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Confessions Summary

by Saint Augustine

Confessions Summary

Augustine's Confessions is not an autobiography in the literal sense, but is rather an autobiographical framework for a religious, moral, theological, and philosophical text. Augustine explores the nature of God and sin within the context of a Christian man's life. The work can thus be viewed as both a discursive document and a subjective personal story. It is one of the most influential books in the Catholic religion, apart from the Bible.

Augustine wrote of his life and education up until the point of his conversion. After his conversion, he focused (as, he implies, a good Christian should) on understanding the major points of Catholic Christian doctrine. The early chapters recount his birth up to adulthood, but not in a typical, chronological fashion. Large sections of Augustine's life are left out, and critical figures are ignored or unnamed. Augustine did this because he wanted to focus only on the events in his life that led specifically to his conversion. He wished to show the reader his personal struggle to become a Christian, and how that struggle is a metaphor for all Christians' struggles.

When Augustine was a child, he was instructed in the Christian faith by his mother Monica. At that time, baptism was often delayed, sometimes even until the deathbed, because of the sacrament's ability to wash away sins. Any sins committed after baptism would not have been washed away, and could therefore prevent a soul from ascending to heaven. This led people to commit all their sins (such as Augustine's plea in Book VIII - "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet") before baptism, and then have them "washed away" before death. Because of this practice (and also, it appears, because Monica wanted Augustine to choose the faith himself), Augustine was not baptized as an infant or as a child. He lived in a mostly Christian household (his father, Patrick, did not come to the faith until near to his own death), but was able to study other religions.

Augustine was educated in the manner of the sons of landholders: his studies were mostly in grammar, rhetoric, literature, and oratory, with some arithmetic, philosophy, and natural science. For a time, he moved from his home in Thagaste to the nearby town of Mandauros, but when he was 16 he was obliged to come home because his parents were short on funds. At the end of this year, however, the family was able to send him to a much better school in Carthage.

When recounting his youth and adolescence, Augustine examines certain events in his life and tries to analyze human nature. He is concerned with why human beings, even children, have the will to commit evil acts, and through this analysis of his own life he attempts two things; 1) to examine the nature of sinful man, and from that provide a lesson to himself and his congregation and 2) through analysis of human nature, evil, and sin, to reveal the true nature of God.

In Carthage, Augustine fell into schoolboy pranks with the other pupils, though he did not participate in the serious vandalism that the Wreckers, a student gang, committed. The city of Carthage, known even in the decadent late Roman Empire as a particularly licentious city, had a tradition of not prosecuting the youthful pranks of its students. Augustine fell into a "cauldron of illicit loves" in Carthage, and it was there that he met the woman who would become his long-term companion and the mother of his son. This woman, who is never named in Confessions, was a Carthaginian girl of low social status, and by the standards of Augustine's day there was never any possibility that they would marry. It was customary for young men of Augustine's social class to have a mistress before marriage. Augustine's mother tolerated the situation, for she considered it less sinful than promiscuity or adultery. Augustine was to remain faithful to this woman for many years, until shortly before his conversion to Christianity.

Upon completing his studies, Augustine returned to Thagaste and taught liberal arts. During this time he became a Hearer, or entry-level convert, to the Manichee religion. This sect of Christianity had several differences from Catholic Christianity, and since Augustine later came to view it as heresy, Confessions contains a great deal of argument refuting this faith . For some time, Augustine believed the Manichee worldview, which divided God from the material world (which encompassed evil), and claimed that God and the material world were constantly in struggle with each other. This duality became one of the main issues Augustine addresses in Confessions. Catholicism and the Neo-Platonism that many Christian thinkers espoused at the time asserted the omniscience and omnipotence of God and the "chain of being" that governed the world. God was the highest form of being, followed by angels, with humanity near the bottom. When humans sinned, it was because they were attached to the lower things of being, and therefore could commit evil acts. In Augustine's worldview, evil didn't have being in its own right; it existed only as a turning away from God.

This worldview led to a kind of asceticism that Augustine struggled with his whole life. He admitted having attachments to human beings and material things that sometimes were nearer to his heart than God. This human weakness, Augustine thought, led to sin. Near the end of Confessions, Augustine explains that it is not sinful to love God's beautiful creations, but that human beings should not become too attached to the things of this world. This led Augustine to become cautious about joy in any human sensory activity. This idea was taken up by later readers, and led to some of the more extreme ascetic views in European medieval religious thought. This was not Augustine's intention, for the basis of his asceticism was never prudishness or a negation of the material world, but Augustine's arguments are deep and sometimes difficult to interpret fully. Indeed, they have frequently been misinterpreted by Christian and non-Christian readers throughout history. Augustine's respect for the material world and simultaneous belief that it is low on the chain of being is credited by him to the philosopher Epicurus - another philosopher whose beliefs have often been misunderstood. In fact, the very adjective derived from his name, "epicurean," stands for something in direct opposition to the manner in which Epicurus led his life.

Augustine moved to Carthage as a young adult to teach, but found the students far too difficult and rowdy, and was told by friends and colleagues of opportunities in Rome. He left his mother in Africa, and upon arriving in Rome, became very ill. Augustine credited his mother's prayers and God's mercy with his recovery. He became interested in the skeptic philosophy of the Academics (a Platonic school of thought active in Rome at the time), which excellent contrast with some of the more amorphous ideas of the Manichee religion. He grew to respect the philosophical rigor of the skeptics, and applied their principles of argument throughout Confessions.

Roman students, unfortunately, proved fond of cheating teachers out of money, so Augustine took a professorship in Milan (then the seat of the Emperor). In Milan, Augustine was taken under the wing of some Christians, and especially the beloved Catholic Bishop Ambrose. Augustine was still not converted, but went to hear the bishop speak. Augustine's mother soon joined him in Milan. It became clear that Augustine could not hope to rise further in the world without an advantageous marriage. From Milan he sent his concubine back to Africa, and promptly took another. Simultaneously, he became engaged to a suitable but underage girl. During this time Augustine was very unhappy with himself, and began to believe that the only path to happiness was to become a Catholic. However, Augustine could not convert solely as an act of will - he sincerely wished for his conversion to be authentic. He needed a sign from God. He had been reading Neoplatonic books, and most recently the Apostle Paul. The Apostle's words put him in an agitated state regarding his religious beliefs.

One day in his garden Augustine overheard a child's song, "Pick Up and Read." This led him to pick up Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and it was in this text that he read a passage that would convince him to convert. It was a cathartic moment for him, for his conversion had been long coming. He, of course, shared his joy with his mother, Monica, who felt that at long last Augustine had come into the fold. There was no longer any talk of his marriage, and Augustine lived a Christian - and celibate - life.

Augustine resigned his teaching post and retreated to the country to reflect. Later that year he was baptized along with his friends and son by Bishop Ambrose. Augustine and his mother decided that they could do the most good in Africa, and embarked on a journey. In Ostia, Augustine and Monica shared a vision of God and heaven. Shortly after this religious ecstasy, Monica died. Augustine buried her in Ostia, and returned to Africa. In Confessions, Augustine did not continue the story of his life after this point (including his subsequent ordination and Episcopal elevation), but rather spent the remaining four books in philosophical reflection.

Books X-XIII address knotty questions of metaphysics, Biblical interpretation, and theology. Augustine was greatly concerned with the issue of figurative rather than literal interpretation of scripture (a subject of concern to Christians today), especially the story of Genesis. Through word-by-word analysis of this story, Augustine is able to reconcile the story of Genesis with the omnipotent, benevolent, changeless, and eternal God of his Catholicism. He also explores the human faculty of memory and the nature of time, ultimately linking the two in the argument that time doesn't truly exist except as a function of human memory. While analyzing human temptation and sin, Augustine reinforces the idea that acceptance of Jesus Christ, who in Catholic faith is both God and Man, is the only way to redemption for the human race.

Augustine's main theological concerns are the nature of God, matter, and evil; the abstract ideas of memory and time; and the reconciliation of the Genesis creation story to the accepted Catholic doctrine. Throughout this book, Augustine praises God and reminds the reader that all things come from him.

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