After a lifetime spent engaged in a philosophical search, Augustine finally began to read Neoplatonic texts. He was getting closer and closer to conversion, and his discovery of Neoplatonic literature came at an opportune time. Essentially, through several different philosophical and theological points, Neoplatonism made it much easier for Augustine to accept Christianity on an intellectual level and open his heart to the faith.
Augustine recounts the beliefs he held at this time in his life (which he describes as his "evil and wicked youth"). The fact that Christians believed that God was not changeable, was the source of all things, was wholly benevolent, and had power over everything, caused Augustine great intellectual difficulty. Central to this problem was theodicy: how could Augustine believe in an omnipotent and benevolent God who could allow evil in the world? This was coupled with the continuing idea of "spiritual substance." Trained in philosophical and skeptical inquiry, Augustine would be expected to have a problem with the idea of a substance that was not material, but did exist in space. This notion of God is common to religions of all kinds today, but it was new - and particularly problematic - to thinkers of Augustine's day. The difficulty of defending this idea through purely skeptical philosophical rigor put Augustine in an intellectual quandary. He continued to picture God as various immaterial things - sunlight, breath - but admits now that he should not have been trying to picture God at all. He notes ironically that if he had considered the nature of thinking and the reality (but immateriality) of thoughts, he would have been able to solve this problem earlier.
After reading some of the Neoplatonist literature, Augustine had his first real vision of God. "I entered and with my soul's eye, such as it was, saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind - not the light of every day, obvious to anyone, nor a larger version of the same kind which would, as it were, have given out a much brighter light and filled everything with its magnitude." At this time Augustine met an astrologer named Firminus. Their discussions about astrology, and especially about the inaccuracy of identical horoscopes drawn for two children, a rich child and a slave, who were born in the same town at the same exact moment, made Augustine resolve to disregard astrology as a hoax.
The Neoplatonist literature of the time opened Augustine's mind to the possibilities of Christianity. He is careful to note, in deference to his strict Christian readers, that the inadequacy of Neoplatonist writings lies in the fact that they did not proclaim Christ the man as God (the Word made flesh). However, his praise for the Neoplatonic philosophy inspires him to write that it was almost like reading another book of Genesis. The Manichaean religion is thrown into a dubious light in comparison to the rigor and simplicity of Neoplatonism. The fact that Neoplatonists say that God is the cause of all things was particularly attractive to Augustine. Though the Neoplatonists were largely pagan, they still provided him with the best philosophical system he had ever encountered.
This discovery led Augustine to return to the Neoplatonist idea of evil: essentially, evil does not have existence in its own right. It is merely the lowest rung on the ladder of existence, with God at the very top. Each part of God's creation has good in it, but the lower each part is on the chain of being the more likely it is to be evil. Augustine, at this point, regarded human evil not as a substance (as the Manichees would) but rather as a denial of the true existence of God. Human beings were given free will to turn towards or away from God, and evil is simply the perversity of human beings turning away from God.
This vision of God, however, did not last: Augustine was too weighed down by his sins, and especially by his sexual drive, to fully accept the faith at this time. He says that Jesus Christ had not entered his heart, but declares that such an event would have provided him with the link between humanity and God. He did not yet have enough humility to accept the faith, and had not yet accepted the divinity of Christ. He struggled with the Catholic faith in Jesus as both fully divine and fully human.
Near the end of Book VII Augustine "seizes upon" the writings of Scripture and spends time discussing the apostle Paul. Paul was held in high regard by the Neoplatonists, and it is possible that those writings led Augustine back to the Bible. In Paul, Augustine found not only rigorous philosophical discussions about the nature of God, Christ, and faith, but also the humility and confession of the "Word made flesh" that he had found lacking in the Neoplatonists. Augustine ends the book by saying that the apostle's writings had a "visceral" effect on him.
We now enter the part of the book that focuses on theology rather than autobiographical information. While Confessions as a whole can not be accurately termed a straight autobiography, it offers at least an incomplete account of Augustine's story of his life up until this point, with examples of his errors given for the benefit of his readers. In the subsequent books, the nature and defense of the faith becomes more important to Augustine than the story of his own life.
Augustine's vision (or dream) presents several difficulties for the reader. Why didn't it last? Why didn't Augustine come to the faith after such a vision? Even the actual content of the vision is unclear: Augustine says that it was beyond human sight. It appears that this was more of an intellectual revelation than an ecstatic vision. He also feels a separation from God as a result of this vision, rather than an inclusion. He quotes the Psalms ("You are my Lord because you have no need of my goodness") and talks about abiding in the "region of dissimilarity."
How close was Augustine to conversion at this point? He had lost his companion of many years, and was at a crossroads both personally and professionally. He was engaged to be married, and of an age and position to launch a political career. He would have to decide if he was going to follow the Christian life or throw himself fully into the ambition and pursuits of the material world.
Monica and Bishop Ambrose's influence on him is similarly unclear. We know that Augustine admired Monica's pious way of life, and that Ambrose appealed to him not only as a religious figure but also as an orator and a thinker. The elements of Augustine's conversion were coming to a head.
At this juncture, Augustine's reading of Neoplatonic literature could have pushed him away from the Church rather than towards it. The Neoplatonists' attractive and, as Augustine calls it, "authoritative" philosophy convinced him to shake off the last vestiges of his Manichean faith. The exposure of horoscopes as fradulent serves not only as a lesson for the readers, but also as a mild ridicule of any religion that would put faith in such a charlatanic practice.
The apostle Paul was a very persuasive writer for Augustine, and it was his works that brought Augustine even closer to conversion. The buildup to the ecstatic moment has been carefully constructed, and the slow chipping away of Augustine's worldly ambitions and erroneous beliefs surrounds the event with a kind of suspense. The story of Augustine's repeated errors and missteps are built up as a sort of prayer to God, whom he thanks not only for his own conversion, but also for the conversion of his readers.