Teaching the Confessions, Books 1-8: Theme and Pattern
Augustine's very passionate and immensely personal account of his conversion has enthralled readers for centuries. Unfortunately, it is also the very passionate and personal nature of the writing that can stand as a barrier to comprehension, especially when the text is taught at the undergraduate level. Add to this the fact that the work has the character of one long, sustained prayer addressed to God, it contains many passages that are tediously introspective, it refers to a time and place that are foreign to today's undergraduates, and the task of helping students to understand and appreciate the work is, to say the least, daunting.
But the Confessions, like all great literary masterpieces, is ultimately accessible, although special effort may have to be made to make it so for the student. One method of approaching the text that has been very helpful for my students has been to explore the text in terms of theme and pattern. It is this method about which I will speak in this paper. I shall speak first of theme, and return later to pattern.
There is no doubt in Augustine's mind that his conversion can be traced directly to God's saving grace at work in his life. But concretely, what does that mean? How does grace manifest itself in our lives? It is when Augustine begins, in memory, to sort through the many significant people and events that filled his life that he provides us with an answer. Here a significant theme emerges, and one upon which I will focus primarily. The theme is Augustine's conviction that salvation is offered us through the people and events of our lives. In passage after passage, Augustine makes it very clear that God's grace was made available to him through people who influenced him, and through events that altered his life. One early announcement of this theme is found in book two, chapter three, in which Augustine ponders why God remains silent while humans-in this case, Monica-gives him an ear full. He writes,
This is but one of numerous examples that could be given. Although ultimately Augustine credits God's saving grace for his conversion, he also acknowledges that the instrumental sources of his conversion were multiple. Among them can be listed people, events, inner experiences, and even places.
Among events that receive special mention are: the reading of "Hortensius," the death of his best friend in Thagaste, his encounter with a drunk on the streets of Milan, and the unexpected visit of Ponticianus. Each of these had a profound and lasting influence on Augustine. Each played a special role in the conversion process. For example, after reading "Hortensius," Augustine acquired a life-long thirst for Wisdom, and all that was not Wisdom left him ever after dissatisfied. As Augustine remarks, "This book changed my affections. It turned my prayers to you, Lord, and caused me to have different purposes and desires" (81).
The death of his best friend deserves special mention primarily because it was the first of several very special events: this was one of those events that led Augustine to change his city of residence. Overcome with sorrow, Augustine roamed Thagaste, but those familiar places reminded him of his deceased friend. He writes, "Less often would my eyes seek him where they were not used to seeing him, and from Thagaste I came to Carthage" (101). It was unruly students in Carthage, along with rumors of better-behaved students in Rome, that prompted Augustine to sail for Rome. Of this he says, "But you...to the end that I would change my residence on earth for the sake of my soul's salvation, put goads to me at Carthage by which I would be turned away from there, and at Rome you set allurements before me by which I would be drawn thither" (123). And of course, while at Rome Augustine competed successfully for an official position in Milan.
When I say that certain inner experiences also served as sources of Augustine's conversion, I am referring to certain states of mind or certain feelings that preyed upon him. These were by and large experiences that in turn created a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction in Augustine, and thus served as irritants that he sought to remove. Among such inner experiences, Augustine speaks at length of the sense of emptiness or sorrow he felt at various times in his life. "You fashion sorrow into a lesson to us," he writes in book two (66). Very often this feeling would prevail at times when he was experiencing professional triumphs, or after having given in to particularly selfish pursuits.
Another inner experience, Augustine's dissatisfaction with falsehood, served to propel him toward the truth. As committed as he was to the study of Manicheism, and as many years as he devoted to its teachings, ultimately he could not assent to its doctrines because he could not convince himself of their veracity. He recounts similar experiences with astrology and skepticism. Although he dabbled in each, he ultimately abandoned belief in both for the same reason.
Finally, two other inner experiences that served instrumentally in the conversion process were his sense of being chained rather than liberated by lust, and the unhappy situation of being torn in two by conflicting wills. Each of these experiences, creating as it did conflicts that raged fiercely in Augustine's heart, provided unique contributions to the conversion process. Each helped Augustine in very specific ways, and he did not hesitate to acknowledge them for what they were: means of grace.
On the whole, these inner experiences serve to highlight what may be called not only a theme, but possibly the thesis of the Confessions, that God has made us for Himself, and our hearts will be forever restless until they rest in Him (43). Augustine certainly intends his readers to see in his own life proof of that assertion.
To discuss the people who were instrumental in Augustine's conversion, requires that we turn our attention to a pattern that appears throughout the biographical books of the Confessions. Time and again throughout the Confessions Augustine refers to obstacle upon obstacle that stood in his way and prevented him from accepting the teachings of Christianity. But time after time some individual would come along to help ease him over the obstacle. This happens so frequently throughout the biographical books that this portion of the Confessions can be read with this pattern in mind: consider individually the obstacles that stood in his way, and then identify the individual or individuals who helped Augustine surmount that obstacle.
What were the obstacles to conversion? We can conveniently group them into intellectual and moral obstacles. The intellectual obstacles can be grouped under two sub-headings: 1) Augustine's ignorance of truth, and 2) Augustine's attachment to falsehood. And among the moral failings to which Augustine gives emphasis are pride and lust. Augustine details three types of pride, a pride reflected by his worldly ambition, an intellectual pride, and a spiritual pride. Lust however, is simply lust.
First, the intellectual obstacles. Augustine makes it very clear that he was laboring under a two-fold intellectual burden prior to his conversion, the first was the fact that he did not have a true idea concerning some very important Christian teachings, and secondly, that he was attached to various false beliefs as well. The primary Christian teachings about which Augustine was in ignorance were two: the nature of God, and the nature of evil. The false beliefs to which Augustine was committed were Manicheism, astrology, and for a very brief time skepticism. I will consider first Augustine's commitment to the various falsehoods, and the individuals whom he credits with helping him detach himself from them.
Augustine, though at best only a "hearer" in the Manichean sect rather than one of the elect, had connections with the sect for more than a decade. There were several people whom he credits with helping him break with Manicheism. He relates that his companion, Nebridius, devised some very good counter arguments to certain Manichean teachings. But there is no doubt-and this falls under the category of "God works in mysterious ways"-there is no doubt that the one person most responsible for Augustine's break with Manicheism was that sect's most famous spokesperson, the bishop Faustus.
For years, Augustine had had doubts and questions concerning many of the Manichean teachings, and for years he had been told to wait for the arrival of Faustus, the Manichean's most renowned apologist. When Augustine finally met Faustus and had the opportunity to converse with him, he realized that Faustus' renown was based more upon a certain native eloquence than brilliance. But at least, when Faustus did not know the answers to Augustine's questions, he was humble enough to admit it, and Augustine admired him for that. But as he says, after meeting Faustus, his desire to become a Manichean collapsed completely, and his attachment to that falsehood was broken.
Augustine traced his break with astrology to the influence of two acquaintances. The first of these was a man by the name of Vindicianus. At the time that Augustine met him,
Vindicianus was an older man, a physician. Vindicianus told Augustine that, as a young man, he had intended to become an astrologer and earn his living at it. But the more he studied astrology, the more convinced he became of its falsehood. He decided to become a physician instead. He shared his experience with Augustine, and as a friendly piece of advice, warned Augustine away from astrology as a waste of Augustine's time.
But at that time in his life, Augustine was not ready to give up on astrology. It must have been several years after his meeting with Vindicianus that another acquaintance, Firminus, related to Augustine another personal story about astrology that finally helped Augustine break free of that falsehood. It seemed that Firminus' father believed very strongly in the truth of astrology, and kept very accurate records of the time of individuals' births. It just so happened that Firminus and the child of a slave owned by a friend of Firminus' father, were born at exactly the same moment, and thus had identical horoscopes and should have had identical lives. And yet one had the life of the son of a prosperous Roman citizen, the other lived the life of a Roman slave. So much for the truth of astrology. As Augustine writes, "After I had listened to and believed this story, for such a man related it, all that reluctance of mine [to abandon astrology] was dissolved and gave way" (165).
It is probably a stretch to speak of Augustine's attachment to skepticism, but he does mention that, for a time, after he had given up on Manicheism and before he was able to give his assent to Christianity, skepticism became an attractive option. Augustine did not require anyone's intervention to persuade him against skepticism, however. His own native intelligence provided him arguments enough to reject it.
So it was that in the course of time and with the help of others, Augustine was able to free himself from attachment to falsehood. He was, however, still struggling with several false ideas concerning God and evil. Augustine had a very difficult time moving beyond the Manichean conception of reality in which two opposing forces, good and evil were contending for the souls of the just. For many years the only way that Augustine could conceive of evil was as some sort of active force, a substance in its own right. It was not until he read the Platonists that he came to understand evil in terms of privation. This appeared to be a true revelation for Augustine. He came to realize that the idea of a completely evil substance was self-contradictory, because to the extent that anything is, it is good. Ultimately he was able to say, "Hence I saw and it was made manifest to me that you have made all things good, and that there are no substances whatsoever that you have not made" (172).
Another obstacle to which Augustine refers frequently throughout the Confessions is his conception of God. He admits that Scriptural passages to the effect that humans have been created in the image and likeness of God led him to wonder whether God had hair and nails. The difficulty that Augustine had in understanding the Christian concept of God had largely to do with his admitted inability to conceive of any substance as anything but material. "I wished to meditate upon my God, but I did not know how to think of him except as a vast corporeal mass, for I thought that anything not a body was nothing whatsoever" (127). So even when Augustine moved away from an anthropomorphic conception of God, he could not abandon the idea that God was material. Thus it is that he refers to God in one place as an immense shining body and each human as a particle of that body (112). And elsewhere in the Confessions, when trying to conceptualize how God could permeate His creation, he refers to God as an immense sea and all creation as a sponge floating in that sea (162).
Beyond a doubt, it was the preaching of Ambrose that led Augustine into the light with respect to this difficulty. Augustine, the professional orator, was long familiar with the reputation of Ambrose. Once he moved to Milan, he used to go to church simply to listen to the manner in which Ambrose used language. "Although I was not anxious to learn what he said, but merely to hear how he said it . . .yet at the same time with the words, which I loved, there also entered into my mind the things themselves . . ." (131). It is not until the beginning of book 8, after Augustine had for some time been listening to Ambrose, that he admits ". . .all my doubts concerning incorruptible substance, and that every other substance comes from it, had been removed from me" (181). Thus, once again through the agency of one of Augustine's acquaintances he was delivered from an obstacle to conversion.
We receive many clues within the text that, apart from the prayers, tears and persistence of Monica, the other person who was most influential in Augustine's conversion was Ambrose. Even in Book 1, chapter 1 Augustine speaks of "that faith which you have given to me...through the ministry of your preacher" (43). Most commentators see that as a clear reference to Ambrose. And in the line in which Augustine speaks of his move to Milan, he mentions Ambrose. "I came to Milan, and to Ambrose, its bishop..." (130). He follows that with one his of beautifully balanced sentences: "All unknowing, I was led to him by you, so that through him I might be led, while fully knowing it, to you" (130).
On the moral front, Augustine admits that his pride was a terrible stumbling block to conversion. When Augustine was in his early twenties, Monica had gone to a local bishop with the request that the bishop speak with her son. The bishop refused, citing for his reason Augustine's "lack of docility." Another example that Augustine uses to convey a similar idea involves his early encounter with the Christian scriptures. After having read Cicero's "Hortensius," Augustine turned to the Christian scriptures to sample what of wisdom might be found within. But, he says, "none such as I was at that time could enter into it, nor could I bend my neck for its passageways...My swelling pride turned away from its humble style..." (82).
There were two individuals who were largely responsible for helping Augustine over this obstacle, the one, Victorinus, by his example, the other, Simplicianus, through sharing with Augustine his reminiscences concerning Victorinus. Augustine wished to talk with some representative of the Christian community about his difficulties, but realizing that Ambrose was extremely busy, he turned to the older priest, Simplicianus.
In the course of their conversation, Simplicianus recounted his friendship with Victorinus, an orator and teacher so famous that a statue of him was erected in the Roman forum. Simplicianus recounted the story of Victorinus' conversion, a story of a proud orator who humbled himself before a Christian congregation and proclaimed his faith after his baptism. The effect of the story on Augustine takes on the form of an a fortiori argument. If Victorinus, who was a much more famous orator and teacher than Augustine, could humble himself and become a Christian, all the more should Augustine be able to do it. As Augustine relates, "When Simplicianus, your servant, related to me all this concerning Victorinus, I was on fire to imitate him, and it was for this reason that he had told it to me" (188).
But before Augustine could become a Christian, he would have to overcome an obstacle from the realm of personal relationships. Monica wished Augustine to marry, but his relationship with the female companion of his early adulthood, and the mother of his child, Adeodatus, stood in the way of marriage. Augustine never explains why he could not have simply married his live-in companion. Perhaps she did not wish it. Nonetheless, it was primarily through the efforts of Monica that Augustine was directed toward marriage. As he relates, "Steady pressure was put on me to get married...This was principally through my mother's activity" (152).
At this point in Augustine's life, he was well on the way to becoming a Christian. All of the obstacles, intellectual and moral, real or fabricated, had been overcome. All, that is, but one, and by Augustine's own admission, the last was the most difficult. There was now nothing standing in Augustine's way except Augustine himself. He had by this time given his intellectual assent to Christian teaching. There remained nothing in his way but one cherished but hated habit, the habit of lust. "All arguments were used up, and all had been refuted. There remained only speechless dread and my soul was fearful, as if of death itself, of being kept back from that flow of habit by which it was wasting away unto death" (194).
The fact that there was now nothing standing in the way of Augustine's conversion except Augustine himself prompts him to reflect upon human willing. Augustine describes himself as being bound, "not by another's irons, but by my own iron will...For in truth lust is made out of a perverse will, and when lust is served, it becomes habit, and when habit is not resisted, it becomes necessity" (188). To break the habit of lust, Augustine first needed to will to do so. True, in the past he had prayed for chastity, but always and only conditionally, "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet" (194). What he wanted now was unlike other actions that must first be willed and then undertaken. This was different. To will would be to accomplish the act. To begin to live chastely Augustine had merely to will it. As he writes, "In such an act the power to act and the will itself are the same, and the very act of willing is actually to do the deed. Yet it was not done..." (196).
As with almost all the other obstacles that Augustine needed to overcome on the way to becoming a Christian, he received the needed assist from an acquaintance. In this case it was not a close acquaintance at all. It was a chance visit by a fellow countryman, Ponticianus, that provided the last push that Augustine required to break the chains of lust. That Augustine specifically credits this incident with his subsequent actions can be gathered from his comment at the beginning of Book 8, chapter 6. "I will now recount and confess to your name, 'O Lord, my helper and my redeemer,' how you delivered me from the fetters of desire for concubinage, by which I was held most tightly..." (190).
Ponticianus had come to see Augustine and Alypius about some other matter, but when Ponticianus discovered that Augustine had been reading an epistle of Paul's, he turned the conversation to matters of faith. He related two stories, one, the story of the hermit St. Anthony, about whom Augustine knew nothing, and the other, a personal recollection. Ponticianus, a high government official, went walking one afternoon with three other officials while the emperor was attending the games. The four broke up into pairs. One pair visited the home of some Christians where they had the opportunity to read the life of Anthony. They were both so moved by what they read that on the spot they decided to abandon all worldly ambition, and to live only for Christ.
It was the recitation of these events that profoundly affected Augustine. Those two officials had accomplished in a heartbeat what Augustine had been unable to do over the course of many years. And they had effected the change in their lives by simply willing it. As mentioned earlier, Augustine was now at the point in the conversion process at which he knew that that was all that remained for him to do as well. But until then, he had been unable to do it. It was immediately after Ponticianus departed (did he ever learn of his role in Augustine's conversion?), that Augustine rushed out into the garden and underwent his touching and memorable conversion experience.
What I have explored here is one way of making sense out of the first eight books of the Confessions. The pattern I have used in the exploration of the text is that of the obstacles to Augustine's conversion, and the individuals who at every stage helped him to overcome those obstacles. I have further suggested that one theme that comes readily to the fore when the first eight books of the Confessions are analyzed in this way is Augustine's belief that God's work is accomplished in our lives through the agency of others. This approach is used with a primarily undergraduate audience in mind, thus many of Augustine's more subtle psychological and theological teachings from these books are not given emphasis. However, this approach does provide students with a way into the text that is intelligible and manageable. It can only be hoped that in subsequent readings, our students will be able to appreciate some of the other riches that await them therein.
Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. John K. Ryan. Garden City: Image-Doubleday, 1960.