Category Archives: Confessions of St Augustine

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 1-2

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” -Psalm 51:5

The Innocence of Infants

Augustine starts his biography with his time as a baby (he actually goes even earlier, wondering if he had an existence before he was even conceived). Though he doesn’t remember this directly, he is able to deduce what he must have been like from his observations of other babies. The inherent sinfulness of man is a repeated theme in the first two chapters, and Augustine finds sin even in babies. He describes the selfishness he observes in them, and concludes that babies aren’t innocent, so much as they are weak. They struggle hard to hurt those who care for them whenever they don’t get what they want, but lack the strength to inflict any damage.

Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast. … Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults, or even small faults, but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.

Education before virtue

Though Monica is now regarded as a saint, she was far from perfect. We get the impression that she only awakened slowly to the importance of raising her son up with a solid Christian foundation, and she of course had no help from her non-Christian husband:

My Father had no concern as to how I grew towards you, or how chaste I was, as long as I was skillful in speech, however fruitless I might have been your cultivation of my heart, which is your field, O God. Although my mother had no fled out of the “center of Babylon,” she still went more slowly in the skirts of it. She advised me to be chaste, but paid no heed to what her husband had told her about me, so as to restrain within the bounds of married love what she felt to be presently destructive and dangerous for the future. She did not heed this, for she feared that a wife might prove a clog an hindrance to my hopes -not the hopes of the world to come, which my mother had in you, but the hopes of education, which both my parents were too anxious for me to acquire- my father because he had little or no thought of you and only vain thoughts for me, and my mother because she thought that the usual courses of learning would not only be no drawback, but even of some help towards my attaining you. And my iniquity grew enormous.

Don’t we do the same thing when prioritize sending our kids through college over getting them married?

The Great Pear Heist

Pears
Augustine’s view of himself doesn’t improve as he ages. As he describes his early years, he focuses particularly on an incident where he and a group of his friends steal some pears.

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.

Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears. I stole those simply that I might steal, for, having stolen them, I threw them away. My sole gratification in them was my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy; for, if any one of these pears entered my mouth, the only good flavor it had was my sin in eating it.

The incident is notable to him because he can come up with no justification for the theft. He wasn’t hungry, and he had better pears at home. Apparently, the only reason he stole was to do something wrong. Each of us have also done the same thing (for example, any time you’ve intentionally annoyed somebody simply to get a reaction out of them). He uses this as a starting point to explore both the nature of sin, especially how it usually consists in (poorly) imitating some aspect of God, and his own sinful nature. The entire section is well worth reading.

Augustine notes other ways in which his sense of morality was deficient as well. He liked to cheat at games, but then get very indignant when he caught somebody else cheating. Since he was just as prone to cheat, he really had no basis to complain when the same was done to him. We are all prone to being far more forgiving of our own sins than those of others.

Assignment

Read through page 56, which is equivalent to about halfway through Book 4. He begins to stray. Look out for the following:

  • Augustine develops a love of the theater, something he now regrets. What do you think of his view of fiction?
  • Augustine investigates astrology, but finds it lacking.
  • Augustine’s mother, who has grown fearful for his salvation, has a vision.
  • Augustine’s best friend died young. How does this affect him?

Confessions of St Augustine – Introduction

Augustine“The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” -Benjamin Warfield, Calvin and Augustine

Welcome, brave readers! For the next two months, we’re going to plunge into one of the oldest and most significant Christian writings, written by and about one of the most significant Christians: The Confessions of St. Augustine. Read along at home, and then show up to the class where we’ll discuss it in depth (or read along at home and telecommute to class when I post my notes online).

Why Augustine?

The modern church is woefully ignorant of its history and roots. To most of us, Christian history consists of the following: Jesus came, died, and rose again. Then Acts happened. Then Catholicism messed things up and the Reformation happened. And then our church was formed.

It is necessary to study those who came before us, both to understand who we are, and to get grounding for our beliefs. Augustine is a good starting point for a number of reasons. He is the first major Christian thinker after Paul (in fact, he is probably also the most important Christian thinker after Paul). Also importantly, he predates the major controversies which still split the church today, so nearly every denomination from Protestants to Catholics are happy to claim him. If you find an idea in Augustine, it may well be wrong, but it’s probably not heretical.

Augustine’s influence stretches throughout history; some even credit him with laying thr groundwork for the Reformation. Martin Luther was himself an Augustinian monk, and both he and Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other theologian. In turn, during the Counter-Reformation, St Teresa of Avila was inspired by her reading of Augustine’s Confessions to become a Carmelite nun, an order which she then undertook to reform. The theology he laid out still shapes our thinking today, and we can all stand to gain from reading his insights first-hand.

What to expect

We will be using a modern English, abridged version, and reading through the equivalent of 2 chapters each week. If you’re bold, feel free to get the full version, but try to stick with a modern English translation; many of the ones out there are essentially King James versions and can be very difficult to trudge through. The text is also available online in many places (even in the original Latin). If reading isn’t your thing, you can listen to it instead.

The first 9 chapters (they are usually referred to as “books”) of the Confessions are Augustine’s autobiography. The last 3 delve into philosophical issues, such as the nature of time, memory, and the creation of the world. Each chapter begins with a prayer to God, which may seem a little unusual to our modern sensibilities. In fact, the whole book is really a prayer to God (hence the title; Augustine is confessing to God and we’re just listening in).

Background

Augustine lived from 354-430AD. He was born less than 50 years after Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious tolerance, ending the extremely vicious persecution that had been prosecuted against Christians before then. (For comparison, if you were born in the 1980s, about the same length of time separates you and the Holocaust). He was born in Africa, in what is now Algeria, back when it was still part of the Roman empire, and was of Berber descent. His mother was a Christian; his father was a non-observant pagan (although he converted shortly before his death). The family was middle class, with enough money to give Augustine a good education (he later went on to become a teacher).

Though he was ostensibly raised as a Christian, it didn’t take, and as a youth he left it for Manichaeism. Manichaeism, then about 150 years old, was one of the more influential of the Gnostic religions that were cropping up at the time. In answer to the problem of evil, it posited a dualistic world, with both a Good God and an Evil God. The Good God was identified with light and the spiritual realm; the physical world was the domain of the Evil God. Humans had a soul made by the Good God, but it was trapped inside the evil body that belonged to the Bad God.

Manichean followers were divided into two groups: the hearers and the elect. The elect had to follow a life of extreme asceticism: they were completely celibate, could eat no meat, or even kill plants for food. They were entirely dependent on the hearers to cook and provide for them. When taking a meal, the elect would ritualistically deny all responsibility for having killed the wheat to make it. This would then allow them to ascend to the spiritual realm upon their death, while the hearer who had made the meal would have to do penance in the form of being reincarnated as a vegetable themselves in their next life.

The rules for hearers were much less stringent, and it was this group that Augustine belonged to. Not only were they allowed to marry; Augustine himself lived with a woman without marrying her for over a decade, and even had a son with her, without raising any eyebrows. He stayed with the sect for 8 years, but eventually became disillusioned with their hypocrisy and false claims of knowledge. He converted to Christianity and eventually became a bishop, and played a pivotal role in the Pelagian Controversy, dealing with Donatism, and picking up the pieces from the sack of Rome.

Assignment

For next week, read up to page 30, which corresponds to the first 2 chapters, and covers Augustine’s childhood. Keep an eye out for the following:

  • Though he doesn’t remember his own time as a baby, Augustine uses his observations of other children to determine what he must have been like. Note Augustine’s view of a baby’s “innocence.” He takes a dim view of human nature even from birth, which is a significant part of Christian theology.
  • Augustine recounts a very famous incident where he stole pears from a neighbor’s tree. This was significant to him because he stole them not because he was hungry or they were especially good pears; he stole them solely because it was wrong to steal them. This also informs his views on the fallenness of human nature.

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