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 characteristicflavor 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
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.