St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa from 396 to 430, and the dominant personality of the Western Church of his time, is generally recognized as having been the greatest thinker of ancient antiquity. His mind was the crucible in which the religion of the New Testament was most completely fused with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy; and it was also the means by which the product of this fusion was transmitted to the Christendoms of medieval Roman Catholicism and Renaissance Protestantism. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 2, page 364)
In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached St. Augustine’s The Confessions. The eighth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, considers Books I-VIII of the twelve Books in The Confessions.
Adler and Wolff consider the nature and the theme of The Confessions and Augustine’s intellectual doubts, and discuss four specific questions about Augustine and The Confessions. Here I’ll sketch Augustine’s life and summarize what Adler and Wolff say about the nature and the theme of The Confessions and about Augustine’s doubts.
Augustine was born November 13, 354, in Tagaste, a small town near what is now the eastern border of Algeria. While still a child he was enrolled by his mother as a catechumen in the Catholic Church. At eleven or twelve he was sent to a nearby town to study grammar and literature. He did so well that his father aspired to make a lawyer of him. In 370 he was able to go to Carthage to study rhetoric. While he was there, he fell in love with philosophy as a result of reading Cicero’s Hortensius and he became associated with the Manicheans (see “Augustine’s Intellectual Doubts” below). On completing his studies in 373, he chose to follow letters rather than law as a career. After teaching grammar in Tagaste for a year, he became a free-lance teacher of rhetoric at Carthage. In 383 he went to Rome in search of more satisfactory students. There he made connections which led to his being offered the municipal chair of rhetoric at Milan.
At Milan Augustine came under the influence of St. Ambrose and began reading the Neo-Platonists. As a result he decided in 386 to become a Christian (while in Rome he’d abandoned Manicheanism) and in the spring of 387 was baptized by St. Ambrose. In 388 he returned to Tagaste, where he sold his property, gave the proceeds to the poor, and with a few followers set up a kind of monastery devoted to a life of prayer and study. However in 391 while he was attending church on a visit to Hippo, the congregation chose him to become a priest and, despite his protestations, the bishop ordained him. Even as just a priest he began his sermons on the Bible and his public disputes with African heretics.
In 395 or 396 Augustine was called to become Bishop of Hippo, a position which he filled for the next thirty-five years, defending and promoting the Catholic Church in northern Africa. As well he made his monastery into something like a theological seminary and continued to write. He began The Confessions shortly after becoming bishop and the completed work was published about 400. Other works that he wrote while Bishop of Hippo were On Christian Doctrine, On the Trinity, and The City of God (On Christian Doctrine and The City of God are included along with The Confessions in Great Books of the Western World). In 426 he arranged for his successor as Bishop of Hippo, and August 28, 430, he died.
My primary source for the above is the biographical note on pages v-vi of the volume on Augustine in Great Books of the Western World (volume 18; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).
The Nature and Theme of The Confessions
Augustine’s calling this book his “confessions” suggests that it emphasizes misconduct by him, but it doesn’t. “Augustine does discuss his misconduct; but he is much less worried about his apparently quite considerable record as a libertine than he is about events which may seem much more innocent to us, such as his childhood theft of some worthless pears” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 89).
Augustine omits many things from his account of his life and includes many things that need not be in an autobiography. “Not only are the facts chosen in such a way as to serve Augustine’s purpose‒clearly the praise of God‒but the facts are also interpreted in such a way that they seem to declare the glory of God, where another writer might interpret them altogether differently” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 89).
What is The Confessions about? In light of the above, Adler and Wolff answer that it is man’s relation to God as exemplified in Augustine’s relation to God. They cite as typical an event in Book I. Augustine fell seriously ill, his mother (a Christian) wanted him baptized, but Augustine suddenly recovered and the baptism was deferred. “We know, of course, that the rest of The Confessions is nothing but a continuation of this story: baptism tentatively resolved on and yet postponed again and again” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 90). Why did Augustine continually postpone baptism? Adler and Wolff present provide quotations from The Confessions that indicate that it was because he wasn’t ready to give up his sins. They conclude that a main theme of The Confessions is sin and man’s inability to overcome it.
Augustine’s Intellectual Doubts
[Augustine] has genuine intellectual doubts that need to be overcome before he can become a Christian. His first doubt is more a matter of pride than anything else. In his initial look at the Scriptures they seem to him to say lowly and simple things and not, for instance, to be comparable in their tone and manner with the writings of Cicero…. Much more serious and disturbing to him are his later doubts, which led him toward a materialistic conception of God and toward Manicheanism. (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 91)
Adler and Wolff go on to explain that Manicheanism was a religion which held that there are two equal principles in the world, one of good or light and one of evil or darkness. The two struggle against each other, sometimes one being in ascendance and sometimes the other. When the evil principle prevails, evil comes into the world. Adapted to Christianity, evil occurs in the world when Satan (the evil principle) prevails over God (the good principle).
However, the book of Job shows that Satan is inferior to God and can cause problems only when God allows him to. This seems to leave the problem of evil‒there being evil in the world when God is good‒unexplained.
Augustine’s answer to the problem is found in Book VII of The Confessions. First he considered the idea “that free-will was the cause of our doing ill” (St. Augustine, The Confessions, in volume 18 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 44). However Augustine found this idea unsatisfactory, thinking that if God made man of such an evil nature that he would will to do evil, God was ultimately responsible for that evil.
Augustine solved the problem by recognizing that evil is not a substance: “I inquired what iniquity was, and found it to be no substance, but the perversion of the will, turned aside from Thee, O God, the Supreme, towards … lower things” (St. Augustine, The Confessions, page 49). Thus evil consists not in choosing something intrinsically evil but in choosing a lesser good than a greater good, Adler and Wolff provide an example of this from Augustine’s own life:
He refuses to be baptized, because he prefers the pleasures of the flesh. Now these pleasures, having been instituted by God, are also good; but to prefer them to the good of loving God is, of course, in the Christian view, evil.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 93-94)
However Adler and Wolff point out that claiming that there is no absolute evil amounts to saying that everything which exists is good. And they ask, “But does it seem correct that everything is good? Can dirt, disease, poverty, pain, crime, brutality, be interpreted as merely lesser goods? In what sense is pain a good? In what sense is disease a good?” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 96) What do you think?