ST. AUGUSTINE: Confessions [Book I]

ST. AUGUSTINE: Confessions [Book I]

  • Augustine begins his Confessions by praising God. He asserts that the heart of man finds no rest until it reposes in God, who made man for himself. Those who seek God shall find him, and find peace.
  • Augustine struggles with the notion of how he can call on God to enter into him. Is there any place within Augustine which can contain the creator of heaven and earth? On the other hand, because nothing that exists can exist without God, then apparently everything contains God. Augustine resolves this dilemma by concluding that all things are in God. God fills heaven and earth, and God is even in hell.
  • Since heaven and earth cannot entirely contain God, where does God pour forth the remainder of himself? Do smaller things contain a smaller part of God than larger things? Or is God wholly everywhere, while nothing can wholly contain him?
  • What is God? Good, omnipotent, merciful, just, hidden yet present, all-changing yet unchangeable, never new yet never old, seeking yet having all things, etc. These oxymorons are not intended as an assertion about God’s nature, but to demonstrate the mystery of God.
  • Augustine implores God to enlarge the mansion of his soul, so that God can enter within him. His soul is ruinous, and requires repair.
  • Augustine does not know where he was before he inhabited his body. He wonders whether this worldly life is true life, or rather a living death, and only when the spirit is released from the body does life truly commence. All good things come from God. The milk which nourished his body as an infant was not given by his mother and nurses, but rather God gave him sustenance through his mother and nurses.
  • Through observation of infants, Augustine conjectures that when he was a baby he sought to fulfill his wishes through inarticulate gestures and utterances. But when his desires were not immediately satisfied, he became indignant at his elders for not submitting to him, and avenged himself on them with tantrums.
  • Augustine believes that God existed before the creation of the universe, but wonders whether he himself existed before birth as God existed before the universe. Where was Augustine before birth? Did he inhabit a body?
  • What is life? Is there any other spring but God which can pour essence and life into us? God’s contradictory nature is incomprehensible, but man should not dismay because of this, he should rejoice and be content that by not discovering he has discovered God. Woe to those who believed they have discovered, but have not discovered God.
  • God made us, but he did not make us sin. Even infants sin. Infants are innocent only in the weakness of their limbs, but their will is sinful. Augustine observed how some babies manifest envy towards other babies when they witness others feeding from a nurse. The babies resent their fellow infants, and grudge them the very nutrients upon which the other babies’ lives depend. They resent sharing, even when there is a superfluity of milk.
  • Augustine asserts that God’s fairness makes all things fair. This is reminiscent of the Platonic Ideas; i.e. physical things partaking in the excellence of Ideas or Forms. Because Augustine has no recollection of this age of infancy, he does not count it as part of the life he currently lives, and therefore will speak no further about it.
  • Augustine describes how he entered boyhood (but where does his infancy go? It does not depart elsewhere; it is merely covered by the successive maturity). He acquires language not through systematic instruction, but by listening to and observing his elders. When they uttered a sound and turned to a particular object constantly, Augustine was able to determine that the object corresponded to the sound. By this manner, Augustine acquired language, and was able to express his will, so that it may be fulfilled by his elders, upon whom he still relied.
  • His parents enrolled Augustine in school, so that he might prosper in life, and attain the praise of men and other “deceitful riches.” Augustine did not understand the purpose of attending school, but if the teachers discovered that he had neglected his studies, they beat him. In school, he learned to pray to God. Others taught him that God was unperceivable, but could hear and help him. Accordingly, Augustine prayed to God to prevent his teachers from beating him. God did not answer his prayers because God did not desire to “give Augustine over to folly.”
  • Augustine compares the dread he felt at the thought of being whipped to the fear and apprehension of people sentenced to torture on the rack. He wonders why his parents and other elders would mock his scars and accept the punishment as necessary. Despite the threat of punishment, he continued to neglect his studies because he only desired to play ball with his friends. For playing, he was punished by those who were engaged in the same activity; for the idleness and play of elders is called “business,” and elders play more unbecomingly than Augustine and his friends. For example, when a tutor defeats another tutor in argument, the losing person is more bitter and envious to the winner than children who lose at a game.
  • Augustine acknowledges that he sinned when he neglected his studies because he did not refrain from studying for some greater purpose, but simply from love of playing and pride in victory.
  • In youth, Augustine was afflicted with a severe stomach illness. He desired baptism, but his mother would not allow it because if Augustine recovered, then the future sins would defile him and bring more perilous guilt upon him. She determined that it was better to defer baptism until Augustine had retired successfully from political life. His mother was tremendously devout, but his father did not believe in Jesus until his wife finally prevailed over him.
  • Augustine thinks that his soul might have been better had he been baptized in his youth; for it is as illogical to say “Let him do what he wants, for he is not baptized yet,” as “Let him be worse wounded, for he is not healed yet.” However, Augustine’s mother foresaw the temptations that loomed over Augustine in the succeeding years, and wisely deferred Augustine’s baptism.
  • Augustine loathes school, but his elders force him to learn, so that he will mature and utilize his learning to “satiate the insatiable desire of a wealthy beggary, and a shameful glory.” Thus, by those intending him no good, God does well for Augustine by providing him an education. Every good that Augustine receives in life, he praises God as the bestower. Augustine also observes that every inordinate affection is its own punishment.
  • Augustine abhors learning Greek and the rudiments of reading and writing Latin, but enjoys reading Latin epics. He attributes his aversion to the vanity of life and his conceit. He learns about the wanderings of Aeneas, but forgets his own wanderings in life. He cries for Dido because she killed herself for love, but remains dry-eyed concerning his depravity and futility of life without God.
  •  Augustine realizes that he was miserable for weeping the death of Dido, but not weeping for his own death for lack of love to God.
  • Augustine apprehends that learning the rudiments of grammar and math is more important than learning and memorizing poetic fictions; for not all men agree what 1 + 1 equals, but not all agree about topics concerning poetry.
  • However, Augustine did not enjoy reading Homer and other stories written in Greek because he did not understand a word of Greek, and was coerced to learn it through physical beatings. Augustine reflects that a free curiosity is more conducive to learning than coercion.
  • Augustine denounces custom as a torrent which drowns the sons of Eve, and those who climb the cross scarcely pass over the destructive and corruptive ocean of custom.
  • Augustine attributes his intelligence to God, but he wasted his gift for a long duration on vanities, such as expressing the grief of a fictitious character in prose.
  • How wicked is mankind when they are more offended by men who do not pronounce words correctly against the laws of grammar than men who hate other men against the law of God. In the quest for the fame of eloquence, a man will carefully speak lest he murder the word “human being,” but takes no heed of the content of his speech which might cause the murder of his opponent.
  • Augustine often sought unfair conquests, thus conquering himself by his vain desire for pre-eminence (superiority, greatness). He committed thefts, and if he were detected, he chose to quarrel rather than yield. The sins of childhood are transferred from tutors to kings, from balls and sparrows to gold and slaves. The punishment of the cane is displaced by severer punishments.
  • Augustine ascribes all of the gifts he received in life to God, and accepts responsibility for all the sins he committed as acts of his own volition, uninfluenced by God.

Our hearts are restless until they repose in Thee.

I know not whence I came into this dying life (shall I call it?) or living death.

Let him rejoice even thus; and be content rather by not discovering to discover Thee, than by discovering not to discover Thee.

Our sole delight was play; and for this we were punished by those who yet themselves were doing the like. But elder folks’ idleness is called “business.”

No one doth well against his will, even though what he doth, be well.

Every inordinate affection is its own punishment.

I am flesh, and a breath that passes away and comes not again.

“One and one, two;” “two and two, four;” this was to me a hateful singsong: “the wooden horse lined with armed men,” and “the burning of Troy,” and “Creusa’s shade and sad similitude,” were the choice spectacle of my vanity.

Book 1 of Augustine’s Confessions presents several notions worthy of further consideration. The first such idea is Augustine’s assertion that the heart of man is restless until it finds repose in God. I concur that the heart of a man indeed will never find serenity and rest if it, like the majority of mankind, is inclined towards the pursuit of worldly fame and success. However, I do not believe that repose in God is the only place where a heart can find contentment. If a man establishes a goal for himself that transcends the material world, then I believe that man can find solace, comfort, peace, and tranquility while pursuing that aim. At this moment, it is difficult to determine an example of such a goal. Indeed, the definition Augustine gives for God transcends the physical world, but I ardently believe that there is something else worthy of devotion.

Augustine’s paradoxical statement that humanity’s inability to comprehend the nature of God contributes to our discovery of God is also very absorbing. However, I think that this is one of the best definitions of faith. Because God is inscrutable, the only way to believe in God is to have faith that he does exist.

Finally, Augustine expresses an insightful observation about the relationship between pleasures and the consequential pains resulting from indulgence of those pleasures. He writes, “Every inordinate affection is its own punishment.” I still prefer Shakespeare’s, “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to destroy us.” Nevertheless, it is fascinating that the close association between pleasure and pain has not altered from what seems to be time immemorial. Perhaps in the future we may create the means to sever this ostensibly indestructible bond.

Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics)

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