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An Introduction to St. Augustine’s “Confessions”…

An Introduction to St. Augustine’s “Confessions”…

Augustine is accessible and applicable because he is one of us. He suffers from the same temptations and succumbs to those temptations. He falls and does not always get up again, preferring to wallow in the gutter with his lusts and his illicit appetites. And yet, like us, he is restless until he rests in the truth, which can only be found in Christ.

If any single book can claim to be the quintessential Christian classic it must be St. Augustine’s Confessions. There are other claimants to the accolade, to be sure. One thinks perhaps of Augustine’s other masterpiece, The City of God, or the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, or possibly, if one is seeking lighter fare, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis or St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. And if we are to include works of literature, as well as works of non-fiction, we might suggest The Divine Comedy, The Pilgrim’s Progress or even, at a heterodox stretch, Paradise Lost. And what of modern Christian classics, such as Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, or C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters? All of these books can claim to be Christian classics (though Milton’s non-Trinitarian theology stretches the definition of “Christianity” to breaking point), and they are all eminently worth taking the time to read. And yet if we could only read one of these books, or if we were allowed to take just one of them with us to the proverbial desert island, could we really bear to part with The Confessions? Could we contemplate being apart from it? Could we really see ourselves departing to the place of solitude without it?

Apart from being a purely Christian classic, there is no doubt that The Confessions is one of the Great Books, those seminal tomes, both Christian and non-Christian, which form the very foundation of the western canon and which represent, collectively, the illustrissimi and eminenti of all published works. It sits comfortably beside the works of Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas. It is of their company. And yet there’s something about The Confessions that puts it in a class of its own, even in such an elite company. The Confessions is unique. It is unlike all the other Great Books. It contains philosophy, and yet it is unlike any other philosophical work. It grapples with questions of theology but not in the same way that theologians normally do their grappling. It is autobiographical but it is not merely an autobiography; it is, rather, the very archetype of all autobiography, the first and the best of the genre, the standard by which all autobiography is measured. Furthermore, and this is perhaps the ultimate test, it is sublimely accessible and perennially applicable. It speaks to our age, as it spoke to Augustine’s own age, because it speaks to all ages. It cuts through the cant of all the intellectual fads and fashions, those accidents of history (philosophically speaking) which do not partake of those truths which are truly essential to our understanding of ourselves, of each other, and of our place in the cosmos. Augustine is accessible and applicable because he is one of us. He suffers from the same temptations and succumbs to those temptations. He falls and does not always get up again, preferring to wallow in the gutter with his lusts and his illicit appetites. And yet, like us, he is restless until he rests in the truth, which can only be found in Christ and the Church He founded.

Unlike the other great philosophers, Augustine doesn’t seek in The Confessions to show us the truth purely objectively, by setting out the abstract concepts and proving his point with dispassionate and logical reasoning. He seeks to show us the objective truth through his subjective engagement with it and by the consequences of his failure to engage with it. And yet this subjective approach has objective power because, in putting himself in his own shoes, he is putting himself in our shoes also. In describing himself, he is simultaneously describing us. He and we are one. We share the same humanity with all that it entails. In seeing him and his struggles, we see ourselves and our own struggles, and the struggles of each other.

The perennial applicability of The Confessions was illustrated potently by Fr. David Meconi in his whimsical composition of a letter which he imagines the seventeen-year-old Augustine might have written to his long-suffering mother (St. Monica) from college. “Mom, I wish you could meet my new girlfriend,” Augustine writes. “We may have come from very different places, but we have taught each other some important lessons. We have been staying together for a year or so now, and want you to know that you are soon going to meet your grandson!” In presenting the autobiographical facts of Augustine’s life in the twenty-first century idiom, Fr. Meconi allows us to see something of enduring relevance in the life Augustine lived and the life-lessons he learned, albeit that he lived his life sixteen hundred years ago. Perhaps we were the college student who decided to “shack-up” with a girlfriend. Perhaps we got a girlfriend pregnant. Or perhaps we were the mother whose college-age son or daughter dropped the bombshell about their lifestyle choices. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! The more things change, the more they remain the same.

In the same letter, Fr. Meconi imagines Augustine telling his mother that he intends to switch majors from law to philosophy because he’d read some good books and wonders whether perhaps there is something or someone that attracts and moves people towards the truth. “But I don’t know,” he adds, “living without insisting on truth is a lot easier.” For the young Augustine in the fourth century as for the young college student in the twenty-first century, relativism is a pragmatic choice, a path of least intellectual resistance which enables him to indulge his lower appetites without asking too many awkward moral questions. Plus ça change….

The next bombshell that Fr. Meconi imagines the teenage Augustine dropping on his devout Catholic mother is also all too familiar. He informs her that he has stopped going to the Catholic Church and is now a follower of a new age dualistic sect, which in his day was known as Manichaeism but in our day goes by other names. Plus ça change….

Augustine is “a perennial figure,” writes Fr. Meconi, “no different from most young people of each age.”[1] Like young people of all ages Augustine has a “restless heart”, seeking pleasure in all the wrong places. He is different from some, though mercifully not all, in that he finally found rest and real happiness in the only place it can truly be found, in the Presence of God.

Like Fr. Meconi, I have also perceived a striking similarity between my own “restless heart”, as a young man, and the restless heart of Augustine, a similarity which is discussed in my own conversion story, my own “confessions”, Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love (Saint Benedict Press, 2013). I will quote the whole passage that connects my own twentieth century childhood with Augustine’s childhood sixteen hundred years earlier because it serves as an evocative example of the accessibility and applicability of The Confessions:

Summer and autumn was scrumping season, during which we descended like a band of brigands or pirates on the neighbouring orchards, pillaging plums, pears, apples and strawberries as each fruit ripened, or often before they ripened. The ensuing stomach aches were attributed by my mother to the gluttonous quantity of fruit that we had consumed or the fact that it was not yet ripe, but I fancy that it may also have been due to the ingestion of the noxious chemicals that farmers by the 1960s were beginning to spray on their crops. Needless to say, we ate as we plucked and never thought about washing the fruit before consuming it.

It is odd that we gained such pleasure from this theft of the farmers’ crops. There was a thrill to be had in climbing the fence into the orchard, in trespassing on someone else’s property, in the risk of being caught, in the plucking of the forbidden fruit, in the eating of it. I am reminded in adulthood of St. Augustine’s conscience-driven memory, recounted in his Confessions, of his own scrumping expedition as a child. He recalls “a pear tree laden with fruit” near his childhood home and the night-time raids that he and his friends made upon it. “We took enormous quantities, not to feast on ourselves but perhaps to throw to the pigs; we did eat a few, but that was not our motive: we derived pleasure from the deed simply because it was forbidden.”[2]

St. Augustine’s timely and timeless musings on the presence of concupiscence in the heart of youth serves to remind us that the innocence of childhood is not synonymous with the absence of sin. The arcadia in which we resided was not Eden. Although we lived in blissful ignorance of the nature and magnitude of the adult sins that surrounded us, we could indulge in our own childish forms of them and did so with devilish delight. As sons of Adam we were willing apprentices in the antediluvian art of sin and became more adept in our practice of it as we got older but no wiser. It is for this reason that fairytales play such a healthy part in childhood. It is necessary for children to know that fairyland contains dragons, giants and wicked witches because the real world contains grown-up versions of these evil creatures of which children need to have at least an inkling.

Apart from the parallels between my own “restless” journey through the dark wood of sin and error, and that of Augustine, I am aware that my own telling of the story is in some senses a re-telling of the story that he had already told so much better. All such “confessions”, all such conversion stories, are merely types of Augustine’s archetype. Even Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, perhaps the greatest autobiographical conversion memoir ever written, except for The Confessions itself, is but a formal reflection of Augustine’s original “apologia”. The eminent Victorian’s apology for his life merely follows in Augustine’s venerable footsteps and the confessional trail he had already blazed. The same could be said of R. H. Benson’s Confessions of a Convert and Monsignor Ronald Knox’s A Spiritual Aeneid. All great confessional literature and all great conversion stories take their lead and their cue from Augustine’s magisterial original. Plus ça change….

This somewhat rambling preamble to Augustine’s Confessions has barely scratched the surface of all that The Confessions has to offer. It has not discussed Augustine’s philosophical and theological engagement with the Neoplatonists, or with the Manichaeans; nor has it discussed his rational and psychological grappling with grief and the meaning of mortality; nor has it so much as mentioned Augustine’s relationship with his mentor, St. Ambrose, a neglectful fact which is truly a sin of omission. And yet, when all is said and done, the most potent and important reason for anyone reading The Confessions is the insights it gives into one of the greatest minds in history. Why would we not want to spend time in the company of one of the greatest men who ever lived and in the presence of one of the greatest minds that God has ever loved?

All of the multifarious aspects of The Confessions that have not been discussed in this briefest of introductions will be revealed in the wonderful confessions that follow. What will be revealed is truly a revelation in the fullest epiphanous understanding of the word. It is nothing less than a shining forth of a mind baptized in the blessedness of faith and reason, and a heart basking in the love of God, no longer restless because it is resting in Him.

This essay was first published as the Introduction to the recently published Our Sunday Visitor edition of Augustine’s Confessions. It was first published here in October 2018.

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1. All quotations from Fr. Meconi are taken from his introduction to the Ignatius Critical Edition of The Confessions: St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012).

2. Saint Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, op. cit., p. 41

The featured image is “Saint Augustin rédigeant le Règle et la Cité de Dieu en habit assomptionniste,” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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