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The Confessions of St. Augustine: Unabridged Paperback – Unabridged, November 11, 2009
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Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Bishop of Hippo Regius, also known as St. Augustine or St. Austin, was a Berber philosopher and theologian. Augustine, a Latin church father, is one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. Augustine was heavily influenced by the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus. He framed the concepts of original sin and just war. When the Roman Empire in the West was starting to disintegrate, Augustine developed the concept of the Church as a spiritual City of God (in a book of the same name) distinct from the material City of Man. His thought profoundly influenced the medieval worldview. Augustine's City of God was closely identified with the church, and was the community which worshipped God. Augustine was born in the city of Thagaste, the present day Souk Ahras, Algeria, to a pagan father named Patricius and a Catholic mother named Monica. He was educated in North Africa and resisted his mother's pleas to become Christian. Living as a pagan intellectual, he took a concubine and became a Manichean. Later he converted to Christianity, became a bishop, and opposed heresies, such as the belief that people can have the ability to choose to be good to such a degree as to merit salvation without divine aid (Pelagianism).In the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, he is a saint and pre-eminent Doctor of the Church, and the patron of the Augustinian religious order; his memorial is celebrated 28 August. Many Protestants, especially Calvinists, consider him to be one of the theological fathers of Reformation teaching on salvation and divine grace. In the Eastern Orthodox Church he is blessed, and his feast day is celebrated on 15 June, though a minority are of the opinion that he is a heretic, primarily because of his statements concerning what became known as the filioque clause. Among the Orthodox he is called Blessed Augustine, or St. Augustine the Blessed.
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Augustine organizes his autobiography into thirteen books. The first three books deal with his life as a student; Augustine discusses his early years in detail that shows his very relatable, human side—childhood opinions on school, peer pressure towards vandalism, and strong sexual drive towards promiscuity as an adolescent. The next six books concern his conversion. He discusses his long process from a smart, passionate, and hedonistic scholar to Manichaeism to (at long last) Christianity. The last three books contain the philosophical and theological discussions Augustine’s Confessions is known for—discussions of age-old questions like eternity, the radical evil of humanity, and the integrations of Greek philosophy into Christian theology. Together, these thirteen books work together to make his masterpiece at once endearingly human and relatable as it is brilliant in its theological authority.
Augustine’s discussion of his life, with all the personal details and the ex-post-facto lens, shows us more than anything else the similarity of struggles people in late antiquity and modernity went through. In his second book, Augustine repents of the acts of theft he committed in his adolescent years. He tells a story about how he would go to an orchard with some friends, steal pears, and throw them to pigs, only eating a few of the pears. He confesses this story—a story that has been impressed upon his conscience and memory as a deep, dark secret—to God, writing, “‘What fruit had I’, wretched boy, in these things (Rom. 6:21) which I now blush to recall, above all that theft in which I loved nothing but the theft itself?” (II. viii (16)). He explains that this was not an individual act of crime, but rather an act of foolish adolescent peer pressure:
The theft itself was a nothing, and for that reason I was more the miserable. Yet had I been alone I would not have done it—I remember my state of mind to be thus at the time—alone I would never have done it. Therefore my love in that act was to be associated with the gang in whose company I did it…. my pleasure was not in the pears; it was in the crime itself, done in association with a sinful group. (II. viii (16))
Reading this passage, one realizes that adolescents faced the same peer pressure that they face today. The phenomenon of vandalism is not, it appears, a modern one: “As soon as the words are spoken ‘Let us go and do it’, one is ashamed not to be shameless” (ix (17). Augustine’s own lens of retrospective confession shows us that he felt and confessed his guilt in a way not unfamiliar to modern readers.
Perhaps the most influential theme of Augustine’s autobiography is that of chastity and purity. Throughout the book, Augustine repents over and over again for his licentious years, disgusted at his own deeds. Although Augustine might be seen as a terrible hypocrite—condemning his past sins after he committed them all—one must understand that Augustine is not being holier-than-thou. After all, he is writing to God, and is thus incredibly careful to show his repentance for previous deeds. Augustine believes in the radical depravity of man, but his Confessions is ultimately a book of personal repentance, not a book of condemning others’ sins; without God, all men are equally depraved of good. Because of the personal nature of this book, those who choose to read it and be convicted by it do so at their personal choice to be convicted.
We are given a view of the family dynamic of the ancient world as well. The modern family of parents with differing religions does not appear to be unusual in late antiquity. Augustine, writing about his parents’ desire to educate him, tells us that “Both of them, as I realized, were very ambitious for me: my father because he hardly gave a thought to you at all, and his ambitions for me were concerned with mere vanities; my mother because she thought it would do no harm and would be a help to set me on the way towards you, if I studied the traditional pattern of a literary education. That at least is my conjecture as I try to recall the characters of my parents” (iii (8)). The lack of surprise with which Augustine writes of his parents’ differing religions makes it apparent that such mixed marriages were not uncommon. However, Augustine also shows us the regularity of domestic abuse within late antiquity. Augustine’s father “was exceptional both for his kindness and for his quick temper” (IX. ix (19)), yet Augustine’s mother, Saint Monica, in her piety bore the abuse, knowing “that an angry husband should not be opposed, not merely by anything she did, but even by a word” (IX. ix (19)); after his bout of anger had passed, she would reason with him again. “[M]any wives,” writes Augustine, “married to gentler husbands bore the marks of blows and suffered disfigurements to their faces” (IX. ix (19)). Yet she was so dedicated to her husband “as her lord” that she even rebuked other wives for complaining about their husbands’ abuse. Augustine certainly does not dismiss his father’s behavior as acceptable, but it does seem from his writing that such abuse was common behavior with few consequences.
Although the marital relationships of ancient antiquity differed significantly from the modern dynamics, the process of Augustine’s conversion bares many parallels to contemporary religious conversions. The close involvement of family, the fervent prayer over many years, and the passionate and bright young scholar’s realization and conversion are all familiar motifs that are found in Augustine’s conversion process. While still a Manichaean, Augustine’s mother asked her priest to debate with Augustine in order to convince him to become a Christian. The priest refused, saying that Augustine “was still unready to learn,” still in the pliable conceits of youth. He simply told her to continue to pray for Augustine, whilst assuring her that Augustine would eventually come to realize the truth of Christianity in his reading. Naturally, she was unhappy with such a response from the priest. In any case, this scenario closely reflects the familiar case of the religious parent who worries for her child’s obsession with a certain religion—in Augustine’s case, Manichaeism. The partisan aspect of religious disagreement so widespread within today’s culture is also apparent in Augustine’s writing: “[H]e [the priest] told her [Saint Monica] how he himself as a small boy had been handed over to the Manicheans by his mother, whom they had led astray” (III. xii (21)). Disagreement on interpretation of Saint Monica’s vision about Augustine’s conversion also adds to the realism of Augustine’s account; while Augustine believed that Saint Monica would convert to Manichaeism, Saint Monica interpreted the vision to mean that Augustine would become Christian. Augustine’s conversion from a young rebel to an austere conservative from a series of realizations is reminiscent of the twentieth-century Jesus movement that stemmed largely from the hippie movement. Although Augustine was no hippie—not even an intellectual hippie—he was nonetheless a rebel, and during his conversion he channeled all of his anti-establishmentarian attitude into becoming averse to the common practices of worldly pleasures.
One controversial form of entertainment in late antiquity was the gladiatorial games. Augustine writes vehemently against them in Book VI chapters vii-viii, lamenting the love of the gladiatorial games some of his close friends held. Somehow the games possessed an incredible ability to enliven the bloodlust in a person, and people could become addicted to the games from first sight. Describing a friend who had been resistant to watch a gladiatorial game, Augustine writes: “As soon as he saw the blood, he at once drank in savagery and did not turn away. His eyes were riveted. He imbibed madness. Without any awareness of what was happening to him, he found delight in the murderous contest and was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure. He was not now the person who had come in, but just one of the crow which he had joined, and a true member of the group which had brought him” (VI. viii (13)). Roman gladiatorial fights do not exist in the modern world, yet this form of entertainment was a common part of the daily life of many Roman citizens. Augustine’s perspective sheds light both on the widespread access to such entertainment and the controversial nature this entertainment held—not unlike many modern controversial issues that concern libertarian principles—and gives us a great insider’s view of the phenomenon of the Roman gladiatorial fights and its place in society while under the magnifying glass of controversy and going through the transition that led to its extinction.
Writing in the late antiquity, Augustine’s personal autobiography gives us an authentic, honest, open-hearted view of his life. The details Augustine discusses when writing about his struggles as a youth show us that people in late antiquity had many similarities and faced similar challenges as do people in modern times. To be sure, some things have changed: Roman gladiatorial fights are illegal in most countries, and domestic abuse is much less common in first-world countries. Nonetheless, the striking similarities between people in late antiquity and today are revealed by the personal perspective Augustine’s autobiography provides. People may have enjoyed different forms of entertainment at the time, but ultimately the struggles and social forces that propelled people to right and wrong have remained the same.