Discuss Augustine's early life. Why does he specifically mention his infancy? To what does he liken his childlike helplessness? Why do you think that he places personal responsibility on infants and children who, by modern psychological standards, are not held accountable for their actions? What purpose does this serve? Do you agree with his assessment, or do you think his view of children and morality is wrong?
Recap the event in the bathhouse where Patrick becomes aware that Augustine is sexually mature. Why does Patrick become "intoxicated"? Do you think that this intoxication is literal or figurative? What are Augustine's thoughts about his father's reaction? Do you think that Augustine is negating the importance of the body in his attitude towards sex, or do you think he is simply striving for a higher spirituality?
Augustine often discusses peer pressure among young people, especially adolescents. Do you think that adolescent peer pressure is the same today as it was in Augustine's day? What did Augustine's friends pressure him to do, or to at least say that he did? Are these the same sort of things that happen among adolescent groups today? Do you think that Augustine is too severe in his condemnation of a normal phenomenon that happens in all human societies, or do you think his criticisms are valid? What does he think that he, as an adolescent, should have done instead of falling in with his friends' actions?
Explore the Manichaean beliefs as described by Augustine. What would have attracted Augustine to this kind of religion? Why do you think that Augustine didn't ultimately become a Manichaean Elect rather than a Christian bishop? What role did Monica play in this decision? Do you think it was a forgone conclusion that Augustine would become a Christian because of Monica's beliefs, or do you think that Augustine came to his decision freely?
Why did Augustine have such difficulty with "spiritual substance"? What prevented Augustine from picturing God in a Christian way? Did Augustine's extensive philosophical education help or hinder him with trying to understand the nature of God? Do you think that his ideas about God are well-founded, or do you disagree with them? Do you accept Augustine's explanation for evil in the world?
What do you think of Augustine's visions? Does his vision of Lady Continence make any sense to you? What about his vision of the rewards heaven with his mother? Are these visions real, or are they the product of an overactive imagination? Augustine was fond of analyzing dreams and visions, and, though he was careful not to misinterpret, put a great deal of faith in them. Monica was a visionary, too, before Augustine became one. Discuss how the visions she and Augustine experience are instigations for action or change in Confessions.
Why is it so important that Augustine reconciles the creation story with doctrine? What prompted him in Books XI and XII to spend so much time performing exegesis on the Genesis text in order to prove a figurative reading? Discuss why this was so important to Augustine and the early Church, and if you think Augustine's interpretation was right or wrong.
What was Augustine's idea of women? Near the end of the book, he claims that women are the equal in all things of men, but in practice Augustine doesn't seem to follow this idea. Would Augustine's treatment of women, before his conversion, be acceptable today? Did his relationship with Monica affect his attitudes at all?
What is the nature of evil for Augustine? Contrast Augustine's idea of evil with the ideas of the Manichees. Which seems closer to the truth for you? Is Augustine's explanation of theodicy accurate and enough for you, or do you find holes in his theory.? Explain what your idea of evil in the world is, its source and the possible solution for avoiding it.
What role did Augustine's friends play in his conversion? Do you think that Augustine was an intellectual snob, or was he just academically curious? Specifically, was the conversion of Alypius right after Augustine a sincere conversion? What about Nebridius's efforts to guide him away from Manichaeism, while Nebridius was still a Manichee himself? What does Augustine think about earthly friendships?
Write about Augustine's family, specifically his concubine and son. Were his attitudes toward them cold, in your opinion? What about his faith would have made his actions acceptable? Augustine wrote, in a different book, a dialogue with his son Adeodatus as the philosophical speaker opposite himself. Was Augustine sufficiently involved in his illegitimate son's life? Why doesn't Augustine talk more about him in Confessions?
Saint Augustine belongs to a group of ecclesiastical writers from the Patristic Age, called Fathers of the Church, who wrote from the end of the first century to the close of the eighth century c.e. Augustine’s writings involve many spiritual and intellectual subjects and are written in many different forms; no one work conveys all of his views. His writings are theocentric or God-centered, often focusing on God’s relation to human beings. For example, in accordance with Genesis 1:26, he asserts that each human being is made in the image of God; each person’s equality, freedom, and dignity are bestowed by God and are thus inalienable.
Augustine assumes the existence of God as self-evident because it cannot be proven rationally. Life holds more than what can be shown with absolute certainty. Knowledge of God derives from faith, which, in turn, seeks understanding. Augustine declares that God is omnipotent and has the ability to do anything: God created all things out of nothing and is beyond all things. God exists from all eternity and is infinite. God, then, is outside the scope of all categories of thought, logic, language, number, or perception. In addition, God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-holy, and all-worthy of full love, adoration, and obedience. God is also provident, guiding the course of history and the course of each individual’s life.
The subject of God—a boundless, supernatural mystery—cannot even be glimpsed by the mind without the assent of the will and the heart and without the assistance of God’s grace. Faith needs divine authority—the disclosure of Christ found in scripture as illuminated by the Holy Spirit. The vision of truth also requires the humility to learn and the diligence to strive and pray in the face of pain and sorrow. Humble faith attains what presumptuous knowledge cannot. One must possess the love that seeks, that reveals, and that brings confidence in what is revealed.
Augustine describes phases in the soul’s enlightenment, echoing 1 Corinthians 13:12 and 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4. The soul will rise from knowledge obtained through the senses, to knowledge obtained through imagination, and to knowledge obtained through spiritual, intelligent intuition, a vision of the immaterial realm of God. The human mind can construct indirect analogies of this realm but cannot understand it by using temporal categories of time, space, and matter. The simplicity of God and the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are transcendent spiritual qualities. God’s inner light allows the soul to recognize those qualities. The soul will know what it is seeing, and the knowing will transform the soul. As Augustine indicates in Confessions, the soul is the place for dialogue with God, where God’s illumination occurs. He anticipates modern philosophers by making the inner life—the capacity to think, doubt, and believe—the starting point for knowledge.
Augustine writes that human beings cannot understand themselves other than through their relationship to God. They are a force directed toward God and will never find fulfillment until they turn to God. Although they have free will, human beings depend upon God, at once eternal and active. In Confessions, Augustine demonstrates these concepts through his own experience; in De civitate Dei (413-427; The City of God, 1610), he demonstrates these ideas through human history.
First published: Confessiones, 397-400 (English translation, 1620)
Type of work: Autobiography
Using literary devices in new ways, Augustine describes how the experiences of his own life led to the assured and transformative love of God.
Augustine wrote Confessions when he was in his mid-forties, after he had joined the Church. He writes openly about his experiences, undaunted by those who, remembering his past life, would challenge the sincerity of his convictions. He traces how the power of God’s word can give victory over sin, closely following St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
In titling his book Confessions, which he intends to be plural, Augustine drew upon Latin words signifying more than the word “confession.” For him, confession means the admission or confession of sin; the profession, demonstration, or conviction of faith; and the praise of God. It also implies the sense of agreement that results when the believer accepts what the Bible says about sin and salvation. Augustine’s book registers confession, testimony, or witness in all of these ways.
In composing his Confessions, Augustine drew upon Roman and Greek literary forms, including the meditation, a personal and philosophical or spiritual reflection and self-examination, in the manner of the meditation written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Augustine also drew upon the dialogues of the Greek philosopher Plato and the Roman dialogues of Cicero.
In addition, Augustine includes qualities of prayer as a direct expression of an individual’s heart and mind to God, like David in the Psalms and Christ in the Gospels. He imparts a sense of spontaneous utterance or unstudied outpouring, moving from topic to topic and implying qualities of cross-examination. He depicts faith seeking understanding, with each having its own role, in harmony with the other. Augustine’s address to God proclaims how his confusion and despair were altered into the very means by which he is to see himself clearly for the first time before God and how God’s providence protected him.
Augustine puts readers in the position of hearing a soliloquy, a word he may have invented; it involves preestablished terms of conflict regarding characters and events associated with other times and places. Readers participate with Augustine in his questioning, there being no knowledge without it.
Moreover, in Confessions Augustine combines features of prose and verse. He uses poetic devices—simile, metaphor, rhythm, and literary vocabulary—to convey concentrated imaginative experience. Still, he writes with a quality of realism, of fidelity to fact, in a style close to everyday speech, as in a letter to a friend—in this instance, to God. As a prose poem, Confessions conveys a multitude of meanings, its language permeated by the language of the Bible.
Augustine’s blend of literary forms, patterns of thought, feeling, and action, paganism and Christianity, resulted in a new literary...
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