By common consent the work known as the Confessions of St. Augustine has a special place among the world’s great books. Autobiographical in character, it is not an attempt to tell the story of all the years of the writer’s life, least of all of the outward events of those years. But no writer ever went deeper into his own character and deeds, passed keener judgments upon himself, or revealed himself more fully and more humbly to others. It may be asserted also that no writer of his own life’s story had such wealth of thought and feeling to draw upon as had St. Augustine. For this reason, his book is not only a most penetrating psychological study and a unique document for understanding the spiritual and ascetical life, but it is also a storehouse of thought for the philosopher and the theologian, and for others as well. Because it was written by a man who, like Plato, combined immense creative abilities as an artist with immense critical and constructive abilities as a thinker, it is a book apart in form as well as in content. In brief, the thirteen books of St. Augustine’s Confessions were written by a man who had great emotional powers along with great powers of intellect and will, who had lived a life of conscious depravity as a quasi-pagan and had turned to a life of austerity as a Catholic, who had genius in philosophy, theology, and psychology, who was a pioneer in scriptural studies, who was extraordinary as a master of language, and who had strong personal attraction to others and marked qualities of leadership.

Because of such things it is not to be wondered that this unique book should immediately have found many readers and that more than fifteen hundred years after its publication it still attracts countless readers and affects them deeply. It is assuredly a great book, one of the greatest indeed, great in its authorship, great in its diverse but unified subject matter, great in the form into which that subject matter has been cast, great in the end for which it was written, and great in the good effects that it has unfailingly produced. That this is true even a casual reader of the Confessions will perceive in part. For it to become more and more apparent, it is necessary for him to read slowly and carefully, and to obey the injunction of the prayer “to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” It is evident that the more the reader knows about the efficient cause of the Confessions, that is, the more he knows about the character, life, and times of St. Augustine of Hippo, the more he will get out of the book itself. So also, it is obviously to the reader’s advantage to have knowledge concerning what may be called the intellectual content of the work, as well as its moral and emotional content. The more he brings to his reading of the Confessions the more he will take from it, for the work contains some of the deepest findings of the philosophia perennis, as stated by Plato, and Aristotle, and Plotinus, and the great Stoic thinkers, as well as St. Augustine’s own development of earlier doctrines and his additions to them. St. Augustine’s purpose, the final cause towards which he worked, and the means that he took to achieve his end must likewise be subjects of careful study on the part of the reader. If he tries for such things, according to his abilities, he will gain a rich reward. To become familiar with St. Augustine’s Confessions is to make one’s own, to some extent at least, an inexhaustible source of intellectual stimulation, of esthetic delight, of moral help, and of spiritual enlightenment.

Augustine’s Life

St. Augustine,1 bishop, confessor, and doctor of the Church, was born on November 13, 354, in the town of Thagaste, in Numidia Proconsularis, where today stands the Arab village of Souk-Ahras, near the eastern border of Algeria. In the middle of the fourth century Thagaste was a prosperous town in the rich agricultural district that the Romans had developed in northern Africa. The native inhabitants of the region belonged to a race that was perhaps European in origin. Typically, its members were fair-skinned, with brown or yellow hair, and blue eyes. Called Afri (Africans) by the Romans, or more restrictedly, from geographical and other considerations, Mauri (Moors), Libyans, and Getulians, some of them at least were also called barbari, or near barbarians, by the Romans. It is from this fact that their descendants, the modern Berbers of northern Africa, derive their name. At various times they were brought into contact with other races, such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Jews, sometimes by conquest, sometimes by trade. Despite the inevitable intermingling with conquerors, traders, and others, they remained the abiding native stock. The Afri had their own language, which was related to that of the ancient Egyptians, and their own religion. In it the powers of nature were held in awe, spirits, especially those of the dead, were placated, and in time two chief divinities, Baal Hammon and Tanit, his consort, were honored. Magical rites, human sacrifice, and certain abominable practices had a place in their religion. The weight of the evidence is that Augustine belonged to this native north African stock. However, his family was certainly associated with the Roman ruling class and the Christian community in Thagaste.

Augustine’s father was Patricius, a pagan, an owner of some property, and a minor official, a decurion, or town councillor. Neither his Latin name nor his official position is proof that he was racially a Roman in whole or even in part. Augustine’s mother was Monica, or Monnica,2 as the name was spelled. Born about the year 323, she was perhaps somewhat younger than her husband; unlike him, she was a faithful Catholic from her childhood. At least two other children were born to Patricius and Monica, both of them probably after Augustine’s birth: Navigius, his brother, who appears briefly in the Confessions, and a sister, traditionally known as Perpetua, who entered the religious life.

In keeping with an unfortunate custom of his time, Augustine was not baptized in infancy, although he was enrolled as a catechumen. His devout mother gave him some instruction in Christianity and he learned to revere the name of Christ, to have devotion to the martyrs, and to have a great desire for immortality. Seriously sick at one time as a child, he begged to be baptized, but he recovered and his baptism was again delayed. He must have given evidence of intellectual and literary powers from his earliest years, and the hopes and ambitions not only of Patricius but of Monica as well were high in his regard. His languages from childhood were Punic and Latin, and as a child he was sent to school in Thagaste to acquire the fundamentals of the education necessary for a successful public career. He was taught badly by a brutal master, and as a consequence he never acquired a mastery of Greek, although before the end of his life he came to have considerable knowledge of the language. Probably at the age of eleven, he was sent to Madauros, the modern Mdaourouch, twenty miles to the south of Thagaste, for further studies. There he studied pagan literature and perhaps made some acquaintance with the works of Plato. Madauros was a stronghold of paganism and the two or three years that he spent there must have had a bad effect upon his moral formation.

As his father’s finances did not permit him to keep Augustine at Madauros, the boy returned home and spent his sixteenth year in idleness. Then, in the autumn of 370, because of financial assistance provided by Romanianus, a wealthy citizen of Thagaste, he was able to enroll in the rhetoric schools of Carthage. In the same year Patricius died, a convert to the Catholic Church. As he describes in the Confessions, Augustine’s moral corruption was made complete as a student at Carthage. He took as concubine an unnamed woman, apparently his social inferior, and in 37½ their son Adeodatus was born. It was a Punic custom to include the name of Baal in a child’s name, and Adeodatus, “given by God,” is the Latin form of Iatanbaal, “gift of Baal.” Augustine retained this unnamed mother of Adeodatus for many years, before he finally dismissed her and sent her back to Africa from Milan.

During his years in Carthage, Augustine became a member of the pseudo-Christian sect known as the Manicheans. The Manichean religion took its name from Mani, its founder, a Babylonian who lived from 215 to 277. Mani claimed to have had various revelations, including one in which he learned that he was the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity. His religion derived from many sources, but its chief characteristics may be summed up as follows. It was gnostic, that is, it claimed to have a special knowledge that led to salvation; it was a form of extreme metaphysical and moral dualism, in that it held for the reality and power of evil as well as of good; it had its sacred literature, which it stressed rather than ritual; it rejected the Old Testament and subjected it to detailed attack; it likewise attacked the New Testament, although not rejecting it completely; it looked upon the body as evil and advocated a spurious asceticism; it claimed to appeal to reason and to offer a rational solution to the problems of life; it was a missionary religion and held that it was universal, not only in providing salvation for all men, but also in having spread over the whole civilized world. Certainly, when Augustine fell victim to it, Manicheism had become a powerful force in the world. Whether any remnants of Manicheism as a formal religion still survive is debatable, but various Manichean beliefs and practices3 have their modern advocates.

Augustine’s abilities and personality, the deficiencies of his religious and moral formation, and the problems, both moral and intellectual, that beset him all contributed to turning him into Mani’s most notable conquest. In keeping with his own character as well as to the spirit of Manicheism, he became a missionary in its behalf and prevailed upon various friends to join the sect. Yet it was inevitable that Augustine would come to see the absurdities that made up Manichean doctrine and the degradation that resulted from its acceptance. In time, by divine grace, he was able to break loose from the sect and to become its greatest opponent and a principal source of knowledge with regard to its teachings and practices.

As a student in Madauros and Carthage, and later as a teacher, Augustine learned many things of great value. His knowledge of grammar, rhetoric, and literature grew, as did that of mathematics, music, and natural science. He made his first acquaintance with Roman and Greek philosophy, and he must have made some early ventures in the way of philosophical speculation. His Confessions give a clear if not always detailed account of his intellectual development. In the year 373 he became acquainted with Cicero’s Hortensius, an exhortation to the philosophical life, based upon Aristotle’s Protrepticus,4 and it had a profound effect upon him. During his years as a teacher, first in Thagaste, next in Carthage, later in Rome, and finally in Milan, his knowledge of philosophy grew in depth and extent. He became acquainted with the work of Plotinus (ca. A.D. 205–270), the last of the great Greek thinkers, and of other Neoplatonists, and their thought became a most important part in his personal praeparatio evangelica, the formation of his mind so that on the natural level it would be ready for acceptance of the gospel of Christ.

In his Enneads5 Plotinus presents a compact but complete body of thought, a system of ontic emanation, irradiation, or process. All forms of existence flow necessarily from the divinity and all strive to return to it. The divinity is a graded triad or trinity, of which the first hypostasis is the one, the first, the good, the simple, the absolute, the unconditioned, the transcendent, the infinite, the father. Its act, or superact, is most perfect, and is therefore thought. This thought, which the one, i.e., the first, the absolute, or the father, thinks, is the divine mind, which contains the divine ideas and is identified with them. Moreover, the divine mind contains, and even is, all particular minds, which are shadows of it. Being good, this second hypostasis in the divine triad produces good; it is creative. The third hypostasis is the all-soul, the eternal emanation from and image of the divine mind. The divine mind has two acts, one of upward contemplation, directed to the one, the other, the act of generation, directed downwards to lower things. So also the all-soul has two acts, one whereby it contemplates the divine mind, and the other whereby it generates lower possible existents. Here again, as is evident, Plotinus makes application of the principle that what is good does good: the good is diffusive of itself. This divine triad is a unity. The all-soul is the manifestation of the outgoing energy of the divinity, and generates the sense-perceived universe about us, even lowly matter, the principle of limitation. Obviously, the Plotinian system is essentially pantheistic in character, but its tendency is away from pantheism and towards such a lofty theism as Augustine taught.

Plotinus had his doctrine as to the nature, powers, and destiny of man, and here too he influenced Augustine. By reveling in its own free will, by rebellious pride, the soul fell away from the divine, and spends itself on the manifold lower things that exist. It is the aim of Plotinus in his moral philosophy first to show to the soul the ignoble, shameful character of the things it now honors, and then to teach it, or to recall to it, its true dignity and destiny, to turn it away from the many and back to the one. In ethics, Augustine also learned from Seneca (ca. 4 B.C.–A.D. 65) and other Stoic thinkers, as have many other thinkers since his time. He learned much from Plato, and much too from Aristotle, although far less from Aristotle than from Plato. This knowledge was gained partly from Aristotle’s own works and partly from other sources. The account of this intellectual progress, much of which consisted, of course, in increasing knowledge of Sacred Scripture and of the Church’s teachings, must be read in the Confessions, along with the account of his moral development.

The two great intellectual influences upon Augustine prior to his conversion were Manicheism and Greek philosophy, especially as this latter found expression in the works of Plotinus and other Neoplatonists. The influence of Manicheism was for evil; that of Neoplatonism was for good. Intellectually, and also morally, his conversion involved a complete break with Manichean influences and an advance in and beyond Neoplatonism. Although this process of conversion had its beginnings in Africa, its full development took place in Italy.

From 376 to 383 Augustine taught in Carthage and then set out for Rome. He tells how his mother followed him down to the seashore, and how he tricked her and set off without her. Apparently, he left behind his mistress and their son Adeodatus, and this is an indication of his desire to break with his evil past. However, like Monica, they later joined him in Milan. In Rome, Augustine again set up as a teacher, and as in Carthage, met with difficulties from his students. Whereas some students in Carthage were undisciplined and destructive in their conduct, some of them in Rome were dishonest and defrauded him of their fees. In Rome he continued his Manichean associations and resided in a Manichean household, where he suffered a very severe illness which almost proved fatal. After about a year he had the great good fortune to receive an official appointment as professor of rhetoric in the imperial city of Milan. For two years he successfully taught the arts of speech there, but while doing so grew more and more dissatisfied with his moral, intellectual, and spiritual state. He desired to live a good life, but was too weak to do so. The mother of Adeodatus was sent back to Africa, and the break was a hard one for Augustine as well as for her. Arrangements were made for a future marriage, but in the meantime he took up with another woman. It was during this period that he became acquainted with the works of the Neoplatonists. More important still, he came under the influence of St. Ambrose, the great man who was then bishop of Milan, although the two men never came to know one another closely. His knowledge of true Catholic teaching slowly grew. Finally, going through the great crisis that he describes with such consummate art in the Confessions, Augustine was converted to the faith. At the height of his soul’s turmoil he heard a voice, like that of a child, chanting, “Take and read! Take and read!” He seized a copy of the New Testament, and the words that first met his eyes were those of St. Paul: “Not in chambering and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts.” This was late in the summer of 386.

Quietly resigning his chair of rhetoric, Augustine, together with certain relatives and friends, retired in October to a villa at Cassiciacum, north of Milan. There they discussed philosophical problems, especially those concerning truth and certitude and what constitutes the happy life. Early in March 387, the group returned to Milan and Augustine, Adeodatus, and his friend Alypius gave in their names at the cathedral as candidates for baptism. Lent was spent in preparation for receiving the sacrament, and during the night of Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, April 24 and 25, 387, Augustine was baptized a Christian by St. Ambrose.

Monica’s long prayers and sacrifices had now been answered. Her son had become a Catholic. He had broken with his evil past and abandoned his career in the world. With her and his son and other friends, he would now return to Africa to begin a new career of service to God and his Church. The party must have made immediate plans for the return journey, as in the summer of 387 they were in lodgings at Ostia, the port of Rome. There, as is described in some of the most wonderful and moving passages in the Confessions, Monica died and was buried. After a second residence in Rome of about a year, Augustine returned to Africa late in 388. He stayed briefly in Carthage and then returned to Thagaste, where he sold his small patrimony and established a religious community. Among its first members was Adeodatus, but this brilliant youth, to whose character and intellectual powers his father pays high tribute, died in 389 or 390. Within the community Augustine fulfilled his religious duties, thought, studied, and wrote. His reputation spread rapidly, as is evident from subsequent events. Early in 391 he went to the nearby seaport of Hippo Regius, where the bishop was Valerius, an old man, Greek by birth, and unskilled in Latin and Punic. As Bishop Valerius needed an auxiliary, his people brought the very unwilling Augustine before him, demanding that he be given the place. Ordained a priest by Valerius, Augustine began a new and arduous career as an administrator. The task confronting him was great because of the mixture of nationalities and religions at Hippo, and especially because of the strength of the Donatist heresy. As at Thagaste, Augustine established a monastery, and under his direction it became a center of Catholic sanctity and learning. In it were trained a number of the notable bishops who contributed to the greatness of the Church in northern Africa in the fifth century. Augustine himself was consecrated coadjutor Bishop of Hippo in 395 or early 396. It is probable that Valerius died shortly thereafter, so that from 396 to his death in 430 Augustine was Bishop of Hippo.

The four decades spent by Augustine as a priest and bishop were a time of intense activity as a thinker, writer, and spiritual leader. The Church was menaced by various heresies and anti-Christian forces, against which he exerted all his great powers. To combat the Manicheans, he wrote some of his most important works, and in 392 engaged in a notable public debate with Fortunatus, one of their ablest representatives. The Donatists offered even more serious opposition. Taking its name from Donatus, a fourth-century claimant to the see of Carthage, the sect was nationalistic in character and had as a chief tenet the rebaptism of those baptized by ministers whom the Donatists held to be unworthy. Augustine attempted to conciliate the Donatists, met them in public debate, and wrote against them. He found that he had to protect the faithful in his diocese not only from the trickery and doctrinal hostility of the Donatists, but in some instances from physical attacks. Although the law was now on the side of the Church, Catholics still had to suffer from violence at the hands of pagans, with whom the Donatists sometimes allied themselves. A further danger to the Church arose in Africa early in the fifth century with the appearance and spread of the Pelagian heresy. Against the Pelagian exaggeration of man’s natural powers to do good and its errors with regard to the necessity of divine grace, Augustine provided the leadership and learning that were necessary. Along with related works, his writings in refutation of Pelagianism have earned for him the title of doctor of grace and constitute one of his greatest contributions to theology.

During these years when Augustine was combatting the Manicheans, Donatists, Pelagians, and others, in addition to carrying out all the manifold duties of his office, catastrophic events were taking place in Italy. Led by Alaric, barbarian armies swept down from the north and besieged and captured Rome itself. The fall of the city sent a deep and terrible shock throughout the ancient world. One of its indirect results was Augustine’s masterpiece, The City of God. Begun in 413 this massive work was not completed until 426. In its twenty-two books he describes two cities, the city of this world and the city of God, and in this way offers his interpretation of human history.

The succession of great books that Augustine produced was accompanied by many lesser writings: letters, like those to his friend Nebridius, to St. Jerome, with regard to his translation of the Bible, and to Count Boniface, a general at the head of troops in north Africa; detailed answers to inquiries put to him on such diverse matters as the interpretation of Cicero’s philosophy and the right to self-defense among others; and short treatises on a variety of subjects. In the closing years of his life he made a review of his writings and corrected them where he thought it was necessary. He was beset not only by practical problems arising from his duties and from the demands, sometimes unreasonable, made upon him from every side, but also by ill health. When one reviews Augustine’s labors as a bishop and writer, the magnitude and variety of his labors are revealed as almost incredible. Under increasingly difficult conditions, he continued his work up to the end. Death came to him on August 28, 430, while a victorious Vandal army lay siege to Hippo.

Throughout his life Augustine had a great reputation and exerted untold influence. Since his death his reputation has never ceased to grow and his influence has spread from the borders of the Mediterranean into every part of the world. Today the words of the inscription on his earliest known portrait are even more valid than when they were first written. They read: “Various fathers have said many things, but this man has said everything with Roman eloquence, thundering forth mystical meanings.”6

Augustine’s Writings

So prolific was St. Augustine as a writer that in the course of time it came to be said, “Mentitur qui se totum legisse fatetur: He lies who says that he has read all of his works.” Certain works were inevitably lost in the course of centuries; the surviving works have been printed by the Abbé Migne in sixteen large volumes, each volume containing approximately twelve hundred double-columned pages. Only a few of them will be named here: his great masterpiece on the philosophy of history, The City of God; works against the Manicheans, such as Against Adeimantus the Manichean, On the Book of Genesis against the Manicheans, On the Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, and Against Faustus the Manichean; treatises against the Pelagian and Donatist heresies, commentaries on Sacred Scripture; theological tractates; works on ethics and moral theology; and philosophical works, such as On the Teacher, Against the Academics, On the Happy Life, On Lying, The Immortality of the Soul, and the Soliloquies.

The Confessions: Purpose and Character

The title of St. Augustine’s autobiographical work indicates its chief purpose and character: it is a statement of what he has done and of what he is that he addresses directly to almighty God. When he attaches this term to his work, we immediately think of it as being a confession of sins. So it is, and so its author meant it to be. St. Augustine reveals with complete candor the sins that he has committed against God. These are not merely offenses against the sixth commandment; such sins are only the most gross and obvious of the wrongs that he has done. They include his long years of concubinage with the mother of Adeodatus, a shorter such association with another unnamed woman, and whatever other offenses he was guilty of due to the concupiscence of the flesh. In addition to such things, he confesses sins of pride and ambition, of frivolity and vanity, of ingratitude and damage to others, of conceit and deceit, of lying and dishonesty. So too, under the heading of wrong deeds, he lists his intellectual errors, his addiction to falsity both in theology and in philosophy. For Augustine was not only a Manichee in religion and one who gave his assent to other false doctrines, but he was guilty of skepticism and other grave errors in philosophy.

Along with his sins and errors, Augustine confesses temptations that assail him. If he is able to resist them, it is because of God’s grace and not of any strength of his own. If he has not been the victim of certain vices and errors, it is not due to his own virtue or merit. Thus with regard to the misuse of liquor: it is just as truly God’s work that he has been kept safe from alcoholism as it is God’s work that others have been rescued from it. So too he sees that there is danger of attributing something to himself even in the confession of his sins. Is he truly and sincerely repentant for them? Does he perhaps take a secret pride in his reformation? There is nothing here that escapes his great powers of psychological analysis and the complete honesty that dictates both the analysis and his statement of it.

Yet if the confession of sins is a principal thing in Augustine’s work, it is not the only principal thing. His work is rightly called Confessions, in the plural. He does not merely make confession of sin in general; he makes confessions of particular, separate sins. Again, he makes not only confessions of sins, but confessions of other kinds as well. Augustine’s book, in fact, is a threefold confession. It is a confession of sins, a confession of faith, and a confession of praise. Everything he sees about him and everything that he finds within him provide evidence for God’s existence and nature. Everything that he has done, even his sinful deeds, and everything that has been done to him proclaim to him the existence and power of God, “maker and ruler of all things, but of sins only the ruler.” By God’s grace he finds God, and by God’s grace he is united to God. Hence Augustine rightly confesses not only his evil deeds, exceedingly great in thought, word, and deed, but also his belief and trust in God, his gratitude to God, and his praise of God.

Because it is such a threefold confession, St. Augustine’s book is a unique description of the threefold way that makes up the spiritual life. It is a case history, without parallel in the library of psychology, of a soul as it travels the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. On the first stage of this lifelong journey, Augustine is engaged in the process of cleansing his soul, or better, of submitting it to God’s cleansing hands, so that it will be rid of actual sins, although not of temptations to them. Even when sunk deepest into moral and spiritual filth, he has some perception of his state of degradation and some desire to rise out of it. This light grows stronger and he is cleansed of his philosophical and theological errors. In time he can give wish to be rid of his sins of the flesh: “Give me continence and chastity,” he prays, “but not yet.” But at length grace prevails even over such things, and Augustine’s conversion is in one sense a twofold conversion: it is a conversion of the intellect and it is a conversion of the will. In another sense it is a threefold conversion: philosophical, moral, and religious. It is a purgation of sins against supernatural truth, the truth revealed by God in his Church, a purgation of sins against natural truths, as found in valid philosophy, and a purgation of sins in the moral order.

As Augustine follows this purgative way, the natural light of intellect grows stronger. When his conversion is completed and he is received into the Church, the supernatural light of sanctifying grace is added to this natural light of reason and intellect. The stronger this twofold light becomes, the closer becomes his union with its source. He is united to God by confession of his sins and by sincere, total, and abiding repentance for them, by belief in all that God has revealed, by the testimony of all that his own powerful mind could discover, by his gratitude for God’s goodness, and by his acts of praise for what God is and does. He is united to God by sanctifying grace and by such mystical experiences as he describes or hints at in the Confessions. These three ways, the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive, are not to be thought of as completely separate in time, so to speak, as if the second succeeded entirely to the first, and the third displaced the second. St. Augustine illustrates the fact that purgation is a lifelong process. For him, the light flooding his soul constantly grows stronger and his union with God constantly grows closer and deeper.

All the particular episodes in the lives of Augustine and his friends as related in the Confessions, and all the reflections that he makes on them and on the varied subjects that rise up in his thought and memory, may be described as documentation of this threefold conversion and the three-staged way that he travels. Nothing is irrelevant, and the principle of economy that may be discerned in the way Augustine writes may likewise be seen in his selection of things to write about. The subject matter of the book may be roughly classified as follows: Augustine’s character and motives, and events in his own experience; the character and deeds of others who are closely related to him and affect his conversion; philosophical, psychological, and theological problems, including those of scriptural exegesis. In the first class are all such episodes as his school days in Thagaste, Madauros, and Carthage, his own career as a teacher, his two serious illnesses, the death of his friend at Thagaste, and his successive moves to Carthage, Rome, and Milan. Illustrative of the second class are his relations with his mother, St. Monica, the incidents of Alypius and the thief and of Alypius at the gladiatorial spectacles in Rome, the impression that St. Ambrose made upon him, the conversion of Simplicianus, and the story of Ponticianus.

Among the philosophical problems that confront Augustine are some that he touches upon very briefly and others that he discusses at length. He offers a theory of time that is both deep and thorough and that has been very influential in subsequent thought. His natural theology is extended and important. From every order of reality he is able to show that God exists and that he is self-existent; that he is infinite; that he is one and only one; that he is supremely good; that he is truth itself; that being one, good, and true, he is likewise supremely beautiful. Herein he offers a profound and convincing statement of the metaphysics of being, both infinite and finite, and of the transcendental attributes of unity, truth, and goodness. He puts to work Aristotle’s doctrine of the ten categories, namely, the category of substance and the nine categories of accidents. Great and effective use is made of the Aristotelian doctrine of matter and form for the solution of difficult problems with regard to the creation of things. A further passage in Aristotle’s system that is referred to in passing is that of the basic questions that must be asked and answered in any scientific investigation. No philosopher has written better upon the problem of evil than Augustine, and some of his thought on this most difficult subject is found in the Confessions. Here too is found his analysis of a moral act into its elements of objective deed, end or purpose, and circumstances. Finally, Augustine gives an object lesson on the importance of sound philosophy, the relation that it bears to theology and the other sciences, the service that it can render in answering objections, and its ability to detect and state analogies between different orders of thought and reality.

Augustine’s elaborate discussion of the nature of memory is the most extended piece of psychology in the book, but his doctrines as to the relation between sense and intellect, the way that sense operates, the freedom of the will, and the successive stages of the voluntary act are also important. In theology, in addition to the basic doctrines of God’s existence, nature, and activity, and the mystery of the Trinity, Augustine has important passages on the divinity and humanity of Christ, the Church as Christ’s mystical body, the sacraments, divine grace, and prayer, including prayer for the dead. In Books 11–13 he shows his mastery of scriptural exegesis and lays down important principles for the interpretation of Scripture. All of these subjects, whether those based on human experience, or those found in metaphysics, ethics, and psychology, or those taken from theology and scriptural studies, are interrelated and show the unity of truth and being.

The structure of the Confessions is simple. In Books 1–9 Augustine tells the story of his life from infancy up to his conversion and the death of his mother on their return journey to Africa, the period covering the first thirty-three years of his life. Book 10 describes his state of mind at the time he was writing these reminiscences of events that had ended ten years previously. It is a further examination of conscience, but with emphasis upon present difficulties rather than upon past failures. Because he has completed the prodigious feat of memory that finds expression in Books 1–9, Augustine is naturally concerned with the character and operation of this power within him. He takes up also the psychological problem of man’s desire for happiness.

Books 11, 12, and 13 are an elaborate exegesis of the opening verses in the book of Genesis. Being concerned with his own existence, nature, and destiny as a finite being, and wishing above all to know himself and to know God, it is inevitable that St. Augustine should take up the subjects of time and eternity and of God’s creation of all things. Objections are sometimes made to the effect that because of these last three books the work lacks unity and organization, but they are not well founded. Augustine intended neither to give a complete account of his life nor to give only an account of his life. He did not intend even to give a detailed account of the years leading up to his conversion. What he provides by way of autobiography in Books 1–9 is essentially spiritual biography; it is primarily an account of his interior life rather than of his outward deeds. This spiritual account is brought up to date, so to speak, in Book 10. Moreover, he wishes to complete his picture by stating his actual theological position, to use a phrase offered by Gibb and Montgomery, and this he gives in Books 11–13. Finally, Augustine has certain subsidiary ends in view in writing his Confessions. Current controversy within the Church as to the character and interpretation of Sacred Scripture and attacks made by heretics upon the Church provided to some extent an occasion for the Confessions, and more particularly for these latter books. But in Books 11, 12, and 13, as in Book 10 and in Books 1–9, Augustine continually keeps in view his threefold confession, of sins, of faith, and of praise, and his threefold way, of purgation, of light, and of union with God.


For his Confessions Augustine adopted the form of a prolonged meditation, or prayer addressed directly to God. Obviously, this is a most difficult kind of writing to sustain at length, but Augustine never departs from it, beginning with the memorable invocation at the start and continuing to the words with which it closes. Between these two there are interspersed many formal prayers of petition, praise, and thanksgiving. In addition to the prayers and meditations there are many different types of writing, each one adapted to the particular subject matter at hand, and yet each kept by Augustine’s art within the basic style of earnest personal approach to God.

The reader cannot help noting the many subsidiary styles within the Confessions. Augustine is engaged in an effort to recall events long past and to make a detailed examination of conscience. Hence in a large part of his work he shows his marvelous powers of psychological analysis and his equally marvelous powers of presenting psychological states by means of vivid and appropriate images. A notable instance of this is his description of his last interior struggles before accepting the evangelical counsel of chastity; another is his comparison of himself to a man half asleep and drowsily saying that he will get up in a moment. Where he is confronted with problems in metaphysics or theology and engaged in scriptural interpretation, he has other ways of writing. There are narrative passages and striking descriptions, as in the incidents of Alypius and the thief and Alypius and the gladiators, the profession of faith of Simplicianus in Rome, and the account given by Ponticianus of the conversion of the two special agents.

Augustine shows himself to be a master at presenting living men and women. Character studies abound, and he gives not only full-bodied portraits, such as those of himself and of St. Monica, but also less elaborate pictures and quick sketches. Among these latter are the brief but effective passages in which he presents Patricius, his father, Adeodatus, Alypius, St. Ambrose, Faustus the Manichean, and Vindicianus.

There are passages of splendid rhetoric, lofty and sonorous but never indulged in merely for its own sake and always filled with the deepest thought. Without ceasing to be prose, at such times his writing can take on the character and value of great poetry. His disturbance of thought and torment of conscience before his conversion are reflected in the excitement and restlessness of his writing, whereas his peace of heart after the great turmoil in the garden is repeated in serene passages that convey rest and quiet by their very sound and movement.

This great variety of styles is all the more remarkable because of the speed with which the work was written. That its books and chapters were composed with haste is everywhere apparent. No doubt many of the prayers and shorter passages were jotted down as they arose in Augustine’s mind or after he spoke them to God. Other passages were doubtless written out by his own hand, but there is ample evidence that much of the work was dictated to an amanuensis. Yet if it is clear that the thirteen books of the Confessionswere written or dictated with haste, it is also clear that they were composed with great care. By its very nature the work involved an unparalleled exercise of memory. Augustine recalled countless persons, things, and deeds with great clearness and exactness. But marvelous as his memory must have been, he had no illusions as to its perfection. Hence he will put in many qualifying phrases, such as, “as it were,” “as if,” “a kind of,” and “I know not what.” He is scrupulously exact both in displaying the past as he sees it and in telling the reader that he makes no claim to a total recall that is without gaps or perhaps minor errors. So also he reveals his scrupulous care when he writes of the most abstruse and abstract theological and philosophical subjects. As the translator pursues his task, he finds that there are few if any of Augustine’s words that he can ignore or discount. Adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions that do not at first seem important soon reveal the fact that they have been chosen with care and that it will be well to keep them in translation, for they express some close shade of meaning or fine but needed distinction. While Augustine did not possess the same mastery over the long and involved sentence that he had over the short and compact statement, yet even when most involved he practises economy in the use of words. He kept in mind the Stoic norms of good writing, especially those concerned with clarity and economy of statement.

The Confessions in English

The first translation into English of the Confessions was made by a Catholic priest and convert to the Church, Sir Tobie Matthew (1577–1655), son of the Protestant archbishop of York, friend of Lord Bacon and translator of his Essays into Italian. His translation may be looked upon as a contribution to the counterreformation. First published, with copious apologetic and controversial notes, in London in 1620, it was republished without the notes in Paris in 1628. It is free and not always accurate. Dom Roger Hudleston, O.S.B. has published a revision of the Matthew translation (London, 1923), which has proved popular and gone through several printings. In 1631 William Watts, an Anglican clergyman, published a new version which is partly based on Sir Tobie Matthew’s work and partly a new translation. A revision of Watts was done in 1912 by W. H. D. Rouse for the Loeb Classical Library. Abraham Woodhead, a convert to the Church, published a new translation in London in 1676.

As one of the activities of the Tractarian movement, John Henry Newman, John Keble, and Edward Bouverie Pusey planned and began a great Library of the Fathers, to be made up of English translations of certain of the chief classics of the early Church. To this library Pusey contributed a translation of the Confessions, based on the seventeenth-century Benedictine edition of the original text7 and on Matthew and Watts in the English. First published in London in 1838, it has gone through many editions. It is an able work and has been very influential upon subsequent translators. Newman was concerned that Pusey should not be rigorously literal in his translation, but whether he had a more direct hand in Pusey’s English rendering of the Confessions the present writer does not know. Other translations have been by J. G. Pilkington (London, 1876), Frank J. Sheed (London and New York, 1944), Vernon J. Bourke (New York, 1953), a very literal translation done with the “special editorial work of Dr. Bernard M. Peebles,” of the Catholic University of America, and Albert C. Outler (Philadelphia, 1955). A version of Books 1–9 made by Charles Bigg (London, 1897) has been popular, but is so free that it is difficult to classify it as a translation.

The Present Translation

In making this new English version of the Confessions I have profited greatly from the work of various editors of the Latin text and from the work of certain earlier translators, particularly Pusey’s thorough reworking of Matthew-Watts. For the original text I have used Skutella’s revision of Pius Knöll’s edition, first published as a part of the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. I have also found the Gibb-Montgomery edition very helpful, have profited from the Campbell-McGuire edition of selections from Books 1–9, and have made some use of Labriolle and Capello. Because of the labors of various editors, translators, and other Augustinian scholars, translating and editing the Confessions have become something of a co-operative task. Few textual problems remain, the countless references that St. Augustine makes to Scripture have been verified, and his various references to profane authors have long since been traced out.

It has been my main purpose to give a clear and accurate rendering of the Confessions. As has already been pointed out, St. Augustine is a master of a Latin style that ranges from bare simplicity to most elaborate rhetoric and from the utmost compression to very full and detailed expression. But whether he is writing in one way or another, and no matter what is his immediate subject, his great concern in making his confession to God and before men is complete and exact truth. His natural genius and his training as a rhetorician enable him to do things with words that are beyond our abilities, foreign to our training, and perhaps in some instances without appeal to our tastes. Every page that he writes is charged with such emotions as he alone could give to it. Yet feeling and art are everywhere subject to depth and precision of thought. Hence the first and great commandment for a translator of this work is to determine, as far as he can, what St. Augustine thought, and to state it, as far as he can, in our alien tongue. In striving for this end, I have resisted, pace the late Msgr. Knox,8 almost every temptation to paraphrase and to substitute current expressions that correspond, more or less, to those that St. Augustine set down.

To no small degree, the emotion that Augustine put into his Latin words will almost necessarily show through their English parallels. If a translator could go beyond this and give an English approximation of the noble eloquence, the beautiful cadences, the subtle turns of phrase, and the elaborate plays upon words that are found, along with countless other feats of language, in these thirteen books, he would himself have something of greatness as a writer. The present translator wishes only that he had greater skill for his task and greater time to devote to it. Repeated revisions of a work such as this are needed even to approach this ideal of joining something like Augustine’s command over words to that primum necessarium of truth and accuracy.

Because of the special character and purposes of the series in which this translation appears, it has been necessary to keep the notes at a minimum. I would have liked to add many more of them, especially upon the philosophical subjects that St. Augustine so profoundly and fruitfully discusses. Particular reference must be made to the scriptural texts that are found on almost every page. Augustine uses the Old Latin version of the Bible which antedated St. Jerome’s Vulgate. In many places it differs in detail from the Vulgate and from still later Latin texts. Also, St. Augustine often, or even usually, quotes from memory. Again, he often adapts a scriptural passage to the general form of the Confessions as a direct address to God or to some immediate purpose. Thus he will say, “You are great, O Lord,” whereas the psalm says “Great is the Lord,” and instead of St. Paul’s “of him, and by him, and in him are all things,” he writes, “of whom, and by whom, and in whom are all things.” Hence, when St. Augustine quotes directly, and in certain other instances, I have used quotation marks along with the scriptural reference; otherwise, only the reference to the proper place in the Bible has been given. Since Augustine’s thought and way of speech are highly scriptural, it has not been thought necessary to document every minor phrase that derives from his vast knowledge of both the Old and the New Testament, or has passed from Scripture into common speech. Biblical quotations in English are adaptations of the traditional Rheims-Douai version, as I have found it closer to the text used by St. Augustine than are later English editions. In accordance with biblical scholarship, the best contemporary as well as the best older usage, consistency of style, and my own strong preferences, I have reduced the use of capital letters to a minimum, whether in reference to God or in other instances.

I have assigned titles of my own to each of the thirteen books and to the several chapters in each of the books.

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