Episode 100: Late Have I Loved You

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 8-13

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 100: Late Have I Loved You. In this program, we will make our way through the second half of Augustine’s Confessions, a milestone of Christian theology written between 397 and 400 CE. Over the next ninety or so minutes, as we move through Books 8-13 of one of Late Antiquity’s most famous works, we’ll watch Augustine move away from the more famous autobiographical sections of the Confessions and into pure theology. The final five books of the Confessions, having wrapped up the story of Augustine’s checkered youth and his conversion, set out to answer some of the great questions of theology and philosophy. What, Augustine wonders, is the nature of time, and our experience within in it? How does memory work? If God created the world, what was God up to beforehand? In the portions of the Confessions that we’re about to read, many of Augustine’s theological speculations are timeless, like these. Other sections of Augustine’s theological writings in the Confessions are much more rooted in the religious climate of the late fourth century. The version of Christianity that had been ratified as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the year 380 had a Trinitarian deity – a father, son, and Holy Spirit. But the Old Testament, at least, didn’t say a peep about a God with three aspects, and so in some of the closing moments of the Confessions, Augustine sets himself up to do nothing less than to retroject a Late Antique theological doctrine into scriptures written a thousand years earlier, pinpointing the Holy Trinity in the opening chapter of Genesis.

The early chapters of the Confessions – those which we covered last time – are the ones that most people remember. Augustine tells us of his infancy and childhood, his tumultuous adolescent years, his inclinations toward sex and unrestrained self-indulgence, and finally, his journey up into the Italian peninsula – to the cities of Rome and Milan. The first half of the book involves a fair amount of sermonizing and references to the intellectual history of the fourth century, but Augustine more generally opens his autobiography by depicting himself as an everyman figure, flawed, uncertain, and insecure, going through puberty, young adulthood, and his early career with the same lumps and bumps as anyone else. The chapters that we covered last time, then, are approachable, personal, and relatable, showing us that Augustine never felt himself to be an especially august person, especially during his freewheeling teens and twenties.

In the previous program on Augustine’s Confessions, we mainly dealt with Augustine’s biography. He breaks off his personal narrative in the Confessions in roughly the year 387, but it wasn’t until 397 that he began writing the Confessions. Last time, we learned about what he was up to during this important decade – his return to North Africa, how he became a priest, and soon thereafter a bishop, and how friction with North Africa’s homegrown Donatist sect, together with a general need to tell his own story to the greater Catholic clergy, inspired him to begin the Confessions in about 397. We also learned about the intellectual route that Augustine took toward Roman Catholicism – how he spent time as a Manichaean, and then a Neoplatonist, prior to converting.

Where we last left off in about the year 386, Saint Augustine, aged 32, was right on the verge of converting in the Roman capital of Milan. His ideological path had been tortuous. He had most recently been entertaining Neoplatonism. But, ultimately frustrated with the Neoplatonism’s theological shortcomings, and just as much, entranced with the lucid and majestic sermons of his new acquaintance, bishop Ambrose of Milan, Augustine had become a Christian catechumen – a convert who has not yet taken the literal plunge of baptism. As we open the pages of Book 8, Augustine is quite close to converting, but he is still torn by a persistent sense that he will not be able to give up the comforts of his current life – not the least of which is sex. As we open to the first paragraph of Book 8, then, Augustine remains wracked with uncertainty. But he also has the good fortune of being in the Roman capital – at that point Milan – where Christian and pagan intellectuals of all gradients were available to talk to. The second half of the Confessions opens with Augustine seeking out others to talk with – other educated people somewhere between Christian and pagan who might relate to his current predicament – almost, but not quite a believing Christian. So let’s jump right back into the Confessions and move through the remainder of this famous text – specifically Books 8-13. Unless otherwise noted, I’m occasionally quoting from the Henry Chadwick translation, published by Oxford University Press in 1991. [music]

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 8: The Birthpangs of Conversion

1 Augustine, a catechumen just inches away from a full and earnest conversion to Christianity, was still conflicted. He wanted badly to speak with Ambrose, the bishop of the Roman capital of Milan. At this juncture, though, Ambrose remained a very busy man, and Augustine didn’t feel it was appropriate to press the important bishop with his own detailed theological questions. Thus, he sought out another theologian – a man named Simplicianus. On the verge of a full conversion, Augustine was fretting about his recent engagement to a wealthy Roman girl. Augustine’s burgeoning interest in Christianity meant that seeking money and position through an advantageous marriage seemed far less important than it once had. And yet at the same time, he felt that he needed sex. New Testament scriptures on the subject of celibacy left the door open to celibacy as well as marriage, although Augustine was hung up on Paul’s words that it was spiritually advantageous to remain single and abstinent. Augustine, as we can intuit from nearly everything he ever wrote, was not a person who did things halfway. Thus torn between marriage and a secular career on one hand, and conversion and celibacy on the other, and finding the middle ground between them similarly dissatisfying, Augustine went to the theologian Simplicianus with his questions.

Simplicianus, or Simplician, was more than a generation older than Augustine. The old theologian was bishop Ambrose’s right-hand man, schooled in Christianity as well as intellectual history more generally, a teacher of doctrine who himself actually became the bishop of Milan for a short duration after Ambrose’s death in 397. In the mid-380s, when Augustine met Simplicianus, he felt an instant connection with the older gentleman. Simplicianus, like Augustine, had plumbed the depths of Platonism and Neoplatonism.

And old Simplicianus told Augustine a story. This story was about a prominent Roman Platonist named Victorinus. Augustine himself had read some of Victorinus’ Latin translations of Greek language philosophy. The Platonist Victorinus was a well-respected man, and, though he was a pagan, he had an amicable relationship with the Roman Christian community, including old Simplicianus. Simplicianus told Augustine about the Platonist Victorinus’ eventual conversion to Christianity – one which Victorinus decided to make in a very public fashion in order that his turnabout from pagan intellectualism to Christianity be publicly visible to all whom he’d known and taught in Rome. The conversion narrative prompts Augustine to make several pages of ecstatic remarks about embracing Christianity in the Confessions.

When, in the mid-380s, Augustine heard old Simplicianus’ story about Victorinus’ conversion some years earlier, the narrative made quite an impression on Augustine. He longed more than ever to convert, and yet there remained a problem – in Augustine’s words, “[M]y two wills, one old, the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, were in conflict with one another, and their discord robbed my soul of all concentration” (8.5).2 After what felt like ages of searching, and even with the appealing example of a respectable pagan intellectual having converted, Augustine found himself once more at the same impasse, at his lowest moments, finding some comfort in suffering his spiritual crisis in church.

And then, one day, something happened. Augustine was at home with his dear North African friend and former pupil Alypius. They had a visit from another man from the North African provinces. And this stranger told Augustine and Alypius about a certain Egyptian monk named Saint Antony. We read Athanasius’ Life of Antony back in Episode 92, that famous biography of the desert hermit, a book that by the 380s, had become a literary sensation in Christian ascetic circles. Saint Antony, who sought desert hermitages further and further away from civilization between 270 and 356, was an inspiration for a generation of ardent Christians who embraced celibacy and went all in for the Catholic Church, with both Saints Jerome and Augustine encountering his famous biography at pivotal junctures during their intellectual maturations. To return to the narrative of Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine writes that he was enraptured by his African guest’s stories about Saint Antony – Antony’s staunch Nicene Christianity, Antony’s hardline stance against Arianism, and his extraordinary miracles. But it was not only Saint Antony himself who made an impression on Augustine. It was also the monastic movement in general. Scattered religious refugees and self-styled religious hermits, between roughly 250 and 320, had led a charge into the wilderness, setting up Christian communes in the hinterlands of the Roman empire. By the time Augustine was 30, these communes weren’t just settlements full of eccentric spiritualists out in the countryside – monks had also set up communes in and around cities, and there was one just outside of Milan, which the famous bishop Ambrose helped support.

Augustine learned that the story of Saint Antony the hermit had inspired many to convert to Christianity, including a man up in Trier pursuing a career in the imperial bureaucracy. This man may have been Saint Jerome, though he’s not named in the Confessions.3 And this man and his acquaintance had vowed to lead lives of celibacy and devote themselves to Christianity.


Benozzo Gozzoli’s St Augustine Reading the Epistle of St Paul (1464-5). This magnificently written scene in the Confessions has inspired many artistic depictions – Gozzoli painted a series of frescoes in the Apsidal Chapel of the Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano featuring Augustine – the painting below is from the same series.

At this point in Book 8 of the Confessions, Augustine has embedded two conversion narratives within his own conversion narrative. He had first heard of the story of the formidable pagan intellectual Victorinus’ conversion to Christianity. He had next heard the tale of two young careerists hearing the story of Saint Antony, and themselves making vows of chastity and throwing themselves headlong into the religion. As Augustine writes, when he heard of these other conversions, “[God] placed me in front of myself; [God] thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it” (8.7).

Considering how he suddenly appeared so irresolute and inadequate to himself, Augustine asked his friend Alypius what was wrong with the two of them? They had so many wonderful models to follow of eminent, respectable people converting. They were still at home that day, and Augustine went out into his garden with his companion, and what follows is an exceedingly important moment in the book. As Augustine sat in his garden with his friend Alypius, Augustine pondered not the conflict between his mind and his body, as the mind could ultimately control the body, but instead the two warring wills within his mind, one bent on conversion and self-purification, and the other stubbornly devoted to preserving the status quo. In a wonderful description of the paralysis of indecision, Augustine writes, “I was neither wholly willing nor wholly unwilling. So I was in conflict with myself and was dissociated from myself” (8.10). His inner conflict, he writes, was not what like the Manicheans understood as inner conflict. Manichean scriptures describe good and evil, or purity and corruption, tugging each human in opposite directions, but what Augustine felt was more complex – a torturous general indecision coupled with self-loathing brought on by that very indecision.

At this agonizing moment, Augustine had a vision of a spirit whom he calls Lady Continence, the wife of God (8.11). And the advice that she offered him was that Augustine couldn’t rely entirely on himself at such a staggeringly important moment, but that the strange majesty of God was waiting for him to leap, and be caught. Blinded by tears, shuddering with emotion, Augustine rose and went past his friend Alypius, and then knelt in front of a fig tree for no reason in particular, wanting merely to weep alone. And just then, nearby, he heard a child’s voice chanting – whether real or not, he couldn’t discern – chanting for him to “Pick up and read, pick up and read” (8.12). Augustine rose and hurried to his nearby Bible, opening it, as he believed he had been instructed to do, at random, and found himself staring at a verse in the book of Romans. In the verse, Saint Paul had written, “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts” (8.13, Rom 13:13-14). At that moment, as you can readily understand from hearing the story of the Confessions thus far, the verse cut him to the quick, being a direct and emphatic answer to the core of his inner conflict. Augustine stopped reading, not needing to hear another word. The fog in his mind cleared, and he grew calm. He went over to his friend Alypius, and shared the passage with him. He went inside and told his mother what had happened. He was done seeking a wife. He would stand fast against his considerable inclinations toward lust and sensory pleasures. The long and winding road of his twenties and early thirties was finished, and he would at once, emphatically and with no reservations, be a Christian.

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 9: Cassiciacum: to Monica’s Death

That sequence that we just read, pound for pound, is likely the most celebrated moment in Augustine’s Confessions, the only other contender being the pear stealing scene we read earlier. As scholar Volker Henning Drecoll puts it, “Augustine’s own conversion in the garden of Milan became one of the most famous scenes of Latin literature.”4 Conversion meant that nearly every aspect of Augustine’s life changed. As summer deepened into autumn during the year 386, he felt that he could no longer teach rhetoric and train young pupils to sling words in the courtroom, and, a professional until the end, Augustine waited until the close of the academic term before resigning. It had been a heavy teaching term, in addition to the spiritual crisis that Augustine had weathered, and during the summer break he developed a lesion in his lungs, which would have prevented him from teaching the next academic term, anyway. The cessation of his teaching duties, and breaking off his engagement meant that Augustine’s income was diminished to whatever annuities came from the family property down in North Africa, and fortunately an acquaintance named Verecundus, though not a Christian, took in Augustine and his household. Following a short, but amicable tenure at this man’s home, Augustine moved to a country villa called Cassiciaicum, a country villa about 20 miles northeast of Milan, and he began work on a set of theological dialogues.

In his new country home, Augustine’s friend and protégée Alypius converted, and Augustine’s mother Monica was a constant presence. Though Augustine had made the commitment to Christianity, he by no means lived a life of serenity. Haunted by his checkered past, Augustine let his anxiety fuel his earliest theological writings. He suffered a severe toothache. He had continued difficulties breathing due to his lung problem. The summer vacation term wound down, and he formally resigned. Augustine wrote to Ambrose, telling the bishop about his conversion. And after a number of months had passed, on April 24, 387, Augustine, together with his friend Alypius and Augustine’s 16-year-old son Adeodatus, were baptized by the bishop Ambrose in the cathedral at Milan. We should note that Augustine says scarcely a thing about this illegitimate son throughout the Confessions, though at this juncture in Book 9 he notes the young man’s blooming intellect and his having been brought up a Catholic. In a different work called The Teacher, Augustine used his son Adeodatus as a fellow interlocutor in a dialogue, and the young man seems to have died about two years later, from unknown causes.


Benozzo Gozzoli’s Baptism of St Augustine (1464-65). Ambrose’s baptism of this particular new convert was one of the more consequential baptisms in Christian history.

To return to the narrative of the Confessions, Augustine writes that the cathedral in Milan where he was baptized was a special place. Just a year earlier, bishop Ambrose had made a stand against the queen regent Justina, who had sought to publish a decree of toleration for Arianism and open Milan’s churches to Gothic Arian worshippers the previous Easter. Holding fast against the queen regent, Arianism, and the religiously alien barbarians, Ambrose had carried the torch for Nicene Roman Catholicism during a dangerous string of weeks, and thus Augustine was proud to have been baptized where these events took place just a year before.

A baptized convert, now, and one with strong connections to the bishop of Milan, Augustine and his family decided that they would return home to North Africa, having no further reason to pursue proximity to imperial courts and the lucrative offices that could be obtained through them. But on the way south, at the mouth of the Tiber, Augustine’s mother died. He offers a eulogy to her in the Confessions. Monica, Augustine writes, was a person who sought to reconcile the quarrels of others. But his mother wasn’t perfect. Monica had suffered a period of youthful overindulgence in wine, filching it from her parents’ storeroom in sips and later cups until an abstemious maidservant corrected her impulses. Once her youthful indiscretions were past and she grew a little older, Monica was married. Augustine writes that she was never able to convert her husband to Catholicism until very the end of his life, and that in the meantime, she weathered his various adulteries serenely. His father was a man inclined to violence, but Monica knew how to deal with his temper, keeping quiet when he was irate and then later, once he had calmed, communicating with him, thus impressing other wives in that though she was married to a man with a temper, she never had a bruise or laceration on her.

When poor Monica fell ill at the port of Ostia, she talked with Augustine about how the beauties of the material world paled in comparison to those of the spiritual world. She said that her one lingering desire had been to make sure that Augustine converted to the correct branch of Christianity, and with this taken care of, she could pass away in peace. After nine days of slipping in and out of consciousness during a severe fever, she died, leaving him with the directive to bury her wherever it was convenient, but to please remember her with a prayer at a church altar, and at the age of 56, Monica passed away from her illness. Augustine was 33 years old.

As preparations were made for the funeral and burial, Augustine felt no immediate consolation in spite of his recent conversion. He went to the bathhouse to try and wash away the grief, but this didn’t help, and only sleep and time slowly began to alleviate his sharp sense of loss. [music]

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 10: Memory

Book 10 of the Confessions opens with prayers and an explanation of why he has written the text. He first implies that revealing his wrong turns and shortcomings might serve as a model to others, as “The human race is inquisitive about other people’s lives, but negligent to correct their own” (10.3). This is the first time in the book, by the way, that he describes it as an exempla, or moral story to learn from – we learned last time that the book was also an effort to legitimize him as a bishop when he wrote it between 397-400, over a decade after his conversion. To continue with the story of the Confessions, Augustine writes that as a recent convert, while he did not entirely understand himself, what he did understand of himself had been granted by God. At this point in the Confessions, having narrated his conversion and his mother’s death soon afterward, Augustine describes his abiding love for God – what it means to him, and what the experience is like, in a tremendous passage. Let’s hear some of this passage, from the modern Library Sarah Ruden translation:
But what do I love, in loving you? It’s not the beauty of material things, or any attractiveness of this time-bound world, not the pale gleam of light, this light here which is so friendly to these physical eyes of mine; and not the sweet melodies of every sort, and not the agreeable aromas of flowers and perfumes and spices, and not manna or honey on the tongue, and not a body welcome in a physical embrace. I don’t love these things in loving my God, but I do love a certain light. . .where something that space does not contain radiates, and something sounds that time doesn’t snatch away, and something sheds a fragrance that the wind doesn’t scatter, and something has a flavor that gluttony doesn’t diminish, and something clings that the full indulgence of desire doesn’t sunder. This is what I love in loving my God. (10.6)5
Following this declaration, Augustine writes about memory – how calling to mind recollections doesn’t make them physically manifest, adding that though the power of human memory is a profound universal capacity, people often don’t contemplate it at all (10.10). Other workings of human cognition seemed miraculous – that we can happen upon abstract concepts without our senses, and these can become things folded into the fabric of our memories. Mathematics and geometry are conceptual frameworks of ideas – robust frameworks, but ones built through cogitation, rather than direct sensory experience. Numbers, perfect squares, lines – these are things without substance, graspable through intuition rather than sight, hearing or touch. These are all observations, by the way, that Augustine would have taken from Plato, but they’re quite nicely written and given a Christian varnish in the Confessions.6

Through a dozen discursive pages at the outset of Book 10, Augustine rehearses some of the standard questions of epistemology, with a special emphasis on the cavernous depths of individual memory, a thing that can recollect forgetfulness when things are forgotten; a thing that can fill a person with emotion that reverberates from events that transpired long ago. And from these general ruminations on the wonders of the human mind, Augustine turns to more Christian musings, writing that an authentically happy life can only be made possible by taking joy in the Christian God, and that anyone who cracked their soul open to the daylight of genuine introspection would find themselves missing his deity.

Augustine wonders where God abides in his mind, and after considering the question, Augustine can only conclude that God persists immutably beyond the fluctuations of his cognition and memory. And, summing up nearly the entirety of the Confessions thus far in three sentences, Augustine writes, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. The lovely things kept me far from you” (10.28). These lovely things – the luxuries and temptations of the physical world – still taunted Augustine, long after his conversion. He had embraced chastity, but his memory held a well of experiences beyond its bounds. He sought to fast, but when eating and drinking, the sensory pleasure of the experience was sometimes overwhelming, and the struggle against overindulgence was a great challenge.

While Augustine confesses that memories of sex, and the pleasures of food and drink still held a powerful sway over him long after conversion, he writes that he could take or leave sweet scents like perfumes. Beautiful singing and chants, however, could be quite captivating, and he sometimes felt anxious about their use in worship services, as the appreciation of lovely music ought not to be a substitute for the profundities of God. And while Book 10 of the Confessions has thus far been a mixture of contagious philosophical wonderment at the workings of the human mind, together with a slight apprehension at the attractiveness of sensory pleasure, right around section 24, Book 10 becomes a more dour and condemnatory rant on what Christians ought not to do.

The workings of artisans, Augustine writes, in the form of clothing and kitchenware, can be lovely, but they are distractions from the majesty of God. And while lust is perhaps Augustine’s favorite thing to disparage, he writes that in general, the desire for all novel sensory experiences for the purposes of pleasure is something to be avoided. To be fair to Augustine, the examples of overindulgence he uses don’t involve smelling flowers, but instead leering at dead bodies and enjoying the gladiatorial arena – in other words, intense sensory experiences that arouse strong emotions that he describes as “curious quests for superfluous knowledge” (10.32).

Another thing to be avoided by the pious, Augustine continues in his long dictum in Book 10, are those individuals who become vain due to their natural gifts and endowments. The fallacy of such individuals, according to Augustine, is that they do not acknowledge their innate capabilities come from God. And more broadly, personal arrogance was one of many secular habits that degraded even the most devout believer. But against the temptations of pride and the more general morass of unrighteousness, Augustine reminds us, God sent Christ into the world – an agent to interrupt the stasis of old customs and to pull humanity toward something far better. [music]

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 11: Time and Eternity

At this point in the book, Augustine leaves behind the form of the autobiographical narrative entirely, laying bare some of the pressing theological issues that he dealt with after becoming a bishop. One of these issues had to do with varying fourth century Christian doctrines on creation. As we’ve learned in past shows, Gnosticism and Manichaeism had extremely negative attitudes toward the creation of the material world. Surviving narratives from these Gnosticism and Manichaeism describe the creation of the material world as a cosmic tragedy that mortals are blighted to suffer, with Gnosticism disparaging the Old Testament deity as an evil minor god. Christianity, like Gnosticism and Manichaeism, had always leveraged the generic ancient Mediterranean idea that spiritual things are higher than material things. But neither Nicene nor Arian Christianity had dismissed the Old Testament and its creation story. Augustine’s branch of the religion, like the dominant forms of Christianity today, remained devoted to the creation story of Genesis, in which Yahweh engenders the world, and this act of creation is wondrous and good, and not some horrific accident.

Hopscotching back and forth between the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John, Augustine eloquently makes the argument that a trinitarian deity created the earth out of nothing. He reveals that he’s often heard skeptics ask a punchy question – what, skeptics wonder, was the Christian God up to prior to creation? Just sitting around? To this question, Augustine emphasizes that such skeptics do not understand what eternity really means – God, Augustine writes, is outside of time, and never doing or not doing anything at any temporal moment that humans experience, but instead always doing everything that will ever be done. This is a nifty answer – Augustine almost certainly borrowed it from his favorite Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus, who had written that human souls and the emanations of the One deity existed outside of time a century before Augustine lived.7 If Augustine’s famous writings on God and time are unoriginal, though, they nonetheless prompt one of the more endearing moments of the Confessions – a moment at which Augustine emphasizes that it’s okay – okay for anyone – to ask big theological questions. In a short quote I’m about to read to you, Augustine has just proposed that the eternal deity of Christianity is outside of time as we experience it, and is always doing everything at every time, and thus there is neither any before nor after to him. And after making this explanation, Augustine writes, in the Oxford Henry Chadwick translation,
This is my reply to anyone who asks: ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ My reply is not that which someone is said to have given as a joke to evade the force of the question. He said: ‘He is preparing hells for people who inquire into profundities.’ It is one thing to laugh, another to see the point at issue, and this reply I reject. I would have preferred him to answer ‘I am ignorant of what I do not know’ rather than reply so as to ridicule someone who has asked a deep question. (11.12)
In other words, Augustine tells us, when skeptics ask profound and smart questions, they deserve to be taken seriously, and respectfully, rather than being told to shut up and that they’re going to hell. God, then, Augustine concludes, has always existed doing all things, including making time itself, and so there was never a juncture at which he twiddled his thumbs before creating the world.

While Augustine thus builds a decent answer to the question of what God was doing before the world existed, he continues Book 11 with a longer exposition about the nature of time, not being satisfied with the fourth century’s scientific conventions on the subject. One of these conventions was that time was the movement of the celestial bodies up in the night sky. This is a simple enough idea – we measured the passage of months and years by looking at the moon and stars for most of our existence as a species. Still, Augustine didn’t like this explanation of what time was, because it meant that time was affixed to the material world. On the subject of time’s passage, Augustine writes that time might as well be the movements of all bodies, or on the contrary, of no bodies, because time still passes even when things stand still.

Augustine’s understanding of time is complex and idiosyncratic. The space of human consciousness, he emphasizes, is splayed out between past, present and future, with the flow of our momentary experiences being constant recombinations of these three. His theory of time is something he calls “distension,” another idea he borrowed from the philosopher Plotinus. Human minds are distended, or stretched out with no small anxiety, between the past, present and future. Our experiences of definite moments within time are nonetheless synchronous triptychs of what is, what has been and what will be. It’s quite a poignant observation, this notion that human beings are fraught with constant mental buzzing about the past and future along with the demands of the present. But Augustine’s exploration of this particular facet of the human condition ultimately leads him to the somewhat predictable conclusion that in the anxious and temporally unstable tetter-totter of human consciousness, God is his source of stability.[music]

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 12: Platonic and Christian Creation

In Book 12 of the Confessions, Augustine continues to pursue the deep metaphysical questions that he did in the previous book. While Book 11 focused on time, and time as a divinely created thing, Book 12 explores other questions related to the creation of the universe. This book of the Confessions begins with a consideration of the formless void that Genesis describes as having existed prior to Earth’s creation. Augustine admits that earlier in life, when he was a Manichaean, he conceived of the darkness prior to the creation of the world as swarms of benighted shapes, rather than an actual void. Remember that Manichaeism, like Zoroastrianism, held that from the very beginning there were dual contradictory forces of light and dark – this was at one point what Augustine believed. However, he writes, as he matured and left Manichaeism behind, he still had trouble conceiving of the void that had existed prior to the world’s creation. If it had been a featureless nothingness, had it even existed? It had to have some spatiality for it to receive the physical materials of creation. Carefully reading the opening verses of Genesis, Augustine ponders the inchoate nature of created materiality before God began to give it form over the seven days of creation. Borrowing, as he often does, from the Neoplatonist Plotinus, Augustine theorizes that in the era of the void that predated creation, and even during the initial period when matter was undifferentiated ooze, time itself did not exist, as it had not yet been created.

Augustinus 2

A French engraving of Augustine in a scriptorium, date unknown. Artistic depictions of a beatified Augustine in monk’s robes somewhat misrepresent where his intellectual power as a theologian came from – a very diverse background in philosophy and a strong instinct to synthesize and repurpose.

So far in Book 12, Augustine has been energetically unpacking the very first sentence in the Bible, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1.1-2).8 He has established that the “formless void” in question was an immaterial realm in which time didn’t yet exist, and he has argued that when the earth was very first formed into nascent sludge, this was an undifferentiated mass unaffected by the passage of time, and thus it also existed prior to time. Augustine continues his long exegesis of the Bible’s opening sentence by considering what heaven was when “God created the heavens and the earth.” Just as the earth at this point was an undifferentiated continuum, the heavens, Augustine argues, were a place of simultaneous divine thought also outside of time in the way that humanity experiences it.

Now, this is fairly abstract stuff. It’s solid theology, certainly, but somewhat out of place in a book that also includes hand-wringing personal anecdotes about stealing pears and wanting to have sex all the time. To understand why there are so many abstract speculations about time and cosmogony at the tail end of the Confessions, it’s important to understand that Augustine isn’t just including a highfalutin discussion of the creation of the world at random. About a decade before he wrote the Confessions, Augustine had written a full book interpreting Genesis, and this book had been at odds with the thinking of other Catholic theologians. The nature of the disagreement was essentially this. Augustine had a sense of God as something beyond time – something that was perpetually doing everything it had ever done and would ever do, as we’ve learned while reading the second half of the Confessions in this program. Some of his argumentative opponents, however, had evidently endorsed a more traditionally anthropomorphic view of the Bible’s God – that he did this at this point, and that at that other point, showed up here at this juncture, and there at another juncture, as the narratives of the Pentateuch and Historical Books and Gospels all respectively unfold. Augustine, then, has a personal stake in advancing his theories of God being not just immortal, but also outside of time. He had less of a literalist sense of some of the events of the Pentateuch and Historical Books, and thus his writings about God in space and time work to interpret the Old Testament in a way consonant with the progressive theological ideas of the 390s.

To his argumentative opponents, then, Augustine writes that if we conceive of God as plowing his way through time with the rest of us, then we imagine God as having a temporally fractured will – one exercised in a scattershot bunch of separate acts. To Augustine, God has only one will, totally consistent outside of time, constantly manifesting itself during all eras. The act of creation involved first engendering the unified material out of which the heavens and the earth are made, and then arranging them, but all of this was done simultaneously. And so as to not be wholly dogmatic, in the eleventh section of Book twelve, Augustine riffs off five different ways of interpreting the opening sentences of Genesis.

Augustine also notes that authorial intention is a distracting way of interpreting scripture. Augustine’s contemporaries, like modern Christian communities, spent a lot of time reading and interpreting the Pentateuch, which Augustine’s generation believed had been written by Moses. In their readings, Augustine’s Christian contemporaries might theorize that Moses wrote something a certain way because that way would make sense to the ancient Israelites. Trying to understand the historical and cultural context of sacred writings, Augustine writes, is problematic. For Augustine, reading the Bible did not mean trying to understand the historical and cultural circumstances behind its hundreds of chapters. To Augustine, the actual writers who had set down the Bible did not matter – what mattered was that it was the word of God, and that dexterous theologians could interpret it (12.21, 24).

As a side note, this is a fairly dry back corner of the Confessions, by some standards – these writings on hermeneutics, or the interpretation of the Bible. What Augustine writes here, however, is as important as anything he left behind. In Book 12 of the Confessions Augustine strongly disparages historicist analysis of the Bible as inferior to the interpretative activities of the devout believer. No worry, then, that real people and historical occurrences had prompted it. No need to consider the actual society of Israelites under Josiah, nor the real history behind the Historical Books, nor the changing fabric of Jewish civilization during the Persian and Hellenistic periods. What mattered was the Bible that Augustine and other Catholic theologians had, and the ideas that they could generate about it – anything else was extraneous, because the whole thing was a Catholic document, written by a tripartite deity for the Catholic faithful.

Cleaving biblical history away from the Bible empowered theologians like Augustine to interpret the Bible freely, retrojecting Jesus back into even the Pentateuch. It minimized the otherwise indelible fact that the books of the Old Testament had been Jewish for long centuries before Christianity was born in the first century. And most of all, ignoring questions of context and authorship allowed Christian theologians to perform whatever interpretive operations they needed to, in general disregard for the ancient people and societies that had actually written the Bible. Astonishingly, this anti-historicism largely persisted in Christian theology up until the advent of what we call the “Historical-Critical Method” in Germany during the nineteenth century, during which historical context started being taken much more seriously.9 This issue – historicist analysis of texts, is obviously important to me as the host of the Literature and History podcast – otherwise I might have called it the Literature and Whatever the Hell I Want to Say About It Podcast. Beyond your host’s pet interests here, though, Biblical hermeneutics, and whether we consider the cultural and temporal roots of sacred texts – these are among the most important subjects in all of theology, and so it’s important to note Augustine here in this monolith of Christian theology coming down so squarely against historicism. We’ll come back to hermeneutics and Augustine a little later, as in the City of God, as well, divorcing the Bible from its historical context was important to him.

Anyway, to return to the Confessions, Augustine says that his generation of interpreters hem and haw about what Moses was thinking when he wrote this and that verse, conjecturing about the subject in order to advance their own opinions. For Augustine, it was best to just trust that Moses was divinely inspired, and that he did a perfectly good job of setting down what he needed to in a way that would be lucid and comprehensible for all generations.

Further, at a juncture at which Augustine has been interpreting the very first sentence of the Bible for a good 25 pages, he compares verses of the Bible to small wellsprings, confined to rise in one place with the potential to go out into many different channels. Just so, after considering the many interpretations of the Bible’s first sentence, Augustine writes, “When [Moses] wrote this passage, he perfectly perceived and had in mind all the truth we have been able to find here, and all the truth that could be found in it which we have not been able, or have not as yet been able, to discover” (12.30). The lengthy and dense mass of Book 12 concludes with remarks of appreciation regarding just how much meaning can be wrung out of any given verse of the Bible. [music]

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 13: Finding the Church in Genesis I

Book 13 continues the subject matter of the previous section of the Confessions – the miracle and mystery of creation. Augustine writes that “The corollary of [God’s] perfection is that the imperfection of created things is displeasing. So they seek perfection from you that they may please you” (13.4). Rather than lingering on the relationship between the creator and created, though, Augustine begins a much more distinctly Christian act of interpretation, and this is folding the recently ratified doctrine of the Trinity into the opening verses of Genesis. Now there literally hundreds of thousands of surviving pages of exegesis, or Biblical interpretation, from antiquity. But in terms of theological importance, what you’re about to hear from Augustine ranks quite high in terms of Catholic exegesis, so listen carefully.

Adam and Eve (UK CIA P-1947-LF-77)

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve (1526). Augustine wrote relentlessly about Genesis, focusing most extensively on creation itself in the Confessions, and later in his career, on the transgressions of Adam and Eve. His exegesis of the ouster from Eden was at the heart of his most influential doctrine: Original Sin.

The first full sentence of the Bible is, again, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-3). On the subject of this sentence, Augustine writes the following: “And now where the name of God occurs [in these verses], I have come to see the Father who made these things; where the ‘Beginning’ is mentioned, I see the Son by whom he made these things. Believing that my God is Trinity, in accordance with my belief I searched in God’s holy oracles and found your Spirit to be borne above the waters. There is the Trinity, my God – Father and Son and Holy Spirit, Creator of the entire creation” (13.5). What we see there is Augustine reading Nicene Trinitarianism, a fourth century doctrine, into Hebrew verses written perhaps a thousand years earlier. It was likely not the first time this interpretation had been rolled out – we know that Augustine’s role model, Saint Ambrose, had made a similar one.10 But after proposing this new reading, Augustine diligently marshals evidence to defend it, with a special emphasis on other passages in the Bible involving water, wind and spirit

The Trinity itself, Augustine tells us, is difficult for anyone to understand. And, sidestepping the subject, he writes that the experience of being a person is also divisible into three parts – existing, knowing things, and willing things to happen (13.11). Analogously, the Trinity “is and knows itself” (13.11), although in terms of doing things, it is always sufficient in the eternality of its perpetual action. With this – doubtless creative – parallel established, Augustine proceeds through the heart of Book 13 with a discursive hailstorm of scriptural citations loosely linked to water, and airiness, evidently with the aim of corroborating his Trinitarian interpretation of the opening sentence of Genesis. The Holy Spirit, he writes, once glided over the primordial saltwater of inchoate creation, but at the current moment, humanity enjoyed the possibility of the sweeter waters of baptism.

Baptism brings Augustine to the subject of his generation’s congregations of Christians. In an appealing passage, Augustine conveys an egalitarian view of the Catholic clergy and laity, writing “spiritual judgment is exercised not only by those who spiritually preside, but also by those subject to their presiding authority” (13.23), adding that race and gender have no bearing on a person’s capacity to be saved. And in terms of being saved, Augustine, at this point in his career, held that it was impossible for a righteous and spiritual Christian to exercise judgment over whether others had been saved, writing “The spiritual person does not judge the storm-tossed peoples of this world. . .How can he. . .know who will come out of the world into the sweetness of your grace, and who will remain in the permanent bitterness of godlessness” (13.23).

Returning to an interpretation of Genesis, Augustine considers the phrase “be fruitful and multiply.” On one level, Augustine admits, the directive seems to order readers, and moreover the living creatures of the earth, to procreate. But on another level, Augustine says, the order has to do with “the fertility of reason,” which affords us “the capacity and ability to articulate in many ways what we hold to be a single concept, and to give a plurality of meanings to a single obscure expression in a text we have read” (13.24). It’s a telling reading of “be fruitful and multiply,” coming from Augustine. In the Confessions, he has hardly discussed sex and birth positively, railing against his own lustful impulses and describing newborns glaring balefully at one another out of jealousy for breast milk. In the minds of the ascetic and celibate Christians of the late fourth century – men like Jerome and Augustine himself, the directive to reproduce in Genesis was not consonant with their movement’s zealous chastity, and so naturally Augustine interprets “be fruitful and multiply” somewhat self-servingly as an order to think, and to interpret scripture in many different ways, which is what he was inclined to do by this point already.

Well, to continue and turn to the final few pages of the Confessions, having spent so much time discussing the nature of creation, Augustine turns to marveling at the beauties of the created world – its waters, the trees and plants, moon and stars, and birds flying over the heavy ocean. Within the myriad movement of the natural world, God had created humans, and within humanity, signs of miracles and divinely inspired scriptures. From these early marvels came the church and the clergy. And all of this, which unfolded incrementally within the limited perspective of human time, happened instantaneously in the synchronicity of divine time. In wonderment once more at the incomprehensibility of God’s nature, Augustine closes the Confessions with these words:
Which angel can interpret it to an angel? What angel can help a human being to grasp it? Only you [, God,] can be asked, only you can be begged, only on your door can we knock. Yes indeed, that is how I is received, how it is found, how the door is opened. (13.38)
And that’s the end. [music]

Augustine’s Theology in Books 8-13: The Fourth Century Context

So that was a fairly detailed summary of Augustine’s Confessions, a work which, as much as any we’ve covered in Literature and History, is well worth reading for yourself. As we’ve seen in this and the previous program, there are really two major parts to the Confessions – Augustine’s often juicy account of his younger years and then, following this, the much more philosophically abstract portions that we read today. For many of us, the autobiographical portions of the book are powerful enough in their own right without trudging into the dense intellectual history of the fourth century in order to understand why Augustine makes the theological arguments that he does in the later chapters of the Confessions. His beautifully written account of his long and crooked road to conversion, on the simplest level, emphasizes that it’s alright to make mistakes, and that the wrong turns that we take make us wiser for having taken them, and indirectly, that even history’s most influential people are screwups and suckers just like the rest of us.

But needless to say, the Confessions is much more than a relatable everyman’s tale of his transgressions and moral evolution. The chapters of the book that we read today engage widely with some of philosophy’s major questions – the workings of human memory, and time, and the creation of the world. At first glance, I think the closing chapters of the Confessions can seem like a fairly random philosophical buffet – a bit of this, a bit of that, of course all seasoned with Christian spices. But if we look just a bit deeper into Augustine’s career, it’s fairly easy to see that his writings on memory, on time, and on creation at the tail end of the Confessions were all set down in response to the ideological crosscurrents of the 390s CE – to take a firm stance against specific, rival religious sects, and to buttress his own. So in the remainder of this program, I first want to get into Augustinian philosophy in the Confessions in a bit more detail, exploring why Books 9-13 take the directions that they do.

Our previous show closed with a biographical history of Augustine between the ages of 33 and 43 – or the years between 387 and 397. We learned about how Augustine went from being a recent convert, to nearly retiring to a sequestered existence in his hometown of Thagaste, to eventually becoming a priest, then coadjutor bishop, and then the full bishop of the city of Hippo Regius. We spent a fair amount of time learning about his friction with the Donatist sect – how this homegrown rigorist movement had set itself against Augustine’s plain vanilla Roman Catholicism, and how the Confessions was engineered to legitimate Augustine himself as a real live North African Christian bishop in the eyes of his Donatist detractors. While the Confessions was written to prove that Augustine was more than a Roman pawn, in its entirety, the book is far more than a search for ecclesiastical street cred. Because while the book’s early chapters chronicle Augustine’s rambling younger years, and his Manichaean and Neoplatonist phases, its later chapters zero in on these same popular ideologies in order to wage further attacks on them.

Now, the details of intellectual tussles between Augustine and his rivals between 397 and 400 – this sounds like pretty dry, specialist material. It isn’t, though. Because it was specifically the ways in which Augustine departed from Manichaeism and Neoplatonism – the criticisms that he had of these two ideologies – that led him to write extensively about some of the most important ideas in Christian history. These ideas are original sin, innate depravity – and in a distant third place, a doctrine called creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing. Through the philosophical work of devouring and then casting aside Manichaeism and Neoplatonism, then, Augustine, in the pages of the Confessions, forges some of the cornerstone ideas in religious history. In a sentence, Augustine’s grievance with Manichaeism and Neoplatonism was that neither ideology made the individual sufficiently accountable for his or her mistakes, and that neither ideology had got it right with what God was, and what creation had been. To begin the second half of this program, and really to find the axis of Augustine’s whole ideology, let’s look very carefully at a passage in Book 8.

One Mind with Two Wills: A Pushback against Manichaean and Neoplatonic Selfhood

The passage in question is at the heart of the book’s central conversion scene, and what Augustine records experiencing in this passage is one of the most important things ever set down in Christian theology. Overwhelmed with emotion, Augustine prays in a garden, and he tells us, in the Oxford Henry Chadwick translation: “[A]s I deliberated about serving my Lord God. . .the self which willed to serve was identical with the self which was unwilling. It was I. I was neither wholly willing nor wholly unwilling. So I was in conflict with myself and was dissociated from myself. . .Yet this was not a manifestation of the nature of an alien mind but the punishment suffered in my own mind” (8.10). Right. On a simple level, there, Augustine tells us that his resolve was split, and that he wasn’t sure about converting, and all of it was in his own head. What’s important to understand about that passage is that it stands in marked opposition to Manichaean ideas about good and evil. In Manichaeism, the individual soul is a composite of good and evil, each of us configured with a proverbial angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, the angels and devils being parts of us, but parts of us that come from the cosmic light and darkness into which all reality is divided. For Manichaeans, then, moral choice meant opting for one’s inbuilt elements of good, or inbuilt elements of evil, the good and evil of each individual ultimately having descended from the Manichaean light and dark gods themselves.


Ambito Trentino’s Saint Augustine of Hippo. Part of the theological work Augustine does in the Confessions is emphasizing that each human being is an independent actor and thinker, neither filled with spirits of light and darkness (as in Manichaeism), nor a part of a greater divine being (as in Neoplatonism).

Augustine, after he left Manichaeism behind, did not think that this was how moral choice worked. To Augustine, our minds are not filled with alien natures of good and evil. To Augustine, our minds are our minds. They can become fractured and conflicted. They can shudder with internal debate between multiple alternatives. But to Augustine, there is no god part, and devil part, to the human mind. We are thinking beings, and we deliberate, but our mental conflicts are not a small microcosm of a great universal rift between good and evil. As scholar Volker Henning Drecoll puts it, Augustine in this scene “rejects the Manichaean assumption that two wills in one individual are caused by the presence of two different natures. . .[To Augustine,] Different wills can belong to one will.”11

At the heart of Augustine’s ideology, then, was that each human was a sovereign individual accountable to his or her ethical choices, and not some sort of multipart proxy war between good and evil. This is a simple idea, but it’s an important one in the context of the late fourth century. Implicit in it is the notion that human reason and an innate sense of ethical propriety are the guides to our choices, rather than tiny, alien elements of good and evil buzzing around and directly telling us what to do. I think that part of the intensity of the Confessions – Augustine’s fierce self-chastisement in the early books regarding his youthful missteps – part of this intensity comes from Augustine’s emphasis that all of this was on him. He was not tricked by wily devils, nor did he hear, but choose to crassly disregard the warnings of beneficent interior voices. He made the choices that he made through the constant exercise of his own reason and will, and not due to the intrusions of foreign presences in his mind.

The accountability of the individual to her own conscious ethical choices is something Augustine emphasizes all over the Confessions. Removing the proverbial Manichaean angel and devil from the individual mind was important for Augustine when he wrote the book. As scholar Jason David BeDuhn writes, “Augustine addressed the Confessions simultaneously both to his critics within the Catholic and Donatist churches of North Africa and to his former compatriots among the Manichaean community.”12 For Augustine, then, there was no passing the moral buck. The individual was sovereign over her choices, and not the hapless center of a divine game of capture the flag.

So, all of that is fairly easy to understand. At the crescendo of the narrative part of the Confessions, as Augustine agonizes over whether or not to convert, the mechanics of the decision are all on his mind and soul. This way of portraying individual moral choice, as we’ve discussed, was at odds with Manichaean dualism. But it was also at odds with Neoplatonism.

The Manichaeans were dualists. But Neoplatonists were monists, believing that all things were one, or, in Neoplatonic terms, that the apparent profusion of things in space and time were all merely subcomponents of what Neoplatonists called The One. When Augustine wrote his conversion scene in the Confessions, he wanted to show Manichaeans that individuals are not just ropes in a celestial game of tug-or-war. What he wanted to show Neoplatonists was that contrary to the central thesis of Plotinus and others, people were not emanations of God, made of the same physical and psychic material, but instead something different than, and of inferior quality to God. In Augustine’s words, to quote a passage we heard last time, God is “the immutable light higher than my mind. . .a different thing, utterly different from all our kinds of light” (7.10). For Augustine, reaching toward God and moral goodness was not a process of looking inward and contemplating something of one’s own nature, but instead, opening oneself to the unfamiliar but wondrous presence of the divine.

In essence, then, unlike Manichaeans and Neoplatonists of his generation, Augustine extracted all gods and devils from the human mind, leaving the individual alone with her choices and the implications of those choices. Well – mostly alone. Because after telling us that only his two warring wills held him in paralysis in the garden at Milan, Augustine reports having a mystical vision of a lady telling him to relax and trust God’s plan, and a moment later, of a spectral voice telling him to open the Bible and read a verse at random. So much for being alone in the space of his own consciousness without the intrusions of celestial presences. Well, Augustine’s writings on personal choice, human nature, and salvation, which we’ll continue to explore in this sequence of episodes on him, were complex and sometimes self-contradictory. But the main point I wanted to communicate was that the theology in the Confessions is to some extent reactive – that when he wrote this book in the last years of the 300s, his aim was as much to crystallize what he did not believe as much as it was to outline what he believed. And what he overall believed, as we’ve just learned, was that apart from the occasional divine memorandum, his brain was his own.

To Augustine, the human mind was not, as in Manichaeism, a battlefield where angels fought devils, nor, as in Neoplatonism, a small cell of God attached to the greater God-organism. And while Augustine contradicts these two popular ideologies in his fundamental understanding of individual consciousness, he contradicts them in a different way in the final two books of the Confessions. The closing books of the Confessions – 12 and 13 – set themselves up to dismiss all creation narratives other than Augustine’s Trinitarian Catholic one. When we open these lengthy closing portions of the Confessions, they feel, at first glance, especially odd. In the same book that Augustine bemoans his pubescent hormonal changes and his youthful theft of pears, he attempts nothing less than to explain to us how the universe was created. Setting such self-deprecating material alongside such lofty speculations on the dawn of the universe is, on the face of it, quite an odd choice. But Augustine’s writings on creation are, like his writings about selfhood and individual choice, actually part of his personal story, too. By the time he started the Confessions at about the age of 43, he had tramped through the creation narratives of some different ideologies, and putting his own interpretation of Genesis at the end of his book is thus a very fundamental way of illustrating how he had evolved since converting.

Augustine and Creatio ex Nihilo

So let’s – fairly quickly – consider why Augustine goes on and on about Genesis at the end of his autobiography. Augustine, in the Confessions, famously bolsters a doctrine called creatio ex nihilo, or “creation out of nothing.” The idea, as Augustine records it, is that God fashioned the universe out of an empty void, after which all of the manifold happenings of the material cosmos began to unfold. Whether or not you agree with this idea, it is surely quite familiar. It is the creation narrative of the Hebrew Bible. Further, the earth coalescing due to divine actions out of a void, or chaos, or primeval waters was the creation narrative of ancient Egypt, the Akkadian Enuma Elish, Hesiod’s Theogony, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and pretty much every cosmogony that has survived from the Bronze and Iron Age Fertile Crescent. So when we hear Augustine arguing decisively for creatio ex nihilo, or again “creation out of nothing,” without knowing the ideological climate of the fourth century, we wonder what, exactly, he’s up to. Isn’t creatio ex nihilo exactly what we find in the first sentence of the Bible? Why close your autobiography rallying to the defense of an idea that’s so mundane and ubiquitous in Late Antique theology?

The answer was that creatio ex nihilo, in the 390s, was not so ubiquitous as it had once been. Not long after Genesis itself was written, the Greek philosopher Parmenides wrote, way back around 500 BCE, that “there is no such thing as nothing. . .what-is is unborn and imperishable.”13 It’s a simple enough idea, nearly identical to the Law of Conservation of Mass in chemistry and physics. And unsurprisingly, the scientifically minded of the ancient world supported it. The ancient atomist Lucretius, around roughly 40 BCE, wrote that “[T]hings cannot be created / From nothing, nor, once born, be summoned back to nothing.”14 Augustine may have known these thinkers from his academic training, and he definitely knew Plotinus’ main surviving text, which states, toward the beginning, that “We hold that the ordered universe, in its material mass, has existed for ever and will for ever endure.”15 The idea that matter could neither be created nor destroyed, alive and well in the fourth century CE, to a staunch proponent of Genesis like Augustine, could not be left unanswered.

But over the 100s, 200s, and 300s, some other groups had also diverged from the Genesis narrative, and these groups were Christians, rather than pagan philosophers. Gnostics and Manichaeans, as we learned in previous episodes, generally had negative attitudes toward the entire Old Testament. In the variety of Gnostic and Manichaean scriptures that archaeologists have now recovered, we have several different cosmogonies, and they’re radically different from the one in Genesis. To Gnostics and Manicheans, the creation of the material world was a nasty mistake, and not a divine miracle. In Gnosticism, an accident of angelic malfeasance, on the part of the aeon Sophia, leads to the birth of the dark god Yaldabaoth and the ignominious beginning of biological life on earth.16 In Manichaeaism, the material world was created after a long period of divine conflict, when the comingled fragments of light and dark tumbled down from the spiritual realm together and became heaven and earth.

There were, in short, a lot of different ways of explaining creation in the churches and schools of Augustine’s North Africa, and a lot of them didn’t match up very well with the old, time-tested Hebrew narrative of Genesis. And so it was into this discordant atmosphere – both within Christianity as well as beyond it – that Augustine wrote Books 12 and 13 in the Confessions, in which he reasserts the basic truth of the Genesis creation story against naysayers. Plotinus and others, Augustine tells us, might have yammered on about the material world always having existed, and contemporary theologians might have caviled about what God was doing before the act of creation. Gnostics and Manichaeans might have authored extravagantly different takes on the beginning of the universe, but, Augustine tells us, Genesis nonetheless got it correct. And even more so, as we heard earlier in this episode, Augustine rolls out a fourth century Trinitarian exegesis, identifying a father, son, and Holy Spirit as present in the opening moments of Genesis, and thus making a case for his own Christian sect in spite of all of its rivals. Thus, as scholar Matthew Drever puts it, “Augustine’s exegetical claims on Gen 1 underscore that his search for his origins is not simply a question about his past, or even a question about the enduring influence of his past on his present identity. It is also a question about the future – his own and all other Christians.”17 By staking a claim in the fourth century’s debates on creationism, then, Augustine ties a string between his historical moment and the beginning of creation, and in so doing claims that he, and all of those Christians of his sect, in spite of whatever mistakes they have made, have found the truth.

So over the last few minutes, we’ve learned a fair amount about the contents of the latter portions of the Confessions. Understanding the ideological crosscurrents of the 390s – the opposed ideologies of Manichaeism, Neoplatonism, and Catholicism, not to mention Donatism, Arianism, and other sects – this isn’t easy. Studying Christianity during Late Antiquity requires a familiarity with quite a few “isms” that are certainly not common knowledge today, even though after 100 CE, sectarian rifts in Christianity were important components of the culture wars of the late Roman empire. So maybe the main thing we can take away from this program so far is that the later books of the Confessions are, like the initial ones, also autobiographical. Augustine’s writings on individual consciousness and moral choice, on memory, on time and space, and on creation – these may not tell us about what he had for breakfast or where he went for vacation. But they do demonstrate his continued ideological evolution from general pagan intellectualism, to Manichaeism, to Neoplatonism, and finally, to ironclad Nicene Christianity, regardless of the hermeneutic stretches required to support the latter. [music]

Theodicy in the Confessions

It is at this point in our programs on Saint Augustine of Hippo that I’m a little bit conflicted. We now have a good sense of who he was, and where he came from – geographically as well as ideologically. We understand that some of his ideas – those on personal moral choice, and on creation, didn’t appear out of nowhere, but developed in response to ideologies to which he had become opposed by the time of his mid-40s. What we haven’t really come to yet, though, is the Saint Augustine theological main course – something which overall will be best left to our programs on The City of God. This main course is Original Sin.

Gustave Doré’s portrait of Lucifer becoming Satan in his 1866 engravings of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Augustine, who emphasized individual moral accountability, is not very interested in Satan in the Confessions, a figure whom he saw as a messy and ineffective solution to the problem of evil.

In two sentences, Original Sin is the notion that when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge in the Book of Genesis, they actively corrupted their own wills, which were thereafter errant, even though Adam and Even had been created good. And ever since Eden, due to that single transgression, which itself changed human nature, humanity has been marred with an inbuilt capacity for selfishness, hedonism, and outright wickedness. That’s basically the doctrine – the anchor of Milton’s Paradise Lost for all of us English majors, but much more importantly, one of the cornerstone ideas of Christianity after the fifth century. While Original Sin, to some readers, is rooted in the fifth chapter of the Book of Romans, it is largely a non-Biblical idea. We will study the history of Original Sin as we move more deeply into Augustine’s writings – what Paul actually says about it in Romans, where it starts to show up in the pages of Christian church fathers in the second half of the second century, and eventually, what Augustine did with it in the early fifth century. Like his writings on individual moral choice and creation, Augustine’s writings on Original Sin were also set down in response to a sectarian conflict – this one surrounding a theologian named Pelagius, who was active right when Augustine was writing the Confessions, and the history of that conflict, which involved the nature of free will and its role in personal salvation, is one of the keys to understanding Christianity’s evolution during Late Antiquity.

So, soon enough we will cover Original Sin and Augustine’s role in turning Original Sin into a pillar of Catholic theology. But again, this is best left to our two upcoming programs on Augustine’s City of God. In the remainder of this show, though, I’d still like to lay some groundwork to help explain why Augustine eventually embraced and promoted the doctrine of Original Sin. And in order to get us ready for Original Sin, I would like you to think, for a moment, about a certain figure who barely shows up in the Confessions. This figure is Satan.

Satan was both a problem and solution to early Christian theologians with any intellectual heft to them. Satan was a problem because a baleful renegade spirit really didn’t have a place in the realm of a beneficent God. And he was a solution because, as in most polytheistic systems, a nemesis deity could serve as a scapegoat for evil and suffering, and be a clear counterpoint to the benign deity whom he opposed. Throughout his career, Augustine had a particularly iffy relationship with Satan as a concept. As scholar Patout Burns writes, “Augustine himself could find no way to understand how the divine power and presence were not limited by the existence of evil in the world.”18 Augustine had been a card-carrying member of the Manichaeans, whose vertical dualist system saw a cosmic war between light and darkness as the central story of the universe. And as we heard earlier in this episode, one of the reasons he ended up departing from Manichaeism was that he didn’t like the idea that warring spirits were actually parts of the makeup of each individual. To Augustine, poor choices should not be ascribed to the intrusions of little brain demons. People transgressed due to the actions of their own wills, and were thus responsible for those actions. Thus, Satan was not, to the former Manichaean Augustine, an especially interesting or useful idea.

Augustine describes his thinking about Satan just once in the Confessions, with a few characteristically lucid sentences in Book 7. Pondering his own shortcomings, Augustine writes, “Who. . .implanted in me this seed of bitterness. . .when all of me was created by my very kind God? If the devil was responsible, where did the devil himself come from? And if even he began as a good angel and became devil by a perversion of the will, how does the evil will by which he became devil originate in him, when an angel is wholly made by a Creator who is pure goodness?” (7.2). Augustine is strikingly skeptical here about commonplace notions in fourth century Christianity. He knows well enough that the origin of wickedness is commonly associated with Satan. But he equally understands that Satan is a messy shortcut that doesn’t solve the great theological problem of evil. If God created the angel which became Satan, then God was ultimately the origin point of wickedness, and this certainly was not an idea that Augustine wanted to accept.

Ultimately, Augustine’s answer to the great question of theodicy, or the problem of evil, became Original Sin, and what’s called the privation theory of evil, or privatio boni – the notion that evil flares up naturally when the Christian God is scorned or overlooked, ideas which again, we’ll explore in detail next time.19 But even just by looking at the Confessions, we can see the route that Augustine took on the way to these eventual ideas.

There is a passage in the Confessions that the Italian humanist Petrarch particularly adored when he got a hold of the book in 1333.20 And in this passage, Augustine writes the following, in the Modern Library Sarah Ruden translation:
People go where they can marvel at mountain heights and massive waves of the sea, and immensely wide waterfalls, and the ocean that encircles the continents, and the orbits of the heavenly bodies—but these same people leave themselves behind. They don’t bother to wonder that in saying all of what I’ve just said, I don’t see the places with my eyes; and that, notwithstanding this fact, I couldn’t say what I say unless the mountains and the streaming tides and the streams and the heavenly bodies that I’ve seen, and the ocean that I take on trust, were inwardly visible in my memory, in spaces as enormous as if I saw them outwardly. But I didn’t swallow these things up by seeing them, when I saw them with my eyes, and it’s not the things themselves that are with me, but the images of them; and I know which one has been imprinted in my mind by which physical sense. But this immeasurable capacity of my memory doesn’t carry only these things. In it is also everything I’ve learned.21
There is a lot to consider in that passage. It appears right in the middle of Book 10, the chapter that’s all about the workings of memory and the first wholly philosophical book of the Confessions. And in it, Augustine emphasizes that while humans marvel at things like mountains and oceans, we don’t often contemplate the workings of our perception and our memories. Spellbound by the wonders and distractions around us, we neglect to contemplate how these wonders and distractions are processed and stored in our cognition.

Plato by Raphael

A detail of Plato from Raphael’s School of Athens (1509). Augustine bent and riveted the superstructure of Platonic ideology so that it fit into his Christian vision of morality and epistemology, changing the naiveté of Plato’s cave dwellers into the wilful ignorance of faithless idolators.

Augustine here introduces the general idea of philosophical subjectivity – the importance of perception and individual cognition in even our most fundamental understanding of the world around us – how we see what we see, how we know what we know, whether it’s all illusory, or whether reality is pretty much what it seems. Now, subjectivity in philosophy can go in a couple of different directions. One of them is that we simply throw our hands in the air and surrender ourselves to the slipperiness of perception and the notion that truth varies from individual to individual. Back in the fifth century BCE, the philosopher Protagoras had proposed that “man is the measure of all things.”22 This statement, perhaps the most famous one on record from a Presocratic Sophist, has been given a thumbs up by various groups in philosophical history. But subjectivity, and emphasizing how subjectivity leads us to perceive things in radically different ways, has also been given a thumbs down by various groups in philosophical history.

One of these groups, and the most important one for Augustine, were Plato and his successors. The notion that individual subjectivity determines our fundamental experience of reality made Plato uncomfortable, and in fact the only that reason we know about that quote in Protagoras is that Plato preserved it in his dialogues Cratylus and Theaetetus, not to mention writing an entire dialogue in which Socrates browbeats Plato’s milquetoast and fictional version of Protagoras.23 Plato could not stand the notion that reality is indeterminate due to the faulty mechanics of our perceptions and wildly different nature of human minds. His solution to this Sophist conundrum was his theory of forms – down below here on earth, we slog through the mirages of a partial reality, but the philosophically minded of us have access to an eternal realm of forms and ethical truths.

When Augustine, then, in Book 10 of the Confessions, thinks wonderingly of how human memory and perception mediate our experience of the universe, he’s engaging with a philosophical conversation that goes back almost nine hundred years in the written record, and probably long before that. To Augustine, we naively and passively accept the throughput of sensory information and our subsequent formation of memories without slowing down to consider how it all works. The question is, what does Augustine do with his somewhat dizzying acknowledgement that perception and memory all determine each individual’s experience of reality? After all, subjectivity leads us toward relativism – that notion that what’s right for me isn’t right for you, and relativism, to an ethically committed Christian like Augustine, could have been pretty troubling. His solution to the problem of subjectivity was the same as Plato’s solution – the lower realm is murky and indeterminate, but the upper realm – the realm of God – is crystalline, eternal, and accessible to those with the right minds to access it. In horizontal dualist systems like Augustine’s and Plato’s, the workaround for the slippery problem of subjectivity is to say that yes indeed, in the lower realm, we are wading through a murk of physical objects and our biased perceptions and memories of them, but that fortunately, we also, if we have a mind and spirit to use it, have a ladder up from the cave and into a dimension of unchanging reality. Now, I want to take just a moment to show you how Augustine works out his repurposing of Plato, because it’s central to Augustine’s whole moral system.

Augustinian Morality and Platonic Epistemology

A moment ago, we heard Augustine lamenting that humans on earth are so spellbound by physical reality that humans don’t think about the mechanics of their perceptions and memories of those perceptions. For Augustine, our lack of self-consciousness in this regard was not some abstract philosophical problem, but instead, evidence of our inbuilt capacity for transgression against God. Being stuck in the proverbial Platonic cave, for Augustine, was not the fate of the intellectual lower classes, as it is in Plato, but instead evidence of human inclinations toward evil. Augustine, in Book 7 of the Confessions, relates the experience of being distracted by earthly phenomena and thus ignoring the Christian God, writing, “[W]hen in my arrogance I rose against [God]. . .even those inferior things [of the material world] came on top of me and pressed me down, and there was never any relaxation or breathing space. As I gazed at them, they attacked me on all sides in massive heaps. As I thought about them, the very images of physical objects formed an obstacle to my return [to God]” (7.7). For Augustine, then, it wasn’t just sex and gluttony that that led humans away from taking a godly path – it was the entire illusory experience of physical reality. And thus the key to finding a connection with the Christian God was first understanding the fallible mechanics of one’s own perceptions. As scholar Notker Baumann writes, for Augustine in the Confessions, “human reliance on self will and personal ability constituted the root of all evil. . .[and] confession and self-knowledge are interrelated. . .Human beings must be aware of and understand their position in the [world order] and realize they are not God but creatures.”24 In Augustine’s ideology, then, when we look out at the ocean and mountains, naively trusting the mechanics of our perceptions and our faulty memories, we reveal our innate pride.

Excepting Epicureanism and Greek atomism, perhaps, every single ethical ideology that has come down to us from the ancient world in Greek and Latin, whether pagan or Christian, has the same sales pitch – you are broken and ignorant, because you are lost in a fog of the sensory world around you, but if you do X, Y, and Z, you can rise up to something better. The New Testament was built on that time tested horizontal dualist framework, and long before it, Pythagoreanism, Orphism, and the works of Plato – and after the New Testament, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Neoplatonism, and Augustine’s own ideology. Augustine’s contributions to Christian epistemology are thus quite philosophically robust, as they are informed with this long tradition of writing about spiritual leveling up. But they are also variations on a very old theme. We are trapped in a cave of our distortive selfhood, Augustine tells us, and being aware that we are trapped in a cave is the first step in connecting with a more luminous and truer reality. Plato, in the dialogue Meno, had written about innate ideas as the inbuilt seeds of the world of forms. Augustine replaced the doctrine of innate ideas with something else – an inner propensity to connect with God. As scholar Philip Cary summarizes, in Augustine’s philosophy, “Like everything that exists, I have always had God in me, but, unlike the mountains and the seas, I can know I have God within me. I have a mind capable of understanding and seeing the Truth, and therefore I can also be culpably ignorant of the God within me.”25

Put very simply, then, in the Confessions, Augustine tells us that willingly ignoring our potential for good and God, and instead throwing ourselves into fog of earthly existence – that this is the root of the world’s evils, and not Satan, or the essence of the material world itself. To quote one final Augustinian scholar, Paul van Geest writes, “Augustine. . .did not trace evil to matter, which had been created by God, but to the wickedness of the human will, which in choosing evil, deformed its own nature.”26

So, we have been through some fairly dense material in this episode. First, we went pretty carefully through the actual second half of the Confessions – through Augustine’s discussions of moral choice, memory, subjectivity and creation. Next, we explored how the second half of the Confessions was responding to other ideologies out there in Augustine’s world – how the stuff on moral choice and creation was largely deployed against Manichaean and Neoplatonic ideas popular in the 490s, and not just a bunch of ruminations Augustine set down out of the blue. And just now, we’ve taken a look at how we can see Augustine starting to think about the origins of evil and Original Sin in the Confessions – and how this doctrine emerged as much from Platonism as it did from the Bible. We have now done plenty of prep work to get us ready for Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God, but more importantly for our present purposes, we have a good overall sense of the Confessions – where it came from, and where, philosophically speaking, Augustine was headed when he wrote it in his mid-40s between 397 and 400. That, I hope, is enough dense intellectual material for one podcast episode. What I want to do now is to tell you something much simpler about the Confessions – how it was received across some different periods of literary history, and what people said and concluded about it. [music]

The Changing Reception of Augustine’s Confessions

By the end of Augustine’s life, the Confessions was his most famous work.27 We have over 300 manuscripts of this book, and though they have surprising variances from one another at times, the Confessions, and other works by Augustine, seem to have always been close at hand in the median monastery, abbey, and rectory library of the Middle Ages.28 What readers have enjoyed about this book over different generations, however, appears to have changed with the passage of time.

Augustine, in all times, has been acknowledged as an overwhelmingly beautiful writer. While early Christian theology was filled with gifted pagan converts who retained all of their liberal arts educations once they’d joined the church, Augustine’s prose is mesmerizing, and almost always, very clear. While he has certain premises that he never questions, he otherwise expects to have to prove his points in the Confessions through pristine, unpretentious prose and without recourse to specialist vocabulary. He often begins a discussion by asking terse, powerful, yet simple questions, and then he explores the ramifications of these questions in a similarly lucid fashion. He had worked for years as a tutor of fractious pupils, and he knew how to teach. The Confessions becomes dense at times, but it becomes dense due to the complexity of the subject matter covered, and not deficiencies in Augustine’s prose. Augustine can occasionally be pedantic with allusions to the scriptures, citing half a dozen passages to support some ridiculously simple Christian truism, but of course, these were inspired writings for him, and he had no qualms about using the Bible extensively to corroborate any minor point he happened to be making. In essence, then, Augustine’s ability as a Latin stylist, and the very high quality of his prose have rarely been doubted over the 1,600 years that the Confessions has been in circulation.

The striking beauty and soundness of his prose was something he remained confident about decades after he converted. Looking back on the evolution of his own style, in a late letter he described “what I wrote when I was still a catechumen. . .still puffed up in the way of secular writings,” and assured the document’s recipient that anyone could see how his style had mellowed and matured since the pompous works of his youth.29 And also at the end of his life, he still had confidence in the Confessions itself. In a letter to a court official written in 429, Augustine wrote,
My son, take up the books of my Confessions which you wanted. Regard what I am there, so that you do not praise me for being more than I am; do not believe what others say about me, but believe me instead. Observe me in that work, and see what I was in myself, for my own part – if anything about me there pleases you, join me in praising the one whose praises I longed for instead of my own. Do not praise me.30
A year before his death, Augustine knew that he had become famous as the western empire crumbled and Christianity thrived. But he also felt that he’d got it right with the Confessions, and he retained the same self-effacing humility of his autobiography, in writing, at least, up until the end of his life.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath in a photograph by Giovanni Giovannetti. Confessional poetry, and literature’s increasing focus on individual emotional experience after the fifteenth century, have ancient roots in the unique style and powerful prose of Augustine’s idiosyncratic autobiography.

Still, needless to say, not everyone has given the Confessions an enthusiastic thumbs up. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, rather neutrally, proclaimed that the Confessions was “the most serious book ever written.”31 But others have had far more critical assessments. As scholar Tarmo Toom puts it in the opening page to the recent Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, “[T]here are also those who have been disturbed by Augustine’s alleged narcissism and infantile megalomania, or those who have been deeply puzzled by Augustine’s suspiciously selective memory.”32 On one hand, Augustine actually came a long way from his generation’s popular hagiographies like the Life of Antony and the Life of Saint Martin – he doesn’t, after all, claim that he was able to bring people back to life, or cure leprosy, or cast out devils. Additionally, he meant his autobiography to be an exempla, or a piece of moral instruction, rather than a piece of documentary realism that systematically aired all of the skeletons in his closet. But on the other hand, Augustine’s grim and dour view of mortal life on earth has been at odds with the values of Renaissance humanism since the fifteenth century. European writers inspired by the recirculation of pagan philosophy and literature into the Christian world, and visual artists electrified by the ideas of the ancient past, together dared to postulate more optimistic, or at least more neutral visions of humankind on earth than the one Augustine left behind.

As with so many of the Christian writings of Late Antiquity, Augustine’s works have been taken to task by all sorts of readers after the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment. The Confessions, though, had an impact that was not merely Christian and theological in nature. Augustine’s most famous text had theological muscle, as we’ve considered so much in this show already. But as a single person’s tell-all record of mistakes and triumphs, written with an appealing combination of gorgeous prose and plainspoken honesty, the book’s eventual influences extended far beyond the Christian world. So as we come to the end of these two programs on the Confessions, let’s take a moment to consider the reception history of this work, with a special emphasis on its status as an autobiography.

Augustine’s Confessions, unless we have lost an enormous body of confessional autobiography from Late Antiquity, was a highly original piece of writing. He certainly wasn’t the first person to write about himself. Earlier highly educated Christian converts like Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr, in the second century, had given accounts of their pagan educations and the paths that they took toward Christianity, as had other church fathers. Ovid, and Horace, and Cicero, and Catullus, to varying extents, had woven occasional autobiographical materials into their works. But by and large, serving as an example of a beautifully written, extended autobiography may have ultimately been the greatest contribution to world literature that the Confessions made.

The confessional and autobiographical portions of Augustine’s famous work proved most influential later – during and after the Renaissance. But fascinatingly, during the Middle Ages, the Confessions doesn’t seem to have been an especially popular part of Augustine’s writings. As historian Eric Saak writes, “There is no clear evidence that any medieval author took the Confessions as the model for his or her own introspective self-analysis as a creature standing in the presence of its creator and seeking wonder.”33 Throughout the Middle Ages, then, when readers turned the pages of the Confessions, they did not see an invitation to pour their hearts and misdeeds out on the printed page like Augustine had. During the early 800s, a bookish deacon named Florus of Lyon was his generation’s authority on Augustine. He cited Augustine over 2,100 times. But just sixteen of these citations were of the Confessions, and none of these citations were from the main autobiographical narrative of Augustine’s book.34 In general, up until the 14th century, the Confessions seems to have been considered an early back corner of Augustine’s oeuvre – a book that he wrote on the way to his masterpieces, and one which could be used for historical purposes to pinpoint when things had happened in the late fourth century, but little more. To quote Eric Saak once more, “It was precisely the ‘boring’ portion of Augustine’s life that was the most interesting for medieval authors.”35 In the libraries and scriptoriums of the Middle Ages, what mattered most was what Augustine had done after his ne’er-do-well youth, once he’d become a bishop and embarked on his theological career in earnest.

This lukewarm reception of the Confessions seems to have changed just at the dawn of the Renaissance. Petrarch, as I mentioned earlier, got a copy of the book in 1333, and found it a breath of fresh air. The Italian humanist, while he didn’t ultimately embrace Augustine’s religious asceticism, still found the book’s descriptions of passion and desire to be exquisite, and the conviction with which Augustine searched for the truth to be similarly moving. Augustine, simply by writing about his vulnerability, his intense self-doubt, and his humble beginnings, had captured a slice of the human condition with an honesty that still felt fresh a thousand years later. Petrarch, one of the architects of the European renaissance, was an ideal figure to bring Augustine’s Confessions out of the rarefied bookshelves of the theological library and onto the more diverse desks and end tables of fifteenth-century Italy.

If you know Anglophone literary history, you know that after the 1400s turned to the 1500s, sonnet sequences, and romantic poetry in which lovelorn speakers court mistresses of all sorts, were all the rage. In English literature, the sixteenth century was the domain of Thomas Wyatt the Elder, Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, and early Shakespeare, and the poetry of this quintet did not shy away from the intensity of individual emotional experience. The sixteenth century was a century that could grapple with the emotional rawness of the Confessions in a way that clerical readers of the Middle Ages had been indisposed to do.

And while the sixteenth century saw literature engaging more candidly with human psychology, it also saw the Protestant Reformation. In the Netherlands, in the 1570s, the French Protestant theologian Franciscus Junius the Elder wrote a biography with strong tint of Augustine’s Confessions, chronicling his own carnal temptations, and he made a case for the primacy of Protestantism. A generation later, in 1620, the English Catholic Sir Tobie Matthew published a translation of the Confessions to make a case for the primacy of Catholicism. By the mid-1500s, Augustinian-style autobiographies were becoming more common – the Spanish nun Teresa of Avila wrote one in 1562, and the Dutch priest Peter Canisius wrote one in 1570. Canisius was an early Jesuit, and Jesuit religious plays were an important part of their efforts against the Protestant Reformation. As scholar Katrin Ettenhuber summarizes, “between the end of the sixteenth and the middle of the eighteenth century, there were almost sixty plays that based their plots on Augustine’s Confessions.”36 This is a funny little historical detail, as Augustine himself grouses about the wicked influence of the theater in Book 3 of the Confessions (3.2.2), but in any case, these Jesuit plays, focusing on Augustine’s conversion, were exempla stories, offering audiences ecstatic visions of what their conversions might be like. And as the 1500s rolled into the 1600s, a new generation of European writers, among them John Donne and George Herbert, came under the influence of the piercing emotionality of Augustine’s now ubiquitous autobiography.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), a foundational text in European romanticism, was perhaps the most important book ever to bear the direct heritage of Augustine’s ancient autobiography.

From the 1600s forward, Augustine’s works were dragged into to sectarian religious conflicts between Jesuits, Jansenists, Calvinists, Quietists, and others – conflicts with their epicenter in France. A marvelous writer and also a flashpoint of controversy, then, across the 1600s and 1700s Augustine attracted the attention of heavyweights like Descartes, Jean Racine, Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, and the Chevalier de Jaucourt, who wrote about Augustine witheringly in Diderot’s Encyclopedia. But while the Enlightenment’s response to Augustinian theology was tepid, the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, published posthumously in 1782, was perhaps the most famous text ever inspired by Augustine’s Confessions. Rousseau’s Confessions, chronicling the first five decades of the French author’s life, promised a tell-all and honest portrait of his life and deeds, and, not shying away from some of his more disgraceful moments, Rousseau’s Confessions, in turn, became a major influence on European romanticism. Authors like Goethe, Stendhal, Wordsworth, and De Quincy threw themselves into variants of the confessional genre, their autobiographical work and emotionally tender characters, and the psychological detail that they chronicled, all having distant roots in Augustine’s Confessions. As scholar Patrick Riley writes, “[O]ne can argue that Rousseau has taken the two major confessional threads in Augustine’s autobiography – [confession of sins] and [praise of God], and, while he largely retains [confession of sins] as a major focus of his narrative, he has transformed the convert’s praise of God into a kind of cult of the self.”37

As romanticism rejected the scientific positivism of the Enlightenment, the emotional amplitudes of Augustine’s Confessions, during the nineteenth century, became its most attractive feature in secular literature. Augustine himself, his flaws, his misadventures, and his energetic mind comes across as much as his theology in the original Confessions, and the long influence that he had on European literary history eventually made itself felt in the confessional poetry of the Anglophone world in the 1950s and 60s – in writers like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, whose generation of poets did not shy away from recording the deepest trenches of their depression, anger, and self-doubt.

We are all, today, I think, conditioned by several centuries to be Augustinian in a certain way. Augustine wrote in a famous moment we looked at earlier in Book 10 that “People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks. . .But in themselves they are uninterested.” What Augustine meant, as we learned in this show, is that we are distracted by the phantoms of the material world and that we do not contemplate our own distortive subjectivity. But what writers after the romantic period have read is that people need to look inward more often, to nurture and plumb the depths of their memories, and to spend more time on introspection. Augustine’s Confessions, perhaps wholly by accident, then, and especially in the wake of Rousseau, eventually became an invitation to cathartic personal disclosures and self-care.

1,600 years have passed since Augustine wrote the Confessions. While Augustine couldn’t have predicted what future generations would eventually do with his autobiography, and while our personal religious persuasions doubtless color our reactions to the book’s theology, there are things about the Confessions that remain thoroughly impressive, generations and generations after he wrote it. Augustine is always, paragraph after paragraph in his famous book, real. We encounter him today as a majestic figure in uncountable paintings and artworks, but early in the Confessions, he’s just a scrapper from the North African sticks, his middle-income family going out on a limb to get him a good education. He discovers Cicero in his autobiography, who inspires him to seek out wisdom regardless of its source. And in spite of Augustine’s occasional swipes at pagan philosophy, seeking out wisdom regardless of its source is exactly what he did. The Confessions glitters with allusions to pagan as well as Christian works. And at the moment of his conversion in Book 8, in one of the most powerfully written narratives in all theology, Augustine can’t help but borrow a quick turn of phrase from the Roman satirist Persius, a pagan quote at nearly the very moment of his Christian conversion, and it’s a perfect addition to his narrative, as he surely well knew.38

Christian truisms only rarely feel formulaic when Augustine writes them. His mother dies shortly after his conversion, but, sparing us any platitudes about their impending heavenly reunion, Augustine tells us that the loss hurt him terribly, and that he asked God for help, and that God gave him no special consolation.39 Augustine writes philosophy with a fire and fierceness that takes almost nothing for granted, often satisfying himself by formulating good questions rather than trying to build systems that answer them. And in a way, the philosophical incompleteness of the Confessions is more splendid than the system building we will soon see him do in The City of God. In his early autobiography, Augustine doesn’t pretend to have to have the answers to all of his questions. It is enough, that after the intellectual journey that occupied the first half of his life, that he has learned how to ask them. [music]

Moving on to the City of God

Well, folks, that takes us through Augustine’s Confessions, one of the most famous books ever written and certainly among the finest intellectual products of Late Antiquity. I hope these past two episodes have given you a sense of both the autobiographical content of the Confessions, but also, helped you understand the theological content – where Augustine was coming from, philosophically speaking, and also where he was headed. Like so many influential books, the Confessions can be appreciated by outsiders for the rather simple story that its early chapters tell, but also by specialists schooled in ancient philosophy and early Christian history, interested in reading the book in its original context.

In our next two episodes, we’re going to move on to Augustine’s masterpiece, the City of God, a cinderblock of a text that stretches to 1,091 pages in the latest Penguin edition. If the Confessions sees Augustine as a young man and a seeker, the City of God shows him as a mature theologian, stalwart in his convictions and formidable in defending them. The City of God is not an easy book. Even with the considerable preparation that we’ve done in our show, the range of topics covered in the City of God makes for slow and painstaking reading. The book is also, for reasons we will learn soon enough, not always a very appealing book. But when we close its back cover, and come to the end of Augustine’s life on August 28th, 430 CE, we will have finally completed a journey that we began a long time ago – the journey to have a basic understanding of where what we now understand as Christianity came from. This has been a long journey. It began with the Merneptah Stele of 1207 BCE, when we find the first mention of something like Israel as a tribe. It continued through our careful coverage of the generations of believers who lived between 650 and 500 BCE or so, and wrote the Pentateuch, Deuteronomistic History, and most of the Prophetic Books, and moved forward into the Persian and Hellenistic periods, and then the Maccabean and Hasmonean periods, the rule of Herod, the actual Apostolic generation, and the Grecophone Jewish believers who lived during the late Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties and wrote most of the New Testament. We moved forward to learn about Gnosticism, and Manichaeism and the early church fathers who formed their doctrines in opposition to these other Christian movements, about the invention of the bishopric as an office, about the first surviving martyr tales and then the monastic movement, and how this latter movement inspired the work Augustine and those like him. Even when we nudge the earliest, and largely obscure centuries of ancient Israel’s history into the domain of pure archaeology, the formation of Christianity from its earliest Jewish origins in Jerusalem and the Ancient Near East to the death of Augustine was a process that took more than 1,000 years, and so maybe it’s fitting that we reach the City of God after finally hitting our 100-episode mark with the podcast.

Christianity has always, since the lifetime of Christ, been a living religion, and always subject to change and development. Before Augustine, though, it was still molten within its casings; still perhaps capable of more evolution. Augustine, more than anyone around the year 400, poured chilly Late Antique water on its inclinations to flow and change. His extraordinary, controversial achievement was bringing his personal ideological needs directly into mainline Christian history – preoccupations with sex and the biblical story of creation, a willing disregard of the actual history behind the Bible, radically revisionist readings of the Old Testament, and a labyrinthine solution to the problem of evil that, to Augustine and many of his descendants, finally freed the Christian God from blame for humanity’s flawed role in a fraught world. The City of God shows us these elements of Christianity having reached their present-day forms for the first time. And while Christianity has never stopped developing as a religion, Augustine’s mature writings mark the moment at which its ideological infrastructure was completed. Only Martin Luther, a thousand years later, had a comparable impact on the religion, but that will be a story for another day.

So thanks for listening to Literature and History – thanks especially to many of you for listening to a hundred episodes of it. There’s a quiz on this program in your podcast app in the Details or Episode Details section. For you Patreon supporters, for a January themed bonus, I’ve recorded John Keats’ famous poem “The Eve of St. Agnes,” written in 1819, the story of a young woman who hopes for a glimpse of the man she wishes to marry in a dream, and is quite surprised to actually find him there in her room in the chilly night of Saint Agnes’ Eve, or January 20th. For everybody, I have a song coming up – stick around if you want to hear it, and if not, I’ll see you next time.

Still here? Well, I got to thinking. We sure have read plenty of theology in this podcast. We’re coming to the end of the main part of it, really, because after Augustine, Catholicism reached something relatively close to its present form. Anyway, I got to thinking about all of the theology we’ve read in our show, and just how much of it is horizontal dualist in its architecture. The schema is the same for a great many human ideologies, really – number one, you live in a realm of illusions and transience and moral yuckiness, and you’ve got it all wrong; number two, but purity and transcendence from this realm are still possible through this or that belief system; number three, said belief system is the sole correct path to transcendence and truth. Familiar stuff. I got to thinking about all that, and I decided I would write a comedy song, brief in length and hymnal in nature, that praises all horizontal dualist systems. So this one’s called “Insert Ideology Name Here.” I hope you like it, and Saint Augustine and I will be back next time with The City of God.

[“[Insert Ideology Name Here]” Song]


1.^ 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.

2.^ Augustine. Confessions. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Henry Chadwick. Oxford World’s Classics, 1991, p. 140. Further references to this text will be noted with section numbers in this episode transcription.

3.^ Conf 8.6 also mentions the unnamed convert and his friend having fiancés, whereas Jerome’s works don’t mention him having been engaged.

4.^ Drecoll, Volker Henning. “Grace.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 109.

5.^ Augustine. Confessions. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Sarah Ruden. Modern Library, 2017, p. 283. Further references to this edition will be noted with section numbers in this episode transcription.

6.^ E.g., Socrates’ show-and-tell with the slave boy in Men 85e, as a demonstration of the abiding nature of eternal forms.

7.^ E.g. Enneads 1.5.7, “the Life of Eternity, a stretch not made up of periods but completely rounded, outside of all notion of time” or 2.5.3 “the Beings there possess actuality as belonging to eternity, not to time,” or 3.2.1 “the Kosmos is subsequent not in time but in the fact of derivation, in the fact that the Divine Intelligence, preceding it in Kind, is its cause as being the Archetype and Model which it merely images, the primal by which, from all eternity, it has its existence and subsistence.” Printed in Plotinus. Delphi Complete Works of Plotinus. Delphi Classics, 2015.

8.^ Printed in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael Coogan, et. al. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 11.

9.^ In scholars like F.C. Bauer, and after him William Wrede and Adolf von Harnack.

10.^ See Chadwick, p. 276n.

11.^ Drecoll (2020), p. 114.

12.^ BeDuhn, Jason David. “Anticipated Readers.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 46.

13.^ Parmenides, (F5, F8). Printed in Waterfield, Robin, ed. The 58, 59.

14.^ Lucretius. De Rerum Natura (1.266-7). Printed in Knox, Peter E. and McKeown, J.C. The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 75-6.

15.^ Plotinus. Enneads (2.1.1). Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Plotinus. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. Delphi Classics, 2015. Kindle Edition, Location 1519.

16.^ This is the story of the Apocryphon of John and other Nag Hammadi texts, though various scholars, chief among them Michael Williams, have pointed out that Gnosticism likely didn’t have a stable ideology.

17.^ Drever, Matthew. “Creation and Recreation.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 80.

18.^ Burns, J. Patout. “Augustine on the Origin and Progress of Evil.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 16, no. 1, 1988, pp. 10.

19.^ See City of God (XI.9).

20.^ See Chadwick (1991) p. 187n.

21.^ Augustine. Confessions (10.10). Translated by Sarah Ruden. Modern Library, 2017, p. 290.

22.^ Protagoras (T1,T4). Printed in Waterfield, Robin. The First Philosophers. Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 211, 212.

23.^ Theaetetus 151e8, Cratylus 385e4-386a4.

24.^ Baumann, Notker. “Pride and Humility.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, pp. 208, 224.

25.^ Cary, Philip. “Soul, Self and Interiority.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 229.

26.^ Geest, Paul van. “God.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 127.

27.^ Drecoll (2020), p. 107.

28.^ On the manuscript variants, see Partoens, Gert. “Manuscript Transmission, Critical Editions, and English Translations.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 245.

29.^ Augustine. Retractions (Prol 1 and 3). Printed in Hammond, Carolyn. “Title, Time, and Circumstances of Composition.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 13.

30.^ Augustine, Ep 231.6. Printed in Hammond (2020), p. 23.

31.^ Rhees, Rush. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections. Rowman & Littlefield, 1981, p. 105. The remark was reported by Wittgenstein’s student Maurice O’Connor Drury.

32.^ Toom, Tarmo. “Introduction.” Printed in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 1.

33.^ Saak, Eric Leland. “Reception in the Middle Ages.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, 264.

34.^ Ibid, p. 267.

35.^ Ibid, p. 267.

36.^ Ettenhuber, Katrin. “Reception in the Period of Reformations.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 286.

37.^ Riley, Patrick. “Reception During the Enlightenment.” In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Edited by Tarmo Toom. Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 315.

38.^ Confessions (8.11.28) alludes to Persius’ Satires (5.66).

39.^ Confessions (9.12.32).