What can be written about St. Augustine’s Confessions that has not already been written? The Confessions is the first great autobiography of Western Civilization from one of the great pillars of Western thought and rhetoric. Furthermore, it is an examination of the conscience of a man, who with contrition in his heart, tells his conversion story. If one were to read only the first page, one could still understand the thesis of the entirety of the work itself. Augustine writes, “Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.”What is intriguing about Augustine’s particular thought here is that if any student or scholar does take the time to research Augustine, this quote will be undoubtedly quoted in many articles on the man. Matthew Levering in his book The Theology of Augustine explains the phenomena with this particular passage writing that “Many of the key elements of the Confessions are here: As creatures, we yearn to share in God’s life. God has created us for this end, and by grace God moves us toward it. We are restless until we attain rest in God.”
How are we to relate to Augustine’s examination of conscience? Western society in the 21stcentury is a society that values liberty and freedom as the supreme good. It is a society that is concerned with mostly autonomous rights, and choice. However, it does not necessarily follow that joy and freedom are fruits of unsolicited choice. Western society is like that of a restaurant which on the menu has every conceivable choice to be made for dinner. However, there becomes a great difficulty and less freedom to enjoy their dinner when has the stresses of a glut of decisions. Can you really enjoy your dinner better at this location compared to the restaurant down the street that has a menu streamlined with a few items which you are still free to decide what to have for dinner?
Several studies indicate that after the modernization of Western society after the 1960s people are either not any happier or less happy. In an article in the National Catholic Register commentator Mary Eberstadt writes, “With all the gains they have made with increased freedom and financial independence and less discrimination, women are less happy now than 40 years ago. Sociologists can call it a ‘paradox,’ but it is only a paradox if the sexual revolution makes you happy. What if it doesn’t? That’s the radical thought people should be ready to entertain.”Sexual libertinism is something that Augustine would be quite knowledgeable in attempting to satisfy is own quest toward happiness.
It is in The Confessions; Augustine is a man who takes what he wants from the world. In these pages, that same man also does what he wants with the pleasures of the body. He begets a child out of wedlock with a mistress whom the Confessions never names. Augustine leaves behind the ‘shackles’ of his family, including his pious mother, to seek riches and glory in the Roman court of Caesar in Milan as the Emperor’s orator. Moreover, this man, whom our modern world would suggest as one of the most successful of men, a man who seeks fame, riches, glory, passions does not find himself to be happy. Why? It is because our souls, which make up a part of our nature with our finite bodies, are eternal in the sense of being created by God and the finite world cannot satisfy was is meant to be eternally with God.
The Confessions, although an autobiography, reads more of a personal prayer of man to his God. The text is Psalm like in quality, and naturally, this autobiography becomes somewhat of a manual on how to find God through prayer as “Augustine answers that we can seek him in prayer, and he will answer our prayer.”Fr. Allan Fitzgerald highlights this understanding of the particular text by writing, “Recognizing that the Confessions lifted his mind and heart toward God was a way of saying that he was not recounting events or writing an autobiography or narrating history. This is a book about a relationship, about his learning to pray to God.”
Levering asks an interesting question in the context of Augustine’s epiphany, “Why does everlasting happiness or misery depend on loving a God whom we have such trouble finding?”Levering gets to a particular difficulty that many skeptics and nonbelievers arrive at when they go down the rabbit hole of atheism, “Why does anything exist? Or More alarming, why do I even exist? If one concludes nihilism, there being no purpose to our lives, one will be left with there being no purpose to life. Levering explains that St. Augustine rejects this by pointing toward the order of the world.
Augustine recognizes the source for the motion of the world; the growth of things and their passing out of existence. Levering explains Augustine’s thought development that, “we know there must be some meaning because we came into existence within a natural order that does not depend on human decision making, an order that has it own intelligible patterns and laws.”It should be no surprise to any student of St. Thomas Aquinas—being the greatest Augustinian of all time—that this is the foundation of the cosmological argument for God’s existence. The world is in motion, creatures that exist in the world change, and all of these creatures in the world do not have to exist. One of the most common analogies is to reflect on firewood that it is in a state of potentiality of being burned, but until it is on fire, it is not in actuality. Augustine is beginning to recognize the nature of God being pure actuality; existence itself. Augustine writes in book 1 chapter 4 that God is “Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong, stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old.”
It is throughout these first pages of the Book 1 where Augustine begins to reflect on his own childhood and coming to the conclusion that a state of deprivation exists even within infants. A conclusion that will lead him to promote infant baptisms against the Manicheans. Augustine observes his infancy through his anecdotal experience with infants. He observes that infants lack both gratitude for their mothers taking care of them and generosity to share what is abundant to others who are need of sustenance.
“Who remindeth me of the sins of my infancy? for in Thy sight none is pure from sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth. Who remindeth me? doth not each little infant, in whom I see what of myself I remember not? What then was my sin? was it that I hung upon the breast and cried? …For those habits, when grown, we root out and cast away…The weakness then of infant limbs, not its will, is its innocence. Myself have seen and known even a baby envious; it could not speak, yet it turned pale and looked bitterly on its foster-brother. Who knows not this? Mothers and nurses tell you that they allay these things by I know not what remedies. Is that too innocence, when the fountain of milk is flowing in rich abundance, not to endure one to share it, though in extremest need, and whose very life as yet depends thereon?
Augustine continues to examine and develop the basis of his theology in book 1 of his Confessions answering the problem of evil, which he will later explain in more detail in a later book. He writes:
“But no one doth well against his will, even though what he doth, be well. Yet neither did they well who forced me, but what was well came to me from Thee, my God. For they were regardless how I should employ what they forced me to learn, except to satiate the insatiate desires of a wealthy beggary, and a shameful glory. But Thou, by whom the very hairs of our head are numbered, didst use for my good the error of all who urged me to learn; and my own, who would not learn, Thou didst use for my punishment- a fit penalty for one, so small a boy and so great a sinner.”
In Books 2 through 6, Augustine sets off to explain his fall into a worldly pursuit of the desires of the flesh and his role within the dualism of Manicheanism. Augustine explains that attempting to pursue God, or rather, fit God into our world view leads us into a state of despair instead of happiness. Levering writes, “Augustine shows that in vices, we pathetically strive to be God on our terms rather than receiving God’s gifts in love…God alone gives perfect rest…but God alone is perfect…The vices make the self into the center of all things…because the vices are self centered, they distort our efforts in friendship. Stealing the pears would not have been fun with his companions in the act. Vice turns even friendship…into an occasion for self-seeking.”
What is to be understood here is that Augustine’s examination of conscience has led him to the truth that to indulge in any form of vice, or bad habit, is not liberating but rather an enslavement of the soul to the flesh instead of the communion of body and soul with an interior joy. The practice of virtue, which Augustine learns by ordering his will toward God, is the truest sense of freedom.
The episode of Augustine stealing the pears and his reflection on how original sin plays into his desire to commit the act of faith is probably if not the most famous scene in The Confessions. Augustine reflecting on his motives for stealing pears as a young boy, discovers something at the root has caused him to do evil.
Surely, Lord, your law punishes theft, as does that law written on the hearts of men, which not even iniquity itself blots out. What thief puts up with another thief with a calm mind? Not even a rich thief will pardon one who steals from him because of want. But I willed to commit theft, and I did so, not because I was driven to it by any need…For I stole a thing which I had plenty of my own and of much better quality. Nor did I wish to enjoy that thing which I desired to gain by theft, but rather to enjoy the actual theft and the sin of theft.
…We took great loads of fruit from it (orchard), not for our own eating, but rather to throw it to the pigs;
“Foul was the evil and I loved it.” A chilling remark. Fr. Allan Fitzgerald examines, “Why does Augustine tells the story?…The Key to Augustine’s resolution of this problem is to see that concupiscence of the flesh seeks its rest anywhere but in God…The story of the pear theft is a retelling of the story in Genesis, evoking the mystery at the heart of the story of the fall of Adam and Eve.”
Jonathan Yates, Associate Professor at Villanova University, asserts that Augustine’s story of stealing the pears is one that parallels Genesis 3 and the fall of man. Yates examines that “In Books 1-9, it is the trees and the fruit from Genesis 3 that are most frequently referenced…by Augustine.”The most important parallel between the two stories is the ownership of the tree. In Genesis 3, God gives the command that no one should eat from the tree of Good and Evil. God gives the law, as he has created an orderly world, so Adam and Eve, also being creatures, are subordinate to this order like the laws of nature. What particular separates us from the laws of nature or the animals is the powers of the soul—the intellect. Again, Augustine illustrates that humanity falters when it attempts to supplant God by disregarding its duty toward His order, and instead asserts its desire to choose whatever desires of the human will rather than God. Original Sin, often associated with the first sin, should to some degree be understood that original in the sense of its nature is the pride of choosing what one desires over the duty—or right relation—toward God.
Levering explains it is through the power of the intellect that led Augustine to originally disregard Scripture as Divine Revelation: “Augustine’s pride in his intellectual refinement led him away from the Bible into the foolishness of worshipping a spatial being, a vast luminous being at war with evil.”There is something to note here in our modern age. Many skeptics who read the Bible, or attempt to discredit it, dismiss it because it does not entirely agree in their opinion with scientism or modern historical criticism. However, secular schools of thought often disregard the traditions of reading the Bible as a collection of books with different authors, genres, and audiences rather than a single book. So, in much the same way, it is the pride of our modern age’s trust in their intellectualism that leads them away from correctly understanding the revelation of the Bible.
The Confessions is Augustine’s story of his search for God. In Book 4, Augustine explains that we should seek God through his creation—through beauty. In Chapter 13, he writes, “I did not know all this time, but I loved lower beautiful creatures, and I was doing down into the very depths. I said to my friends: “Do we love anything except the what is beautiful? What then is a beautiful thing? What is beauty? What is it that attracts us and wins us to the things that we love? Unless there were a grace and beauty in them, they could in no wise move us.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC 2500, recognizes the movement of the soul toward God in the beauty of creation:
The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous spiritual joy and moral beauty. Likewise, truth carries with it the joy and splendor of spiritual beauty. Truth is beautiful in itself. Truth in words, the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality, is necessary to man, who is endowed with intellect. But truth can also find other complementary forms of human expression, above all when it is a matter of evoking what is beyond words: the depths of the human heart, the exaltations of the soul, the mystery of God. Even before revealing himself to man in words of truth, God reveals himself to him through the universal language of creation, the work of his Word, of his wisdom: the order and harmony of the cosmos—which both the child and the scientist discover—“from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator,” “for the author of beauty created them.”
The creator of beauty is also the creator of truth. And such, the author of divine revelation which is the most beautiful expression of God’s divine love for us is also the author of philosophical truths and scientific facts. Therefore, as Catholics, we understand a proper relationship of Fides et Ratio in our understanding of our faith in God.
Catholics do not fear scientific discovery with the mysteries of our faith. Catholics understand that all truths are expressed by God: “It is the openness to mystery, where all things can be found beautiful in their values; a recognition of truth which in large part has been lost in our modern Western culture within its understanding of truth. In appearing to understand this idea, Fr. Brian Mullady points out the Pope’s sentiment in paragraph 83 of the Fides et Ratio, “Wherever men and women discover a call to the absolute and transcendent, the metaphysical dimension of reality opens up before them: in truth, in beauty, in moral values, in other persons, in being itself, in God…We cannot stop short at experience alone… The word of God refers constantly to things which transcend human experience and even human thought; but this “mystery” could not be revealed, nor could theology render it in some way intelligible, were human knowledge limited strictly to the world of sense experience.”Levering explains, Augustine urges that wherever truth is, God will be discovered; when we love this Creator God, his love will secure our lives and show us our true good.”
In Book 7, Augustine takes a gander into the understanding of the nature of God, the problem of evil, and how it exists in the world. Levering discusses how Augustine still understands God within a spatial respective. What Augustine is examining is his continuing development away from Manichean dualist theology on the nature of God into the higher forms of being within the Platonic understanding of forms it appears—hence is why Augustine explains God is the manner of sunlight permeating a room. As such the highest forms within Platonic philosophy are, in a sense metaphysical forms, Augustine appears to understand God within the framework. The highest form within the Platonic framework being goodness, Augustine ultimately understands God as the supreme goodness in form. Therefore, God cannot be the originator of evil, because God’s existence as goodness and all his creations being created good indicates his very nature as existence. If God is the form of goodness itself, then evil cannot have form because it would take away, or be a deprivation, from the good form. Augustine’s particular synthesis of Platonic thought and Christian scripture is recognizing that all creatures must possess some form of Good within themselves as creations of the eternal goodness, so there can be no purely manifestation of evil or it would cease to exist. This idea should give us hope.
Augustine on whether evil has form chapter 5 of book 7:
Where is evil then, and whence, and how crept it in hither? What is its root, and what its seed? Or hath it no being? Why then fear we and avoid what is not? Or if we fear it idly, then is that very fear evil, whereby the soul is thus idly goaded and racked. Yea, and so much a greater evil, as we have nothing to fear, and yet do fear. Therefore either is that evil which we fear, or else evil is, that we fear. Whence is it then? seeing God, the Good, hath created all these things good. He indeed, the greater and chiefest Good, hath created these lesser goods; still both Creator and created, all are good. Whence is evil? Or, was there some evil matter of which He made, and formed, and ordered it, yet left something in it which He did not convert into good? Why so then? Had He no might to turn and change the whole, so that no evil should remain in it
Augustine on evil having no substance:
And what more monstrous than to affirm things to become better by losing all their good? Therefore, if they shall be deprived of all good, they shall no longer be. So long therefore as they are, they are good: therefore whatsoever is, is good. That evil then which I sought, whence it is, is not any substance: for were it a substance, it should be good. For either it should be an incorruptible substance, and so a chief good: or a corruptible substance; which unless it were good, could not be corrupted. I perceived therefore, and it was manifested to me that Thou madest all things good, nor is there any substance at all, which Thou madest not; and for that Thou madest not all things equal, therefore are all things; because each is good, and altogether very good, because our God made all things very good.
Desomond, Joan Frawley. “‘What If the Sexual Revolution Didn’t Make Women Happy?’ Mary Eberstadt Asks in New Book.” National Catholic Register. April 3, 2012. Accessed June 12, 2019. http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/some-in-congress-defending-contraception-mandate-ask-where-are-the-women-he.