Confessions, The

Confessions, The
   by Augustine of Hippo
(ca. 400)
   St. AUGUSTINE’s most popular and most discussed book is his Confessions, a spiritual autobiography that traces his spiritual journey through several stages until his ultimate conversion and embracing of the faith for which he was to become the most notable of all theologians.
   The book has been one of the most influential in European history. Some have called it the world’s first autobiography. Certainly it tells the saint’s life story, and in an introspective and individualized manner that sets it apart from earlier “self-representations” in literature. Augustine focuses on motives and on doubts and uncertainty as he covers his somewhat passionate youth and his attraction to philosophy, Manichaeism, and skepticism until his ultimate conversion brought about partly by St. Ambrose of Milan and partly by his own inspired reading of the book of Romans. His frustrations and his emotions are powerfully portrayed in a style that combines biblical quotations, philosophy, allusion, and classical rhetoric.
   The Confessions has also been called the world’s first “modern” book. Certainly it is a monument to self-awareness and to the power of language in shaping memory and thought, and, by Augustine’s creation of this book, in self-fashioning. Language is shown to be powerful, and it is, in fact, through reading another text, the book of Romans, that Augustine is converted.
   The first nine chapters concern Augustine’s early life. The 10th chapter, a longer section perhaps added late in the composition, discusses memory and the conscious mind while it brings the reader up to the present of Augustine’s writing, some 13 years after his conversion and his mother’s death, with which the narrative ends. The last three chapters are somewhat confusing to modern readers, since they abandon the autobiography and deal with theological points, but perhaps Augustine, having shown how he reached his present acceptance of Christianity through the grace of God, intends to end by explaining just what that faith consists of. Augustine says that his motive in writing the book is to answer his critics, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, now that he is bishop of Hippo and a respected ecclesiast—critics who may well remember his misspent youth. But The Confessions is not addressed to those critics, but to God himself. Thus he offers his confession of sin as well as faith to God, and offers his readers a concrete example of the change that the grace of God can work in an individual life: his own.
   ■ Augustine. Augustine: The Confessions. Translated by Gillian Clark. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
   ■ Hawkins, Anne Hunsakeer. Archetypes of Conversion: The Autobiographies of Augustine, Bunyan, and Merton. Lewisburg and London: Bucknell University Press and Associated University Presses, 1985.
   ■ Kennedy, Robert Peter, and Kim Paffenroth. A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Westminster, U.K.: John Knox Press, 2003.
   ■ Morrison, Karl F., ed. and trans. Conversion and Text: the Cases of Augustine of Hippo, Herman-Judah, and Constantine Tsatsos. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1992.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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