Skip over navigation

Confessions

St. Augustine

Augustine's Confessions

Characters and Terms

Book I

Analysis

Augustine titled his deeply philosophical and theological autobiography Confessions to implicate two aspects of the form the work would take. To confess, in Augustine's time, meant both to give an account of one's faults to God and to praise God (to speak one's love for God). These two aims come together in the Confessions in an elegant but complex sense: Augustine narrates his ascent from sinfulness to faithfulness not simply for the practical edification of his readers, but also because he believes that narrative to be itself a story of God's greatness and of the fundamental love all things have for Him. Thus, in the Confessions form equals content to a large degree—the natural form for Augustine's story of redemption to take would be a direct address to God, since it is God who must be thanked for such redemption. (That said, a direct address to God was a highly original form for Augustine to have used at the time).

This idea should also help us understand the apparently lopsided and unusual structure of the text. The first nine Books of the Confessions are devoted to the story of Augustine's life up to his mother's death, but the last four Books make a sudden, lengthy departure into pure theology and philosophy. This shift should be understood in the same context as the double meaning of 'confessions'—for Augustine, the story of his sinful life and redemption is in fact a profoundly philosophical and religious matter, since his story is only one example of the way all imperfect creation yearns to return to God. Thus, the story of the return to God is set out first as an autobiography, and then in conceptual terms.

This idea of the return also serves as a good access to the philosophical and theological context in which Augustine is thinking and writing. The most important influence here (besides the Bible) is Neoplatonism, a few major texts of which Augustine read shortly before his conversion. The Neoplatonist universe is hierarchical, but things lower on the scale of being cannot be said to be bad or evil. Everything is good in so far as it exists, but things lower on the scale have a less complete and perfect Being. In contrast to God, who is eternal, unchanging, and unified, the lower levels of being involve what we know as the visible universe—a universe of matter in constant flux, in a vast multiplicity, and caught up in the ravages of time.

Augustine's lasting influence lies largely in his success in combining this Neoplatonic worldview with the Christian one. In Augustine's hybrid system, the idea that all creation is good in as much as it exists means that all creation, no matter how nasty or ugly, has its existence only in God. Because of this, all creation seeks to return to God, who is the purest and most perfected form of the compromised Being enjoyed by individual things. Again, then, any story of an individual's return to God is also a statement about the relationship between God and the created universe: namely, everything tends back toward God, its constant source and ideal form.

A question to which much of the last four Books of the Confessions is devoted is how this relationship between an eternal God and a temporal creation could exist. How could the return to God be a process that takes place over time, if God is an eternal essence to which we already owe our very existence? How did God create the world (and 'when' could this have happened) if God is eternal and unchanging? The solution, for Augustine, involves a deep understanding of the simultaneity of eternity and time. Time, he argues, does not really exist—it is more of an illusion we generate for ourselves for unclear reasons (fundamentally, we fall into time because of our distance from God's perfection). Past and future exist only in our present constructions of them. From God's point of view, all of time exists at once--nothing comes 'before' or 'after' anything else temporally. God created the universe not 'at' a specific time, but rather creates it constantly and always, in one eternal act.

This idea puts the both the Neoplatonic worldview and Augustine's own act of 'confessing' in a new perspective. There no longer needs to be any conflict between the idea of a return to God over 'time' (as with the young and sinful Augustine) on the one hand and everything's constant existence in God on the other. Since time is simply an illusion of the lower hierarchy, it means the same thing to wander and return to God as it does to owe one's existence to God at every moment—these are just two aspects of the same thing, one aspect told as a story and the other told in religious and philosophical terms.

Thus, again, Augustine's text is remarkably and complexly coherent, despite its apparent eccentricities and shifts in content. He is laying out the story of his life, opening himself as completely as possible to God and to his readers. In so doing, he is praising God for his salvation. Further, he is illustrating, with a temporal example, a specific view of the universe as unified across all time in an unchanging God.

We have left Christ out of this discussion, largely because the most challenging aspects of Augustine's thought often concern his use of the Neoplatonic system. Nonetheless, Christ is crucial to Augustine, although he has no place in Neoplatonism. Christ is the mechanism by which the return to God is effected. It is through Christ that a human can come to know his or her existence in God, since Christ is God made human. Augustine suggests that Christ is also wisdom itself, since wisdom too is a kind of intermediary between God and the lower levels of creation. It is in this wisdom, in the context of this 'Christ,' that God created the universe, and it is through this wisdom, Christ, that the universe can return to Him.

More Help

Previous Next
nonsense

by hhd618, August 26, 2012

The book was in old English and asked so many questions about god and toward god, which could not be answered. It's meaningless to write Book 1 because he only praised the god rather than the ordinary people who gave him knowledge to write and learn. Without human beings, how could he get over all this obstacles on his way communicating toward god. He is nothing special, and he cannot be too complacent saying that he knows too much about the god.

3 Comments

2 out of 70 people found this helpful

Maybe not...

by Kneish, October 16, 2012

Well, being that his view is theocentric, perhaps Augustine sees the human beings as God's helpers. Meaning that if it weren't for God the human being wouldn't have been present at all. So them being present in his life was more of an effort on God's part than it actually was for those who helped. Yes, it wouldnt hurt to give the helpers some acknowledgement for the roles they played, but to Augustine they were probably smaller parts to a greater plan the God orchestrated. Therefore, God actually would deserve the ultimate praise.

0 Comments

12 out of 13 people found this helpful

As far as Plato and the Meno go...

by IAcceptChaos, October 23, 2013

This SparkNote is wrong. Plato didn't really believe that "learning is a kind of remembering, in which the soul rediscovers a truth it knew before birth." This is a dialectical approach that Socrates uses on Meno to disprove the famous "Meno's Paradox," in which Meno asks Socrates "How will you look for virtue if you do not know what it is? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing you did not know?" I can't believe that SparkNotes would let inaccurate information like this be part of the foundation for another text.

1 Comments

1 out of 6 people found this helpful

See all 4 readers' notes   →

Follow Us