Saturday, March 12, 2022

Book Summary of and Excerpts from "Confessions" by Augustine

Book Summary of and Excerpts from Confessions by Augustine

The work is not a complete autobiography, as it was written during Augustine's early 40s and he lived long afterwards. Nonetheless, it does 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, Augustine writes about how 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 his friend Nebridius' role in helping to persuade him that astrology was not only incorrect but evil, and Ambrose's role in his conversion to Christianity. The first nine books are autobiographical, and the last four are commentary and significantly more philosophical. 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." The work is thought to be divisible into books which symbolize various aspects of the Trinity and Trinitarian belief.



1.      His infancy, and boyhood up to age 14. Starting with his infancy, Augustine reflects on his personal childhood in order to draw universal conclusions about the nature of infancy: the child is inherently violent if left to its own devices because of Original Sin. Later, he reflects on choosing pleasure and reading secular literature over studying Scripture, choices which he later comes to understand as ones for which he deserved the punishment of his teachers, although he did not recognize that during his childhood.


2.      Augustine continues to reflect on his adolescence during which he recounts two examples of his grave sins that he committed as a sixteen-year-old: the development of his God-less lust and the theft of a pear from his neighbor's orchard, despite never wanting for food. In this book, 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.


3.      He begins the study of rhetoric at Carthage, where he develops a love of wisdom through his exposure to Cicero's Hortensius. He blames his pride for lacking faith in Scripture, so he finds a way to seek truth regarding good and evil through Manichaeism. At the end of this book, his mother, Monica, dreams about her son's re-conversion to Catholic doctrine.


4.      Between the ages of 19 and 28, Augustine forms a relationship with an unnamed woman who, though faithful, is not his lawfully wedded wife, with whom he has a son, Adeodatus. At the same time that he returned to Tagaste, his hometown, to teach, a friend fell sick, was baptized in the Catholic Church, recovered slightly, then died. The death of his friend depresses Augustine, who then reflects on the meaning of love of a friend in a mortal sense versus love of a friend in God; he concludes that his friend's death affected him severely because of his lack of love in God. Things he used to love become hateful to him because everything reminds him of what was lost. Augustine then suggests that he began to love his life of sorrow more than his fallen friend. He closes this book with his reflection that he had attempted to find truth through the Manicheans and astrology, yet devout Church members, who he claims are far less intellectual and prideful, have found truth through greater faith in God.


5.      While Augustine is aged 29, he begins to lose faith in Manichean teachings, a process that starts when the Manichean bishop Faustus visits Carthage. Augustine is unimpressed with the substance of Manichaeism, but he 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. He moves to teach in Rome where the education system is more disciplined. He does not stay in Rome for long because his teaching is requested in Milan, where he encounters the bishop Ambrose ( Ambrose). He appreciates Ambrose's style and attitude, and Ambrose exposes him to a more spiritual, figurative perspective of God, which leads him into a position as catechumen of the Church.


6.      The sermons of Ambrose draw Augustine closer to Christianity, which he begins to favor over other philosophical options. In this section his personal troubles, including ambition, continue, at which point he compares a beggar, whose drunkenness is "temporal happiness," with his hitherto failure at discovering happiness. Augustine highlights the contribution of his friends Alypius and Nebridius in his discovery of religious truth. Monica returns at the end of this book and arranges a marriage for Augustine, who separates from his previous concubine, finds a new mistress, and deems himself to be a "slave of lust."


7.      In his mission to discover the truth behind good and evil, Augustine is exposed to the Neoplatonist view of God. He finds fault with this thought, however, because he thinks that they understand the nature of God without accepting Christ as a mediator between humans and God. He reinforces his opinion of the Neoplatonists through the likeness of a mountain top: "It is one thing to see, from a wooded mountain top, the land of peace, and not to find the way to it [...] it is quite another thing to keep to the way which leads there, which is made safe by the care of the heavenly Commander, where they who have deserted the heavenly army may not commit their robberies, for they avoid it as a punishment." From this point, he picks up the works of the apostle Paul which "seized [him] with wonder."


8.      He further describes his inner turmoil on whether to convert to Christianity. Two of his friends, Simplicianus and Ponticianus, tell Augustine stories about the conversions of Marius Victorinus and Anthony. While reflecting in a garden, Augustine hears a child's voice chanting "take up and read." Augustine picks up a book of St. Paul's writings and reads the passage it opens to, Romans 13:13–14: "Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts." This action confirms his conversion to Christianity. His friend Alypius follows his example.


9.      In preparation for his baptism, Augustine concludes his teaching of rhetoric. Ambrose baptizes Augustine along with Adeodatus and Alypius. Augustine then recounts how the church at Milan, with his mother in a leading role, defends Ambrose against the persecution of Justina. Upon his return with his mother to Africa, they share in a religious vision in Ostia. Soon after, Monica dies, followed soon after by his friends Nebridius and Verecundus. By the end of this book, Augustine remembers these deaths through the prayer of his newly adopted faith: "May they remember with holy feeling my parents in this transitory light, and my brethren under Thee, O Father, in our Catholic Mother [the Church], and my fellow citizens in the eternal Jerusalem, for which the pilgrimage of Thy people sighs from the start until the return. In this way, her last request of me will be more abundantly granted her in the prayers of many through these my confessions than through my own prayers."


10.   Augustine shifts from personal memories to introspective evaluation of the memories themselves and of the self, as he continues to reflect on the values of confessions, the significance of prayer, and the means through which individuals can reach God. It is through both this last point and his reflection on the body and the soul that he arrives at a justification for the existence of Christ.


11.   Augustine analyzes the nature of creation and of time as well as its relation with God. He explores issues surrounding presentism. He considers that there are three kinds of time in the mind: the present with respect to things that are past, which is the memory; the present with respect to things that are present, which is contemplation; and the present with respect to things that are in the future, which is expectation. He relies on Genesis, especially the texts concerning the creation of the sky and the earth, throughout this book to support his thinking.


12.   Through his discussion of creation, Augustine relates the nature of the divine and the earthly as part of a thorough analysis of both the rhetoric of Genesis and the plurality of interpretations that one might use to analyze Genesis. Comparing the scriptures to a spring with streams of water spreading over an immense landscape, he considers that there could be more than one true interpretation and each person can draw whatever true conclusions from the texts.


13.   He concludes the text by exploring an allegorical interpretation of Genesis, through which he discovers the Trinity and the significance of God's creation of man. Based on his interpretation, he espouses the significance of rest as well as the divinity of Creation: "For, then shalt Thou rest in us, in the same way that Thou workest in us now [...] So, we see these things which Thou hast made, because they exist, but they exist because Thou seest them. We see, externally, that they exist, but internally, that they are good; Thou hast seen them made, in the same place where Thou didst see them as yet to be made."



“Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him’, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you ‘resist the proud’. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”


“What am I to you that you command me to love you, and that, if I fail to love you, you are angry with me and threaten me with vast miseries?”


“Allow me to speak: for I am addressing your mercy, not a man who would laugh at me.”


“What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying for his lack of love for you, my God?”


“In their perverted way all humanity imitates you. Yet they put themselves at a distance from you and exalt themselves against you.”


“No one who considers his frailty would dare to attribute to his own strength his chastity and innocence, so that he has less cause to love you… he should not mock the healing of a sick man by the Physician, whose help has kept him from falling sick…”


“The liberty I loved was merely that of a runaway.”


“Without you, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?”


“I sighed and you heard me. I wavered and you steadied me. I travelled along the broad way of the world, but you did not desert me.”


“I myself was exceedingly astonished as I anxiously reflected how long a time had elapsed since the nineteenth year of my life, when I began to burn with a zeal for wisdom, planning that when I had found it I would abandon all the empty hopes and lying follies of hollow ambitions. And here I was already thirty, and still mucking about in the same mire in a state of indecision, avid to enjoy present fugitive delights which were dispersing my concentration, while I was saying: ‘Tomorrow I shall find it…'”


“…The wisdom which governs the world down to the leaves that tremble on the trees.”


“When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And you gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of your rays, and I trembled with love and awe. And I found myself far from you ‘in the region of dissimilarity’, and heard as it were your voice from on high: ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.'”


“But while he was speaking, Lord, you turned my attention back to myself. You took me up from behind my own back where I had placed myself because I did not wish to observe myself, and you set me before my face so that I should see how vile I was, how twisted and filthy, covered in sores and ulcers. And I looked and was appalled, but there was no way of escaping from myself. If I tried to avert my gaze from myself, his story continued relentlessly, and you once again placed me in front of myself; you thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it. I had known it, but deceived myself, refused to admit it, and pushed it out of my mind.”


“Uneducated people are rising up and capturing heaven, and we with our high culture without any heart–see where we roll in the mud of flesh and blood. Is it because they are ahead of us that we are ashamed to follow?”


“The soul is torn apart in a painful condition, as long as it prefers the eternal because of its truth but does not discard the temporal because of familiarity.”


“How I cried out to you in those Psalms, and how they kindled my love for you! I was fired by an enthusiasm to recite them, were it possible, to the entire world in protest against the pride of the human race.”


“You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”


“I am more delighted to have declared the truth than to be praised for it. If I were given the choice of being universally admired, though mad or wholly wrong, or of being universally abused, though steadfast and utterly certain in possessing the truth, I see which I should choose.”


“The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you.”


“What wonderful profundity there is in your utterances! The surface meaning lies open before us and charms beginners. Yet the depth is amazing, my God, the depth is amazing.”




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