An Introduction to St. Augustine’s Confessions

A few years ago, I wrote a(n) (non-)introduction to Augustine’s Confessions for the republication of an updated nineteenth century translation. In the end, it was not used. At some point thereafter, I forgot. The fact that I had done so, however, occurred to me last night while preparing for a class on the Confessions this afternoon. I attach it below in case it is of any interest or use to anyone.

The translation used below is taken from the version of E.B. Pusey, which is in the public domain.

In Place of an Introduction

E.J. Hutchinson

In lieu of a standard introduction detailing the contents of the work that follows along with biographical information about its author, I instead offer you the following.[1] 

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote the following to his friend, the controversial theologian Franz Overbeck:

For a diversion I was just reading the Confessions of Saint Augustine with great regret that you are not here with me.  What a highfalutin wordsmith!  Such tear-jerking phoniness!  How hard I laughed, for example, over a “pear theft” of his youth, made the basis for his account of student days.[2]  

The episode in view is, apart from the conversion scene in the Milanese garden in Book 8, probably the most famous one in the Confessions. In it, Augustine and some friends steal a few pears from a neighbor for apparently[3] no reason–at least, for no reason other than the apparent joy of sinning in company with others. 

Nietzsche was right to laugh. For there is something comical for a modern audience in the banality of the act in comparison with the length of time Augustine devotes to discussing it–over half of Book 2, in fact. On a lark, I once “translated” an epitome of the story into the style of Ernest Hemingway, and I think it can help us to see what it struck Nietzsche as so silly.

Augustine is sent to the town of Madauros. He is sent there to learn literature and oratory. He likes pretty girls. He comes home. Money problems. He steals some pears. Later, he feels badly about that. He would not have done it alone. Really, he would not have done it alone. The pears were not even good. He had other pears at home. Those pears were good.

But the observation that the act is banal is itself somewhat banal. The more interesting question is, why does Augustine’s agonizing over it decades later strike a modern as absurd when it was of utter and unironic seriousness for Augustine? This is precisely where Augustine’s alienness is most illuminating for us.

The pear theft seems ridiculous to a modern-in-the-street because he has a hard time believing that a so-called “sin” against a God he cannot see, and probably does not believe exists, can possibly be a big deal. 

The sort of person I have in view is much more likely to become exercised about a sin against the self (like, say, lack of exercise),[4] against his own desires, against his not feeling happy in and for the moment. And these kinds of considerations, broadly identifiable with “the good” as the contemporary Western world understands it, are just what Augustine thought were the problem. The urge to give in to whatever momentary desires we may have, far from being the remedy for what ails us, is instead—well, exactly what ails us.

And yet Augustine’s utility for our world is much deeper and more interesting than the injunction, “Don’t be selfish,” as useful as that is. For instead of offering a merely oppositional view between the self and a virtuous life before God, he shows us in manifold ways how the two are, and must be, related to each other. 

Conversely, then, sin against the self—that is, actual sin, as defined by God—is not incompatible with or separable from sin against God. Sin against God is the destruction of the self; destruction of the self is flight from, and therefore sin against, God. Augustine clarifies for us how these things are connected. Take, for example, a comment about Dido and Vergil’s Aeneid in Book 1: “For what more miserable than a miserable being who commiserates not himself; weeping the death of Dido for love to Aeneas, but weeping not his own death for want of love to Thee, O God”[5] Or, again, in the same book: “For darkened affections is removal from Thee.”[6] Or, at greater length, the opening of Book 2:

I will now call to mind my past foulness, and the carnal corruptions of my soul; not because I love them, but that I may love Thee, O my God. For love of Thy love I do it; reviewing my most wicked ways in the very bitterness of my remembrance, that Thou mayest grow sweet unto me (Thou sweetness never failing, Thou blissful and assured sweetness); and gathering me again out of that my dissipation, wherein I was torn piecemeal, while turned from Thee, the One Good, I lost myself among a multiplicity of things. For I even burnt in my youth heretofore, to be satiated in things below; and I dared to grow wild again, with these various and shadowy loves: my beauty consumed away, and I stank in Thine eyes; pleasing myself, and desirous to please in the eyes of men.[7]

Other readers throughout history have seen this connection, too. One of those was the Italian humanist Petrarch (1304-1374). He tells us in a famous letter addressed to Dionigi da Borgo Sansepolcro (4.1) about a hike to the summit of Mont Ventoux in Provence. Upon arrival, as he mused in a moment of reverie, he reached for his copy of Augustine’s Confessions that Dionigi had given to him. Petrarch tells the story like this:

While I was thus dividing my thoughts, now turning my attention to some terrestrial object that lay before me, now raising my soul, as I had done my body, to higher planes, it occurred to me to look into my copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions, a gift that I owe to your love, and that I always have about me, in memory of both the author and the giver. I opened the compact little volume, small indeed in size, but of infinite charm, with the intenition of reading whatever came to hand, for I could happen upon nothing that would be otherwise than edifying and devout. Now it chanced that the tenth book presented itself. My brother, waiting to hear something of St. Augustine’s from my lips, stood attentively by. I call him, and God too, to witness that where I first fixed my eyes it was written: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” I was abashed, and, asking my brother (who was anxious to hear more), not to annoy me, I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. Those words had given me occupation enough, for I could not believe that it was by a mere accident that I happened upon them.[8]

Petrarch opens Augustine’s book at random, and finds a passage that gives him a truth he needs just then, about self-knowledge. If this sounds familiar, that is because it is modeled on Augustine’s conversion via an impulse to open Paul’s letter to the Romans. In fact, Petrarch is explicit about this:

What I had there read I believed to be addressed to me and to no other, remembering that St. Augustine had once suspected the same thing in his own case, when, on opening the book of the Apostle, as he himself tells us, the first words that he saw there were, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”[9]

In discovering himself, Augustine discovered his sin, as well as Jesus Christ, his savior. In doing so, he became exemplary for others—for Petrarch, and for readers in the twenty-first century.

In that spirit, then, heed the advice Augustine heard the children chanting when he was in the garden: “Take up and read; Take up and read.”[10] 


1 For Augustine and the Confessions, the bibliography on which is immense, I can give only a sampling here: Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1999); James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), vol. 1, xvii-lxxi; Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 2nd ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000); Catherine Conybeare, The Routledge Guidebook to Augustine’s Confessions (New York: Routledge, 2016); John M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
2 Cited in Garry Wills, “Augustine’s Pears and the Nature of Sin,” Arion 10 (2002): 57.
3 No pun intended.
4 This pun was intended.
5 Conf. 1.13.21.
6 Conf. 1.18.28.
7 Conf. 2.1.1.
8 The letter can be read in James Harvey Robinson and Henry Winchester Rolfe, Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898), 307-20. This passage is found on 316-17.
9 Robinson and Rolfe, 317-18.
10 Conf. 8.12.29.


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