Confessions (St. Augustine)

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Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo

Confessions (Latin: Confessiones) is the name of an autobiographical work, consisting of 13 books, by St. Augustine of Hippo, written in Latin between 397 CE and 400 CE.[1] Modern English translations of it are sometimes published under the title The Confessions of St. Augustine in order to distinguish the book from other books with similar titles. Its original title was "Confessions in Thirteen Books," and it was composed to be read out loud with each book being a complete unit.[2]

Summary[edit]

The work outlines Augustine's sinful youth and his conversion to Christianity. It is widely seen as the first Western autobiography ever written, and was an influential model for Christian writers throughout the following 1,000 years of the Middle Ages. It is not a complete autobiography, as it was written in his early 40s, and he lived long afterwards, producing another important work (City of God). It does, nonetheless, provide an unbroken record of his development of thought and is the most complete record of any single person from the 4th and 5th centuries. It is a significant theological work, featuring spiritual meditations and insights.

In the work St. Augustine writes about how much he regrets having led a sinful and immoral life. He discusses his regrets for following the Manichaean religion and believing in astrology. He writes about Nebridius's role in helping to persuade him that astrology was not only incorrect but evil, and St. Ambrose's role in his conversion to Christianity. The first nine books are autobiographical and the last four are commentary. He shows intense sorrow for his sexual sins, and writes on the importance of sexual morality. The books were written as prayers to God, thus the title, based on the Psalms of David; and it begins with "For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."[3] The work is thought to be divisible into books which symbolize various aspects of the Trinity and trinitarian belief.

Outline (by book)[edit]

  1. His infancy and boyhood up to age 14. He speaks of his inability to remember the sins he almost certainly committed during this time. Children serve as insight into what man would be if it weren't for being socialized into waiting one's turn. God teaches us to think of others before we think of ourselves, unlike children who cry until they are fed.
  2. Augustine finds himself amongst bad companions, which leads him to commit theft and succumb to lust. Augustine comes from a good family and has never wanted for food. In this chapter, he explores the question of why he and his friends stole pears when he had many better pears of his own. He explains the feelings he experienced as he ate the pears and threw the rest away to the pigs. Augustine argues that he most likely would not have stolen anything had he not been in the company of others who could share in his sin. Some insight into group mentality is given.
  3. His studies at Carthage, his conversion to Manichaeism and continued indulgences in lust between 16 and 19.
  4. His loss of a friend and his studies in Aristotle and the fit and the fair between 20 and 29. Augustine is overcome with grief after his friend dies in his absence. Things he used to love become hateful to him because everything reminds him of what was lost. He concludes that any time one loves something not in God, one is bound to feel such loss. Augustine then suggests that he began to love his life of sorrow more than his fallen friend.
  5. His movement away from Manichaeism under the influence of St. Ambrose in Milan at 29. Augustine begins to understand that things said simply can be true, while things put eloquently may be lacking in substance. He is unimpressed with the substance of Manichaeism, but has not yet found something to replace it. He feels a sense of resigned acceptance to these fables as he has not yet formed a spiritual core to prove their falsity.
  6. His movement towards Christianity under the influence of St. Ambrose at 30. He is taken aback by Ambrose's kindness but still does not understand the substance of his teachings.
  7. His rejection of Manichee dualism and the Neoplatonist view of God at 31. He struggles to understand the Christian God.
  8. His continued inner turmoil on whether to convert to Christianity at 32. Two of his friends, Simplicianus and Ponticianus, tell Augustine stories about others converting. While reflecting in a garden, he hears a child's voice chanting "take up and read." Augustine picks up a Bible and reads the passage it opens to, Romans 13:13-14. His friend Alypius follows his example. Finally, Augustine decides to convert to Christianity.
  9. His baptism done by Ambrose at 33, the death of his mother Saint Monica, the death of his friends Nebridius and Vecundus, and his abandonment of his studies of rhetoric.
  10. Continued reflections on the values of confessions and on the workings of memory, as related to the five senses.
  11. Reflections on Genesis and searching for the meaning of time.
  12. Continued reflections on the book of Genesis. Augustine especially focuses on the language used to tell the creation story.
  13. Exploration of the meaning of Genesis and the Trinity.

Purpose[edit]

Confessions was not only meant to encourage conversion, but it offered guidelines for how to convert. Augustine extrapolates from his own experiences to fit other’s journeys. Augustine recognizes that God has always protected and guided him. This is reflected in the structure of the work. Augustine begins each book within Confessions with a prayer to God. For example both books VIII and IX begin with “you have broken the chains that bound me; I will sacrifice in your honour.”[4] Not only is this glorifying God but it also suggests God’s help in Augustine’s path to redemption.

Written after the legalization of Christianity, Confessions dated from an era where martyrdom was no longer a threat to most Christians as was the case two centuries earlier. Instead, rising Christian’s struggles were largely internal. Augustine clearly presents his struggle with worldly desires, such as lust. Augustine’s conversion was quickly followed by his ordination as a priest in 391 AD and then appointment as bishop in 395 AD. Such rapid ascension certainly raised criticism of Augustine. Confessions was written between 397-398, suggesting self-justification as a possible motivation for the work. With the words “I wish to act in truth, making my confession both in my heart before you and in this book before the many who will read it” in Book X Chapter 1, Augustine appears to defend his position by admitting his imperfections not only to his critics but to God, in a form of reconciliation.[5]

Audience[edit]

Much of our information about Augustine comes directly from Augustine’s own writing. Augustine’s Confessions provide significant insight into the first thirty three years of his life. While this text is inherently biased, Augustine’s perspective is valuable for the reader to understand how he wants to be perceived. Augustine does not paint himself as a holy man, but as a sinner. The sins that Augustine confesses are relatively minor and include his struggle with lust, stealing pears at a young age, and minor lies. For example, in the second chapter of Book IX Augustine references his choice to wait three weeks until the autumn break to leave his position of teaching without causing a disruption. He wrote that some “may say it was sinful of me to allow myself to occupy a chair of lies even for one hour.” [6] In the introduction, to the 1961 translation by R.S. Pine-Coffin, he suggests that this harsh interpretation of Augustine’s own past is intentional so that his audience sees him as a sinner blessed with God’s mercy instead of as a holy figurehead.[7]

Due to the nature of Confessions, it is clear that Augustine was not only writing for himself but that the work was intended for public consumption. Augustine’s potential audience included baptized Christians, catechumens, and those of other faiths. Peter Brown, in his book The Body and Society, writes that Confessions targeted “those with similar experience to Augustine’s own.”[8] Brown’s suggestion combined with the evidence that Augustine agreed with the Catholic gender hierarchy, indicates that Augustine’s intended audience was male. Furthermore, with his background in Manichean practices, Augustine had a unique connection to those of the Manichean faith. Confessions thus constitutes an appeal to encourage conversion.

Marriage[edit]

Augustine dismissed his first mistress upon his engagement to a Catholic heiress. However, the marriage was never to occur. Augustine was persuaded not to marry by his friend, Alypius. Alypius’s reasoning was that marriage would distract from any attempts to find wisdom. However, despite Augustine’s choice not to marry, he does not alienate those that already are married. In his discussion with Alypius, Augustine argued in Book VI Chapter 12 “by pointing to the example of married men who had been lovers of wisdom, had served God well, and had retained the affection of their friends, whom they had loyally loved in return.”[9] There are a few significant observations here. First, Augustine was not suggesting that love is a distraction. In fact, it appears to be the opposite. Augustine views love in the context of friendship as beneficial, something to strive to achieve. It is the feeling of lust that is sinful. Second, Augustine continues to claim that despite his examples, he knew that he was not as noble in his convictions. Augustine believed that he was plagued by the “disease of the flesh” which was distracting from a quest from wisdom. Augustine’s moderate stance on marriage was applicable to his audience; however he applied Alypius’s more extreme views to himself.

Gender[edit]

In his Confessions, Augustine revealed, perhaps inadvertently, his support for the hierarchy that has been established through the literature with God at the head, man beneath Him, and woman beneath man. In Book IX Chapter 7, when discussing Justina, the mother of the young emperor Valentinian, Augustine claims she was no match for God because He was able to send soldiers “to thwart the fury of a woman – a mere woman.”[10] Even in reference to his mother who he highly respects, Augustine wrote in Book IX Chapter 4, “she had the weak body of a woman, but the strong faith of a man.”[11] This view continued the notion of female inferiority to males within the Catholic Church and thus is not inflammatory when considered in its context.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Chadwick, Henry (1992). St. Augustine, Confessions (2008 ed.). Oxford University Press. p. xxix. ISBN 9780199537822. 
  2. ^ Saint Augustine (Bishop of Hippo.) (2006). Confessions. Hackett Publishing. pp. 17–. ISBN 978-0-87220-816-2. 
  3. ^ Saint Augustine (Bishop of Hippo.) (2006). Confessions. Hackett Publishing. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-87220-816-2. 
  4. ^ Saint Augustine of Hippo (1961). Confessions. Harmondsworth Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. p. Book IX, Chapter 1. 
  5. ^ Saint Augustine of Hippo (1961). Confessions. Harmondsworth Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. p. Book X, Chapter 1. 
  6. ^ Saint Augustine of Hippo (1961). Confessions. Harmondsworth Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. p. Book IX, Chapter 2. 
  7. ^ Pine - Coffin, R.S. (1961). Introduction to Confessions. Harmondsworth Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. p. 12. 
  8. ^ Brown, Peter (2008). The Body and Society. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 388. 
  9. ^ Saint Augustine of Hippo (1961). Confessions. Harmondsworth Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. p. Book XI, Chapter 12. 
  10. ^ Saint Augustine of Hippo (1961). Confessions. Harmondsworth Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. p. Book XI, Chapter 7. 
  11. ^ Saint Augustine of Hippo (1961). Confessions. Harmondsworth Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. p. Book IX, Chapter 4. 

Sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo, reprint edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Twentieth Anniversary edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

External links[edit]

English translations[edit]

  • at Image Books, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Image Books, 1960).
  • at Christian Classics, trans. Albert C. Outler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955).
  • at New Advent, trans. J.G. Pilkington (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1886).
  • at Georgetown, trans. E.B. Pusey (Oxford : J.H. Parker; London: J.G. and F. Rivington, 1838).
  • E.B. Pusey's 1838 Translation: Revised 'you' version (2012) by Cormac Burke [1].
  • at New City Press, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B.; ed. John E. Rotelle, O.S.A. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997).
  • Confessions: St Augustine; trans. Fr Benignus O'Rourke O.S.A, foreword by Martin Laird (London: DLT Books, 2013)
  • Saint Augustine of Hippo. Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine – Coffin. Harmondsworth Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1961.

Commentaries[edit]