Common section

Dates

354

born 13 November at Thagaste (Numidia Proconsularis)

366-9

School at Madauros; 370 to Carthage

372

Patrick’s death, Adeodatus’ birth

373-5

Teaching at Thagaste: Manichee Hearer

376

Teaching at Carthage; 383 to Rome

384

Professor at Milan: reads ‘Platonic books’

386

(July) conversion; retreat to Cassiciacum

387

(Easter) baptized at Milan; to Rome and Ostia

387/88

Monica’s death; return to Thagaste

389

Adeodatus’ death

391

Forced ordination at Hippo Regius; anti-Manichee writings

395/6

Bishop

397-400

Writes Confessions

400-19

Anti-Donatist writings; On the Trinity

412-30

anti-Pelagian writings

413-26

The City of God

430

28 August, death at Hippo

Confessions

BOOK I

Early Years

i (1) ‘You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised (Ps. 47: 2): great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable’ (Ps. 146:5). Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him’ (2 Cor. 4: 10), carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you ‘resist the proud’ (1 Pet. 5:5). Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.1

‘Grant me Lord to know and understand’ (Ps. 118: 34, 73, 144) which comes first—to call upon you or to praise you, and whether knowing you precedes calling upon you. But who calls upon you when he does not know you? For an ignorant person might call upon someone else instead of the right one. But surely you may be called upon in prayer that you may be known. Yet ‘how shall they call upon him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe without a preacher?’ (Rom. 10: 14). ‘They will praise the Lord who seek for him’ (Ps. 21: 27).

In seeking him they find him, and in finding they will praise him. Lord, I would seek you, calling upon you—and calling upon you is an act of believing in you. You have been preached to us. My faith, Lord, calls upon you. It is your gift to me. You breathed it into me by the humanity of your Son, by the ministry of your preacher.2

ii (2) How shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord? Surely when I call on him, I am calling on him to come into me. But what place is there in me where my God can enter into me? ‘God made heaven and earth’ (Gen. 1: 1). Where may he come to me? Lord my God, is there any room in me which can contain you? Can heaven and earth, which you have made and in which you have made me, contain you? Without you, whatever exists would not exist. Then can what exists contain you? I also have being. So why do I request you to come to me when, unless you were within me, I would have no being at all? I am not now possessed by Hades; yet even there are you (Ps. 138: 8): for ‘even if I were to go down to Hades, you would be present’. Accordingly, my God, I would have no being, I would not have any existence, unless you were in me. Or rather, I would have no being if I were not in you ‘of whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things’ (Rom. 11: 36). Even so, Lord, even so. How can I call on you to come if I am already in you? Or where can you come from so as to be in me? Can I move outside heaven and earth so that my God may come to me from there? For God has said ‘I fill heaven and earth’ (Jer. 23: 24).

iii (3) Do heaven and earth contain you because you have filled them? or do you fill them and overflow them because they do not contain you? Where do you put the overflow of yourself after heaven and earth are filled? Or have you, who contain all things, no need to be contained by anything because what you will you fill by containing it? We cannot think you are given coherence by vessels full of you, because even if they were to be broken, you would not be spilt. When you are ‘poured out’ (Joel 2: 28) upon us, you are not wasted on the ground. You raise us upright. You are not scattered but reassemble us. In filling all things, you fill them all with the whole of yourself.

Is it that because all things cannot contain the whole of you, they contain part of you, and that all things contain the same part of you simultaneously? Or does each part contain a different part of you, the larger containing the greater parts, the lesser parts the smaller? Does that imply that there is some part of you which is greater, another part smaller? Or is the whole of you everywhere, yet without anything that contains you entire?3

iv (4) Who then are you, my God? What, I ask, but God who is Lord? For ‘who is the Lord but the Lord’, or ‘who is God but our God?’ (Ps. 17: 32). Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and ‘leading’ the proud ‘to be old without their knowledge’ (Job 9: 5, Old Latin version); always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking: you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you ‘repent’ (Gen. 6: 6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You .will a change without any change in your design. You recover what you find, yet have never lost. Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains (Luke 15: 7); you are never avaricious, yet you require interest (Matt. 25: 27). We pay you more than you require so as to make you our debtor, yet who has anything which does not belong to you? (1 Cor. 4: 7). You pay off debts, though owing nothing to anyone; you cancel debts and incur no loss. But in these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity,4they have nothing to say.

v (5) Who will enable me to find rest in you? Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself? What are you to me? Have mercy so that I may find words. What am I to you that you command me to love you, and that, if I fail to love you, you are angry with me and threaten me with vast miseries? If I do not love you, is that but a little misery? What a wretch I am! In your mercies, Lord God, tell me what you are to me. ‘Say to my soul, I am your salvation’ (Ps. 34: 3). Speak to me so that I may hear. See the ears of my heart are before you, Lord. Open them and ‘say to my soul, I am your salvation.’ After that utterance I will run and lay hold on you. Do not hide your face from me (cf. Ps. 26: 9). Lest I die, let me die so that I may see it.5

(6) The house of my soul is too small for you to come to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins: restore it. In your eyes it has offensive features. I admit it, I know it; but who will clean it up? Or to whom shall I cry other than you? ‘Cleanse me from my secret faults, Lord, and spare your servant from sins to which I am tempted by others’ (Ps. 31: 5). ‘I believe and therefore I speak’ (Ps. 115: 10). ‘Lord, you know’ (Ps. 68: 6). Have I not openly accused myself of ‘my faults’, my God, and ‘you forgave me the iniquity of my heart’ (Ps. 31: 5). I do not ‘contend with you in a court of law’ (Job 9: 3), for you are the truth. I do not deceive myself ‘lest my iniquity lie to itself’ (Ps. 26: 12). Therefore I do not contend with you like a litigant because, ‘if you take note of iniquities, Lord, who shall stand?’ (Ps. 129: 3).

vi (7) Nevertheless allow me to speak before your mercy, though I am but dust and ashes (Gen. 18: 27). Allow me to speak: for I am addressing your mercy, not a man who would laugh at me. Perhaps even you deride me (cf. Ps. 2: 4), but you will turn and have mercy on me (Jer. 12: 15). What, Lord, do I wish to say except that I do not know whence I came to be in this mortal life or, as I may call it, this living death?6 I do not know where I came from.7 But the consolations of your mercies (cf. Ps. 50: 3; 93: 19) upheld me, as I have heard from the parents of my flesh, him from whom and her in whom you formed me in time. For I do not remember. So I was welcomed by the consolations of human milk; but it was not my mother or my nurses who made any decision to fill their breasts, but you who through them gave me infant food, in accordance with your ordinance and the riches which are distributed deep in the natural order. You also granted me not to wish for more than you were giving, and to my nurses the desire to give me what you gave them. For by an impulse which you control their instinctive wish was to give me the milk which they had in abundance from you. For the good which came to me from them was a good for them; yet it was not from them but through them. Indeed all good things come from you, 0 God, and ‘from my God is all my salvation’ (2 Sam. 23: 5). I became aware of this only later when you cried aloud to me through the gifts which you bestow both inwardly in mind and outwardly in body. For at that time I knew nothing more than how to suck and to be quietened by bodily delights, and to weep when I was physically uncomfortable.

(8) Afterwards I began to smile, first in my sleep, then when awake. That at least is what I was told, and I believed it since that is what we see other infants doing. I do not actually remember what I then did.

Little by little I began to be aware where I was and wanted to manifest my wishes to those who could fulfil them as I could not. For my desires were internal; adults were external to me and had no means of entering into my soul. So I threw my limbs about and uttered sounds, signs resembling my wishes, the small number of signs of which I was capable but such signs as lay in my power to use: for there was no real resemblance. When I did not get my way, either because I was not understood or lest it be harmful to me, I used to be indignant with my seniors for their disobedience, and with free people who were not slaves to my interests; and I would revenge myself upon them by weeping. That this is the way of infants I have learnt from those I have been able to watch. That is what I was like myself and, although they have not been aware of it, they have taught me more than my nurses with all their knowledge of how I behaved.

(9) My infancy is long dead and I am alive. But you, Lord, live and in you nothing dies. You are before the beginning of the ages, and prior to everything that can be said to be ‘before’. You are God and Lord of all you have created. In you are the constant causes of inconstant things. All mutable things have in you their immutable origins. In you all irrational and temporal things have the everlasting causes of their life. Tell me, God, tell your suppliant, in mercy to your poor wretch, tell me whether there was some period of my life, now dead and gone, which preceded my infancy? Or is this period that which I spent in my mother’s womb? On that matter also I have learnt something, and I myself have seen pregnant women. What was going on before that, my sweetness, my God? Was I anywhere, or any sort of person? I have no one able to tell me that—neither my father nor my mother nor the experience of others nor my own memory. But you may smile at me for putting these questions. Your command that I praise you and confess you may be limited to that which I know.

(10) So ‘I acknowledge you, Lord of heaven and earth’ (Matt. 11: 25), articulating my praise to you for my beginnings and my infancy which I do not recall. You have also given mankind the capacity to understand oneself by analogy with others, and to believe much about oneself on the authority of weak women. Even at that time I had existence and life, and already at the last stage of my infant speechlessness I was searching out signs by which I made my thoughts known to others. Where can a living being such as an infant come from if not from you, God? Or can anyone become the cause of his own making? Or is there any channel through which being and life can be drawn into us other than what you make us, Lord? In you it is not one thing to be and another to live: the supreme degree of being and the supreme degree of life are one and the same thing.8 You are being in a supreme degree and are immutable. In you the present day has no ending, and yet in you it has its end: ‘all these things have their being in you’ (Rom. 11: 36). They would have no way of passing away unless you set a limit to them. Because ‘your years do not fail’ (Ps. 101: 28), your years are one Today. How many of our days and days of our fathers have passed during your Today, and have derived from it the measure and condition of their existence? And others too will pass away and from the same source derive the condition of their existence. ‘But you are the same’; and all tomorrow and hereafter, and indeed all yesterday and further back, you will make a Today, you have made a Today.9

If anyone finds your simultaneity beyond his understanding, it is not for me to explain it. Let him be content to say ‘What is this?’ (Exod. 16: 15). So too let him rejoice and delight in finding you who are beyond discovery rather than fail to find you by supposing you to be discoverable.

vii (11) Hear me, God. (Ps. 54: 2). Alas for the sins of humanity! (Isa. 1: 4) Man it is who says this, and you have pity on him, because you made him and did not make sin in him. Who reminds me of the sin of my infancy? for ‘none is pure from sin before you, not even an infant of one day upon the earth’ (Job 14: 4–5 LXX). Who reminds me? Any tiny child now, for I see in that child what I do not remember in myself.10 What sin did I then have? Was it wrong that in tears I greedily opened my mouth wide to suck the breasts? If I were to do that now, gasping to eat food appropriate to my present age, I would be laughed at and very properly rebuked. At the time of my infancy I must have acted reprehensibly; but since I could not understand the person who admonished me, neither custom nor reason allowed me to be reprehended. As we grow up, we eliminate and set aside such ways. But I have never seen anyone knowingly setting aside what is good when purging something of faults.

Yet, for an infant of that age, could it be reckoned good to use tears in trying to obtain what it would have been harmful to get, to be vehemently indignant at the refusals of free and older people and of parents or many other people of good sense who would not yield to my whims, and to attempt to strike them and to do as much injury as possible?11 There is never an obligation to be obedient to orders which it would be pernicious to obey. So the feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant’s mind. I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not yet speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk. Who is unaware of this fact of experience? Mothers and nurses claim to charm it away by their own private remedies. But it can hardly be innocence, when the source of milk is flowing richly and abundandy, not to endure a share going to one’s blood-brother, who is in profound need, dependent for life exclusively on that one food.

But people smilingly tolerate this behaviour, not because it is nothing or only a trivial matter, but because with coming of age it will pass away. You can prove this to be the case from the fact that the same behaviour cannot be borne without irritation when encountered in someone of more mature years.

(12) You, Lord my God, are the giver of life and a body to a baby. As we see, you have endowed it with senses. You have co-ordinated the limbs. You have adorned it with a beautiful form, and for the coherence and preservation of the whole you have implanted all the instincts of a living being. You therefore command me to praise you for that and to ‘confess to you and to sing to your name, Most High’ (Ps. 91: 2)—God, you are omnipotent and good—even if that were all that you had made. No one else could do that except you, the one from whom every kind of being is derived. The supreme beauty, you give distinct form to all things and by your law impose order on everything.12 This period of my life, Lord, I do not remember having lived, but I have believed what others have told me and have assumed how I behaved from observing other infants. Despite the high probability of this assumption, I do not wish to reckon this as part of the life that I live in this world; for it is lost in the darkness of my forgetfulness, and is on the same level as the life I lived in my mother’s womb. If ‘I was conceived in iniquity and in sins my mother nourished me in her womb’ (Ps. 50: 7), I ask you, my God, I ask, Lord, where and when your servant was innocent? But of that time I say nothing more. I feel no sense of responsibility now for a time of which I recall not a single trace.

viii (13) On my path to the present I emerged from infancy to boyhood,13 or rather boyhood came upon me and succeeded infancy. Infancy did not ‘depart’, for it has nowhere to go. Yet I was no longer a baby incapable of speech but already a boy with power to talk. This I remember. But how I learnt to talk I discovered only later. It was not that grown-up people instructed me by presenting me with words in a certain order by formal teaching, as later I was to learn the letters of the alphabet. I myself acquired this power of speech with the intelligence which you gave me, my God. By groans and various sounds and various movements of parts of my body I would endeavour to express the intentions of my heart to persuade people to bow to my will. But I had not the power to express all that I wanted nor could I make my wishes understood by everybody. My grasp made use of memory: when people gave a name to an object and when, following the sound, they moved their body towards that object, I would see and retain the fact that that object received from them this sound which they pronounced when they intended to draw attention to it. Moreover, their intention was evident from the gestures which are, as it were, the natural vocabulary of all races, and are made with the face and the inclination of the eyes and the movements of other parts of the body, and by the tone of voice which indicates whether the mind’s inward sentiments are to seek and possess or to reject and avoid. Accordingly, I gradually gathered the meaning of words, occurring in their places in different sentences and frequendy heard; and already I learnt to articulate my wishes by training my mouth to use these signs. In this way I communicated the signs of my wishes to those around me, and entered more deeply into the stormy society of human life. I was dependent on the authority of my parents and the direction of adult people.

ix (14) O God, my God, ‘what miseries I experienced’14 at this stage of my life, and what delusions when in my boyhood it was set before me as my moral duty in life to obey those who admonished me with the purpose that I should succeed in this world, and should excel in the arts of using my tongue to gain access to human honours and to acquire deceitful riches. I was next sent to school to learn to read and write. Poor wretch, I did not understand for what such knowledge is useful. Yet if ever I was indolent in learning, I was beaten. This method was approved by adults, and many people living long before me had constructed the laborious courses which we were compelled to follow by an increase of the toil and sorrow (Gen. 3:16) of Adam’s children. We found however, Lord, people who prayed to you and from them we learnt to think of you, in our limited way, as some large being with the power, even when not present to our senses, of hearing us and helping us. As a boy I began to pray to you, ‘my help and my refuge’ (Ps. 93: 22), and for my prayer to you I broke the bonds of my tongue. Though I was only a small child, there was great feeling when I pleaded with you that I might not be caned at school. And when you did not hear me, which was so as ‘not to give me to foolishness’, (Ps. 21: 3), adult people, including even my parents, who wished no evil to come upon me, used to laugh at my stripes, which were at that time a great and painful evil to me.15

(15) Lord, is there anyone, any mind so great, united to you by a strong love—is there, I say, anyone (as with the character produced by a certain stolidity)—is there a man who is so devotedly united to you with mighty affection that he holds of small account racks and hooks and various torments of this brutal nature, which in all countries people with great terror pray you they may escape, and yet loves16 those who are utterly terrified of them? Is this comparable to the way our parents laughed at the torments which our teachers inflicted on us as boys? We at least were no less scared and prayed no less passionately to escape them. Yet we were at fault in paying less attention than was required of us to writing or reading or using our minds about our books. Not, Lord, that there was a deficiency in memory or intelligence. It was your will to endow us sufficiently with the level appropriate to our age. But we loved to play, and punishments were imposed on us by those who were engaged in adult games. For ‘the amusement of adults is called business’.17 But when boys play such games they are punished by adults, and no one feels sorry either for the children or for the adults or indeed for both of them. Perhaps some refined arbiter of things might approve of my being beaten. As a boy I played ball-games, and that play slowed down the speed at which I learnt letters with which, as an adult, I might play a less creditable game. The schoolmaster who caned me was behaving no better than I when, after being refuted by a fellow-teacher in some pedantic question, he was more tormented by jealousy and envy than I when my opponent overcame me in a ball-game.

x (16) Yet I was at fault, Lord God, orderer and creator of all things in nature, but of sinners only the orderer. Lord my God, I sinned by not doing as I was told by my parents and teachers. For later I was able to make good use of letters, whatever might be the intention of my adult guardians in wanting me to learn them. I was disobedient not because I had chosen higher things, but from love of sport. In competitive games I loved the pride of winning. I liked to tickle my ears with false stories which further titillated my desires

(2 Tim. 4: 3–4). The same curiosity mountingly increased my appetite for public shows.18 Public shows are the games of adults. Those who give them are persons held in such high dignity that almost everyone wishes this honour to come to their children. But they happily allow them to be flogged if such shows hinder the study which will bring them, they hope, to the position of giving such shows.

Look with mercy (Ps. 24: 16–18) on these follies, Lord, and deliver us (Ps. 78: 9) who now call upon you. Deliver also those who do not as yet pray, that they may call upon you and you may set them free.

xi (17) When I was still a boy, I had heard about eternal life promised to us through the humility of our Lord God, coming down to our pride, and I was already signed with the sign of the cross and seasoned with salt from the time I came from my mother’s womb.19 She greatly put her trust in you. You saw, Lord, how one day, when I was still a small boy, pressure on the chest suddenly made me hot with fever and almost at death’s door. You saw, my God, because you were already my guardian, with what fervour of mind and with what faith I then begged for the baptism of your Christ, my God and Lord, urging it on the devotion of my mother and of the mother of us all, your Church. My physical mother was distraught. With a pure heart and faith in you she even more lovingly travailed in labour for my eternal salvation. She hastily made arrangements for me to be initiated and washed in the sacraments of salvation, confessing you, Lord Jesus, for the remission of sins. But suddenly I recovered. My cleansing was deferred on the assumption that, if I lived, I would be sure to soil myself; and after that solemn washing the guilt would be greater and more dangerous if I then defiled myself with sins.

So I was already a believer, as were my mother and the entire household except for my father alone. Though he had not yet come to faith, he did not obstruct my right to follow my mother’s devotion, so as to prevent me believing in Christ. She anxiously laboured to convince me that you, my God, were my father rather than he, and in this endeavour you helped her to gain victory over her husband. His moral superior, she rendered obedient service to him, for in this matter she was being obedient to your authority.

(18) I beg of you, my God, I long to know if it is your will, what was your purpose when at that time it was decided to defer my baptism? Was it for my good that the restraints on sinning were as it were relaxed? Or were they not in fact relaxed? Even now gossips speaking about one or another person can be heard on all sides saying in our ears: ‘Let him be, let him do it; he is not yet baptized.’ Yet in regard to bodily health we do not say: ‘Let him inflict more wounds on himself, for he is not yet cured.’ How much better for me if I had been quickly healed and if, thanks to the diligent care of my family and my own decisions, action had been taken by which I received the health of my soul and was kept safe under the protection which you would have given me (Ps. 34: 3). Certainly much better. But beyond boyhood many great waves of temptations were seen to be threatening. My mother was already well aware of that, and her plan was to commit to the waves the clay out of which I would later be shaped rather than the actual image itself.20

xii (19) Nevertheless, even during boyhood when there was less reason to fear than during adolescence, I had no love for reading books and hated being forced to study them. Yet pressure was put on me and was good for me. It was not of my own inclination that I did well, for I learnt nothing unless compelled. No one is doing right if he is acting against his will, even when what he is doing is good. Those who put compulsion on me were not doing right either; the good was done to me by you, my God. They gave no consideration to the use that I might make of the things they forced me to learn. The objective they had in view was merely to satisfy the appetite for wealth and for glory, though the appetite is insatiable, the wealth is in reality destitution of spirit, and the glory something to be ashamed of. But you, by whom ‘the hairs of our head are numbered’ (Matt. 10: 30), used the error of all who pressed me to learn to turn out to my advantage. And my reluctance to learn you used for a punishment which I well deserved: so tiny a child, so great a sinner. So by making use of those who were failing to do anything morally right you did good to me, and from me in my sin you exacted a just retribution. For you have imposed order, and so it is that the punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.21

xiii (20) Even now I have not yet discovered the reasons why I hated Greek literature when I was being taught it as a small boy.22 Latin I deeply loved, not at the stage of my primary teachers but at the secondary level taught by the teachers of literature called ‘grammarians’ (grammatici). The initial elements, where one learns the three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic, I felt to be no less a burden and an infliction than the entire series of Greek classes. The root of this aversion must simply have been sin and the vanity of life, by which I was ‘mere flesh and wind going on its way and not returning’ (Ps. 77: 39). Of course, those first elements of the language were better, because more fundamental. On that foundation I came to acquire the faculty which I had and still possess of being able to read whatever I find written, and to write myself whatever I wish. This was better than the poetry I was later forced to learn about the wanderings of some legendary fellow named Aeneas (forgetful of my own wanderings) and to weep over the death of a Dido who took her own life from love. In reading this, O God my life, I myself was meanwhile dying by my alienation from you, and my miserable condition in that respect brought no tear to my eyes.23

(21) What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity 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. I had no love for you and ‘committed fornication against you’ (Ps. 72: 27); and in my fornications I heard all round me the cries ‘Well done, well done’ (Ps. 34: 21; 39: 16). ‘For the friendship of this world is fornication against you’ (Jas. 4: 4), and ‘Well done’ is what they say to shame a man who does not go along with them. Over this I wept not a tear. I wept over Dido who ‘died in pursuing her ultimate end with a sword’.24 I abandoned you to pursue the lowest things of your creation. I was dust going to dust. Had I been forbidden to read this story, I would have been sad that I could not read what made me sad. Such madness is considered a higher and more fruitful literary education than being taught to read and write.

(22) But now may my God cry out in my soul and may your truth tell me: ‘It is not so, it is not so. The best education you received was the primary.’ Obviously I much prefer to forget the wanderings of Aeneas and all that stuff than to write and read. It is true, veils hang at the entrances to the schools of literature;25 but they do not signify the prestige of.elite teaching so much as the covering up of error.

Let no critics shout against me (I am not afraid of them now) while I confess to you the longing of my soul, my God, and when I accept rebuke for my evil ways and wish to love your good ways (Ps. 118: 101). Let there be no abuse of me from people who sell or buy a literary education. If I put the question to them whether the poet’s story is true that Aeneas once came to Carthage, the uneducated will reply that they do not know, while the educated will say it is false. But if I ask with what letters Aeneas’ name is spelled, all who have learnt to read will reply correctly in accordance with the agreement and convention by which human beings have determined the value of these signs. Similarly, if I ask which would cause the greater inconvenience to someone’s life, to forget how to read and write or to forget these fabulous poems, who does not see what answer he would give, unless he has totally lost his senses? So it was a sin in me as a boy when I gave pride of place in my affection to those empty fables rather than to more useful studies, or rather when I hated the one and loved the other. But to me it was a hateful chant to recite ‘one and one is two’, and ‘two and two are four’; delightful was the vain spectacle of the wooden horse full of armed soldiers and the burning of Troy and the very ghost of Creusa.26

xiv (23) Why then did I hate Greek which has similar songs to sing? Homer was skilled at weaving such stories, and with sheer delight mixed vanity. Yet to me as a boy he was repellent. I can well believe that Greek boys feel the same about Virgil when they are forced to learn him in the way that I learnt Homer. The difficulty lies there: the difficulty of learning a foreign language at all. It sprinkles gall, as it were, over all the charm of the stories the Greeks tell. I did not know any of the words, and violent pressure on me to learn them was imposed by means of fearful and cruel punishments. At one time in my infancy I also knew no Latin, and yet by listening I learnt it with no fear or pain at all, from my nurses caressing me, from people laughing over jokes, and from those who played games and were enjoying them. I learnt Latin without the threat of punishment from anyone forcing me to learn it. My own heart constrained me to bring its concepts to birth, which I could not have done unless I had learnt some words, not from formal teaching but by listening to people talking; and they in turn were the audience for my thoughts. This experience sufficiently illuminates the truth that free curiosity has greater power to stimulate learning than rigorous coercion. Nevertheless, the free-ranging flux of curiosity is channelled by discipline under your laws, God. By your laws we are disciplined, from the canes of schoolmasters to the ordeals of martyrs. Your laws have the power to temper bitter experiences in a constructive way, recalling us to yourself from the pestilential life of easy comforts which have taken us away from you.

xv (24) ‘Lord hear my prayer’ (Ps. 60: 2) that my soul may not collapse (Ps. 83: 3) under your discipline (Ps. 54: 2), and may not suffer exhaustion in confessing to you your mercies, by which you have delivered me from all my evil ways. Bring to me a sweetness surpassing all the seductive delights which I pursued. Enable me to love you with all my strength that I may clasp your hand with all my heart. ‘Deliver me from all temptation to the end’ (Ps. 17: 30). You, Lord, are ‘my king and my God’ (Ps. 5: 3; 43: 5). Turn to your service whatever may be of use in what I learnt in boyhood. May I dedicate to your service my power to speak and write and read and count; for when I learnt vanities, you imposed discipline on me and have forgiven me the sin of desiring pleasure from those vanities. For in them I learnt many useful words, but these words can also be learnt through things that are not vain, and that is the safe way along which children should walk.

xvi (25) Woe to you, torrent of human custom! ‘Who can stand against you?’ (Ps. 75: 8) When will you run dry? How long will your flowing current carry the sons of Eve into the great and fearful ocean which can be crossed, with difficulty, only by those who have embarked on the Wood of the cross (Wisd. 14: 7)? Have I not read in you of Jupiter, at once both thunderer and adulterer?27 Of course the two activities cannot be combined, but he was so described as to give an example of real adultery defended by the authority of a fictitious thunderclap acting as a go-between. What master of oratory can hear with equanimity a person of his own profession saying out loud, ‘Homer invented these fictions and attributed human powers to the gods; I wish he had attributed divine powers to us’?28 It would be truer to say that Homer indeed invented these fictions, but he attributed divine sanction to vicious acts, which had the result that immorality was no longer counted immorality and anyone who so acted would seem to follow the example not of abandoned men but of the gods in heaven.

(26) Yet, you infernal river, the sons of men are thrown into you, and fees are paid for them to learn these things. It is a matter of great public concern when a speech is made in the forum in full view of the laws decreeing that teachers’ salaries be paid from public funds in addition to the fees paid by pupils.29 The river of custom strikes the rocks and roars: ‘This is why words are learnt; this is why one has to acquire the eloquence wholly necessary for carrying conviction in one’s cause and for developing one’s thoughts.’ It is as if we would not know words such as ‘golden shower’ and ‘bosom’ and ‘deceit’ and ‘temples of heaven’ and other phrases occurring in the passage in question, had not Terence30 brought on to the stage a worthless young man citing Jupiter as a model for his own fornication. He is looking up at a mural painting: ‘there was this picture representing how Jupiter, they say, sent a shower of gold into Danae’s lap and deceived a woman.’ Notice how he encourages himself to lust as if enjoying celestial authority:

But what a god (he says)! He strikes the temples of heaven with his immense sound. And am I, poor little fellow, not to do the same as he? Yes indeed, I have done it with pleasure.

There is no force, no force at all, in the argument that these words are more easily learnt through this obscene text. The words actually encourage the more confident committing of a disgraceful action. I bring no charge against the words which are like exquisite and precious vessels, but the wine of error is poured into them for us by drunken teachers. If we failed to drink, we were caned and could not appeal to any sober judge. Yet, my God, before whose sight I now recall this without the memory disturbing me, I learnt this text with pleasure and took delight in it, wretch that I was. For this reason I was said to be a boy of high promise.

xvii (27) Let me, my God, say something also about the intelligence which was your gift to me, and the ways in which I wasted it on follies. A task was set me which caused me deep psychological anxiety. The reward was praise but I feared shame and blows if I did badly. I was to recite the speech of Juno in her anger and grief that she ‘could not keep the Trojan king out of Italy’.31 I had understood that Juno never said this. But we were compelled to follow in our wanderings the paths set by poetic fictions, and to express in plain prose the sense which the poet had put in verse.32 The speaker who received highest praise was the one who had regard to the dignity of the imaginary characters, who most effectively expressed feelings of anger and sorrow, and who clothed these thoughts in appropriate language.

What could all this matter to me, true life, my God? What importance could it have for me that my recitation was acclaimed beyond many other readers of my age group? Was not the whole exercise mere smoke and wind? Was there no other subject on which my talent and tongue might be exercised? Your praises, Lord, your praises expressed through your scriptures would have upheld the tender vine of my heart, and it would not have been snatched away by empty trifles to become ‘a shameful prey for the birds’. There is more than one way of offering sacrifice to the fallen angels.33

xviii (28) When one considers the men proposed to me as models for my imitation, it is no wonder that in this way I was swept along by vanities and travelled right away from you, my God. They would be covered in embarrassment if, in describing their own actions in which they had not behaved badly, they were caught using a barbarism or a solecism in speech. But if they described their lusts in a rich vocabulary of well constructed prose with a copious and ornate style, they received praise and congratulated themselves. Lord you are ‘long-suffering and very patient and true’ (Ps. 102: 8; 85: 15; Isa. 42: 14 LXX); you see this and you keep silence. But will you always keep silence? Even at this moment you are delivering from this terrifying abyss the soul who seeks for you and thirsts for your delights (Ps. 41: 3), whose heart tells you ‘I have sought your face; your face, Lord, I will seek’ (Ps. 26: 8). To be far from your face is to be in the darkness of passion. One does not go far away from you or return to you by walking or by any movement through space. The younger son in your Gospel did not look for horses or carriages or ships;34 he did not fly on any visible wing, nor did he travel along the way by moving his legs when he went to live in a far country and prodigally dissipated what you, his gentle father, had given him on setting out (Luke 15: 11–32), showing yourself even gentler on his return as a bankrupt. To live there in lustful passion is to live in darkness and to be far from your face.

(29) Look, Lord God, look with patience as you always do. See the exact care with which the sons of men observe the conventions of letters and syllables received from those who so talked before them. Yet they neglect the eternal contracts of lasting salvation received from you. This has gone to such lengths that if someone, who is educated in or is a teacher of the old conventional sounds, pronounces the word ‘human’ contrary to the school teaching, without pronouncing the initial aspirate, he is socially censured more than if, contrary to your precepts, he were to hate a human being, his fellow-man. It is as if he felt an enemy to be more destructive than his own hatred which has soured the relationship; or as if a man were thought to cause greater damage to someone else by persecuting him than he causes to himself by cherishing hostile attitudes.35 Certainly the knowledge of letters is not as deepseated in the consciousness as the imprint of the moral conscience, that he is doing to another what he would not wish done to himself (Matt. 7:12). How mysterious you are, God, dwelling on high in silence! (Isa. 33: 5). You alone are great. By your inexhaustible law you assign penal blindnesses to illicit desires. A man enjoying a reputation for elo-quence takes his position before a human judge with a crowd of men standing round and attacks his opponent with ferocious animosity. He is extremely vigilant in precautions against some error in language, but is indifferent to the possibility that the emotional force of his mind may bring about a man’s execution.36

xix (30) These were the moral conventions of the world where I, as a wretched boy, lay on the threshold. This was the arena in which I was to wresde. I was more afraid of committing a barbarism than, if I did commit one, on my guard against feeling envy towards those who did not. I declare and confess this to you, my God. These were the qualities for which I was praised by people whose approval was at that time my criterion of a good life. I did not see the whirlpool of shame into which ‘I was cast out of your sight’ (Ps. 30: 23). For in those endeavours I was the lowest of the low, shocking even the worldly set by the innumerable lies with which I deceived the slave who took me to school and my teachers and parents because of my love of games, my passion for frivolous spectacles, and my resdess urge to imitate comic scenes.37 I also used to steal from my parents’ cellar and to pocket food from their table either to satisfy the demands of gluttony or to have something to give to boys who, of course, loved playing a game as much as I, and who would sell me their playthings in return. Even in this game I was overcome by a vain desire to win and was often guilty of cheating. Any breach of the rules I would not tolerate and, if I detected it, would fiercely denounce it, though it was exacdy what I was doing to others. And if I was caught and denounced, I used to prefer to let my rage have free rein rather than to give ground.

Is that childish innocence? It is not, Lord, is it? I pray you, my God. Behaviour does not change when one leaves behind domestic guardians and schoolmasters, nuts and balls and sparrows, to be succeeded by prefects and kings, gold, estates, and slaves, as one advances to later stages in life.38 Likewise canes are replaced by harsher punishments. So you, our king, have taken the small physical size of a child as a symbol of humility; that was what you approved when you said ‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 19: 14).

xx (31) Yet, Lord, I must give thanks to you, the most excellent and supremely good Creator and Governor of the universe, my God, even though by your will I was merely a child. For at that time I existed, I lived and thought and took care for my self-preservation (a mark of your profound latent unity whence I derived my being).39 An inward instinct told me to take care of the integrity of my senses, and even in my little thoughts about little matters I took delight in the truth. I hated to be deceived, I developed a good memory, I acquired the armoury of being skilled with words, friendship softened me, I avoided pain, despondency, ignorance. In such a person what was not worthy of admiration and praise? But every one of these qualities are gifts of my God: I did not give them to myself. They are good qualities, and their totality is my self. Therefore he who made me is good, and he is my good, and I exult to him, (Ps. 2: 11) for all the good things that I was even as a boy. My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings.40 So it was that I plunged into miseries, confusions, and errors. My God, I give thanks to you, my source of sweet delight, and my glory and my confidence. I thank you for your gifts. Keep them for me, for in this way you will keep me. The talents you have given will increase and be perfected, and I will be with you since it was your gift to me that I exist.

1 For Plotinus (6. 7. 23. 4) the soul finds rest only in the One. Augustine’s sentence announces a major theme of his work.

2 Probably Ambrose (as in Augustine’s letter 147. 52) rather than Christ; i.e. the two phrases are contrasting, not parallel and equivalent. That the humanity of Christ is an example of faith is common in Augustine. See below, x. xliii (68).

3 Plotinus (6. 4–5) devoted a treatise to the question of the omnipresence of being. Closely parallel is Plotinus 5. 5. 9.

4 ‘The loquacious’ are regularly either pagan philosophical critics rejecting the Christian revelation or Manichees. The problematic nature of all human talk about God is stated by Plotinus 5. 3. 14 (we say what he is not, not what he is; if we can say what is true, that is by mantic inspiration).

5 None can see God’s face and live (Exod. 33: 20); yet the heavenly vision is life. For the epigram ‘let me die lest I die’ Augustine has a parallel in a sermon (231,3): ‘Let me die (to sin) lest I die (in hell).’ Cf. also below, II. ii (4).

6 Echo of Lucretius 3. 869; Euripides quoted by Plato, Gorgias 492e: ‘who knows if being alive is really being dead, and being dead is being alive?’

7 On the origin of the soul’s union with the body and on the possibility of pré-existence, Augustine is always unwilling to make any decision: see IX. xi (37). The Platonic doctrine of the soul’s pre-existence and fall into the prison of the body is never affirmed. Nevertheless, the possibility of pre-existence is also not denied, and especially inConfessions XI-XII the language used of the soul’s lapse from a divine eternity to the disruptive successiveness of temporal things is very close to Plotinus.

8 Plotinus (3. 6. 6. 15) says this also.

9 This sketch on time and eternity anticipates book XI (esp. xiii (16)).

10 Cicero (De finibus 5. 55) remarks on the value placed by philosophers on infant behaviour as a guide to the understanding of human nature.

11 Seneca (De Comtanlia Sapientis 11.2) observes how babies hit their mothers in anger.

12 Plotinus 1. 6. 6 says God is source of beauty.

13 Books I-VII follow the six ages of man; cf. II. i (i); VII. i (1).

14 Terence, Adelphoe 867.

15 In spite of the criticism of Quintilian (1. 3. 13–17), corporal punishment was universal in schools of Augustine’s time. Once (City of God 21. 14) he reflects on the paradox that sometimes a hoy would prefer to be flogged than to learn his lesson.

16 For ioves’ the emendation ‘derides’ is found in one manuscript (tenth century).

17 Seneca cited by Lactantius (Institutiones Divinae 2. 4. 14). Plotinus 3. 2. 15. 36: ‘All human concerns are children’s games’.

18 i.e. circus (horse-racing), amphitheatre (gladiators and beast fights), theatre, and music hall. To pay the cost of such public entertainments brought high credit, and was expected of the rich. Villas and estates might be sold to pay the bill (thereby bringing land back into circulation in the economy).

19 Catechumens were sanctified by the sign of the cross, prayer invoking the protection of God and the child’s guardian angel, laying on of hands, and salt placed on the tongue as an act of exorcism. The Latin prayers accompanying these acrions may be read in the eighth-century Gelasian Sacramentary. The salt survived in the Roman baptismal rite until 1969.

Before about 400, the intense significance attached to baptism as sacrament of the remission of sins, led many Christian parents to postpone baptism, often until the death-bed. Catechumens were entitled to bear the name ‘Christian’ but not that of the ‘faithful’ (fidelis).

20 The unstable, undrinkable sea is Augustine’s standing image for humanity alienated from God. The ‘clay’ (Gen. 2: 6) is natural humanity, the ‘image’ humanity remade by grace. Cf. below, XIII. xii (13).

21 The principle goes back to the Gorgias of Plato.

22 Augustine was never fluent in Greek, but could make his own translations when needed. He knew more Greek than he sometimes admits.

23 There is a reminiscence here of a story told by Plutarch and Aelian about Alexander tyrant of Pherae, who left a tragedy in a theatre because he did not wish to weep at fiction when unmoved by his own cruelty.

24 Virgil, Aeneid 6. 457.

25 In the Roman Empire veils before an entrance were a sign of the dignity of the person beyond it; the higher the rank of a civil servant, the more veils were passed to gain access, each being guarded. For his school at Milan Augustine employed a junior usher to control the entrance veil.

The paragraph reflects the resentment against Augustine felt by secular professors of literature because of his renunciation and conversion.

26 Virgil, Aeneid 2. 772.

27 Terence, Eunuch (cited in the next section which explains the allusions here).

26 Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1. 26. 65.

29 Imperial legislation (e.g. a law of the emperor Gratian of 376) provided that municipal professors be paid a basic state salary; this would be supplemented by fees from pupils. The rates paid were publicly set up on inscriptions. A famous inscription in the North African town of Timgad of the year 362 lays down the salaries and fees chargeable by lawyers, paper and travel costs being extra.

30 Eunuch 585, 589 f.

31 Virgil, Aeneid 1. 38.

32 This educational method is recommended by Quintilian (10. 5. 2).

33 Though aware of Christian interpreters who dissented from this opinion, Augustine understood the fallen angels to be demonic powers and the gods of polytheism. The paganism pervading classical literature made many Christians reserved towards the study of the subject: cf. VIII. v (10) below. ‘Prey’: Virgil, Georgie II. 60.

34 Verbal allusion to Plotinus 1. 6. 8. 29 (also a favourite passage for Ambrose); sec also below VIII. xix (31). Augustine fuses images from Homer’s Odyssey and the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

35 Augustine indirectly echoes Plato (Gorgias 469) that it is better to suffer than to do wrong.

36 Like most of the Church Fathers, Augustine was against capital punishment.

37 The Latin is ambiguous and may mean ‘restless urge for mimicry of comic scenes’.

38 The theme here is found in Seneca, De Constantin Sapientis 12. 1.

39 Augustine often states the Platonic axiom that existence is good and every being’s instinct for self-preservation reflects the mystery of divine Being and Unity.

40 Augustine fuses St Paul (Romans 1) with Plotinus (1. 6. 8).

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