There is no shortage of "Lord I have sinned, please forgive my sinning soul because I am a sinner and I don't deserve your mercy"-type language in the Confessions. Think groveling, big time. Like:
But, dust and ashes though I am, let me appeal to your pity, since it is to you in your mercy that I speak. (I.6.1)
What crooked paths I trod! (VI.16.3)
What evil have I not done […] But you, O Lord, are good. You are merciful. (IX.1.2)
The running theme here is that Augustine has done wrong, and is unworthy of God's mercy, but God is going to give it to him anyway because God is good like that.
One of the things Augustine is trying to do with this tone is rid himself of all Pride (see our Themes section). Confession, or owning up to all the bad things you've done, is a good first step toward humility, but Augustine likes to lay the wretchedness on thick. After all, God doesn't just dole out the mercy like it's Halloween candy; Augustine wants to show us that it takes a lot of genuine contrition before we can make our sinning selves worthy.
You won't find any, "Well, God is all right, I guess… He's pretty good as far as gods go" language in the Confessions. Augustine is a prime example of what it means to devote every second of your life to God. Hey, when you've been as bad as Augustine has been (in his mind, at least), that's what it takes. Augustine's just setting an example for the rest of us sinners.
When you read the Confessions it almost feels like he has a God-praising quota. There aren't many sentences that don't contain some sort of phrase like "Blessed are those who love you, O God" (IV.9.1). Augustine sees God in everything and has a lot of different names for him too. You'll see him saying "O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation" (IX.1.3) and "Eternal Truth, true Love, beloved Eternity—all this, my God you are, and it is to you that I sigh by night and day" (VII.10.2). He's basically doing in writing what he believes people should be thinking. Every moment, of every hour, of every day of their lives.
The Confessions is like an autobiography on steroids. We've got all the usual ingredients for an autobiography: a first-person narrator telling us his exciting life story. But Confessions focuses on the most personal, shameful, and embarrassing aspects of his life; while this kind of juicy, tell-all autobiography may be more commonplace nowadays, it was pretty ground-breaking in Augustine's time.
When reading some autobiographies, we can learn about the kind of person our narrator is by looking at what they choose to leave out. Augustine chooses to focus on the bad bits of his life—the parts that other people would definitely want to leave out. That's what makes the Confessions confessional, after all. On that note, "confessions" are almost always autobiographies, whether they are real or fictional; see our What's Up with the Title? section for more.
Though the Confessions has a plot, it's also full of philosophical commentary. You can think of this book like a director's cut of a movie, where the director tells you all about what's going on as it's happening. Of course, Augustine's incessant philosophizing focuses on Christian theology. Hm. Do you think that all religious works are philosophical?
Well, what makes the Confessions a particularly philosophical work is that it asks questions about Christian thought, being, ways of accounting for the universe, good and evil, the substance of God… you get the idea. It's about religion, but it's also an exploration of religion(s). Augustine engages in a lot of thought experiments, as well as life experiments, to try to figure out what happens when you apply Christian principles to the world around you. And that sounds pretty darn philosophical to us.
When you think "quest," you probably think of something like this. But there is, after all, such a thing as a spiritual quest. You might say that Augustine's "Holy Grail" is God himself. Augustine's story actually maps quite nicely onto the Hero's Journey. First, things are well. Then things aren't well. Then Augustine leaves the familiar and enters into the "unknown," when he's in between believing in Manichaeism and believing in Christianity. And there's a mentor who guides our guy Augustine (see our Character Roles section) to his transformation before he returns to his home city (see our Setting section). And you thought that quests had to involve coconuts.
Before novels were a thing, works didn't have titles so much as descriptions. Think of books like Beowulf (the story of Beowulf), the Odyssey (the story of Odysseus), the Aeneid (the story of Aeneas)—you get the drift. These aren't 20th-century titles like For Whom the Bell Tolls or As I Lay Dying. If Augustine had written his book now, it might have been called something like Sin Pray Love. We should also add that, in a bookstore, you might find this book under The Confessions of Saint Augustine or Augustine's Confessions, but really the book would have just been called Confessions… with Augustine listed as the author.
So. Is there anything to analyze in this one-word title? Well, since the book is one long series of confessions, we know that the speaker of the book has done something very, very bad. After all, you don't "confess" your good deeds. So, in calling the work his "confessions," the first thing that we know about Augustine is that he is a sinner—though what exactly he has done, we have yet to be told, and now we really want to know. We also know that he wants to confess, which is telling, too. You usually aren't too eager to blab about something horrible you did unless there's a good reason to blab. Like the fact that your soul is in crisis.
In fact, the very need to confess usually implies that whatever bad thing you have done is eating away at you. So you speak (or write) your sins, because this act is somehow redeeming. Hm, we wonder where Augustine might have gotten an idea like that…?
In the centuries since the Confessions, there have been a slew of other "confessions" books. Often these books have characters who have done things far, far worse than your average, everyday sinner like Augustine. In fact, more often than not, these books don't have a religious or moralistic outcome. Take Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) by Thomas de Quincy, or The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg, or even the film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002). When people talk about the beginning of confessional novels, maybe they should start considering our man Augustine as breaking some original ground.
A better question might be, "Which ending: the end of the autobiographical part at the end of Book IX? Or the very last page at the end of Book XIII?" This is a valid question, because there is some dispute over how the last four books fit into the work as a whole. (See R.S. Pine-Coffin's introduction to the Confessions for more on this issue.) But since Confessions exists in the form that it does, for us, the ending is the literal ending of the book.
And it's such a great finale that we're just going to quote the entire last paragraph here:
What man can teach another to understand the truth? What angel can teach it to an angel? What angel can teach it to a man? We must ask it of you, seek it in you; we must knock at your door. Only then shall we receive what we ask and find what we seek; only then will the door be opened to us. (XIII.38.3)
So Augustine chooses to end his work by talking about teaching. Which is fitting, since the entire narrative is really about his quest for knowledge. But he does something really fascinating in this last section as well.
First, he talks about teaching, and seems to conclude that it's actually not really possible to teach someone to understand something as fundamental as God (remember, "God" and "truth" are pretty much synonymous, as far as Augustine's concerned).
Then, because teaching isn't a viable option, he says we can only really learn about God by searching for him ourselves. But didn't Augustine write the Confessions to teach readers about God? Or is this book actually meant to show that people like Augustine, who wrote off Christianity for a long time before his conversion, need to come to a point where they themselves are receptive to the truth?
In the end, we think that the Confessions are not intended as a pedantic lecture about what people should believe. We think they're meant to demonstrate that change can only come on the individual level, when people are ready for it. Until then, we're all just knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door.
When in the Roman Empire… So, each city in the Confessions adds something different to the book's narrative, largely because Augustine associates each city with a different stage of his life. (We're guessing you do this, too.) Thagaste, for instance, corresponds to his home life, where he was bored and indolent. Carthage is a "hissing cauldron of lust" (III.1.1), home to the famous love-torn queen Dido. This is where Augustine spends his young adulthood, sins a lot, and falls in with the Manichees. Once Carthage gets unbearable he goes to the even bigger city, Rome, the center of the empire and home of his intellectual heroes. Like Cicero. But Rome turns out to be a lot like Carthage, only less rowdy and more corrupt, so Augustine moves to Milan. Milan, it turns out, is where the Christians have been hanging out, like Ambrose. It's also where he develops a relationship with pizza. Okay, not really.
Each time Augustine moves to a new place, we definitely get the sense that the book's narrative is progressing as well. But Augustine's story is also a "There and Back Again"-type story. The place where he reaches the geographical top of his journey is Milan, the place of his conversion. Then, during the denouement, he returns back home and eventually becomes known as the Bishop of Hippo (modern-day Annaba in Algeria). So, he ends up not far from his original home, except with the tiny little difference that now, he is an entirely different person.
In addition to this book's where, there's also a when. (And since our homeboy Augustine was really into musing about time, we think he'd appreciate this section most of all.) The Confessions make the most sense when we pause to understand Augustine's work in its socio-historical context. So, when the Confessions were written at the tail-end of the 4th century, the Roman Empire was in a state of transition. Or decline, if you tend to see the glass as half empty. Here are some things that happened in the span of that century:
So, yeah, we definitely aren't back in the good ole' days of Julius Caesar's Rome, nor are we in a feudal, Plague-ridden Europe just yet. You might say that Augustine comes along at medieval Europe's awkward adolescent stage, and his writings on Christianity are part of the building blocks that lead to its maturity.
Make no mistake: Confessions is not a novel. Though this tome at least has a plot, which is more than we can say for a lot of books, it is also a piece of philosophy. So it's not exactly a page-turner unless you are really compelled to find out the fate of Augustine's soul.
The fact that Confessions is translated from Latin can make the language sound kind of clunky and basic sometimes, but don't let that deceive you into thinking that Augustine is just stating the obvious. Remember, Augustine makes the same mistake with the language of the Scriptures. Sometimes it takes a few paragraphs, or a step away from the text, to really see where Augustine is going with what he's saying. And some knowledge of the historical and philosophical contexts certainly helps us better understand why Augustine finds these issues of God, sin, good, and evil to be so important.
This book also gets a high rating because there are a lot of Biblical and philosophical allusions in the text. You definitely don't need to understand them all, but again, it really helps if you know a bit about what he's referencing. If you have an edition of the book that footnotes the passages quoted from the Bible, your life will be way easier… even if you just use these footnotes as a heads-up that he's citing something at all. You might also want to keep that ol' internet handy so that you can quickly look things up if necessary.
When we say that Augustine's style is personal, we mean that there are going to be a lot of "I's" in the Confessions. Probably more than most first-person narratives, even. This is because Augustine is talking about himself, yes, but it's also because Augustine wants to draw attention to himself, especially to his wrongdoing. His writing can read like a diary confessional. See, a diarist might say something like, "I felt really bad that I stole the pears, but I did it anyway because I wanted the others to think I was cool, I guess." And that sentence reveals a very personal feeling that the speaker has. Here's Augustine's version:
I loved nothing in it except the thieving, though I cannot truly speak of that as a 'thing' that I could love, and I was only the more miserable because of it. (II.8.1)
So, Augustine can sound all "me me me." But by being so personal, we're actually able to relate to a lot of what he says. Augustine sure can get you thinking about how you feel after doing something you know is wrong.
Here's the interesting bit about super personal writing: it's weirdly self-focused and relatable at the same time. Which is probably why we all love blogs so much.
The other side of Augustine's writing style crops up when he talks about philosophical ideas, like the creation of the universe and big things like that. He loves to ask questions that slowly build toward a conclusion:
In what way, then, do you, Ruler of all that you have created, reveal the future to the souls of men? You have revealed it to your prophets. But how do you reveal the future to us when, for us, the future does not exist? Is it that you only reveal present signs of things that are to come? For it is utterly impossible that things which do not exist should be revealed. (XI.19.1)
Or, he'll propose an idea based on a concept that he has already established as true:
It is therefore true to say that when you had not made anything, there was no time, because time itself was of your making. (XI.14.1)
You'll probably notice a lot of Socratic Method "If… then"-type action as well. (Augustine was trained in rhetoric, after all.) But Augustine's analytical reasoning isn't just limited to the "analysis" books (Books XI-XIII). He uses this writing style during his discussions of Manichaeism, God's substance, and so on in the actual narrative, too.
In short, because Augustine is a professor of rhetoric, he can make language do pretty much whatever he wants it to do. But he's not trying to be a shady lawyer about it. He just wants to use the skills God gave him to do God's will: to get people to give up their sinning ways and convert to Christianity. So, when reading Confessions, try to pay attention to how Augustine articulates himself, not just to what he says. Actually, that's just English 101 for ya, Shmoopers.
Clever, clever, Augustine. By using the soul as a metaphor for the body, Augustine is actually being really clever. It may seem like old hat now to say that your soul is sick. But you know how Augustine has a hard time imagining God because God is immaterial? And you know how the Manichees see all things as made up of good and evil particles? Even though people believed they had souls way before Christianity came along, there were a lot of different ways of imagining the soul. Augustine has trouble defining the soul at times, and he thinks for a living, for goodness sake.
But the body is pretty self-explanatory. It indisputably exists. You can picture it, you can even feel it. And when something is wrong with it, you need to take care of it or you might die. By treating the soul as though it were something like the body, which needs to be nourished and cared for in order to thrive, Augustine is getting us to think of the soul with the same sense of urgency.
Thinking of the soul as a body type thing allows Augustine to talk about his godlessness as if it were an affliction. In fact, sometimes he even makes it sound like his spiritual disease is a physical disease, only without the huge medical bills. Hey, what better way to illustrate a condition than to compare it to something that everyone can relate to?
Let's look at some of the ways Augustine talks about the sick soul-as-body:
I felt no need for the food that does not perish, not because I had had my fill of it, but because the more I was starved of it the less palatable it seemed. Because of this my soul fell sick. (III.1.1)
But where the fingers scratch, the skin becomes inflamed. It swells and festers with hideous pus. And the same happened to me. (III.2.5)
Augustine will occasionally talk about the soul being nourished and healthy, but for the most part, he discusses how the soul is decrepit and dying.
So, if the soul is like the body, and it can get sick sometimes, then God can act like a doctor and help cure what ails ya. (We like to imagine Dr. God to be someone like Dr. Cox.) The interesting part is that God will give you the things you need to be cured, but He will not smite your wickedness for you. Only you can do that.
Augustine refers to Dr. God all the time in the Confessions. For example, he says:
Let them not deride me for having been cured by the same Doctor who preserved them from sickness. (II.7.2)
See, God is even a capital-D Doctor. You know, like, The Doctor. (No, not that doctor.) Augustine also likes to call God the "Physician of my soul" (X.3.2). Fancy.
You know "The Fire Sermon" section of T.S. Eliot's super-major-important poem, "The Wasteland"? Augustine may as well be the one giving that sermon, because he's all over it… along with the Buddha, because the East always has to meet the West in Eliot, right Modernists?
Take a looksee at this Augustine-focused section of Eliot:
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
We think it's pretty safe to say that if someone as smart as T.S. Eliot saw fire as the main motif of the Confessions, then it probably is.
One of the most important lines in the book (partially due to Eliot) occurs at the very beginning of Book III:
I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust. (III.1.1)
This is when we know that Augustine's sinning is really getting serious, because now he's a young adult, out on his own in the world. In this line, fire is associated with passion, lust, and sex, all of which are good n' plenty in old Carthage Town.
Fire can refer to Augustine's penchant for other sins as well:
I was much attracted by the theatre, because the plays reflected my own unhappy plight and were tinder to my fire. (III.2.1)
Poor Augustine is feeding his own demise, in typical vicious-cycle form.
But fire can refer to passion of a different kind, and in the Confessions it eventually does: we're talking about that wholesome, burning passion for God. Fire goes from something that Augustine needed to be saved from to something that saves him. See, fire can be very positive when it's put to a spiritual use rather than a lustful one. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Exhibit A:
How they set me on fire with love of you! I was burning to echo them to all the world. (IX.4.3)
Before, fire seemed to represent destruction—a destruction that would eventually burn Augustine up unless he was saved. Here, fire seems to represent something like vitality, as if a light were being turned on (speaking of which, see the Light and Dark motif). And it's this God-lovin' fire that you want to spread:
For when large numbers of people share their joy in common the happiness of each is greater, because each adds fuel to the other's flame. (VIII.4.2)
You're probably asking yourself, "Why does Augustine pull a complete 180 on this whole fire business?" Well, we might want to think about the idea of transformation, which is pretty important in the Confessions. The Confessions are all about Augustine's transformation from a sinner to a devout bishop, so it's possible that fire, which really represents some kind of zeal, changes in nature when it is being used for God instead of for earthly things. Shazam.
"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good" (Genesis 1:3-4). When we see light/dark imagery, we immediately know what's up: good versus evil. Or bad, or whatever you want to call it. That's, like, Symbols 101. But there are a lot of variations on the good/evil dichotomy. For instance, light/dark can also be wisdom/ignorance, or clarity/confusion.
And this is precisely how Augustine likes to use the light/dark motif: as an opposition between knowing and not-knowing. Actually, the image he really likes to use is the one of light bursting through the darkness. For Augustine, things aren't just light/good and dark/bad. Light illuminates things that were, before, in darkness. For example, he says:
They come to you and their darkness grows bright when they accept the light by which all who accept it are empowered to become the children of God. (VIII.4.2)
Light breaking through the dark—check.
He also utilizes this symbol with more subtlety:
You alone are the life which never dies and the wisdom that needs no light besides itself, but illumines all who need to be enlightened. (VII.6.1)
In this passage, wisdom equals light, but it does so because wisdom is the illumination of ignorance. Which means that wisdom can't exist without ignorance. After all, if you were into that physics stuff, you might argue that light is just the absence of darkness, or darkness the absence of light. The point is, you need both in order for the metaphor to work.
"Wisdom" in this case refers less to general knowledge than it does to knowledge about God. But, as you can imagine, knowledge about God leads to a lot of other positive things as well, and dispels a lot of negative things. Knowing God has a ripple effect on the rest of your life:
How far the first gleams of your light have illumined me and how dense my darkness still remains and must remain, until my weakness is swallowed up in your strength. (XI.2.1)
Man, we are getting all sorts of positive/negative, light/dark pairs here. Not only do we have wisdom and ignorance, but also strength and weakness, and salvation and… whatever the opposite of salvation is. See, once Augustine has established the light/dark contrast, we can extrapolate almost any opposition from that original dichotomy.
Mmm, pears. Oh, sorry, we got distracted for a minute. So, one of the first real sins that Augustine commits—aside from throwing tantrums as a baby, which he can't remember—is stealing pears from his neighbor's tree. As a result, the pear tree came to be a symbol used over and over again in medieval literature. Can you think of another "original sin" that involves stolen fruit? That's right, we're talking about the Forbidden Fruit episode in the Garden of Eden from Genesis.
A lot of people might wonder why Augustine makes such a big deal about thieving some fruit, but this act marks an important moment in Augustine's life as a sinner. This is the first of his sins that he can remember. This is the beginning of it all. Sure, Augustine sinned before that, but this is the first time he consciously sins simply for the sake of sinning… and he does so for no apparent reason. He's not even hungry, and he doesn't eat the pears. So this thievery is actually a pretty sinister event, especially considering all of the other sins that Augustine is going to get into soon after: like sex, Manichaeism, and pride. You guessed it: stealing pears was, like, Augustine's original sin.
Speaking of, let's get back to what we were saying about the Garden of Eden. According to Genesis, eating the forbidden fruit was what caused everything to go awry in the world. It was literally the first sin from which all other sins were born, even though it, too, seemed like a minor thing. The point is, in both instances Augustine is showing that there is an impulse in us to sin—Augustine tells us that "If any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavor" (II.6.1)—and that it is something that has to be actively combated. He's also saying that even in the most innocuous sin are the seeds of greater sins to come, so watch out: it's the little sins that'll getcha.
It contains much that you will not be pleased to see: this I know and do not hide. (I.5.2)
The "you" in this case is not actually the reader. It's God. Okay, so this is a book addressing God. Guess we can all go home and never think about narrative techniques in Confessions again. Right?
First of all, it's not like Augustine's sins are news to God. He does know all of the past and all of the future, after all, so he's not eagerly awaiting the publication of this Confessions tell-all just so he can see what Augustine has been up. It's not like how we felt waiting for the last Harry Potter book to come out, you know?
So, we think confessing to God through this book is a kind of conceit. In this case, we mean that, as readers, we don't totally believe Augustine is just confessing his sins to God in this book, but we pretend that we do for the sake of the book. We pretend that we're not pretending. Because Augustine tells us to. We know that God already knows all of the things that Augustine is confessing, but the important part is not so much what Augustine is revealing so much as the fact that he is revealing it.
Augustine actually has to maintain this conceit in order to be able to write his book. See, God is really the only person to whom Augustine should be confessing, because the opinions of people don't really matter. And writing something for a public audience can also get one into all kinds of trouble because of that messy Pride business (check out our Themes section for more on pride in Confessions).
But, if God already knows all about Augustine's sins, he could theoretically just confess to God in private. And Augustine wants to write a book because he wants other people to be able to learn from his example:
I need not tell all this to you, my God, but in your presence I tell it to my own kind, to those other men, however few, who may perhaps pick up this book. And I tell it so that I and all who read my words may realize the depths from which we are to cry to you. (II.3.1)
To break it down, then, we know that Augustine is supposed to only confess to God, even though he wants us to read his book and convert, and somehow, he also needs to show us readers that we only really answer to God for our sins. So Augustine has to write the book as though he is confessing to God alone… with a reader who happens to be there to witness it. Still with us?
Importantly, Augustine reminds readers throughout the book that their opinions of his Confessions don't really matter. For example, he says, "it is to you [God] in your mercy that I speak, not to a man, who would simply laugh at me" (I.6.1).
In sum, Augustine is walking a thin line here between the demands of the spiritual world, and the reality of the earthly one. Man, this writing for multiple audiences business is tough.
That dark power is most obviously sin, but for Augustine, that basically means anything that isn't God: lust, Manichees, pride because he wins speech competitions, the theater, etc.
Augustine is seemingly happy. He's on his hunt for truth, he thinks he's hanging with the right crowd. No problems here.
Augustine starts to realize that he really isn't happy, and that what he once thought were the answers are not really answers at all. Christianity, which seemed useless and nonsensical before, is suddenly looking shiny and full of truth.
Even though Augustine wants to love God, he can't imagine actually giving up all of the things he would need to give up (read: sex) to live the life of a true Christian.
And we do mean miraculous. Right when Augustine is on the brink of conversion, he hears a child's voice telling him to pick up a book and read. What Augustine reads then convinces him that he needs to live a Christian life. The rest is history.
Where else to begin but when you were born? Augustine's life of miserable sinnin' begins at birth, you know.
The older Augustine gets, the more sins come his way. Lust, theft, lust, pride, lust, Manichaeism, lust… the list goes on. This section starts around Book III, when Augustine goes to the Sin City of the Ancient World, a.k.a. Carthage. That's when Augustine enters into adulthood, and can't chalk up his antics to boyish tendencies anymore.
But all is not well in Augustine-town, because pretty soon, he starts to question the logic of Manichaeism and wonder why he is so miserable. This is around the time he goes to Italy, toward the end of Book V, and starts to learn about the Scriptures from Ambrose. The big climax is, of course, the moment of his conversion to Christianity at the end of Book VIII.
Just because Augustine converts doesn't mean that life is now puppies and rainbows. He still has to learn to deal with all of his sinful tendencies, which haven't gone away. The aftermath of his conversion is described in Book IX, and his personal handbook on how to deal with pride and wet dreams is in Book X.
What do good Christians do? They read the Bible, of course. By "read the Bible" we really mean "read the first chapter of Genesis." Augustine basically pulls an Old World Shmoop and analyzes the first few lines of Genesis for his readers in Books XI to XIII, so that we can better understand them. He hopes that all this 'splainin' he has done will earn Christianity some new converts. He's come a long way, that Augustine.
When dividing Confessions into three parts, we think about the plot as building up to Augustine's moment of conversion:
Act 1: Carefree sinning
Act 2: Starting to question his beliefs and feel guilty
Act 3: Conversion and its aftermath
The last four books, Book X-XIII, don't fit into the plot arc as neatly because, well, they don't have a plot. But they are definitely meant to be a part of the "Life After Conversion" story.
When Augustine is young, he really doesn't feel bad about the fact that he's not a Christian. The Manichees suit him just fine, as does keeping a mistress and winning laurels as an orator.
Things start to change once Augustine leaves that hissing cauldron of lust, Carthage, for Rome at the end of Book V. Even though Augustine doesn't go to Rome expecting to become a Christian, the move represents a change. He is departing from his old ways, including breaking it off with the Manichees. Once he goes to Milan and meets Ambrose, he really starts to reconsider his life. This conflict culminates in his conversion at the end of Book VIII.
The themes of the rest of the book are sustaining belief (you gotta have faith, faith, faith) and learning how to understand the Scriptures. It's more instructional than the autobiographical part. Even though the plot technically ends at the end of Book IX, Book X is still about Augustine, in a way. Books XI-XIII are the "close reading" chapters.