1 . About Augustine as a writer What kind of biography are the Confessions? A largely shared opinion among scholars maintains that the ‘Confessions’ represent a unique masterpiece both in Latin literature and in Early Christianity . It also largely shared the opinion that this work hardly finds another one to be compared with in the specific context of its time.
It cannot to be compared with the classical book of memories (Upomnemata, Reminders) written as a personal collection of thoughts and meditations by the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius (161-180 a. Ch.). These are a typical dialogue of the author with himself, according to a long tradition of the Stoicism.
Augustine speaks with himself in the Confessions as well, but not only with himself alone: his very partner is believed to be God. Moreover his reminders are sometimes explicitly directed to hand down an exhaustive profile of both external events and interior experiences of his life in order to make them understandable and acceptable first of all to himself and the possibly to the reader.
On the other hand the Confessions are not an obvious form of dialogue, like for instance the famous Epistles to Lucilius (Epistulae ad Lucilium) of Lucius Anneus Seneca, a relevant writer and thinker of the first century a. Ch. In his Letters Seneca speaks with a probably real disciple, he shares with him his ideas and convictions, aims to support him through his ordinary life to achieve the most elevated purposes of a high morality.
However Augustine’s Confessions are not intended chiefly to teach or to expose doctrines. They encourage first of all its author to learn and to recall the main events of his life in order to understand, and definitely to find in them a superior light and meaning. They are in some ways an open inquiry and research which tries to understand what The Absolute did operate especially when the author was not aware of His presence, especially in the historical circumstances when he went astray.
In this respect Augustine’s work represents a kind of spiritual investigation in which the author plays the unusual role of the prosecutor, who argues against himself about the trespasses and mistakes he discovers step by step in his life. To his surprise and wonder he discovers that despite his heavy burden of mistakes and sins, they did not hamper the final attainment of the right way of escape.
A work of praise The Confessions are for sure an autobiography. However of a very different inspiration than usual. They do not give praise to its author. So much the less they do not exalt him. They do not even attempt an apology or defence from whatever trespass he committed. The true spiritual atmosphere of this work is that of the humble acknowledgement. No glory no pride is viewed or allowed. Glory and pride are instead recriminated.
We find of course abundant praise and glory in the Confessions, but only directed to God or for whomever, whatever might have disclosed the possibility to recognize His reality and presence. In this connection we can consider the ‘Confessions’ an ‘Encomium’ as the Greeks used to call a ‘speech of praise’, or a ‘Laudatio’ as the Romans called a discourse addressed to high-level personalities. To exalt their deeds in the classical tradition. To praise God, his Saviour, in Augustine’s work.
However, no praise might be tuned without knowledge and truth.
Therefore the Confessions are a permanent endeavour to find the appropriate words to understand and to define what God is, what man can utter through thoughts and words of Him. At the same time they attest the intellectual and spiritual difficulties to find the right way leading to God, during more than twenty years of a hard intellectual and moral inquiry.
Through his personal experience Augustine realized that God has given to man’s soul the basic impulse not only to look for Him but also to get a right knowledge of Him, as voiced by the famous sentence that opens the Confessions:
…Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee (Book I, 1. 1)
Yet the Confessions prove as well how hard can be to find this way and how far man can be mislead. But for God’s grace, man alone might be defeated. Augustine’s final experience of God is, actually, on one hand that of a merciful God and on the other hand that of a God who does contrast man’s pride when he supposes to be self-sufficient. The ultimate attainment of human understanding is then humble and unpretentious inquiry on himself and on God.
Therefore all along the Confessions praise is always accompanied by a spiritual attitude of imploration as we see, for example, in the opening prayer:
Grant me, O Lord, to know which is the soul’s first movement toward Thee – to implore Thy aid or to utter its praise of Thee; and whether it must know Thee before it can implore. For it would seem clear that no one can call upon Thee without knowing Thee, for if he did he might invoke another than Thee, knowing Thee not. Yet may it be that a man must implore Thee before he can know Thee … and what room is there in me for my God, the God who made heaven and heart? (Book I, 1-2).
At the end of his spiritual research, when Augustine tries to describe God he speaks in terms of fullness, of perfection of being. At the same time he sees in Him the harmony of any possible extreme:
….. most merciful and must just, utterly hidden and utterly present, most beautiful and most strong, abiding yet mysterious, suffering no change and changing all things, never new, never old … ever in action, never at rest, gathering all things to Thee and needing none … ever seeking though lacking nothing. Thou lovest without subjection to passion, Thou art jealous but not with fear; Thou canst know repentance but not sorrow, be angry yet unperturbed by anger. Thou canst change the works Thou hast made but Thy mind stands changeless. Thou dost find and receive back what Thou didst never lose; art never in need but dost rejoice in Thy gains, art not greedy but dost exact interest manifold (ib. 4. 4)
Here we see for sure a plentiful use of rhetorical skill. Anyway it is not only a matter of rhetoric: here Augustine uses mystic languages to get a deeper insight of God. One language, positive, ascribes Him the highest level of all affirmative attributes and qualities (the positive way, the way that affirms), while at the same time he acknowledges that whatever the positive attribution might say they cannot definitely outline God’s essence (the negative way, the way that denies). Supposed that in God abide beauty and justice in its fullness, it should not be only according to man’s idea of justice and beauty even in their full extent.
Original Latin meaning of ‘confession’ Confession (Latin ‘Confessio’) has two basic, original meanings in Latin: ‘recognize’ and ‘acknowledge’: in Augustine’s mind, both are directed primarily to God with whom Augustine tries to evince the truth on himself and of his trespasses. After this primary destination the Confessions view also the believers who asked him to convey some more news on his spiritual journey. A large introductory section of the Book X is dedicated to explain this context: Augustine speaks out his hesitations to join such expectations.
A masterpiece inside the classical tradition The influence of Augustine writings as a whole was very high. In the Western literature it remains one of the most relevant in all periods. His influence refers to his writings as a whole, where he interpreted and developed the Christian tradition in several sensitive points:
the interpretation of the main Catholic tenets
the interpretation of the Bible
the criticism of the classic pagan religion and traditions
the criticism of the main heretical trends of his time
the relation between Christian community and political power
the theory of knowledge, understanding and grace
the rules for building and living in religious communities.
In all these questions he was undoubtedly an very influencing personality in Western Christianity, a point of reference as a theologian and as a philosopher.
As for the Confessions, in particular, they are generally esteemed to be a masterpiece also from a literary point of view, for two major reasons:
its high aesthetical level, depth and power of expression
its innovative genre, which was unique in classic Roman and Greek tradition and opened a large set of several future developments, which followed the way he had opened.
Just to single out some literary aspects, starting from the language, Augustine’s Confessions succeeded in creating a new way of narration for the Hellenistic novel, where different levels of language were usually mixed in the same work: namely, the every day’s language, the lyrical, the epical and the philosophical ones, as for instance we find in other masterpieces of the Western classical literature, like the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, an African writer who two centuries before was borne in the same region of Augustine, or in the Satyricon of Petronius.
Yet the main difference is that both Apuleius and Petronius did not choose themselves and their personal life directly as the primary object of their work, but only by means of fictitious characters and circumstances they approached general questions, sometimes current events and personal way of thinking. Anyway their works were more or less books of entertainment.
Augustine literary skill affords him to give at the same time a vivid and detailed portrait of his contemporary environment and the most complex nuances of his interior life as well:
he can express whatever banal accident may occur in every day’s life, narrating himself when he interacts with the most various characters he meets.
He is able to voice whatever is going on in the turmoil of his conscience during very different stages of his spiritual journey,
as well as the distended satisfaction of his best attainments
At the same time the Confessions encompass a very large spectrum of philosophical and theological discussions,
(they represent an early attempt of what later in his huge literary production would be displayed in several volumes).
His way of writing recalls very often the flavour of a lyrical prose, using an extremely various set of musical resonances.
Many passages of the Confessions could here be quoted to prove each one of these items. Trying to single out only some of the most renowned among them:
events and characters: the loss of the unnamed friend (Book IV, 4-7), the portrait of his mother and of himself as ‘son of his tears’ (Book III, 11-12), the meeting with the drunken beggar (Book VI, 6), the portrait of his friend Alipius and the passion for the Games (Book VI, 7-10), the inquiring and cautious profile of Ambrose, bishop of Milan (Book VI, 3), the last unexpected call to conversion (Book VIII, 12-13), the outline of his mother’s life during the last days (Book IX, 8-9, 11-12)
the deep insight in the turmoil of his conscience, his passions: The first outburst of lust and love (Book III, 1; IV, 1), the pleasure of being wicked and doing evil (Book II, 4-6, 8-10), the interior clash of doubt and truth (Book VII, 1-5), the last appeals of sexual fascination (Book VIII, 5)
the best attainments: a first mystical and personal re-approach to God through the neo-Platonists (Book VII, 9-10, 15-16), the joyful awareness of God’s presence in his self and beyond it (Book X, 14-17, 35-38).
the lyrical prose: attempt to define and to find out the appropriate words to address God (Book I, 2-3), in contemplation of time and eternity (Book IX, 10)
A masterpiece against the classical tradition His training and definitely his carrier as a rhetorician and in the most famous schools of the Western Roman Empire (Chartage, Rome and Milan) gave him a highly consolidated cultural experience.
Nevertheless Augustine criticises the contemporary schools from a moral and spiritual point of view; still from the very beginning during his first school years he highlights the disproportioned use of violence, the lack of attention to the specific psychology of children, the attitude to devote more care for the charm a person is speaking with than for what he is speaking of, namely for the contents. In this respect all the first chapters of the Confessions are almost a standing attack both to the pagan models proposed in the different stages of rhetorical formation and to the human values they inspire.
Criticism towards the classical pedagogical tradition is a main topic of the Confessions. It encompasses the time when he was a student and especially the time when he himself was teaching the same topics down to the final decision to leave his profession just when it had attained the highest level of prestige and, in some way, of power, namely when he was teaching rhetoric and eloquence in the new residence city of the Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. The words he uses to outline his profession sum up the ultimate evaluation he experienced in his mind in that very moment. They reflect of course the radical criticism of the pagan way of thinking that since a long time he had already rejected in his mind. Actually he calls his official job ‘tongue’s service’ to the ‘speech market’, assuring that the ‘lying follies’ and ‘the conflicts of the law’ ‘should no longer buy at my mouth the tools of their madness’, so that he was no more going to put up himself ‘for sale again’ (Book 9. 2. 2).
In the second chapter of the Book III he takes up a position which looks like to be decidedly contrary to the well known Aristotle’s theory of the ‘catharsis’. While Aristotle recognizes a possible positive role to the passions which are played on the stage of the theatre, supposing that they when experienced in an harmless way by the spectators might purify them of their evil impulses, Augustine, on the contrary, stresses the ambiguity of what, according to him, is spurred by the evil passions played by the actors and created by the plot. This is at least what he has realized through his personal experience and the reflections that they suggested to his mind.
Nevertheless beauty and music and every kind of artistic expression are the permanent character of his way of writing. This skilled dexterity is however enriched by a new theological and spiritual flavour. Augustine is convinced that precisely beauty can be a step that elevates man’s soul to God. Not occasionally the first book he writes takes the title ‘On the Beautiful and the Fitting’ (De Pulchro et Apto), a work no more extant ( see Book IV, 13.20). On occasion of the theft of the pears Augustine reflects on the point: why evil was so attracting even though there was no beauty in that action of stealing. He concludes that ‘there is a certain show of beauty in sin’. When he was nearly to be converted one important step forward was assured by the influence of Neo-Platonism, precisely in the quest for what beauty is. In this case he concludes that beauty finds its ultimate reason and fundament in the Absolute Beauty, while every thing is only a reminder of it (Book VII, 17. 23).
When did Augustine write the Confessions? This work was written about ten years after Augustine’s conversion to the Christian faith. He was actually baptized on Easter Eve in 387 a. Ch (24 April) by Ambrose, bishop of Milan, one the most relevant personalities of that time and of early Christianity as a whole. He was then 33 years old. Along with him were also baptized his son, his close friend Elpidius, while his mother Monica was among the believers who crowded the temple. Augustine gives a very sober account of this central event in the IX Book of the Confessions. This same Book put an end in the proper sense of what is meant with autobiography.
From this event on the Confessions do no more deal with the historical life of Augustine. From this moment up to the end of his life we have to refer to indirect information given by contemporary writers or by hints to be found in his abundant writings, in particular inside his correspondence.
Among the contemporary writers important is Possidius who lived for 40 years, since 391 a. Ch., in a very intimate spiritual community with him. After Augustine’s death Possidius wrote a detailed biography of him, which however cannot be compared with the depth of perspectives we find in the Confessions. Possidius highlights
some events of the period which follows the conversion up to the time when he decided to compose the Confessions,
how he decided to retire in a private life, trying to build up a religious community with the friends who were with him,
how he could not escape the responsibilities following his cultural and personal prestige inside the Catholic church, to the point that he was urged to take a relevant position in the religious disputes and was definitely almost compelled to become priest and soon bishop of Hippo.
Just in these years he composed the Confessions.
2. Augustine’s religious training Starting from times of unconsciousness Coming to the events that marked in different manner his spiritual journey, he gives a map that surprisingly chooses as a starting point a time when he was unconscious.
Two reasons seem to have determined this unusual choice.
this allows him to put God questions on what is life and to ask wherefrom man does come:
I know not where I came from, when I came into this life-in-death - or should I call it death-in-life?...
I have seen women big in child. And before that again, …, Was I anywhere? Was I anyone? … Whence could such a living being come but from You, Lord? Could any man be his own maker?(1. 6. 7, 9,10).
Questions like this appear very often all along the Confessions and open the way to its last section, namely from the Book X to the Book XIII where Augustine reflects on time and eternity, on memory and creation. These are the chapters in which history looses its relevance encompassed as it is in a meta-historical dimension of reality.
the connection of coming to life with the problem of evil and good, even before the time when man can realize through his conscience what they might mean.
Since the first moments of life we meet, according to Augustine, the most difficult and sensitive problem: the problem that impelled him to become deep involved in the religious movement of Manichaeism and to abide in it for a long period of his youth up to the eve of his conversion.
When he writes the Confessions, already ten years after his conversion, he is still engaged in permanent, hard controversies against this religious movement. An ample section of his works is dedicated to confront its main doctrines. The discussion on creation largely dominates the last Books of the Confessions and proves how far reaching was the presence of Manichaeism in his mind as well as in his religious milieu.
Manichaean arguments were directed especially against the Book of Genesis because this book begins with the creation of the cosmos, of the earth, of life and of all living beings. The Manichaeans rejected the Old Testament of the Bible as a whole, some parts of the New Testament too, arguing that they had been composed by the Father of Darkness, the Deity of Devil, and accused the Catholic church to have distorted the original message of Jesus, supposing that even the text of the New Testament had been manipulated. They started from the matter of fact that the New Testament was keeping evident links to the Old Testament.
This polemic atmosphere works deeply inside and outside Augustine
Meditating then on man’s nature from his birth he speaks out from the very beginning his position against the Manichaeans:
evil precedes conscience
there is no inborn, no primordial innocence in man
God’s providence however can save man by means of a multiform intervention
God and man are the only supreme actors: no other God of evil works in between
evil is not a subsistent deity, it is nothing else than absence or refusal of good
O God hear me! … You made man but not the sin in him (1. 7. 11) Good and Evil, a recurrent problem Then one major question for the ‘confessing ‘ Augustine is: how did God’s providence work, interact with his personal responsibility inside the various circumstances of his life?.
Recalling for instance his childhood, even when he remarks the painful educational training of his teachers and sometimes the scanty wariness of his parents, he reminds that he could find a way to open his child’s mind to God, in fervent prayer, even in such unlucky context:
As a boy I fell into the way of calling upon You … and in those prayers I opened the strings of my tongue – praying to You, small as I was, but with not small energy, that I might not be beaten at school (1.9.14)
The presence of good inside evil and evil inside good remains one of the hermeneutical keys to interpret the Confessions. It lasts until the eve of his conversion. Augustine seems to succeed in finding a way of escape only step by step:
he starts questioning the complex and volatile cosmology of the Manichaeans, when he realizes that what they taught might hardly cope with the results of a scientific knowledge
he sees that even the supposed spiritual leaders of the Manichaeans have no profound arguments as they are supposed to have (it is the main subject of the Book V)
he tries then to free himself of the Manichaean view of God as something ‘real’, ‘corporeal’, of the same kind of reality as all other beings, either in this world or in another possible cosmos.
he questions different ways of thinking: through the inquiry on what beauty is, by means of the category of substance in Aristotle, through the refusal of any astrology (see 4. 3 and definitely 7. 6. 8,9), assuming positively the scepticism of the Neo-Academicians in terms of humble quest and expectation if the truth,
and definitely discovering Plato, who enabled him to open his mind towards a spiritual perception of God’s nature (it is the main concern of the Book VII),
This was the last philosophical support that immediately preceded his final decision to receive the Baptism:
Now that I had read the books of the Platonists and had been set by them towards the search for a truth that is incorporeal, I came to see Your invisible things which are understood by the things that are made … I was certain that You are and that You are infinite, but not as being diffused trough space whether finite or infinite: that You truly are and are ever the same, not in any part or by any motion different or otherwise … (7. 20.26) 3. The relevance of Plato’s philosophy in Augustine’s conception of God A decisive argument against Manichaeism A conclusive support in overcoming the Manichaean vision of God, in making his understanding keener and able to think of Him in spiritual terms was surely given by Plato’s philosophy as it was intended by the currents of the Neo-Platonism of that time. Augustine recognizes in such a spiritual occasion a great sign of God’s providence, the more so because the man who handed over Plato’s works was a pride fellow. Of this supernatural and unpredictable kind are actually the ways of the Providence. In Augustine’s words:
… You brought in my way by means of a certain man – an incredibly conceited man – some books of the Platonists translated from Greek to Latin. In them I found, though not in the very words, yet the thing itself and proved by all sort of reasons: that ‘in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God: the same in the beginning with God; all things were made by Him and without Him was made nothing that was made …’.
In this passage of the Book VII, 9.13, Augustine quotes the first words of the Gospel according to John as if they were wholly overlapping with Plato’s thinking. In the same chapter he goes on saying that Plato taught him another very important truth:
… I found in those same writings that the soul of man, though ‘it gives testimony of the light, yes is not itself the light’; but that the Word, God Himself, is ‘the true light which enlightens every man tat comes into the world’ …
Once more Augustine is quoting the words of the Gospel of John in perfect consonance with the ideas of Plato.
Platonism might surely open a dialoguing relation with Christianity
owing to its deep contemplative insight of reality
owing to the privilege granted to the world of ‘beyond realities’
to such a point that some Neo-Platonic interpreters looked upon it as a religious thought
or even as a theological system
Plato went very deep in interpreting man’s understanding:
he raised the last question: why and how man’s thinking is actually able to work out the essence of any reality in the whole process of understanding?
this process cannot be a purely human and intellectual management of how isolating accidents, changeable qualities of things from what is not mutable in order to reach the unchangeable and universal essence of things
the final answer to such questions must be found only in a world beyond any material condition
how could actually our world, signed by corruption and change, give birth to the universal concepts we can afford, concepts which are uncorrupted, eternal, endless and perfect?
no quantity, no quality of beings could satisfy the virtual extent we harbour in our concepts and ideas.
Plato comes then to his famous and typical conclusion:
6) only another world of completely different qualitative level can be the true origin both of our ideas and of man’s soul, namely the World of Ideas, the Hyperuranios.
In his Book On true Religion (De vera religione) Augustine sums up his appreciation of Plato as follows:
“Nobody is closer to us than the Platonic Philosophers (4. 7)
At any rate it must be taken in due consideration that Augustine, in the same context in which he recognizes the relevance of Plato and of the Platonists, highlights what Plato could not provide him:
He did not find in Platonists any hint to the ‘Word made flesh’, namely to the historical possibility that the Supreme Being might ‘live among us’
So much the less he did not find in them any possibility to accept that the Word might take a form as a servant and obedient into death for the ungodly, because He was meek and humble of heart.
Beyond Platonism toward the God revealed by Jesus
Augustine gives also an ultimate reason why they could not give such answers. This reason deserves particular attention because he himself was for long time among
those who wear the boots of their sublimer doctrine (7. 9. 14).
While Manichaeans were teaching falsehood, the Platonists opened a true rational insight on God but in proud when he says thanks them for what they granted him and keeps his distance from them for their self-sufficiency. Augustine recalls here the Apostle Paul, the speech he delivered in the Areopagus, the agreement the Athenians granted when he spoke of the God, not being ‘like gold or silver or stone or formed by the art and imagination of mortals’, whereas they refused to hear hom speaking of a man (Jesus Christ) whom God had appointed ‘raising him from the dead’ (see in the New Testament, Acts of the Apostles, 17, 22-32).
In the following terms Augustine sums up his ambivalent interior experience after reading the bokks of the neo-Platonists:
And You had said to the Athenians by Your Apostle that in You we live and move and are, as certain of their own writers had said; and obviously it was from (Athens) that these books came.
But I did not fix my mind upon the idols of the Egyptians which they served with the gold that was Yours, changing the truth of God into a lie and worshipping and serving a creature rather than the Creator
That said, anyhow the relevance of neo-Platonism in this turning point of his life is highlighted by the experience of God he reports in connection with the period he was in touch with them. This experience recalls some traits of Plotinus’ Enneades where he writes of his mystical approach to the One. In the Confessions this chapter represents an outstanding essay of which personal experience Augustine made of God:
Being admonished by all this to return to myself, I entered into my own depths, with You as guide; and I was able to do it because You were my helper. I enetred and with the eye of my soul, such as it was, I saw Your unchangeable Light shining over that same eye of my soul, over my mind. It was not the light of everyday that the eye of flesh can see, nor some greater light of the same order, such as might be if the brightness of our daily light should be seen shining with a more intense brightness and filling all things with its greatness. Your light was not that, but other, altogether other, than all such lights. Nor was above my mind as oil above the water it floats on, nor as the sky is above the earth; it was above because it made me, and I was below because made by it. He who knows the throuth knows that Light, and he that knows the Light knows eternity! Thou art my God, I sigh to Thee, by day and by night. When first I knew Thee, Thou didst lift me up so that I might see that there was something to see, but that I was not yet the man to see it. And Thou didst beat back the weakness of my gaze, blazing upon me too strongly, and I was shaken with love and with dread. And I knew that I was from Thee in the region of unlikeness, as if I heard Thy voice from on high: ‘I am the food of grown men: grow and you shall eat me. And you shall not change Me into yourself as bodily food, but into Me you shall be changed’. And I learned that Thou hast corrected man for iniquity and Thou didst make my soul shrivel up like a cobweb. And I said: ‘Is truth then nothing at all, since it is not extended either through finite space or infinite?’. And Thou didst cry to me from afar: I am who am. And I heard Thee, as one hears in the Heart; and there was from that moment no ground of doubt in me: I would more easily have doubted my own life than have doubted that truth is: which is clearly seen, being understood by things that are made (Book VII, 10. 16)
4. The origin of evil: the last open question In this very terminal phase Augustine stresses a last philosophical and spiritual problem tied with the doctrine of Manes, an obstacle that he admits still present in his mind even though he feels already completely alien to his movement:
… I was sure that what the Manichees said was not true. With all my heart I rejected them (7. 3. 4)
Nevertheless the problem of the origin of evil remains:
… what I did unwillingly, it still seemed to me that I rather suffered than did … I asked further: ‘Who made me? Was it not my God, who is not only God but Goodness itself? What root reason is there for my willing evil and failing to will good …? If the devil is the author, where does the devil come from? (7. 3. 5)… Where then is evil, and what is its source, and how has it crept into he creation? .. Can it be that it is wholly without being? (7. 5.7)
Moral and intellectual fascination of Manichaeism It remains to ask: why Augustine was so deeply and so permanently involved in Manichaeism?
The most reliable answer points to the two main promises of this movement. They look like to have exerted a strong attraction in the young Augustine:
it promised truth on the basis of pure knowledge.
This seems to have fascinated the young man, who was then fond of culture and intellectual prestige. Therefore Augustine in the Confessions so frequently reproaches himself a presumptuous use of culture:
They cried out: ‘Truth, truth; they were forever uttering the word to me …(3. 6. 10)
it promised an ideal of moral perfection in radical forms.
Just because the young Augustine was heavily attracted by passions, this proposal was in turn attractive.
A similar promise of truth came also from another independent source, namely philosophy, which appears as the overpowering discovery of a certain period of Augustine’s life. It was as well a reaction to his immoderate and reckless inclinations and it happened unexpectedly through the reading of Cicero’s Hortensius. In that moment he came to the point that there was something in life which had more value than any other dimension. Not only knowledge, but love of knowledge, namely the attainment of wisdom:
… love of wisdom is what is meant by the Greek name ‘philosophy’, and it was to philosophy that that book set me so ardently (4. 4. 8).
Generally speaking, for Augustine the problem of truth was not only a matter of intellectual inquiry, but mostly a principle of ethical and spiritual honesty. What attracted Augustine to the doctrine of Manes, determined its final rejection.
This is the reason why he so often argues against Manichaeism and others referring to the category of falsehood. His rejection always resonates also in terms of a moral rebellion.
Even when he treats one of his main leaders with respect (see Faustus in Book V, 6. 10 ff) the recurrent reproach to the Manichaeans is that they were offending morality precisely because they did not teach truth. But the same Faustus is sharply attacked in other important works, chiefly in the Against Faustus (Contra Faustum, 400 a. Ch.), which was composed in the years when he ended the Confessions. As well as Felix, another outstanding leader of the Manichaeans. He defeated him in a public debate and made him a convert to the Catholic faith.
Evil has no autonomous substance All this happened when he was already definitely free from any fascination of Manichaeism. Along the tormented journey of his spirit the last word seemed to come when Augustine realized that nothing in reality could be assumed as an absolute good or an absolute evil according to what he himself for such a long time maintained being a convincing approach to reality. When Augustine realized, by means of different and various influences, mostly through the Platonists, that the only absoluteness had to be conceived only beyond the boundaries of any limited world, he was then able to attain God in way at the same time reasonable and experienceable. All things are creatures, marked by an ontological limitedness. God is the reason why they exist, but God’s existence does not overlap with their being. Evil does exist as an autonomous substance, for it is nothing but limited good, in a manifold expressions of limitedness of good:
Then I thought upon those other things that are less than You, and I saw that they neither absolutely are nor yet totally are not: they are, in as much as they are from You: they are not, in as much as they are not what You are …
And it became clear to me that corruptible things are good: if they were supremely godd they could not be corrupted, but also if they were not good at all they could not be corrupted: if they were supremely good they would be incorruptible, if they were in no way good there would be nothing in them that might corrupt. For corruption damages; and unless it diminished goodness, it would not damage. Thus either corruption does no damage, which is impossible or – and this is certain proof of it – all things that are corrupted are deprived of some goodness. But if they were deprived of all goodness, they would be totally without being. For if they might still be and yet could no longer be corrupted, they would be better than in their first state, because they would abide henceforth incorruptibly. What could be more monstrous than to say that things could be made better by losing all their goodness? If they were deprived of all goodness, they would be altogether nothing: there fore as long as they are, they are good. Thus whatsoever things are, are good; and that evil whose origin I sought is not a substance, because it it were a substance it would be good. For either it would be an incorruptible substance, that is to say, the highest goodness; or it would be a corruptible substance, which would not be corruptible unless it were good. Thus I saw and clearly realised that You have made all things good, and that there no substances not made by You (Book VII, 11-12, 17-18)
5. The Confessions in the context of the contemporary Christianity Augustine lives in a century where the Christian faith was going to be more and more expanded in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea and even far away. In less than one century the Christian faith became the official religion of the Roman Empire. When Augustine lived his passionate youth (the age covered by Book IV) the Emperor Theodosius declared illegal all other religions except Christianity.
At the same time this was a period of great troubles inside Christianity.
The Two Universal first Councils (Nicea 325 a. Ch and Constatinople I 381 a. Ch.) were celebrated during Augustine’s lifetime and the Third Universal Council just one year after his death (Ephesus 431 a Ch).
The main concern of the first two Councils was directed to oppose the Arian heresy. The Arians did not accept the divine nature of Jesus Christ. They assumed that he was the highest creature, but still a creature as all others. In the IV century on this important tenet of the Christian faith arose strong contrasts.
Augustine wrote also on these problems a large set of relevant works.
However in the Confessions there is hardly any specific trace of this christological debate. Augustine reflects deeply on it in other works, in particular in the ample treatise ‘On the Trinity’.
This silence is in a way surprising because just in the period when he was baptized, the Arians, supported by the Mother Regent of the teenager Emperor Valentinian II, were trying to regain position in Milan. The Catholic bishop of the city, Ambrose, the most influent Catholic leader of that time, was personally in danger. He himself in a letter to his sister gives an impressing background of the dramatic situation he was living in, writing that his eyes saw what death is.
In Book IX we have a short report of these events when Augustine remembers that
The mother of the boy Emperor Valentinian was persecuting Your servant Ambrose in the interest of her own heresy: for she had been seduced by the Arians. The devoted people had stayed day and night in the church, ready to die with their bishop, Your servant. And my mother , your handymad, bearing a great part of the trouble and the vigil, had lived in prayer (9. 7. 15)
Even though here the Arian are quoted we hardly find in the Confession the hot atmosphere of the trinitarian debate that we meet in other contemporary writings of that very turbulent century.
A short passage that makes reference to the christological debate is that of Book VII when he speaks of his still undefined ideas on the nature of Logos, the Verbe incarnate, and of some inadequate expressions of his friend Alipius:
I thought of Christ my Lord as a man of marvellous wisdom, whom no other could possibly equal…
If Scripture told falsely of Christ on this matter, all of it would be involved in the peril of falsehood, and there would be no sure faith for mankind left in it. Taking then what was written there as truth, I saw Christ as a complete man: not the body of a man only, or an animating soul without a rational mind, but altogether man; and I thought He was to be preferred to all others not as the very Person of Truth but because of the great excellence of His human nature and His more perfect participation in wisdom.
Alypius on the other hand, imagined that Catholics believed that in Christ God was clothed in flesh – meaning that there was the godhead and a body in Him, but no soul. He thought they held that He had not a human mind. And since it seemed quite clear to him that what had been handed down to us concerning Christ could not have been done save by a creature both vital and rational, he was slower in his movement towards the Christian faith itself. But once he realised that this was the error of the Apollinarian heretics, he liked the Catholic faith better and accepted it. But I admit that it was only some time later that I learned how, in the truth that the Word was made flesh, Catholic doctrine is distinguished from the error of Photinus. In fact the refutation of heretics serves to bring into clear light what Your Church holds and what sound doctrine is (7. 19. 25).
Further, in the same Book VII, he speaks of Jesus Christ stressing the fundamental change of mentality he had personally to do in order to accept that in him was present and operating the same God whom he had found and conceived - through such a hard research – in terms of Absoluteness, unattainable by any division and change in the purity of his spiritual perfection (7. 20-21)
In the above quoted passage Augustine himself gives an answer to the possible question why he was not involved in the Christological debate.
The reason is obviously that in such a period of his life this was not the first question to be put to his mind. There were previous problems to be solved, there were preliminary issues to be focused.
Moreover in the Western part of the Roman Empire and especially in Africa others were the priorities: the protest of the Donatists, who held very rigid, uncompromising positions against those Christians who had denied their faith in times of persecution. All African communities were highly sensitive on this point that caused tensions and divisions. Augustine himself during almost the entire course of his charge had to face even extreme and violent attacks of the Donatists. He dedicated many works to contrast such divisions inside the church.
That said, the relation of Augustine to Christ as the Saviour and the Divine Word made flesh even if not in the explicit tune of the Arian debate, is of plain evidence throughout the Confessions.
Interesting and unexpected - for that period of his life - is what he remarks after reading the Hortensius:
The book excited and inflamed me; in my ardour the only thing I found lacking was that the name of Christ was not there. For with my mother’s milk my infant heart had drunk in, and still held deep down in it, that name according to Your mercy, O Lord, the name of Your Son, my Saviour; and whatever lacked that name, no matter how learned and excellently written and true, could not win me wholly (3. 4. 8)
A similar remark we find when he was interested to the philosophers of the Academy in times of doubt:
I absolutely refused to entrust the care of my sick soul, because they were without the saving name of Christ (5. 14. 25) These particular remarks testimony an intimate relation with the person of Christ working underground as a moral and spiritual reference and as a term of standing love through the turmoil of his ideas and life’s changes. It is surely to be connected with the influence of his mother who from the first moments of his life tried to convey him her simple and vivid faith.
6. Last events of Augustine’s life During the last events of his life the Arian question became a dramatic emergence for Augustine.
In 428 a Ch, two years before his death, peoples of Arian faith invaded the province of Africa sacking it almost thoroughly. It was the Vandal conquest which dealt one of the ultimate blows to the already falling Western Roman Empire. The invasion was characterized by such harsh events of systematic destruction that in the Western languages up to now words like Vandalic or Vandalism mean extreme cruelty and terror. Striking is the commentary of these events in Possidius’ biography of Augustine. Speaking of what he felt during the siege he writes:
The tears were more than usual his bread, day and night … seeing massacres and destruction of towns and villages and their men killed or put to flight or dispersed, the churches deprived of their priests and servants, the virgins and all consecrated scattered, some of them killed under torture some put to the sward some in prison, after losing the integrity of their limbs and even of their faith, reduced in bad and hard slavery. No hymns no prayers to God, a huge quantity of religious buildings laying waste … (27. 6)
Augustine faced the new situation both helping the refugees and reacting theologically to the attacks of the Arian heresy. The Vandals were actually Arians.
When he died his town Hippo since three months was under siege. One year after it was overwhelmed and destroyed.
1 Lecture given in the Department of Philosophy of the Shi Fan (Teachers’ Faculty) in Shanghai Normal University (April 2008). It represents a summarizing report of the main topics discussed inside a Master which was specifically centred on the Confessions. The audience was composed by students both graduated and post-graduated coming from different specializations (Chinese Philosophy, Western Philosophy, Religion, Ethics and Aesthetics). References to the text were taken from the English version of the Confessions, translated by F. J. Sheed, edited by Michael P. Foley, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Cambridge, 2nd Edition 2006. Different editions in Chinese language were also available. No direct quotations were usually made to other Augustine’s works, except to some general hints to the production following his conversion. The main purpose of the Master was actually the knowledge of the Confessions. Due to the short range of lectures (about 23 hours) the comment could reach only the first nine Books. At the end of the Master the students had to draw up an examination paper starting from this summarizing report.