St.Augustine's Confessions: What Was Its Effects on the Medieval World?

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St. Augustine Confessions: What Was the Effect On Medieval Europe?


St. Augustine was born as the Roman Empire was collapsing. Intellectual Christians decided that ancient wisdom needed to be preserved. The writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc were being read. Augustine was one such intellectual. After reading Cicero’s Hortensius (now lost), he embraced a quest for knowledge and faith. It is my contention that these two goals are not compatible. To seek knowledge is a laudable one but since one cannot attain these opposing goals at the same time, Augustine fell into the all too common pitfall of mistaking belief for knowledge. It is also my contention that despite his personal thirst for knowledge, he was quite willing to rob the masses of it. Through his Confessions, this paper explores the early part of Augustine’s life and conversion to Christianity and using City of God and other writings of his along with modern writers, prove that he used religion as a means to control and to suppress the flow of information. He used Catholicism and ostensibly Protestantism to propagate ignorance and superstition for centuries to come and arguably to this day.

What is Confessions about?

Confessions is an autobiography of the first thirty-five years of St. Augustine’s life. The saint was born in Tagaste, N. Africa (modern day Algeria) as the Roman Empire was declining. In the north the barbarians were at the gate and in the east Rome was threatened by the Parthian Empire. Taxation was at an all time high and, as the poor fell victim to inflation, the rich swooped up their property.

Augustine was the product of an interfaith marriage of St. Monica, and pagan father, Patricius. After years of pleas from Monica he did finally convert towards the end of his life. Other children are alluded to but how many there were, if younger or older and what sex is unknown as their names. Whem Augustine was a young child, he fell ill, fearing he would die, his mother almost had him baptized but he recovered before the sacrament was performed. He wrote of his “cleansing [being] deferred on the assumption that, if [he] lived [he] would be sure to soil [him]self and after that solemn washing the guilt would be greater and more dangerous if he then defiled himself with sins”3. He went on to explain that despite not having been baptized, he was a believer. “So [he] was already a believer, as [was his] mother and the entire household, except for [his] father alone”4. Clearly his mother’s piousness left a lasting mark not only on him but, ostensibly, on the future of Western civilization.

Augustine was schooled in Madauros until the age of sixteen, when his family’s financial difficulties made continuing impossible. He diversified his education as his family raised money to continue his formal education. Using that year to explore earthly pleasures, he now “ran wild in the shadowy jungle of erotic adventures”5. While at the bathhouse, his father saw that he was “showing signs of virility and the stirrings of adolescence”6. Overjoyed at the prospect of grandchildren, he ran home to share the news with his wife. Worried about Augustine’s afterlife, Monica was concerned that he “not fall into fornication and above all not commit adultery”7.

Resuming his schooling, Augustine went to Carthage to study to be a rhetorician and found a “cauldron of illicit loves”8. He began living with a concubine and also began a love affair with a male friend. During their affair, his lover became ill and was baptized. He briefly recovered, learned that he had received the sacrament, rejected Augustine and soon died. In Confessions Augustine described the sadness he felt after the death of his lover. The feelings for this young man seemed to run very deep, as he devoted far more time to his death than he did to that of his father, his son, and his concubine of fifteen years. The only person whose death he dwelled on more was Monica.

This was also the period in which Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius, which he claimed kindled a love of knowledge and started his quest for it. Although he agreed with many of Cicero’s ideas and found Hortensius brilliant, the absence of Christ’s name dampened his enthusiasm for it. He then focused his attention to Scripture. Believing them to be too simplistic, he turned to Manichaeism. Despite the fact that he claimed to have disagreed with many of Mani’s views, he remained a Manichee for nine years. Augustine had a successful career as a rhetorician. Devastated by the loss of his male lover, he left Tagaste to teach rhetoric in Carthage. After that he went to Milan, where he underwent a spiritual conversion. This process began in Carthage where he started to break away from Manichaeism because of spiritual and scientific differences with the Manichee bishop Faustus. When he heard a Manichee debate a Christian, he found the arguments of the Manichee weak. In Confessions, he wrote that in his heart he broke away from Manichaeism. Nevertheless, the Manichees did help him secure a position in Milan. It was there that he first heard Bishop Ambrose preach. Ambrose’s Neo-Platonist beliefs appealed to Augustine’s own desire to punish himself for his strong sexual drives. His self-hatred for being lustful and sexually driven was forming. He soon “gave preference to the Catholic faith”9.

In accordance with tradition, Monica arranged his marriage to a Christian. The “woman” chosen was not yet of age. Therefore Augustine had to wait two years. Since he had already abandoned his concubine (and mother of his son) of fifteen years, he took up with another woman while he waited for his betrothed to become of age. Although Augustine had committed to becoming a full Christian, he was inwardly tormented by his inability to give up sex. He prayed to God “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”10.

As time went on, Augustine’s prayers came closer to being answered. “Lady Continence … stretched out pious hands”11 and pulled him from the grip of “the triviality of the empty-headed, old loves … furtively tugging at [him] as [he] was going away”12. When he met up with his friend, Alypius, he wept and begged God for self-control. That evening, while sitting in his garden he heard the voice of a child say “Pick up and read, pick up and read”13. Augustine inserted his finger into the Bible and read a passage. He told Alypius what had happened. Alypius asked to see the passage Augustine was reading and looked at what the next passage was. It was from Romans. “Receive the person who is weak in faith (Rom 14: 1)”14. Shortly thereafter, Monica died. She was somewhat saddened by the fact that Augustine was not a “Catholic Christian before …”15 her death. She did however feel at peace about her own salvation. Augustine abandoned his plans to marry and decided to lead a life of chastity.

In Book X the nature of memory is explored. Augustine viewed memory as one of the mind’s greatest faculties because he saw it as one of the best vehicles for worship of God. “You conferred this honour on my memory that you should dwell in it?”15. He also saw it as essential in the punishment of sins. “So we may conclude the account of the temptations of the lust of the flesh which still assail me, despite our groans and my ‘desire to be clothed with my habitation which is from heaven’ (Cor 5: 2)”16.

The last three books of Confessions interpreted the first chapter of Genesis. Augustine’s discussion is allegorical (especially book XIII). In an excellent job of explaining the first paragraph, he quoted “Peter 5:5: ‘[Man carries] with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud”17. He then continues with his own words “you stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”18. He believed that in the beginning Adam and Eve were without sin. However, they ate the apple, hence original sin will be visited upon all humans for all time and despite everyone’s free will, no one can ‘choose’ good without divine grace. As he grew older his certainty increased “that all those saved were predestined to be saved. He never came to regard that as incompatible with free will… Those he did not choose freely chose for themselves not to be his.”19.

What was Manichaeism?

Manichaeism was an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. Like Zoroastrianism, it was a Gnostic religion of duality. Manichees believed that Light and Darkness are in a perpetual struggle and are of equal importance. They believed that our souls are particles of Light that became trapped by Darkness. However if one leads a sufficiently ascetic life over the course of enough lives their soul could be liberated to the Light.

Manichaeism was stamped out in the fifth century.

What was Augustine’s influence on religion?

Both Catholics and Protestants consider Augustine the greatest of the Church fathers. One of the great contributions he made was his anti-Donatist works. The Donatists believed that only the pure should be able to join the Church. Augustine strongly disagreed with this and wrote many works against Donatist doctrine.

Although Augustine did not believe the Bible should be taken literally, he believed it contained all information necessary for a Christian. He felt that it was a complicated document and should only be interpreted by clergy who have the training to properly understand it. Therefore he did not advocate education for the masses. “It is enough for the Christian to believe that the only cause of all created things whether heavenly or earthly, whether visible or invisible is Our Creator , Our Heavenly Father, O Lord Our God”20.

Augustine believed that the purpose of education was to enable one to understand scripture; this privilege was reserved for the upper class. His advocacy of ignorance made science and math heresy, and confined the education of classics to the clergy who according to him were in a position to understand the meaning of them without contradicting Christ’s word. “St. Augustine had explicitly laid it down in The City of God that the idea of pursuing “virtus”, or total human excellence, was based on a presumptuous and mistaken view of what a man can hope to achieve by his own efforts …”21. Perhaps what makes this all the more disturbing is the fact that Augustine was a teacher.

Augustine’s opinions on religion did not go unopposed. Pelagius, a British monk preached that baptism was an unnecessary sacrament because original sin does not exist. He believed that wealthy Christians should give to charity, set good examples and lead exemplary lives. Around 405 he had become concerned with the moral laxity in Rome; which he attributed to the preaching of divine grace by Augustine and others. It was Pelagius’ thought that because Augustine converted to Christianity from Manichaeism which stressed that the spirit was of Light but the flesh was corrupt, that caused him to be fatalistic.25 In two treatises “On Nature” and “Defense of the Freedom of the Will” (both lost) Pelagius defended his position and accused Augustine of being influenced by Manichaeism. It is believed Pelagius died in Palestine after being killed by his enemies in the Catholic Church, though difficult to document.

One cannot understand Augustine’s role in guiding Christianity without assessing his attempt to quash the pagan belief in astrology. Before his own conversion, he studied astrology extensively. He came to understand that astrology would be harmful to a Christian on two fronts: if the prediction was wrong it was the “fraudulent divinations and impious fantasies of the astrologers”22. If the prediction happened to be correct it was in contradiction to predestination- a doctrine which stated that man’s soul was dependent on God’s choice. A correct prediction clearly undermined “God’s decision”. “St. Augustine’s definitive attack on Roman polytheism … focused on the twin goddesses of Virtus and Fortuna. He found two cardinal errors underlying the transformation of these forces of worship. One was the fact that the deification of fortune involved denying the beneficent power of God’s providence”23.

But Augustine’s “problem” with astrology went deeper than a couple of correct predictions. Christianity itself is rooted in astrology. By the fifth century, astrology encompassed almost every aspect of culture; pagan and Christian alike. But cultural concerns aside, the larger concern was that astrology had invaded the natural sciences: mineralogy, astronomy, zoology, botany, and medicine. If the Christian culture was to absorb the pagan culture, clearly astrology would have to be accepted as well. Augustine himself had stated the concerns of the Church that the Christians not fall behind the non-Christians. he recognized that “knowledge of natural history and astronomy is essential to right reading of Scripture and a true understanding of Divine things”24. Eventually the Church would come to embrace astrology because at the heart of it all it worked by fear. Long after Augustine died, real astronomers such as Galileo would upset the Christian order of the world. When Copernicus stopped the Sun and made the earth move he outdid Joshua who only made the Sun stop. Such acts were too much for the Church to bear and Copernicus was forced to hold off on publishing so that his words would not tear the Universe of the Church apart.

Whether or not the pagans converted was never left open to choice. Augustine believed and preached that it was just to compel a disbeliever to conform and join the fold. Rather than expel the heretic, He believed that he should be compelled to recant. If the heretic refused, Augustine believed that he should be destroyed. This is not so unlike sinners gone saints (born-agains) of today, Augustine just had more power than they get in the USA today. Augustine backed this position up with a few scripture quotes that do not come close to doing justice to the horrors that were going to occur over the next fifteen-hundred years and arguably would perpetually be committed by Christianity to this day. Those Scripture quotes included were Luke 3: 14, Matthew 22:21, Matthew 8:9-10 and Romans 13:1-6. These passages refer to John’s baptism, the payment of soldier’s wages (meaning Christ was indirectly condoning war), a centurion who asked Christ to heal his servant, and payment of taxes as a show of submission of authority.

Augustine’s ideas about predestination did not end with the pagan’s conversion to Catholicism. In fact they were just getting warmed up. He sowed the seeds of the Reformation. Through the medieval centuries his theories continued to be taught but to differing degrees of consistency. Thomas Aquinas taught many doctrines of Catholicism that Augustine would not have agreed with. The Protestant Reformation, Calvinism in particular, could be viewed as a restoration of Augustinianism. Calvinism (the religion of the Puritans) fully recognizes concepts of predestination and effacious grace. Augustine, as both a leading founder of the Roman Catholic Church and the concepts of predestination provided the theological basis for the Protestant Reformation.

John Calvin was a French Reformer. Calvinists believe that God has chosen “a small number of people for ‘election’ or salvation while condemning the vast majority to eternal damnation”26. Those whom he had chosen not to save were completely unable to find salvation on his or her own. Those choices are not based on merit, in fact the choice was made before the world was even created-this completes the predestination. Still humans are required to follow Christianity-not that it will do any good. To deny Christianity or the predestination clause is heresy. Calvinists also believed that Christ did not die for the sins of us all, he died for the sins of the saved (those predestined to go to heaven). The people predestined to go to hell, Christ did not die for. “Irresistible grace” refers to the fact that when God has bestowed his grace upon a person, it is impossible for a person to “resist” this grace and not end up in heaven. No matter what they do or what they think the people granted irresistible grace would end up in heaven. It is a foregone conclusion. One must wonder: what is the point of being good? The answer to this question was “Augustine believed that those who were not good were in assent with God for their own damnation”27 . In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, heavily influenced by Augustine, would slightly improve this theory. He phrased it as “good works come naturally to the saved Christian as an expression of love and gratitude for God’s saving and loving nature” 28. Of course, logic is in the mind of the beholder- “Erasmus felt that Luther’s use of paradox was an assault on a reasonable argument” 29.

Augustine also believed and preached that original sin weakens the will. Martin Luther as well as John Calvin taught this idea. Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote ““The Reformation … was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church”30.

And what has this posthumus triumph enlightened the world with? More inquisitions, religious intolerance in the British colonies (particularly New England where they were Calvinists), witch hunts (literally), witch burnings. Augustine said “in the Fifteenth book of City of God that there can be no doubt and it would be shameless to deny that demons and evil spirits have carnal copulations with women 31 .

What was Augustine’s attitude toward the Jews?

For a man of his time and conviction, Augustine’s attitude toward the Jews was relatively tame but far from accepting. He believed the Jews’ “failure meant salvation for the Gentile” 32. He felt that this “failure” rendered the Jews a witness to Christ’s magnificence but barred them from being a participant. Because the Jew was to be a witness, according to Augustine, God’s final sentence was to show mercy and “not slay them, lest at some time they forget [His] Law; scatter them by [His] might.”33. Essentially Augustine took one of the many steps in segregating the Jews. Unfortunately, religion is an institution based in fanaticism, which must remain constantly busy. Segregating could never be enough for fanatics. The eventual mass murders committed in the name of Christ and called inquisitions to make them legal were an inevitable consequence of the nature of this sort of religious fanaticism. Why did Augustine write Confessions?

There are several theories about why Augustine wrote Confessions. Book VI conveys the story of his friend Alypius. Author Peter Brown believes that one purpose of Confessions was to “recreate among his new Christian correspondents a form of instant friendship”34. I believe that more likely purposes exist. His contemporaries were suspicious of his Classical pagan-influenced education; as well as his status as an ex-Manichee. Furthermore because of his role in the Donatist controversies, he was suspected both by his Donatist enemies and his Catholic allies.

Of course Augustine’s motives may have been more simple than all this. With his complex mind perhaps he had difficulty understanding himself and wrote Confessions in an effort to do so. Augustine may have seen a quality in himself he perceived as an unacceptable and unbearable weakness, his enjoyment of sex, and needed to understand why he enjoyed this activity and to profess to God that He is Augustine’s true love. The most likely explanation is probably a combination of these factors.

Final Thoughts

Augustine was a citizen of the Roman Empire at a crucial time in its history. He witnessed the sack of Rome. At about the age of thirty-five he became a Catholic priest, a job that allegedly meant that the souls of all were supposed to be important to him. While reading Confessions I came to the inescapable conclusion that the only soul important to Augustine was his own. However, as I read some of his other writings such as City of God, On Christian Doctrine and On Holy Trinity I saw that Augustine was far more complex than that.

Augustine’s writings make it clear that his loathing is for humanity as a whole, including himself. I believe that this is, in large part, why he did not give the names of key companions in his life such as his concubine, childhood friend, teachers and his sister (who is not mentioned at all in Confessions). Matthew Condon, PhD candidate at the Divinity School, University of Chicago and author of “The Unnamed and Defaced: The Limits of Rhetoric in Augustine’s Confessions” argues that by not naming these key people in his life, Augustine was “swallowing his companion whole, leaving little trace of them except a few anecdotes that reveal more about him than his defaced intimates”35. I not only believe this was the intent, but I know it was the effect. After reading Confessions the only person that I know anything about is Monica, and I do not know all that much about St. Monica.

Of the few things the reader of Confessions does come away knowing about Monica is that she was much too pious to raise a psychologically healthy son, and certainly much too pious to be married to a pagan. It does not strain the imagination much to think about Monica’s incessant psychological abuse of young Augustine. That, coupled with Patricius’ crudeness must have turned adolescent Augustine into a proverbial rope in a psychological tug of war match. On top of that, the reader of Confessions learns that St. Monica seemed to have extreme influence over Augustine and Patricius.

The style Confessions was written in is as revealing as what was written. I have already discussed that Augustine “spoke” to God more like a man speaking to a lover than to his Creator but aside from that there was a nervous energy to it and a great deal of shifting back and forth from the event to his praying. I also found the decision to begin at infancy to be odd as no one remembers infancy. Condon describes Confessions as “a fractured and disciplined text”36. It is only fractured if it is intended as an autobiography. I do not think it is. I believe that Augustine is presenting the reader with the series of events that led up to his eventual conversion. Charles Trinkaus, author of In Our Image and Likeness, wrote that in Confessions “Augustine’s self, is made manifest as pure subject in search of vision of the world that corresponds to its own inner experience of the truth” 37. While this view is not mutually exclusive of Condon’s, I believe it to be nearer to accuracy. I believe this is why it was written in this “fractured” style. The style is intended to be the journey towards the truth as Augustine saw it.

Some of Augustine’s other writing such as City of God do not have that nervous energy but rather is written with the certainty of a religious zealot. Of course he was twenty years older so he had apparently perfected the craft of writing. I suppose the fact he was not writing about himself may have been a contributing factor as well. But as I was reading City of God I wondered if some of the nervous energy of Confessions had to do with writing about his own sexual desires. As he was not doing that in City of God the nervous energy was not there.

St. Augustine is considered the greatest Church Father. To describe his thinking is difficult because of all the contradictions. He loved God but had a distinct distaste for God’s greatest creation-man who according to Christianity was created in His image. Augustine was full of prejudices- not only did a person have to be Christian but he had to be the right kind of Christian, as Pelagius learned the hard way.

At a watershed time in history, when man needed hope Augustine offered very little. One could even say that what he offered undermined hope because it taught that no matter how you led your life, even if you were a good person, you could be and probably would still be damned. Of course, being intelligent as well as seemingly sadistic, he taught that if you were damned it meant that you and God were in assent over your own damnation. The people that watched Rome fall after almost one-thousand years of could have done better with someone like Pelagius- someone who demanded virtue without telling them their birth was a sin and that there is guilt attached to being born.

Whether the reason for Augustine’s writings and theories withstanding the test of time be due to the age of ignorance that man was on the cusp of or because his writings appealed to theologians of the sixteenth century who saw the Catholic Church as corrupt and his theories to be a remedy due to the fact that as Catholicism moved away from his practices, the corruption seemingly escalated, Protestantism brought back his theories and the violence that accompanied it in the fifth century. To this day the shadow of St. Augustine looms over the Christian religion. The issue of teaching of evolution vs. Creation in schools is an example of this. Augustine was the greatest of the Church Fathers but eleven centuries after his death Christianity split into the Catholicism which he so loved and into many forms of Protestantism for whom his theories abou original sin and predestination would ring more true. St. Augustine’s influence on religion and ostensibly politics in the Western world is still felt seventeen centuries after the writing of Confessions and his influence shows no sign of abating.

Works Cited

1. John Shelby Spong Born of a Woman (New York: Harper One 1994), 216

2. St. Augustine Confessions (New York: Oxford University Press 1998) 14

3.Ibid. 13

4.Ibid 14

5.Ibid. 24

6.Ibid. 26

7.Ibid 26

8.Ibid 35

9.Ibid 95

10.Ibid 145

11.Ibid 151

12.Ibid 153

13.Ibid 153

14.Ibid 153

15.Ibid 172

16.Ibid 200

17.Ibid 209

18.Ibid 3

19.Ibid 3

20.St. Augustine City of God (London: Penguin Classics 2004) xviv

21.St. Augustine 1890 On Holy Trinity Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf103.html (Accessed March 19, 2008)

22.Peter Brown Augustine of Hippo A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press 2000) 383

23.Skinner, Quentin 1978. The foundations of modern political thought. In Humanism and Renaissance, ed Zachary S. Schiffman 143-157 Boston MA Houghton Mifflin Company

24.St. Augustine 1998 Confessions p 116 New York Oxford University Press

25.Skinner, Quentin 1978. The foundations of modern political thought. In Humanism and Renaissance, ed Zachary S. Schiffman 143-157 Boston MA Houghton Mifflin Company

26.St. Augustine 1886 On Christian Doctrine Public Domain http://personal2.stthomas.edu/gwschlabach/docs/xndoct.htm (Accessed March 19, 2008)

27.St. Augustine City of God (London: Penguin Classics 2004) xviv

28.Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation A History (London: Penguin Books 2003) 150

29.Ibid. 151

30.Jean Bodin, “On the Demonic Madness of Witches” in Transition and Revolution Problems and Issues Of European Renaissance and Reformation History, ed. Robert M. Kingdon, 229 (Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company 1974)

31.Owsei Temkin The falling sickness a history of epilepsy from the Greeks to the beginning of modern neurology (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1971). 142

32.St. Augustine City of God (London: Penguin Classics 2004) xviii

33.Ibid. xviii

34.Peter Brown Augustine of Hippo A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press 2000) 372

35.Matthew G. Condon “The Unnamed and the Defaced: The Limits of Rhetoric in Augustine’s Confessions,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol 69 No. 1 (2001) 43-63

36.Matthew G. Condon “The Unnamed and the Defaced: The Limits of Rhetoric in Augustine’s Confessions,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol 69 No. 1 (2001) 43-63

37.Trinkaus, Charles 1970 In our image and likeness. . In Humanism and Renaissance, ed Zachary S. Schiffman 83-91 Boston MA Houghton Mifflin Company

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