This essay uses the Great Books edition of Augustine's Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. As this translation is still under copyright, a translation by Albert C. Outler can be found here.
Augustine’s Confessions were written in the year 397 CE during his early 40’s and is somewhat inaccurately considered to be one of the West’s first autobiographical accounts despite the fact that there are many other classical writers who worked in the same medium previously. It is not a complete autobiography, obviously, since he would live to the ripe age of seventy-six. However, it does represent the most detailed account of any individual living in the 4th and 5th centuries. Augustine’s life stands upon the precipice between dramatically shifting times in human thought and in many ways both his life and his Confessions can be seen as products of this transition between historical ages. It has been suggested that Augustine is both the last Classical thinker as well as the first Medieval writer.
Undoubtedly, his autobiography was highly influential on writers during the Medieval period. Augustine’s Confessions take the reader on his spiritual journey from a state of sinfulness to his salvation in Jesus Christ. The intentional structure of his autobiography allows for Augustine to pick and chose personal events from his life that illustrate an archetypal spiritual journey.
Augustine utilizes an innovative structure within his Confessions that involves personal and sometimes brutal self-admonition interspersed with direct quotations from the Bible and lyrical passages in praise of God. The personal sins he discusses seem, on the surface, to be of little consequence, in comparison to, for example, murderers, and yet his descriptions of those sins are offered in caricature, as if he had literally sold his soul to the devil. At first reading, it can be interpreted simply that all sins are equal in the eyes of God; however, this juxtaposition also raises questions within the reader’s mind and encourages a deeper reading of the text where we ultimately see his life and his conversion as a teaching story or parable in itself. This metaphorical writing style is used repeatedly throughout the Confessions, revealing Augustine’s background in Platonic thought, the writings of Paul of Tarsus and his own deep studies of scripture.
This analysis will cover only the first eight books of the Confessions which takes us from his infancy to the moment of crisis that pushes Augustine to make a full conversion to the Christian faith. As mentioned in his Author Sketch, Augustine would be profoundly influenced by his mother Monica and his writings illustrate quite clearly his feelings of being torn between the pagan beliefs and morals of his father and the Christian beliefs and actions of his mother. This is, perhaps, the reason he begins his story with a very dualistic worldview that is not reconciled until the moment he finds his peace in Christ. Augustine touches upon many great ideas throughout the Confessions but we will be focusing on his discussions of Sin, Good and Evil, and Will.
Books I and II of the Confessions deal specifically with Augustine’s infancy and his early childhood. He offers an interesting perspective on infants and their capacity for sin as he attempts to recall this distant time in his life. “And if my wishes were not carried out," he writes, "I would get cross with elders, who were not at my beck and call, and with people who were not my servants, simply because they did not attend to my wishes; and I would take my revenge by bursting into tears. By watching babies I have learnt how they behave... and know that I behaved in just the same way myself.” (1:6) This passage illustrates Augustine’s belief that we are all, as descendants of Adam, born of sin and that “if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.” (1:6) It is striking that his opinions on the sinful nature of babies are so strong considering that he spends so little time defending his ideas about a period that he admits he cannot truly recall. He does take the time to lament as he contemplates his infancy, “I ask you, Lord, where or when was I, your servant, ever innocent?” (1:7)
His early childhood is dealt with briefly, in much the same way, but with intuitive observations about the hypocrisy of small boys being punished for playing games instead of attending to their studies by the same masters whose livelihood depended upon even more sinful games. He terms this period of his life as one of suffering and humiliation. Yet, he views this natural tendency of young boys to enjoy playing games quite straightforwardly as further indications of inherent sin.
And yet I sinned, O Lord of my God, creator and arbiter of all natural things, but arbiter only, not creator, of sin. I sinned, O Lord, by disobeying my parents and the masters of whom I have spoken…I was disobedient, not because I chose something better than they proposed to me, but simply from the love of games. (1:10)
During this period of Augustine’s life, it is important to note that he was attending Christian schools and was as close to the faith as he would be for many years to come. It was also during this time that he developed a grave stomach illness (the first of many) which left him close to death. There is much consternation in these next passages as he describes his conflicting feelings of being passed over for his baptism when, instead of dying, he quickly recovered.
You, my God, were my guardian even then, and you saw the fervor and strength of my faith as I appealed to the piety of my own mother and to the mother of us all, your Church, to give me the baptism of Christ your Son, who is my God and my Master…So my washing in the waters of baptism was postponed, in the surmise that, if I continued to live, I should defile myself again with sin and, after baptism, the guilt of pollution would be greater and more dangerous. (1:11)
Even when Augustine wrote the Confessions at the age of forty-three, he had yet to reconcile what contour his life might have followed if he had been baptized in his early boyhood. This incident seems to set Augustine upon his spiritual quest and his search for truth. As we will see, Augustine searches for this truth in many ways but, firstly, by engaging in sin for sin’s sake.