of the Church—Augustine (Vol. 60). The Catholic University of America Press.
Harmless, W. (2010). Augustine in His Own Words. Catholic University of America Press.
Hoekema, A. A. (1994). Created in God’s Image (Reprint edition). Eerdmans.