Mark Adderley's Reviews > Confessions

Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
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's review
Feb 15, 12

bookshelves: spiritual, classical, philosophy
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read count: 3

This is a book you can spend your whole life reading, and still never come to the end of it. It's difficult to enjoy at first, but it grows, and fills your mind and soul.

The plot, of course, is that Augustine is a bad boy growing up. He's always searching for God, and he tries various different avenues--sex, Manichaeanism, philosophy. He makes an intellectual commitment to God, but he doesn't finally commit himself until he overhears a young girl in a garden saying, "Take and read." He opens the Bible randomly, finds a quotation that urges him to leave the world of the flesh, and commits himself finally to the Christian God.

Such a bare-bones synopsis really doesn't do justice to the philosophical depth and subtlety of the book. Augustine has a number of concerns that weave one into another as the book progresses, and don't really come together until after the garden-conversion scene. I can't do justice to it all, so I'll select just a few threads.

The first is the search for God. Augustine announces on the first page of the Confessions that he's searching for God, but he poses the problem: How do you search for something you don't already know? How do you in fact know you've found it? He wonders when he first heard of God, thinking that that might reveal an answer to him, and so he reflects on his life, as far back as he can remember. Further, in fact--he reconstructs his infancy from his observations of babies, and the stories his nurses told about him. He realizes that he has always known God somehow; in fact in Book 7, Chapter 18, he announces, "I marveled to discover that already I love You [God]." Where did this knowledge come from? He reasons, after his conversion, that there must have been some token, like a signpost, that led him to God. He then constructs an analogy. Everyone has experiences joy (moments of happiness), but not everyone has experienced actual lasting happiness. But everyone wants it. How do they know about happiness? The answer is that the fragments of happiness, stabs of joy, as C. S. Lewis would call them (see Surprised by Joy), give us a foretaste of happiness. Well, if God is happiness, then joy leads us to God. The relationship between the believer and God is begun by God Himself, who sends us stabs of joy. So, by Book 10, Augustine has solved the paradox of inquiry from Book 1.

The other thing I find wonderful about this book is that Augustine actually loves the world, and wants his readers to love the world too. There are hints throughout, and particularly in Book 7, that the world is worth loving, not as a thing in itself, but as God's gift. We value things more highly if they are given to us out of love, and this is how we should view the world. This makes it more valuable, not less. It also explains why Augustine is so vehement about his theft of the pears in Book 2. If the world and everything in it is God's gift, it is a sign of gross ingratitude to steal anything. His lack of real motivation behind the deed heightens his horror at the deed itself.

Finally, Augustine reveals the true power of story in the Confessions. Early on, he rejects pagan literature, such as Virgil's The Aeneid. They are misleading, he claims, since they never really happened, and they distract one from one's own spiritual plight. At the same time, Augustine quotes more frequently from the Aeneid than from any other book other than the Bible. So he must have quite liked it! The thing is that he recognizes the power of story as he makes his spiritual progress. While his search is purely philosophical, he can make no progress towards salvation. At the end of Book 7, he has realized intellectually that the Christian faith is right. But he still has an emotional attachment to his sins. What he realizes by means of a pair of stories in Book 8 is that stories evoke emotions, and emotions prompt the will. "The unlearned rise up and take heaven by storm," he cries out "and we, with all our erudition but empty of heart, see how we wallow in flesh and blood!" (8.19). Dashing out into the garden, he finds himself part of a story, weeps, and finally has the will to make a final and complete conversion.

This is not a book you can curl up with in an armchair and while away a long winter evening. It's a book to read slowly, thoughtfully, and many times. You may have to--or even want to--read one paragraph several times to try to get the most out of it. You may have to put it down to read other, more obviously entertaining books. But you should keep coming back to it, again and again. It's one of the great classics of the western world.

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