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Student at Carthage

i (1) I came to Carthage and all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves. As yet I had never been in love and I longed to love; and from a subconscious poverty of mind I hated the thought of being less inwardly destitute. I sought an object for my love; I was in love with love, and I hated safety and a path free of snares (Wisd. 14: 11; Ps. 90: 3). My hunger was internal, deprived of inward food, that is of you yourself, my God. But that was not the kind of hunger I felt. I was without any desire for incorruptible nourishment, not because I was replete with it, but the emptier I was, the more unappetizing such food became. So my soul was in rotten health. In an ulcerous condition it thrust itself to outward things, miserably avid to be scratched by contact with the world of the senses. Yet physical things had no soul. Love lay outside their range. To me it was sweet to love and to be loved, the more so if I could also enjoy the body of the beloved. I therefore polluted the spring water of friendship with the filth of concupiscence. I muddied its clear stream by the hell of lust, and yet, though foul and immoral, in my excessive vanity, I used to carry on in the manner of an elegant man about town. I rushed headlong into love, by which I was longing to be captured. ‘My God, my mercy’ (Ps. 58: 18) in your goodness you mixed in much vinegar with that sweetness. My love was returned and in secret I attained the joy that enchains. I was glad to be in bondage, tied with troublesome chains, with the result that I was flogged with the red-hot iron rods of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and contention.1

ii (2) I was captivated by theatrical shows. They were full of representations of my own miseries and fuelled my fire. Why is it that a person should wish to experience suffering by watching grievous and tragic events which he himself would not wish to endure? Nevertheless he wants to suffer the pain given by being a spectator of these sufferings, and the pain itself is his pleasure.

What is this but amazing folly? For the more anyone is moved by these scenes, the less free he is from similar passions. Only, when he himself suffers, it is called misery; when he feels compassion for others, it is called mercy.2 But what quality of mercy is it in fictitious and theatrical inventions? A member of the audience is not excited to offer help, but invited only to grieve. The greater his pain, the greater his approval of the actor in these representations. If the human calamities, whether in ancient histories or fictitious myths, are so presented that the theatregoer is not caused pain, he walks out of the theatre disgusted and highly critical. But if he feels pain, he stays riveted in his seat enjoying himself3

(3) Tears and agonies, therefore, are objects of love. Certainly everyone wishes to enjoy himself. Is it that while no one wants to be miserable, yet it is agreeable to feel merciful? Mercy cannot exist apart from suffering. Is that the sole reason why agonies are an object of love? This feeling flows from the stream of friendship;4 but where does it go? Where does it flow to? Why does it run down into the torrent of boiling pitch, the monstrous heats of black desires into which it is transformed? From a heavenly serenity it is altered by its own consent into something twisted and distorted. Does this mean mercy is to be rejected? Not in the least. At times, therefore, sufferings can be proper objects of love. But, my soul, be on your guard against uncleanness, under the protection of my God, ‘the God of our fathers, to be praised and exalted above all for all ages’ (Dan. 3: 52–5); be on your guard against uncleanness. Even today I am not unmoved to pity. But at that time at the theatres I shared the joy of lovers when they wickedly found delight in each other, even though their actions in the spectacle on the stage were imaginary; when, moreover, they lost each other, I shared their sadness by a feeling of compassion. Nevertheless, in both there was pleasure. Today I have more pity for a person who rejoices in wickedness than for a person who has the feeling of having suffered hard knocks by being deprived of a pernicious pleasure or having lost a source of miserable felicity. This is surely a more authentic compassion; for the sorrow contains no element of pleasure.

Even if we approve of a person who, from a sense of duty in charity, is sorry for a wretch, yet he who manifests fraternal compassion would prefer that there be no cause for sorrow. It is only if there could be a malicious good will (which is impossible) that someone who truly and sincerely felt compassion would wish wretches to exist so as to be objects of compassion. Therefore some kind of suffering is commendable, but none is lovable. You, Lord God, lover of souls, show a compassion far purer and freer of mixed motives than ours; for no suffering injures you. ‘And who is sufficient for these things?’ (2 Cor. 2: 16).

(4) But at that time, poor thing that I was, I loved to suffer and sought out occasions for such suffering. So when an actor on stage gave a fictional imitation of someone else’s misfortunes, I was the more pleased; and the more vehement the attraction for me, the more the actor compelled my tears to flow. There can be no surprise that an unhappy sheep wandering from your flock5 and impatient of your protection was infected by a disgusting sore. Hence came my love for sufferings, but not of a kind that pierced me very deeply; for my longing was not to experience myself miseries such as I saw on stage. I wanted only to hear stories and imaginary legends of sufferings which, as it were, scratched me on the surface. Yet like the scratches of fingernails, they produced inflamed spots, pus, and repulsive sores. That was my kind of life. Surely, my God, it was no real life at all?

iii (5) Your mercy faithfully hovered over me from afar. In what iniquities was I wasting myself! I pursued a sacrilegious quest for knowledge, which led me, a deserter from you, down to faithless depths and the fraudulent service of devils. The sacrifices I offered them were my evil acts. And in all this I experienced your chastise-ment. During the celebration of your solemn rites within the walls of your Church, I even dared to lust after a girl and to start an affair that would procure the fruit of death.6 So you beat me with heavy punishments, but not the equivalent of my guilt; O my God, my great mercy, my refuge (Ps. 58: 18, 143: 2) from the terrible dangers in which I was wandering. My stiff neck took me further and further away from you. I loved my own ways, not yours. The liberty I loved was merely that of a runaway.7

(6) My studies which were deemed respectable had the objective of leading me to distinction as an advocate in the lawcourts,8 where one’s reputation is high in proportion to one’s success in deceiving people. The blindness of humanity is so great that people are actually proud of their blindness. I was already top of the class in the rhetor’s school, and was pleased with myself for my success and was inflated with conceit. Yet I was far quieter than the other students9 (as you know, Lord), and had nothing whatever to do with the vandalism which used to be carried out by the Wreckers. This sinister and diabolical self-designation was a kind of mark of their urbane sophistication. I lived among them shamelessly ashamed of not being one of the gang. I kept company with them and sometimes delighted in their friendship, though I always held their actions in abhorrence. The Wreckers used wantonly to persecute shy and unknown freshmen. Their aim was to persecute them by mockery and so to feed their own malevolent amusement. Nothing more resembles the behaviour of devils than their manner of carrying on. So no truer name could be given them than the Wreckers. Clearly they are themselves wrecked first of all and perverted by evil spirits, who are mocking them and seducing them in the very acts by which they love to mock and deceive others.

iv (7) This was the society in which at a vulnerable age I was to study the textbooks on eloquence. I wanted to distinguish myself as an orator for a damnable and conceited purpose, namely delight in human vanity. Following the usual curriculum I had already come across a book by a certain Cicero,10 whose language (but not his heart) almost everyone admires. That book of his contains an exhortation to study philosophy and is entitled Hortensius.11 The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be towards you yourself. It gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart. I began to rise up to return to you. For I did not read the book for a sharpening of my style, which was what I was buying with my mother’s financial support now that I was 18 years old and my father had been dead for two years. I was impressed not by the book’s refining effect on my style and literary expression but by the content.12

(8) My God, how I burned, how I burned with longing to leave earthly things and fly back to you. I did not know what you were doing with me. For ‘with you is wisdom’ (Job 12: 13, 16). ‘Love of wisdom’ is the meaning of the Greek word philosophia.13 This book kindled my love for it. There are some people who use philosophy to lead people astray. They lend colour to their errors and paint them over by using a great and acceptable and honourable name. Almost all those who in the author’s times and earlier behaved in this way are noted in that book and refuted. That text is a clear demonstration of the salutary admonition given by your Spirit through your good and devoted servant (Paul): ‘see that none deceives you by philosophy and vain seduction following human tradition; following the elements of this world and not following Christ; in him dwells all the fullness of divinity in bodily form’ (Col. 2: 8–9). At that time, as you know, light of my heart, I did not yet know these words of the apostle. Nevertheless, the one thing that delighted me in Cicero’s exhortation was the advice ‘not to study one particular sect but to love and seek and pursue and hold fast and strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found’. One thing alone put a brake on my intense enthusiasm—that the name of Christ was not contained in the book. This name, by your mercy Lord (Ps. 24: 7), this name of my Saviour your Son, my infant heart had piously drunk in with my mother’s milk, and at a deep level I retained the memory. Any book which lacked this name, however well written or polished or true, could not entirely grip me.

v (9) I therefore decided to give attention to the holy scriptures and to find out what they were like. And this is what met me: something neither open to the proud nor laid bare to mere children; a text lowly to the beginner but, on further reading, of mountainous difficulty and enveloped in mysteries. I was not in any state to be able to enter into that, or to bow my head to climb its steps. What I am now saying did not then enter my mind when I gave my attention to the scripture. It seemed to me unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero.14 My inflated conceit shunned the Bible’s restraint, and my gaze never penetrated to its inwardness. Yet the Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them. I disdained to be a little beginner. Puffed up with pride, I considered myself a mature adult.

vi (10) That explains why I fell in with men proud of their slick talk, very earthly-minded and loquacious. In their mouths were the devil’s traps and a birdlime compounded of a mixture of the syllables of your name, and that of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that of the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.15 These names were never absent from their lips; but it was no more than sound and noise with their tongue. Otherwise their heart was empty of truth. They used to say ‘Truth, truth’, and they had a lot to tell me about it; but there was never any truth in them. They uttered false statements not only about you who really are the Truth, but also about the elements of the world, your creation. On that subject the philosophers have said things which are true, but even them I would think to be no final authority for love of you, my supremely good Father, beauty of all things beautiful. Truth, truth: how in my inmost being the very marrow of my mind sighed for you! Those people used to sound off about you to me frequently and repeatedly with mere assertions and with the support of many huge tomes.16 To meet my hunger, instead of you they brought me a diet of the sun and moon, your beautiful works—but they are your works, not you yourself, nor indeed the first of your works. For priority goes to your spiritual creation rather than the physical order, however heavenly and full of light.17 But for myself, my hunger and thirst were not even for the spiritual creation but for you yourself, the truth ‘in whom there is no changing nor shadow caused by any revolving’ (Jas. 1: 17). The dishes they placed before me contained splendid hallucinations. Indeed one would do better to love this visible sun, which at least is truly evident to the eyes, than those false mythologies which use the eyes to deceive the mind. Nevertheless, because I took them to be you, I ate—not indeed with much of an appetite, for the taste in my mouth was not that of yourself. You were not those empty fictions, and I derived no nourishment from them but was left more exhausted than before.

Food pictured in dreams18 is extremely like food received in the waking state; yet sleepers receive no nourishment, they are simply sleeping. But those fantasies had not the least resemblance to you as you have now told me, because they were physical images, fictional bodily shapes. But more certain objects of knowledge are the actually existing bodies which we see with our physical sight, whether they are celestial or earthly. We see them just as beasts and birds do, and they are more certain than the images we form of them. And yet again the pictures of these realities which our imagination forms are more reliable than the mythological pictures of vast and unlimited entities whose being, by an extension of our image-making of real objects, we may postulate, but which do not exist at all. Such were the empty phantoms with which I was fed or rather was not fed.

But you, my love, for whom I faint that I may receive strength (2 Cor. 11: 10), you are not the bodies which we see, though they be up in heaven, nor even any object up there lying beyond our sight. For you have made these bodies, and you do not even hold them to be among the greatest of your creatures. How far removed you are from those fantasies of mine, fantasies of physical entities which have no existence! We have more reliable knowledge in our images of bodies which really exist, and the bodies are more certain than the images. But you are no body. Nor are you soul, which is the life of bodies; for the life of bodies is superior to bodies themselves, and a more certain object of knowledge.19 But you are the life of souls, the life of lives. You live in dependence only on yourself, and you never change, life of my soul.

(11) At that time where were you in relation to me? Far distant. Indeed I wandered far away, separated from you, not even granted to share in the husks of the pigs, whom I was feeding with husks.20 How superior are the fables of the masters of literature and poets to these deceptive traps! For verses, poems, and ‘the flight of Medea’21 are certainly more useful than the Five Elements which take on different colours, each in accordance with one of the Five Caverns of Darkness—22things which have no reality whatever and kill anyone who believes they have. Verses and poetry I can transform into real nourishment. ‘Medea flying through the air’ I might recite, but would not assert to be fact. Even if I heard someone reciting the passage, I would not believe it. Yet the other [Manichee] myths I did believe. Wretched man that I was, by what steps was I brought down to the depths of hell, there to toil and sweat from lack of truth! For I sought for you, my God (I confess to you who took pity on me even when I did not yet confess). In seeking for you I followed not the intelligence of the mind, by which you willed that I should surpass the beasts, but the mind of the flesh. But you were more inward than my most inward part and higher than the highest element within me.

I had stumbled on that bold-faced woman, lacking in prudence, who in Solomon’s allegory sits on a chair outside her door and says ‘Enjoy a meal of secret bread and drink sweet stolen water’ (Prov. 9: 17). She seduced me; for she found me living outside myself, seeing only with the eye of the flesh, and chewing over in myself such food as I had devoured by means of that eye.

vii (12) I was unaware of the existence of another reality, that which truly is,23‘ and it was as if some sharp intelligence were persuading me to consent to the stupid deceivers when they asked me: ‘Where does evil come from? and is God confined within a corporeal form? has he hair and nails? and can those be considered righteous who had several wives at the same time and killed people and offered animals in sacrifice?’24 In my ignorance I was disturbed by these questions, and while travelling away from the truth I thought I was going towards it. I did not know that evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being. How could I see this when for me ‘to see’ meant a physical act of looking with the eyes and of forming an image in the mind? I had not realized God is a Spirit (John 4: 24), not a figure whose limbs have length and breadth and who has a mass. For mass is less in a part than in its whole, and if it is unlimited, it is less in a part defined within a given space than in its unlimited extension.25 It is not everywhere entire as a Spirit and as God. Moreover, I was wholly ignorant of what it is in ourselves which gives us being, and how scripture is correct in saying that we are ‘in God’s image’ (Gen. 1: 27).

(13) I also did not know that true inward justice which judges not by custom but by the most righteous law of almighty God. By this law the moral customs of different regions and periods were adapted to their places and times, while that law itself remains unaltered everywhere and always.26 It is not one thing at one place or time, another thing at another. Accordingly Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and David, and all those praised by the mouth of God were righteous. When untrained minds judge them wicked, they judge ‘by man’s day’ (1 Cor. 4: 3) and assess the customs of the entire race by the criterion of their own moral code. It is as if a man, ignorant of which piece of armour is designed for which part of the body, should want to cover the head with a greave or put on his leg a helmet, and then complain that it is not a good fit. Or it is as if on a public holiday when trading is prohibited after noon, someone is furious not to be allowed to sell in the afternoon something which he was at liberty to sell in the morning. Or as if in a house one sees something being touched with the hands by a particular slave, which the waiter who serves the wine cups is not allowed to do; or as if something is allowed to happen behind the stables which is not permitted in the dining-room, and a man is indignant on the ground that, though it is one house and one family, the same liberties are not given to all members to do what they please anywhere they like.

This is the style of those who are irate when they hear that something was allowed to the just in that age which is not granted to the just now, and that God gave one command to the former and another to the latter for reasons of a change in historical circum-stances, though both ancient and modern people are bound to submit to the same justice. Yet in one and the same person on a single day and in the same house they may see one action fitting for one member to perform, another action fitting for another. What has been allowed during a long period is not permitted one hour later. An act allowed or commanded in one corner is forbidden and subject to punishment if done in an adjacent corner. Does that mean that justice is ‘liable to variation and change’?27 No. The times which it rules over are not identical, for the simple reason that they are times. But the grasp of human beings, ‘whose life on earth is short’ (Wisd. 15: 9), is not competent to harmonize cause and effect valid in earlier ages and among other nations of which they have no experience, in relation to the times and peoples of whom they have direct knowledge. Yet they can easily observe in a single body or at one time or in one house what is fitting for one member, at what moments, and for which parts or persons. By the one variation they are outraged, with the other they see no difficulty.

(14) At that time I did not know these things or give any thought to them. On all sides they hit me in the eye, and I failed to see them. When I wrote poetry,28 I was not allowed to place a foot where I wished, but had to use different kinds of feet at different points in different metres. Even in the same verse one could not put the same foot in any and every place. The art of poetic composition did not have different rules in different places, but had all the same rules at all times. I had not the insight to see how the justice, to which good and holy people were obliged to submit, embraces within its principles all that it prescribes for all times in a far more excellent and sublime way, and, although it is in no respect subject to variation, yet it is not given all at once, but at various times it prescribed in differing contexts what is proper for the circumstances.29 In my blindness I reprehended the holy fathers not only for acting at the time as God commanded and inspired them, but also for predicting the future as God revealed it to them.30

viii (15) Can it be wrong at any time or place to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbour as yourself (Matt. 22: 37, 39)? Therefore shameful acts31 which are contrary to nature, such as the acts of the Sodomites (Gen. 19: 5 ff.), are everywhere and always to be detested and punished. Even if all peoples should do them, they would be liable to the same condemnation by divine law; for it has not made men to use one another in this way. Indeed the social bond which should exist between God and us is violated when the nature of which he is the author is polluted by a perversion of sexual desire.

In saying that vicious acts contrary to human customs are to be avoided, we take account of variations in custom, so that the mutually agreed convention of a city or nation, confirmed by custom or law, is not to be violated by the lust of a citizen or foreigner. Any element that does not fit into the pattern of the whole is unacceptable to society.

But when God commands something contrary to the customs or laws of a people, even if that has never been previously done, it has to be done. If it has fallen into disuse, it must be restored. If it has not been established, it must be established. If it is lawful for a king in a city within his realm to give an order which none before him nor he himself had previously issued, and if it is not contrary to the social contract of his city to obey, or indeed if it would be contrary to the social agreement not to obey (for there is a general consent in human society that kings should be obeyed), then how much more must God, the governor of all his creation, be unhesitatingly obeyed in whatever he commands! Just as among the authorities in human society a superior authority has a greater power to command obedience than an inferior officer, so God is supreme over all.

(16) We may next consider the case of injurious acts where there is a lust to do harm either by verbal insult or by physical violence. In either case the impulse may be caused by the motive of revenge, as in the case of enemy against enemy; or with that of gaining possession of someone else’s property, as in the case of a bandit attacking a traveller;32 or with the intention of averting evil, as when people attack someone they fear; or out of envy, as when the less fortunate may attack someone better off, or when a man who has met with success in some undertaking turns against someone who, he fears, may become his equal or who he is pained to see is already his equal; or merely by the pleasure of watching other people’s pain, like spectators of gladiators33 or those who mock and ridicule others.

These are the chief kinds of wickedness. They spring from the lust for domination or from the lust of the eyes or from sensuality—either one or two of these, or all three at once (1 John 2: 16).34 Thus an evil-living person transgresses your decalogue of three commands with our duty to you and seven with our duty to our fellow human beings, a psaltery of ten strings (Ps. 91: 2), God most high and most gentle. But what vicious acts can hurt you? You are not capable of being damaged. Or what injuries can be inflicted on you who cannot be harmed? Your punishment is that which human beings do to their own injury because, even when they are sinning against you, their wicked actions are against their own souls. ‘Iniquity lies to itself’ (Ps. 26: 9), when men either corrupt or pervert their own nature which you made and ordered, or when people immoderately use what is allowed, or when, turning to what is forbidden, they indulge a burning lust for ‘that use which is contrary to nature’ (Rom. 1: 26). Or they may be held guilty of bitter hostility against you in mind and words and in ‘kicking against the goad’ (Acts 9: 5; 26: 14). Or they brazenly delight in the collapse of the restraints of human society, and in private caucuses and splits, indulging their personal likes and dislikes.

That is the outcome when you are abandoned, fount of life and the one true Creator and Ruler of the entire universe, when from a self-concerned pride a false unity is loved in the part.35 Return to you is along the path of devout humility. You purify us of evil habit, and you are merciful to the sins we confess. You hear the groans of prisoners (Ps. 101: 21) and release us from the chains we have made for ourselves, on condition that we do not erect against you the horns (Ps. 74: 5 f.) of a false liberty by avaricious desire to possess more and, at the risk of losing everything, through loving our private interest more than you,36 the good of all that is.

ix (17) Besides vicious and injurious acts and many iniquities there are also the sins of those who are making progress. By the criterion of perfection good judges have to condemn them, but they are to be encouraged with praise in hope of fruit, like the blade announcing the grain harvest. There are also acts which resemble a vicious or injurious act but are not sins, because they do not offend you, Lord our God, nor the consensus of the community. People accumulate resources for use as may be appropriate for the situation and the time; and it is uncertain whether or not the accumulating is done from mere lust for possession.37 Or with a zealous intention for improvement, proper authority may inflict punishment, and it is uncertain whether the motive was a mere desire to hurt people. Accordingly, there are many actions which people do not approve but which are attested by you to be right; and there are many actions praised by mankind which on your testimony are to be censured. Frequently the overt act has one face, the intention of the person doing it has quite another, and the critical circumstances of the moment cannot be known to us. But when you suddenly issue a command which departs from customary expectation, even though at one time you forbade the doing of any such act, though for a time you conceal the reason for your authoritative verdict,38 and though it may go against the agreed customs of a given human society, who would hesitate to say that your command is to be kept? A just human society is one which submits to you. But happy are those who know that you are the source of moral precepts. All the acts of your servants are done either to show what present need requires or to prefigure the future.39

x (18) I was ignorant of these principles and laughed at your holy servants and prophets. By my mockery I only achieved the result that I became ridiculous to you. Gradually and unconsciously I was led to the absurd trivialities of believing that a fig weeps when it is picked, and that the fig tree its mother sheds milky tears. Yet if some [Manichee] saint ate it, provided that the sin of picking it was done not by his own hand but by another’s, then he would digest it in his stomach and as a result would breathe out angels, or rather as he groaned in prayer and retched he would bring up bits of God.40 These bits of the most high and true God would have remained chained in that fruit, if they had not been liberated by the tooth and belly of that elect saint. And I in my pathetic state believed that more mercy should be shown to the fruits of the earth than to human beings for whose sake the fruits came to be. Indeed, if some hungry person, not being a Manichee, had asked for this food, and if one gave him a piece, that morsel would have been considered to be condemned to capital punishment.

xi (19) ‘You put forth your hand from on high’ (Ps. 143: 7), and from this deep darkness ‘you delivered my soul’ (Ps. 85: 13). For my mother, your faithful servant, wept for me before you more than mothers weep when lamenting their dead children. By the ‘faith and spiritual discernment’ (Gal. 5: 5) which she had from you, she perceived the death which held me, and you heard her, Lord. You heard her and did not despise her tears which poured forth to wet the ground under her eyes in every place where she prayed. You heard her. Hence she was granted the dream by which you encouraged her to allow me to live with her and to have me at the same table in the house. She had begun by refusing me, in her revulsion from and detestation of the blasphemies of my error.41 Her vision was of herself standing on a rule made of wood. A young man came to her, handsome, cheerful, and smiling to her at a time when she was sad and ‘crushed with grief (Lam. 1: 13). He asked her the reasons why she was downcast and daily in floods of tears—the question being intended, as is usual in such visions, to teach her rather than to learn the answer. She had replied that she mourned my perdition. He then told her to have no anxiety and exhorted her to direct her attention and to see that where she was, there was I also. When she looked, she saw me standing beside her on the same rule. How could this vision come to her unless ‘your ears were close to her heart’ (Ps. 9B: 38/10A: 17)? You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all as for each individual.

(20) Moreover, what was the source of the fact that when she had recounted the vision to me, I tried to twist its meaning to signify that she should not despair of becoming what I was? But she instantly replied without a moment’s hesitation: ‘The word spoken to me was not “Where he is, there will you be also”, but “Where you are, there will he be also”.’421 confess to you Lord that to the best of my memory (and it is a matter which I have frequendy discussed) I was more moved by your answer through my vigilant mother than by the dream itself. My misinterpretation seemed very plausible. She was not disturbed and quickly saw what was there to be seen, and what I certainly had not seen before she spoke. By the dream the joy of this devout woman, to be fulfilled much later, was predicted many years in advance to give consolation at this time in her anxiety. For almost nine years then followed during which I was ‘in the deep mire’ (Ps. 68: 3) and darkness of falsehood. Despite my frequent efforts to climb out of it, I was the more heavily plunged back into the filth and wallowed in it. During this time this chaste, devout, and sober widow, one of the kind you love, already cheered by hope but no less constant in prayer and weeping, never ceased her hours of prayer to lament about me to you. Her ‘prayer entered into your presence’ (Ps. 87: 3). Nevertheless you still let me go on turning over and over again in that darkness.

xii (21) Meanwhile you gave her another answer that sticks in my memory. For I pass over much because I am hurrying on to those things which especially urge me to make confession to you, and there is much that I do not remember. You gave her another answer through one of your priests, a bishop brought up in the Church and well trained in your books. When that woman asked him to make time to talk to me and refute my errors and correct my evil doctrines and teach me good ones—for he used to do this for those whom perhaps he found suitably disposed—he declined, wisely indeed as I later perceived. For he answered that I was still unready to learn, because I was conceited about the novel excitements of that heresy, and because, as she had informed him, I had already disturbed many untrained minds with many trivial questions. ‘Let him be where he is’, he said; ‘only pray the Lord for him. By his reading he will discover what an error and how vast an impiety it all is.’

At the same time he told her how he himself as a small boy had been handed over to the Manichees by his mother, whom they had led astray. He had not only read nearly all their books but had even copied them. Although he had no one disputing with him and providing a refutation, it had become clear to him that that sect ought to be avoided, and therefore he had left it. When he had said this to her, she was still unwilling to take No for an answer. She pressed him with more begging and with floods of tears, asking him to see me and debate with me. He was now irritated and a little vexed and said: ‘Go away from me: as you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.’ In her conversations with me she often used to recall that she had taken these words as if they had sounded from heaven.

1 Beating with red-hot rods was part of the standard arsenal of the torturer, normally employed in Roman lawcourts on naked bodies in criminal cases to secure evidence, especially from slaves.

2 Echo of Cicero, Pro Ligorio 38.

3 This passage is the most extended ancient discussion of tragic pity and catharsis, a theme famous since Aristotle, whose texts on this theme were not read by Augustine and his contemporaries. Augustine is closer to Plato, Republic 10. 606–7, and Pbilebus 48ab. As bishop, Augustine knew many of his people liked going to the theatre, and deplored it (De catechizandis rudibus 11 and 48) largely because of the frequently erotic content of the shows, but also because of the fictional character of the plays, fiction being, to his mind, a form of mendacity.

4 On tension between sex and friendship cf. IV. ix (14).

5 Reminiscence of Virgil, Eclogue 3. 3; cf. Luke 15: 4 ff.

6 That is, sin: Rom. 7: 5.

7 Runaway slaves in antiquity were rigorously pursued. Churches provided temporary asylum in cases where inhuman maltreatment was the cause of flight. But to take in a run-away was possible only for the rich and powerful. The liberty enjoyed, therefore, was that of an escaped prisoner, hunted by the authorities.

8 Echo of Ovid, Fasli 4.188.

9 A contemporary student later recalled the young Augustine as being a quiet and bookish man (ep. 93. 51).

10 ‘A certain Cicero’ might seem cold and distant were it not that the same idiom is used for the aposde Paul in XII. xv (20); i.e. it is a rhetorical convention of the time. The antithesis between Cicero’s style and his heart (pectus) is genuinely negative: to a Christian, Cicero belonged to another culture.

11 Cicero’s Hortensius, composed in 45 BC near the end of his life, is lost except for quotations (many in Augustine). The work rebutted Hortensius‘ opinion that philosophical study has no social utility and does not contribute to human happiness. Cicero depended much on Aristotle’s Protreptikos (also extant only in fragments), notably for the argument that only a philosopher can judge the truth of Hortensius‘ opinion, which is itself a philosophical statement. As book X of Confessions shows, Augustine was influenced by Cicero’s analysis of the sources of happiness.

12 Among Augustine’s sharp criticisms of contemporary culture of his time is the proposition that it valued form far higher than content.

13 This sentence comes from Cicero’s Hortensius.

14 The humble style of the Bible, together with a concern for maintaining the family property, is mentioned by Augustine as a major deterrent to conversion for the educated and well-to-do classes (De catechizandis rudibtts 13). The second-century Old Latin (i.e. pre-Jerome) version was painfully close to translationese for large parts of the Old Testament. On the other hand, the sublimity of Genesis 1 and the prologue of St John’s Gospel moved some non-Christian readers to deep admiration.

15 The Manichecs claimed to be authentic Christians, orthodox church members having in their view only half the truth, and taught a version of the doctrine of the Trinity, a Christology which excluded the reality of the humanity of Christ but spoke of Jesus as redeemer, and a doctrine that the Paraclete is the other self of Mani.

16 Manichees had exquisitely decorated liturgical books, finely bound, as orthodox Churches outside great cities, had not. Sun and moon they venerated as divine, or at least as residences for divine beings in transit in the celestial realm.

17 That God first created a spiritual creation called ‘heaven’ in Gen. I: 1, and unformed matter called ‘earth’ which was then given form, is a theme of book XII and of the contemporary De Genesi contra Manichaeos I. 7. 11.

18 Dreams were a lifelong interest for Augustine; see X. xxx (41) below. The vividness of dreams, indistinguishable from actuality, he regarded as deceptive. On the other hand, he knew of many converted to God through dreams, or guided in decisions. The subject was associated with the ancient discussions of the nature of inspiration.

19 It is axiomatic for Augustine that what the mind knows by discernment of eternal, metaphysical truth is more certain than its judgement of the perceptions of the five senses, which are unreliable.

20 The husks of Luke 15: 16 are for Jerome (ep.21.13.4) pagan literature. Apparently Augustine had become bored by the texts he had to teach his pupils (the pigs!).

21 Medea’s flight (cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 219–36), also mentioned elsewhere in Augustine’s early writings (Solil. 2. 29; ep. 7. 4; De moribus eccksiae 2. 14), was probably a standard subject for rhetorical exercises.

22 In Manichee myth the Five Elements dwell in caverns of darkness, water, wind, fire, and smoke, productive respectively of reptiles, fish, birds, quadrupeds, and bipeds (Augustine, De moribus 2. 9. 14; Simplicius, Commentary on Epictetus 34).

23 The Platonic notion of degrees of being-and-goodness, a hierarchy in which every existent is good in its own order, made possible the relativization of evil central to Plato’s vindication of divine power and goodness. Cf. II. v. (10) above.

24 Manichees strongly attacked the book of Genesis (that ‘man is made in God’s image’ assumes God to have human physical characteristics?), the polygamy of the patriarchs, and the character of Moses for his murder of the Egyptian (Exod. 2: 12). They thought the Old Testament animal sacrifices indistinguishable from paganism.

25 Plotinus (6; 4–5) has two intricate tracts arguing (in commentary on Plato, Parmenides 131B) that omnipresence is a distinct concept from that of a universal physical diffusion of something with material magnitude. Augustine’s language here (and in VII. i. (1)) is close to Plotinus 6. 5. 4. 5 ff.

26The argument here about the relativity of positive laws is akin to that in Cicero’s Republic III xi, 18–19; xxii 33.

27 Echo of Virgil, Aeneid 4. 569 (of woman).

28 Augustine was soon to win a public poetry competition (IV. iii (5)). The first five books of his work On Music are devoted to metre. The only surviving verse from his pen is three lines of an evening hymn sung at the lighting of the candle (City of God 15. 22).

29 Augustine’s ethic regards the Golden Rule as absolute, its application being relative to the situation and to the motive or intention of the doer. The criterion of every moral precept is love (Enchiridion 121). Nakedness is right in the baths, wrong at a dinner-party or lawcourt (Dc nalura boni 23; Dc doctrina Christiana 3. 12. 18). Nevertheless, no circumstances or intentions could make unnatural sexual acts acceptable. (Rom. 1: 24–8).

30 The Manichees entirely rejected the orthodox belief that the Hebrew prophets predicted gospel events and the mission of the Church. Augustine answered at length in Contra Faustum 12–13, written at the same time as the Confessions.

31 Here and in the next section Augustine repeats a distinction made in his De doctrina Christiana (3. 10. 14) between flagilium, a shameful act of transgression against God’s law, and facinus, injury to a fellow human being. Cf. below IV. xv (25).

32 In Augustine’s time, while main highways were populated and safe, bandits (usually army deserters and runaway slaves) commonly mugged travellers on side-roads (contra Academicos 1. 5. 13; below, VII. xxi. (27)).

33 See below vi. viii (13).

34 On this text Augustine based a developed, often repeated doctrine of three lusts of pleasure, pride, and ‘curiosity’. Some Neoplatonic texts offer analogous ideas but no precise anticipation.

35The language is that of Plotinus on the One (6. 9).

36 Similar is X. xxix (40) below.

37 Perhaps referring to Joseph’s monopolistic dealings (Gen. 47: 13–20), to which Manichees may have taken exception.

38 Characteristically Augustine regards divine authority as always capable of giving reasons, never merely arbitrary and inscrutable.

39 Augustine’s defence of (e.g.) Samson’s suicide or the sacrifice of Isaac or the fate of Jephthah’s daughter (all favourite targets for Manichee attacks on Old Testament morality) is that seemingly unethical acts contain prophecy; see, for example, City of God I. 26.

40 The diet of the Manichee Elect, gathered and cooked for them by the Hearers (or catechumens), included certain fruits, the digestion of which was believed to assist in liberating from the body imprisoned particles of divinity. Permitted fruits did not include apples, because of Adam’s Fall. Below IV. i (1).

41 During the time when Augustine was dismissed as a heretic, he lived with his wealthy neighbour Romanianus, also a Manichee, who had helped with the cost of his education.

42 The ancient Roman marriage rite included the statement by the bride: ‘Where you are, there will I be’ (Quintilian 1. 7. 28; Plutarch, Roman Questions 30).

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