Augustine’s Confessions: Getting Started
For several years running, I did a series of Lenten reading posts focused on Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s been a couple years, and I never did cover the last couple cantos of the Purgatorio, for which I am sorry. Perhaps some day the time will be right to go back to it. However, this year I had the itch to re-read Augustine’s Confessions, which is a conveniently Lent-length work. And so as a form of discipline, and also in hopes it may be interesting or helpful to a few people, I’m going to write my way through Confessions this Lent in a way similar to the Commedia posts of past year.
Before plunging in, a few brief notes on what we’re getting into. The Confessions was written by Augustine when he was in his mid-forties, in 397-398 AD, just a few years after he was made bishop of Hippo in North Africa. This was ten years after his adult conversion to Christianity which is the culminating even of Confessions.
Confessions is a very approachable work. It’s about 300 pages long in a paperback edition and although it deals with a number of philosophical and theological issues, its basic format is that of a spiritual autobiography written in the first person and addressed to God. It is not only perhaps the first spiritual autobiography, but also the first book-length personal autobiography in Western Literature. Other classical writers had written about themselves to one extent or another (perhaps most famously Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars and Civil Wars and Xenophon in his March Up Country) but had always done so in the guise of a third person, objective history.
St. Augustine unabashedly writes about himself as himself, and does so in a manner so introspective that you come away feeling that you know him. Far from being a “just the facts” biography, Augustine takes the story of his life and conversion as a means to examine questions of what it means to think back to your past, understand your past motivations, to examine the human condition and the relationship of the human person to God.
As I said, Confessions is a highly readable book. If you’re going to read one book by the Church Fathers, Confessions is arguably the most accessible and yet one of the deepest. This will be my third time through it in English (I also struggled through the first three books in Latin in one college course — which mostly underlines that my Latin was always very schoolboyish, as it’s not very difficult Latin at all) and I hope that if you enjoy these posts and you haven’t read it you’ll give it a try. My approach here will be to work through the book in order, writing about each of the thirteen books in one or two posts, quote or describe particularly interesting or famous parts, and talk about some of the major themes. I’m not an Augustine scholar by any stretch, this will be more like a book club discussion, and I hope anyone with an interest (whether you’ve read Confessions or not) will feel free to join in that spirit in the comment boxes as the mood strikes.
The edition I’m reading is the Penguin Classics edition of Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin.
You can also access a full, modern translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Alberet C. Outler online, courtesy of Fordham University.