Confessions

by: St. Augustine

St. Augustine

For even at the very first I knew how to suck, to lie quiet when I was full, and to cry when in pain—nothing more.

In Book I, Augustine begins his autobiography with details about being a baby. He admits that his understanding of infancy derived mostly from observing other infants, but his words suggest memories embedded deep inside his curious mind. He describes his earliest actions as instincts, all supplied by god, that moved him forward into childhood.

I had a vigorous memory; I was gifted with the power of speech, was softened by friendship, shunned sorrow, meanness, ignorance.

Augustine acknowledges his finer characteristics but does not take credit for them. The credit, he claims, belongs with god, for Augustine’s better qualities are gifts bestowed by his creator. However, this awareness evolves much later in his life. He praises god for giving him these gifts and gives thanks for his own goodness. As Book I closes, Augustine vows to develop and protect this spiritual abundance.

See now, let my heart confess to you what it was seeking there when I was being gratuitously wicked, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error—not that for which I erred but the error itself.

In Book II, Augustine explains the sinful phase of his young life. He admits that when he and his friends stole fruit from a tree, they did not care about the pears at all. They only cared about the forbidden act. They delighted in the act’s naughtiness. The crime pleased them because stealing was forbidden. He describes his heart as a bottomless pit that actually sought shame and retribution.

And by this time I had become a master in the school of rhetoric, and I rejoiced proudly in this honor and became inflated with arrogance.

In Book III, Augustine describes his time in Carthage, where he completed his education and found himself surrounded by temptation, nearly drowning in what he calls a “caldron of unholy loves.” As he looks back, he admits both his weaknesses and his enormous ego. He later describes the devils with whom he associated as the “Wreckers” who ruined themselves and their environment. He claims that he, like them, lived like a blind man, although he didn't understand this truth at the time.

During this period of nine years from my nineteenth year to my twenty-eighth I went astray and led others astray. I was deceived and deceived others, in varied lustful projects[.]

In this opening line of Book IV, Augustine traces his evolution through another phase of deceits, conceits, and sins. He loses a friend to death, reads many books, and sells his rhetorical skills to others, all the while sensing that something does not feel right. As he looks back, he realizes that he was caught up in a material world that did not bring him happiness.

Already I had learned from you that because a thing is eloquently expressed it should not be taken to be as necessarily true; nor because it is uttered with stammering lips should it be supposed false.

In Book V, Augustine recalls that, at the age of twenty-nine, he began to be skeptical of rhetoric and started to avoid confusing eloquence with substance. This notion, coming from a person who makes his living as a rhetorical coach, seems significant. He also claims the opposite to be true: Truth can be spoken brilliantly and falsehoods rudely. He would likely put his own writing into this category.

I was now getting close to thirty, still stuck fast in the same mire, still greedy of enjoying present goods which fly away and distract me; and I was still saying, “Tomorrow I shall discover it[.]”

Augustine recalls that even by the age of thirty, he has not discovered what he seeks. He has been on this path since he was nineteen but has made little progress. However, his desire to find fulfillment remains strong and true. Looking back, he continues to criticize his former preoccupation with the material world.

Thus my two wills—the old and the new, the carnal and the spiritual—were in conflict within me, and by their discord they tore my soul apart.

This sentence from Book VIII summarizes Augustine’s experience before his conversion. Since his childhood, he felt torn between the carnal and the spiritual, aware of the pull of the spirit but weakly devoted to the pleasures of the flesh. By the time he turns thirty, he feels ripped apart and wishes for relief. He gets this relief in a moment in a garden in Milan, the moment of his conversion.

I flung myself down under a fig tree—how I know not—and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to you: “And you, lord, how long?”

This moment in Book VIII happens immediately before Augustine’s religious conversion. He explains that as he wept, he heard a child say, “Pick up, read.” In response, he picks up a nearby book and reads Romans 13:13, which tells him to put away his wantonness and “put on the lord Jesus Christ.” Instantly, Augustine becomes infused with a light of certainty, and his confusion and doubt disappear. This epiphany changes his life forever.

Now was my soul free from the gnawing cares of seeking and getting, of wallowing in the mire and scratching at the itch of lust.

In Book IX, Augustine passes the milestone of believing, overcomes his tendencies to earthly pleasures, and accepts god as his savior. Augustine spends the first part of this book praising god’s name and describing his newly won salvation. He also lives through a sickness of the lungs, caused by prolonged speaking, which contributes to his shift to reading and studying rather than teaching.