Confessions Themes

Literary Education vs. Moral Education

Throughout Confessions, Augustine attacks both the method and the content of education in his day. He thinks that the instruction in epic poetry, especially when heroes or the gods are portrayed as committing sins, actually incites young boys to commit more sins. He takes particular issue with the importance placed on style over substance. Because he could declaim a long passage of Virgil and be affected by the drama of the story, he was considered a promising boy. He counters that he was only parroting what he had been taught, and experiencing a false emotion in response to a fictional and sinful story. On numerous occasions, he points out that the skill or knowledge gained by this type of education was overbalanced by a subsequent lesson in vice. In Confessions, Augustine positions himself as a proponent for early and thorough moral and religious education, and is decidedly opposed to the literary education of his day.

Biblical Quotations

Augustine quotes the Bible directly or references it indirectly on almost every page of Confessions. He treats the Bible as a text that can be used to guide every aspect of human life. He treats it not only as a literary work to be understood intellectually or as the Word of God to be understood spiritually, but also as a kind of sign or code for deeper, hidden truths. He explains in Book I that if a Biblical passage is obscure, seemingly contradictory, or repetitive, there is a reason for it. He encourages the reader to examine these passages more closely, for they have a profound meaning that their obscurity invites us to consider.

Supremacy and Completeness of God

In Confessions, Augustine frequently refers to the completeness of God, and expresses the belief that anything outside of God is "lesser" - and perhaps even evil. The philosophical problem here is that according to Augustine God is everything and fills the universe (see Book I) - so how can things outside of God even exist? Augustine acknowledges this paradox, but seems to accept it as part of his faith. He often ends his moral lessons by stating that God is the Supreme good and contrasting his sinful or erroneous behavior and desires with the desire for God.

Errors of the Manichaean religion

In the early books, Augustine refutes the main tenets of the Manichaean religion, of which he was a follower for some years. The nature of God was a main point of dispute between Manichaeism and Christianity. Throughout the text, Augustine persuasively shows the error in the Manichean thinking that holds that God is not omnipotent. Also, Augustine takes issue with many of the practices of the Manichaean religion, especially astrology.


Augustine read Plotinus, the primary Neoplatonist philosopher, and adhered to most of the main precepts of Neoplatonism. The ommnipotence of God, the evaluation of evil as simply the absence of God, and the belief in striving for wholly spiritual things are all Neoplatonist ideas. Augustine often interprets Biblical passages in a Neoplatonic way.

The Nature and Substance of God

In Confessions, Augustine struggles with the nature and what he calls the "image" of God up until his conversion. The Catholic conception of the limitlessness, omnipotence, and complete benevolence of God was a somewhat novel approach to the Supreme Being at this point in history. The majority of religions and philosophies either demoted God to a pantheon of deities of varying degrees of power (paganism), one of a pair of forever-battling dualities (Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism), or some kind of animistic spirit imbuing everything (certain Gnostic sects). The singularity and supremacy of the Christian God appealed to him, but his philosophical training made him struggle with the idea. The story of Augustine's slow acceptance of the complete supremacy of God is in essence the story of his conversion.

The Story of Creation

The second half of Confessions (and especially Books XI and XII) is largely concerned with explaining the story of Genesis. Augustine finds it necessary to understand every word of the creation story and make it fit with his idea of an unchangeable, atemporal, omnipotent God. This is done through an intricate figurative reading of the Genesis text and a free interpretation of those ideas within a Neoplatonist framework.