Augustine of Hippo was one of Christianity’s earliest thinkers, and one of the greatest too. Born in North Africa, in what is modern day Algeria, his life was at the crossroads of Rome’s decline and Christianity’s rise.
The fall of the Empire and the rise of Christianity serves as an important backdrop to Augustine’s life. Polytheism is dying, making way for widespread monotheism. And the concept of a powerful (Western) Roman Empire is collapsing, paving the way for Augustine to theorize about the perfect society which would be expanded upon in The City of God.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine are such a profound work because he delves so deeply into his psyche and past experiences. He not only writhes over his past transgressions, but begs for forgiveness from the Lord. The sincerity is all too clear as well, and the importance of this can’t be understated.
He confesses to everything. He even regrets how as a child he was selfish,
… for at that time I knew nothing more than how to suck and to be quietened by bodily delights, and to weep when I was physically uncomfortable.
Meaning he did nothing but cry and steal his mother’s milk—this would pave the way for the concept of original sin, meaning that humans are inherently evil and must be saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.
Why Augustine’s Confessions Resonate
One of the reasons Augustine’s book is so profound and popular is that even though it was written 1500+ years ago it shows human nature has changed little. He was quite the ladies’ man, took ‘excessive’ pride in his education and status as a teacher, and even writhes over his theft of fruit from a neighbor. Though some facets of his Confession may seem trivial, they are struggles that many of us can relate to.
Augustine’s lust strikes me in particular. It seems almost inherent for young men to indulge in sexual hedonism, which can be backed up by basic biological tendencies. Like St. Augustine, many men engage in such activities during their teens and twenties, only to settle down as they age.
For Augustine, the evil of sexual immorality was not in the sexual act itself, but rather in the emotions that typically accompany it. In On Christian Doctrine Augustine contrasts love, which is enjoyment on account of God, and lust, which is not on account of God. For Augustine, proper love exercises a denial of selfish pleasure and the subjugation of corporeal desire to God. (Wikipedia)
Notable & Quotable
Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Confessions:
…evil results from the misuse of free choice by rational people. [The ‘Problem of Evil’ troubled Augustine, but he eventually came to the conclusion that humans do have free will and that]
You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests for you.
Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say.
Therefore shameful acts which are contrary to nature… are everywhere and always to be detested and punished. Even if all peoples should do them, they would be liable for the same condemnation by divine law…
The human race is inquisitive about other people’s lives, but negligent to correct their own. Why do they demand to hear from me what I am when they refuse to hear from you what they are? And when they hear me talking about myself, how can they know if I am telling the truth, when no one ‘knows what is going on in a person except the human spirit which is within?
The Theological and Philosophical Nature of Confessions
Although I wish to delve into the theological implications of this book, and to discuss Augustine’s early influence by Neo-Platonism and his rejection of the Manichean system, I don’t feel comfortable doing so. These are complex topics beyond the scope of my knowledge.
But for those who want to read Confessions just one time through, or at least part way through, theology should take a backseat to Augustine’s actions which give insight to this pure and pious man.
Why You Should Read the Confessions of Saint Augustine
Although not a Christian myself (I’m Jewish), I am becoming more interested in this religion. What brought me to this was reading romantic works and ideas which rejected the cold, hard nihilism and rationalism that has taken hold of our modern world. Works like Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You, while not overly exciting, are quite enrapturing when it comes to spirituality. Augustine’s Confessions only exacerbates this. The teachings and practices of Jesus and his followers like Augustine are simply beautiful, and reading such a candid, heart-wrenching work like this is moving.
If you’re an atheist, agnostic, secular etc. and have no interest in religion or Christianity, I suggest you skip this work as you will only be shaking you head throughout. But if you are already a Christian, or interested in learning about Christianity, this will continue to enlighten you and your faith.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine is available for free. Here are a few free resources to choose from: