by Saint Augustine
Confessions Book I Summary
- Augustine begins his work by doing some rhetorical gymnastics, but basically he is saying that anyone searching for God will find him and praise him because, really, how could they not?
- He also says that people need to hear about God first before they can know to look for him—duh. And that's where our man Augustine comes in. Augustine to the rescue.
- Pretty much every sentence in this section is a question directed at God, asking what it means when Augustine asks God to "come into" him. We're not so sure either, Augustine.
- But just when it seems like he is never going to answer his own heap of questions (though we can see him trying to work out an answer with each successive question), he finally quotes Scripture: "all things find in you their origin, their impulse, the centre of their being." Quoting Scripture is a pretty great way to put your questions to rest, when you're quizzing about life, the universe, and everything. (Unless you think the answer to alla that is 42.)
- Picking up where the previous section left off, Augustine asks more questions here. Only now, his questions are about what percentage of God fills the world and where, exactly, the rest of him resides. Kind of a weird thing to fuss over, right?
- But you've gotta remember, a lot of Augustine's readers back in the 300s might have had a problem with the idea of God as immaterial. So the issue of where God literally is in the world is one that Augustine is trying to address right away.
- Finally, some answers. The problem is that even when Augustine gives us some insider info about God, his observations are made of contradictions: "You are ever active, yet always at rest"; "You grieve for wrong, yet suffer no pain"; "You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them."
- We're pretty sure you'd be mad at us here at Shmoop if we gave you answers like that. To boot, this section ends with Augustine saying something about how you can at once not say enough about God, and not say anything about God. Which is it, Augustine? Jeez.
- Now we're getting somewhere with the "confessions" part of Confessions. Augustine asks God to give him the "words to explain" why God is such a big deal to him. That way, he can pass on the message to others.
- Then we get into some juicy bits where Augustine says his soul "contains much that you will not be pleased to see." Uh-oh. Of course, us readers are a little pleased to see Augustine's sins, in a rubber-necking, schadenfreude kind of way.
- And hey, since he's so open about acknowledging his sins, Augustine says that God will absolve them.
- The beginning is a good place to start, right? So Augustine starts by telling us about his infancy. Which is a little strange, because he obviously doesn't actually remember anything from his infancy.
- Anyway, as it turns out, he had a very cushy childhood, full of nurses who breast-fed him (though God provided the milk, of course) and lots of other things that babies like.
- Baby Augustine soon realized that there were other things in the world than milk and his own hands, but, being a baby and all, he couldn't articulate any of that other stuff to the grown-ups. So he threw tantrums instead.
- You might be asking yourself: how is any of this relevant? After talking about his infancy, Augustine goes on to ask God if he had a life before his birth. Because he can't seem to answer this question by studying other babies or interrogating pregnant women about the mysteries of the universe.
- He then notes how, even though he can't remember his babyhood (there it is), he must have been alive because he clearly wanted things. Does this mean that to be alive = to want?
- But we don't get to muse on that point too long, because then things shift again, and Augustine starts talking about time as it pertains to God. Augustine's argument is: it doesn't.
- You might think it's strange to consider babies sinners. But to Augustine, this, like, totally makes sense somehow. Anyone who has ever been around a baby or is familiar with the notion of a baby knows that their understanding of the world is… limited.
- Anyway, the fact that Augustine can't actually remember his babyhood bothers him because he knows he committed sins back then. (If everyone does, he did, too.) So, in his mind, there are sins—big sins, apparently, because the same sins babies often commit are unforgivable in people old enough to know better—that he can't confess because he doesn't remember them. Harsh. Our brains hurt a little trying to unravel this conundrum.
- The next step in Baby Augustine's life is learning to speak.
- Basically, he figures out how language works: certain sounds are associated with certain objects. Impressive, right? No? Too bad. This language-learning business gets its own section. Linguists of the world: rejoice.
- This section begins with Augustine saying, "I now went through a period of suffering and humiliation." Now we're talking. What is this shocking suffering and humiliation going to be?
- As it turns out, Augustine was beaten by his schoolmasters. Okay… that's not terribly unexpected, especially in 360 CE, but Augustine takes some serious umbrage with it.
- He was terrified of beatings, he says. So what if he wanted to play games sometimes instead of study all the time? Grown-ups are essentially playing games called "business" and no one beats them for it. Good point, Augustine. Good point.
- Welcome to our confession booth, Mr. Augustine. Sections that begin with "I sinned" tend to end up pretty confessional, and this is one of those sections. Dude's latest sins are that he has a taste for sports and the theater. Though the word "theater" makes this interest sound classier than it really is. Just think of this bit of the confession as akin to being obsessed with the worst reality television around.
- In his defense, Augustine points out that adults are distracted by theater all the time. It's entertainment, after all. But sports and theater are "delusions" and "folly," so Augustine asks God to free people from these temptations.
- Now Young Augustine talks about his life as a catechumen, which is a ridiculous word for someone who is converting to Christianity but who has not yet been baptized.
- Augustine once contracted a stomach illness that looked like it might kill him, and his mother was worried that he might die before receiving any of the Christian sacraments. But he didn't die, obviously. Augustine lived in a Christian household. Sort of. His father wasn't a Christian, and we think Augustine kind of resented him for this, even though the guy was okay with his kid being raised as a Christian.
- We should explain that, at this time in history, people took baptism pretty literally. Getting baptized meant that you were seriously getting ready to lead a Christian life, that included not one single sin that would deny you access to the Christian heaven. In the 4th century, not all the kids were doing the whole baptismal thing, because it meant leading such a strict life. That's why Augustine's mom reasons that he shouldn't be baptized until he has gotten more sin out of his system.
- Augustine kind of disagrees, and thinks that it would have been better for him to have been baptized sooner. But, at the same time, he acknowledges that there was a lot of sin in him.
- This section is short, but there's a lot going on in it. Essentially, Augustine, like many a pupil, didn't like to study. And he resented that his teachers made him learn things.
- But then Augustine's logic gets a little tricky. He says that it was good that he was made to learn, but that the value of his learning came from God, not from his teachers.
- His teachers (and all adults around him) only saw education as worthwhile because it gave you access to money and fame. But God was the one who foresaw that Augustine would use his learning to do good—like write a book that attempts to convert people to Christianity.
- So in case you haven't figured it out yet, people from North Africa in the 4th century didn't write in English. They wrote in Latin (this was the time of the Roman empire, remember that little bit o' history?). But educated men had to learn Greek too, because a lot of really important texts were in that language.
- Augustine, rebellious schoolboy that he is, didn't see the point in learning Greek because all of the things he liked to read were in Latin. His favorite book was the most important thing to have ever been written in Latin, ever: the Aeneid, by the Roman poet, Virgil. That's where the characters Aeneas and Dido come from (and Augustine kind of spoils the story for you by telling you that Dido kills herself. Check out Aeneid Book 4 for the full scoop).
- Beware: this is not the last time that the Aeneid is going to come up in this book.
- We soon learn that Augustine is a huge Aeneid fan. In fact, he's such a big fan that that he even cries over Dido's death. Which makes Augustine wonder: How could he have cried over something fictional when his own soul was at stake? The fact that his immortal soul was at stake while he was bubbling over some art makes this act—you guessed it—a sin.
- So many sins, we know. But in the next paragraph Augustine redeems the act of learning how to read and write, which, he says, is important to do, even if it leads young boys to daydream about the Trojan War.
- Here, Augustine talks some more about how he didn't like learning Greek. He had an easier time learning Latin because it was his native language, and it was spoken at home when he was a baby. But he had to learn Greek later in school. Okay… how is this different from anyone else in the world who learned a second language ever, and why is he bothering to talk about it?
- At the end of the section, Augustine says that people learn better when they aren't terrified of being beaten by their schoolmasters. But then he flip-flops and says that, under God's law, force is actually an acceptable way of keeping us from the earthly pleasures that distract us from God. So the beatings where actually a good thing, kind of, in a weird way, we guess.
- Augustine thanks God for rescuing him from his wicked ways and bringing him a joy even sweeter than reading the Aeneid or going to the theater.
- He also thanks God for letting him learn how to read and write, though he admits that he should have put his literacy to better use.
- Here Augustine thinks about how schoolchildren are taught about the Roman gods in order to learn language, and how those gods set some bad examples of behavior. (Jupiter is especially naughty.) He makes it sound like the whole curriculum was pretty raunchy back then.
- But don't blame the words, says Augustine; blame the system that praises the kids who can commit this sexy stuff to memory.
- Once young Augustine was in a school competition where he had to recite a speech made by Juno. Because Augustine was a smart kid, he won the competition, and was praised for his abilities.
- But Augustine says that this competition was a waste of talent, and compares it to a crop of worthless fruit fit only for birds to peck at. He likens the metaphorical rotten fruit to offerings made to fallen angels.
- Oratory was a big deal back in Augustine's day. People who spoke well were highly regarded. Yet, according to Augustine, skilled rhetoricians are praised for saying wicked things, even if they say them well.
- He cites the parable of the Prodigal Son to show how God is ready to rescue and love any soul that will return and seek him out.
- Then Augustine keeps on complaining about how people place more importance on enunciating than they do on whether the person doing the enunciating might be committing a sin—like condemning another man to death with his words.
- Now Augustine is thinking about some of his past sins, such as envying students who were better than him, lying, stealing food from his parents, cheating, and being vain about winning.
- Who says that children are innocent? Definitely not Augustine; he thinks that the sins of children are the same as the sins of adults.
- Alright, Augustine has finally made it through childhood. Someone get this boy a gold star. Oh wait, let's not praise him for his "false" accomplishments. Anyway, thanks be to God, who made sure that Augustine was endowed with the faculties that would prevent him from simply dropping dead. Yikes.
- All things considered, Augustine admits that he had a nice childhood. His primary sin was that, instead of searching for the truth in God, he looked for it elsewhere on earth. Looks like we're in for a lot of sinning in Book II…
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