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The Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo
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The Importance of Perseverance
Augustine can be a tough nut to crack--even for your fearless instructor. Bear in mind, though, that he's aware of the fact that he's writing a difficult text, and for him the writing is driven--through all the obstacles, through the thickets of Biblical allusions and self-castigation--by an intense passion: he is deperately determined to put his truth (note that I do not say "the truth") into words. Try to ride the wave of that passion. Two things about Augustine you can certainly, and immediately, relate to:
  • His intense desire to tell his own story. Actually, in Augustine's time this wasn't common, which is why he is known as the Father of Autobiography; but in our day, when every Tom , Dick and Harry publishes a memoir--and people actually read them--it seems natural enough. Think about what you do when someone comes to you for advice, say, with a relationship problem: isn't the instinctive reaction to respond to their story with a story of your own, one that will illustrate the advice you're about to give? The underlying idea seems to be that through narrative, you can provide a surrogate experience that will lead to wisdom. Augustine is working on a similar premise here.
  • The important role that reading plays in his life. The one thing Augustine knows for sure that he has in common with anyone who's reading his Confessions is that they are both readers. You, too, are readers--quite as voracious as Augustine himself, if you've been keeping up with the Lit. Hum. syllabus all this time--and you are the reason that Augustine places so much emphasis on how reading has affected him throughout his life. Are there books that have changed your life? Same for Augustine. You've even read some of the same stuff--notably, Vergil and the Bible.

It seems rather pointless to give background detail on Augustine's life when most of what we "know" about it comes from the Confessions anyway. In case you're interested, here's a brief article on Augustine from And if you know Latin, here's an electronic edition of the text in the original, with commentary by James O'Donnell.

Some background on Manichaeism, however, is useful, since it plays an important role in Augustine's pre-Christian spiritual seeking, and is set up by him as one of the most serious and seductive distractions to waylay him on his way to Rome, er, I mean, on his way to the Christian faith:

Manichaeism is named after its founder, Mani, who was born in 216 C.E. ("A.D.") near Baghdad, in southern Babylonia. He grew up in a sect of Judaizing Christians from which he broke to found his own religion, a synthesis of elements from Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, other Persian religions, Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism. (Mani had travelled widely as a wandering ascetic, which gave him the opportunity to absorb elements of all these religious traditions.) Rejecting all of the Old Testament and parts of the New Testament, Mani claimed Buddha, Zoroaster, Hermes, and Plato as his predecessors. He always called himself Mani, Apostle of Jesus Christ and held that he was the Paraclete (literally "advocate" or "intercessor"--an incarnation of the Holy Spirit) promised by Jesus.

In essence, Manichaeism held that the human condition is one of victimhood, brutal, unmerited, inexplicable, and evil. Man feels himself enslaved to the flesh, time, space and his environment--a state of suffering (cf. Buddhist dukhka) that could not have been willed by a just God, and that therefore must come from an evil principle that is opposed to God. (You can see how Augustine, who above all seeks a solution to the Problem of Evil, might be drawn to this religion.) In other words, Manichaeism is dualistic: it explains the world by dividing everything in two. Good is opposed to evil; soul (good) to body (bad); etc. To be saved, one must recognise the duality of existence, thus dispelling the cloud of confusion that comes from the soul's imprisonment in flesh, and coming to know oneself as soul, a perfect particle of God that has fallen into the corrupting world. God will save himself and humans by drawing all these particles back to himself, thus saving hiumself as well as humankind.

Manichaeism, then, has one basic story with one hero: divine Soul that falls into corrupting Matter and them is liberated (through self-consciousness) by its own Mind. (You can see how Augustine, in latter days, repudiates this spiritual narrative for its intellectualism.) Spiritual history, for the Manichees, has three ages: a distant past of perfect duality (where Good/Evil, Spirit/Matter, Light/Darkness etc. were totally distinct from each other); the present, in which the two pronciples are mixed together; and a future moment in which perfect duality will be restored (Spirit will be freed from its bondage to Flesh, Good from Evil, etc.). The most important principles of Manichaeism, then, were the "two principles" and the "three moments."

The important thing about Manichaeism, as it relates to Augustine, is that it explains evil as a misfortune inflicted on people without their consent (along with flesh), rather than as a result of human weakness or depravity (as in the Adam and Eve story, which the early Christian fathers--notably, Augustine--reformulated as the doctrine of original sin).

Study Questions
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