Augustine uses the example of his early life in Book I (continued in the subsequent Books) as a template for chronicling his spiritual development. There are certain autobiographical details that are related, but this is by no means a conventional telling of the story of Augustine's life. Rather, the growth of the boy into the man, the convert, the priest, and ultimately the bishop is a metaphor for spiritual error and redemption rather than a traditional biography.
Augustine begins Book I by praising the Lord and referring continually to Biblical passages of praise, especially the Psalms. He asks to "know and understand" the nature of God, and how to pray and call upon him. Augustine is particularly interested in how God exists within the universe, and whether God is contained by the universe or if the universe contains God. Augustine then relates his earliest actions as an infant, such as nursing and learning to smile. He explains that he learned these facts from "weak women" - his mother and his nurses. He explains the first actions and movements of a helpless infant as the first stirrings of his soul toward God. He was ignorant and unable to control his desires or emotions, and he likens this state to the soul without God. He marvels that "his infancy is long dead" but he is still alive, and he contrasts his own temporality with the endlessness and everlasting nature of God.
Augustine continues his story, explaining that he went from infancy to boyhood, and learned to talk. He marvels that he learned such a skill not necessarily by being taught, but rather from the intelligence given to him by God. He says he experienced miseries in this time, and was admonished to learn to use his power of speech to succeed in the world and gain honors and riches. He tells of the horrors of learning to read and write in school, and how he was beaten. He learned, too, how to pray to God, and he prayed not to be beaten at school.
Augustine's early religious instruction included the idea that God had granted eternal life through the sacrifice of Jesus. When Augustine became very ill with a "pressure on his chest" he begged to be baptized so that he would have this eternal life after death. His mother Monica was very distraught and hastily made arrangements, but Augustine recovered. Augustine's father was the last remaining member of the household who was still not converted to Christianity, but Patrick did not prevent anyone in his house or family from practicing their faith. Augustine recognized early on that in this his mother was his father's "moral superior," and took moral instruction from her. However, Augustine notes that his mother still was obedient to his father, as both Augustine and Monica considered this an important instruction of God.
As a boy Augustine had "no love for reading books." He rebelled against the useless knowledge he was being taught, and also against their purported goal: to gain earthly wealth and glory. Augustine loved Latin, but disliked learning Greek. He mocked the instruction in epic poetry (he names the Aeneid), in that the moral component was depraved, and the weeping over fictional Dido's death was a kind of false emotion. Augustine criticizes the method of instructing boys, calling it vanity and falsehood, but he also acknowledges the useful things he learned in his boyhood. He particularly abhors the instruction in the Roman pantheon of pagan gods, such as Jupiter "both thunderer and adulterer," saying that the learning of such literature encourages sin. He recounts how well he could learn certain parts of the Aeneid, and says that this fruitless learning made the adults around him consider him a boy of high promise. He was more afraid of being beaten for making a mistake than he was desirous of the praise he received for doing well. In this environment he grew more afraid of committing a vulgarity of speech than he was of avoiding the sin of envy of one who did not commit the vulgarity.
Augustine became frivolous and a liar. He was inordinately desirous of winning boyish games, and became known for cheating. He bemoans that this was not boyish innocence, and that the cheating and ugliness of boyhood is only succeeded by the larger but similar ugliness of adulthood. He ends in thanks, however, for his good memory, his desire for truth, and his instinct for self-preservation. He admits that he grew skilled with words, gained friends, and abhorred ignorance. He says all of these things are gifts of God. If there is any good in him, it is a reflection of God.
Some of Augustine's ideas in this book seem very strict and narrow-minded by today's standards. His criticism of very small children and even infants for their jealousy, selfishness, and lack of compassion is psychologically unsound based on modern knowledge. The fact that he considers an infant's actions somewhat reprehensible serve merely to show that he would prefer the instruction of children to begin at birth. He sees the inherent sinfulness of children, such as in jealousy of an older sibling toward a nursing infant, as evidence of the original sin, and he seeks instruction from these early actions.
Augustine's recounting of his school years give us an idea of how boys (for girls were not generally educated in schools) were instructed in the Roman Empire of the 4th century. Greek was taught, and the epics of Homer were considered absolutely essential as educational tools. A great deal of time was spent on articulation and speech, and in this book and later ones we can see Augustine's attention to what he said and how he said it. The classical education of that time was divided into three parts: reading, writing, and arithmetic; grammar; and rhetoric. Thus, the highest kind of education was that of the correct use of speech and (to a slightly lesser degree) of writing. This was the kind of education that was considered desirable to prepare a young man for public life in law or business, or - if he was lucky or rich - politics.
Augustine's family spoke Latin with a North African accent and certain regional colloquialisms, all of which were considered vulgar. This colonial society looked to Rome as the center of cultivation, power, wealth, and refinement. This kind of group inferiority complex can lead to extremes in education, as is evidenced by the beatings Augustine received. This was a violent society in general, however, and beatings in school and in homes were common.
To understand Augustine's description of how he was almost baptized as a young child, it is important to know that baptism was not practiced then as it is today in most Christian denominations. Baptism was considered rather like the process of confession and absolution in the modern Roman Catholic Church. Baptism washed away sins; any sins committed after baptism were not washed away. This led many people to delay baptism almost until death. These beliefs about baptism and absolution changed somewhat during Augustine's lifetime. Just because Augustine was not baptized as a child does not mean that he or his mother didn't consider Augustine a Christian. In fact, Augustine learned Christianity from his mother and was quite a devout child. It was not until his adolescence and youth that he strayed from the Church.
Augustine's dense usage of Biblical quotations, particularly in the beginning and ending of this book, show not only his immense erudition but also his profound understanding of Biblical texts. In some cases, we may find that the meaning he construes from some texts are a bit stretched (for example, his quotation from Jeremiah "I fill heaven and earth" leads to a long ontological discussion of the nature of God and his physical dimensions), but it must be remembered that Augustine was considering these ideas and texts in the context of his Neoplatonic background. Augustine read and believed in the writings of Plotinus, a 3rd-century philosopher. He stops short of being a complete believer in Neoplatonism, for he did not find specific information about the incarnation of the Lord, penitential confession, or Eucharistic thanksgiving in its teachings, but there is no doubt that much of Augustine's thought is derived from Neoplatonism. In that respect, some Biblical quotations may seem obscure, except when compared with the treatment of those same quotations in Neoplatonic texts.
In all things, Augustine thanks God, and takes the hard lessons of his boyhood as an opportunity for instruction. His candid admission of some of his serious faults as a child make him less puritanical than he may seem on the surface. His moral code is strict, to be sure, but his severity does not come from plain fear of sin; for much of his life, he embraced sin. Instead it comes from his sincere desire to live a spiritual life, and his desire to get to "first principles" and live a wholly honest, pure life in adherence to what he believes is the truth. It is not a puritanical moral code based on fear and the desire for control, but rather a kind of moral and intellectual asceticism by which he seeks only to follow the truth in the most honest and direct way.