Study Questions for Augustine's Confessions

Book I

1. If Augustine is the "Father of Autobiography," we can learn some interesting things about the origins, character, and inherent problems of autobiography as a genre from reading his Confessions--much as we learned about the genre of history from reading Herodotus. What things strike you about the process of autobiography, upon reading this originator of the genre? What drives or motivates the autobiographer?

2. In modern autobiographies, the writer usually embeds some implicit argument about how the reader stands to profit from such an exercise in narcissism. In a "confession" addressed to God, how is the relationship between writer (Aug.) and readers (us) otherwise negotiated? What is the effect of putting us in the position of eavesdroppers? What is Augustine's role vis-a-vis us (and vice versa), if we are not his "official" audience?

3. Almost immediately (p. 14) Augustine turns to the subject of reading. Examine closely what he says about the Aeneid, pp. 15-17 (I.xiii.20-22). To what extent do the (retrospective) failings of protagonist-Augustine reflect those of the Dido for whom he weeps? This leads us into the larger question of Augustine's complicated literary relationship with Vergil: complicated because at this point in textual space, Augustine is both reader and writer, and because reader-Augustine is (with Vergil) a pagan, whereas writer-Augustine is (contra Vergil) a Christian.
      Though Augustine professes here to reject the seductive contents of the Aeneid, his account of his own quest has much in common with Vergil's epic. For one thing, he too embarks on a journey--both physical and spiritual--in search of an as-yet-unidentified "home," which first takes him into several different incarnations of the unknown. What other important parallels can you identify? What light do they shed on the relationship between Augustine and Vergil?

4. It's worth keeping a list (with the goal of forming a systematic understanding) of the issues that are central to Augustine's spiritual crises. A crucial one will be the Problem of Evil: that is, how evil could exist in a world created by a Being who is perfectly good. As a prelude to that issue, he addresses here the concept of original sin; how will he reconcile that Christian doctrine with his concept of "childlike" innocence? Similarly, how will Augustine reconcile the narcissism of autobiography (see above) with proper Christian humility? the intense intellectualism of his quest with its goal of simple, again "childlike," faith?

5. Finally, for those of you who love to scrutinize the relationships among Fate, Divinity and Human Choice, Augustine gives you plenty to sink your teeth into. The post-conversion, author-Augustine's vision of his past includes an acute awareness of the unseen (at the time) forces that were steering protagonist-Augustine through his earlier life. How do these forces compare with the interventionist deities of Homeric or Vergilian epic? How will Augustine resolve the potential contradictions between these deterministic forces and his concept of the human will (which will play a crucial role in his salvation?

Book II

1. The famous pear tree episode (Ch. 4-6). What is the purpose of this story? Examine its structure and thematic significance. What Biblical parallels are evoked? What allegorical meanings can you discern? Note Augustine's imagery, particularly his metaphors for sin, which Dante will turn to good use.

2. How do Augustine's father and mother perceive their son's development differently? Compare Monica to other Supermothers we have seen, such as Thetis, Penelope, Venus, and Mary. Where does she fit in?

Book III

1. How does Augustine's Carthage compare to Aeneas's? Note carefully the sequence of Augustine's intellectual influences; how is God suggested by and then excluded from theater and the view of life as theater (now known as the theatrum mundi commonplace, most famously exemplified by Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage")? What role does Cicero play for Augustine and is there anything weird and/or ambiguous about this?

2. Note Augustine's anatomy of sin (pp.46-48), which anticipates (or inspires) some of Dante's detailed rendering in Inferno.

3. How does Monica's dream (pp. 49-51) fit into the scheme of free will ("choice") vs. determinism ("fate")?

Book IV

1. The death of the friend (pp. 56-61) puts us on familiar territory: Patroklos, Pallas.... How does this archetypal loss figure in the Christian narrative? Why do you think the friend's name is omitted?

2. Similarly, Augustine's interest in beauty (pp. 64-65) reminds us of Plato's Symposium. How has Augustine, in the preceding paragraphs (pp. 63f) set up the relationship between the seen and the unseen (for Plato, objects vs. forms, respectively)?

Book V

1. Does Augustine's nocturnal flight from Monica remind you of anything?

2. Another influence to add to the evolving list: like Cicero in Book III, the Academics (i.e., followers of Plato) enter to play a positive, if complex, role in Augustine's development.

Book VI

1. Ambrose, a new influence: what relief does he bring Augustine? Why does Augustine make a big deal out of Ambrose's silent reading (which, as the translator's footnote suggests, was not strange or wonderful in itself)?

2. Note the theme of spiritual go-betweenage: Augustine, Monica, and Ambrose each get used here for the good or ill of another's spiritual life. What seems to be Ambrose's spiritual mediator?

3. Why does Augustine tell the story of Alypius's addiction to the gladiatorial games (pp. 98-101)? How does it relate to Monica's wine-drinking (p. 91; pp. 167-68 [Bk. 9])? Keep track of Alypius, who as Augustine's sidekick will portray a number of themes that Augustine, as protagonist, cannot ascribe to himself (though he may contain multitudes, every protagonist--except One--is finite).

Book VII

1. Augustine is seeking to know what cannot, through ordinary processes of perception, be known. He therefore scrutinizes the processes of knowing: how does a person know what (s)he knows? How can the finite know the infinite? How far can Plato help Augustine here? Where does he fail? See end of Book VII for a comparison of the Platonists and St. Paul, whose famous conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 10) serves as an important point of reference for Augustine's own.

2. This book charts, through disputation, the movement of the mind toward conversion; territory that will be retraced in dramatic terms (i.e. through narrative) in the next book. Note the pattern of Scriptural quotations throughout the book. How does the use of these quotations adumbrate the difference between protagonist-Augustine (at the Milan stage of his development) and author-Augustine?

The climax of the work, and the most famous part of the Confessions. Read closely!

1. How does Augustine show a new understanding of pleasure and pain, and how does this help him with the Problem of Evil?

2. What is the importance of each the following figures: Victorinus? St. Paul? Antony of Egypt? Alypius?

3. Why does the conversion scene occur in a garden? How many other texts, themes and symbols are "present" (i.e., evoked) here and what does each of them signify? The voice commanding Augustine to "take up and read " (Lat. tolle, lege) has no "scientific" explanation in the text, though it may be a liturgical phrase overheard from Ambrose's nearby church--"take Scripture, receive the Word, be saved": cf. Acts 8:26-39, the Ethiopian eunuch. Does this explanation (eunuch and all) detract from the conversion story? Why or why not?

4. Why should the agent of Augustine's conversion be a child?

5. What about Alypius's conversion? How does it resemble and differ from Augustine's, and why should it be included here?

6. Augustine reports that he and Alypius read no more that day; why not? How do the social dynamics of conversion here correspond to the social dynamics of Fall, as related in Genesis 3?

7. How does the question of will, which comes to fruition here, bear on theodicy (the Problem of Evil)?

Book IX

1. Augustine, saved, is now in the clear and awaits the payoff. What, however, is thee dominant theme in this book?

2. How does Augustine's relationship to his son compare with his relationship to his father? Why is is that only now do we learn his parents' names and their personal "issues" and stories? Has a new attitude toward his parents emerged from Augustine's conversion? What pitfalls, according to Augustine, now lurk in his relationship with his mother?

3. In the context of this generational theme (parents and children), what parallels can you draw with Aeneas's experience?

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