Saint Augustine


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Confessions Summary

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Written sometime between 397 and 400 AD, Saint Augustine of Hippo’s autobiographical Confessions is an outline of the events that led to the North African author’s conversion to Christianity at age thirty-three. Despite its title, Confessions is not an account of criminal activity – Saint Augustine’s self-reported sins would now read as normal youthful sexual relationships. However, this work has been a deeply influential piece of writing because of its exacting descriptions of theological and philosophical thought, its candid exploration of the author’s life (it is widely believed to be the first ever autobiography), and its deeply personal and down to earth writing style.

The Confessions, divided into thirteen books, was originally written in Latin.

Book 1 explains the point of the work: it is Augustine’s explanation of why God and God’s love are so important to him. The book outlines Augustine’s childhood as the son of a Christian mother and a non-Christian father. He concludes that babies are, by definition, sinful and inherently violent, based on their tendency to tantrum; he also retrospectively agrees with his teachers, who beat him when he wanted to watch theater and ignore his schoolwork. Sins at this time include crying over the death of Dido in his favorite work of fiction, the Aeneid – a sin because how could he worry about this fictional character when his own real soul was in danger?

Book 2 dives headfirst into Augustine’s sexual awakening at age sixteen – something his parents react to differently. His father is thrilled that Augustine is heterosexual and in puberty, because he is thinking about future grandkids. His mother, however, ineffectually warns him away from sex. Then, he did not listen to her; but now, he wishes she had made him get married so that he would have only had sex within marriage.

Book 3 chronicles Augustine’s studies in Carthage, the big city. There to study the law, he is deeply influenced by the writings of the famous Ancient Roman lawyer Cicero. He gets into all sorts of debauchery since he is on his own for the first time in his life. Trying to figure out how to live a good life, Augustine falls in with the Manichaean sect – a religion that taught that the world was a constant conflict between the forces of goodness and evil. His mother, Monica, deeply upset that Augustine is not following her into Christianity, is worried that the Manichees will be a terrible influence. She has a dream that he will soon re-convert to Catholicism.

Book 4 starts as Augustine is nineteen-years-old, and his father has just died. For ten years, Augustine is in a relationship with a woman he never names. Although they are deeply in love, are happy together, have a son, and are sexually faithful to one another, Augustine now regrets the relationship because the woman never became his legal wife. Augustine was attracted to another belief system: astrology – which he now views as sinful. When his friend dies suddenly, Augustine becomes depressed. Although his relationships in Carthage help assuage some of his grief, he thinks that if he were more devout, he could find comfort in God.

In Book 5, Augustine is twenty-nine and losing his faith in Manichaeism. Despite his mother’s overbearing objections, he moves to Rome, and then to Milan, to become a teacher. There, he meets Bishop Ambrose (eventually Saint Ambrose), whose philosophical and abstract concept of God impresses Augustine.

In Book 6, Monica travels to Italy to join her son and in hope of speeding along his conversion. However, he is still hampered by his extreme ambition, pride, and a general sense of being better than everyone else. However, through conversations with his friends Alypius and Nebridius, he begins to understand that the answer to his search for truth probably is Catholicism. Meanwhile, Monica arranges a wife for Augustine, to force him to break up with the unnamed woman, who returns to Africa. However, this wife is underage, so while he is waiting for her to be old enough to marry, a heartbroken Augustine takes another mistress.

Book 7 starts with Augustine trying to determine the physical nature of God and also the nature of evil. He figures out that astrology is clearly a false belief system. After rejecting the philosophy of the Neoplatonists, who do not include Christ in their conception of God, Augustine delves into the work of the Apostle Paul.

Book 8 finds Augustine wanting to convert to Christianity, but unwilling to either marry or to stop having sex. In a crisis over his faith, and in turmoil over his conflicting desires, Augustine hears about other people who have had instantaneous conversion experiences. Then, after hearing a phantom voice telling him to “read it” and flipping open the Bible, Augustine has a moment of realization. He commits to converting, and his friend Alypius decides to do it with him. Monica is over the moon that at last her prayers have been answered.

In Book 9, Augustine prepares for his baptism. He stops teaching rhetoric, returns to Milan, and there, Saint Ambrose baptizes him and his son, Adeodatus. When he sees Monica again, they share an ecstatic religious vision, and soon after, Monica (eventually Saint Monica) dies.

Book 10 begins the second section of the book, where Augustine goes from writing down his memories of events to analyzing them. He realizes that to find God, he will have to transcend memory. That is what prayer is for. He wonders about the temptations that he is still facing: sex dreams (even though he is now chaste in his waking life), delicious food, and enjoying beauty. At this point, Augustine figures out that this is why man’s relationship with God needs to be mediated through Christ.

Book 11 takes the reader through the Book of Genesis and discusses Augustine’s ideas about creation. Book 12 continues the discussion of the Book of Genesis, its multiple possible interpretations, and the nature of the earthly and the divine. Book 13 ends the work by re-conceiving of the Book of Genesis as an allegory, which Augustine interprets as a figuration of the Catholic Trinity.