Augustine's hometown in Eastern Algeria (then part of the Roman empire).
After growing up and attending primary school in Thagaste, Augustine left the
city for Carthage for further studies. He returned to Thagaste afterward to
begin his teaching career, leaving again for good after the death of a close
friend there made the city unbearable.
Augustine's Catholic mother. She accompanied him on many of his moves from
city to city, spending time with him not only in Thagaste but also in
Carthage, Milan, and Ostia. Augustine gives great credit to Monica for
being God's instrument for his own salvation; although she postponed his baptism
as a child (feeling he wasn't ready), she never stopped encouraging him to
convert to Catholicism. A number of visions are associated with Monica in the
The most significant is the vision of "eternal
wisdom" that she and Augustine share in Ostia (Book IX).
Augustine moved to Carthage twice: once for further studies in rhetoric
after finishing grade school in Thagaste, and once after the death of his
close friend (again in Thagaste) left him too stricken with grief to stay in his
hometown. On neither occasion is the city a good experience for Augustine (at
least in retrospect). The first time he goes, he describes it as a "cauldron of
illicit loves." The second time, he finds his students too rowdy and decamps
Neoplatonism infuses Augustine's entire conception of God and God's creation.
Plotinus founded the school, which views God as a spiritual substance inherent
in all things; as Augustine puts it, "in filling all things, you [God] fill them
all with the whole of yourself" (Book I). In the Neoplatonist view, all things
(including souls) have this infinite, timeless, and unchangeable God as the
cause of their existence--everything exists only to the extent to which it
participates in God. The Neoplatonist account of evil is also extremely
important to Augustine. According to this doctrine, evil has no actual
existence--things are "evil" or "wicked" according to a hierarchy of being in
which some things are closer to God's supreme and infinite being than others.
Evil arises only as a relative quality: things further down in the hierarchy
have less complete being than things higher up, and so are imperfect or "evil"
by comparison. This view, in which the goodness of individual things varies but
everything is part of a whole from God's point of view, allows Augustine to
answer Manichee challenges about the source of evil.
Augustine comes across the Manichee sect in Carthage, when he goes there for
his studies. He ends up believing strongly in Manichee doctrine for nearly ten
years, until rational philosophy and astronomy persuade him that the colorful
Manichee cosmology is false. The self-declared prophet Mani claimed that God
was not omnipotent and struggled against the opposing substance of evil.
The Manicheans also believed that the human soul was of the same substance of
God. The opposition of these views is one of the main themes of the
Manichee doctrines depended heavily on visualization of the
concepts of God and evil, and this dependence greatly delayed Augustine from
coming to know God without imagining him.
Time / Temporality
Time is the subject of Book XI of the Confessions,
in which Augustine
explores the relationship between God's timelessness and his creation's
experience of time. Augustine emphasizes the view that God's creation of the
universe did not occur at any point in time, since time only came into being
with creation: there was no "before." God has nothing to do with time, and in
his eyes all time is present as one unified moment. His creation, however,
experiences time (which Augustine sees as a painful quality). Augustine argues
that, although we assume there is a past and a future, neither have any
existence. Even the present instant has no dimension or duration. Thus,
"time cannot be said to exist." Augustine suggests that time may be a kind of
"distension," a stretching of the soul (as opposed to a quality of the outside
world). This is a sign of distance from God--creation has fallen away from
God's eternity into successive time.
If creation turns away from God's eternity to become mired in temporality,
it also turns away from God's unity to become scattered into multiplicity.
Augustine follows the Neoplatonist view of multiplicity as a marker of
flawed being, or distance from God.
Inwardness is the method by which Augustine attains his clearest views of
God. First reading in the Neoplatonists the advice to look inward for the
truth, this idea will become central to what Augustine sees as the path to God.
External things, for Augustine, simply scatter the mind into multiplicity
and dependence on transient things. Turning away from these things and looking
inward, Augustine searches for God. This practice leads to two ecstatic visions
of God, the first while he is reading the Neoplatonists and the second with
Monica in Ostia. In both cases, Augustine ascends by moving up through the
levels of himself (such as body, senses, memory, or mind) until only God is
higher. In Book X, Augustine answers the problem of how to seek God without
knowing what he looks like by arguing that God is simply that which is higher
than the highest in himself. By knowing himself inwardly, he can find God.
Mind / Soul
The mind or soul (the terms are somewhat interchangeable in Augustine) is
the element that animates human beings. It is the "life of the body,"
commanding the body, receiving and storing sensory input, and using concepts and
ideas. It is not, however, God or some kind of piece of God. The
Manicheans made the mistake of identifying the soul with God, an opinion
that Augustine now strongly rebukes. The soul or mind is also the site of
Augustine's search for God, which he pursues by looking inward to find the
truth that transcends the soul. This process leads to the extended
investigation of memory (which is a feature of the mind) in Book X.
Cicero is the author of the Hortensius,
a treatise in defense of the
pursuit of philosophy. Reading the work at age eighteen, Augustine gets his
first urges to give up his indulgent lifestyle and devote himself to the pursuit
of truth (although this will take quite a while).
A spiritual substance is a substance that exists without any spatial
qualities at all, and it is the substance of God. The understanding of
spiritual substance is one of the final steps Augustine makes before his
conversion to Catholicism. Partly due to the influence of Manichee images
of God as an immense body of light, Augustine has difficulty conceiving of God
without resorting to any visualization whatsoever. Spiritual substance,
however, cannot be visualized, because it has nothing to do with space--it is
both everywhere and nowhere. Augustine tells us in Book XII that spiritual
substance is the substance of the heaven of heavens, the order of near-perfect
creation, whose counterpart is formless matter (of which the firmament and the
earth were made).
Evil is a major theme in the Confessions,
particularly in regard to
its origin. Like the Manicheans, the young Augustine could not understand
how evil could exist if God was omnipotent. The Manichee answer is that evil is
a separate substance against which God is constantly battling. Augustine
harshly criticizes this view for its arrogance--wickedness is attributed to a
weakness in God rather than a weakness in human will. Augustine now replies to
the Manichean challenge on evil with a Neoplatonic view: evil has no
existence of its own, but is entirely a product of the contrast between greater
and lesser goods. All of creation is part of a perfect whole in God, but
individual things may be closer to or further from God's perfection--the things
furthest from God appear evil or wicked by comparison. Human free will can turn
toward these lower things, and it is in this sense that evil stems not from God
but from a "perversion" of human will.
Book of Genesis
Genesis is the first book of the Christian Bible, and Augustine devotes a
good deal of writing to its interpretation toward the end of the
Augustine's early encounters with the Book of Genesis were
negative. The Manichee doctrines he followed attacked Genesis, and much of
its simple language about God "making" the heavens and the earth or speaking his
"word" initially struck Augustine as extremely flawed. His opinion began
to change rapidly upon hearing Bishop Ambrose's interpretations, which read
the words in a highly spiritual, metaphorical sense. Genesis spurs the
discussion of time and eternity in Book XI, as well as providing the material
for a consideration of "the creation" in Book XII. Book XIII is an exegesis of
Genesis as an instruction on finding the church and living in God.
Though this is not a primary theme of the Confessions,
all the events of his life as divinely just; he sinned, suffered, and was saved
all according to God's perfect justice. There is very little sense of cause and
effect in this idea of justice, since sinning is largely its own punishment
(Augustine speaks of his early sexual adventures as a "hell of lust").
Following the Neoplatonists, Augustine suggests that a disordered mind or
perverted will is punished by its own miserable state and by its attachment to
transient things. The only true reward is the return to the stability of God.
Memory is the subject of most of Book X. Augustine's idea of memory is
infused with Plato's argument that learning is really a process of the soul
remembering what it knew before birth. After investigating the contents of the
"vast storehouse" of memory (which contains sensory images, skills, emotions,
and ideas), Augustine argues that any recognition of truth is really a process
of "assembling" scattered pieces of a kind of eternal memory of God. Memory is
strange for Augustine because it contains images that can be re-experienced
almost like the original. He wonders at his capacity to remember sights from
long ago almost as if he were seeing them again, as well as his capacity to
remember emotions without feeling them. Memory is also the place where
Augustine finally locates time. Rather than an external phenomenon, measurable
time exists solely in the mind (or soul)--the future is that which we imagine
based on present signs, and the past exists only in our memory.
Augustine's son by his long-term concubine. Adeodatus dies at age seventeen,
two years after he is baptized alongside his father and Alypius.
Augustine moves to Rome from Carthage, hoping to find students who are less
rowdy. The students in Rome turn out to be dishonest, however, and Augustine
moves on to Milan after a short tenure.
Milan is the last place Augustine lives in the Confessions,
and it is
the site of his final steps toward Christianity and of his conversion experience
in the garden. Just prior to this experience, he and his friends Alypius
and Nebridius live in close contact, ardently pursuing truth together.
As he gradually becomes disillusioned with Manichee beliefs, Augustine comes
close to this Greek school of total doubt that anything is certain. Referring
to the skeptics as the Academics (the school began at Plato's Academy),
Augustine says he found them to be "shrewder" than most other schools of
thought. First Neoplatonism and then Catholicism would come to fill in the
gap left in him by Manicheism, and Augustine eventually emphasizes faith more
than the demand for absolute proof.
Augustine meets Faustus, a highly respected Manichee, during his time as a
teacher in Carthage. Faustus impresses Augustine with his modesty, but
disappoints him by using loquacious language and by failing to answer
Augustine's challenges to the Manichee cosmology. The meeting pushes Augustine
further from Manichee beliefs.
Ambrose was the Catholic Bishop at Milan. He is, along with Monica, one
of the people most directly responsible for Augustine's conversion. Ambrose's
interpretation of the bible (particularly the Old Testament) had an immense
influence on Augustine, who had previously been put off by its simple and
apparently literal language. Ambrose interprets the scriptures in a much more
abstract, spiritual sense--an approach which allowed Augustine to overcome
Manichee objections to specific phrases in the text. Ambrose
baptized Augustine alongside Adeodatus and Alypius.
One of Augustine's close friends in Milan, Nebridius accompanies
Augustine and Alypius in their philosophical struggles. He also joins
Augustine in his decision to convert.
Augustine's closest friend and philosophical companion at Milan. It is
during a conversation with Alypius that Augustine becomes enraged at himself,
storms out into the garden, and has his conversion experience. Alypius joins
him in conversion and in baptism.
According to Augustine, although their choices are ultimately part of God's
plan, humans have the free will to choose to turn toward God or away from him
toward the lower spectrum of the created order. Evil, though it ultimately
has no existence of its own, appears due to this turning away from God. The
concept of free will is important to Augustine in opposing the Manichee
notion of evil as a dark substance in conflict with God. If this were the case,
humans would have no responsibility for their wicked acts. Augustine's view
maintains that evil (or what appears to be evil) is a misdirection of the human
Christ (the Word of God)
For Christians, Christ is the only true access to God. Christ is "God made
flesh," God as a human and so subject to death. As such, he represents God's
infinite mercy, his promise to humanity that God is within reach. Christ for
Augustine is also eternal, perfect wisdom itself, since such wisdom is both the
nature of and the access to God. Christ is also referred to as the Word of God,
that by which God made all of creation. This idea informs Augustine's reading
of the statement in Genesis that "In the beginning was the Word." Since God
cannot have anything to do with time, Augustine suggests a reading of
"beginning'" as referring to God as the primary cause of existence. His "Word"
is read as Christ, the eternal wisdom by which and in which the universe is
created (rather than some kind of temporal speech).
Plato's philosophy in the Meno
and other dialogues
influences Augustine's conception of memory. Plato believed that learning is a
kind of remembering, in which the soul rediscovers a truth it knew before birth.
Augustine's early insistence on philosophy as the most noble pursuit in life
comes partly from Cicero, who is heavily influenced by Plato's similar
claim. Augustine also follows Plato in refusing to claim to know how the soul
is joined to the body at or before birth.