The Confessions is the first autobiography in Western literature, but Augustine meant it to be far more than simply an account of his life. He wrote it during the first three years of his tenure as bishop of Hippo. The word confessions in the title implies not only that the narrative will reveal intimate facts about the author but also that it will be guided by a spirit of remorse and the praise of God.
In book I, Augustine describes his early years, from his childhood to the age of fifteen. He admits that as a teenager he preferred hedonism to studying. In book II he speaks of his early pursuit of sexual pleasure. Around the age of sixteen, he gave up studying, chased women, and even became a thief. He moves through three years in book III, to the age of nineteen, when he lives in Carthage. He’s still chasing women, but he has also discovered the Manichean cult. Over the nine years of book IV, he finishes his studies and becomes a published author; one of his publications is a book on Aristotle. In book V, Augustine is twenty-nine years old. He has given up on the Manicheans and his mistress, and he is in Rome, where he has found friendship with Bishop Ambrose. In books VI and VII he describes his spiritual journey, during which he seeks personal happiness. He also considers the nature of evil. He understands God but does not understand Jesus Christ.
In book VIII, Augustine describes his conversion to Christianity. By book IX he is thinking about giving up teaching, and tragedy strikes. Two of his close friends die, followed by the death of his mother, Monica. In book X, he meditates on what will lead him to God and bring happiness in his life. In book XI, he begins to study the Bible in earnest, which allows him to talk about the nature of time. Book XII contains a detailed examination of the first chapter of the book of Genesis, through which he outlines his view of matter. Finally, in book XIII he explains the goodness of God when he created all things. Augustine then reads the first chapter of Genesis in an allegorical manner, and he states that God works to bring happiness to those who are holy.
Scholars generally accept that the idea of autobiography begins with the letters of Saint Paul in the New Testament. However, Augustine in his Confessions takes this idea and expands it into an entire genre that critically inquires what it means to be a person. In other words, he explores the idea of the self until he discovers personal subjectivity. As Augustine constructs a view of God that would come to dominate Western thinking, he also creates a new concept of individual identity: the idea of the self. This identity is achieved through a twofold process: self-presentation, which leads to self-realization. Augustine creates a literary character out of the self and places it in a narrative text so that it becomes part of the grand allegory of redemption. In The Confessions, Augustine plays the lead role in the story of his own life. By telling this tale he transforms himself into a metaphor of the struggle of both body and soul to find happiness, which exists only in God’s love. He reads his life as an allegory to arrive at a larger truth.
All autobiography needs an audience, and Augustine’s audience is not his readers, but God. This is an interesting, and highly informative, process: Augustine transforms himself into a literary character to present himself to God. By doing so, Augustine juxtaposes eternity with the transient, the all-powerful with the weak, and the Creator with the created. This union may seem unequal, but Augustine presents it to teach a very pertinent lesson: only in the presence of the Omnipotent and the Omniscient can the self attain happiness and completeness. The Confessions is a work of prayer and repentance as well as praise.
One of the most important and powerful passages of The Confessions relates the journey of the self toward wholeness. The scene, which occurs in book VIII, occurs in the garden of Augustine’s house in Milan, in July 386. Augustine was in poor health and felt his life was going nowhere. He no longer wanted to teach and wanted to abandon all his worldly ambitions of securing a glorious career. Throughout Confessions, Augustine is torn between two opposing forces, sexual desire and spiritual desire, and he confronts the conflict here one final time. Augustine is writing from a distance of fourteen years, and he clearly casts the struggle in Neoplatonic terms, where to be truly free one must choose the interior world of the soul and abandon the distractions of the senses. In his Milan garden, Augustine came to a decision that would forever end this struggle.
In his garden, he heard a child’s voice saying, in Latin, “tolle, lege,” which means “take and read.” Augustine was reading the letters of Saint Paul, and he let the book fall open on its own. He was astonished to read the thirteenth verse of the thirteenth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, where Paul exhorts his readers to give up the way of the senses and walk the path of Christ. Augustine chose to heed Paul’s advice. He decided he would give up sex (which he began calling a “bitter sweetness”), never marry, and live a spiritual life. To implement these decisions, he decided to become a Christian and receive baptism as well as give up his teaching position. Augustine says he was flooded with peace and a great calm. He had finally learned to make his own life an allegory, where the lessons taught by the Neoplatonists, of emphasizing the soul over the body, became an actual reality. In his own life, he shows the merging of the pagan past with the Christian present. He chooses the soul over the body, the intellect over desire, faith over questioning, and reason over uncertainty. In The Confessions, Augustine single-handedly creates a theology of the self—a total, complete view of the self in relation to God.