Review of Confessions by St. Augustine

Confessions by St. Augustine, originally written in Latin in thirteen books from AD 397 – 400, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, Penguin Books, 1961, 347 pp.

Surely many reviews of Augustine’s Confessions have been written which well summarize and explain the text. The purpose of this review will be merely to note some important things I found in the volume.

In reading Augustine’s works I’m primarily looking for insight into his theory of knowledge. Evidently, Confessions was written after Augustine’s important epistemological treatise De Magistro, for in the former he notes the latter. Though the present book is not one of his major works on epistemology there are some relevant passages. For one, he writes, “No one can tell me the truth of it except my God, who enlightens my mind and dispels its shadows.” (p. 52) And, he says, “In those days my mind was corrupt. I did not know that if it was to share in the truth, it must be illumined by another light, because the mind itself is not the essence of truth.” (p. 86) And then Augustine continues in quoting John 1:9, “For you are the true Light which enlightens every soul born into the world.” This is in agreement with Gordon Clark’s interpretation of this verse and in agreement with the KJV over most other Bible translations which make “the true Light” rather than “every soul” to be that which is born into the world. Also relevant to epistemology, Augustine writes, “Since we are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone and for this reason need the authority of sacred books, I began to believe that you would never have invested the Bible with such conspicuous authority in every land unless you and intended it to be the means by which we should look for you and believe in you.” (p. 117)

While Augustine places an emphasis on the light of illumination, his theory relies in some part also on the senses. “For the senses of the body are sluggish, because they are the senses of flesh and blood. They are limited by their own nature. They are sufficient for the purposes for which they were made, but they cannot halt the progress of transient things, which pass from their allotted beginning to their allotted end.” (p. 80-81) And, “Step by step, my thoughts moved on from the consideration of material things to the soul, which perceives things through the senses of the body, and then to the soul’s inner power, to which the bodily senses communicate external facts. Beyond this dumb animals cannot go. The next stage is the power of reason, to which facts communicated by the bodily senses are submitted for judgement.” (p. 151)

It seems that Augustine’s theory of knowledge first relies on the senses, but understands them to be limited, and so argues that something else is needed to know God. He writes, “If I am to reach him, it must be through my soul. But I must go beyond the power by which I am joined to my body and by which I fill its frame with life. This is not the power by which I can find my God, for it it were, the horse and the mule, senseless creatures, could find him too, because they have also this same power which gives life to their bodies.” (p. 213) “So I must also go beyond this natural faculty of mine, as I rise by stages towards the God who made me.” (p. 214)

Book X focuses on epistemology and deserves a careful reading and re-reading.

Moving beyond epistemology, we see also in this volume Augustine’s understanding of sin and total depravity. He writes, “For in your sight no man is free from sin, not even a child who has lived only one day on earth.” (p. 27) And he quotes Psalm 50 in saying “But if I was born in sin and guilt was with me already when my mother conceived me, where I ask you Lord, where or when was I, your servant ever innocent?” (p. 28)

Also in Confessions Augustine’s privation theory of evil is found. He writes, “evil is nothing but the removal of the good until finally no good remains.” (p. 63)

There is also much of interest against the Manicheans. Augustine notes, “They claimed that the books of the New Testament had been tampered with by unnamed persons who wishes to impose the Jewish law upon the Christian faith, but they could produce no uncorrupted copies.” (p. 105-106) The same comment today applies to the Muslim’s contention that the Bible has been corrupted. Augustine has a very clear argument against Manichean dualism on pages 173-174 that is too long to quote here, but it is a type of reductio ad absurdum.

Augustine mentions such notables as Aristotle, Ambrose, Terence, Cicero, Manes, Homer, and Anaximenes. The reader will benefit by briefly looking up and reading about any of these unfamiliar to him.