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Book III

Summary 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."

[III.10-18] Still burning for truth, Augustine began to fall in with the pseudo-Christian sect known as the Manichees (followers of the self-declared prophet Mani). Most of the remainder of Book III is devoted to an initial rundown of basic Manichee beliefs, their conflicts with the Catholic faith, and Augustine's errors in falling in with them (he would remain a Manichee for close to ten years).

Augustine's first criticism of the Manichee doctrines he believed concerns their dependence on an elaborate mythology. The sun and moon are venerated as divine beings, and Manichees tended to picture divinity in terms of "physical images" or "bodily shapes." These "fantasies" and "dreams" will plague Augustine almost until his conversion, keeping him from recognizing God as a "spiritual substance" rather than some sort of enormous physical mass. Augustine offers a brief account of the proper view here, noting that God is not a body or even a soul (the life of the body). Rather, God is "the life of souls, the life of lives," more truthful and reliable than either bodies or the soul.

Augustine now turns to the three primary Manichee criticisms of Catholic belief (the refutation of these criticisms will be one of his central focuses toward the end of the Confessions). The first, and most famous, Manichee challenge concerns the nature and source of evil. If God is supremely good, and if he is also all-powerful, eternal, and the cause of all existence, how can evil exist? Where can it come from except God? At the very least, why can't God eliminate it? Manichees insisted that God is not all-powerful and that he is in fact in constant struggle against his opposite, the dark, material world that is by nature evil.

The second Manichee challenge concerns the nature of God as a being: "is God confined within a corporeal form? has he hair and nails?" This question is intimately tied to the question about evil, since it also challenges the idea of God as omnipotent and omnipresent. In the Manichee view, God is limited--he is not everywhere, and does not control everything.

The rebuttal Augustine introduces to these first two challenges is Neoplatonic in nature, and its use for the defense of Catholic theology is one of the central achievements of his work. Simply put, God is Being itself, the most pure and supreme form of existence. Everything else is God's creation, and fits into a descending scale of Being--the further something is from God, the less true existence it has.

Things lower on this descending scale have greater multiplicity, greater temporality, and greater general disorder. In short, the further away from God something is, the more scattered and fleeting it is. Heaven (not the starry firmament but the realm of angels) is close to God, and comes very close to having his full, unchanging Being (maximum existence). Human souls or minds are a step further down, and bodies and other material things are at the bottom of the pile. (Of course, these spatial images serve only as a metaphor-- to believe in them literally would be a big mistake).

This idea allows Augustine to answer the Manichee question of evil as follows: "evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being." Evil is just a name for a lack of true existence, a label for how far a thing (or person) has wandered from unity with God. We might think of evil, metaphorically at least, as a king of tattered Being, with the evilest things barely more than ghosts. (It's helpful here to recall Augustine's treatment of the pear theft in Book II, where he tried to demonstrate that each sin was really a twisted or incomplete attempt to be like God). Thus, evil is not some dark substance that exists in conflict with God; it is simply the extent to which something in God's creation has turned away from him, the extent to which a thing (or human) is unaware of its existence in God. In a significant sense, Augustine argues that there is no evil.

This argument depends on the recognition of God as a spirit, the "life of life," the condition for existence itself. God is being and goodness, and his creation is a hierarchy in which each existing thing is good in its own order (so that evil is simply a matter of relative good). The recognition of God as such a spirit also answers the second Manichee challenge, which concerns the statement in Genesis that man is made in God's image. How could this be, asked the Manichees, unless God is somehow corporeal?

Though he does not elaborate much here, Augustine interprets the scripture to refer to God as "Spirit," and man as capable of finding that Spirit within himself at any time. Thus, God need not be corporeal to explain the statement in Genesis. Neither is God some sort of infinite mass, some kind of substance that extends in all directions to infinity. In general, Augustine faults the Manichees (and his own sinful lifestyle) for keeping him from understanding spiritual substance. He will be plagued for quite awhile by the effort to conceive of God without forming an image of him (even if the "image" is of an infinite mass), without using "the mind of my flesh" rather than pure mind.

Augustine now moves on to the third major Manichee challenge: the rejection of the book of Genesis and much of the Old Testament. The Manichees ridiculed the recurrence of polygamy and animal sacrifice in these parts of the bible, finding them in conflict with God's laws as they are set out elsewhere in the Bible. Augustine argues that, while God's law is by definition eternal and unchanging, it reveals itself to humans by degrees and manifests itself differently according to the historical context.

The contrast is between "true, inward justice," which can be found by finding God inside oneself (apart from the material world), and relative justice, which serves the everyday human world. But interestingly, Augustine cannot bring himself to separate sodomy from his somewhat mystical concept of absolute justice, and notes that it is a "perversion of nature" and therefore wrong regardless of the context.

Dismissing, then, the Manichee criticisms of Old Testament behavior (which, he says, were correct at the time), Augustine sketches out a brief classification of kinds of sin (which presumably are unchanging). There are, he writes, three basic motives for misdeeds: "the lust for domination...the lust of the eyes...[and] sensuality--either one or two of these, or all three at once." (In later works, this classification would evolve into a division of sinful motives into pleasure, pride, and curiosity).

Augustine proceeds to note a few cases where it may be unclear to what extent an act is sinful. Making "progress" in the world, for example, may be done for good or sinful motives--likewise the punishment of others. Some sinful acts, such as animal sacrifice, may be justifiable if they are prophetic acts (as was the case with the sacrifices in the Old Testament).

[III.19-21] Book III concludes with a description of a vision experienced by Monica at this point in Augustine's life. She is standing on a "rule" (presumably a long, narrow strip or platform). She meets a stranger and tells him she is distraught over her son's refusal to become a good Christian. The stranger tells her: "'Where you are, there will he be also.'" Monica then turns to find Augustine standing behind her on the rule.

Taking the vision as a good omen, Monica nonetheless proceeded to beg a local priest to try to convert Augustine. Refusing, the priest says Augustine is not ready yet. He does, however, also say: "'as you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.'" Augustine uses the story to remind his readers that despite all his errors (including his fall into Manichee illusion), God has a plan for his salvation, executed partly through Monica.