Peter Brown
Augustine of Hippo

The Confessions are one of the few books of Augustine's, where the title is significant. Confessio meant, for Augustine, 'accusation of oneself; praise of God'. In this one word, he had summed up his attitude to the human condition: it was the new key with which he hoped, in middle age, to unlock the riddle of evil. The old key had proved insufficient. His method at the time of his conversion had been summed up in the title of a book—De Ordine, 'On Order': in 386, Augustine had hoped that his 'well-trained soul' might grasp how evil merged into the harmony of the universe, as black cubes enhance the pattern of a mosaic-pavement. Yet, when he wrote 'On the Free-Will', only a few years before he turned to write the Confessions, he had found the problem posed again, in agonizing terms: man was responsible for his actions; but, at the same time, he was helpless, dislocated by some ancient fall. How could this state be reconciled with the goodness and the omnipotence of God? A 'well-trained soul' could not answer such a question: what Augustine now wanted was a 'pious seeker'. For to be 'pious' meant refusing to solve the problem simply by removing one of the poles of tension. These poles were now seen as firmly rooted in the awareness of the human condition of a man of religious feeling—and how better expressed for him than in the language of the Psalms? Man's first awareness, therefore, must be of a need to be healed: but this meant both accepting responsibility for what one is, and atone and the same time, welcoming dependence on a therapy beyond one's control. 'They should cry with the very bone and marrow of their inmost experience: "I have said, o Lord, have mercy on me: heal my soul; for I have sinned before thee." In this way, by the sure routes of divine mercy, they would be led into wisdom.'

In writing the Confessions, Augustine insisted that his reader should be 'led into wisdom' by this, his new method. The pace of the Confessions is determined by the growth of Augustine's awareness of the need to confess. The avoidance of 'confession' now struck Augustine as the hallmark of his Manichaean phase: 'it had pleased my pride to be free from a sense of guilt, and when I had done anything wrong not to confess that it was myself who had done it, that You might heal my soul.' In Milan, it was different: even Augustine's language changes; the brutal imagery of external. impingement changes to the more tender terms of growing inner pain, even to the medical language of the inner 'crisis' of a fever. For by that time Augustine had accepted responsibility for his actions; he is aware of guilt: 'I had not gone down into that world of the dead where no man confesses to You.' But if denial of guilt was the first enemy, self-reliance was the last. The massive autonomy of Plotinus is now thrown into the sharpest relief by Augustine's new preoccupation with confession. Once he had been excited by the common ground between the Platonists and S. Paul; in 386, they seemed to merge naturally, to form 'so splendid a countenance of Philosophy'. Now he sees only the danger of the Platonists obscuring the one 'countenance' that mattered: 'the countenance of true piety, the tears of confession'.

Augustine wrote the Confessions in the spirit of a doctor committed only recently, and so all the more zealously, to a new form of treatment. In the first nine books, therefore, he will illustrate what happens when this treatment is not applied, how he had come to discover it, and, skipping a decade, he will demonstrate, in Book Ten, its continued application in the present.

It is this theme of Confession that would make Augustine's treatment of himself different from any autobiography available, at the time, to his readers. For the insistence on treatment by 'confession' has followed Augustine into his present life. The amazing Book Ten of the Confessions is not the affirmation of a cured man: it is the self-portrait of a convalescent.

This one book of the Confessions would have taken Augustine's readers by surprise: when it was read in Rome, for instance, Pelagius was 'deeply annoyed' by its tone. For what the conventional Christian wanted, was the story of a successful conversion. Conversion had been the main theme of religious autobiography in the ancient world. Such a conversion was often thought of as being as dramatic and as simple as the 'sobering up' of an alcoholic. Like all too many such converts, the writer will insist on rubbing into us that he is now a different person, that he has never looked back. Seen in such a light, the very act of conversion has cut the convert's life in two; he has been able to shake off his past. Conversion to philosophy or to some religious creed was thought of as being the attainment of some final security, like sailing from a stormy sea into the still waters of a port: S. Cyprian treats his conversion to Christianity in just these terms; so did Augustine when at Cassiciacum. The idea is so deeply ingrained, that it comes quite naturally from the pen of a classic 'convert' of modern times, Cardinal Newman. In the late fourth century, also, the drastic rite of baptism, coming as it often did in middle age, would only have further emphasized the break with one's past identity, that was so marked a feature of the conventional idea of conversion.

The tastes of Augustine's age demanded a dramatic story of conversion, that might have led him to end the Confessions at Book Nine. Augustine, instead, added four more, long, books. For, for Augustine, conversion was no longer enough. No such dramatic experience should delude his readers into believing that they could so easily cast off their past identity. The 'harbour' of the convert was still troubled by storms; Lazarus, the vivid image of a man once dead under the 'mass of habit', had been awoken by the voice of Christ: but he would still have to 'come forth', to 'lay bare his inmost self in confession', if he was to be loosed. 'When you hear a man confessing, you know that he is not yet free.'

It was a commonplace among Augustine's circle of servi Dei to talk of oneself as 'dust and ashes'. But Book Ten of the Confessions will give a totally new dimension to such fashionable expressions of human weakness. For Augustine will examine himself far less in terms of specific sins and temptations, than in terms of the nature of a man's inner world: he is beset by temptations, above all because he can hardly grasp what he is; 'there is in man an area which not even the spirit of man knows of.'

Augustine had inherited from Plotinus a sense of the sheer size and dynamism of the inner world. Both men believed that knowledge of God could be found in the form of some 'memory' in this inner world. But, for Plotinus, the inner world was a reassuring continuum. The 'real self of a man lay in its depths; and this real self was divine, it had never lost touch with the world of Ideas. The conscious mind had merely separated itself from its own latent divinity, by concentrating too narrowly. For Augustine, by contrast, the sheer size of the inner world, was a source of anxiety quite as much as of strength. Where Plotinus is full of quiet confidence, Augustine felt precarious. 'There is, indeed, some light in men: but let them walk fast, walk fast, lest the shadows come.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.