An Introduction to Augustine's Confessions

James J. O'Donnell

'He who makes the truth comes to the light.' The truth that Augustine made in the Confessions had eluded him for years. It appears before us as a trophy torn from the grip of the unsayable after a prolonged struggle on the frontier between speech and silence. What was at stake was more than words. The 'truth' of which Augustine spoke was not merely a quality of a verbal formula, but veracity itself, a quality of a living human person. Augustine 'made the truth'--in this sense, became himself truthful--when he found a pattern of words to say the true thing well. But both the 'truth' that Augustine made and the 'light' to which it led were for him scripturally guaranteed epithets of Christ, the pre-existent second person of the trinity. For Augustine to write a book, then, that purported to make truth and seek light was not merely a reflection upon the actions of his life but pure act itself, thought and writing become the enactment of ideas.

Behind this fundamental act of the self lay powerful and evident anxieties--evident on every page. Augustine is urgently concerned with the right use of language, longing to say the right thing in the right way. The first page of the text is a tissue of uncertainty in that vein, for to use language wrongly is to find oneself praising a god who is not God. The anxiety is intensified by a vertiginous loss of privacy. Even as he discovers that he possesses an interior world cut off from other people, he realizes that he lies open before God: there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to flee.

Anxiety so pervades the Confessions that even the implicit narrative structure is undermined. When on the first page we hear that our heart is restless until there is repose in God, the reasonable expectation is that the text will move from restlessness to rest, from anxiety to tranquility. In some ways that is true: on baptism care flies away, and the last page looks forward to the tranquility of endless praise in heaven. But the conversion story leaves the Augustine of this text far more uneasy than we might have expected. The proper culmination for an optimistic Confessions would be mystic vision as fruit of conversion (see preceding 10.1.1). But instead the last half of Bk. 10 and the whole of Bks. 11 to 13--not incidentally the parts of the work that have most baffled modern attempts to reduce the text to a coherent pattern--defy the expected movement from turmoil to sedation and show an Augustine still anxious over matters large and small. It is unclear at what date it became possible, or necessary, for Augustine to endure that continuing tension. At the time of the events narrated in the first nine books, he surely expected more repose for his troubles.

The book runs even deeper than that. Augustine believes that human beings are opaque to themselves no less than to others. We are not who we think we are. One of the things Augustine had to confess was that he was and had been himself sharply different from who he thought he was. Not only was this true of his wastrel youth (to hear him tell it), but it remained true at the time of confessing--he did not know to what temptation he might next submit (10.5.7). We are presented throughout the text with a character we want to call 'Augustine', but we are at the same time in the presence of an author (whom we want to call 'Augustine') who tells us repeatedly that his own view of his own past is only valid if another authority, his God, intervenes to guarantee the truth of what he says. Even the self is known, and a fortiori other people are known, only through knowing God. So Augustine appears before us winning self-knowledge as a consequence of knowledge of God; but his God he searches for and finds only in his own mind.

His God is timelessly eternal, without time's distention and hence anxiety, but also without the keen anticipations and rich satisfactions, of humankind; his God is perfection of language incarnate, without the ambages, and thus without the cunning texture and irony, of human discourse; his God is pure spirit, without the limitations, and thus without the opportunities, of fleshliness. That God is in every way utterly inhuman; and yet (here we approach the greatest mystery of this book) humankind is created in the image and likeness of that God--a resemblance that Augustine prizes highly, and in which he finds the way to knowledge both of self and of God.


All of us who read Augustine fail him in many ways. Our characteristic reading is hopelessly incoherent. Denying him our full cooperation, (1) we choose to ignore some of what he says that we deny but find non-threatening; (2) we grow heatedly indignant at some of what he says that we deny and find threatening; (3) we ignore rafts of things he says that we find naive, or uninteresting, or conventional (thereby displaying that in our taste which is itself naive, uninteresting, and conventional); (4) we patronize what we find interesting but flawed and primitive (e.g., on time and memory); (5) we admire superficially the odd purple patch; (6) we assimilate whatever pleases us to the minimalist religion of our own time, finding in him ironies he never intended; (7) we extract and highlight whatever he says that we find useful for a predetermined thesis (which may be historical, psychological, philosophical, or doctrinal, e.g., just war, immaculate conception, abortion)--while not noticing that we ignore many other ideas that differ only in failing to command our enthusiasm. So when, for example, Augustine relies on the proposition that all truth is a function of Truth, and that Truth is identical with the second person of the trinity, and that Jesus the carpenter's son is identical with that same person--we offer at most a notional assent, but are compelled to interpret the idea to ourselves, rather than grasp it directly. Just when we are best at explaining Augustine, we are then perhaps furthest from his thought.

A formal commentary on the text is one way to subvert our impulses to misreading. The text itself enforces a discipline on the commentator, drawing attention back to the business at hand, which is mainly the exegesis of the most important layers of discernible meaning in the text. The commentator is obliged to take stands on controverted issues, but also has a responsibility to present views other than his own. And even when the commentator presses a tentative and idiosyncratic line of interpretation, he should at the same time present the evidence in a way that not only does not preclude but actually facilitates disagreement. And the commentator must have a respect for ambiguity verging on reverence.

I. Hearing Confessions

A Century of Scholarship

A hundred years ago, it is safe to say, everyone knew what the Confessions were about. The main outline of the autobiographical narrative that is part of the first nine books was clear enough, and the garden scene at the end of Bk. 8 was a clich‚ (and furnished the illustration for the title page of many editions and translations--the voice bidding to 'take up and read' doing double duty, addressed to Augustine and to the devout reader). The story was one of conversion, and the trajectory from plight to piety an unbroken one. But that assurance was shattered by the great disturbing question (for which it is conventional to divide the credit): was the story true? As told in the Confessions did it not conflict in important ways with what we learn of the same period from other works, works written closer to the date of the events recounted? Had piety and literature neglected the truth?

The consequent quest for biographical fact and its appropriate assessment has driven scholarship ever since. This movement was at first horizontal, ranging throughout Augustine's oeuvre for evidence to marshal. The classic works are those of Alfaric and Boyer. A counter-movement began in articles in the 1940s and reached its classic expression in 1950 with the publication of Pierre Courcelle's magisterial Recherches. That book worked a Copernican revolution in Augustine scholarship. Courcelle's book turned from the horizontal to the vertical, to weigh and assess each piece of evidence more carefully, and to look beneath innocent texts not hitherto canvassed for indications of the intellectual and emotional currents that had buffeted Augustine. In particular, Courcelle took further than anyone else before him the investigation of the mechanism of Platonic influence on the young Augustine, and pursued his quarry with rigor and sobriety. The demonstration of the Platonic permeation of Christian intellectual discussion around Ambrose at Milan was Courcelle's greatest achievement.

Courcelle's revolution had, however, more lasting effect on the study of Augustine's life than on the study of the Confessions. The lively discussion and fertile investigations to which he gave impetus concentrated increasingly on reconstructing the history of Augustine's readings and opinions (chiefly in the period before his ordination), at the expense of detailed studies of the rhetorical and exegetical strategies of the Confessions themselves. Some common features of this generation's work can be extracted from the mass of publications to help orient the present work.

First, the scholarship mirrored its own times. The abundance of post-Courcelle work dates from the fifties and sixties; the 'galloping' bibliography (the epithet was applied by A. Mandouze) has slowed to a more dignified pace. One characteristic of that period, here as in so many other areas of scholarship, was an optimistic positivism. Scholars labored to construct large hypothetical schemas (embracing, e.g., the books Augustine read and the people he knew) to make possible positive and permanent advances in the study of the text.

Second, what was achieved was something whose essential quality becomes visible only at a generous distance. The reading we have been given of Augustine is an essentially gnostic one. This is no surprise, for we have been living through an increasingly gnostic age. The emphasis has been on the secret, hidden, inner lore (Augustine's borrowings from lost Platonic texts), accessible only to the cognoscenti.

Third, for the first time, Augustine has been fitted out with a new intellectual position. We see him now not merely as a provincial bishop, theologizing down the party line, but as a man constantly in dialogue with the wider world of the non-Christian thought of his time, accepting its excellences, quarreling selectively with its errors, sharing a common ground of debate and discussion. That is exactly the position that Christians of every stripe, but especially Catholics, were moving towards during the period in which these scholarly investigations were carried out. Augustine turned out to be our contemporary--to have been waiting for us to catch up with him.

To characterize the scholarly work of these last decades in this way may seem unduly harsh. But the sum total of all that has been accomplished in the last forty years weighs up to less than half what Courcelle accomplished in his one book. New lines of inquiry and new questions have not been risked. The issues have remained those that Courcelle defined, and the techniques remain his; infertility is the obvious fate of such debates.

Two works from outside the mainstream deserve special attention, as harbingers of ways to move ahead. In 1955, G.N. Knauer published his Hamburg dissertation Psalmenzitate in Augustins Konfessionen. This is the best modern study of the Confessions as literary artefact. At about the same time, a Leipzig Habilitation was submitted by Horst Kusch, on the structure of the Confessions. The full work was never published, and repeated inquiries have failed to unearth a copy. Kusch published a long article, valuable especially for two ideas: first, that the structure of the last books of the Confessions reflects the trinitarian and triadic patterns that obsessed Augustine elsewhere; and second, that the three temptations of 1 Jn. 2.16 both reflect those triadic patterns further and are significant for the structure of the early books of the Confessions. In matters of detail, Kusch must be argued with, but his instincts were sound. His work has been appreciated by some demanding judges, but did not succeed in reorienting debate.

But we have still not appreciated the Confessions purely as a work of literature. The narrative of past sins and pious amendments fills little more than half the pages of the work. What are the last four books doing there? The last catalogue of efforts to answer that question is two decades old and books and articles continue to appear addressing it in one form or another. Some of the ideas they propose have merit, but none has been presented in a way to compel, or even very strongly to encourage, assent. One prevailing weakness of many of these efforts has been the assumption that there lies somewhere unnoticed about the Confessions a neglected key to unlock all mysteries. But for a text as multilayered and subtle as the Confessions, any attempt to find one, or even a few, keys is pointless. Augustine says himself that he meant to stir our souls, not test our ingenuity as lock-picks.

We may also mistrust readers who insist, or who insist on denying, that the work is perfect and beyond reproach. That form of idolatry, like the complementary iconoclasm with which it long disputed, has had its day. Better to heed an early reader of T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom: 'it seems to me that an attempted work of art may be so much more splendid for its very broken imperfection revealing the man so intimately.' If we can hope to read on those terms, expecting little, grateful for every fragmentary beauty, some further reflections may be in order.

Avenues of Approach

Every major modern book on the Confessions has been written by a Catholic or a Parisian, or both. To think of Alfaric, Boyer, Courcelle, Guardini, Henry, Le Blond, O'Connell, O'Meara, Pellegrino, Solignac, and Verheijen is to come very close to exhausting the arsenal of large-scale studies of this text. The names of those who have done the most important work in adjacent areas of research (e.g., Augustine's theological development--Pincherle, du Roy--or his intellectual equipage--Marrou) follow the same law. There is even an important article by one scholar who has gone on to become Cardinal Prefect of what is no longer the Holy Office. The exceptions are few and illuminating. There are Knauer's Psalmenzitate (but that work has been praised but neglected by the Catholic/French establishment), Theiler's Porphyrios und Augustin (another book with few followers), and N”rregard's Augustins Bekehrung (rarely cited since 1950). J. Burnaby's Amor Dei is neither French nor Romanist, but Burnaby was an Anglican clergyman and Cambridge don, whose book was written directly against the most outspokenly Protestant criticism of Augustine in this century, A. Nygren's Agape and Eros. Gibb and Montgomery's edition and notes likewise came from two Cambridge dons. Finally, P. Brown's biography is donnish and Oxonian, but written by one who began life in Catholic Dublin and who has become in the years since the Augustine book an honorary Parisian of a modern sort. His book is the least preoccupied by the controversies that have surrounded this text for the last century. Another honorable exception is E. TeSelle's Augustine the Theologian (New York, 1970), a marvel of eirenic Protestant scholarship.

Now Catholics, former Catholics, and Parisians need not be the only readers to take an interest in this text. Augustine himself has had a checkered history in Roman Catholic modernity, somehow suspect for having given aid and comfort, if not to the Reformers, at least to Baius, Jansen, and their descendants. Leaving aside the quarrels of the first part of this century, whose partisans have accepted 'the constitution of silence and are folded in a single party' (Eliot), we should not forget how much patristic scholarship owed to the discovery of liberal Catholics that such study did not bring them in conflict with Thomistic orthodoxy but offered a vocabulary and a range of reference broader and more flexible than what Roman catechisms had to offer. That movement, whose founding patron was Joseph De Ghellinck, S.J., culminated in the postwar establishment of the Corpus Christianorum series, the luxuriance of the tudes Augustiniennes establishment in Paris, and a host of specialized projects in the field. Vatican II crowned the aspirations of those two generations of scholars with gratifying success and at the same time undermined their rationale. The generation of Catholic scholars that has flourished since the Council has no need of the mild subterfuge of patristic reference to clothe their ideas; accordingly, the great projects have seen a slow seepage of manpower to age, laicization, and more fashionable studies. Worse in some ways, Catholicism has lost many of its enemies, or at least the most learned of them, in eirenic, ecumenical times, and it is no longer possible to rely on anticlerical French scholars coming to work in these areas with the vigor with which they once sought evidence that the one, holy, catholic, and Roman church had not always been as it is today. The history of Christianity has ceased to be a vital concern for Christians and non-Christians alike, and the great and urgent question that formed the subtext of so many historical debates of the last century, 'was heiát Christentum?', has lost its savor: and that marks a watershed in the history of our culture. There remains, to be sure, an element of anxiety on all sides, a sense that a figure like Augustine must either be defended or attacked, that large and immediate issues are at stake--in a way they are not at stake, for example, among readers of Silius Italicus or Notker Balbulus. If we could forget for a moment that he was a Christian, and even forget for a moment that he was Augustine, he would probably appear very different; but in those matters, memory's hold is unshakeable, and we cannot forget at will.

All this needs to be said by way of preface to some brief remarks about specific issues of interpretation that arise. The focus of modern discussion of this text has been the place of neo-Platonism in Augustine's life and writings. The polemic has moved between two poles: the attack on the plaster saint, beginning with the observation that his 'Christianity' was, at least for an important period in his life, very like a specific non-Christian philosophy, and the defense, surrendering much of the plaster but insisting on the authentic Christian essence. All parties seem to have agreed unthinkingly on the principle that 'Christianity' is in the first instance a body of intellectual propositions about God and his creatures and about particular events in the history of the relations between God and his creatures. On that view, movement into and out of 'Christianity' is a matter of intellectual discussion and assessment, ending in assent or disagreement. If you believe in the Virgin Birth, you are Christian in a way that someone who offers liberal quibbles is not. Arguments for and against the existence of God are essential, and philosophy is the handmaid of theology. To argue then that philosophy has dictated to theology tends to undermine the authenticity of theology.

In this network of assumptions, Augustine's dealings with the Platonists call his theology into question. For one period of Augustine's life, from his public conversion to Christianity in 386/7 to his ordination as a Christian cleric in 391, the evidence viewed on those assumptions could be described in ways disturbing to traditionalists, who--sharing those fundamental assumptions about the nature of Christianity--were in a weak position to respond. Augustine's views appear so neo-Platonic as to be Christian in name only. Was Christianity for Augustine only a convenient dress in which to present ideas that were in origin non-Christian? To make that case (as Alfaric did) was to subvert the self-consciousness of the Latin Catholic tradition: if Augustine is not a Christian, then who is? If Augustine's version of Christianity is tainted, then whose is not? It is no wonder that the attempt raised heated defense. Boyer's orthodox book in response was sober, well-considered, and soundly argued, but it was not at its strongest when it came to awkward historical facts. Courcelle's book found middle ground: allowing plenty of room for Christianity, but insisting on the Platonic disposition of that Christianity. Further, Courcelle widened the net to include Ambrose and show that Platonized Christianity was the order of the day in imperial Milan of the 380s. The reorientation Courcelle effected has not been seriously challenged.

The drawbacks of the traditional assumptions are evident even on their own terms. What sort of thing is Christianity? When is it compromised by admixture from 'outside'? The view that 'Christianity' is something unadmixed can itself be a Christian doctrine, but that 'Christianity' requires a rather specialized definition to be useful as a historical category. If Augustine uses neo-Platonic terms to describe Christian teachings, and even if he professes to see no distinction between a neo-Platonic teaching and a Christian one, and even more, if he adopts a neo-Platonic principle out of a vacuum and makes it part of his 'Christianity', observers could think that the integrity and authenticity of his Christianity were at risk. But if those principles happen not to conflict with any express Christian doctrine 'necessary for salvation', and if Augustine then turns and flatly denies some principle or other of neo-Platonism on no other grounds than that it conflicts with something that scripture or church policy states, has he compromised himself? Where does he get the confidence and authority to make such distinctions? And if some other thinker, no less respected than Augustine among Christians, should contradict Augustine on one of these points, who is to judge between them?

But does anyone think that Christianity is a thing of the mind only? Perhaps in Paris, but surely not semper, ubique, ab omnibus. By way of thought experiment, consider only an orthodox Reformed view of the matter. The question for that view is whether and when Augustine acquired the theological faith that is the substance of salvation. Such a view might be sympathetic to the most anti-Catholic parts of the French debate (surely the dalliance with the platonicorum libri is not where we should see Augustine becoming a Christian), but would be more inclined to accept the paradigmatic conversion of the Milan garden scene as authentic. But do the Platonic doctrines then entertained and held for years afterwards in some way compromise the integrity of that theological faith? On available evidence, no clear judgment is possible.

The defects of both Protestant and Catholic modern views of Augustine and of this text encourages us to look for alternatives. That which has proved most useful in the present work is easily stated. For Augustine, and for late antique men and women generally, religion is cult--or, to use the word we use when we approve of a particular cult, religion is liturgy. Anti-clerical Parisians and Protestants may agree that priestcraft is dangerous stuff, but Augustine would not concur with them. The central decision he makes in the period narrated in the Confessions is not to believe the doctrines of the Catholic Christians (that is important, but preliminary), but to present himself for cult initiation--and the threshold there is a matter not of doctrine but of morals. Bk. 8, the vivid narrative of hesitation and decision, depicts Augustine agonizing over whether he could and would live up to the arduous standards he thought required of one who would accept full initiation into the Christian cult. His decision to seek that initiation, taken provisionally in August 386, carried out on the night of 24-5 April 387, was the centerpiece of his conversion.

Why do we downplay cult initiation for Augustine? There are several reasons, beginning with our own prejudices. Few modern scholars (indeed, few moderns of any stripe, including the most ardent proponents of a traditional doctrine of transubstantiation) hold a view of the importance and efficacy of cult acts that even remotely approaches the visceral reverence for cult that all late antique men and women felt. We like to believe that there were serene and cultless philosophers in that age, not exactly anticlerical but certainly not superstitiously devoted to ritual and ceremony. Whether there were such people is perhaps irrelevant to the immediate case of Augustine, for it is clear that he did not believe that such people existed.

A further evidentiary problem obtrudes to cut the cult-life of late antiquity off from our view. Virtually all late antique cults, and Christianity was emphatically no exception, kept the secrets of their rites closely held. Until 25 April 387, Augustine himself had never seen what Americans may see on television any Sunday and every Christmas Eve--the rituals of the Roman eucharistic liturgy. As a catechumen, he had been admitted to the church to hear scripture readings, hymns, prayers, and sermons, but then he had been politely shown the door when the central cult act was about to begin. In all the years after his baptism and ordination, in all the five million surviving words of his works, Augustine never describes or discusses the cult act that was the center of his ordained ministry. Liturgical texts from late antiquity are few and terse, and late antique commentary on liturgy itself even rarer. Much can be reconstructed, but there is an inevitable disproportion. Augustine is verbose about doctrine, close-mouthed about ritual. He appears to us as a man of doctrine exclusively, though he himself tells us in explicit enough terms otherwise. There is a proportion to be redressed, and no accurate guide to the correct balance. Augustine's Christianity was not 100% doctrine, 0% ritual, nor even 80%-20%; but was it 20% doctrine, 80% ritual? That is possible, but on balance unlikely. We are left to wander between the extremes, following our hunches. What is clear is that cult was decisive for him: without cult, no Christianity. But he was prepared to be very lenient on matters of doctrine; error alone has rarely been sufficient for excommunication: it is contumacy that draws anathema. He surely admitted to full church membership many ordinary citizens of Hippo for whom halting recital from memory of the apostle's creed and lord's prayer marked the upper limits of their capacity to master the verbal formulae of their new cult.

To take such a view of Augustine's religion is perhaps only possible for a post-modern reader, one who has learned afresh from the most recent generation of Parisians that the map is not the territory, that the narrative is not the event, that a text is not a life. There are important blanks in the Confessions: God is present but silent, Augustine's past life is over ('dead' he says of his infancy at 1.6.9), and his present life extends beyond the pages he writes in many ways, cult activity not least of them. From his earliest writings, Augustine's program as writer aspired to knowledge of God and knowledge of self. But God and Augustine we learn about only indirectly and at a rhetorical distance in the Confessions. To remember that is to begin to understand better the text as text, and there is perhaps the key to seeing the most vital feature of this particular text.

A text is not a life: so far, so good. To narrate one's past life and deeds is to put a pattern of words next to a life (by nature patternless, full of event and incident) and to declare that the words and the life have something to do with each other. 'Something' is probably the right word. Later in these prolegomena, we will see how the pattern of words that appears in the Confessions had been taking shape in Augustine's texts for years before this text was actually written. The Confessions offer no unedited transcript, but a careful rhetorical presentation. But the writing of this text was itself part of Augustine's life. 'Confession' for Augustine, that act of 'making the truth', was itself an important part of his religion, somewhere between doctrinal disputation and cult act--perhaps even forming a link between the two. The life about which Augustine tells us in his text finally slips beyond our grasp, and the cult-life about which he tells us little or nothing is even more remote. But the life of this particular act of 'confession', the writing of this text by a man self-consciously turning from youth to middle age, is as present to us on the page as our own lives--indeed, becomes as we read it a part of our own lives. It is that fragment of the 'life' of Augustine that is most accessible to us.

The purpose of this commentary, for all the technical apparatus, is to bring that part of Augustine's life into the life of the reader. Philological scholarship takes its departure from one text and generates another, and the movement is all too often away from the object of the researches to the investigating subject; it is not optical illusion to think that modern scholarship has been increasingly at risk from a narcissism in which the object disappears from view and the scholarly subject takes center stage. That is a reason to write commentary rather than interpretive essay: to facilitate the movement past the commentator's words once again to Augustine's words--to Augustine's life.


One line of interpretation has been largely neglected here: inquiry into Augustine's psychological makeup and history. The appeal of such an interpretation is great and its lack regrettable, but there are compelling reasons for abstaining from the attempt. (1) Judged purely by the standards of modern psychoanalysis, the Confessions do not provide us with evidence of the quantity and quality necessary to make a well-founded assessment. (2) Because there are either no ancient or medieval figures, or very, very few, for whom such evidence is available, it is far from clear whether it is possible to use the patterns detected by scientific investigators in the personalities of modern men and women in assessing those long dead. Even assuming that the patterns detected by science are universal, making the necessary adjustments for the different circumstances of ancient public and private life is, flatly impossible. (3) In particular, it often seems on reading psychological interpretations of Augustine that the moderns too easily yield to Augustine's own insistence on the importance of his own conversion, as recorded in Bk. 8 of the Confessions. (4) Any reading, especially a psychoanalytical reading, of a text such as this should not be judged according to the simplicity it imposes but according to the complexity it reveals. So, to take only one example, it is obvious that Augustine's father and mother had very different effects on their son, but having made the observation, there is little left to do but speculate, on purely a priori grounds, what deeds and traits of Augustine's known life may have been influenced by family relations.


Augustine should have the last word, his own advice to Paulinus of Nola on how to read him: ep. 27.4, 'sed tu cum legis, mi sancte Pauline, non te ita rapiant quae per nostram infirmitatem veritas loquitur, ut ea quae ipse loquor minus diligenter advertas, ne dum avidus hauris bona et recta quae data ministro, non ores pro peccatis et erratis quae ipse committo. in his enim quae tibi recte, si adverteris, displicebunt, ego ipse conspicior, in his autem quae per donum spiritus quod accepisti recte tibi placent in libris meis, ille amandus, ille praedicandus est apud quem est fons vitae, et in cuius lumine videbimus lumen sine aenigmate et facie ad faciem, nunc autem in aenigmate videmus. in his ergo quae ipse de veteri fermento eructavi, cum ea legens agnosco, me iudico cum dolore; in his vero quae de azymo sinceritatis et veritatis dono dei dixi, exulto cum tremore. quid enim habemus quod non accepimus? at enim melior est qui maioribus et pluribus quam qui minoribus et paucioribus donis dei dives est: quis negat? sed rursus melius est, vel de parvo dei dono gratias ipsi agere quam sibi agi velle de magno. haec ut ex animo semper confitear meumque cor a lingua mea non dissonet, ora pro me, frater; ora, obsecro, ut non laudari volens, sed laudans invocem dominum, et ab inimicis meis salvus ero.'

II. A Reading of the Confessions

The Confessions are a single work in thirteen books, written in AD 397. The first nine books contain much autobiographical reminiscence covering the years AD 354-87; the last three books contain an allegorical exposition of the first chapter of Genesis, and Bk. 11 in particular contains a long discussion of the nature of time. Bk. 10 is known mainly for its long discussion of the nature of memory and for a disturbingly scrupulous examination of conscience. There is no evidence that the work ever circulated in a form other than the one we have, but some scholars believe that Bk. 10 is the fruit of second thoughts, added after the other twelve books were complete. Translators have sometimes abridged the work by omitting part or all of Bks. 11-13.

The reading of this work presented here is loosely arranged according to the structure of a scholastic quaestio. That structure helps make explicit the received views, the difficulties that present themselves, a resolution of the difficulties with whatever new contribution is possible, and, in many ways most important, a final discussion that does justice to the merits of the received views while resituating them in the light of new ideas. The presentation under Videtur is itself a reading of other scholars' readings, and contains elements of new interpretation, and what appears under Respondeo does not pretend to be entirely new or original.

Videtur: The work as a whole is an intellectual autobiography, tracing the movement of Augustine's opinions on matters of a philosophic and religious nature from his earliest youth to the time of writing. The principal stages of this ascent from ignorance to illumination are precisely identified: the two 'tentatives d'extases plotiniennes' of Bk. 7 and the vision of Ostia in Bk. 9. But other passages may be interpreted in the same context. For example, the description of the contents of the de pulchro et apto in Bk. 4 presents that work as though it were a doomed first attempt to ascend in the mind to the summum bonum. It suggests two reasons for the failure of that ascent, ignorance of the nature of God and ignorance of the nature of created things. In that context, the first 'tentative' of Bk. 7 occurs after Augustine has been shown to have renewed his understanding of the divine nature in the first pages of Bk. 7, culminating in the reading of the platonicorum libri. But that 'tentative' fails; the paragraphs that follow reveal decisively Augustine's mature view of the nature, that is to say (under Plotinus' tutelage) the non-nature, of evil: in other words, his discovery at that time of the essential goodness of created things. In the wake of that discovery, the second 'tentative' of Bk. 7 is, on Plotinian terms as Augustine understood them, a complete success. It is not that the Plotinian method did not work for Augustine; it worked, but it was not enough. It left him disappointed and hungry for something different, perhaps richer, perhaps more permanent, perhaps merely something more congruent with the realities of everyday life. That is achieved in Bk. 9 at Ostia. The report of that vision begins with the most explicit Plotinian allusion in the whole work, but goes far beyond that Plotinian form to an explicitly Christian, scriptural, and eschatological ending. The vision of Ostia anticipates the beatific vision. That new post-Plotinian ascent to vision becomes the organizing pattern for the first half of Bk. 10, in which Augustine, in the presence of the reader, does what he learned to do at Ostia. Similar patterns of discourse keyed to the ascent of the mind to God, and marked particularly by recurrence of the significant quotation of Phil. 3.13, occur throughout Bks. 11-13. (The pattern of successive visions from Bk. 4 to Bk. 7 to Bk. 9 also matches a theory about three types of vision that Augustine had expounded several years before writing the Confessions and returned to in detail in the commentary de Genesi ad litteram years later; the vision of Ostia thus matches the highest type of 'vision' possible in this life.)

Sed contra: But all attempts to depict the Confessions as essentially or mainly a story of the ascent of the mind to God encounter great difficulties--one extrinsic and one intrinsic. Extrinsically, it is a priori difficult to accept that the mature work of a Christian bishop, who will later express grave reservations about the worth of Platonic philosophy (notably in civ.) would be itself a frank manifestation of that style of thought and doctrine. Intrinsically, the difficulty is that not all that is in the Confessions is included in an explanation that focuses on the ascent of the mind to God. Noticeably missing from the summary in the previous paragraph is the obviously crucial Bk. 8; but the real scandal of the work that overthrows such an unilinear attempt at interpretation is the central Bk. 10 itself. If the work were an attempt to depict the ascent pure and simple, then the memorable 'sero te amavi' paragraph (10.27.38) would have served perfectly well for the last paragraph of the work as a whole. Not only do Bks. 11-13 obtrude, but the last half of Bk. 10, an affront to our disdain for such scrupulosity, makes nonsense of any attempt at so limited a reading. But that depiction of the present state of Augustine's soul as a victim of the three temptations of 1 Jn. 2.16 must be taken seriously; indeed, taken seriously enough, it opens another line of sight into the organization of the earlier books of the work. A pattern of conduct can be traced through Bks. 2-4 according to which Augustine sins first according to the concupiscence of the flesh (both the sexual sins of adolescence and the symbolic re-enactment of the fall implied by the incident of the pear tree), next according to concupiscence of the eyes (described mainly in Bk. 3, where he falls prey to one sort of curiositas in his mania for the spectacula of Carthage and to another in his allegiance to the Manichees), and finally according to ambitio saeculi (which is most lightly touched on at this stage--see on 4.7.12). The moral rise of Augustine, that parallels but does not duplicate the ascent of the mind, follows a reverse order: his zeal for his public career fades first at Milan, then his adhesion to the spirit of curiosity that had led him to the Manichees, and only last his enslavement to the desires of the flesh. It is that liberation that comes between the Milan and Ostia visions and makes possible the higher vision that he comes to at Ostia and in Bks. 10 and following.

Respondeo: The garden scene is indeed central to the work: but in what way? It is in the garden that Christ enters Augustine's life. The want felt and described at 7.18.24 is now filled. A restrictive reading of the place of Christ in the Confessions, such as that of M. Lods, insists that the words of Rom. 13.13-14, particularly, as Augustine hears them at 8.12.29, do not satisfy our expectation of what the place of Christ in a conversion should be. But the action of Christ in 8.12.29 is redemptive, salvific, and decisive. For Augustine, after all, it is incarnation pre-eminently that redeems, and to come to understand that incarnation accurately and to acquire in his life a pattern of conduct that he thought required by an understanding of that incarnation--that, for Augustine, is a very Christian, and Christ-centered, conversion.

The literal sense of the text of Rom. 13.14 cannot be pressed too hard here: 'sed induimini dominum Iesum Christum'. Christ is many things to Augustine (via, veritas, vita, sapientia, verbum dei) and all of those things Christ is to Augustine in the garden. The encounter with a scriptural text throws into new light the parallel line of ascent that Augustine has been unwittingly following from his earliest life, an ascent mediated to fallen humanity through the medicine of the scriptures (which offer one of the incarnations of the Word). The ascent of the mind, as Plotinus had preached it, had run to a dead end. Instead, an alternate path (via) proved to be the true way to the goal Augustine sought. Whatever is incomplete about this encounter with Christ is brought to fulfillment in Bk. 9, through baptism (9.6.14), and culminates at the end of Bk. 10, where Augustine closes the central book of the work with a passage of such dense eucharistic imagery that it may best be thought of as perhaps the only place in our literature where a Christian receives the eucharist in the literary text itself.

This view adds emphasis and shading to the Augustine's preoccupation with the issue of continence. The struggle to decide whether to lead a completely celibate life is the one feature of the conversion narrative that ought to come as a surprise. If it were only a matter of finding the answers to deep questions, Bk. 7 would be the end of the narrative. That the issue of continence arose and became central to the decision in the Milan garden that we call Augustine's conversion, this was not part of what Augustine had bargained for when he set out to search for wisdom, nor was it what most people approaching Christianity in this period were worrying about. There was no reason why Augustine could not have been baptized and still made that good marriage Monnica arranged.

To understand the issue's place in the Confessions, we must pay attention to a lost work of Ambrose's, written while Augustine was in Milan. The title is arresting: de sacramento regenerationis sive de philosophia; paraphrased, that would be 'On Baptism; or, Concerning Philosophy.' The argument is straightforward enough: The way of the philosophers is not the true way, it is not enough to know the truth, one must have in addition sacramental membership in the Christian church. Phrased that way, the relevance to Augustine's position is clear. What is of greater interest, however, is that in that treatise, Ambrose found it polemically necessary and useful to counter the claims of the philosophers to have achieved a higher standard of moral life by their chastity; 'continence is the pedestal on which right worship rests,' says Ambrose. That was the challenge Augustine accepted: to become not merely Christian, but a Christian who outdoes the philosophers in all their excellences. In order to present himself for baptism, Augustine felt that he had to have achieved a degree of moral self-control that assured him of a lifetime of continence. His holiday that autumn of 386 at Cassiciacum was, inter alia, a time to test his resolve away from the presumed temptations of court and city living.

Ad primum: What then of the apparent pattern of the work as a whole, the depiction of the ascent of the mind? Though Augustine in the years after the Confessions will drift away from the ascent-vocabulary of his youth, he certainly adhered to that way of speaking throughout his literary works of 386-97 and in the Confessions themselves. It must also be recognized that the substance of the ascent remains central to Augustine's activity. What is presented to us in the Confessions is the transformation of the traditional philosopher's ascent of the mind to the summum bonum into a uniquely Christian ascent that combines the two paths that Augustine had followed in his own life. The exegesis of a chapter of scripture that fills the last three books itself displays the union of the intellectual and exegetic, the Platonic and Christian, approaches to God, setting a pattern that becomes the center of Augustine's life's work, to be fulfilled only eschatologically--a goal anticipated but not reached on the last page of this text. The form is exegetical, the content apparently philosophical; but on closer examination the content turns out to be more theology than philosophy. He sees traces of God the creator in Bk. 11 in the juxtaposition of time with eternity and understands himself as separated from God by his own position in time. He sees God the Son in the Word of revelation, and understands his own relation to that revelation by unraveling in Bk. 12 the perplexities and imperfections of human attempts to expound the divine word through human mechanisms of interpretation. God the spirit animating history emerges in Bk. 13 as Augustine pursues his allegory of the first chapter of Genesis along lines deliberately chosen to juxtapose creation history with church history, and to understand his own role as a member of, and guide in, that church.

The Confessions, then, present themselves to us a book about God, and about Augustine: more Augustine at the beginning, more God at the end. But Augustine does not disappear in this work. Properly speaking, Augustine is redeemed, and insofar as he is redeemed and reformed according to the image and likeness of God, he becomes representative of all humankind. The work begins with a cry of exultant praise, 'magnus es domine et laudabilis valde' (1.1.1), voiced by Augustine. When the same line (a scriptural text) is brought back at the beginning of Bk. 11, it is introduced 'ut dicamus omnes' (11.1.1). The reader is expected to share the last three books, for if all persons are created no less in the image and likeness of God than Augustine, and if his readers are bound to Augustine through God in caritas, the image (to use the right word) of Augustine in these last three books is at one and the same time an image of what his readers are themselves. In this way the work is both itself an act of confession, and at the same time a model and pattern for other acts of confession, by Augustine and by his readers, at other times and places. There is no paradox in suggesting that this intricate interplay of images and patterns is both the culmination of Augustine's theological meditations and at the same time a feat possible in the fourth century only for someone who had read Plotinus, and read him very well.

III. The Confessions in Augustine's Life

The date of writing has been repeatedly canvassed and consensus achieved. Argument from the retractationes places the work between 397 and 401, while the way Augustine refers to Ambrose and Simplicianus makes us think that he had not yet heard at the time of writing of Ambrose's death and Simplicianus' succession to the see of Milan in April 397. Rhetorical and stylistic unity and the intensity that runs through the book like an electric current make it easiest to read as a work written entirely in 397. Those who emphasize the disparity of the parts of the Confessions and find plausible the arguments for a double redaction or for the later insertion of Bk. 10 also find arguments for extending composition down to 401. In view of the available evidence, it is not possible to press the matter to any firm resolution of these remaining disagreements.

Few proponents of Christian humility have obtruded themselves on the attention of their public with the insistence (to say nothing of the effectiveness) that marks this work. For a man who felt acutely the pressure of others' eyes and thoughts, Augustine was often unable to refrain from calling attention to himself. What his flock thought, for example, of the long, magnificent sermon he once gave on the anniversary of his own episcopal ordination is impossible to recover at this distance. It is not that Augustine was unaware of the irony and room for self-contradiction that his habit of confessio gave--far from it--but he was unable to refrain. His best defence is in the idiosyncratic notion of confessio that he uses to explain and guide his own words.

'Confession' in Augustine's way of understanding it--a special divinely authorized speech that establishes authentic identity for the speaker--is the true and proper end of mortal life. He had struggled to find voice for this speech all his life. The corpus of his earlier writings, seen in this light, offers a picture of development that is hardly a linear progression. The conversions of Augustine were many, and they did not end in the garden in Milan.

It is conventional to think that 391 marked an important turning, with formal affiliation to the ecclesiastical hierarchy through ordination. That moment brought a real shock to Augustine and opened a difficult and frustrating period of his life, when one literary project after another fell to pieces in his hands as a desperate writers' block settled on him. The first thing he wrote in that period was the dreadful util. cred.--unconvincing, lamely argued, poorly organized--and he managed to complete only his commentaries on the sermon on the mount and on Galatians (while throwing up his hands at giving Romans a similar treatment).

Two events of the mid-390s conspired to worsen the crisis and propel it toward resolution: his new reading of Paul at the urging of Simplicianus, which included a rediscovery of the importance he would attribute to Paul in telling the story of his Milan conversion, and his ordination as bishop. His writer's block claims its last victim in the unfinished torso of de doctrina christiana, apparently intended as an authoritative episcopal guide to Christian exegesis and preaching. What freed his pen for the prolific career and the masterworks we know was the writing of the Confessions themselves. He discovered at length how to make 'confession' in his special sense come to life through his writing. After the highly personal Confessions began the torrent of his great works, including, significantly, a series of works re-beginning and then completing triumphantly projects that had come to nothing in the years before the Confessions. Whether that new-found facility was achieved at the price of sacrificing some of the unrelenting zeal for inquiry is a question that deserves further examination. One work stands out in the post-Confessions years as a deliberate continuation of the same enterprise in the same spirit: the de trinitate. That is the only one of Augustine's major works that is not either polemical or a scriptural commentary, and in it we can see the trajectory of Bks. 11-13 carried to its logical conclusion, albeit not without difficulties and course changes. The farther we get from the writing of the Confessions the harder it is to plot that trajectory as a constant purpose, but the ideas and obsessions of his youth remain vivid for the aged Augustine. It is a little observed fact that what may be the last words we have from his pen, the last surviving lines of his incomplete opus imperfectum contra Julianum do not attack Pelagianism, the bug-bear of his old age, but Manicheism, the phantasm of his youth.

Other lines converge on the Confessions. One additional element requires comment and emphasis.

The commentary on 7.9.13 discusses the evidence for the history of Augustine's readings in neo-Platonic, and specifically Porphyrian, philosophy. Augustine's readings at Milan included Porphyry, but in a non-threatening way. He found there a Platonism that led him towards Christianity and that he would criticize mainly for not going far enough in that direction. By no later than the time of the de consensu evangelistarum (399/400 or after), he had on the other hand read enough Porphyry to discover how hostile neo-Platonism could be to Christianity. The de consensu evangelistarum and the de civitate dei, and to some extent the de trinitate and de Genesi ad litteram as well, show Augustine working out his 'Christian Platonism' (or better, 'Augustinianism') in a way that no longer minimizes the separation. The achievement is a subtle one, for his reading of Rom. 1.20ff provided him with an instrument for claiming that while there was much true doctrine among the Platonists, there was error of a crippling kind in that they did not worship God as they ought. It was courageous of Augustine to cling to the truths he thought he had found in Platonism at this point, and not merely to reject the whole package of Plato, Plotinus, and Porphyry. Augustine's signal contribution to Christian thought lies in the success of the great works in which he achieved his own synthesis.

Doubt remains just when and how he came to reassess his Platonic authors, but the Confessions are intimately bound up in this process. The last work of Augustine before the Confessions to address the position of Christianity vis-a-vis Platonism was the de vera religione that shortly preceded his priestly ordination of 391. He turned away more or less completely from the concerns and expressions of his Platonic period in the years after ordination, as he struggled to find ways to write as a Christian clergyman ought to write. With the Confessions he returned to his Platonic period and put a whole new reading on it. The Augustine of the Confessions has drawn a clear line separating him from the Platonists. The 'ascents' of Milan are different in kind from that of Ostia and from that which is presented in Bk. 10 of the Confessions. In that difference, to say nothing of the content of Bks. 11-13, lies the germ of the mature Augustine's Christian Platonism, almost as full of admiration as ever for the accomplishments of the Platonists, but with a new reserve and new boundaries. Cause and effect here are not to be traced, and matters are confused by the ambiguities of the evidence (see on 7.9.13) for the discovery of Porphyry's hostility to Christianity. If that occurred in the early 400s, i.e., very shortly after the Confessions, then no evidence from after that discovery may be taken confidently to throw light on the attitude to Platonism in the Confessions. What is clear is that already the Confessions mark a step away from the Christian Platonism of Milan, and of Augustine's works from 386 to 391. His presentation of Platonism in the Confessions is marked by his later discoveries, and the Platonism he found at Milan is criticized in the Confessions on terms that were only possible after leaving Milan. That revision of his understanding of who he had been entailed a revision of his understanding of who he now was, and that achievement in self-knowledge seems to have been essential to the liberation he now found, refreshing old lines of inquiry and freeing his pen to write the books that were to come. The Confessions shows Augustine in the act of re-integrating elements of his thought and life that had begun to come apart for him, and it is that re-integration that is the foundation of his mature achievement. Without the 'conversion' c. 397 that begat the Confessions, it is unlikely that Augustine would have become the towering figure that he is.

The motif of confession itself was importantly adumbrated in Augustine's earlier works in various ways. Two particular cases require comment here.

One of the first works Augustine wrote at Cassiciacum (Nov. 386/Jan. 387) was the book to which he gave a title of his own coinage: soliloquia. The work is a meditation on the circumstances of Augustine's life, without autobiographical reflection in the main The approach is 'anagogic' and at the same time self-reflective. The most striking parallel to the Confessions is one of style and tone and overall approach. The opening paragraphs (sol. 1.1.2-1.1.6) consist of prayer, praise, and invocation of a sort that could often be mistaken for what appears a decade later in the Confessions. There is not the abundance of scriptural language, but the similarities are considerable. The soliloquia lack the power and assurance of the Confessions, and they have accordingly found little modern audience.

If the form of 'confession' was emerging in Augustine's mind as early as 386, the substance of the narrative books was taking shape as well. We all tell our life stories in formulaic ways, repeating ourselves with minor variations to different hearers. We are fortunate in having one passage from before the Confessions that shows Augustine doing exactly that--recounting his life story, howbeit briefly, and howbeit veiled as a hypothetical case. The veil indeed is so heavy that the passage has not been noticed by earlier students of the Confessions, but once the pattern is detected it cannot be ignored. The text in question is lib. arb. 1.11.22:

'num ista ipsa poena parva existimanda est, quod ei [sc. menti] libido dominatur, expoliatamque virtutis opulentia per diversa inopem atque indigentem trahit, nunc falsa pro veris approbantem, nunc etiam defensitantem, nunc improbantem quae antea probavisset et nihilominus in alia falsa inruentem; nunc adsensionem suspendentem suam et plerumque perspicuas ratiocinationes formidantem; nunc desperantem de tota inventione veritatis et stultitiae tenebris penitus inhaerentem; nunc conantem in lucem intellegendi rursusque fatigatione decidentem: cum interea cupiditatum illud regnum tyrannice saeviat, et variis contrariisque tempestatibus totum hominis animum vitamque perturbet, hinc timore inde desiderio, hinc anxietate inde inani falsaque laetitia, hinc cruciatu rei amissae quae diligebatur, inde ardore adipiscendae quae non habebatur, hinc acceptae iniuriae doloribus, inde facibus vindicandae ...?'
The passage may not antedate the Confessions by more than a couple of years, but it reflects a rehearsed narrative that would be developed more fully in the writing of the Confessions.

'Confession' thus came in Augustine's hands to be the necessary and sufficient formal complement to the substance of Augustine's early writing. From Cassiciacum (or perhaps from the writing of the de pulchro et apto: see on 4.13.20), Augustine's writings had been the record of the mind's ascent to God. There are places where Augustine writes about the idea of the mind's ascent to God, and places where in his writings he is himself clearly attempting an elevation of that sort: so the episodes recounted in Bks. 7 and 9. The soliloquia are themselves a conscious 'ascent', while the Cassiciacum dialogues both discuss the issues and attempt to exemplify the practice. Indeed, all the works Augustine wrote and published before the Confessions take one of three forms: 'ascent', scriptural exegesis, or anti-Manichean polemic. As suggested above, later works as well practice the 'ascent', even though Augustine writes about it much less frequently. The success of the Confessions, seen in those terms, is that the work integrated the private intellectual and religious experience of Augustine with the public responsibilities of the bishop. To 'confess' is to find an authentic voice with which to express what is private in a way that can be shared with a wider public. How far the discipline of the pulpit helped Augustine find this voice can only be a matter of speculation. How far Augustine felt the Confessions a success is perhaps less a matter for speculation, given his remarks in retr. 2.6.1, but the very existence of the retractationes shows that the underlying urge to master life by creating a text that provides the authoritative interpretation of that life was not entirely assuaged.

The Confessions are the last product of Augustine's youth and the first work of his maturity. His familiar pattern of the six ages of life (see on 1.8.13) shows that Augustine was conscious of that himself. His narrative of infantia, pueritia, and adolescentia ends in the first years of iuventus with a clarification and strengthening of will; the narrative was written just on the cusp between iuventus and the variously named fifth age. All other impulses that gave rise to the Confessions notwithstanding, it is not surprising that Augustine would have found the years around his forty-fifth birthday congenial to renewed introspection.


It is impossible, then, to take the Confessions in a vacuum, and it is impossible to give any single interpretation that will satisfy. Even these few paragraphs of summary give a misleading impression of simplicity and directness, for a work that draws its rare power from complexity, subtlety, and nuance. In uncovering one or another device of construction or suggestion that Augustine employed, it may be that we do neither him nor his intended readers--if there are many such yet with us--any favor. He was assuredly the heir of an ancient rhetorical tradition that did not write to prove but to persuade, that knew that a work must have its effect on a reader or hearer directly or it is unlikely to have the desired effect at all. To take the Confessions apart piece by piece is to run the great risk that when all the pieces are put back together the marvelous machine will not run as it did before. But that is the task of the philologist: to take texts already in danger of demise from great age and remoteness, dismantle and study them, and then reassemble them and set them ticking. The only goal of interpretation is reading: exegesis leads to the Word, and not the other way round. If it often seems depressingly otherwise, then a renewed attention to our greatest master of exegesis, hermeneutic, reading--call it what you will--cannot fail to be instructive, even (especially?) where it does not lead to agreement and outright discipleship.