*The Confessions, by St. Augustine, 397–398 CE
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by St. Augustine, 397–398 CE
St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) is a major figure in the history and development of Western experience. Many biographical details come from the Confessions. Augustine was born in Tageste, in Numidia, the son of Patricius, a small landowner and local official who became a Christian late in life, and of Monica, a devout Christian from girlhood who was a major influence on Augustine. He was educated in the grammar school at Madura, where he became skilled in late Latin literature, if imperfect in Greek.
Then came a year at home, while his father saved enough to send him to Carthage, where he trained in rhetoric. As was customary, Augustine took a concubine and fathered a son, called Adeodatus, before he was 20. After teaching a year in Tagaste, Augustine taught in Carthage from 376 to 383, and was drawn to the Manichaeans. In 384 he went to Milan to be a professor of rhetoric. There he met Ambrose, a major influence because of his learned eloquence and fervent belief. Several events in 386—the persecution of Justina, the reading of Plotinus that made Augustine a Platonist, the recognition that a Christian soldier like Ponticianus was capable of greater discipline and renunciation than the thoughtful Augustine, the moment of conversion through the episode in the garden, followed by a summer of intellectual dialogues with non-Christian friends near Como— led to his return to Milan and baptism on Holy Saturday, 24 April 387, when he was 32.
Augustine decided to return to Africa, with Monica, who died on the journey at Ostia.
Here the autobiographical account in the Confessions ends. Subsequent details of his life include three years of study and devotion at Tagaste, during which time Adeodatus died.
While on a visit to Hippo Regius, Augustine was selected by the aged bishop’s flock and ordained to be a priest in 391. He was consecrated bishop in 395, a fixed appointment from the age of 40, and continued to live and work in this rather remote seaport.
Augustine wrote prodigiously—letters, sermons, and great treatises, notably De trinitate (The Trinity) and De civitate dei (The City of God)—in a style of contemporary Latin with greater flexibility than the classics and a mastery for memorable phrases.
Augustine was not so much a systematic thinker as a responder to current opponents and heretics (Donatists, Manichaeans, Pelagians). Obscurely situated during his lifetime, a period of imperial decline, Augustine became the most accessible author in early Christendom, one of the four Latin fathers and a Doctor of the Church. His works were widely circulated, in manuscript and early printings, though first collected in 11 volumes in a Benedictine edition (1679), which became part of Patrologiae latina, edited by J.P.Migne (1845). Comparable to Augustine’s place in the Catholic tradition was his impact upon the Reformation, since his thinking was also fundamental to Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Jansenism in the 16th and 17th centuries. Trained as a rhetorician, not as a philosopher, Augustine had a powerful appeal; he wrote always of the journey of the Christian soul to God, concerned with understanding the Scripture and living the Christian life, and vividly asserting the self-knowledge of the individual.
Augustine is not usually thought of as a writer of essays; he lived centuries before Montaigne, whom many identify as the progenitor of the essay form, although there were distinguished classical precedents in Latin writers like Cicero, Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), and Plutarch. The essay is typically defined as “a moderately brief prose discussion of a restricted topic.” The length of the Confessions argues against consideration, but his discursive writing and highlighting of episodes create sections of the book in which can be seen many characteristics of content and style that anticipate the modern essay. Augustine’s topic is restricted; he writes always of the Christian soul’s relation to God. Seriousness of purpose, an intent to persuade, and dignity of style give the Confessions the quality of a formal essay; but the personal and confidential manner, the use of “I” and indeed the formulation of a “self,” as well as exposition of tentative understanding (albeit leading to truth) suggest the informal essay.
Three selections from the text illustrate how portions of the Confessions can be identified as essays, or attempts at understanding coming from personal analysis. The story of the pear theft (Book II. 4–10) is among the most famous passages, in which Augustine describes his action as a 16 year old and analyzes the meaning of his behavior.
With his fellows he steals quantities of pears, not because of hunger but to throw them to the pigs. The real reason for the theft is to do something that is forbidden; the flavor tasted is not pear but sin, and the pleasure is in doing something that is wrong, for the act would have held no appeal but for the companions who shared it. Thus Augustine questions logically and finds answers that culminate in a recognition of a most unfriendly friendship. The conclusion is to compare his wandering away from God into a barren waste with the joy of being with God. Augustine exposes his youthful failings with the skill of a psychologist and an immediacy that vividly evokes the difficulties of adolescence. His style is personal and confessional, with an openness and directness that the best essayists seek.
A slightly shorter passage (Book VII. 9–10) might be called “Of Books,” to use the title of an essay by Francis Bacon. Here Augustine describes how God has mercifully kept him from pride by putting before him many books of the Platonists that helped him to think of God as a Spiritual Being. The classical philosphers give the framework, but the quotations are from Scripture—the Gospels, St. Paul, and the Psalms. The purpose is sober, and the method is an intellectual argument through close reading of texts. In the last section Augustine departs from his narrative recounting and textual presentation to a praise of God as eternal Truth, known through His creation.
A much longer section (Book X. 8–28), analogous to 19th-century longer and more personal essays, may be called “On Memory,” which is again devoted to Augustine’s seeking God. Here his Platonist account, the rising through stages, goes beyond the experiences of the senses to consider the nature of memory, a storehouse of images. Very systematically Augustine explores the nature of memory, how things are preserved— sense experiences, knowledge from study, the process of thought that assembles. He posits that at some time in the past we were happy, and thus all long for happiness, more specifically for God, always in his memory from when Augustine first learned of Him.
The style is questioning, with frequent qualifications, and an answer of personal struggle and selfaffirmation, memorably expressed through illustrative descriptive details and exclamations.
VELMA BOURGEOIS RICHMOND
See also Autobiographical Essay; Religious Essay
Confessiones, edited by P.Knöll, 1909, M.Kutella, revised by H. Juergens and W.Schaub, 1969, revised by James J.O’Donnell, 3 vols., 1992, and Gillian Clark, 1995; as The Confessions, many translations, including by F.J.Sheed, 1943, J.M.Lelen, 1952, R.
S.Pine-Coffin, 1961, Rex Warner, 1963, E.M.Blaiklock, 1983, Hal M. Helms, 1986, and Henry Chadwick, 1991
Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo, Berkeley: University of California Press, and London: Faber, 1967
McWilliam, Joanne, editor, Augustine: From Rhetor to Theologian, Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992.
Mallard, William, Language and Love: Introducing Augustine’s Religious Thought
Through the Confessions Story, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994
Pope, Hugh, Saint Augustine of Hippo: Essays Dealing with His Life and Times and Some Features of His Work, London: Sand and Co., 1937; Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1949
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