This page is the first entry in the Core Book: Confessions
series at Wheaton College. Below you will find an
abridged version of Dr. Leland Ryken's commentary on Book 1, from his work titled Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.
Book 1 tells us about Augustine’s infancy and childhood education. The format, though, is nonnarrative, consisting of (a) a continuous prayer addressed to God and (b) a series of meditations on various aspects of Augustine’s infancy and early education.
The format is not that of narrative or story. But, we should not entirely abandon the idea that the Confessions is an autobiography or memoir. We can piece together the story of Augustine’s infancy and grade school education.
Additionally, we are constantly aware that the author is in the process of thinking, with the result that the mind engaged in thinking provides a main storyline to the book. Modern poets and storytellers have championed a type of structure called stream of consciousness in which the content of a composition follows the random flow and quick jumps of how people actually think. This is a useful model to have in mind as we read the Confessions.
Another complexity that manifests itself in Book 1 is the dual perspective of the adult author (who is writing in his midforties) and the youthful person and experiences that are recalled and reconstructed. The authorial perspective is experienced, thoughtful, insightful, and sophisticated. He is a master thinker about life, superior in insight to us, and even more so to his youthful self.
We quickly adopt the stance of a learner sitting at the feet of a wise man.
With the foregoing orienting comments in place, the respective units are (1) an exalted invocation to God, (2) musings on Augustine’s infancy, and (3) analysis of Augustine’s early education. Two stories of development are interwoven in the second and third sections—the story of human development and the story of spiritual development. We can helpfully speak of the growth of the mind and the growth of the soul as the twin actions of Book 1.
Two genres of Christian writing merge in the first five chapters of Book 1. The general category is prayer, and its essential feature is that Augustine continuously addresses his statements directly to God. The result is a tremendous sense of intimacy with God. Secondly and more specifically, these five chapters are a prayer of praise, thereby reminding us of the psalms of praise in the Old Testament.
The opening pages of the Confessions (and many other passages in the book as well) are also a mosaic of references to the Bible. Part of the triumph of these passages is the skill with which Augustine weaves biblical verses together.
One way to view Augustine’s famous opening is to see that Augustine wants to start with the most important truth that can be imagined. His first few sentences invite comparison with other great religious documents that begin by asserting what is most important. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins by declaring that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The Heidelberg Catechism begins by asking, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” and the answer begins, “That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
We should read the opening prayer (chapters 1–5) the same way we read the exalted prayers of the Bible (such as Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple recorded in 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 6). Augustine becomes our representative, saying what we, too, want to say to God.
When Augustine turns to telling the story of his infancy, he faces an obvious challenge, namely that no one remembers his or her own earliest months and years. But with characteristic ingenuity, Augustine proceeds to tell the story by imagining what his infancy was like and by deducing what his first years were like based on his observation of universal infancy. He also shocks any reader with Romantic assumptions by assuming that even as an infant he was a sinful creature.
We can speak of the growth of the mind and the growth of the soul as the twin actions of Book 1.— Dr. Leland Ryken, Professor Emeritus of English
The note of self-accusation becomes even stronger in the long section devoted to Augustine’s formal education. This makes the book a helpful counter to the idealization of childhood and human nature popularized during the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century and that is still with us today.
The chapter devoted to the deferral of Augustine’s baptism mystifies us, until we understand how the Church in Augustine’s day believed baptism to confer grace and forgiveness. Delaying baptism until late in life would enable it to cover more sins than if baptism were administered early in life. Augustine does not agree with that view.
An additional thread is the heavy criticism that Augustine lays on his grade-school education and the teachers who oversaw it. The goal of education held before the students was to be successful in life, not to love learning for its own sake and to become a good person.
It was a classical education. Mastery of written and spoken Latin and Greek dominated the curriculum. Of course students needed to read actual texts as part of their language study, and those texts were written by authors uninfluenced by the revelation of the Bible. Part of Augustine’s case against his classical education and its required texts is the triviality of its content compared to the content of the Bible.
In addition to the triviality of what was studied, there was a moral issue. Young Augustine was unable to waive moral standards and overlook the immoral behavior portrayed in the mythological stories.
In this section of the Confessions, Augustine participates in one of the great dilemmas of the early (postbiblical) Christian church, namely, the need to reach a satisfactory assessment of the classical heritage of the West in its relation to Christianity. Most of the people who wrote on the subject (known as the church fathers) had themselves received a classical education. Opinions varied widely on what to make of the classical tradition. Some church fathers (such as Tertullian) rejected the classical heritage completely, while others found a way to integrate it into their Christian worldview. There are ways in which Augustine falls between those two poles, but Book 1 of the Confessions lands on the negative side.
We end with a brief final chapter in which Augustine thanks God for what was good in his education and for the personal endowments that God gave him. This brief prayer gives Book 1 a nice envelope structure, ending on the exalted spiritual note that was present at the beginning.
For Reflection or Discussion:
The main themes that are woven throughout the units of Book 1 include the following:
(1) the longing that every human soul possesses to find God and to praise him
(2) original sin—the principle of sin and movement away from God with which everyone
(3) the narrator’s continuous interaction with God, with prayer serving as the means of
(4) the adult and wise narrator’s assessment of his early life.
At what points do these themes enter Book 1, and what specific things should we note about each one?
What form may Augustine’s experiences and observations take in your own life?