Augustine's "Confessions": A Biography

Garry Wills
Series: Lives of Great Religious Books
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 176
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    Augustine's "Confessions"
    Book Description:

    In this brief and incisive book, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills tells the story of theConfessions--what motivated Augustine to dictate it, how it asks to be read, and the many ways it has been misread in the one-and-a-half millennia since it was composed. Following Wills's biography of Augustine and his translation of theConfessions, this is an unparalleled introduction to one of the most important books in the Christian and Western traditions.

    Understandably fascinated by the story of Augustine's life, modern readers have largely succumbed to the temptation to read theConfessionsas autobiography. But, Wills argues, this is a mistake. The book is not autobiography but rather a long prayer, suffused with the language of Scripture and addressed to God, not man. Augustine tells the story of his life not for its own significance but in order to discern how, as a drama of sin and salvation leading to God, it fits into sacred history. "We have to read Augustine as we do Dante," Wills writes, "alert to rich layer upon layer of Scriptural and theological symbolism." Wills also addresses the long afterlife of the book, from controversy in its own time and relative neglect during the Middle Ages to a renewed prominence beginning in the fourteenth century and persisting to today, when theConfessionshas become an object of interest not just for Christians but also historians, philosophers, psychiatrists, and literary critics.

    With unmatched clarity and skill, Wills strips away the centuries of misunderstanding that have accumulated around Augustine's spiritual classic.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3802-8
    Subjects: Religion, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  4. CHAPTER 1 The Book’s Birth (pp. 1-16)

    To write the biography ofConfessions, we have to start in the delivery room—how and when was it born? We shall see that the when can partly be determined by the how. How did Augustine writeConfessions? Well, in the strict sense, he didn’t—didn’t set words down on papyrus or parchment. Augustine has been painted, by artists as great as Botticelli, Carpaccio, and Benozzo Gozzoli, seated at a desk and writing. He did not do that. Oh, he undoubtedly wrote things like notes to himself, or lists of items, or instructions to individual brothers in his monastic community....

  5. CHAPTER 2 The Book’s Genre (pp. 17-25)

    Augustine had never written anything likeConfessions. In fact, no one had ever written anything like this book. James O’Donnell (2.8) points out that its very opening has no parallel in classical or Christian literature: “No other work of his begins with direct address to God. . . . Augustine invented a form and style unique in his own oeuvre and in the traditions he inherited.” How did his other work lead to this odd product?

    His writing career was at this point uneven. He wrote only one book before the age of thirty-two,The Beautiful and the Decorous, a...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Book’s African Days (pp. 26-40)

    Augustine begins his prayer with thanksgiving for his birth and for the care that was given him as an infant. Since he cannot remember his infant days, he conjectures what he was like from babies he has observed. The one he observed most closely, of course, was his own son, Adeodatus (“Godsend”). The boy was born of the woman Augustine lived with for fifteen years, in Carthage, Rome, and Milan. He was faithful to her all this time. As a Manichean, he prevented any further births by contraception, but he loved his son deeply and was proud of his precocity,...

  7. CHAPTER 4 The Book’s Ambrose (pp. 41-57)

    The sea voyage from Carthage to Rome was broken up by a stop in Sicily (the ancients were shore-huggers) and that meant only about a hundred nautical miles in open sea. But this was an agony to Augustine, one of the ancient world’s worst sailors. He would only repeat the experience once, to get back to Africa four years later, resolved never again to set foot on the deck of a ship. He would praise his mother extravagantly when she faced such an ordeal in order to join him in Milan. Whether as a result of the journey or of...

  8. CHAPTER 5 The Book’s “Conversion” (pp. 58-77)

    The most famous passage inConfessionsis the garden scene in Milan, from July 386, always referred to as the conversion scene—the moment when Augustine decided to be baptized. This is the second most celebrated conversion in Western Christian history, the first being Paul’s on the road to Damascus. The only problem, in Augustine’s case, is that it was not a conversion—not in the way that most people think of it. We usually talk of conversion as a change of religion—she was converted to Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam. But Augustine did not change his religion in...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Book’s Baptismal Days (pp. 78-97)

    Book 8 ofConfessionsends on a misleadingly serene note. As Augustine finishes reading the passage from Paul, “light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced” (8.29). He rushes to tell his mother that he will give up the wife she had planned for him, and she experiences “a chaster, sweeter joy than she had looked for from grandchildren born of me” (8.30). It seems that all struggle is over. This version of events has been useful to people who want “conversion” to be a sudden and final thing—men like William James (The Varieties...

  10. CHAPTER 7 The Book’s Hinge (pp. 98-111)

    Book 10 steps away from what Augustine has written about himself up to ten years ago, and asks two things. First, why did he tell his own story in the first place, as part of his prayer of repentance for sin and thanksgiving for grace? He could have prayed in silence, and not in writing that other people could read. He told us in Book 8 how narratives of Christian progress and renunciation helped him. He hopes that others will find the same benefit in overhearing his prayer: “The virtuous are interested in the tales of sinners who have repented,...

  11. CHAPTER 8 The Book’s Culmination (pp. 112-132)

    Though some readers drop out of the book when Augustine’s life story seems to end, he tells us that this is the part he has been waiting for, and he cannot continue to hold back from the study of Scripture, which is his real goal:

    Even if I have the opportunity, still, to continue my narrative, the water drops of time are too precious for me to do so—I have for too long been burning with a need to study your law, to testify about what it is I understand and what I have no sense of—through the...

  12. CHAPTER 9 The Book’s Afterlife: Early Reception, Later Neglect (pp. 133-148)

    Augustine tells us thatConfessionswas the book most frequently and favorably read during his lifetime. But not all notices of it were favorable. At the end of his life he drew up a list of his published works, to certify the authentic ones and make some comments on them. This work, calledReconsiderations(Retractationes) says, ofConfessions:

    This work in thirteen books, testifying both to my bad and my good actions, praises God as just and beneficent, and directs human thought and emotion toward him. It had this effect on me as I wrote, and still does as I...

  13. NOTES (pp. 149-154)
  14. BASIC READINGS (pp. 155-156)
  15. INDEX (pp. 157-166)

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