Episode 99: The Boy Who Stole Pears

Augustine’s Confessions, Part 1 of 2. The first half of Augustine’s Confessions tells of his wayward early years, his intellectual journey, and his spiritual awakening.

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Augustine’s Confessions, Books 1-7

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 99: The Boy Who Stole Pears. In this program, we will read the first seven books of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiographical work produced between 397 and 400 CE.1 Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the most famous writer of all Late Antiquity, lived from 354-430. And I’d like to introduce this sequence of four episodes on the famous theologian with a quote from scholar Timothy Beal.
It is difficult to imagine what Christianity would have looked like without Augustine, even if many would like to try. Doctrines such as original sin, creation [out of nothing], salvation by grace alone, and predestination, not to mention the church’s deep distrust of human sexuality, all owe their early formulations to him. Having written more than five million words (that is how many have come down to us), his theological corpus is arguably more central to Christian doctrine than any other nonbiblical writings.2
Saint Augustine produced a colossal body of work. Today, we’re going to read the most famous section of his most famous book. The Confessions, even during Augustine’s own lifetime, was better known than anything else the theologian produced. At the end of Augustine’s life, as another scholar puts it, Augustine “was well aware that [the Confessions] was his most famous work.”3 And while the Confessions became popular for many reasons, the roots of the book’s timelessness may lay in the circumstances of its composition. Augustine wrote it while he was a young churchman and fairly recent convert, seeking legitimacy with the greater clergy, and trying to understand the nature of his faith. And if there is a single personal quality that comes across throughout the thirteen books of the Confessions, it is a grave and serious industriousness – an earnest need to investigate every part of a believing Christian’s actions and place in the universe. This inquisitiveness propelled Augustine before and after he became a Christian. To Augustine, philosophies and religions were not things to be picked from a list and then complacently followed. To Augustine, ideologies were to be scratched at, to be tested, and to be improved, or, alternately, to be rejected.

Saint Augustine’s own intellectual restlessness was not unusual within the line of Christian thinkers who led up to him. When we look back on the history of Christianity’s centuries before Augustine, as we have in past episodes, we see a constantly evolving amalgam of different ideas and sects. Some of these Christian sects, like Gnosticism, Montanism, Manichaeism and Priscillianism encouraged believers to meet beyond the walls of churches, and, adding various additional scriptures and ideas to the New Testament canon, told Christians how to pursue salvation on their own in various ways. Other Christian sectarian movements were more intellectual than congregational. The third century Christian theologian Origen, for instance, while admired for his prolific output and learning, wrote things wildly out of step with what later became orthodoxy, and indeed many early Christian church fathers did the same thing.4 Earlier church fathers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria undertook long intellectual journeys on the way to becoming Christians, and their eclectic theological backgrounds influenced the books that they wrote, and the way that they practiced their newfound faith. But out of the swirling diversity of early Christianity, from the second century onward, a single strand slowly emerged as triumphant.

Against the religion’s initial impulses to blossom into countless diverse sects, its earliest bishops, priests, and other appointed officials sought to standardize creeds and bring all believers together under a single roof. The organizational impulses of the early Catholic Church – its unique notion that a single institution, with centralized financial resources and a homogenized leadership structure, ought to hold power over all Christians, and that leaders within this institution should be formally appointed in scalable and transplantable structures – these organizational impulses were key to the mainline Christian ideology that eventually emerged from Late Antiquity. A charismatic Gnostic teacher might emerge in Alexandria and inspire a generation of believers. A visionary Manichaean writer out of Palmyra might write a regionally popular new text. But these were transient surges of Christian religiosity, limited to the places and lifetimes of those who experienced them. On the other hand, as early as 130 CE, when prominent bishops like Polycarp of Smyrna began declaring that they were Christ’s representatives on earth, Christians of a certain disposition began aligning themselves with an institutional gridiron of churches, deacons, bishops, priests and other professionals. This vast organization slowly burgeoned over the 100s, 200s, and 300s. And finally, during Augustine’s century, it merged together with Roman emperors and became the Roman Catholic Church. Augustine’s mother Monica was born during Rome’s Diocletian persecution, which took place between 303 and 311 and claimed the lives of untold numbers of Christians. But by the time Augustine was in his prime, in the year 392, the tables had turned. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 had not only made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 392, the Emperor Theodosius began the first major persecution of pagan practices and destruction of pagan worship sites. His sons, and the emperors who came after them in the 400s, followed suit, and gradually over the fifth and sixth centuries, pagan temples were despoiled and demolished at the behest of powerful Christian leaders.

Saint Augustine and his generation were in the vanguard of this great transition. During Late Antiquity, excepting barbarian migrations and the resultant collapse of the western Roman empire, the consolidation of the Roman Catholic Church as a unified institution was the single most important event that took place in the western part of Eurasia and North Africa. Out of the great many varieties of Christianity and other religions that existed by the mid-300s, Saints Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine ultimately came to support a single severe, ethically demanding, and institutionally anchored form of the religion – one which placed great emphasis on individual accountability and augmented the ideas of the New Testament with new ones like original sin and innate depravity, having very specific ideas about how salvation worked, while the New Testament had been rather open ended on the subject. Augustine and his contemporaries did not do this on their own, but, under the influence of new narratives like Athanasius’ Life of Antony, they championed a version of the religion in which ascetic monks and dispassionate bishops were the human heroes, sex and sensuous pleasures were gross symptoms of moral decay, and salvation lay only through the doors of authentic Catholic institutions.

At first glance, all of this sounds rather gloomy – a lamentable constriction of the bountiful religious diversity of the old Roman Mediterranean, and the beginning of a thousand years of relative cultural and technological stasis. Many of us have had historical educations with roots in Edward Gibbon and the Enlightenment more generally, and we have been taught that Christian ideology was a dull and uniform substrate under which the golden classical past was buried. But when we open the pages of thinkers like Jerome and Augustine, we actually see far more intellectual innovation than we do hidebound dogmatism. Passages of Augustine’s books that we’ll read in this and the next few shows sound more like Kant or Sartre than the rantings of a partisan preacher. And while, for sheer erudition and eloquence, Saint Augustine is nearly unmatched in world history, at the core of his ideology is a resilient optimism.

Augustine’s optimism is a surprising quality, considering the period of time in which he lived. Augustine’s mature years – he turned 30 in the 370s and then died in 430 at the age of 75 – Augustine’s mature years framed many of the most nightmarish events of the late western empire. He knew of the great Gothic War unfolding in what’s today Romania and Bulgaria from 376-382. A decade of civil wars followed in the west, and then, from 401-410, different Gothic populations invaded Italy, culminating with the Visigothic sack of Rome in 410. As barbarians crossed the Adriatic and Alps to field armies in Italy, after 406, the Gallic and Iberian provinces were overrun with barbarian tribes. The Vandals, sounding the true death knell for the western empire, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 429. And in 430, they besieged the city of Hippo Regius in modern day Algeria, where Augustine had been a bishop for 35 years. He died of illness behind the town’s siege walls. In summation, then, Augustine, lived to witness the collapse of provinces along the Danube frontier, the last days of Roman Gaul, Spain, and much of Roman Italy, and in his last year, the destruction of his home in North Africa. Such grim events doubtless inspired what he wrote about innate depravity and original sin – surely there was an explanation behind Rome’s horrifying turn from the fourth to the fifth century. And yet while Augustine could be bleak and grim about the nature of humanity, his pessimism never extended toward divinity. God, to Augustine, was not to blame for the woes of the western empire’s twilight. For the faithful, the Christian God, though himself a majestic mystery, promised serenity and all the rewards of heaven.

So, before we open up the first half of Augustine’s Confessions, we need to review some information essential for understanding this book. The Confessions, though it’s probably Augustine’s most widely read work, is nonetheless quite a complicated text. It is a confessional narrative, admitting its author’s past mistakes and regrets. But at the same time, it’s a piece of serious philosophy, its final four books offering theological and metaphysical propositions, and not a whiff of autobiography. And as an autobiographical work, the Confessions really only covers Augustine’s life up until his early forties, although he lived until 75. So to begin this and really the next three programs, let’s meet Saint Augustine himself, and learn about where he was from. [music]

Thagaste and the Donatist Controversy

Augustine was born in 354 in a town called Thagaste, Thagaste was in the far northeastern part of modern-day Algeria, about 30 miles south of the coastal city of Hippo Regius, where he’d eventually serve as bishop, and 150 miles southwest of the regional center of Carthage. By the standards of ancient Roman civilization, it was a pretty good time and place to be born. Isolated on all sides from territorial incursions, Rome’s North African provinces weathered the calamities of the third and fourth centuries far more serenely than other parts of the Empire. Constantine the Great’s campaigns, wrapping up in 336, brought two decades of relative peace throughout the empire. And so as Augustine took his first steps and explored the local orchards and crop fields around Thagaste, though his family’s wealth was modest, his future must have seemed reasonably bright, as, from a very high altitude, the Roman Empire was in decent shape for the moment.

Gerard Seghers (attr) - The Four Doctors of the Western Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

An early seventeenth-century painting of Augustine in a series called The Four Doctors of the Western Church, often attributed to Gerard Seghers. While many portraits of the Augustine show a mature theologian in a mitre, it’s important to remember how much he must have been conditioned by his very early years in the extremely sectarian religious climate of the African provinces.

However, in 354, at the provincial level, Augustine was born in the center of a major fourth century theological conflict. The Roman provinces of Numidia Cirtensis, Numidia Militiana, Africa Proconsularis and Africa Byzacena were home to an enormous number and variety of Christians by the mid-300s. The churchgoing Catholic Christians of the 350s, in the towns and farm fields around where Augustine grew up, had largely subdivided into two factions. These factions were grouped on the two sides of what historians call the Donatist Controversy, a theological schism rooted in Augustine’s home turf that had begun back in 311.

The Donatist Controversy had its origins in the great persecution of Christians under Diocletian, which had again taken place between 303 and 311. During this persecution, under the duress of murder and torture, some Christians in North Africa unbudgingly held onto their sacred writings and Christian objects, and they were martyred as a result. Others, facing such awful possibilities, turned over their Bibles and other sacred goods, opting for survival rather than martyrdom. Once the persecution ended, naturally, the North African Christians who had survived it had searing memories of what had happened between 303 and 311. Those who had openly surrendered their sacred goods to Roman authorities became known as traditiores, or “surrenderers.”

By 311, the Great Persecution had wound down, but factionalism in North Africa had heated up. While traditiore churchmen planned to go about business as usual after 311, a sect of rigorists, most famously the theologian Donatus Magnus, decided that all of the clergymen who had surrendered their goods to Roman authorities during the earlier persecution had forfeited authority over their congregations. Things came to a head immediately after the persecution, when in 311, both the traditiores and the Donatists nominated their own bishops to the major diocese of Carthage. For the traditiores, what had happened had happened, and it was time to move forward. For the Donatists, the surrender of church goods to Roman authorities was an unpardonable transgression, and the clergymen who had done so needed to be rebaptized and reconsecrated in their church offices – rebaptized and reconsecrated, as it turned out, by Donatist rigorists. As multiple bishops became appointed to individual dioceses, a papal council in 313, and then an imperial council in 314 both ruled against the Donatist purists, deciding that allowing one sect of North African bishops to empower new clergymen by proxy was a danger to the central ecclesiastical authority of Rome.5 These courtroom decisions, however, did not heal the religious rifts that had opened up in and around Carthage.

By the time Augustine was born – again in 354 – most of those who had lived through the Great Persecution were dead or retired, and so there would have been little living memory of who had surrendered their Bibles and who had held onto them and been martyred half a century earlier. Instead, the fissure that had yawned open between traditores and Donatists had turned into a self-perpetuating clan conflict. Traditiore clergymen tended to be Roman Catholic in alignment, stamped with imperial approval, and Latin in liturgical language. Donatist clergymen, however, as likely to speak Punic and Berber in their congregations, remained regionally popular, aligning their religious ideology with the indigenous North African populations and disparaging traditiore clergymen as Roman puppets controlled from far off. To make things more complex, by about 317, within Augustine’s Numidian home provinces, a group called the Circumcellions appeared. These were Christian religious radicals bent on economic equality and the freeing of slaves, and, leaning in under the Donatist umbrella, they stoked the nativist sentiments of local North African populations against rich Roman landlords and Roman-appointed religious leaders. By Augustine’s lifetime, the Circumcellions, though their goals were certainly noble, had reputations as unscrupulous demagogues and thugs, and their association with the Donatist sect, together with fissures within Donatism itself, tarnished North Africa’s homegrown rigorist movement. Tarnished though the Donatists were by the Circumcellion radicals, the Donatists remained a regional force to be reckoned with throughout Augustine’s lifetime.

So that was the Donatist Controversy as Augustine was born into it. The controversy began during the traumatic events of the Great Persecution of 303-311, but by the mid fourth century, it had turned into a turf war between the Christianity in the capital and Christianity in the North African provinces. It’s important to understand Donatism here at the outset of this episode for a very simple reason. Between 397 and 400 CE, when Augustine was writing the Confessions, Donatist congregations and leaders made up the majority of believers where Augustine served as bishop in Hippo Regius, and more generally the rural regions west and southwest of Carthage. Augustine himself, by this point, had climbed a fairly traditional Roman Catholic ecclesiastical ladder, endearing himself to church leaders in the capital of Milan in the 380s, and thus he would have been thought of as a traditiore clergyman – an outsider with Roman backing, rather than a bishop backed by local Donatist authorities. Being perceived as an illegitimate outsider rankled Augustine, who strongly identified as a North African and considered his ecclesiastical authority to be authentic. He had served as a bishop there since 395, and so writing the Confessions between 397 and 400 was an attempt to demonstrate to his Donatist detractors in North Africa that he was not some Roman stooge, but instead a valid, passionate, intellectually qualified Numidian bishop. [music]

Different Horizontal Dualisms: Manichaeism, Neoplatonism, Christianity

So that’s a snapshot into the ideological crosscurrents of Augustine’s hometown of Thagaste, where he was born in 354 – the traditiore and Donatist controversy was central to his experience as a North African Christian, so it’s a good thing to understand right away. Now, when we open the actual pages of Augustine’s Confessions in a few minutes here, we’ll hear more about Augustine’s life up until his early 40s, so I don’t want to spend time up front laying out a bunch of biographical information that’s going to be repeated later. Instead, I think we should spend just a moment learning a bit more about Augustine’s philosophical and theological background. Much of the Confessions is the story of an intellectual and spiritual journey – Augustine transitioned through several different ideologies prior to converting to Christianity at the age of 31 in the year 386, and he tells us about his journey in the Confessions. As popular a book as the Confessions is, it is also an incredibly dense book at times, its abstract philosophical and theological discussions making references to a barrel full of ancient ideologies, the prose of its chapters often sitting atop mounds of footnotes in modern translations. So before we get into the actual autobiography, let’s take a moment to review the two main ideologies that Augustine became enchanted with on the way to Christianity – these were first, Manichaeism; and second, Neoplatonism.

Philippe de Champaigne’s Saint Augustine (c. 1645-50). The theologian never entertained a philosophy that did not offer believers some sort of personal exaltation through transcendence to a higher and truer realm.

Every ideology that Augustine entertained, and really most of the popular ideologies of the fourth century, had something in common. Augustine and his contemporaries had a lifelong passion for horizontal dualism. Horizontal dualism, as we’ve discussed in past episodes, is that notion that there is a horizontal line between a lower realm and an upper realm, with the lower realm usually associated with mortality, the material world, and embodied existence, and the upper realm associated with deities, spirits and a permanence that outlasts the ebbs and flows of the material world. This central schema – flesh and spirit, earth and heaven, material incarnations and eternal forms, begins to appear in Mediterranean texts from the 500s BCE onward – this notion of an extrasensory elsewhere, higher and more permanent than life on earth. Horizontal dualism is so called because we differentiate it from vertical dualism, in which both earth and heaven are divided between two opposites – usually good and evil, with wicked spirits like the Zoroastrian Angra Mainu, the Christian Satan, and the Manichaean King of Darkness opposing beneficent deities both in the heavens above as well as on the earth below. To return to horizontal dualism, though – let’s keep that in our minds as we move forward – horizontal dualism is that ever-attractive notion that higher things are cordoned off from lower things. But even at a basic level, there’s a bit more to horizontal dualism than that.

Throughout cultural history, horizontal dualist systems are generally packaged together with attractive incentives that invite us to believe in them. The argument is generally that we are trapped in the muck of a material penitentiary, but if we do this or that, we can transcend the limitations of mortality and rise up into a timeless, permanent, better world. All of earth’s most pervasive religions have this structure, with the Christian and Islamic heaven, and the Hindu and Buddhist parinirvana. Statistically, most human beings have been, and are horizontal dualists. And in addition to being pervasive in religious history, horizontal dualism has also held sway over long eras of philosophical history.

In Augustine’s own North Africa, during the 350s, 360s, 70s, and long afterward, every extant ideology was anchored in horizontal dualism, religious, philosophical, and everything in between. Christianity, and even more so its offshoots Gnosticism and Manichaeism, held there to be a debased material world decaying beneath the splendor of a magnificent heaven. Platonism, from which large parts of Christianity came, held that the celestial forms of things were, in Plato’s words, “colorless, formless, and intangible truly existing essence, with which all true knowledge is concerned. . .visible only to the mind, the pilot of the soul. . .[and] surely. . .the man whose mind is truly fixed on eternal realities has no leisure to turn his eyes downward upon the petty affairs on men, and so engaging in strife with them to be filled with envy and hate, but he fixes his gaze upon the things of the eternal and unchanging order.”6 Later permutations of Platonism, which we’ll talk about in a moment, had similar schemas, theorizing various avenues toward ascending from the sludge of the material world and into a union with immortality and an omnipotent deity.

Augustine, then, did undertake an intellectual journey, but during that journey, he was always a horizontal dualist, always bent on discovering vehicles for leveling up from the material world, as doing so was the central aim of all popular theological and philosophical schools of the 300s. Augustine always wanted to ascend, somehow, to a higher tier of reality, and when he found a system that promised him transcendence, he threw himself into exploring and hammering away at that system with considerable energy and intellectual vigor. The first variant of horizontal dualism that Augustine embraced was Manichaeism. Manichaeism, which we covered back in Episode 84, was quite popular in North Africa by the 360s and 70s. A fusion of Parthian Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and more generally asceticism, Manichaeism told its adherents that they were each filled with good and evil. Humanity, in the Manichaean view, had tumbled down to earth from the copulations of evil beings enchanted with light, such that each person was doomed to carry the freight of evil in the prison of the material world, but that each person was also charged with a sparkle of benevolent divinity. Manichaeans taught that abstinence and pure living – especially an appropriate diet – were keys to understanding their divine origins, communing with the divine, and transcending their material existences and their demonic proclivities. Along with some Gnostic sects, Manichaeans rejected the Old Testament altogether, and its deity, as Manichaeanism had a different creation story for the material world, and didn’t want to be associated with a deity who had created the material world, anyway. Manichaeans also held a view of Christ that’s very unusual by today’s standards. Their notion was that Jesus was never a material being at all, but instead a spirit whose physical form was an illusion – a view of Christ called the docetic view in theology that was at odds with the Nicene Christian view that Jesus really was incarnated and died an agonizing death. In the Confessions, Augustine disparages many aspects of Manichaeism – its notion that an alien evil compels us to sin, rather than something within ourselves, its rejection of the Old Testament, and its unusual view of Jesus as an illusory spirit rather than a flesh and blood person.

Manichaeism, then, was Augustine’s first stop on the horizontal dualist train. His next stop was Neoplatonism. Neoplatonism, born during the second half of the 200s, attracted Augustine in that it did away with some of the cumbersome parts of Manichaeanism, setting aside demons and angels and a long creation story for something simpler. Neoplatonism proposed a pantheist system, pantheism being that idea that God is the universe, and everything and everyone in it. Neoplatonism, and Augustine’s favorite Neoplatonist Plotinus, held that human souls were trapped in decaying bodies in the material world, and that among the distractions of the material world, human souls tended to lose their way during the wear and tear of daily life. To Plotinus, by gazing deeply inward into one’s own soul and letting the interferences of the physical world fade away – by purifying oneself through contemplation, one could experience a communion with the divine One that was the axis of the cosmos. As Plotinus himself describes the process in a personal account written in the 250s or 260s,
Many times it has happened: Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentered; beholding a marvelous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine. . .yet, there comes the moment of descent. . .and after that sojourn in the divine, I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending, and how did the soul ever enter into my body, the soul which, even within the body, is the high thing that it has shown itself to be.7
Closer to Buddhism than Christianity, Plotinus believed that a universal singularity – again the “One” of Neoplatonism – was the highest reality. To Plotinus, the cosmos was a “supreme, undivided soul. . .one, everywhere and always Its entire self.”8 In spite of this great unity, though, Plotinus wrote that “we inevitably think of the Soul, though one undivided in the All, as being present to bodies in division. . .it appears to be present in the bodies by the fact that it shines through them” (1.8), although in reality the cosmic One was everyone, everywhere, all the time. Thus, the dutiful Neoplatonist, during Augustine’s generation, focused on tuning out the loud and vacillating illusions of the material world, where it seemed as though the eternal One was fractured into many squabbling individuals and objects. Instead, Neoplatonism advised silent and solemn introspection, for introspection was looking into divinity itself, since everyone and everything was simply an emanation of the One.

During Augustine’s road to conversion, he spent time as both a Manichaean and a Neoplatonist. And while he rejected Manichaeism soundly, Neoplatonic ideas had a profound influence on his writings as a Catholic theologian – in the Confessions itself, Neoplatonic ideas about how the divine exists in time and space appear early and often. So, we’ve had a fairly long introduction to the Confessions thus far. We’ve learned about the Donatist controversy – how rigorist Donatists had, by Augustine’s lifetime, stirred up the indigenous populations of North Africa in an attempt to set them against the authority of Roman appointed bishops, and how Augustine wrote the Confessions partly to try and win these nativist theologians over. We’ve discussed horizontal dualism, and how Augustine moved through Manichaeism and then Neoplatonism on the way to Christianity. There’s one last thing we should do before we open the Confessions to the first page of Book 1 and begin to actually read it, and that’s to talk, for just a moment, about the architecture of the book as a whole. [music]

The Architecture of the Confessions

Augustine’s Confessions has thirteen chapters, or books. It is most famous as an autobiographical conversion narrative – the story of a man who was lost, but now is fond, and was blind, but now sees. But the book is more than a tell-all record of a man’s mistakes and subsequent conversion. From its outset, it is a work prone to digressions – this personal narrative leads to this theological contemplation, and this other episode from Augustine’s past leads him to another long discourse on another subject. The Confessions is, after all, largely the record of an intellectual journey, and of course one cannot tell of such a journey without some intellectual details. Thus, while the first few books about Augustine’s childhood and teenage years are fairly short chapters consisting of predominantly autobiography, as he moves into Book 7, in which he describes adopting Neoplatonism, and then throughout the sizable breadth of Books 10-13, Augustine abandons autobiography to write philosophical discourse. The main point I want to convey here is that about half of the Confessions consists of autobiographical content, and the other half consists of of abstract ideological discussions.

And while these discussions are dense, Augustine is tremendous in the beauty and clarity of his style. Trained in rhetoric and oratory from a young age, like so many Roman youths before him, Augustine wrote beautiful, eloquent Latin. His own statements on style emphasize that he believed ornate language didn’t compensate for having little to actually say.9 Sometimes using a high, mellifluous style, and at other points using punchy, terse sentences, Augustine writes with control and conviction. The Confessions itself is a long, continuous prayer addressed to the Christian God, and while it sometimes adopts the structure of formal philosophical prose, just as often, the book’s chapters ripple with heartfelt questions. What happened prior to the creation of the cosmos? Augustine asks. Where does God exist, and does God occupy physical space at all? How does God exist in time? What is evil, and how can it persist in the universe? These are direct, accessible theological questions, voiced with the wonderment of a child and not the stuffy confidence of a dogmatist, and they occur all over the Confessions. While the book’s intermittent density has made for challenging reading for generations, its density comes from the intrinsic complexity of its subject material, rather than obtuseness or disclarity on the part of the author. And generally, even its most difficult sections give way to concise, awestruck, delightful conclusions.

So, that’s plenty of material upfront to introduce you to Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Without further ado, let’s open this most famous work of Late Antiquity, again written between 397 and 400. Unless otherwise noted, I’m quoting now and then from the Henry Chadwick translation, published by Oxford University Press in 1991. [music]

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 1: Early Years10

Augustine’s Confessions begins with a series of prayers and invocations of scripture, explaining the author’s drive to be a Christian. Augustine writes that “My faith, Lord, calls upon you. It is your gift to me. You breathed it into me by the humanity of your Son, by the ministry of your preacher.”11 But this avowal of certainty is followed by a number of questions about God – how God can fill anyone when God is already everywhere, whether parts of things are filled with parts of God or everything is filled with all of God, and how one really can’t say anything about God at all, but how one must still try.

After several pages of remarks of awe at the majesty of God, Augustine begins his autobiography at the very beginning, writing that though wet nurses fed him when he was an infant, it was God who filled their breasts with milk. Augustine imagines himself as an infant, smiling and flailing his limbs, and wonders where his spirit was before it filled his physical form (1.8, 1.10). But his recollections of his earliest months soon turn toward a meditation on inherent human wickedness. Augustine writes,
At the time of my infancy I must have acted reprehensibly; but since I could not understand the person who admonished me, neither custom nor reason allowed me to be, neither custom nor reason allowed me to be reprehended. . .I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk. Who is unaware of this fact of experience? (1.7)
Following this brief meditation on the inherent covetousness of newborns and infants, Augustine goes on to describe his early childhood.

Santa Monica e Sant'Agostino

Giuseppe Riva’s Saint Monica and Saint Augustine (c. 1910). The theologian’s mother is depicted as a devout Chrisitan and paradigmatic Roman woman throughout the Confessions.

God, Augustine writes, gave him the power of speech through his innate intelligence more than adults instructed him (1.8), and as a toddler he slowly grew to associate objects with words. His first experience as a student in a formal school was unpleasant, as laziness and ineptitude were met with physical punishment, and adults laughed at his complaints when he was caned. A boyish love of playing ball games was met with harsh disapproval by his schoolmaster, though Augustine compares his schoolmaster’s intellectual one-upmanship with colleagues as little more than adult ballgames (1.15). In hindsight, Augustine writes, he is ashamed of his youthful appetites for sports and public entertainments at the theater and the arena.

While still a young child, Augustine became sick. At this juncture he was still unbaptized, and, fearing for his life, his mother made preparations for his baptism. However, Augustine recovered, and was not baptized as a young man. We should note that during the early Christian period, baptism was done later in life – frequently on deathbeds, since the assumption was that sacred cleansing of sins was best done after, rather than before sins were inevitably committed. Augustine tells us that this was why his mother postponed his baptism (1.18). He survived this crisis, however, and his education proceeded.

From a young age as a student, Augustine admits, he never had much interest in or facility with speaking and writing in Greek, inasmuch as doing so was a core part of a Roman child’s education. He recollects reading about the death of the Carthaginian queen Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid, and chastises himself for weeping over a literary character rather than over his as-of-yet nonexistent relationship with God. To a lesser extent he admonishes himself for loving pagan literature at the expense of mathematics, and then again decries the system of corporal punishment that he endured in his boyhood school (1.13,14). Pagan literature, Augustine writes, like the poems of Homer, taught that Gods were vile sinners and that people ought to imitate their wickedness (1.16), and Augustine concludes that it’s a shame that parents pay for kids to be indoctrinated in such an ideology (1.16). Citing a passage from the Latin playwright Terence – also a North African, incidentally, Augustine emphasizes that students are compelled to learn prurient literature and whipped if they don’t, and that when he was a child, salacious passages were ones that he took “with pleasure and. . .delight. . .wretch that I was. For this reason I was said to be a boy of high promise” (1.16). As a young student, Augustine reveals, he was indeed praised for his enthusiastic recitations of passages from classical literature.

Augustine’s disparagement of pagan literature then gives way to a more general criticism of academic punctiliousness. He writes that “if someone. . .pronounces the word ‘human’ contrary to the school teaching, without pronouncing the [word correctly], he is socially censured more than if. . .he were to hate a fellow human being” (1.18). Others, he says, blush if they commit a grammatical impropriety while at the same time advertising their lasciviousness in ornate torrents of speech. Augustine writes that this was the educational climate in which he came of age – one that praised prolix speech and largely ignored personal moral conduct, and one in which, to his regret later in life, he would play games with other little boys in filching food from his parents’ pantry (1.19).

Augustine’s Confessions: Book 2: Adolescence

Augustine begins the second book of the Confessions by remembering his adolescent sexual awakening in rather unfavorable terms. To give you an idea of Augustine’s occasionally florid language, and his thorough career-long fixation on sex, I’ll quote some of the opening lines of this chapter, in the Oxford Henry Chadwick translation:
Clouds of muddy carnal concupiscence filled the air. The bubbling impulses of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love’s serenity and lust’s darkness. Confusion of the two things boiled within me. It seized hold of my youthful weakness sweeping me through the precipitous rocks of desire to submerge me in a whirlpool of vice. [God’s] wrath was heavy upon me and I was unaware of it. I had become deafened by the clanking chain of my mortal condition, the penalty of my pride. . .I was tossed about and split, scattered and boiled dry in my fornications. . .Sensual folly assumed domination over me, and I gave myself totally to it. (2.2, 2.4)12
Augustine quotes a quartet of New Testament passages central to the clerical celibacy movement of the fourth century, and wishes that as an adolescent he had made himself a eunuch.13 But, returning us to the actual course of events in his life, Augustine writes that by sixteen, he was wholly subsumed by lust. His father, who seems to have supported young Augustine’s education enthusiastically, sought to send him to the regional center of Carthage, though the family would barely able to afford it, wanting an even greater education for his son than some wealthy parents sought out for theirs (2.5). Rather than expressing gratitude at his father’s generosity, Augustine remarks with disgust that his father ignored Augustine’s moral development. On this subject, Augustine recalls being with his father at the bathhouse at the age of sixteen, and his father noticing his “signs of virility and the stirrings of adolescence” (2.6) in young Augustine, leading the older man to begin hoping for grandchildren. And while Augustine’s father was ready for the young man to produce children, Augustine’s mother was hesitant.

Her name was Monica, and she’s one of the main figures in Augustine’s Confessions. Monica was highly interested in 16-year-old Augustine’s sexual morality, distraught at the thought that the teenager would become sexually active, or even worse, have sex with a married woman. And it was about time Monica became more involved in governing her son’s sex life, because Augustine was not only engaging in lewd behavior, but also bragging about it to his friends (2.7). Both parents, at this juncture, steered him toward a literary education – his father because it would be a traditional Roman path toward success, and his mother, because an intellectual awakening might nudge him toward Christianity. But, being sixteen, young Augustine was more interested in the diversions of adolescence than anything else.

And one of his adolescent diversions in particular is the source of a very famous passage in the Confessions. Augustine, here in the second book writes in the Modern Library Sarah Ruden translation that:
There was a pear tree in the neighborhood of our vineyard, but the fruit weighing it down offered no draw either in its look or taste. After playing in vacant lots clear till the dead of night – that was the behavior we visited on the town as our habit – we young men, full of endless mischief, proceeded to this tree to shake it down and haul away the goods. We filched immense loads, not for our own feasting but for slinging away to swine, if you can believe it. But in fact, we did devour some pears; our only proviso was the potential for liking what was illicit. . .[and a moment later he writes] God. . .there was no cause for my viciousness except viciousness. . .I loved my failing – not the thing for the sake of which I failed, but the failing itself. (2.9)14
Augustine emphasizes that he feasted on wickedness itself, rather than stolen pears, but that in hindsight, he was motivated into the theft by the company he was keeping (2.16). Intense self-chastisement for stealing the pears propels the second half of Book 2, together with various meditations about not placing stock in worldly things, the criminality of pride, and the nature of sin. [music]

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 3: Student at Carthage

Around this same time, Augustine’s parents were able to put enough money together for him to be educated in Carthage. Just as his contemporary Jerome had found the allurements of Rome exciting during his youth, Augustine was enchanted with the attractions of Carthage. There, he tells us, in characteristically bombastic prose, “I had never been in love and I longed to love. . .So my soul was in rotten health. . .I therefore polluted the spring water of friendship with the filth of concupiscence. I muddled its clear stream by the hell of lust” (3.1). At this juncture, he had also become fond of the theater.

Augustine has harsh words for the theater, and theatergoers. Though he loved the theater as a teenager, he criticizes theatergoing in the Confessions as a pernicious habit – one which invites spectators to partake in a range of exciting, but false emotional experiences. Theater, to Augustine, provides vicarious terrors and enjoyments that cause “inflamed spots, pus, and repulsive sores” (3.4) on those who regularly attend it. While theater was one of Augustine’s pastimes in Carthage, as he turned seventeen, and then eighteen, he also focused on his studies. These studies were mainly of rhetoric and oratory. As a young man, Augustine had been drawn toward the discipline of rhetoric and oratory by social custom and a desire for personal distinction, but on discovering a philosophical book of Cicero, he began thinking of studying more generally in pursuit of wisdom.

In a lost book called Hortensius, Augustine read Cicero’s advice “not to study one particular sect but to love and seek and pursue and hold fast and strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found” – this is a passage that Augustine himself quotes. The quotation, while it certainly reflects the old Greco-Roman world’s evenhanded pluralism, did not ultimately drive Augustine toward the ideological eclecticism which Cicero intended to encourage in his reader. For Augustine, the book, having been written in roughly 45 BCE, had a fatal flaw. It did not once invoke the name of Christ. And yet when Augustine, aged 18, tried to read the Bible, he found it “of mountainous difficulty” (3.9) – something far more convoluted than the lucid and logical pages of Cicero. Still, reading Cicero’s advice to seek wisdom out wherever it might be found had a tremendous effect on the 18-year-old Augustine. While Cicero’s words on wisdom didn’t bring Augustine into the Christian fold, discovering Cicero’s work was what several scholars have called Augustine’s “conversion to philosophy.”15

With his interest in pagan intellectual history fully awakened, Augustine continued to keep company with the workaday academics of Carthage. Their pluralism and moral relativism, he reflects as he writes the book much later, did not trouble him at the time. Interrupting Book 3 for a long discourse on moral relativism, Augustine emphasizes that indeed various civilizations have customs and laws that govern deportments, and eras have different ideologies, but that then there are the timeless mandates and ideas of God, which, when necessary, must shred the customs of whole civilizations (3.15), because they are rooted in an extrasensory and enduring reality (3.12) greater than the ebbs and flows of the material world. Thus, to Augustine, “A just human society” (3.17) is exclusively a Christian one. While much of Book 3 moves away from autobiography and into a stream of remarks about human morality and the timeless justice of the Christian deity, Augustine closes with an anecdote about his mother. As Augustine himself floundered morally, close to the age of 19, his mother was sent a special dream from God – a dream of the young man eventually joining his mother in her Christian piety, which proved a great solace for her. Around the same time, Monica’s bishop advised her not to fret too much about Augustine. Sometimes, the bishop said, young men had to take the long road to piety, and Monica’s mournful concern for her son was so intense, the bishop advised, that mother and son were surely kindred spirits, and young Augustine would, in the long run, be fine.

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 4: Manichee and Astrologer


An eighth or ninth century manuscript painting from Xinjiang displaying Manichaeians in study. The religion, founded in 224 in the Sasanian Empire by the prophet Mani, had become very popular in North Africa by Augustine’s lifetime.

Between nineteen and twenty-eight, Augustine writes, he lost his way. His vocation was that of a teacher – he taught literature and rhetoric, but also mathematics, astronomy, and geometry – all folded into the fabric of a Roman gentleman’s education. His religion, for much of this juncture, was Manichaeism, which we briefly discussed earlier. In terms of deportment during this period, he was an elegant Carthaginian gentleman, prideful and pedantic; for his religion, he supplied his Manichaean Elect, or priest, with the purified foods that the religion’s doctrines required. He tells us that in training younger men for the law, he taught them how to win court cases but also how, when defending a guilty client, one ought to let the prosecution have its say, rather than pursuing victory at all costs.

In his twenties, Augustine also began a relationship – a relationship, he tells us, that was sexual, and monogamous. This relationship would eventually endure for fifteen years, and when he first mentions it, Augustine isn’t terribly condemnatory – merely saying that it was for the purposes of love and sex, rather than family and procreation. During his twenties, he also partook in some of the usual superstitious rites of Roman North Africa, not making sacrifices to pagan gods, but still consulting with astrologers, as was Roman custom. Nonetheless, through a serendipitous meeting with a hardheaded physician, along with the advice of a similarly skeptical young friend, Augustine became convinced that astrology was silly, and he gave it up long before his conversion to Christianity.

At some point, he moved back to his hometown of Thagaste, where he kept up a very close friendship with a young man he’d known since boyhood. His friend died, however, which not only caused Augustine great grief, but also cast a sad pallor over their hometown. Eventually, it wasn’t just that he missed his friend – he became addicted to grief itself, and in Augustine’s words, “I was more unwilling to lose my misery than him. . .I found myself heavily weighed down by a sense of being tired of living and scared of dying” (4.6). The event was no youthful hiccup – it was a profound crisis for Augustine, causing consciousness itself to become unendurable. Out of desperation, he fled from Thagaste without telling his mother, accepting a handout from a wealthy neighbor and settling himself in Carthage.

At this dark hour, Augustine found some solace in his friendships in Carthage. But people, Augustine emphasizes, are only transitory – “They rend the soul with pestilential desires; for the soul loves to be in them and take its repose among the objects of its love. But in these things there is no point of rest: they lack permanence” (4.10). Augustine regrets that at the time of his friend’s death “I loved beautiful things of a lower order, and I was going down to the depths” (4.13). Even his religion and philosophical pursuits, at this juncture, left him feeling hollow. As we discussed earlier, seemingly every ideology to have come down to us from the 300s CE invited believers to reject the material world for a higher reality – this was a large part of Platonism and the heart of Neoplatonism, the core of Gnosticism, the core of Manichaeism, and part of the engine that drove stoicism. All of these horizontal dualisms propelled Augustine’s intellectual development prior to his conversion, but they brought him little comfort as he mourned his young friend in Carthage.

Nor, Augustine tells us, did the summit of pagan philosophy, Aristotle. Augustine tells us about reading a book by Aristotle called the Categories – one that he says was rather easy for him to read and understand, notwithstanding its reputation at the time as a dense and unconquerably profound book. And as Book 6 draws to its conclusion, Augustine writes that nothing – neither his education in the liberal arts and sciences, nor his Manichaean religion, nor the fashionable doctrines of Neoplatonism, gave him any real solace, either in his twenties, or in hindsight. [music]

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 5: Carthage, Rome, and Milan

Still intellectually restless at the age of 29, in Carthage, Augustine encountered a Manichaean sage named Faustus. Faustus, like many other third and fourth century Christians from Gnostic and Manichaean sects, dismissed the spiritual authority of the Old Testament due to various elements of early Biblical books out of step with Christianity. While Augustine wrote a different book refuting the Manichaean sage Faustus, in the Confessions Augustine merely tells us that, being himself fairly well schooled in fourth-century science, he found Manichaean explanations for creation and existence to be outrageous fables. At the same time, looking back on how astronomers of his age had consistently figured out how to predict eclipses, Augustine writes that fourth century scientists were prideful and indifferent toward the Christian God. And if you’re wondering, the first person to predict an eclipse on the historical record was allegedly the sixth century BCE philosopher Thales of Miletus, who was able to do so on May 28, 585 BCE.

Saint Ambrose by Francisco de Goya, c. 1796-99, Cleveland Museum of Art

Franciso de Goya’s Saint Ambrose (c. 1796-99). The bishop had become one of the most powerful Chrisitan clerics in history by the time Augustine made his acquaintance in the 380s, and was instrumental in Augustine’s conversion.

To return to the Confessions, although Augustine was leery of the pride of scientists and intellectuals, at 29 he still preferred their explanations to the fables of Manichaeism. He tells us that in reading scientific texts, “I particularly noted the rational, mathematical order of things, the order of the seasons, the visible evidence of the stars” (5.6) and that this, together with certain common sense empirical observations, made him skeptical of Manichaeism. He had been partial to Manichaeism between 20 and 29, but the cumulative weight of his lifetime learning, together with the outlandishness of some Manichaean narratives and the sketchy nature of Mani himself began drawing Augustine away from the ideology.16 And at 29, he met the aforementioned Manichaean sage Faustus, finding Faustus, on the surface, to be wonderfully eloquent and schooled in all things Manichaean. But Faustus, Augustine discovered, wasn’t actually very educated. Augustine had spent his teens and twenties in fairly scholastic pursuits as a student and teacher in the traditional academic paths of the ancient Roman world. Faustus the Manichean was charismatic, but he had no real schooling. This became apparent after Augustine asked him a few pressing questions, and to Faustus’ credit, he gracefully admitted ignorance of things about which he knew nothing.

Having pursued Manichaeanism to its logical end, then, Augustine was still restless. He decided he’d go to Rome. The reason at the time, he said, was that he’d heard Roman students were more civil and gracious with their teachers than Carthaginian ones, behaving with more respect and humbleness than their counterparts out in the provinces. His mother didn’t want him to go to Rome, and went with him all the way to the coast. There, he lied to her and told her he was waiting for a friend, leaving her in a hostel on the shore to make his way to Rome.

Upon arriving in Rome, Augustine became quite sick, and he stayed with some Manichaeans. Though his interest in this sect of Christianity was waning, he still had some curiosities about them, and a congenial enough relationship to seek lodging with them. His central objective, however, was a pedagogical one, and soon he set out to round up some pupils. Roman students, Augustine discovered, were a little bit better in terms of classroom deportment. But nonetheless, they had a nasty habit – a habit attested in other fourth century sources besides Augustine himself.17 Roman students would stay until their tuition was due. But then, just as they were supposed to pay their instructors, they would transfer to a different instructor. It was a detestable habit, Augustine writes, showing their gross devotion to money over doing what was just and right.

Fortunately, around this time Augustine had some good luck. The city of Milan, at this juncture, in roughly 384, was the administrative capital of the western reaches of the Roman empire, and from Milan came a dispatch that a teacher of rhetoric was needed there – the government would fund his short journey up to the north. Using his Manichaean connections, Augustine applied and was accepted. And in Milan, Augustine met the city’s bishop, Saint Ambrose.

Ambrose was about fifteen years older than Augustine, and by the year 384, he had become one of the most influential Christians in history. Born into a family of Gallic Christian aristocrats, Ambrose had been a well-reputed governor of the territory of Northern Italy in which Milan resided before he became a bishop there, according to a popular legend, becoming bishop by popular demand rather than due to purposely angling for the position. A promoter of Nicene Christianity over Arianism, Ambrose was in step with the sect that ended up being on the winning side of history. Even for a major urban bishop, by 384, Ambrose was very powerful. He had been close with the emperor Gratian, and though works of ancient history have exaggerated his influence on Roman rulers, Ambrose was certainly a force to be reckoned with, the bishop of a capital region of which he’d formerly been governor, and a Christian authority who had Rome’s Christian emperors on speed dial during and after the Edict of Thessalonica officialized Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire in 380.

Augustine’s first recollection of Ambrose in the Confessions is remarkably personal. He writes that after meeting Ambrose, “I began to like him, at first indeed not as a teacher of the truth, for I had absolutely no confidence in [the] Church, but as a human being who was kind to me” (5.13). He listened to Ambrose’s sermons carefully, with the technical curiosity of one with a rhetorical education. Ambrose was learned, Augustine could tell, though less flashy and witty than some virtuoso orators Augustine had encountered. But unlike the Manichaeans, there was a depth and grace to the lessons that Ambrose offered – a depth and grace that slowly drew Augustine in. While not ostentatious, Ambrose’s eloquence was solid. Ambrose demonstrated that contrary to what the Manichaeans taught, there was great wisdom in the Old Testament. Though hesitant at first, in Milan, Augustine soon formally severed his ties with Manichaeanism, and became a catechumen in the Catholic Church. [music]

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 6: Secular Ambitions and Conflicts

At this juncture, Augustine had expressed formal interest in Catholicism, but was still in religious gray area. As he writes, “I was not now a Manichee, though neither was I Catholic Christian” (7.1). Just as Augustine was poised between the two religions, his mother Monica came to see him, and she greeted his spiritual transition with joy. Monica continued being a devout Catholic, and as she joined the congregations of likeminded believers in Milan, she impressed the bishop Ambrose with her piety. And Augustine himself had many questions for Ambrose, not the least of which was how Ambrose could possibly be celibate – Augustine at this juncture was still in a relationship with his long-term concubine. Ambrose, however, was a busy person – when not actively engaging with others, he was busy reading, and Augustine felt guilty disturbing the older man’s contemplations with his newbie questions.

During these months in Milan, Augustine was changing intellectually, and becoming ever more interested in the vast breadth of the Catholic Bible, the scope of his ambitions changing. Vocationally, he still worked as a teacher, and still had a circle of North African friends even up in Milan. One of these was a young man named Alypius. Alypius was Augustus’ former student, the son of influential parents in Augustine’s hometown of Thagaste, and also a devotee of Manichaeanism. Both in Rome and in Milan, Augustine tells us, young Alypius was inordinately fond of chariot racing and gladiatorial games. Alypius, who would later be a North African bishop like Augustine himself, comes across as an absentminded but honest and likable young person in the Confessions – Augustine tells us that Alypius was nearly arrested for an act of petty theft that he didn’t commit. Alypius, though, in spite of his occasional scrapes, was employed and competent – the young man had done good, scrupulous work as an assessor in Rome, refusing all bribes and the prerogatives granted to his office. And another North African – a man named Nebridus, had also joined Augustine in the journey up to Milan.

Now, at this point, Augustine was still at a crossroads. Having met Ambrose and become interested in Catholicism didn’t mean he was going to convert, and even if he converted, at this juncture of his life – again about 29, he had no notion that he’d ever join the clergy and live a life of celibacy. Thus, he contemplated his career. Would he marry? Would he seek a governmental post? Would he adopt some new ideology he had not yet discovered, and in it, find the wisdom he’d heard Cicero mention so long ago?

With his friends, he discussed abstinence. At this point, Augustine had been in a monogamous sexual relationship for a long time. While his young friend Alypius had no problem with celibacy, Augustine tells us that “Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain, but was afraid to be free of it. . .what held me captive and tortured me was the habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire” (6.7).

While Augustine grappled with his ideological and hormonal crises, his mother added another element into the mix. She thought that if Augustine were married, he’d be a couple of steps closer to being a baptized Catholic convert. And spiritual wellness wouldn’t be the only incentive for marriage. Augustine writes that he also realized he could “marry a wife with some money to avert the burden of heavy expenditure” (6.11). In the Roman empire in the fourth century, court positions cost money, and an ambitious man needed capital to propel his career. And so Augustine’s mother, through careful politicking, secured an engagement with a ten-year old-girl – two years under the twelve-year-old minimum required for Roman marriages. Augustine writes of the child that “she pleased me, and I was prepared to wait” (6.13).

Augustine’s engagement led to him breaking off relations with his monogamous partner of fifteen years – never named in the Confessions other than “The woman with whom I habitually slept” (6.15). They had had a son together. Augustine’s concubine returned to North Africa, the separation causing him immense sadness. Nonetheless, as he tells us, “I procured another woman, not of course as wife” (6.15) – in other words a sex worker to attend to his sexual needs, prior to his fiancé’s upcoming twelfth birthday.

Now, let’s pause here for a moment between Books 6 and 7 of the Confessions. The portion of the autobiography I’ve just summarized is one that people tend to remember. Even though this portion of book is aiming to be a confession of past transgressions, and one that does not paint its author’s decisions in a favorable light, it’s still a moment that I suspect makes most of us wince and scrunch up our lips. So on the subject of Augustine’s abandonment of his girlfriend and his subsequent engagement to a child, let me quote scholar Henry Chadwick, who writes this:
To modern readers nothing in Augustine’s career seems more deplorable than his dismissal of his son’s mother, the concubine of fifteen years. In the mentality of the fourth century no one would have been outraged unless the person concerned were a professing and baptized Christian, which at the time Augustine was not. Texts other than Augustine’s disclose that for a young man it was regular custom to take a concubine until such time as he found a suitable fiancée, marriage being understood as a property deal between the two families. The bride’s dowry was crucial. The modern criticism is not of Augustine so much as of the total society in which he was a member. (xvi)
Put simply, Chadwick reminds us that though the tail end of Book 6 is very incriminating by modern standards, during this dark juncture of Augustine’s past, he was a Roman person, doing typical Roman stuff, and that years later, when his moral sense began to change, Augustine still had the courage to be honest about the person he’d once been. And while Book 6 of the Confessions concludes with a grimy and unflattering moment of Augustine’s past, Book 7, to which we’ll now turn, begins some of the most blockbuster theological writings in Christian history, which persist until the end of the book. [music]

Augustine’s Confessions Book 7: A Neoplatonic Quest

Though Augustine’s engagement was settled, and his path toward a career was somewhat secured, he remained spiritually restless. He tried to imagine what God was. Did God occupy material space? If God didn’t occupy space, was God something more like a mathematical abstract than a reality? Was God like sunlight permeating the air, only God effortlessly permeated the entire universe? (7.1)


A bust found in Ostia possibly representing the Neoplatonist Plotinus. Neoplatonic philosophy, as Platonic philosophy had long been, was readily compatible with Christianity, but Augustine disparaged its pantheism. Augustine believed that universe’s deity was separate from, and not one with, humanity, as Plotinus thought.

And what about the Manichaean doctrines of evil? How could an abstract force of evil exist in opposition to God, whom nothing could oppose? Just as puzzling, how could a force of evil exist when God had created everything, and God was supposedly incorruptible? Where did all the evil and transgressiveness in the world come from? Clearly the Manichaean story was a fairytale, but why did humans, created by God, have such innate propensity for evil? (7.2-3). These questions plagued Augustine – if a beneficent deity had permeated all reality with his act of creation, then “What. . .is the origin of evil?. . .Was [God] powerless to turn and transform all matter so that no evil remained?” (7.5).

By this juncture, Augustine had already decided that astrology was silly. He met a man named Ferminus, and conversations that they had together caused Augustine to conclude once and for all that astrology was bogus, and divinations by horoscope were sometimes right by coincidence, but always fictitious and unreliable. And while he was able to toss one belief system into the waste bin during his early tenure in Milan, he was introduced to another one that was much more substantial. This was Neoplatonism, which we discussed briefly earlier. Neoplatonism wasn’t so easy to dismiss out of hand, but what Augustine ultimately objected to about it was this. The Neoplatonist deity is essentially the singular oneness of the mind and universe – to achieve the desired union with the One, the Neoplatonist needs to look into himself and reject the spiritual disintegration he has suffered due to his immersion in the material world. Augustine’s beef with Neoplatonism was ultimately the same as his problem with Gnosticism and Manichaeism. To Augustine, the notion that we are shards of heaven, and the notion that we can commune with God was false.18 God, to Augustine, was something else – not one with humanity, nor the material world, but in Augustine’s words, “the immutable light higher than my mind. . .a different thing, utterly different from all our kinds of light” (7.10).

Platonism and Neoplatonism, then, had their beauties and appeal, and we should again note that the Confessions allude often to them, particularly showing Augustine’s fluency with the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. But Augustine’s combination of intensity, and his capacity for self-chastisement demanded a theology more dramatic, mysterious, and historically complex than the intellectual Greek world’s latest rebranding of horizontal dualism. Leaving Plotinus behind, he turned to the work of Saint Paul. In Paul, Augustine writes, the entire apparatus of Platonic thought was present, only it was packaged together with something more – a God that wasn’t the animating hub of the universe, or the universe itself, but an unknowable other, enigmatic and at the same time loving and kindly. And at this point in the Confessions, having laid so much groundwork in telling the story of his journey toward conversion, having been amply clear that he’d taken a long and intellectually vigorous road to get there, Augustine begins the story of his conversion in earnest. [music]

From Convert to Bishop: Augustine’s Middle Years

We’re going to break off here, roughly halfway through the Confessions – I suspect it’s not a plot spoiler to tell you that he converts to Christianity, rather than getting involved in a drug cartel or being kidnapped by aliens. It might be a bit more of a surprise, however, to tell you that what you’ve just heard is the vast majority of the actual autobiographical content of the book – Augustine relates a couple of more prominent episodes from his early thirties, but stops his narrative at the mouth of the Tiber River on the way home to North Africa in the year 387, omitting the ten years of his life between the ages of 33 and 43, 43 being the year at which he began writing the Confessions.

While we still have the second half of the book ahead of us, what you heard today is the most famous portion of Augustine’s autobiography. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I own three different translations of the Confessions, all used. And in all three copies of this thirteen-book text, the highlights and marginal notes of each translation’s previous owner sputter out around Book 5, with no indications that previous owners forged onward past Augustine’s arrival in Rome. For most of us, of course, autobiographical first-person narratives are quite a bit easier to follow than dense theological work. While we, in our podcast, have trucked through many of the major religious and philosophical movements leading up to Augustine, not to mention the Bible, Cicero, and a lot of the literary output of the ancient Greco-Roman world, I imagine that to the average college freshman or curious Christian believer out there on the street, the later books of the Confessions would be quite difficult to get through, and so it’s little wonder that the accessible chapters Augustine wrote about being a child and teenager are the most well-trod parts of the Confessions.

We will take a longer look at Augustinian theology in the Confessions next time. For now, I want to do two things to wrap up our initial program on Saint Augustine. The first will be to learn about what he was up to between ages 33 and 43, as during these years he went from being a scrappy young convert to a full-fledged bishop. And the second will be to explore what motivated Augustine to write this book in a little more detail than we did earlier in the episode.


The Medjerda River near Souk Aras (ancient Thagaste). Photo by Omar2788. Augustine could have stayed on his family estate in this beautiful part of Algeria after his mother’s death and lived off of the family’s income as a reclusive scholar. Instead, he threw himself into the far more challenging life of a cleric.

Let’s start by discussing some of Augustine’s early years as a Christian convert. We know from what we read today that Augustine looked up to Saint Ambrose, that powerful bishop in the capital of Milan who treated young Augustine with kindness and respect, even though Augustine was at that point just workaday teacher-for-hire, and one from a remote and unglamorous province, to boot. And although Augustine did eventually become a bishop, his initial goal as a Christian convert was not to assume a church office and model his career on that of his older mentor Ambrose. On the contrary, upon becoming a Christian, at first, Augustine just returned to North Africa, to the estate on which he’d grown up. Now, our source for much of Augustine’s later life is a fairly short biography that his friend Possidius wrote. Possidius, the bishop of another Numidian town about 40 miles northwest of Augustine’s birthplace in Thagaste, was Augustine’s friend for 40 years, and he left behind a biography of Augustine that stretches to about 50 pages in modern translations.

Possidius tells us that after Augustine sailed south, following his years on the Italian peninsula, Augustine went home, and he stayed there for almost three years. Between 33 and 36, then, comfortably installed in Thagaste, Augustine “now gave up [his] possessions and began to live with those who had also consecrated themselves to God, in fastings and prayers and good works, meditating day and night in the Law of the Lord. And the things which God revealed to him through prayer and meditation, he taught both those present and absent in his sermons and books.”19 It wasn’t Augustine’s first foray into a monastic retirement – in the Confessions, in a section we haven’t yet reached, Augustine records spending time in Cassiciacum, a villa about 20 miles northeast of Milan, just after converting. This short stint spent as a cloistered Christian was evidently a powerful experience for Augustine, because as he went through his mid-30s between 387 and 390, he used his family resources to support a bookish, monastic lifestyle.

Augustine’s mother had passed away by this point – her death ends the autobiographical portion of the Confessions, and we’ll read about that next time. But other tragedies struck Augustine during the three-year period of his hermitage in Thagaste. His son Adeodatus, aged somewhere between 16 and 19, died during Augustine’s mid-30s, as did Augustine’s close friend Nebridius. These were bitter losses. With no surviving close family, as Augustine passed into his late 30s, the monastic isolation that he’d planned for himself began to look bleaker and more isolated than it had before. Augustine undertook his usual rounds of study and writing, and, though at his intellectual apex, seems to have had little ambition to hold a political or ecclesiastical office.

Biographical records become a little lumpy at this point. By all rights, this could have been the quiet, melancholy end to Augustine’s story, the great theologian, rather than becoming a bishop and prolific author, might have just led a cloistered life on his family estate in Thagaste. But something, right around 390, kept motivating Augustine to take the rugged 50-mile road from inland Thagaste northward to the Mediterranean coast and town of Hippo Regius – perhaps nothing more than social calls or errands. Augustine’s ancient biographer Possidius tells us that in Hippo Regius at about this time there lived a man just on the verge of converting to Christianity – in some ways a convert, already – but a man who only wanted to hear Augustine himself preach in order to give him the extra nudge to be baptized and adopt an ascetic lifestyle (3). Thinking to help this stranger, Possidius tells us, Augustine went to Hippo Regius a number of times to speak with him.

Somehow, over the course of Augustine’s return to Africa, and his numerous trips up to Hippo Regius around 390, Augustine had become known to the city’s Catholics. Augustine knew full well that good, educated churchmen were a prized commodity, but in 390, he still didn’t want to take that plunge. Wanting to avoid being drafted into the clergy, as Possidius writes, “while a layman [Augustine] was careful. . .to withhold his presence. . .from those churches which had no bishops” (4). However, eventually Augustine was cornered. The bishop of Hippo Regius needed a presbyter – or an elder cleric who would likely inherit his position when the time came. And according to Possidius, the Catholic faithful of Hippo Regius “laid hands on [Augustine] and, as is the custom in such cases, brought him to the bishop to be ordained, for all with common consent desired that this should be done and accomplished; and they demanded it with great zeal and clamor, while [Augustine] wept freely” (4).

It’s a nice story, but one that’s slightly suspect. Popular biographies about Augustine’s prominent contemporaries told the same tale about ordinations – Saint Martin only wanted to be a monk, and not a bishop, and Ambrose of Milan also never sought out the bishop, and Augustine never really pursued a bishopric either, but groundswells of popular support compelled all three to become men of the cloth. They may be true stories, but the trope of the reluctant bishop, like the old Roman republic’s tales of reluctant generals, was clearly a narrative convention by the late fourth century.

However it happened, in 391, at the age of 37, Augustine was made a priest. And once he assumed that public office, due to his considerable learning, oratorical prowess, and genuine, passionate faith, it was only a matter of time before he was pushed into higher echelons of the ministry. What happened was as follows. A year after Augustine’s ordination, a prominent Manichaean named Fortunatus was well-known in Hippo Regius. This Manichaean had caused quite a stir, and Hippo Regius’ Catholics wondered if their newly appointed priest would engage with this Manichaean in a public debate. The Manichaean Fortunatus was reluctant. He had known Augustine from the days when Augustine had been a Manicahean, and Fortunatus knew that Augustine’s brain was a piece of military grade weaponry. But, bowing to general pressure, the Manichaean Fortunatus agreed, and the debate was arranged. During their two days of debating, Augustine crushed Fortunatus’ case for Manichaeism, and the other man left the city, not to return. While the biographer Possidius tells of the debate rather decisively and dramatically in his account of these years of Augustine’s life, it’s not too difficult to believe that Augustine could have easily disassembled and stomped on the entire Manichaean system by the age of 38. He had been down that road. He was finished with colorful stories of angels and demons copulating and spraying light and dark down from overhead, and a priestly caste that demanded special food.

Giorgio Schiavone (1436-1437-1504) - Saint Jerome - NG630.7 - National Gallery

Giorgio Schiavone’s painting of Jerome (1456-61) on the S. Niccolò Altarpiece in Padua. Augustine corresponded with Jerome from time to time, and his colleague in the east helped make Latin translations of Greek theological texts available to Augustine.

But Manichaeism was only one of the forces entrenched against Roman Catholicism in the city of Hippo Regius in the year 392. A more serious force were the Donatists – that regionally rooted set of rigorists we learned about earlier who, due to events nearly a century before, had stoked up strong prejudices against Augustine’s form of Catholicism. To Donatist clergymen, with their nativist North African pride, the Pope, the primacy of large Roman bishoprics, and even the presence of Roman colonial rule in North Africa were subjects that could be used to stoke up the ire of North African congregations, and only the region’s homegrown Donatist movement was the legitimate sect of Christianity for that part of the empire.

Augustine, then, became a priest in a religiously fractured city, and Hippo Regius would remain as such during his tenure there. While Augustine had a public clash with the Manichaean Fortunatus in 392, his earliest years in the clergy seem to have been more filled with bookish work than dramatic public confrontations. Also in 392, he contacted Jerome to ask about Latin translations of Greek biblical commentaries. Augustine, who admits in the Confessions that fluency in Greek never came to him, knew that Jerome was one of their generation’s pre-eminent linguists and translators, and, having already become acquainted with Jerome’s work, wrote to the older theologian “Never was the face of any one more familiar to another, than the peaceful, happy, and truly noble diligence of your studies in the Lord has become to me. . .We therefore, and with us all that are devoted to study in the African churches, beseech you not to refuse. . .labour to the translation of the books of those who have written in the Greek language most able commentaries on [the] Scriptures.”20 Incidentally, anyone who finds this generation of Catholic theologians somewhat frosty in their ethical austerity only needs to dip into their large body of surviving letters to see just how warm their friendships were and what a genuine excitement they shared for their intellectual work. Anyway, Augustine began tapping Jerome in 393 or 394 to get access to important Christian texts previously unavailable in Latin. With an agile mind and access to some fresh translations of newer theological work, on the eve of his 40th birthday Augustine was in a good position to help steer the ideology of the North African clergy. In 394 he offered an important discourse on the new Apostle’s Creed to an ecclesiastical council at Hippo. In 394, he also offered a lecture on the Book of Romans at the regionally important Council of Carthage, writing works on the same subject, as Saint Paul was one of the few theologians who could match Augustine in sheer brilliance and farsightedness.

By 395, according to the ancient biographer Possidius’ account, Augustine’s energy was part of a great revivification of pure Catholic faith in Hippo Regius and Carthage in the early 390s (8). The Bishop of Hippo Regius at that point, Valerius, was delighted that Augustine had become a part of their community, and equally, old Valerius fretted that Augustine would be poached by another diocese and made a bishop elsewhere. And so in the year 395, Valerius took an unusual step. He wrote to the bishop of Carthage and asked that Augustine be elevated to the position of coadjutor bishop – basically an assistant bishop slotted to take over the bishopric when the elder bishop passes away. Having assumed this ancillary office in 395, Augustine ascended to the office of full bishop shortly thereafter when Valerius died the next year, thus ultimately serving as bishop of Hippo Regius for the next 35 years until his death in 430. [music]

393-400: Friction with Donatists and Circumcellions

As bishop of Hippo after 395, the 41-year-old Augustine had his work cut out for him. On one hand, he was one of the great intellects of his age – energetic, erudite, wise in the ways of the world but also the cutting-edge theological developments coming out of the Greek east. His church, in 395, had a strong ally in the Emperor Honorius. Honorius, who became emperor in 395 at the age of eleven, would be one of the most wretched emperors in Roman history, his greatest flub being failing to ever treat Alaric the Visigoth, or more generally, internally sovereign barbarian populations, with respect or even consistency. Honorius, however, was a devout Catholic and very much in support of Roman Catholicism in Africa, passing various resolutions against Donatism and strongly supporting Augustine and those North African churchmen like him who were loyal to the emperor and papacy.21

Saint Augustine Portrait

Sandro Botticelli’s Augustine in His Study (c. 1480). Artwork featuring the famous bishop often depicts him in the midst of abstract contemplations, or among cherubs and seraphs. The reality of his tenure as a bishop, however, was often far more mundane, involving exhausting negotiations with Donatists and their congregants prejudiced against him due to his connections abroad.

However, in spite of robust imperial backing from the capital, at the regional level, in the year 395 Augustine inherited a fissured religious climate. Donatist bishops, illegally appointed by Roman Catholic standards, might be deemed heretics and forcibly removed from offices during his 35-year bishopric, but the populace of Augustine’s region was still divided by a century-long culture war between capital and province. With several generations of believers having listened to spiels about how the Roman church ought not to hold sovereignty in Numidia or Carthage, it would have been difficult for any churchman to represent Roman Catholicism as an officer without encountering some friction. And Augustine seems to have encountered friction right away.

His ancient biographer Possidius records that just as Augustine began serving as bishop, Donatist congregants who heard his sermons would hurry to the Donatist bishops of their local towns. Donatist bishops would issue refutations of Augustine’s sermons – refutations which would reach Augustine in various forms. Possidius tells us that “holy Augustine, when he had reviewed [Donatist criticisms] patiently and calmly. . .even wrote private letters to prominent [Donatist] bishops. . .and to laymen, urging and exhorting them by the arguments which he offered that they should either abandon the error or at least enter into a discussion with him. In their distrust they were never willing even to answer him in writing, but in anger spoke furiously, privately and publicly declaring that Augustine was a seducer and deceiver of souls” (9). The experience, as Possidius narrates it, sounds like it must have been incredibly frustrating for Augustine. Augustine found himself fighting a theological war with guerilla forces – ones which sniped at him continuously from the margins but would never engage him in the open, and ones which from the sound of it, ignored even his most civil efforts to open channels of communication. But the Donatists were only part of the group that made Augustine’s job immediately difficult in 395.

Another group was the Circumcellions. As we heard earlier, the Circumcellions seem to have been a group of nativist revolutionaries bent on unsettling Roman rule in Africa by means of extreme rhetoric, and sometimes raids. Like the Donatists, they favored indigenous African rule over having the provinces overseen by governors and churchmen appointed elsewhere, and there was thus some overlap between the two groups. But while the Donatists limited their insubordination to anti-Roman rhetoric in church congregations, the Circumcellions, according to Augustine’s ancient biographer Possidius, were little better than thugs. Possidius writes “Inspired by evil teachers, in their insolent boldness and lawless temerity they never spared either their own or strangers, and in violation of right and justice deprived men of their civil rights. . .Circumcellions madly overran the farms and estates and did not hesitate to shed human blood. But while the Word of God was diligently preached, whenever any plan of peace was suggested to those who hated peace, they freely assailed whoever talked of it” (10). The Circumcellions, then, an extremist wing of what amounted to an African separatist movement, were the militarized extension of what the Donatists had been proposing for nearly a century – an independent African church, and a citizenry more culturally liberated from Roman rule.

Unfortunately for Augustine, the Circumcellions seemed to have had it in for Roman Catholic clergymen. Possidius writes that the Circumcellions “made daily and nightly attacks even upon the Catholic priests and ministers and robbed them of all their possessions; and they crippled many of the servants by tortures” (10). Whether or not Possidius is exaggerating here – after all, he was an African Roman Catholic and partisan of Augustine – it’s safe to assume that Catholics like Augustine not only faced skeptical congregations and hostile Donatist clergymen, but also that Augustine had to be careful about walking down dark alleyways and isolated country roads during his early years as a bishop. That Augustine accepted such a high church office in the midst of such a stormy climate is a testament to his sense of duty as a Christian, as he could have burrowed into his family estate in the country with his books and avoided the rough and tumble of Hippo Regius and Carthage. More of a stouthearted Saint Martin than a reclusive Saint Antony, Augustine obviously felt that his generation needed him in the trenches.

And it was precisely this fractured climate that inspired Augustine to write the Confessions. He needed the Roman Catholics and Donatist power players of North Africa alike to know that he wasn’t just some lackey from Milan. He needed the Manichaean and academic skeptics of his religion to know that he had chewed up and spit out Manichaeism and Neoplatonism and then moved onto something else. He needed those in the region that had known him in his youth, who had memories of his ne’er-do-well 20s and 30s, to know that he had genuinely changed. And there was one other motivation behind the Confessions that I haven’t mentioned yet.

As we’ve explored the history of the late fourth century, occasionally a man named Paulinus of Nola has come up. Paulinus, who was nearly Saint Augustine’s exact contemporary, lived a parallel life to his more famous counterpart. We met Paulinus in past episodes on Saint Martin of Tours and the Gallic poet Ausonius. Extremely rich, and an ardent believer after he converted in 383, Paulinus channeled his fortunes into churches and various programs that benefited the poor. At some point in the 390s, the African churches came up on Paulinus’ radar. Paulinus got in touch with Augustine’s childhood friend Alyipus, whom we heard about today throughout Book 6 of the Confessions. Alypius had become a bishop by this point – actually the bishop of his and Augustine’s hometown of Thagaste, and through his connections with Paulinus, Augustine’s friend Alypius may have sought funds for a monastery or similar commune. The two men corresponded, and Alypius sent the wealthy Paulinus some of Augustine’s writings against Manichaeism. Paulinus seems to have been intrigued by what he read.22 He wanted to know more about the North African church, and the younger bishops of his own generation who had come to manage its dioceses.

And thus, Paulinus of Nola was very likely another motivation behind the Confessions. In the year 397, when Augustine started the Confessions Augustine needed to legitimize himself to the diverse and often hostile citizens of his bishopric. One way to do so was to tell his own story, rather than to let Donatist clergymen take pot shots at him from the sides. But another may have been to seek wealthy patrons for his diocese. Christian citizens of Numidian provinces had had divisive rhetoric aimed at them for generations. They had been told the Roman church was something imposed on them from far off, something that had been sullied by the ignominious events of the Great Persecution. Augustine knew that he couldn’t mend an 80-year-long culture war merely with words and compassionate ministry alone. But with a rich benefactor, Hippo Regius might be able to extend its charity work further, and win over the median man on the street for Roman Catholicism. [music]

Moving on to the Philosophical Books of the Confessions

Augustine’s Confessions was a book produced by complex circumstances. It was, as its title conveys, an effort to lay out Augustine’s youthful mistakes, and to tell the story of how he became a better person. It was a calculated push to convince naysayers that Augustine himself was the right man for the job of bishop in Hippo Regius at the twilight of the fourth century. And as we just learned, it also aimed to send out feelers for extra financial support for Augustine’s diocese. By modern standards, Augustine comes across from time to time in the book – particularly in the chapters that we read today – as a pretty harsh. He tells us that newborns eye one another with baleful jealousy when they see each other nursing. He writes of the fun of childhood shenanigans as grotesque evidence of sin. He shrieks endlessly about the natural hormonal changes of puberty as the manifestations of our innate depravity, and much of this is of course at odds with modern secular rationalism. We will get into the details of Augustine’s theology in the Confessions next time, and talk a bit about his personal disposition throughout the next few shows, because there’s plenty to be said on the subject. But to stick with what we’ve covered in our program today, having moved through the most famous chapters of one of the most famous books of Late Antiquity, we’ve already learned a lot.

We have, first of all, heard several different detailed sources on the first four decades of Augustine’s life. We’ve learned about the fertile and boisterous religious climate of the provinces around the regional center of Carthage. We’ve learned that the sparring religious and philosophical ideologies of Augustine’s generation actually had something broadly in common – that ever-popular horizontal dualism, with various solutions proposed for how to ascend from the material world to something more permanent and eternal. We’ve learned, also, that before he was a saint, or the subject of thousands of marvelous paintings and artworks with towns and societies named after him, that Augustine was just a guy from Thagaste, studying in school, trying to make a living teaching crappy students in Carthage and Rome, and more broadly that he took quite a long time trying to find his place in the world. Augustine, like Jerome, and like surely thousands of other bright young people of their generation, found in the church a vocation and an intellectual community that were otherwise unavailable to them in the late Roman Empire.

In the next show, we’re going to read the great theological sections of the Confessions. I have at several junctures in this show emphasized Augustine’s sheer brilliance, and I think that it is in Books 8-13 that his ingenuity really shines the brightest. While some of us mainly take away the story of Augustine’s youthful transgressions and compunction from the Confessions, others, who actually forge forward to read the whole thing, meet a theologian who never took anything for granted. In beautifully crafted chapters about God and space and time, Augustine doesn’t so much fit together doctrine like Lego blocks as he explodes doctrine with passionate questions, thereafter sorting through the results of the demolition. An ideological Swiss Army Knife, Augustine is comfortable in the well-worn paths of Christian ethics, but just as much so with the same metaphysical and epistemological questions that philosophers are still exploring today, and it’s a genuine treat to see him giving them a go in the last few years of the 300s CE. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. There’s a quiz on this program on the podcast website as usual and with a link to that quiz in your podcast app. For you Patreon supporters, I’ve recorded something extra as usual – an 1886 American short story by author Sarah Orne Jewett called “A White Heron.” This was one I liked when I read it in my first college literature course at the age of 18 – the story ended up influencing my doctoral work quite a bit later on, and I’ve enjoyed teaching it and re-reading it over the years. For everyone, I have a comedy song coming up – hang tight a second and I’ll play it for you if you’d like, and otherwise, I’ll see you next time.

Still here? So I got to thinking about Augustine, and how he ate those pears. And I understand that for Augustine, it wasn’t so much the theft of fruit that he remembered, but instead the fact that as a youth, he enjoyed the process of stealing them, and that the pear story has unsubtle links to the first few chapters of Genesis, which Augustine could never, never stay away from for more than four seconds during his subsequent theological career (more on that later). Nonetheless, at the cusp between the 390s and the 400s, in the midst of the warfare and geopolitical collapses of the western empire, it still seems odd to me that our most famous text is a middle-aged man sniveling about how he ought not to have filched fruit from some field thirty years before, and treating us to his ruminations on said filching. And so I wrote this piano tune, which is called “We are All Grotesque Abominations,” in which Saint Augustine steps up onstage at an open mic night at a jazz club and treats shares his distinctive worldview with the audience. I hope it’s fun, and next time, we’ll wrap up the Confessions with Episode 100: Late Have I Loved You.

[“We Are All Grotesque Abominations” Song]


1.^ For the dating see Chadwick, Henry. “Introduction.” Printed in Confessions. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Henry Chadwick. Oxford University Press, 1991, p. xiii.

2.^ Beal, Timothy. The Book of Revelation: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2018, p. 57.

3.^ Drecoll, Volker Henning. “Grace.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 107.

4.^ As we discussed extensively toward the close of Episode 90.

5.^ These were the Lateran Council and the Council of Arles, respectively.

6.^ This is Phaedrus 247c-d and Republic 6.511a.

7.^ Plotinus Enneads (4.8.1). Printed in Plotinus: On the Nature of the Soul. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. Medici Society, 1924, p. 143.

8.^ Plotinus Enneads (1.8). Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Plotinus. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. Delphi Classics, 2015. Kindle Edition, Location 257.

9.^ E.g. Confessions (5.6).

10.^ The book titles in this episode transcription come from Augustine. Confessions. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Henry Chadwick. Oxford University Press, 1991.

11.^ Ibid, p. 3. Further citations from this edition will be noted with section numbers in this episode transcription.

12.^ Chadwick (1991), p. 24. Augustine’s grousing in the previous chapter about his youthful attraction to Virgil doesn’t stop him from making multiple allusion to Aen (3.422, 6.558) in the opening to this chapter.

13.^ These are three from 1 Corinthians (7:1, 7:28, 7:32-3) and then Jesus’ words in Matt 19:12. He omits the pastoral advice of 1 Timothy (3:2) which recommends that the epískopos be married and have a family.

14.^ Augustine. Confessions. Translated and with an Introduction by Sarah Ruden. Modern Library Edition, 2017, p. 42.

15.^ O’Connell, R.J. Images of Conversion in St. Augustine’s Confessions. Fordham University Press, 1996, pp. 5-8.

16.^ He describes the “nine years or so” during which he adhered to Manichaeism at the cusp of falling away from the faith at 29.

17.^ Chadwick cites the Alexandrian scholar Palladas and an Antiochene instructor named Libanius as additional sources. See Chadwick (1991) p. 86n.

18.^ The opening of 7.10 contains a wonderful little barb against Plotinus, using one of the philosopher’s quotes (I.8.9.7-8) satirically against him.

19.^ Possidius. The Life of Saint Augustine. Translated and with an Introduction by Herbert T. Weiskotten. Evolution Publishing, 2008, p. 22. Further references to this text will be noted with section numbers in this episode transcription.

20.^ Augustine. Letter XXVIII. Printed in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume 1. Christian Literature Company, 1886, p. 251.

21.^ See Doyle, Chris. Honorius: The Fight for the Roman West AD 395-423. Taylor and Francis, 2018, p. 158.

22.^ See Chadwick (1991), pp. xii-xiii.