Saint Augustine is a philosopher and theologian whose works have contributed to the development of Christianity and philosophy in the Western world. He combined the Christian doctrine with Neoplatonism to produce a philosophy that has been regarded as groundbreaking by scholars. Augustine was instrumental to the development of the church as a City of God separate from the earth. His thoughts influenced the medieval world causing most people to align with him. Some of his most important works include Confessions and The City of God.
Augustine’s work Confessions is one of the most influential texts in the study of medieval philosophy. It has been described by most scholars as a “spiritual biography” and the first ever “autobiography.” Philosophers and non-philosophers have hailed this book as a masterpiece of world literature. Augustine titled his autobiography Confessions to indicate the two objectives of his work. During his time, confession had two meanings: the first meaning was to praise God while the second was to give an account of one’s weaknesses and faults to God. Augustine applied these meanings into his writings and brought everything together in a refined but complex state.
Confessions is divided into thirteen books. One of the nine books recounts the story of Augustine’s life until his mother’s death while the remaining four books goes fully into his philosophy and theology.
Some points to note about Confessions
First, Confessions is a largely edited account of Augustine’s life. It did not record every event that took place in his life. Doing so would have resulted in a large body of work filled with irrelevant stories and anecdotes. So keep it in mind that only important events that are relevant to the message of this work were highlighted.
Secondly, Augustine employed a strategy throughout his work. He was not just telling the story of his life, but he was also using his life as an example of how a sinful soul can disengage from the temptations of this world and find forgiveness and rest in God. Furthermore, he gives practical examples of events and relationships that can help or hinder the soul from attaining faithfulness in God.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get into what Confessions is really about:
The first nine books
- Book 1: Augustine begins with his thoughts on the state of an infant and childhood. At this stage of life, he comes in contact with the concept of language for the first time. To him, language is a double-edged sword. On one handt helps us to be a part of the world by immersing us in the sights, sounds and experiences the world has to offer. On the other hand when used correctly, language can help us ascend to the higher realms where we would find the rest and fulfillment we seek.
- Book II: He continues with his reflections on his adolescent period. He also reminisces on the grave sins he committed as a 16-year-old child. These sins were stealing a pear from his neighbor’s orchard and having the sin of lust. He questioned his ability to resort to stealing even though he comes from a well-to-do family. Finally, he blamed his willingness to sin on the company he kept.
- Book III: He goes to Carthage to study rhetoric. While at Carthage, he gets exposed to the works of Cicero which births his interest in philosophy. Later on, he discovers that he lacks faith in the scriptures due to pride. Therefore, he resolves to apply the philosophy of Manichaeism in reading and believing the scriptures.
- Book IV: Augustine begins a relationship with a woman which results in a son. At the same time, his friend falls sick and dies. This incident puts Augustine in a state of depression. While mourning, he avoids everything that could remind him of his friend. Lastly, he concludes that his friend’s death affected him severely because he did not love God.
- Book V: At age 29, he is slowly losing his faith in Manichaeism. The doctrines and teachings no longer have any effect on him. However, he has to pretend to people that he is still a staunch believer. This book closes with him moving to Rome and later to Milan.
- Book VI: In Milan, he encounters Bishop Ambrose whose teachings draw him to Catholicism. He also acknowledges the efforts of his friends, Nebridius and Alypius, in helping him discover the true religion. This book ends with the return of his mother. She arranges marriage for him with another woman and he is forced to leave his first wife.
- Book VII: Augustine gets exposed to Neoplatonism. However, he is skeptical and refuses to embrace it. Besides, he finds faults in their unwillingness to accept Christ as the mediator between God and humans.
- Book VII: Augustine struggles with the decision to convert to Christianity. He sees the pressure to succumb everywhere he goes. While having a chat with his friends, the conversation shifts to miraculous conversions. He finally accepts Christianity after reading 1Corinthians 7:27-35.
- Book IX: A significant event takes place which he calls the “vision of Ostia.” In that vision, he sees himself and his mother ascend beyond the physical world to an intellectual realm. This vision was different from the normal ascents typical at that time because it involved the ascent of two individuals instead of one.
The last four books
In this section, Augustine’s text ceases to be an autobiography and becomes a theology and philosophy manual.
- Book X: Augustine beams his spotlight on the functions of memory and how it can be used to achieve transcendence. He also reflects on the significance of prayers and the value of confessions. Finally, while reflecting, he arrives at a theory to justify the existence of Christ.
- Book XI: He stresses on the subject of time and eternity. He saw time as a “distention” of eternity that should be overcome if one is to gain rest in God. He uses Genesis to support his thoughts. He also analyzes the event of creation.
- Book XII: He discusses the nature of both earthly beings and the divine. The book of Genesis is placed under further scrutiny. This section closes with suggestions on how to interpret Genesis.
- Book XII: Augustine gives an allegorical interpretation to explain Genesis. Through this method, he discovers the importance of the Trinity. He also finds out the reason God created man.
In Confessions, Augustine recounts in details how he was able to overcome his sinful nature through the help of Christ. His purpose for telling this story was to encourage his readers who might be going through similar challenges. Also, he saw his story as a type of testimony to show others how much God loved him and the greatness of God in his life. Using his life as an example, he laid himself bare before God and his readers while simultaneously praising and thanking God for saving him. Lastly, Confessions is a two-part work that tells essentially the same tale. The only difference is one part is written as a story while the other part is written as a religious and philosophical guide.
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