What I’m Reading: The Confessions

St. Augustine, a bishop in the time of the late Roman Empire, wrote his Confessions in 397 A.D. It is a foundational book of Western culture. It was the first autobiography ever written and a major theological work. I imagined when I started reading that it was a likely candidate to be designated for my Shortcuts to Smartness series. But in fact, I don’t think I will add that tag to it. While there are definitely some interesting passages and ideas, I have to say I’m disappointed overall. I also think this would be a difficult book for most modern readers and likely wouldn’t provide benefits commensurate with the effort it would take for most people to read it.

One thing I didn’t quite understand going in is that Augustine was a convert in his thirties to Christianity and for him, the story of his life was the story of how he came to accept Christianity. As far as he was concerned, if it wasn’t part of his faith journey, it wasn’t worth including in his book. As a result, this is not an autobiography quite as modern readers will expect it. The first part (the first nine of the thirteen chapters) does describe the events of his life in chronological order from his birth up to the point where he accepted Christianity, or a little after, but it leaves out an awful lot of what you might think would be important.

One example of this is the woman he lived with for thirteen years. They were not married, but he explains they lived together as husband and wife, and he never cheated on her. In fact, we never learn anything else about her, even her name! For Augustine, she was at best a hindrance on his road to accepting Jesus, and he considers his former enjoyment of sexual congress with her to have been a regrettable distraction. In the episode famously referred to as “Farewell My Concubine,” he sends her back from Milan, where he has moved, to her previous residence in Carthage, in what comes across as a rather cold-blooded way. Augustine may have thought she was just not important enough to include more details of in his story, but as a reader this lack of detail came across to me as disrespectful. She was with him thirteen years, he even describes making her depart from him in Milan as leaving her heart “torn and wounded, [leaving] a trail of blood back to Africa,” and yet he can’t find room in his lengthy book to even give us her name?

Aside from the narrow focus on solely those elements related to his coming to Christianity, there are two things that modern readers will find difficult–dense philosophy and a style packed with biblical quotations, praise, declarations of awesomeness, etc.

I’ll address the philosophy first. I’ve often written in my reviews of works by Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers that people will sometimes ask if they’re hard to read, and my answer is no, they’re just conversations among Socrates and his friends about various questions they find interesting. They pick a topic–say, what is the true meaning of justice?–and talk it out. They’re not hard to read and sometimes fairly humorous. Well, this is not the case with Augustine. Even in the first nine autobiographical chapters, he will sometimes go on digressions where he considers the nature of matter or some such thing in great thoroughness. I find his reasoning impeccable, but the writing is fairly dry and he is not willing to leave any facet of the subject unexamined.

And that’s in the first part–the second part of the book is nothing but such philosophy. He dedicates these final four chapters to a close reading of the creation of the world in the first part of Genesis. These chapters are tough to get through. Pages upon pages of what time might mean for God, what matter might have consisted of before the creation, in what ways human beings resemble God or animals. Some of the questions and his conclusions are interesting, but the way there is hard going.

This difficulty is augmented by Augustine’s writing style, and what I mean by that is that nearly every paragraph of the book is larded with biblical quotations or allusions. Now, it’s certainly not unreasonable for him to include Bible quotes in a book about his journey to accepting Christianity, but the sheer frequency makes it hard to read. It’s as if he doesn’t feel he can make a point about something unless it can somehow parallel a verse in the Bible. Even straightforward paragraphs about where he lived in such-and-such a town or how he had a conversation with so-and-so will include some extraneous verbiage from a Psalm or Isaiah.

And even readers who are willing to make their way through the difficult style might find the main conflict in the Confessions to be somewhat obscure. As a teenager, Augustine joined the Manichees, a Christian cult. The Manichees were one of what are called the Gnostic cults, who believed heretical forms of Christianity and were stamped out by the early church. They were called Gnostic because what they had in common was their teaching that there was secret knowledge about Jesus (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) that wasn’t in the Bible, but that they could teach you if you signed up with them. In the case of the Manichees, there were two circles of followers, and if you spent enough time and gave enough money, you might advance from the outer circle to the inner circle, when they would allegedly start teaching you the good stuff.

Augustine eventually became disillusioned with the Manichees. He had lots of questions about God and heaven and Jesus, but the answers of the Manichee teachers were always superficial, with the promise of fuller explanations as he advanced in the organization. But each advancement only brought vague new explanations that themselves would be further explained at some point in the future, just continue paying your dues, please. After a while, Augustine figured out the Manichees simply didn’t have any good answers. Around that time, he met a Catholic bishop named Ambrose, who was able to offer full and satisfactory explanations of many of Augustine’s spiritual questions, and doesn’t require that Augustine fork over money to the church or move up in the organization to get them. And if he didn’t know an answer to one of Augustine’s questions, he would simply tell him straightforwardly.

I wonder if modern readers will be able to relate to this story, though? It’s not that cults don’t exist now, but they seem to have been much more widespread in Augustine’s time than ours. Plus, the points that the Manichees differ from Christianity seem a bit ridiculous. They insisted, for instance, that Christ couldn’t have been human and divine, because a divinity could not have been harmed on the cross, so it must have been just a sort of shell or dummy that was actually crucified. There are a few other such points of theirs that Augustine mentions and I kind of have to roll my eyes. This is what he was taken in by?

Although I’ve come down pretty hard on the Confessions, I certainly didn’t hate every part of it. Augustine has a real way of using metaphors to make difficult concepts easier to understand. For example, he likens God’s understanding of time as compared to ours to a book. He says our lives are like the sentences in that book. A human life is part of the book, and it occurs when it has its place in the narrative and then passes on. But God is able to read the whole book. He can pick up a part of the book and sympathize with our plight, but he also knows the whole story and sees that our sentence has to end for others to begin. Quite a nice way to describe a hard idea!

Regrettably, I don’t think I can recommend Augustine’s Confessions for most readers, though. It’s a hard slog and its conflict isn’t likely to speak to most modern readers. Unless a reader has some special interest in the Manichees or fourth-century Rome, there are lots of other classic books that might better pay back your time invested in reading them.

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