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Confessions

by: St. Augustine

Book III

Leaving for Carthage from his hometown of Thagaste, Augustine enters a place and a lifestyle in which "all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves." His range of "rotten...ulcerous" sins expands from teenage pranks to include attending public spectacles and reading tragedies. This is a low point in Augustine's relationship with God--turned almost entirely toward transient diversions, he seems to feel he could get no lower. It is at this point, however, that Augustine first suspects that seeking truth might be more important than worldly success. Shopping around for the right philosophy, he stumbles onto the Manichee faith (a heretical version of Christianity). Listening to the Manichees will turn out to be perhaps the biggest mistake of his life, and much of Book III is devoted to an initial attack on the Manichee faith.

[III.1-4] Augustine begins Book III with a wholesale self-condemnation, recalling his "foul and immoral" state of being at Carthage and comparing it to a kind of "bondage," a "joy that enchains." His sexual adventures continued unabated, a "hell of lust" that Augustine again attributes to a misdirection of the love for God ("I sought an object for my love").

Augustine also expanded his schoolboy "sin" of reading fiction, taking advantage of cosmopolitan Carthage to attend "theatrical shows." He particularly regrets having attended tragedies, since this constitutes immersion in fictional suffering without a recognition of one's own suffering in sin. Tragedy also encourages a "love of suffering" that Augustine now finds absurd and wrong. There is more of the language of bondage and masochism here, as Augustine recalls seeking out tragic stories that "scratched" his soul and became "inflamed spots, pus, and repulsive sores" according to God's justice ("you beat me with heavy punishments").

[III.5-9] At this point Augustine came across a book by Cicero called Hortensius, which aims to rebut the position that philosophy is useless and does not lead to happiness. Cicero argues that this anti-philosophy opinion can only be judged by philosophy, since it is itself a philosophical statement. Augustine read the book at age eighteen, in the course of his studies to become a skilled and stylish orator. But this book, which also argues that the pursuit of truth through philosophy is the route to a happy life, moved him deeply: for the first time, he "longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardor in my heart." Perhaps most significantly, Augustine recalls reading Hortensius for its content rather than its form--an important initial deviation from his pursuit of "loquacity."

It should also be noted that Augustine does not consider the Hortensius to be the most redemptive book that he could have loved at that point (that, of course, would have been the Bible). Specifically, he is at pains here to point out the apostle Paul's warning in the scriptures not to be deceived by philosophy to the exclusion of Christ. Throughout his Confessions, Augustine will take care to intersperse his philosophy with plentiful doses of praise to God and Christ.

Feeling that Hortensius was compromised by the lack of any reference to Christ (he attributes this feeling to Monica's early influence), Augustine finally decided to take a look at the Christian Bible. Unfortunately, the early Latin bible was crudely worded and somewhat obscure. For a student of rhetoric and oratory like the young Augustine, its language was blunt and repulsive. He put it aside, missing what he now recognizes as its sublime simplicity, its "inwardness."