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 Main Index : Writings : Augustine : Confessions Index : Introduction Part 2
Intro Part 1 | Intro Part 2 | Intro Part 3

Introduction - Part 1
Introduction - Part 2
Introduction - Part 3
Introduction - Part 4

Introduction - Part 2

In the space of some forty-four years, from his conversion in Milan (A.D. 386) to his death in Hippo Regius (A.D. 430), Augustine wrote--mostly at dictation--a vast sprawling library of books, sermons, and letters, the remains of which (in the Benedictine edition of St. Maur) fill fourteen volumes as they are reprinted in Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Latina (Vols. 32-45). In his old age, Augustine reviewed his authorship (in the Retractations) and has left us a critical review of ninety-three of his works he judged most important. Even a cursory glance at them shows how enormous was his range of interest. Yet almost everything he wrote was in response to a specific problem or an actual crisis in the immediate situation. One may mark off significant developments in his thought over this twoscore years, but one can hardly miss the fundamental consistency in his entire life's work. He was never interested in writing a systematic summa theologica, and would have been incapable of producing a balanced digest of his multifaceted teaching. Thus, if he is to be read wisely, he must be read widely--and always in context, with due attention to the specific aim in view in each particular treatise.

For the general reader who wishes to approach Augustine as directly as possible, however, it is a useful and fortunate thing that at the very beginning of his Christian ministry and then again at the very climax of it, Augustine set himself to focus his experience and thought into what were, for him, summings up. The result of the first effort is the Confessions, which is his most familiar and widely read work. The second is in the Enchiridion, written more than twenty years later. In the Confessions, he stands on the threshold of his career in the Church. In the Enchiridion, he stands forth as triumphant champion of orthodox Christianity. In these two works--the nearest equivalent to summation in the whole of the Augustinian corpus--we can find all his essential themes and can sample the characteristic flavor of his thought.

Augustine was baptized by Ambrose at Milan during Eastertide, A.D. 387. A short time later his mother, Monica, died at Ostia on the journey back to Africa. A year later, Augustine was back in Roman Africa living in a monastery at Tagaste, his native town. In 391, he was ordained presbyter in the church of Hippo Regius (a small coastal town nearby). Here in 395--with grave misgivings on his own part (cf. Sermon CCCLV, 2) and in actual violation of the eighth canon of Nicea (cf. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum, II, 671, and IV, 1167)--he was consecrated assistant bishop to the aged Valerius, whom he succeeded the following year. Shortly after he entered into his episcopal duties he began his Confessions, completing them probably in 398 (cf. De Labriolle, I, vi (see Bibliography), and di Capua, Miscellanea Agostiniana, II, 678).

Augustine had a complex motive for undertaking such a self-analysis. His pilgrimage of grace had led him to a most unexpected outcome. Now he felt a compelling need to retrace the crucial turnings of the way by which he had come. And since he was sure that it was God's grace that had been his prime mover on that way, it was a spontaneous expression of his heart that cast his self-recollection into the form of a sustained prayer to God.

The Confessions are not Augustine's autobiography. They are, instead, a deliberate effort, in the permissive atmosphere of God's felt presence, to recall those crucial episodes and events in which he can now see and celebrate the mysterious actions of God's prevenient and provident grace. Thus he follows the windings of his memory as it re-presents the upheavals of his youth and the stages of his disorderly quest for wisdom. He omits very much indeed. Yet he builds his successive climaxes so skillfully that the denouement in Book VIII is a vivid and believable convergence of influences, reconstructed and "placed" with consummate dramatic skill. We see how Cicero's Hortensius first awakened his thirst for wisdom, how the Manicheans deluded him with their promise of true wisdom, and how the Academics upset his confidence in certain knowledge--how they loosed him from the dogmatism of the Manicheans only to confront him with the opposite threat that all knowledge is uncertain. He shows us (Bk. V, Ch. X, 19) that almost the sole cause of his intellectual perplexity in religion was his stubborn, materialistic prejudice that if God existed he had to exist in a body, and thus had to have extension, shape, and finite relation. He remembers how the "Platonists" rescued him from this "materialism" and taught him how to think of spiritual and immaterial reality--and so to become able to conceive of God in non-dualistic categories. We can follow him in his extraordinarily candid and plain report of his Plotinian ecstasy, and his momentary communion with the One (Book VII). The "Platonists" liberated him from error, but they could not loose him from the fetters of incontinence. Thus, with a divided will, he continues to seek a stable peace in the Christian faith while he stubbornly clings to his pride and appetence.

In Book VIII, Augustine piles up a series of remembered incidents that inflamed his desire to imitate those who already seemed to have gained what he had so long been seeking. First of all, there had been Ambrose, who embodied for Augustine the dignity of Christian learning and the majesty of the authority of the Christian Scriptures. Then Simplicianus tells him the moving story of Victorinus (a more famous scholar than Augustine ever hoped to be), who finally came to the baptismal font in Milan as humbly as any other catechumen. Then, from Ponticianus he hears the story of Antony and about the increasing influence of the monastic calling. The story that stirs him most, perhaps, relates the dramatic conversion of the two "special agents of the imperial police" in the garden at Treves--two unlikely prospects snatched abruptly from their worldly ways to the monastic life.


Intro Part 1 | Intro Part 2 | Intro Part 3

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