Confessions Summary and Analysis of Book V -- Rome and Milan


Augustine begins Book V by praising God and explaining the importance of owning up to the completeness and universality of the one true Christian God. He does this through a series of complicated scriptural references, and he asserts that the "unjust" will have no escape from God.

At 28, Augustine was living in Carthage teaching rhetoric. The "most learned" Bishop of the Manichaean religion, a man named Faustus, came to Carthage, and Augustine spoke to him. Faustus, whom Augustine calls "a great snare of the devil," was not able to complete Augustine's conversion to Manichaeism because Augustine found fault with the Bishop's logic and overall conception of religion. Augustine was gradually becoming aware that he was more educated and had a more critical mind than those around him. He "retained in his mind" the teachings of some philosophers, and Faustus' beliefs could not stand up to Augustine's logical attacks. He reflects that the astrological teachings of the Manichees, even when they accurately predicted heavenly events like eclipses, did not help him develop faith in God. He sought a truer and more spiritual path than the one Faustus taught.

Through information provided to him by his friends, Augustine learned that he could make more money teaching rhetoric in Rome than he could in Carthage. In despair over the Manichaean religion's inability to grab hold of his spiritual imagination, decided to flee to Rome. He lied to his mother about his departure in order to avoid an emotional scene. Even so, she lamented his leaving, and in hindsight Augustine regrets having told a falsehood to this "handmaid of the Lord."

Upon arriving in Rome, Augustine fell very ill with a fever. Though Monica did not know of Augustine's illness, she was praying for him back in Africa. Augustine credits Monica's prayers with his recovery. In Rome, Augustine spent some time listening to the teachings of the Academics, a school of Skeptic philosophers whose philosophical rigor led them to question the validity and internal logic of every religion and philosophical system of their day. While still nominally a Manichee, Augustine admired the Academics' strict methods of logical and critical analysis, and applied their teachings to his later writings.

While law and custom permitted the students in Carthage to run wild and commit various acts of vandalism - a lack of studious intent which annoyed Augustine to no end - Augustine was shocked to find an even more grievous practice of cheating teachers out of their fees in Rome. This upset Augustine greatly and he planned to take a professorship in Milan, which was then the seat of the Imperial Court. Though still a member of the Manichaean faith, he was questioning its validity more than ever before.

In Milan, Augustine had cause to listen to the great Catholic Bishop Ambrose, head of the Milan Church at the time. Ambrose gave sermons which Augustine found impressive from a literary and oratorical point of view. Furthermore, they introduced Augustine to the possibilities of an allegorical interpretation of the Bible. This, Augustine later learned, opens up many possibilities for the reconciling of Scripture with moral and doctrinal points. Augustine began to address some of his own issues with the Catholic faith - namely his vision of the material God and his Manichaean belief in the physicality of evil. Ambrose did not aggressively try to convert Augustine, but merely impressed him with his erudition and faith.

Monica joined Augustine in Milan and lived a simple and admirable life as a Christian widow. Patrick had died, and we learn that he converted to Christianity towards the end of his life. Through the influence of Bishop Ambrose and Monica, Augustine, though still uncertain about his faith, decided to become a catechumen.


The stranger aspects of the Manichaean faith - the assertion that evil is a physical being, and the ideas concerning astrology - began to chafe on Augustine's critical mind. He could not reconcile the faith with the principles of logic and critical inquiry - nor, however, could he do the same with most of the precepts of Christianity. For Augustine, an educated young man and someone, we might imagine, who had a rather high opinion of his own mental powers, a philosophically intact religion was important. It is interesting to note the progression in Augustine's conversion: he transitioned from an emotional searching during adolescence to an intellectual quest during young adulthood, and finally to a spiritual revelation that manifested as conversion.

The personal charisma of Ambrose played no small part in the eventual conversion of Augustine. Ambrose was, by all accounts, a particularly well-spoken, educated, and respected Bishop. In fact, his personal characteristics were a large part of the reason he was chosen as Bishop of Milan, which was at this time the location of the emperor's court. Though Augustine never explicitly says so in the text, it appears that Ambrose provided a welcome counterpoint to Monica as a model for Christianity.

In many ways Ambrose was the opposite of Monica, though they shared an unshakeable Catholic faith. Ambrose was highly educated; Monica, like most women of her time and class, was not. Ambrose was given a great deal of power in this male-dominated culture; Monica, as a woman, was viewed as a second-class citizen. Ambrose was very calm and gave unemotional, erudite sermons; Monica's emotional faith and attachment to her son gave Augustine cause to censure her. Ambrose was of the Roman world; Monica was a North African. Ambrose provided a model to Augustine of what an educated Christian man in the Latin culture of the late Roman Empire could be - and Augustine liked what he saw. He may have asserted that faith in God without scientific or philosophical proof is enough for some (a notion that he first raises in Book IV), but Augustine was never going to have the simple faith of the uneducated. Catholicism had to appeal to him intellectually, and Ambrose stood as proof that such a thing was possible.

At this time, an anti-intellectual movement was spreading throughout some Catholic communities. Proponents of this movement expressed their distrust of erudite language or polished oratory. Some Christians said that God's truth couldn't be couched in the language of rhetors and orators. Augustine, a product and teacher of these arts, defended them, saying that education and oratory skill neither increased nor decreased the power of the true religion. Here, Augustine attempts to balance the philosophical and academic achievements of the pagans with the Christian faith, holding that Christians can benefit from the works of the pagans while maintaining the sanctity of their faith. This will be a recurring theme in his writings.

This chapter marks the beginning of the breakdown of Augustine's Manichaean faith. The radical skepticism of the Academics dealt it a serious blow, but the end was hastened by Bishop Ambrose's figurative interpretation of the Bible. Finally, Augustine had a chance to use his education in the pursuit of faith. The figurative, rather than literal, interpretations of Biblical texts found in the last books of Confessions provided Augustine with a way to reconcile his grave misgivings with the Old Testament stories - and particularly with Genesis. In the earlier books, Augustine struggles with his vision of God; a problem left over from the Manichaean faith of his youth, which asserted that good and evil were physical entities, and God an entirely spiritual being. Augustine is preparing the reader for his dramatic conversion and the equally dramatic "proof" he will offer of the spiritual existence of God.