The Confessions of St. Augustine13 min read

The “ Confessions ” of St. Augustine is agreed to be one of the greatest books ever written. Whether we consider it merely as a literary masterpiece, as a classical example of a certain type of rhetorical excellence ; or whether we approach it as a psychological study of mysticism, an account of how the soul can awaken from the instinctive reactions of infancy, and gradually expand through all the possible phases of intellectual experience culminating in a knowledge of God as infinite Spirit and Truth ; or whether we turn to it for a powerful intellectual statement of certain fundamental tenets of idealist philosophy ; or whether, again, we look for a cry coming up from the depths of the heart to express the true relationship between man and his Maker, in each case what we find is unique ; and yet the value of the “ Confessions ” far transcends any such catalogue of its merits.

The present essay, which is a tentative and by no means authoritative study, attempts to provide a simple introduction to the autobiographical narrative of the first nine books. A brief summary of Augustine’s life will be given, with a few words to explain his intellectual development, followed by an account of the rdle of the “Confessions” as an illustration of the Augustinian theory of grace.

What, then, do the early books recount ? Writing in about 397, eleven years after the last of the events he is recording, St. Augustine sketches the conditions of his birth in 354 and education in a little village in Algeria, and his departure for Carthage at the age of sixteen, where he stayed thirteen years as a teacher of rhetoric. Here his intellectual development was considerable. However, he never entirely forgot the primitive Christianity taught to him by his unlettered mother, and it was because they were Christians as well as rationalists that the young intellectual was attracted to the Manichaeans, a religious community of which he was a member for nine years.

This extraordinary sect believed that they had a monopoly of the real Christian teachings, and that their Persian founder, Mani (215—277) was the promised Paraclete, or incarnation of the Holy Ghost. They had a curious, partly Zoroastrian cosmology, which they held was alone capable of explaining the presence of evil in a universe whose God was good. They held that the universe was the product of interaction between two independent material forces, one of goodness and light, and the other of darkness and evil.

Dark matter was wholly evil, but fragments of light had become imprisoned within it, and these were the divine elements in the individual souls, whose aim was to escape rebirth in subjection to dark matter by a life of extreme asceticism and harmlessness. They believed that the New Testament, understood in the light of the writings of Mani, was a revelation of truth, but that all other pretended religious revelations, and especially the Old Testament, were the work of demons, intended to deflect men from the true path. St. Augustine never practised the Manichasan moral code in its full rigour, and the chief value to him of Manichaeanism, in his own opinion, was to force him to ask,

“ If God is good, how do we explain the evil and suffering there is in the world ? ”, a problem which he later believed that Christianity and Platonism solved, but which other pagan philosophies did not even face.

Carthage brought other formative experiences. For one thing, he read parts of the works of Cicero.  Cicero’s writings were in that age the great vehicle through which men became acquainted with the heritage of Greek and Roman philosophy. His Hortensius, a book now lost, inflamed Augustine with a desire to reach the truth about things through the exercise and development of his intellectual powers. He deepened his study of the Roman authors, but never acquired a working knowledge of Greek.

He studied aesthetics, and evolved a materialistic philosophy of beauty, which he expressed in his De Pulchro et Apto, a book which does not survive. Later, he took up for a time with the astrologers, who taught a crude and rigid fatalism, not uncommon in that age, in which the stars were held to be eternal and god-like in their operations, and to govern with perfect precision the mutable affairs of the world. This cosmology, with its pretence at mathematical exactitude, weakened his faith in the fanciful and frankly poetic mythology of the Manichaeans.

But Augustine’s emotional experiences in Carthage were even more important in his journey towards Christianity than his intellectual ones. Of a naturally ardent temperament, he was cast loose into a great city for the first time, and he tried to enjoy life in all its aspects. What God had created as means, he tells us, he tried to enjoy as ends in themselves. Thus approached, objects yielded bitter fruit. The culmination of his sorrows was the death of one of his closest friends. “And my country became a prison to me, and my father’s house a source of wondrous grief . . . All things were hateful to me, yea, even light itself.” Experiences such as these were gradually bringing home to him the truth that “ Wheresoever the soul of man turns, it becomes enmeshed in grief, everywhere except in Thee ; yea, even if it dwells on beautiful objects, if they are exterior to itself and to Thee ; for these rise and inevitably pass away, and have their existence only in Thee.”

In 383, at the age of 29, Augustine crossed to Rome, still as a teacher of rhetoric. Here he soon lost all faith in Manichaeanism under the influence of the doubting, sceptical tradition of Carneades and Cicero. Yet the name of Christ, which he had imbibed with his mother’s milk, continued to haunt his imagination and to suggest itself as the solution to his intellectual problems. After a year at Rome, he was sent to Milan to teach rhetoric and secular philosophy. Here he remained two years and was joined by his mother. He listened to St. Ambrose’s preaching with curiosity, not with a view to learn any truths, because he still considered Christianity childish from the philosophical point of view, but to take note of the famous orator’s style. Listening to the style, he became interested in the matter. St. Ambrose was explaining the Old Testament allegorically in the tradition of Philo of Alexandria.

Viewed in this new light, its contradictions and immoralities, on which the Manichaeans had poured such ridicule, began to disappear, or at least to appear capable of a symbolic interpretation. He also became impressed with the noble personality of the bishop, and with the mutual respect between him and his mother. Under the combined influence of these two, Augustine returned to the fold of the Catholic Church as a catachumen, but several circumstances, moral and intellectual, still stood between him and full membership through baptism. Though desiring to dedicate himself entirely to God, he could not give up certain worldly enjoyments ; while in the intellectual sphere, he could not yet understand how God, being good, could create or permit evil.

At this point he found himself in possession of some translations of the works of Plotinus. These expressed a beautiful but somewhat obscure philosophy, which may be approximately summarised as follows. God is unity, pure existence and universal fulness. Strictly speaking, He is beyond all our conceptions, beyond even Being, without qualities or parts or capacity for action. In a sense, however, He can know Himself, and this knowing, considered in itself, is a being somehow distinct from Him, yet capable of union with Him through contemplation. This knowing is the Divine Intelligence or Nous, eternal and immobile, but capable of thought.

The thoughts of this Intelligence are the archetypes of eternal realities of which the objects of the earth are faulty and perishable copies. The Divine Intelligence cannot act or create, but there emanates from Him the World-Soul, which, looking upwards to Him can understand and reproduce His ideas, and looking downwards into chaos or non-being, becomes identified with it and animates it with a partial degree of form and reality. Thus, God is beyond Being ; the Divine Intelligence is pure Being ; and chaos is pure nonbeing. The world of matter is neither being nor nonbeing, but “ becoming,” an eternal process of coming-to-be and passing-away. It is chaos in process of resisting the attempts of the World-Soul to impose on it the eternal ideas of the Divine Intelligence. The human soul, by withdrawing its gaze from matter and turning inward, may identify itself first with the World-Soul and then with the Divine Intelligence.

By this philosophy, Augustine’s two greatest intellectual difficulties were solved. In the first place, by emphasising God’s essential transcendence and “otherness,” Plotinus enabled him for the first time to conceive God as a spirit, beyond all our powers of representation, and quite uncontaminated by any of the limitations of the world. And secondly, by positing chaos as non-being, Plotinus enabled him to imagine all the creative works of God to have been good, and evil to be nothing positive, but simply the negative element latent in creation from nothing.

From Plotinus, therefore, Augustine learned that there exists a Divine Intelligence that has created the archetypes of all things by the power of its thought. In a passage of intense interest (Confessions, Book VII, Ch. 17), he describes how he discovered this Divine Intelligence, immanent within his own soul. By retiring into himself, by silencing the senses, by withdrawing away from the stream of images that crowded into his mind, he shook himself for a moment completely free from the world of becoming, and beheld in a single flash pure Being, “ that which is,” the Divine Intelligence, that eternal unchanging light shining above the mind, “ knowing which one has known eternity.”

By the time he came to write the Confessions he had come to believe that this Nous or Divine Intelligence of Plotinus was practically equivalent to the Logos or creative Word of St. John, the second Person of the Christian Trinity. It was equivalent in that it was the light of Truth shining into the human intellect from above, the one stable element in our experiences, the solid reality to which the shifting flow of images must always be referred if the concept of truth is to have meaning. It was less than equivalent in that it was not held to have been made flesh and to have granted to humble and faithful souls grace and the permanent power to live according to their purest resolutions.

In retrospect, Augustine believed that it was because he did not know this that he fell away from the mystical knowledge of God attained. in the highest moments of contemplation, still “ sweetly o’erladen with the baggage of this present world.” But afterwards, under the influence of St. Paul, with long weeping and bitter contrition he cast himself on the ground in a garden, crying, “ How long, how long, O Lord ? Wilt Thou be angry with me for ever ? With his pride thus humbled, he felt a sudden infusion of light into his heart that dispelled his doubts for ever. Sustained by an influx of grace, he was now able to make those tremendous decisions in his personal life before which his will had hesitated so long, and which amounted to a total dedication of his life to God. The narrative closes with a brief description of his semi-monastic community at Cassiciacum, his baptism, the famous ecstatic experience with his mother at Ostia, and an account of her death and character.

In our brief introduction to the Confessions narrative, one important point remains. The Confessions were not merely an autobiography, but also a practical illustration of Augustine’s theory of grace and must certainly be approached as such if we are to do justice to the author’s intention. What was this theory of grace, and how was it illustrated in the Confessions ?

Augustine believed, partly as a result of his experiences recorded in the Confessions, and partly as a result of his study of Genesis and of St. Paul, that God created the world perfectly good and happy, without sin or death or the corruption of physical substances, but that these things were introduced at the time of the Fall by the disobedience of Adam and Eve. It is a famous theory, which Pelagius attacked and which Catholic theologians themslves have not entirely accepted.

All humanity is by nature “ one mass of sin ” (the phrase is St. Augustine’s), because the original sin of Adam and Eve is transmitted to their descendants, who are thereby compelled to err and sin as inevitably as to grow old and die. Sin is so intimate and essential a part of our terrestrial life that to raise one’s self up from it by one’s own efforts is out of the question. It follows that wherever sainthood exists, it is due to the special aid or grace of God, granted either directly or mediately through Christ.

Now the Confessions are in one sense simply an illustration of the mode in which this grace is held to operate. The initiative towards a holy life never comes from the individual part of the mass of corruption, but always from God. “ It is Thou who excitest man to take delight in Thy praises,” he says in his famous opening, “ for Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it find rest in Thee.” Prayers, love of God and of our neighbour, holy living and so forth are necessary indeed, but the original impulse towards them is always the free gift of God. Not that St. Augustine was a psychological determinist in the modern sense, for, except while under the influence of the Mani- chaeans and the astrologers, he regarded the existence of freedom of choice as axiomatic.

Nevertheless, he believed that of ourselves we are without power to help ourselves, and that God as Providence manages the puppet-show of earthly life, and brings to sainthood those whom He has predestined. Thus it was God who built the temple in St. Monnica’s heart, not she who erected it to Him. It was He who watched over her in her youth, and foreseeing from afar her future role as saint and mother of a saint, protected her from wine- bibbing. It was He who sent an extraordinary experience to Alypius, to prepare him for the long distant day when, as bishop, he was to be a judge of civil causes.

It was He who sent Augustine a whole series of experiences, seemingly trivial or accidental, which relentlessly pushed on his intellectual and moral development to the point of his conversion. Such were his unhappy experiences at Carthage, which began to teach him the vanity of sense- pleasures ; his meeting with the Manichaeans who taught him to search among the philosophies for a solution to the problem of evil ; his association with the astrologers, with Faustus, with St. Ambrose, Firminus, Simplicianus and Ponticianus.  Each of these episodes, and many more, viewed in retrospect, formed a link in a continuous chain of experiences designed by Providence to complete his spiritual education. Examined in this light, almost every detail recorded by St. Augustine in the Confessions is seen to have been included as evidence of the Providential power of God to elevate those whom He has predestined to a life of holiness ; and the narrative as a whole to be a wonderful drama, exhibiting the power and wisdom of God operating within a definite historical scheme of creation, sin, and redemption through grace.