Augustine’s Confessions: An Elusive Love

Book 3 finds Augustine studying in Carthage. On the personal front, the adult Augustine accuses his late-teen self of being consumed by lust, but he hasn’t yet found a specific person to get into trouble with.

I had not yet fallen in love, but I was in love with the idea of it, and this feeling that something was missing made me despise myself for not being more anxious to satisfy the need. I began to look around for some object for my love, since I badly wanted to love something.

Of course, from his authorial vantage point, Augustine sees that what he was searching for in the most final sense was God. Lacking God to love, he sought about for other things — sex first among them — which he thought would fill that lack.

Yet even acknowledging that God is our deepest and ultimate need, there’s also something that’s very familiarly human about Augustine’s phrasing here. He talks about searching for an object for the love that he has. It’s not simply that Augustine wants to be loved by someone else. He feels himself full of some good, brimming over with something which he desires to give to someone else, if only he can find someone willing to value it. For all that Augustine is talking about what he sees as his sinful past, it strikes me that this underlines the way in which human yearnings can teach us virtue.

But it’s certainly not all high-mindedness.

To love and to have my love returned was my heart’s desire, and it would be all the sweeter if I could also enjoy the body of the one who loved me.

Also, on a sort of side note, I was struck by this brief passage:

I defied you even so far as to relish the thought of lust, and gratify it too, within the walls of your church during the celebration of your mysteries.

Yes, Augustine, was indulging in girl watching at mass. The saints are but men as we are, it seems. Perhaps I’m engaging in too much creative interpretation here, but reading that line I recalled that the girlfriend Augustine eventually settled down with for over a decade (and who bore his son, Adeodatus) was a catechumen (as he is too at this point, never having been baptized.) I can’t help wondering if the girlfriend (or mistress, to use the term that shows up in most translations — the relationship itself, as we shall see, has something of the ancient and something of the modern in it) who stuck with him so long, and went into a convent after they separated, was a girl he met at church. She seems to have had something of the “nice girl” about her, despite the irregularity of their relationship. I wonder if she was always overawed by Augustine’s mental gymnastics in regard to faith, or if she, like Monica, was always quietly praying for his return to Christianity during his theological wanderings.

At this time, Augustine is searching in more ways than one. He’s doing well as a rhetorician, which as with being a high-end lawyer today involves being able to argue persuasively for either side, and he moves in a fast set (where he’s ashamed to admit he’s not actually all that wild in his personal life) but God’s light begins to shine into Augustine’s life again from an unexpected quarter. He reads Hortensius by Cicero and is deeply affected by Cicero’s recommendation that the reader study philosophy. Cicero, who lived in the first century B.C. during the last days of the Republic and was killed at the orders of the Second Triumvirate after the death of Julius Caesar, was one of the greatest Roman rhetoricians and politicians. In this regard, he would have been a key model for Augustine in professional life, and Cicero’s speeches would have been a major area of study for him. However, Hortensius was a dialog (now lost) dealing with issues of philosophy — an area in which Cicero was not a great original thinker but certainly a devoted enthusiast.

After reading Hortensius Augustine is determined to devote his mental powers to The Truth, but where is he to find it? Since Augustine is a catechumen (on the indefinite delay plan, as far as baptism goes) it occurs to him that the Bible might be a good place to start:

So I made up my mind to examine the holy Scriptures and see what kind of books they were. I discovered something that was at once beyond the understanding of the proud and hidden from the eyes of children. Its gait was humbe, but the heights it reached were sublime. It was enfolded in mysteries, and I was not the kind of man to enter into it or bow my head to follow where it led. But these were not the feelings I had when I first read the Scriptures. To me they seemed quite unworthy of comparison with the stately prose of Cicero, because I had too much conceit to accept their simplicity and not enough insight to penetrate their depths. It is surely true that as the child grows these books grow with him. But I was too proud to call myself a child. I was inflated with self-esteem, which made me think myself a great man.

Having tried to read the Bible without guidance, and found it less than he expected, Augustine falls in with a set more to his liking — a group of young men who can talk all about God with all the same names that Christians and Jews apply, but who believe that they have got at the real truth which most Christians don’t understand. They also have glib answers to questions like “Where did evil come from?” and “How could God have endorsed or allowed actions in the Old Testament which we now know are evil?” These are the Manicheans — a dualist sect who believed in both a good and an evil principle (the evil god created the physical world) and who had, it seems, fused together Hellenistic and Mesopotamian mysticism and elements of Christianity to produce a cult which claimed to see deeper into the Scriptures than Christians did. In the late Roman world, this filled much the same place as some sort of Buddhist-Christian-Pagan-Kabbalah fusion might among today’s cultural elite.

St. Monica is, of course, incredibly upset at the thought that her son has wandered into heresy, and prays fervently for his return. She also finds a bishop who is a convert from Manicheeism and begs him to argue with Augustine and set him straight. He advises her to continue praying and assures her that under the veneer of sophistication their teachings are so nonsensical that Augustine will eventually read and study enough to see through them and return to the true faith. She’s granted a consolation which many a parent of present day lapsed Catholics yearns for — a dream in which she is assured that Augustine will return to her faith. This reassures her (despite Augustine’s glib attempt to argue the dream actually meant she would become a Manichean) though she does not slacken her praying.


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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