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St. Augustine


Summary Book VIII

Having achieved both some understanding of God (and evil) and the humility to accept Christ, Augustine still agonizes over becoming a full member of the church. Book VIII tells the story of his conversion experience in Milan, which begins with an agonizing state of spiritual paralysis and ends with an ecstatic decision (in a Milan garden) to wholly embrace celibacy and the Catholic faith.

[VIII.1-18] Characteristically of this part of the Confessions, Augustine begins by taking stock of his progress toward God at the time. He had removed all doubt "that there is an indestructible substance from which comes all substance," and recognized that God was a spiritual substance with no spatial extension. "My desire," he writes, "was not to be more certain of you but to be more stable in you."

Augustine is further moved by the story (told by his Christian friend Simplicianus) of Victorinus, a highly respected rhetorician and translator of the Neoplatonic texts Augustine had just read. Victorinus had converted to Christianity toward the end of his life, and Augustine was much impressed that such an intelligent and successful man had had the faith to become Catholic.

Nonetheless, Augustine did not yet convert. Though no further obstacles stood in his way, he felt he was struggling against a second will within himself: "my two carnal, one spiritual, were in conflict with one and other." Augustine remained attached by habit to the beauty of material things and pleasures, though he felt that this habit was "no more I."

Comparing his state with that of a drowsy sleeper trying to get up, Augustine continued to edge closer to conversion. Nebridius was turning down work at the law courts to have more time for spiritual pursuits, and Alypius was in close dialogue with Augustine about the same issues. With a great deal of motivation already in the air, a friend (Ponticianus) tells Augustine of monasteries outside the city and of two men who had given up their worldly lives in an instant to become monks. For Augustine, this is almost like an accusation: "you thrust me before my own eyes.... The day had now come when I stood naked to myself."

[VIII.19-26] Augustine's crisis of will finally came to a head when, in conversation with Alypius, he became angry at himself and "distressed not only in mind but in appearance." Walking out into the garden to calm down, Augustine began beating himself and tearing his hair, stricken over his failure of will. It was not even a matter of deciding to do something and then having to do it: "at this point the power to act is identical with the will."