Augustine’s Confessions: At a Distance from God

Sunday, April 10, AD 2011

In Book 3 we saw Augustine’s fall away from the Church, in Book 5 we will see the beginning of his return. Book 4, however, is focused primarily on his years as a Manichean.

This is where we get the fairly brief description which is nearly all we have on Augustine’s longest romantic relationship:

In those days I lived with a woman, not my lawful wedded wife but a mistress whom I had chosen for no special reason but that my restless passions had alighted on her. But she was the only one and I was faithful to her. Living with her I found out by my own experience the difference between the restraint of the marriage alliance, contracted for the purpose of having children, and a bargain struck for lust, in which the birth of children is begrudged, though, if they come, we cannot help but love them.

We also hear a bit about Augustine’s life as a hot shot young rhetorician. In addition to his Manichean beliefs, he falls into consulting astrologers frequently, in part to learn the auspices when he’s entering major academic competitions. At one point, a magician of some sort offers to assure that he will win a competition, but although Augustine finds the idea that that stars and planets can influence worldly events appealing (and has no qualms about consulting astrologers and books of astrology) he recoils at the idea of the magician sacrificing animals to dark powers in an attempt to secure a victory for him.

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2 Responses to Augustine’s Confessions: At a Distance from God

  • It seems to me that St Augustine left his concubine when he was ready to go on another road. There was nothing in his situation – if one excludes class or tribal considerations – that would have prevented him from regularising his relationship into a proper marriage. There are quite a few men like that, who having decided that they cannot handle both whole- hearted service to their destiny and an ordinary family life, choose to give up on the latter.

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Augustine’s Confessions: An Elusive Love

Tuesday, March 29, AD 2011

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.

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Augustine’s Confessions: Sin for the Sake of Sin

Monday, March 21, AD 2011

In Book 2, we find Augustine (the character) as a teenager, while Augustine (the author) takes the opportunity to think about what makes us sin. The connection will be familiar to us all. Augustine talked about Original Sin in Book 1, that tendency which we can see even in very young children towards selfishness in which we can see the rooted tendency towards self over others which is at the root of sin. But that selfishness of childhood is largely unthinking. It is as we enter late childhood and early adolescence we attain the ability to think about sin in a way much like that of adults, but with the drives almost unique to adolescence. Augustine sees this in his past self and doesn’t like what he sees:

For as I grew to manhood I was inflamed with desire for a surfeit of hell’s pleasures. Foolhardy as I was, I ran wild with lust that was manifold and rank. In your eyes my beauty vanished and I was foul to the core, yet I was pleased with my own condition and anxious to be pleasing in the eyes of men.

In this book, the story of what’s going on in young Augustine’s life (versus his examination of the human condition) struck me, with the ways that it seemed both familiar and alien.

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4 Responses to Augustine’s Confessions: Sin for the Sake of Sin

  • Transgression for transgression’s sake is a lot like drug addiction in that it takes ever increasing doses to achieve that “high.” What’s shocking to one generation is quaint and amusing to later generations. This fact should give pause to all those who delight in being transgressive as a sort of antidote to bourgeois sensibilities. One can only deconstruct and break down barriers for so long — eventually there’s nothing left standing at all, except for maybe the sheer force of will. There’s a reason we seem surrounded by “man children” and adults stuck in perpetual adolescence; someday we might be talking about “adult toddlers” the way things are going. If I were a Freudian, I’d say the future is all Id.

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  • as I grew to manhood I was inflamed with desire for a surfeit of hell’s pleasures. Foolhardy as I was, I ran wild with lust that was manifold and rank. In your eyes my beauty vanished and I was foul to the core, yet I was pleased with my own condition and anxious to be pleasing in the eyes of men.

    Change manhood to womanhood and you have me my 20’s (although I wouldn’t exactly say I ran ‘wild with lust,’ I was not a chaste young woman. And the sad thing is that I read Augustine’s Confessions in college and didn’t see myself in them at all.

    Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

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Augustine’s Confessions: Growing Up Human

Wednesday, March 16, AD 2011

The second half of Book I (Chapters 7 to 20) deal with the earliest years of Augustine’s life, starting with his infancy. One of the things I find kind of charming about this section is the approach Augustine brings to examining his earliest years:

I do not remember that early part of my life, O Lord, but I believe what other people have told me about it and from watching other babies I can conclude that I lived as they do. But, true though my conclusions may be, I do not like to think of that period as part of the same life I now lead, because it is dim and forgotten and, in this sense, it is no different from the time I spent in my mother’s womb.

This is one of those fascinating things about Augustine. He’s never just talking about himself and his memories, even if that is the theme which drives his narrative. He’s perhaps more interested in the experience of being human, and of humanity in relation to God, than he is in telling us about his experiences in particular.

Of course, when Augustine thinks about the experience of being human, he immediately starts thinking about original sin, and some find him rather dour because of this. Augustine is one of the few people you’ll find talking about infants sinning:

It can hardly be right for a child, even at that age, to cry for everything, including things which would harm him; to work himself into a tantrum against people older than himself and not required to obey him; and to try his best to strike and hurt others who know better than he does, including his own parents, when they do not give in to him and refuse to pander to whims which would only do him harm. This shows that, if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.

Read in isolation, this can sound rather cold and severe. Of course babies cry, they have no other way of making their needs known! But Augustine recognizes this, and indeed notes that people never blame or scold babies for being selfish, because of course they can be no other way.

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Augustine’s Confessions: Contemplating the Infinite

Tuesday, March 15, AD 2011

Book I of The Confessions seems to me to fall into two parts: Chapters 1-7 grapple with the very concept of an infinite and eternal God, while Chapters 8-20 discuss the human experience of growing up and attaining some degree of youthful self awareness. I’ll cover this first half of the book today, and the second half tomorrow, so that each post can be relatively short.

Augustine sets out to tell the story of his own life in relation to and in relationship with God, and he opens the book by addressing God. Right here in Book I, Chapter 1 we run into one of the handful of quotes from Augustine that practically everyone has heard, whether or not they actually know it comes from him:

[T]hou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.

That restlessness will provide much of the matter for Augustine’s story, but here he asks the more basic question of why an eternal and perfect God concerns himself with all too mortal and fallen humans:

How shall I call upon my God for aid, when the call I make is for my Lord and my God to come into myself? What place is there in me to which my God can come, what place that can receive the God who made heaven and earth?

This idea of God being in something while also being both infinite and the creator of all things is something which an inquiring mind must necessarily poke at, and Augustine pokes with a sense of imagination which seems, in some ways, oddly modern:

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3 Responses to Augustine’s Confessions: Contemplating the Infinite

  • “The universe is not some separate thing, but rather is encompassed and contained by God.”

    Perhaps only a fleeting thought in the mind of God. When thinking of creation, God and infinity, I tend to get a feeling of dizziness after a few minutes. In Exodus where God calls Himself I AM, the name has always struck me as very appropriate, because I rather suspect He is the only entity that truly does exist, which makes the contention of atheists that God does not exist truly hilarious. All the rest of creation “exists” at all solely by the Will of God. The fact of creation demonstrates to me the love of God, as it was completely unnecessary from His point of view.

  • “Too narrow is the house of my soul for you to enter into it: let it be enlarged by you.” – Ch. 5

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Augustine’s Confessions: Getting Started

Friday, March 11, AD 2011

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.

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10 Responses to Augustine’s Confessions: Getting Started

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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.” ?

  • 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:

    http://www.amazon.com/Augustine-Hippo-Biography-New-Epilogue/dp/0520227573

  • 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). : )

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • “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? 🙂

  • 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.