Study Guide

Augustine in Confessions

By Saint Augustine


By the time you finish the Confessions, you imagine that you know Augustine pretty intimately. After all, he doesn't shy away from telling his readers everything bad about his life, and believe us, there isn't much that he considers good.

But that's actually part of the problem. We expect someone who considers himself to be such a sinner to be more of… well, a sinner. Augustine's sins are actually pretty mundane, even by rigid standards. Okay, so he stole some fruit. What kid hasn't been dared to shoplift? So he's proud when he wins a contest. Big whoop. So he's living with a woman he's not married to. Hardly alone there. He is pretty obsessed with sex, though. He says:

Bodily desire, like a morass, and adolescent sex welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust. (II.2.1)

Now, we think Augustine focused so much on confessin' because he wanted us to realize that we're too attached to the pleasures of this earth, which include literally everything on the planet. What does it mean to have the outlook that God is the sole important thing in a person's life, and that everything else should be systematically done away with? Well, let's see how this outlook affects our dude Augustine.

What'sa Matter with You?

The Confessions is intensely personal. Could you imagine publishing your guilt-diaries as a way of convincing others not to commit the same sins as you? It takes some guts, for sure. But why does he do it? Why should we care about every little detail of his life from infancy? And why does the "confessions" part of the Confessions stop after his mother's death?

The Confessions really serves two purposes: first, and most importantly, it is Augustine's direct confession to God (see the Narrator Point of View section for more on this idea). But Augustine could just confess to God directly, so the fact that he chose to write a book reveals the second purpose: he wants people to learn from his example. And by "example" we mean both the mistakes he makes in the narrative itself (e.g., falling for Manichaeism and astrology, avoiding Christianity because it would mean giving up sex) and the example of humility he sets by openly confessing his sins to the world. It's like a self-help book with a sticker on the cover that says, "If Augustine can do it, so can you."

At the same time, though, Augustine's confessions are really for God, and the last thing he is interested in is titillating his readers with The Dirty Secrets of Saint Augustine. His confessing is supposed to be a self-deprecating act, and he tries hard to make it come across that way. He even tells his readers that they don't really matter:

But dust and ashes though I am, let me appeal to your pity, since it is to you in your mercy that I speak, not to a man, who would simply laugh at me. Perhaps you too may laugh at me, but you will relent and have pity on me. (I.6.1)

There are definitely other moments in the Confessions where Augustine shows that he has this kind of attitude toward his readers. But the idea here isn't that he doesn't want people to read his book; he just doesn't want his readers to focus on rubbernecking all of his sins, when they should be turning toward God.

(Pre-)Catholic Guilt?

It's pretty obvious that Augustine has some serious issues with guilt, but the question is why. He even goes so far as to feel bad about the sins that he committed in infancy, which he doesn't even remember, and the sins that are out of his control, like enjoying pleasing smells or dreaming about sex. Sheesh, is there anything Augustine doesn't feel guilty about?

Well, see, Augustine is an all-or-nothing type of guy. You know how Augustine is really keen on the search for the truth? Like, when he cries out:

Truth! Truth! How the very marrow of my soul within me yearned for it as they dinned it in my ears over and over again! (III.6.2) 

That's a really important part of the narrative, because it both leads him away from the truth (through the Manichees) and eventually leads him to God. You might even say that Augustine is obsessed with the truth, and that obsession seems to feed his black-and-white approach to life. After all, he stays with the Manichees for a whole ten years.

And all of Augustine's energy and devotion has to go somewhere. We know that it eventually ends up with God, but throughout his pre-Christian life we see Augustine's general zealousness directed at lots of different things, from sex to Manichaeism to knowledge. So, we totally understand why once he accepts Christianity, he gets super enthusiastic about it—and goes so far as to write a treatise about all of his sins.

God > Your Drama

How are you supposed to convince people of heavenly eternity if they're all preoccupied with the drama here on earth? You can't. So in this book about giving up worldly possessions and accepting that everything good about life came from God, Augustine also talks a lot about how people don't really matter.

This people-hatin' can make Augustine come off as a callous jerk. In Book I, for example, Augustine talks about how it wasn't his nurses who fed him as a baby, but God:

Neither my mother nor my nurses filled their breasts of their own accord, for it was you [God] who used them, as your law prescribes, to give me infant's food […]. (I.6.2)

We're pretty sure his nurses didn't appreciate that statement.

Augustine devalues education in a similar way. He's grateful for it, but his education nonetheless came from people who only cared about "man's insatiable desire for the poverty he calls wealth and the infamy he knows as fame" (I.12.1). And when his mother dies, he is ashamed of his own grief because it signifies a worldly attachment to another person. Eek. In fact, he says that God is using the experience to teach Augustine a lesson about "how firmly the mind is gripped in the bonds of habit" (IX.12.4). Viewing your mom's death as simply a lesson to you about your own sins is kinda cold.

While we can see the point that Augustine is trying making in all of these statements, we also have trouble reconciling them with what we commonly think it means to be a good person. The thing is, Augustine is trying to shift what we see as good. Sure, education is a great thing and all, but most of the time, the reason people are so keen on getting educated is so they can make more money.

So, really, Augustine knows that he's being confrontational with all his belabored hating on people and things. He's telling you to change your heart, and reconsider what's really important.

Little Mr. Can't-Be-Wrong

No one likes being told they're wrong, but Augustine especially hates it. It's important to know, though, that asserting that he's right all the time is also a rhetorical technique. This technique goes all the way back to the Greeks—and is still used all the time today. You know how they teach you in school to write persuasive essays where you have to take a stance, whether or not you actually hold any conviction about that stance?

We're not saying that Augustine lacks conviction when it comes to his beliefs, but if you sound like there is absolutely, positively no chance whatsoever of you being wrong, then you're going to have an easier time convincing others of it. We hear people take this tack in politics all the time. For instance, here is how Augustine politely tells people that he disagrees with their opinion:

Those who ask "What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?" are still steeped in error which they should have discarded. (XI.10.1)

Grey area anyone? Nope.

The one big exception to this rule is in Book XII, where Augustine admits that there are many different ways of interpreting the vague words of Genesis, and that as long as they are not obviously wrong, they may be equally right. But even this supposedly conciliatory claim is kind of back-handed: "But I will not tolerate their contention that Moses meant, not what I say he meant, but only what they say" (XII.25.1).

Even if Augustine isn't completely sure about his own opinion, he's not one to pass up the opportunity to chastise people who don't hold his own beliefs on plurality. Old habits die hard.

The Man Behind the Book

Augustine doesn't just begin and end with the Confessions. Historically, he's a really important dude. He's what the Catholic Church calls an Early Church Father, and you don't get to be an Early Church Father by just sitting around.

So, after writing the Confessions, Augustine returns to North Africa, where he is ordained a priest and then eventually made Bishop of Hippo Regius (Annaba in Algeria—not the "Bishop of Hippos"). This was all around 395. Around 410, after Rome was sacked by Visigoths (Germanic invaders), Augustine wrote his hit sequel, called City of God, which is another hugely important theological work about man's relationship to God.

In 430, the Vandals (other Germanic invaders… yes, there were a lot of them) besieged Hippo, and during this time, Augustine died. After his death, Augustine was sainted. And in the 13th century, he was made one of four Doctors of the Church, along with his buddy Bishop Ambrose.

But that's just a short lil' biography. Augustine lived at a time that was between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the medieval period, or Middle Ages, when Europe would become something like this. His theories helped make Christianity more popular, and, during the Middle Ages, Christianity comes to dominate philosophical thought, politics… and just all of life, really.

But even beyond the Middle Ages, you'd be hard-pressed to find a philosopher in Western civilization who hasn't been influenced by our boy Augustine. And if you think we only mean religious philosophers, guess again. A lot of the ideas that Augustine discusses in the Confessions, like ideas about free will and time, have been profoundly influential on many philosophers ever since (for more info, take a look at our People Influenced by Augustine section).