The Greatest of Confessions
St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.)

The Greatest of Confessions

The Confessions were written at the end of the fourth century AD by a man just entering middle age, who had recently been made a bishop against his will and needed to come to terms with a past strewn with questionable moral choices in which his enemies and critics showed an unhealthy interest. This was set against the backdrop of the Roman Empire, which, over one thousand years old, was crumbling—an issue he would address in his City of God. Born of modest means to parents who owned a few acres of farmland in the town of Thagaste in the Roman Province of Numidia, Augustine’s father was a pagan until he was baptized on his deathbed. His mother, however, was at least a second-generation Christian who yearned for her son to one day become an orthodox Christian.

After a youth dedicated to food, drink, and sex, Augustine began a quest for the discovery of truth. He was influenced by Cicero, who wrote about how most of humanity looked for happiness in the wrong places. This philosophical unfulfillment led Augustine to pick up his Old Latin Bible. But its style, written in rough Latin, was awkward and painful reading for an admirer of Cicero, Plato, and Virgil. Before Saint Jerome revised the Latin Bible, the Old Latin Bible, translated by second-century missionaries in Italy and Africa, was obscure to the point of being unreadable. Augustine found that once he put the book down, he was not drawn to pick it back up. Imagine trying to read Wycliffe’s translation today to get an idea.

He was eventually drawn to Manicheism, a gnostic religion zealously propagated by underground missionary work. Its founder strongly denied the historicity of Jesus Christ and taught that the New Testament was allegorical. The cross was a symbol of the suffering of this world. Manicheism taught a dualism of light and darkness, spirit and matter—similar to an ancient prototype of the Star Wars “force” philosophy. God was good, but He was not omnipotent, resistant to evil but not strong enough to defeat it. Augustine eventually grew discouraged and weary of this empty outlook. He was looking for answers, and Manicheism just provided more questions.

At this point in Augustine’s biography, many writers turn to how cruelly Augustine treated the concubine in his life when he dismissed her to find a more suitable wife for an ambitious citizen of the empire. In this well-worn path, what is often overlooked is the realization that a key to Augustine’s conversion was his quest for truth and his talent for teaching. In fact, his talent for teaching drove him into the path of the one great mind in the empire that was pivotal in his conversion.

The Confessions narrate the motivations that took him from his family farm to the emperor’s court at Milan. He left Thagaste for Carthage because his home was full of memories of a dead friend. From Carthage, he went on to Rome because of bills to pay and poor students. From Rome, he moved to Milan because of student dishonesty. In Milan, a pagan city prefect used his influence to get him a very lucrative teaching job.

It was in Milan that Saint Ambrose came to Augustine’s attention. Ambrose’s sermons were vastly different from the preaching he might have heard in North African churches, where discourses lacked much rational structure. The influence of Ambrose was not that of a mentor but that of a teacher. Through his exposition of Scripture and Christian tradition and practice, Augustine learned a novel way of interpreting the Bible from a master and a scholar.

Ambrose presented Augustine with a Christian theology that combined aversion from paganism with a large ingredient of Neoplatonism. Aversion from paganism is a hallmark of The Confessions. This was a period when tensions between pagans and Christians in the empire were extremely high. Emperor Theodosius proclaimed increasing intolerance for the old cults in the ancient temples. During the sacks of Rome by the barbarians, pagans blamed Christianity for the wrath of the gods. Ambrose provided Augustine with a quest directed toward the union of Man’s soul with God in Christ’s vision of universal salvation. The search for Truth fulfilled.

In Christianity, Augustine discovered his answer to his yearning to attain truth with this union with the I AM, the supreme Good, the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ, the Word. He was disappointed by the transience of the experience and by the fact that, when the initial emotional impact of his conversion wound down, he still found himself as consumed by the pursuit of pleasure and ego as ever. Being a Christian was not going to be easy. Yet he knew that in that ‘flash of a trembling glance’ he had had an extraordinary glimpse of the Word, the Logos, which transcended humanity’s instability even when at its best.


Adapted from: Augustine, The Confessions, Oxford World’s Classics, OUP Oxford.

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Written by
Anthony Perrone