Let the proud deride me, O God, and all whom you have not yet laid low and humiliated for the salvation of their souls; but let me still confess my sins to you for your honor and glory. Allow me, I beseech you, to trace again in memory my past deviations and to offer you a sacrifice of joy. Without you I am my own guide to the brink of perdition. And even when all is well with me, what am I but a creature suckled on your milk and feeding on yourself, the food that never perishes? And what is any man, if he is only man? Let the strong and mighty laugh at men like me: let us, the weak and the poor, confess our sins to you.1
I got it in my head about a week ago to start reading the Confessions. I can’t even entirely remember what reminded me of this book that I had heard about for so long but never attempted to read. One day, I’m not thinking about Augustine at all and the next, I have a five Amazon tabs open so I can use the previews to compare some of the major English translations. Like a lot of ancient literature, Confessions is divided into “books.” I have now read four out of thirteen of those books. Whatever the thing was that brought Confessions to my attention again, I’m glad it did.
Though Confessions is usually cited as one of the earliest examples of autobiography, it’s much more than that. True, the story of Augustine’s life and conversion makes up a large part of this book, but much of it is also concerned with theology, philosophy, beauty, even, I was surprised to find out, language.
In light of what I’ve learned so far about Augustine, however, it’s not very surprising at all: his entire education was devoted to making him an excellent rhetorician. Before converting and joining the priesthood, he had also been a teacher of rhetoric and an official speech writer for the imperial court. His skill in the use of language was immense, as you’ll see in this book.
Some credit, of course, is due to the translator of my edition, R. S. Pine-Coffin, who I think has produced one of the more beautiful English translations out there. But, good as the translator might be, he becomes an afterthought in the face of the passion with which Augustine writes. I expected an intellectually challenging book, as well as something that would encourage me in my faith. I didn’t expect for Augustine’s words to have such an emotional impact on me. Passages like the one at the top of this post, for instance, are deeply moving to me for reasons that are hard to put into words. The humility with which he writes strikes me as well. A friend said that Confessions was one of the most beautiful things he had ever read excluding the Bible and now I know why.
One of the fun things about reading the very old and very famous books is that you get to find out what all of the other books you’ve read were referencing. Writers often write in response to other writers: reading a book like Confessions means you get to see the other side of that conversation.
One person who took up a conversation with Augustine was C. S. Lewis, who mentions Confessions in his book The Four Loves. While writing about our duty to love our neighbors without counting the personal cost, Lewis alludes to Book IV, the first half of which describes the death of Augustine’s close friend and the effect that this had on him. (Lewis incorrectly identifies the friend as Nebridius. In reality, Augustine never gives the friend’s name.) Rather than quote Augustine directly, Lewis summarizes:
This is what comes, he [Augustine] says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.2
In the long paragraph that follows, Lewis repudiates what he considers Augustine’s cold and calculating view of love, saying that it is even farther from “Love Himself” than “lawless Eros, preferring the beloved to happiness.”3 Having read Augustine in context, however, I don’t think he is presenting a cold and calculating view of love at all. He writes not against love itself but against idolatrous love for created things.
I think it would be fair to characterize Augustine’s love for his friend as idolatrous. In Book IV chapter 6, for instance, he writes that, although he “shrank from death,” he was also “sick and tired of living” following the death of this man.4 He felt as though his life could have no meaning and no purpose because his friend was dead. He loved this man more than anything, especially more than God, which is the definition of idolatry. Furthermore, the first sentence of Book IV chapter 7 reads, “What madness, to love a man as something more than human!”5 Not as a human, but as more than human. I don’t think Augustine has anything to say against loving your fellow creatures, even if that love is very deep. Instead, he wants to discourage us from pinning all of our hopes on created things and instead rely on God as the primary source of meaning and stability in our lives. That’s the conclusion that I came to, but if I’m misreading either Augustine or Lewis, feel free to leave me a comment.
1 Confessions by St. Augustine, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin. Penguin Books, 1961. Pg. 71.
2 The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis. Mariner Books, 2012. Pg. 120.
3 The Four Loves, pg. 121.
4 Confessions, pg. 77.
5 Confessions, pg. 78.