Confessions Book 1

[For links to the rest of this series, click here.]

Introductory Note: All English quotations are from the Chadwick translation. I am removing the parenthetical Bible references, though, because they are not original to the text. My quotes will not use the page numbering, but the section/paragraph numbering (vi.7) so that people using other editions can follow along.

Augustine knows how to penetrate to the heart of an issue; rather, he knows how to unravel an issue to reveal the human heart. I was repeatedly struck by the profundity of his analysis, and I find it all the more remarkable because he is accusing himself. It is usually in conjuring defenses that we become the most rational and eloquent. Book 1 raises a number of issues that I won’t expound in this post, but I hope someone in the discussion probes them:

  • the appropriateness of immoral behavior in educational literature (xv.24-xviii.28)
  • the proper attitude of a Christian spouse toward his or her non-Christian partner (xi.17)
  • the moral significance of infant actions (vi.8; vii.11-12)
  • the omnipresence (iii.3) and eternality (vi.10) of God

There are two concepts upon which I wish to focus. The first is Augustine’s habit of retrospectively seeing God acting for his good in the events of his youth, even and perhaps especially through other people’s sin. He calls God the “orderer and creator of all things in nature, but of sinners only the orderer” (x.16). In some contexts this may seem like a subtle argument crafted to absolve God from the presence of evil, but here it functions to highlight God’s active involvement in shaping even sinful actions for the good of his children.

As a mature theologian, Augustine disagrees with his mother’s decision to delay his baptism, but he nevertheless acknowledges the success of his mother’s plan (xi.18). His teacher was a hypocrite when he beat Augustine (x.15), and the method of instruction was “rigorous coercion” (xiv.23), but Augustine as an adult realizes that such discipline gave him the verbal skills that he uses for God (xv.24). We might inquire how God can use sin without being responsible for it, but Augustine merely declares, “You made [man] and did not make sin in him” (vii.11).

This retrospective examination produces an ambiguity in Confessions. Augustine knows that he was converted as an adult, yet he cannot help seeing that he belonged to God since his began to exist. It was God who gave him milk as an infant (vi.7), who bestowed on him the gift of language (viii.13), who oversaw his growth (xx.31), and who guarded him through an alarming illness (xi.17). In fact, because of Monica’s teaching, he can even describe himself as “already a believer” (xi.17). Yet, at the same time Augustine laments his boyhood waywardness. Perhaps all of us, whether or not we were raised in Christian households, ought to consider more deeply the ordering of God in our lives before we came to faith.

The second concept is Augustine’s distinction between higher and lower loves. He makes the interesting comment, “I was disobedient not because I had chosen higher things, but from love of sport” (x.16). Love is, for Augustine, a necessary component of virtue, leading him to conclude, “No one is doing right if he is acting against his will, even when what he is doing is good” (xii.19). In Augustine’s theology, the heart of piety is to order our love properly, so that God is loved most of all, and all lower things are loved for the sake of higher loves, terminating in God. In his De Doctrina Christiana, he gives an analogy for sin. Wanderers are traveling through a strange country seeking their homeland. Yet, they become so caught up in the enjoyment of travel and the charm of exploring that they wander endlessly, forgetting their original purpose and the rest that awaits at home. Such is everyone suffering from disordered love.

So, this doctrine is why Augustine remonstrates his child self for choosing entertaining stories over the basic blocks of grammar (xiii.20-22). It is the basis for his vilification of deeds done to secure man’s praise or avoid his shame, either by himself (xvii.27) or his mentors (xviii.28). It exposes the absurdity of mourning for Dido rather than his lost condition (xiii.21) or of fearing a verbal barbarism more than barbaric actions (xviii.28). Augustine is always principally concerned with love, both what we love and in what relation to other things we love it. In so doing, he contradicts a mere notional Christianity, in which assent to orthodox truths passes for a vital relationship with God.

Published in: on September 26, 2010 at 9:24 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. […] Book 1 Discussion is […]

  2. Augustine both confesses his own sin of self-indulgence in his studies and accuses his teachers of requiring frivolous tasks and assigning immoral lessons. While he admits that God taught him useful things even during this time, he notes that the course of instruction is not safe for children (xv.24). When we study depravity we turn it to license in our own lives. Who, he asks, can keep his footing against the flood of human custom? (xvi.25). This is surely an accurate observation; how quick we are to adopt social norms as standards in place of God’s law.

    “It is simply not true that such words are more conveniently learned from obscene stories of this type, though it is all too true that under the influence of the words obscene deeds are more boldly committed.” Augustine was guilty in his enjoyment, but his teachers were guilty of tossing children into a “hellish river.” (xvi.26). Is this an allusion to infanticide? It was a capital offense at the time under Roman law. Surely, in context of his argument here he’s not referring to the Acheron (i.e., Styx). Either way, Augustine provides a sobering reminder of the responsibility of those overseeing the development of children and of parents choosing those overseers.

    In all his youthful studies, Augustine’s God-given abilities would have been better devoted to the praise of God (xvii.27). These sections on his studies are thus closely tied to the larger theme of lament in the book. But God was patient and merciful – though we must not presume he will remain so forever (xviii.28).

    We are so much more captivated with following the rules of grammar than the laws of God (xviii.29). Though we lack the emphasis on proper grammar and oratory present in the Augustine’s world (where rhetoric, along with military success, served as the primary means of advancement for those born into the classes with opportunity), his point persists. How quick we are to demand precision and perfection of ourselves and others in those areas we most value. How lax we our in governing our own hearts and minds. Even this first book inflames in me the desire Augustine shares for God to grow sweeter to him than the allurements he pursued as a child (xv.24).

  3. Jack, you’re the first to pick up on the theme of lament in Confessions. Augustine quotes freely from the Psalter, and it’s inspiring how his book is a lament for sin overpowered and swallowed up in praise. Both sides of the coin are necessary until they reach their climax at the last judgment, where the final tears of lament are wiped away forever.

  4. Along with what you mentioned regarding Augustine’s focus on love as the root of virtue, and love of God as the highest love without which lower loves have no meaning, the following section gripped me the most:

    What is more pitiable than a wretch without for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying for his lack of love for you, my God, light of my heart, bread of the inner mouth of my soul, the power which begets life in my mind and in the innermost recesses of my thinking. (15-16, Oxford edition)

    This gripped me because it is so easy for us to be gripped by the stories around us. Our love for trivialities, or even the good things around us seems so often to squelch love for God. Indeed, Augustine describes a condition of no love for God as “dying.” Rarely do we have such a confession of God’s worth and our need for loving him. But Augustine seems to be wrestling with making that highest love the ultimate reality in his life, a struggle which we all face.

    • Right, Joel. I relate to that more than I’d like to admit. Being more upset about a sports team losing than about injustice in my community. Being more excited about an upcoming TV episode than about Sunday worship. Lately I’ve been meditating on the “pilgrim” theology of Scripture, and it seems to me to have more to do with ordering my love than about taking up an isolationist or antagonistic stance toward society.

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