The religions of the world did not just spring into being all set and ready to go. A lot of kinks had to be worked out first—like the fact that people didn't automatically accept the idea of a God who wasn't really made of anything, but was somehow everywhere at once. And how about convincing people not to have sex? Yeah, good luck with that. Even the idea of light as good and dark as evil (ever wonder why when Obi-Wan calls it the Dark Side we immediately know it's bad news?), which is one of the oldest tropes there is, had to come from somewhere.
We're not saying that Saint Augustine's Confessionsdid all this work by itself, but it sure as heck made some headway in this whole building a religion business. Augustine lived way back in the 300s (CE) in North Africa, which, at that time, was part of the Roman Empire. What was going on in the 300s, you ask? Well, the emperor Constantine, who is not Keanu Reeves, basically legalized Christianity—no more getting sent to the coliseum to be crucified, hooray. Then the capital of the empire was moved from Rome to Constantinople, and, as per usual, there were a ton of barbarians doing their raping-and-pillaging thing, so you might say that Europe was in a bit of an awkward transition period.
So, the Confessions are exactly what they sound like: the confessions of this one guy. No fronting here. Was he a particularly bad guy? Not really. Augustine basically chronicles the story of his (average) life up until the point when, at the age of thirty-three, he converts to Christianity. His book is both an admission of his sins to God and an example that he hopes other people will learn from. Because, you know, converting to Christianity is exactly the kind of thing saints tend to endorse.
In this book, Augustine talks about all of his doubts about God's existence, his dabbling in other religions, his love of pride and of sex (especially sex), and how badly he just wants to know the truth. (Like, Are you there, God? It's me, Saint Augustine.)
Don't worry, Confessions is not a laundry list of every inane sin the guy ever committed. When it comes down to it, Augustine is just some dude who really, really wants to know how the universe works and how he's supposed to live his life by its rules. But the road to his conversion is pretty rocky. He runs with a weird cult for a long while, he really doesn't want to give up his mistress, and, more than anything, he wants to be known as the smartest person in town. He has a really hard time coming to terms with ideas like God's immateriality and where evil comes from in the Christian theology. Many people take these things for granted now, but Augustine believed he had to work out all of the technicalities… before he would be willing to permanently give up sex for them.
And it's a good thing that he work all this stuff out, because Augustine's writings have had a huge impact—and not just on Christianity, but on all of European philosophy. You find echoes of his thoughts on the creation of the universe, God's immutability, free will, and so on in the works of Dante, Milton, and T.S. Eliot, who are all pretty big names in our book(s).
When you think of the "classical" texts of the ancient world, as we know you often do, you probably think of Homer, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle… and then, at some point, you start thinking of Roman dudes instead of Greek ones, and you think of Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, and so on. Basically everyone was all about Greco-Roman mythology, what with them being Greco-Roman and all. Then all of a sudden, BAM: here's Augustine developing a philosophical model based around Christianity. But is it some cold treatise on the pros and cons of converting? HECK NO. He makes it personal. He gives you a play-by-play of his sins, citations and all. Augustine is a really intelligent guy who willingly drags himself through the mud in order to teach people about God. Which is pretty nice of him, really.
Anyways, this God Squad recruitment tactic of Augustine's was pretty successful. Augustine was made a saint and declared one of the fathers of the early Christian Church. More importantly, he was hugely influential to theologians as they continued to develop Christian thought throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Sound remote and irrelevant? Well, guess what? Confession is a huge deal in today's culture, regardless of religion.
When a politician is caught in some scandal, we expect him to give a repentant speech in which he tells us all about just how wrong he was. Why? When George Washington apocryphally cuts down a cherry tree, we find it noble that he admits it even though he doesn't have any apparent reason to. Why? When the Reverend Dimmesdale doesn't confess that he fathered a child with Hester Prynne, it eats away at him until he finally does. Why? Why do we care so much about confessing sins?
We think Meryl Streep can explain it better than we can.
Augustine uses the example of his early life in Book I (continued in the subsequent Books) as a template for chronicling his spiritual development. There are certain autobiographical details that are related, but this is by no means a conventional telling of the story of Augustine's life. Rather, the growth of the boy into the man, the convert, the priest, and ultimately the bishop is a metaphor for spiritual error and redemption rather than a traditional biography.
Augustine begins Book I by praising the Lord and referring continually to Biblical passages of praise, especially the Psalms. He asks to "know and understand" the nature of God, and how to pray and call upon him. Augustine is particularly interested in how God exists within the universe, and whether God is contained by the universe or if the universe contains God. Augustine then relates his earliest actions as an infant, such as nursing and learning to smile. He explains that he learned these facts from "weak women" - his mother and his nurses. He explains the first actions and movements of a helpless infant as the first stirrings of his soul toward God. He was ignorant and unable to control his desires or emotions, and he likens this state to the soul without God. He marvels that "his infancy is long dead" but he is still alive, and he contrasts his own temporality with the endlessness and everlasting nature of God.
Augustine continues his story, explaining that he went from infancy to boyhood, and learned to talk. He marvels that he learned such a skill not necessarily by being taught, but rather from the intelligence given to him by God. He says he experienced miseries in this time, and was admonished to learn to use his power of speech to succeed in the world and gain honors and riches. He tells of the horrors of learning to read and write in school, and how he was beaten. He learned, too, how to pray to God, and he prayed not to be beaten at school.
Augustine's early religious instruction included the idea that God had granted eternal life through the sacrifice of Jesus. When Augustine became very ill with a "pressure on his chest" he begged to be baptized so that he would have this eternal life after death. His mother Monica was very distraught and hastily made arrangements, but Augustine recovered. Augustine's father was the last remaining member of the household who was still not converted to Christianity, but Patrick did not prevent anyone in his house or family from practicing their faith. Augustine recognized early on that in this his mother was his father's "moral superior," and took moral instruction from her. However, Augustine notes that his mother still was obedient to his father, as both Augustine and Monica considered this an important instruction of God.
As a boy Augustine had "no love for reading books." He rebelled against the useless knowledge he was being taught, and also against their purported goal: to gain earthly wealth and glory. Augustine loved Latin, but disliked learning Greek. He mocked the instruction in epic poetry (he names the Aeneid), in that the moral component was depraved, and the weeping over fictional Dido's death was a kind of false emotion. Augustine criticizes the method of instructing boys, calling it vanity and falsehood, but he also acknowledges the useful things he learned in his boyhood. He particularly abhors the instruction in the Roman pantheon of pagan gods, such as Jupiter "both thunderer and adulterer," saying that the learning of such literature encourages sin. He recounts how well he could learn certain parts of the Aeneid, and says that this fruitless learning made the adults around him consider him a boy of high promise. He was more afraid of being beaten for making a mistake than he was desirous of the praise he received for doing well. In this environment he grew more afraid of committing a vulgarity of speech than he was of avoiding the sin of envy of one who did not commit the vulgarity.
Augustine became frivolous and a liar. He was inordinately desirous of winning boyish games, and became known for cheating. He bemoans that this was not boyish innocence, and that the cheating and ugliness of boyhood is only succeeded by the larger but similar ugliness of adulthood. He ends in thanks, however, for his good memory, his desire for truth, and his instinct for self-preservation. He admits that he grew skilled with words, gained friends, and abhorred ignorance. He says all of these things are gifts of God. If there is any good in him, it is a reflection of God.
Some of Augustine's ideas in this book seem very strict and narrow-minded by today's standards. His criticism of very small children and even infants for their jealousy, selfishness, and lack of compassion is psychologically unsound based on modern knowledge. The fact that he considers an infant's actions somewhat reprehensible serve merely to show that he would prefer the instruction of children to begin at birth. He sees the inherent sinfulness of children, such as in jealousy of an older sibling toward a nursing infant, as evidence of the original sin, and he seeks instruction from these early actions.
Augustine's recounting of his school years give us an idea of how boys (for girls were not generally educated in schools) were instructed in the Roman Empire of the 4th century. Greek was taught, and the epics of Homer were considered absolutely essential as educational tools. A great deal of time was spent on articulation and speech, and in this book and later ones we can see Augustine's attention to what he said and how he said it. The classical education of that time was divided into three parts: reading, writing, and arithmetic; grammar; and rhetoric. Thus, the highest kind of education was that of the correct use of speech and (to a slightly lesser degree) of writing. This was the kind of education that was considered desirable to prepare a young man for public life in law or business, or - if he was lucky or rich - politics.
Augustine's family spoke Latin with a North African accent and certain regional colloquialisms, all of which were considered vulgar. This colonial society looked to Rome as the center of cultivation, power, wealth, and refinement. This kind of group inferiority complex can lead to extremes in education, as is evidenced by the beatings Augustine received. This was a violent society in general, however, and beatings in school and in homes were common.
To understand Augustine's description of how he was almost baptized as a young child, it is important to know that baptism was not practiced then as it is today in most Christian denominations. Baptism was considered rather like the process of confession and absolution in the modern Roman Catholic Church. Baptism washed away sins; any sins committed after baptism were not washed away. This led many people to delay baptism almost until death. These beliefs about baptism and absolution changed somewhat during Augustine's lifetime. Just because Augustine was not baptized as a child does not mean that he or his mother didn't consider Augustine a Christian. In fact, Augustine learned Christianity from his mother and was quite a devout child. It was not until his adolescence and youth that he strayed from the Church.
Augustine's dense usage of Biblical quotations, particularly in the beginning and ending of this book, show not only his immense erudition but also his profound understanding of Biblical texts. In some cases, we may find that the meaning he construes from some texts are a bit stretched (for example, his quotation from Jeremiah "I fill heaven and earth" leads to a long ontological discussion of the nature of God and his physical dimensions), but it must be remembered that Augustine was considering these ideas and texts in the context of his Neoplatonic background. Augustine read and believed in the writings of Plotinus, a 3rd-century philosopher. He stops short of being a complete believer in Neoplatonism, for he did not find specific information about the incarnation of the Lord, penitential confession, or Eucharistic thanksgiving in its teachings, but there is no doubt that much of Augustine's thought is derived from Neoplatonism. In that respect, some Biblical quotations may seem obscure, except when compared with the treatment of those same quotations in Neoplatonic texts.
In all things, Augustine thanks God, and takes the hard lessons of his boyhood as an opportunity for instruction. His candid admission of some of his serious faults as a child make him less puritanical than he may seem on the surface. His moral code is strict, to be sure, but his severity does not come from plain fear of sin; for much of his life, he embraced sin. Instead it comes from his sincere desire to live a spiritual life, and his desire to get to "first principles" and live a wholly honest, pure life in adherence to what he believes is the truth. It is not a puritanical moral code based on fear and the desire for control, but rather a kind of moral and intellectual asceticism by which he seeks only to follow the truth in the most honest and direct way.