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Confessions

Summary

Book I

Summary Book I

The first book of the Confessions is devoted primarily to an analysis of Augustine's life as a child, from his infancy (which he cannot recall and must reconstruct) up through his days as a schoolboy in Thagaste (in Eastern Algeria). Wasting no time in getting to the philosophical content of his autobiography, Augustine's account of his early years leads him to reflect on human origin, will and desire, language, and memory.

[I.1-3] Augustine begins each Book of the Confessions with a prayer in praise of God, but Book I has a particularly extensive invocation. The first question raised in this invocation concerns how one can seek God without yet knowing what he is. In other words, how can we look for something if we don't know exactly what we're looking for? The imperfect answer, at least for now, is simply to have faith--if we seek God at all, he will reveal himself to us.

[I.4-6] Nonetheless, Augustine launches immediately into a highly rhetorical (and relatively brief) discussion of God's attributes. Asking God to "come into me," Augustine then questions what that phrase could possibly mean when addressed to God. The heart of this dilemma, which will turn out later to be one of the final stumbling blocks to Augustine's conversion (see Books VI and VII), is that God seems both to transcend everything and to be within everything. In either case, it doesn't make precise sense to ask him to "come into" Augustine.

God cannot be contained by what he created, so he can't "come to" Augustine in any literal sense. At the same time, God is the necessary condition for the existence of anything, so he's "within" Augustine already (so again it makes no sense to ask him to "come into me"). Further, God is not "in" everything in amounts or proportions--small pieces of the world don't have any less of God than big ones.

Having hurriedly discredited the idea of God as any sort of bounded, mobile, or divisible being, Augustine sums up for now with a deeply Neoplatonic statement on the question of "where" God is: "In filling all things, you fill them all with the whole of yourself."

Augustine then rephrases his question about God's nature, asking "who are you then, my God?" This rather direct approach generates a litany of metaphors concerning God, taken partly from scripture and partly from Augustine's own considerations. Examples include: "most high...deeply hidden yet most intimately present...you are wrathful and remain tranquil...you pay off debts, though owing nothing to anyone...." This list is rhetorical rather than analytic, and develops no coherent argument about God--it just introduces the mysteries of the subject.

[I.7-8] Augustine now turns to the story of his childhood, beginning with his birth and earliest infancy. As he would continue to do throughout his life, Augustine here follows the Neoplatonists in refusing to speculate on how the soul joins the body to become an infant. "I do not know," he writes, "whence I came to be in this mortal life or...living death" (following Plato, Augustine leaves open the possibility that life is really a kind of death and that true "life" is enjoyed by the soul when it is not in this world).

With this question left up in the air, Augustine considers his infancy. He's extremely careful here, since he can't actually remember this period-- claims about it are explicitly justified with references to Augustine's later observations of infants. Infancy, it seems, turns out to be a fairly miserable state. All desires are internal, since infants have only "a small number of signs" to express their wants and also no physical power to fulfill them. Thoughtless and already sinful, the tiny Augustine made demands on everyone, thanked no one, and revenged himself on his caretakers with obnoxious weeping.

[I.9-10] There is a brief interlude here while Augustine asks again what he was before birth, and again the question goes unanswered. He only knows that at birth he had both being and life. He also points out here that God is the most extreme instantiation of both being and life, and that God is responsible for uniting these two qualities in new humans.

[I.11-12] Returning to brutish infancy, Augustine considers to what extent he was sinning at that age. He's harsh on himself for the nasty attitude mentioned above, but concludes with a dismissal of responsibility for those times, of which he "can recall not a single trace."

[I.13-16] Soon, however, the infant Augustine began to exercise his memory, particularly in the service of learning to communicate through language (in Roman North Africa, this language was Latin). As always, Augustine is ambivalent about this skill, and here he notes that with it he "entered more deeply into the stormy society of human life." Particularly disturbing to Augustine is the way language was used and taught at school--he regrets that he was taught to speak and write for corrupted purposes, namely in the service of gaining future honor and wealth. Using a term he will return to often, he refers to the use of this flashy language of public oratory (which emphasizes form over content) as "loquacity."

In fact, Augustine continues, the whole scholastic system concentrated on "follies," punishing the students for boyish games in order to train them for equally misguided adult ones (such as business or politics).

[I.17-18] Another issue Augustine has to consider here is his early religious status. Born to a devoutly Catholic mother (Monica) and a pagan father (Patrick), Augustine's baptism is deferred until he's older. This was a common practice, meant to leave the cleansing of sin until after the hazards of youth and so to get the most out of the ritual when it was finally performed.

[I.19-29] Meanwhile, the folly of school continues. Most of the remaining sections of Book I are devoted to the errors of Augustine's early teachers, who meant well but were ignorant of the proper purposes of education. Of central concern here are the classical texts the young, unhappy Augustine was forced to read and, more broadly, the high-flown rhetorical language he was supposed to learn from them. Augustine particularly disapproves of fiction, which he sees as a misleading waste of time. It is sinful, he argues, to read of other people's sins while remaining ignorant of one's own.

Overall, Augustine gives his boyhood teachers credit only for giving him the most basic tools for potentially good reading and writing--his "primary education." All the rest was simply a matter of learning perverted human custom rather than truth or morality (which are, in any case, more deep-seated than the "conventions" of language).

[I.30-31] Book I closes with a very brief list of Augustine's selfish sins as a little boy, which he claims were "shocking even to the worldly set." He sees these as smaller, less significant versions of the sins of a worldly adult life. He admits, however, that there were some good things about him as well. These, though, were due entirely to God. The sins, on the other hand, were due to a "misdirection" of Augustine's gifts away from God and toward the material, created world.

This "misdirection" is a reference to a key idea in Neoplatonism that informs most of Augustine's work, namely that God's creation has turned away from his eternal unity and toward the changing multiplicity of the created world.