This is the first of a series of posts attempting to provide a reader’s guide for the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo. I’ll be providing a summary of each book, a guide to key sections, and a few thoughts of observation and application for each book. If you’re wondering why you should read Confessions, check out the intro to this post series here.
Biographically, book one lays out Augustine’s early years for his readers. He narrates what he knows of his infancy--either what he was told by those who raised him, or what he has observed of infants in general now that he is an adult. He relates stories of his fear of beatings at school as a young boy, his performance in class, childhood games, and more. He tells us of a childhood illness that nearly killed him, and how he requested the sacrament of baptism, but was denied it after his health improved. He concludes with an extended meditation on the nature of sin in a young boy--one who by most standards seemed to be a good, if precocious, child.
However, biography in the contemporary sense only makes up a small slice of the content of Confessions. Much of the work is taken up with what we might think of as psychological biography, or what William Harmless calls Augustine’s “personal salvation history.” Augustine is concerned for himself and his readers to “know and understand” the way that the events of his own life and the proclivities of his soul led him first away into a “far country” before the grace of a kind and sovereign Lord brought him back to the catholic faith. Augustine self-consciously depicts himself as a prodigal from his infancy on up and longs that he be able to fully confess both the sins of his heart and the praise due to God for delivering him.
A note on finding quotes:
Confessions is traditionally divided up into 13 books. Beginning with the first printing-press copies of the work in the 16th century, chapter divisions were added. In the late 17th century, scholars began publishing the work with paragraph numberings based on the Latin paragraphs. I follow the numbering in Henry Chadwick’s Oxford World Classics edition, which gives books as capital roman numerals, chapters as lowercase roman numerals, and paragraph numbers arabic numerals. So the reference I.v.6 below refers to book one, chapter 5, the sixth paragraph in the Latin text. Chadwick places these references in the margins at the start of new sections, and puts guides at the top left to alert readers to the contents of each set of pages.
Augustine longs to make full confession before God, and in doing so understand both God and himself. He meditates on the nature of our knowledge of God and offers a hymn of praise for God’s infinite, transcendent qualities (I.ii.2-I.iv.4). He then calls upon God to work in him as he confesses: “The house of my soul is too small for you to come to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins; restore it. In your eyes it has offensive features. I admit it, I know it; but who will clean it up?” (I.v.6).
Augustine relates what he has heard about his own infancy and what he has observed of infants in general. All our good comes from God who creates us and nurtures us even through the milk provided to us by our mothers (I.vi.7). Yet even as infants we sin, display discontent, jealousy, and anger. “The feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant’s mind” (I.vi.11).
I.viii.13-I.xi.18 Boyhood, Early Education, Delayed Baptism
Augustine mournfully recalls his early fear of being beaten at school, and the worldly success and ambition that was the aim of his education. He then introduces his mother, Monica--a key character in his life and the queen of all praying mothers. She arranges for him to be baptized during a childhood illness, but when he recovers, delays his baptism--lest he later renounce his baptism through sinful living. Augustine questions whether this delay was ultimately wise, or whether it would have been better to entrust him as a child to the grace of God and the tutelage of the church (I.xi.17-18).
I.xii.19-I.xx.31 The vanity and viciousness of classical education, conclusion of book I.
Augustine meditates on two elements of the classical education provided to him--the grammar and reading on the one hand, and the pagan literature and clever wordplay on the other. Augustine now sees that the grammar and reading skills were the most important, because they now give him the ability to study the scriptures. But as a child he delighted in the foibles of pagan literature, and was taught that they were the best way to acquire the excellence in Latin that would lead to success in a legal or political career. As he meditates and pries into the nature of his own sin, he concludes this: though he was in many ways a ‘good’ child, “My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings. So it was that I plunged into miseries, confusions, and errors” (I.xx.31).
“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (I.i.1)
“Who will enable me to find rest in you? Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself?” (I.v.5)
“The house of my soul is too small for you to come to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins: restore it. In your eyes it has offensive features. I admit it; I know it. But who will clean it up? Or to whom shall I cry other than you?” (I.v.6)
“Let him rejoice and delight in finding out who are beyond discovery rather than fail to find you by supposing you to be discoverable.” (I.vi.10)
“Woe to you, torrent of human custom! ‘Who can stand against you?’ When will you run dry? How long will your flowing current carry the sons of Eve into the great and fearful ocean which can be crossed, with difficulty, only by those who have embarked on the wood of the cross?” (I.xvi.25)
“My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings. So it was that I plunged into miseries, confusions, and errors.” (I.xx.31)
One of the most helpful things about Confessions for me is to see that Augustine carries many of the same anxieties and burdens that I, but he approaches them differently, and more biblically. He brings his many questions in prayer to God, and in praying his questions, he seeks their answer in scripture. Confessions is not only soliloquy--as Augustine prays, he hears back from the God of his prayers through the Word. Notice that his prayers are peppered with cries from the Psalms. In the ten years since his conversion, Augustine has drunk deeply at the well of David’s songs and he can now hardly open his mouth to pray without using the language of David. We would do well to learn to pray as Augustine does, with the words of scripture falling continually from our lips.