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

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  1. St. Monica, pray for us.

    I have read them twice many years ago, now. My mother (RIP, my St. Monica) had recommended them. I cannot find the book.

  2. College freshman Western Civ reading. I remember laughing as I highlighted “Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” We could all identify with that.

    Now I want to go back and read it, just so that my only memory of it is not a vague image of pear trees.

  3. I read this awhile back and as I recall Augustine was all in a twist over stealing some pears. Other than that, couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Is this the one where he famously cries, “Lord, make me chaste. But now right now.” ?

  4. Joe, I have always thought that what upset Saint Augustine most about the pears was that it seemed to him to be an example of evil for evil’s sake. They destroyed the pears not because he and his fellow hooligans wanted to eat them, but for the simple joy of destruction. For Saint Augustine this illustrated that there is a disorder deep in the nature of Man which he traces to original sin.

    A first rate introduction to Saint Augustine and his many, many writings is Peter Brown’s superb biography of the Bishop of Hippo:


  5. Don, Perhaps I need to reread it. I slogged through City of God (most of it) and found parts very profound, others incomprehensible (kinda of like a Dostoevsky novel). : )

  6. That book changed my life. I love and HIGHLY recommend the translation by Maria Boulding, it’s very lively and fast, much like the original Latin (as far as I can tell). Many older translations are far more ponderous than St. Augustine himself was! He seems to have written the book in one ecstatic rush, and it races from beginning to end as one big love song to God. IMHO, anyway.

    I would never start with Peter Brown’s monumental and dense book — which, despite my love for all things Augustinian, I have never plowed through. Start with the Confessions, or with Fr. Groeschel’s small book about him. Or start with a collection of his sermons, they are all wonderful.

    There is a lot more to the pear incident. I think one of his main points there was that he did it because he was having fun with his friends, and that friendship (a good) can impel one to do things that are wrong. Part of the fun was doing something wrong, yes. But more than that, it was doing something wrong together. It is easy to dismiss St. Augustine’s worrying about a couple of pears as neurotic, but that is reading with 20th century eyes. He picked that story precisely because it was petty and “no big deal,” because no one could mistake anything about it for necessity or confusion or being ill-informed.

  7. I am inspired to join you and add this to my lenten discipline. My copy is around here somewhere…. ah, here it is. It’s a Doubleday version, translated by John K. Ryan, who apparently was at Catholic University’s School of Philosophy, around 1959. I guess I’ll try to get through 1 book (chapter) every three days or so.

  8. “But since all things cannot contain you in your entirety, do they then contain a part of you, and do all things simultaneously contain the same part? Or do single things contain single parts, greater things containing greater parts and smaller things smaller parts? Is one part of you greater, therefore, and another smaller? Or are you entire in all places, and does no one thing contain you in your entirety?” – Book I, Ch. 3

    St. Augustine… father of set theory? 🙂

  9. Augustine also said, rather ironically to God:

    “Thou hast counselled a better course than Thou hast permitted.”

    This sentence always struck me as a moment of letdown for him.

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