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Is Augustine’s ‘confessions’ an Autobiography or More than That?

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Is Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ an autobiography or more than that?

 

Introduction

“Like a colossus bestriding two worlds, Augustine stands as the last patristic and the first medieval father of Western Christianity.” [1]

It is nigh impossible to describe the extent to which Augustine influenced Christian thought and practice in the centuries that followed his death. Augustine collected and maintained all the main motifs of Latin Christianity from Tertullian to Ambrose. Despite lacking a clear method, Augustine’s works offer the reader a clear insight into the heart of the Christian communities living within the Roman Empire. Furthermore, Augustine purposely used philosophy of the ancient world in his defence of the Christian faith. His faith and works are centred on the Scriptures – they structured and evoked his heart and mind. It was the Holy Scriptures where Augustine focused his religious authority.

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Augustine seemed to have regarded himself as a summator rather than an innovator. Rather than advocating for reform, Augustine’s forte was his apologetics – the influence and genius of such can be felt throughout the course of history. Even today, in the important theological revival of our own time, the influence of Augustine is obviously one of the most potent and productive impulses at work. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, a professor of Roman Catholic Theology at Harvard, wrote;

“It is impossible for Christian theologians to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity, the nature of sin, the theory of original sin, the role of grace, the efficacy of the sacraments, the nature of ministry, or the relation between church and state without reference to the contributions of Augustine.”[2]

A complete characterisation of Augustine is impossible, not only because his thought is so extraordinarily complex and his exegetic method so incurably tangential, but also because during his life, and career, his heart and mind were full of conflicts. Thus, if he is to be read wisely, he must be read widely – and always in context, with due attention to the specific aim of each thesis. I intend to follow such advice in the following analysis of one of Augustine’s main works – the Confessions, a text consisting of 13 books, written in Latin between AD 397 and 400 recalls crucial events and episodes in the author’s life. [3]

It has been argued that the Confessions are autobiographical, however, for my purposes I will not be assuming such. Augustine certainly follows the windings of his memory as it re-presents the upheavals of his youth and the stages of his disorderly quest for wisdom however, he omits very much indeed. In defending my position, that is, that the Confessions are much more than an autobiography I will discuss the chosen title of the text, continue by discussing the reasoning behind such a text, and concluding with a summation of my belief.

What is a Confession?

To gain a clear understanding of this seminal work by Augustine, one must first understand that it isn’t simply Augustine confessing his guilts to his audience. A confession is an affirmation or declaration, and therefore a term with two distinct meanings in theological discourse. It is possible to confess sins, as well as to confess the faith. A confession of faith is both an act by which the faith of the church is declared and the resulting document from such an act. Thus, the martyrs are said to have confessed their faith in the most difficult circumstances. Likewise, the title of ‘confessor’ is usually given to those who confessed the faith even at the risk of their lives. [4] The Confessions therefore, is not just a confession of sins, or confessio peccati, but also a confessio fidei and a confessio laudis, that is, a statement of faith in the greatness of God and a song of praise and gratitude for the Lord’s love and power.[5] Furthermore, the Catholic Encyclopaedia writes;

“The Confessions (towards A.D. 400) are, in the Biblical sense of the word confiteri, not an avowal or an account, but the praise of a soul that admires the action of God within itself.”[6]

Augustine had spent almost thirty years of his life, up to the point of writing the Confessions, lost from God. This work is a reflection on those years that were lost, and his subsequent salvation by his faith in God. Augustine’s path was twisted by his own design, and God made it straight, slowly and painfully.  This is important to note at this point. Understanding that a confession is more than just simply a spoken retelling of an event of your life, that it is also a statement of belief or a declaration of faith, supports the notion that the Confessions is more than an autobiography. All one must do is understand the title of the work itself.

The purpose of the Confessions?

What was Augustine’s purpose when writing the Confessions?  If one can discern exactly why Augustine wrote such a text, then it would be possible to say for definite whether he wrote it as an autobiography or not. James O’Donnell a classics scholar at Georgetown University writes in his book, ‘Augustine, A New Biography’, that he believes the Confessions were not written for any practical purpose that is oriented towards others, at least not primarily, rather the book’s main address is to God. He writes,

“…human readers are not only disregarded but seated in the balcony and ignored by the performer on stage…”. [7]

Augustine constantly reflects on, and questions, God throughout the text. His speech is consistently directed toward God. O’Donnell then, seems to have a point. Almost every reflection of Augustine’s life is paired with a reflection on, or a calling to, God. His infancy, for example, is paired with reflections on the Psalms. During the descriptions of his childhood in Book One, Chapter IX, for example, Augustine recalls moments from his education and reflects upon his prayer life;

“…if I was slow to learn, I was flogged… Thus as a boy I began to pray to thee, my Help and my Refuge… I prayed with no slight earnestness that I might not be beaten at school.”[8]

This practice continued throughout his accounts of adolescence and into adulthood. Almost every aspect of his life is paired with praise and longing for God. Its purpose is twofold: Augustine firstly confesses his sins to God and, secondly, lets others know of his trials and errors so that his conversion may be an example to them. As he explains in book ten, chapter three;

“For the confessions of my past sins, when they are read and heard, may stir up the heart so that it will stop dozing along in despair, saying, “I cannot”; but will instead awake in the love of thy mercy and the sweetness of thy grace, by which he that is weak is strong, provided he is made conscious of his own weakness.”[9]

Augustine also writes in his Retractationes, a reflection on his earlier works that was written around 427, that this book praises and honours God throughout;

“My Confessions, in thirteen books, praise the righteous and good God as they speak either of my evil or good, and they are meant to excite men’s minds and affections toward him. At least as far as I am concerned, this is what they did for me when they were being written and they still do this when read. What some people think of them is their own affair [ipse viderint]; but I do know that they have given pleasure to many of my brethren and still do so.”[10] (Retractions II. 6,)

This is the majority of what is mentioned about the Confessions in Augustine’s Retractationes. While one could read this comment and argue that Augustine wrote the Confessions to make others reflect upon the role God played in their lives, however, that seems to be quite a simplistic reading of such. The Confessions was written for personal reasons – a personal spiritual reflection – not simply an autobiography. For Augustine to write a book, that purported to make ‘truth’ and seek ‘light’, was not merely a reflection upon the actions of his life but pure act itself.

The Confessions – Not Simply an Autobiography

It is not uncommon to hear people classify the Confessions as an autobiography, however, it seems that this interpretation of the work has led to many readers confusion when first reading the text. This classification is understandable. The text is a first-person account of Augustine’s life. It is also organised chronologically, beginning with infancy and culminating when he is thirty-three. However, much of Augustine’s life is not dealt with at all. Furthermore, autobiographies are typically a narrative of events, and if one was to begin reading the Confessions expecting such a narrative flow, one would be thwarted at every turn. It seems fair to say that Augustine’s masterpiece is autobiographical, but it is not an autobiography. It is more than that.

The Confessions is written retrospectively and is a personal reflection on what happened to Augustine at different stages of his life. The book is fundamentally reflective, and this spills over into its format, the paragraphs often resemble diary entries. Throughout this reflection, Augustine tells his story – a history of his heart and soul. The former Bishop of Hippo wrote this book years after the events that were recorded. Interestingly, some have argued it was a response to criticisms he was receiving throughout his daily life. The Confessions are reflective, spiritual, prayerful and autobiographical all at once. Is it a prayer? Is it a reflective journal? Either way, it goes beyond a mere autobiography. This mixed-genre format is not east to read yet it also evokes excitement. Its format is reminiscent of the format of both some of the books of the Old Testament, such as Isiah and Jeremiah, and the Gospels themselves.

Conclusion

By this point, it seems clear that Augustine’s Confessions goes beyond that of a mere autobiography for multiple reasons – the naming of the text, the authors purpose when writing the text and the format. The Confessions is a detailed, classic recounting of one man’s internal struggles and religious conversion.  Throughout the text, there is a basic and recurrent motif: the celebration and praise of the greatness of God – Creator and Redeemer.

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The characteristics of an autobiography are certainly present; however, I do not believe Augustine deliberately fashioned it so, rather he uses his own life as an exemplar of his understanding of human existence. For generations the work has been read as the moving diary of a soul, with a peculiar power to speak as well to the personal history of its readers. Edward B. Pusey, for example, notes that;

”…in The Confessions one does not get so much the impression of reading the life of another man, but rather the story of one’s own soul.” [11]

He further quotes Petrarch as commenting that “I seem to be reading the history of my own wanderings, and not of another’s” It is no wonder that people read the story as their own, for it is a ‘typical’ story, recounting a fall from grace and a return to grace. The great theme of the Confessions is not simply the story of salvation of one person, but the destinies of all persons.[12] If one understands this, then how could they argue that this text is simply an autobiography? We should listen to Augustine himself, who, in Book Eleven, Chapter One, echoes this when explaining why he wrote;

“… why am I recounting such a tale of things to thee?… that through them I may stir up my own love and the love of my readers toward thee, so that all may say, ‘Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.’ I have said this before and will say it again: ‘For love of thy love I do it’”[13]

The Confessions are not simply Augustine’s autobiography, they are, instead, a deliberate effort, in the permissive atmosphere of God’s felt presence, to recall those crucial episodes and events which he can now see and celebrate the mysterious actions of God’s prevenient and provident grace. Ultimately, however, the question remains; what should we, as Christians do with such a text? Perhaps we should, as Augustine wrote himself in a Letter to Darius (A.D. 429);

“…take the books of my confessions and use them as a good man should – not superficially, but as a Christian in Christian Charity… And if something in me pleases you, here praise Him with me…”[14]

 

Bibliography

  • Augustine, trans. by Outler, Albert The Confessions of St. Augustine, Dover, New York, 2002.
  • Davis T., Stephen, Christian Philosophical Theology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016.
  • Fiorenza Schüssler Francis & Galvin P. John, Systematic Theology Roman Catholic Perspectives (2nd Ed), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2011.
  • González, Justo Essential Theological Terms John Knox, Louisville, 2005.
  • Kreeft, Peter, Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics, Ignatius Press, USA, 1988.
  • Lewis C.S. Edit. by Walter Hooper, God in the Dock – Essays on Theology and Ethics, Wm. B. Eerdmans: Michigan, 2014.
  • O’Donnell, James Augustine : A New Biography, HarperCollins, New York, 2006.
  • Pusey, Edward The Confessions of St. Augustine Macmillan, New York, 1961.
  • Williams, Rowan On Christian Theology Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2000.

[1] St Augustine, Trans. & Ed. By Albert Cook Outler, The Confessions of St. Augustine, (Dover: New York, 2002) p. v.

[2] Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Systematic Theology Roman Catholic Perspectives (2nd Ed), (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2011) p. 12.

[3] Henry Chadwick, St. Augustine, Confessions (2008 ed.), (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1992) p. xxix.

[4] Justo L. González, Essential Theological Terms, (John Knox: Louisville, 2005) pg. 37.

[5] Françoise Lionnet, “Augustine’s Confessions: Poetics of Harmony, or the Ideal Reader in the Text.” In Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture, (Cornell University Press: London, 1989) 35-66.

[6] E. Portalié, Works of St. Augustine of Hippo. The Catholic Encyclopaedia, (Robert Appleton Company: New York 1907).

[7] James J. O’Donnell, Augustine : A New Biography, (HarperCollins: New York, 2006)

[8] St Augustine, Trans. & Ed. By Albert Cook Outler, The Confessions of St. Augustine, (Dover: New York, 2002) p. 9.

[9] St Augustine, Trans. & Ed. By Albert Cook Outler, The Confessions of St. Augustine, (Dover: New York, 2002) p. 173.

[10] St Augustine, Trans. & Ed. By Albert Cook Outler, The Confessions of St. Augustine, (Dover: New York, 2002) p. xii.

[11] Edward B Pusey, The Confessions of St. Augustine (Macmillan: New York, 1961) p. xii

[12] Marjorie Suchocki, “The Symbolic Structure of Augustine’s “Confessions”.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 50, no. 3 (1982): p. 365-78. – http://www.jstor.org/stable/1463596

[13] St Augustine, Trans. & Ed. By Albert Cook Outler, The Confessions of St. Augustine, (Dover: New York, 2002) p. 214.

[14] St Augustine, Trans. & Ed. By Albert Cook Outler, The Confessions of St. Augustine, (Dover: New York, 2002) p. xiii.



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