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Literature / Confessions

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The Conversion of Saint Augustine by Fra Angelico

"Yet man, this part of your creation, wishes to praise you. You arouse him to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions (John K. Ryan translation)

Ever learn about evil from pears? Avoid baptism for the sake of your sex life? Join a Cult that vomits gods from fruit? Have a hole in your heart only Love Himself can fill? If you answered "yes" at least once, then Saint Augustine's Confessions might be the book for you.

The Confessions is an autobiographical work written around 397-400 A.D. by St. Augustine of Hippo. It outlines his sinful youth and eventual conversion to the Christian faith. Here, he examines the nature of evil, sin, lust, goodness, faith, and happiness, and can be seen as a guide for people struggling with such issues.

The Confessions is seen as one of St. Augustine's most important works. It is one of the earliest examples of an Autobiography and became influential for Christian writers throughout the Middle Ages.

The work is usually published with the name The Confessions of Saint Augustine to distinguish it from other works of the same name, like the Confessions written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Confessions provides examples of:

  • Allegory: Book XIII rereads the first chapter of the Book of Genesis as a figurative tellingnote  of how God saves souls from formless darkness by bringing them into the Church.
  • All Take and No Give: Humanity takes its entire existence from the Lord and only gives back to Him what He already owns, while God "pays debts while owing nothing" to his creations.
  • Amoral Attorney: Augustine's study in rhetoric and increasing moral decline leads him to take a career in law, where (as he says) people excel according to how well they can lie and deceive. His only motive for working in court is to fund his vain sexual escapades.
  • Animal Wrongs Group: The Manichees would be happy to kill a man for eating a fig, since eating the fruit would kill the part of God they thought lived inside the fig. Of course, they were rarely courageous and dedicated enough to carry out these radical beliefs, but they at least got there in principle.
  • The Anti-God: Augustine references the Manichee belief in a "body of darkness," a sentient force of physical evil that stands opposed to the mildly stronger, spiritual force of good called "God." Ultimately, this doctrine causes Augustine to reject Manichaeaneism as a whole since it assumes God can be killed by this evil God and thus isn't actually immortal or omniscient, i.e. really not God.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Augustine quotes The Bible on every single page, with the first line of the book coming from the Book of Psalms.
  • The Barnum: Discussed by Augustine. He takes great delight in describing how Cicero exposed all the vanities, lies, and hypocrisies of those who call themselves "philosophers" to swindle others out of their time and money.
  • Being Evil Sucks:
    • Augustine wasted his youth indulging every horrible whim he had, lying, fornicating, and stealing whatever he wished, all while getting no happier than the hobos he'd walk by as they lie half-dead on the street. He refers to this period of this life as "an abyss of death" and compares his joy in doing evil to a prisoner claiming omnipotence in his cell by breaking the rules without punishment, desperately trying to ignore his own confinement.
    • Augustine's metaphysics make it a rule of the universe that evil sucks, since all evil is is the absence of a good that by definition would make you better if you had it. Oh, and existence itself is a good, so the more evil you are, the less you truly exist.
  • Betrayal by Offspring: Monica spends her every waking moment trying to help Augustine get away from his cycle of miseries and evil, a love that her son repays by lying to his fearful mother and stowing away on a ship to Rome without saying goodbye to that widowed saint who prayed for him without ceasing (he eventually gets better).
  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: Anyone would be curious upon seeing a thief sprint out of a store, but Alypius takes fascination too far when he walks into the robbed store, picks up the thief's hatchet, and relaxes right next to the lock that got broken into. He would have been executed if the judge wasn't a good friend.
  • Biography: Confessions is the first known auto-biography and details the events from Augustine's birth (he had to extrapolate what that was like from other infants) to his ultimate conversion to Christianity in his mid-thirties.
  • Broken Pedestal: The Manichee teacher Faustus is well-renowned throughout the Roman Empire and during the weeks preceding his visit to Carthage, all anyone could talk about was how wise and affecting Faustus is. When the great teacher arrives and Augustine gets to ask him about Manichee doctrine, it quickly becomes Faustus is blessed with rhetorical skill and nothing else. He's read very little and openly admits to being too ignorant to answer any of the philosophical (especially theological) issues Augustine has noticed in Manichee texts.
  • Brown Note: The opening discourse on God includes a line that plays on the Old Testament idea that any who look upon the face of God will die. In this case, Augustine asks to be saved from death by dying in seeing God's face.
  • Catharsis Factor: In-Universe, Augustine talks about how seeing his own guilty passions and miseries acted out by others acted like scratching an itch. Problem is, the scratches left "spots, pus, and repulsive pores," making him even more likely to fall into those passions and miseries despite brief respite.
  • Celibate Hero: Alypius is one of the most moral of Augustine's young friends and eventually becomes a celibate bishop. The call of celibacy comes easily to Alypius since he had a repulsive sexual experience when he was quite young and has maintained chastity since then.
  • Children Are Innocent: Children can't cause evil, not for a lack of trying. By Augustine's observations, infants are just as prone to selfishness and malice as adults, its just that their struggles to injure those who do not please them are innocent since their bodies lack the ability to cause harm. So, Children's Bodies Are Innocent, but their wills, not so much.
  • Confessional: The book is framed as a confession by Augustine of all his past sins to God.
  • Consummate Liar: Late into his boyhood, Augustine began to regularly lie to his family and friends in order to avoid his responsibilities and play games with his friends. In adulthood, this habitual fraud led Augustine to become a rhetorician and say whatever he needed to advance his political stance.
  • Corporal Punishment: As was the custom at the time, Augustine spent his boyhood being caned at school for his laziness. The beatings were approved by the adults of the community and there is even a reference to Augustine being laughed at by his parents for the marks from his canings.
  • Death Takes a Holiday: The culmination of Augustine's recounting of his friends' death is the realization that Death itself has been slain, thanks to the sheer quantity of life in Jesus's overwhelming death at the Crucifixion.
  • Delinquents: St. Augustine was one of those and spent time with such people in his youth. He even had to deal with those kinds of people when he first attempted to teach rhetoric.
  • Descent into Addiction: Augustine plays off addiction narratives in an incident where he meets a drunken man and makes the case that said man's addiction to drink is far happier than was young Augustine's growing addiction to fame and honor.
  • Doorstopper: In-Universe; Confessions itself averts this, being less than 300 pages in some editions, but Augustine spares little ink on mocking the Manichees for covering up the flaws of their false philosophies inside their many, many massive tomes.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Monica has a dream where a mysterious man prophesies that her son will return to her. Her Amoral Attorney offspring tries to twist the dream to argue that it implies Monica will become like him, but she forcefully holds that it means he will become a Christian like her (which turns out to be true).
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Augustine's teachers would beat him and the other boys for the slightest bit of play, all in the hopes their students would achieve fame and success. Of course, they only wanted this so their students would reward them handsomely, and in the end, their methods only succeeded in making Augustine hate them.
  • Enfant Terrible: From observing other babies, Augustine deduces that he himself was as corrupt and self-centered as a child as he was in his adult life. He probably wailed and whirled his limbs around with as much force as possible, a behavior only tolerated because of how weak and pathetic his attempts at harm were.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Decadent, manipulative, and selfish Augustine only ever speaks of his mother fondly and he can't bring himself to argue against her strong Christian faith, despite being a dedicated Manichee heretic. The humanizing element of Augustine's love for Monica greatly reflects God's love for Augustine, since God offers him mercy even after Augustine lies to his mother about abandoning home and then steals away on a ship to Rome without saying goodbye to her.
  • Everybody Hates Mathematics: Way back in the fourth century, Augustine attributes his hatred for school in large part to his distaste for math, preferring the idle stories of The Aeneid and other Latin epics.
  • Evil Counterpart: All sin and vice is a corrupted version of God's virtue, with pride being an imitation of God's greatness, ambition seeking glory that belongs to God alone, cruelty arousing fear that only God should dole out, avarice attempting to own everything that is rightfully God's, and so on for each vice that Augustine sees humanity taking on throughout his life.
  • The Fatalist: The Manichees held that all errors in life were really the fault of the all-powerful good substance, but Augustine argues later in life that this belief only served to help the Manichees fool themselves into ignoring their own freely-made errors.
  • Fate Worse than Death: A theme of Book XIII is that true death is not bodily, but spiritual. Once separated from the Font of Life, men become marked by Pride and Lust as their souls enter an abyss they cannot escape from alone.
  • Felony Misdemeanor:
    • Students would be caned by their teachers for playing games when they should be studying or learning, in the hopes those students would be able to grow up and get a job in the circus, gladiator arena, or the theater. All of these being more advanced versions of the games students were playing.
    • According to the Confessions, Manichees would be willing to put one of their own to death if they fed a starving man an apple since the apple was considered to hold a piece of God.
  • Filching Food for Fun: Augustine recounts that the first deliberate sin he committed as a child was getting together with some friends to steal pears from a neighbor's tree, just because they could. They didn't even end up eating the fruit.
  • For the Evulz: As boys, Augustine and his friends stole pears from a stranger's property and threw the pears away. They didn't need or use the pears, they had nothing against the pear, nor did they have any ideological reason to do so. The only reason they did it was for the sake of doing what was not allowed. Of course, since evil is just the absence of good in his view, Augustine gained no real joy from his sin.
    "I had no motive for my own wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself."
  • Forbidden Fruit: Augustine and his friends steal from a pear tree is purely for the sake of taking what they aren't allowed to take. The connotation of taking fruit from a tree is an intentional parallel with the Book of Genesis, which informs Augustine's opinion of his own evil.
  • Freudian Excuse: Discussed Trope; the book makes the claim that almost every evil is committed because the perpetrator was too fixated on a specific good without reference to any greater goods. Even the irrationally vile murderer Catiline had sympathetic reasons to do his evil: to overthrow the city so that his poverty and low regard would not weigh his family down. In contrast, young Augustine had no such excuse for stealing pears, besides doing it For the Evulz.
  • The Ghost: Augustine's pre-conversion girlfriend is never given a name, a line of dialogue, or a description outside of vague references to Augustine's sin. This even happens as Augustine narrates key moments in the life of their bastard son, Adeodatus.
  • Gladiator Games: Christians, even heretical ones like Alypius in his thirties, found the gladiator games of ancient Rome evil and refused to see them. Alypius had to be violently dragged by his friends to a game and even then he covered his eyes for the whole time. Unfortunately, he couldn't also cover his ears or his curiosity, so an especially raucous roar from the audience convinced him to look as one gladiator killed another, inciting enough blood lust in the future Catholic bishop to get him addicted to the blood sport.
  • Glory Seeker: The teachers of Hippo had no appetite for love or truth, but instead educated their students only to bring them fame and honor in the theater or the circus or some other place of status. Augustine has no respect for this approach to life, calling it a search for shame and death of the spirit.
  • A God Am I: The cult Augustine spends his twenties flirting with was founded by an ill-educated astrologer who claimed to be the Holy Spirit in the flesh.
  • God Is Good: When sex, power, money, and popularity leave Augustine more miserable than a dying drunkard, he finally finds peace in giving himself to God, from whom all goodness proceeds.
  • God Is Evil: St. Augustine's hatred for the education system in part stemmed from having to endlessly memorize the works of Classical Mythology, where Jupiter somehow ruled as the god of justice and cheated on his wife every week. Calling such a villain divine is self-contradictory to him and serves as a sign that the Greek myths are fictions made by men hoping to give a godly excuse for their evils.
  • Good Parents: Monica prays constantly for her wicked son, but never denies him his freedom or grows angry at him the whole time. Since she's literally a saint, it's to be expected.
  • Grammar Nazi: Teachers in Roman Africa would beat their students for errors in speech, but reward them for good grammar even if they praised murder or adultery in the process. Augustine himself internalized this rhetorical mentality and it ruined his life for years to come.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: As an adolescent, our protagonist was solely driven by a desire to love and be loved by someone else. Problem is, without real friends to restrain him, our hero's search for love quickly turned into an exercise in habitual lust, an empty and miserable existence where our protagonist became increasingly distant from any real relationship.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Mani, the founder of the Manichees, claimed to have great spiritual and scientific knowledge, but as Augustine learned over time that eclipses aren't caused by the moon's fear of the dark, he gradually came to understand Mani was too ignorant to know he knew nothing.
  • Lonely at the Top: Augustine became one of the richest and most admired rhetoricians in the Roman Empire, but despite his riches and many pleasures, he found no peace in his many "friends" and possessions and revelries. It took throwing all that away and turning his heart only towards the source of all goodness for Augustine to find any peace in life.
  • Love Hurts: Augustine's obsessive love for a friend leaves him with nothing to live for once the friend dies. He has to move to a different city to stop seeing his dead friend everywhere and years later he curses himself for fixing his entire being on a mortal man, rather than the ever-living God.
    "The reason why that grief had penetrated me so easily and deeply was that I poured out my soul on to the sand by loving a person sure to die as if he would never die."
  • Lust: Augustine describes the lust he fell into in his youth as a whirlpool of shame that threw him from affair to affair without any rest or peace. By the time of his conversion, he managed to overcome his appetites.
  • Made of Evil: The Manichees believed that all physical matter was made from the "evil body" that caused all suffering. As such, if a Manichee were to lie or sleep around, they couldn't be blamed for it, it was just their evil matter taking over from their squeaky clean soul. The way this idea diminishes moral responsibility attracts the young and selfish Augustine to the Manichees, at least until he concludes they're fools.
  • Men Don't Cry: No one cries at Saint Monica's funeral because it was thought to be childish and immature to weep for the death of someone so likely to pass into Heaven. Augustine manages to get through the whole affair by repressing his sorrow so as to avoid scandal, but he breaks down the day after.
  • Moral Myopia: When playing games with his friends, Augustine would denounce any slight breach of the rules with all his ferocity; whenever anyone caught him cheating, he would react with equal ferocity in order to defend himself, with no moral qualm except whether his defense would help him win the game.
  • The Muse: Throughout the autobiography, Augustine calls upon God to give him the words to do justice to the truth and grace He provided to him.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Vandals responsible for torturing freshmen at law school call themselves "eversores" (roughly "destroyers.") Augustine finds the nickname fitting due to the damage they do to their own souls by their violence.
  • Non-Linear Character: In Chapter 11, Augustine struggles to express that God does not lose the past or anticipate the future like man does in any of his many presents, but "rather that in the Eternal nothing passes away, but that the whole is present; but no time is wholly present." After all, how could the Creator of time be trapped within it?
  • Ocular Gushers: When her son abandons her and moves to a different continent, Monica is said to have "rivers flowing from [her] eyes," a huge amount of water that will only dry upon her son's baptism.
  • The Omnipresent: Part of the opening chapter is an interrogation of God questioning how and in what way He can be everywhere at once, whether He is in more places than others, and whether He is contained by or contains the universe. The closest thing to a direct answer is that "in filling all things, you fill them all with the whole of yourself."
  • Oxymoronic Being: To demonstrate that You Cannot Grasp the True Form, the opening chapter juxtaposes the necessary characteristics of God that seem impossible to maintain together, like His extreme activity and extreme restfulness or His ability to cause change and His immutability.
  • Peer Pressure Makes You Evil: Augustine doubts he would have been brave enough to steal or lust as much as he did in his adolescence if he hadn't associated himself with a group of idiots and brutes who never expressed any moral qualms about their robberies and vandalism.
  • Phony Psychic: Astrology, divining the future from the stars, is almost exclusively referred to as "that folly" and several anecdotes about twins and people born on the same day are provided to show that one's horoscope determines nothing about a person, even if a few astrologers have made accurate predictions by sheer chance.
  • Place Beyond Time: God lives in an eternal Today, where all tomorrows and yesterdays occur simultaneously.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: The Manichees are condemned for using this with their rapid-fire mixtures of strange syllables and Christian-sounding words to fool Augustine into thinking they speak philosophy and truth when they knew nothing.
  • Shaped Like Itself: The book asks the question "what is God?" only to rhetorically ask "who is Lord but the Lord?" and "who is God save our God?" to make it clear the best way to identify God is by name alone.
  • Shout-Out: There are many quotations from Cicero's (long-lost) work Hortensius, one of the first books to actually change our hero's life for the better.
  • Snakes Are Sinister: BAD Augustine's act of snaring his student into the slavery of sin is accompanied by what he calls a "serpent's persuasion," comparing Augustine at the Book of Genesis's greatest antagonist, the serpentine Devil.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: During his twenties, Augustine reunited with a childhood friend and brought him into the horrid, false cult of the Manichees. The friend only comes to his senses when he is baptized on his deathbed, at which point he rejects Augustine and refuses to see him before his early death.
  • Trying Not to Cry: Augustine spends several days repressing his sorrow about his mother's death in order to keep his tears from communicating that he fears his mother might be damned. Knowing her to be a saint, Augustine carries his mother's body into her resting place, sleeps at his home, and weeps with no one to look upon him but God.
  • True Art Is Angsty: In-Universe, young Augustine and many of his age used to love plays and theater because seeing characters be so miserable on stage would cause him to feel misery and compassion for them. Now that he's older and escaped many of his own self-inflicted miseries, Augustine finds his enjoyment of tragic shows pathetic because they let one excuse themselves for their staying in their own miseries.
  • Turn to Religion: The first nine books of the Confessions chronicle St Augustine's youth of excess and debauchery before he eventually takes up the Christian faith and reforms himself.
  • We All Die Someday: Looking beyond humanity, Augustine argues that worshiping or loving anything in the place of God is futile, since all things in life are finite and passing parts of the larger whole. To center life around any finite thing would be like stopping someone from finishing their sentence just to hear one random syllable spoken: the part loses its meaning if it isn't part of the whole.
  • The World Mocks Your Loss: The death of a childhood friend made Augustine unable to see anything but death. He describes many things as a torture to him, including his father's house, his hometown, everything his friend had touched, and "everything that did not have him." Even light could do nothing but remind him of the darkness that his friend would be experiencing.
  • You Cannot Grasp the True Form: After the book spends the first chapter questioning God, humanity's ability to manage to say anything about Him is called into question and only answered with an assurance that we need to at least try to say something, lest we end up pagans.