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Augustine of Hippo: Confessions, Letters, and City of God

Saint Augustine of Hippo, by Jacob Jordaens, ca. 1650.

Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 to 430, largely in North Africa where he served as a bishop for nearly thirty-five years. Augustine was a prolific author of theological treatises, sermons, and correspondence with significant figures across the Roman and Christian world. We will begin our reading with two of Augustine’s most famous works, the Confessions and the City of God.

Introductions to Augustine’s life and influence are abundant online. The standard academic biography is Peter Brown’s. A short and highly accessible introduction to Augustine, with an interesting argument on his cultural setting, is Justo Gonzalez’s The Mestizo Augustine.

Confessions

Augustine’s most famous work is The ConfessionsThe Confessions are an autobiographical account of Augustine’s life, beginning with his earliest memories and taking the reader up to his baptism and a mystical experience of God with his mother. In its final books, The Confessions also include theological reflections on Creation and the Book of Genesis. The work is the first autobiography in western history, and it has been enormously influential in shaping the western sense of self. (On this point, see Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self.) But it is not an autobiography in exactly the form one might expect. It takes its title, The Confessions, from its structure, since the book is a long prayer of confession to God, in both the sense that it acknowledges Augustine’s sins but also in the sense that it confesses faith that God was directing his path. The work contains some of Augustine’s most well-known phrases, such as “our hearts are restless till they find rest in you” (book1), “return to your heart” (book 4), and “Descend that you may ascend, and ascend to God” (book 4). Where much of the work that we have read feels as ancient as it is, many readers find Augustine to be fresh and modern.

That easy familiarity with the text that many readers discover does much to explain the continued appeal of this book, but it also can lead readers astray. One assumption that readers make about the book is that it is a conversion narrative of the sort that they have encountered in the Book of Acts describing Paul’s conversion and then (leaping over a couple millennia) in their own religious experiences. Certainly many readers point to Augustine’s encounter in the garden where he reads the epistles as Paul as a kind of conversion experience. (As an aside, note that that scene happens in a garden, as does the first couple chapters of Genesis.)  The Confessions, however, describe many conversions that Augustine experiences. While reading, it may be worthwhile to note the moments where Augustine turns in his confessions, and what is at stake in each of those turnings. These include Augustine’s conversions to philosophy (book 3), to Manichaeism (book 3), to Catholic Christianity, to neoplatonism (book 7), to asceticism (book 8), to a mystical experience of God (book 9).

There are no shortage of translations of the Confessions. We heartily recommend Maria Boulding’s translation for the New City Press edition of Augustine’s works. Another good modern translation is Garry Wills’s translation for Penguin Classics. Readers looking for a scholarly text in Latin should try James J. O’Donnell’s edition published by Oxford, which also includes two volumes of commentary. Or you may prefer the two volumes (vol. 1, vol. 2) of the Confessions in Latin and English in the Loeb Classical Library.

Letters

After reading Augustine’s autobiography, we’ll gain another perspective on his life through reading his letters—around 270 total. The Confessions largely end with the death of Augustine’s mother Monica, before Augustine assumed the roles for which he became well known as a preacher, pastor, and polemicist. The letters shed light on how Augustine interacted with friends, resolved disputes between congregants, and admonished those he saw going astray.

In 1969, Johannes Divjak rediscovered an additional thirty letters dictated by Augustine. Those letters are not included on our current reading schedule, as there are no public domain versions available. But readers interested in these further glimpses at Augustine’s ministry may wish to consult the editions listed below.

The Loeb Classical Library has an edition of selected letters from Augustine. The full series, including the Divjak letters, are available in hardcover from New City Press’s twenty-first century translation of the works of Augustine: Letters 1-99, Letters 100-155, Letters 156-210, Letters 211-270 and Divjak.

City of God

Next to the Confessions, the City of God is Augustine’s most well-known work. Augustine wrote his masterpiece of political theology in response to the sack of Rome in 410. The work represents an extended meditation on the causes of the rise and fall of Rome, the ways in which political and spiritual societies interact, and the mysterious progress of the heavenly kingdom in the midst of political crisis.

Even today, entire branches of theology, political ethics, and constitutional theory—sometimes gathered under the term “political theology”—vigorously debate the application of Augustine’s City of God to modern politics. For a useful and clear overview of the various positions on Augustine’s thought, see Michael Bruno’s Political Augustinianism. A landmark work in this area is R. A. Markus’s 1989 book Saeculum, which argued that City of God helped to create a secular, de-sacralized arena of politics. Since Markus’s work, scholars have disputed whether Augustine’s thought is really compatible with secularization, and if so, whether that’s a virtue of his thought. Some approaches view Augustine as offering helpful advice to citizens no matter their religious orientation, for instance Eric Gregory’s Politics and the Order of Love. Others find Augustine presenting a distinctively Christian way to engage in political life, for instance Charles Mathewes’s A Theology of Public Life. For a complex treatment of both these views, see Oliver O’Donovan’s loosely related trilogy, Resurrection and Moral Order, The Desire of the Nations, and The Ways of Judgment.

There are several modern translations of the City of God. The daily readings link to the public domain text by Marcus Dods. New Century Press’s twenty-first century translation of Augustine has a two-volume paperback edition of City of God. R. W. Dyson produced a lucid, readable translation for the Cambridge History of Political Thought. And Penguin Press offers a very affordable modern translation by Henry Bettenson.

An Introduction to the Confessions on the Feast of Augustine

St Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 1645–50.

Today the liturgical churches of western Christianity commemorate the life of Augustine, bishop of Hippo and doctor of the church.1 At our home we are having a feast tonight because our hearts have been made glad in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we have come to understand better because of Augustine.

The first book I read from the early church was Augustine’s Confessions—a common choice, since the Confessions are almost certainly the best known book from Christian antiquity. One could even make the argument that no book (in the western world, at least) has been more significant in shaping the way that modern people think about the self.2 The book takes the shape of an extended prayer, in which Augustine confesses his sins and acknowledges God’s goodness. And yet Augustine also intended this work as a confession ‘not unto Thee, my God; but before Thee unto my own kind, even to that small part of the human race who may chance to light upon these my writings.’ (2.3.5)

The entire work is rich both in explaining Augustine’s life viewed from faith and in confessing the God in whom he believed. Indeed, the theological richness of the work might be summed up in a phrase from another of Augustine’s works: Deus est qui deum dat’, ‘God is he who gives God’ (On the Trinity, 14.26.46). In the Confessions Augustine detects and acknowledges how God revealed himself even throughout Augustine’s waywardness and false belief, because ‘Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.’ (1.1.1)

And so I point you to four well-known and particularly insightful passages in the Confessions.

First, Augustine gives a clear-eyed explanation of the sinfulness of sin. In one passage, he describes stealing pears, though he had better pears of his own and only fed them to swine. (The parallels to the story of the fall in Genesis are not accidental.) Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed the passage, writing, ‘Rum thing to see a man making a mountain of robbing a pear tree in his teens.’ But Augustine explains that to sin is to replace the love of God with the love of sin for its sinfulness. (Read 2.4 and 2.6.)

St Monica (331--387)

St Monica (331–387)

Second, the Confessions are noteworthy for their rich descriptions of Augustine’s human relationships, none of which is described with more detail and feeling than his relationship to his mother, Monica. In book 3, Monica has a dream that her son, who has become a Manichean heretic, will come to the true faith, symbolized in the dream by a wooden ruler which represents the ‘rule of faith’, or the creedal faith of the catholic church. She also pleads with a bishop to intervene with her son, whose word she takes as a prophetic utterance: ‘It is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.’ (Read 3.11 and 3.12.)

Third, both Monica’s dream and the bishop’s word come to pass when Augustine converts. In what is perhaps the most famous passage in the Confessions, Augustine describes how he heard a child’s voice in the garden saying, ‘Take up and read, take up and read’, and read from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. (Read 8.12.)

Fourth, in the Confessions Augustine expresses a kind of piety in which the believer returns to his heart, on which is written the law of God, and there finds God. In looking into one’s heart, one imitates the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Return to your heart, O ye transgressors, and cleave fast unto Him that made you. … Descend that ye may ascend, and ascend to God.’ It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of this passage for ‘heart religion’, which is the hallmark of most of Western Christianity from before the time of the Reformation, including Christians writers from such diverse traditions as Philipp Jakob Spener and Nicholas von Zinzendorf (Pietism), Jonathan Edwards (evangelicalism), and Ignatius of Loyola (Catholicism). (By the way, notice the heart that Augustine is holding in the portrait at the top of this post. The heart, which is aflame with love, transforms the mind and points to veritas.) (Read 4.12.)

If you plan to join us in reading the fathers of the church and want to read something before we officially begin, or if you do not intend to take on the full course of reading but would to read one book, I commend to you Augustine’s Confessions.

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