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Saint Augustine belongs to a group of ecclesiastical writers from the Patristic Age, called Fathers of the Church, who wrote from the end of the first century to the close of the eighth century c.e. Augustine’s writings involve many spiritual and intellectual subjects and are written in many different forms; no one work conveys all of his views. His writings are theocentric or God-centered, often focusing on God’s relation to human beings. For example, in accordance with Genesis 1:26, he asserts that each human being is made in the image of God; each person’s equality, freedom, and dignity are bestowed by God and are thus inalienable.
Augustine assumes the existence of God as self-evident because it cannot be proven rationally. Life holds more than what can be shown with absolute certainty. Knowledge of God derives from faith, which, in turn, seeks understanding. Augustine declares that God is omnipotent and has the ability to do anything: God created all things out of nothing and is beyond all things. God exists from all eternity and is infinite. God, then, is outside the scope of all categories of thought, logic, language, number, or perception. In addition, God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-holy, and all-worthy of full love, adoration, and obedience. God is also provident, guiding the course of history and the course of each individual’s life.
The subject of God—a boundless, supernatural mystery—cannot even be glimpsed by the mind without the assent of the will and the heart and without the assistance of God’s grace. Faith needs divine authority—the disclosure of Christ found in scripture as illuminated by the Holy Spirit. The vision of truth also requires the humility to learn and the diligence to strive and pray in the face of pain and sorrow. Humble faith attains what presumptuous knowledge cannot. One must possess the love that seeks, that reveals, and that brings confidence in what is revealed.
Augustine describes phases in the soul’s enlightenment, echoing 1 Corinthians 13:12 and 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4. The soul will rise from knowledge obtained through the senses, to knowledge obtained through imagination, and to knowledge obtained through spiritual, intelligent intuition, a vision of the immaterial realm of God. The human mind can construct indirect analogies of this realm but cannot understand it by using temporal categories of time, space, and matter. The simplicity of God and the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are transcendent spiritual qualities. God’s inner light allows the soul to recognize those qualities. The soul will know what it is seeing, and the knowing will transform the soul. As Augustine indicates in Confessions, the soul is the place for dialogue with God, where God’s illumination occurs. He anticipates modern philosophers by making the inner life—the capacity to think, doubt, and believe—the starting point for knowledge.
Augustine writes that human beings cannot understand themselves other than through their relationship to God. They are a force directed toward God and will never find fulfillment until they turn to God. Although they have free will, human beings depend upon God, at once eternal and active. In Confessions, Augustine demonstrates these concepts through his own experience; in De civitate Dei (413-427; The City of God, 1610), he demonstrates these ideas through human history.
First published: Confessiones, 397-400 (English translation, 1620)
Type of work: Autobiography
Using literary devices in new ways, Augustine describes how the experiences of his own life led to the assured and transformative love of God.
Augustine wrote Confessions when he was in his mid-forties, after he had joined the Church. He writes openly about his experiences, undaunted by those who, remembering his past life, would challenge the sincerity of his convictions. He traces how the power of God’s word can give victory over sin, closely following St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
In titling his book Confessions, which he intends to be plural, Augustine drew upon Latin words signifying more than the word “confession.” For him, confession means the admission or confession of sin; the profession, demonstration, or conviction of faith; and the praise of God. It also implies the sense of agreement that results when the believer accepts what the Bible says about sin and salvation. Augustine’s book registers confession, testimony, or witness in all of these ways.
In composing his Confessions, Augustine drew upon Roman and Greek literary forms, including the meditation, a personal and philosophical or spiritual reflection and self-examination, in the manner of the meditation written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Augustine also drew upon the dialogues of the Greek philosopher Plato and the Roman dialogues of Cicero.
In addition, Augustine includes qualities of prayer as a direct expression of an individual’s heart and mind to God, like David in the Psalms and Christ in the Gospels. He imparts a sense of spontaneous utterance or unstudied outpouring, moving from topic to topic and implying qualities of cross-examination. He depicts faith seeking understanding, with each having its own role, in harmony with the other. Augustine’s address to God proclaims how his confusion and despair were altered into the very means by which he is to see himself clearly for the first time before God and how God’s providence protected him.
Augustine puts readers in the position of hearing a soliloquy, a word he may have invented; it involves preestablished terms of conflict regarding characters and events associated with other times and places. Readers participate with Augustine in his questioning, there being no knowledge without it.
Moreover, in Confessions Augustine combines features of prose and verse. He uses poetic devices—simile, metaphor, rhythm, and literary vocabulary—to convey concentrated imaginative experience. Still, he writes with a quality of realism, of fidelity to fact, in a style close to everyday speech, as in a letter to a friend—in this instance, to God. As a prose poem, Confessions conveys a multitude of meanings, its language permeated by the language of the Bible.
Augustine’s blend of literary forms, patterns of thought, feeling, and action, paganism and Christianity, resulted in a new literary...
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