This page is the fourth 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 4, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.
Book 4 unfolds according to a threefold pattern. The first third of the book (chapters 1-5) is more narrative in structure and autobiographical in content than the first three books have been. Augustine narrates five facts about his life during this era: (1) he continued to wander far from God; (2) he became a teacher of rhetoric; (3) he lived with a woman to whom he was not married; (4) he was seriously attracted to astrology; (5) he endured the agonizing experience of living through the illness and death of his closest friend in his hometown of Thagaste (to which Augustine had returned).
Secondly, in a now-familiar pattern, the opening narrative part of the book is followed by extensive meditation and analysis occasioned by the events that have been placed on the table (chapters 6–15).
In a brief final segment, Augustine tells the story of his reading of Aristotle’s treatise The Ten Categories and its effect in his life (chapter 16). The overall effect was Augustine’s disillusionment with human learning.
Not since the invocation addressed to God at the beginning of Book 1 has Augustine begun a book with such a strong note of personal devotion to God. This serves the important function of reminding us that the book we are reading is structured as a prayer first and an autobiography second. The most important and surprising note is Augustine’s claim to God that he is confessing his disgraceful deeds as a way of “confessing praise to you.”
The fact that Augustine was now a teacher of rhetoric is handled with extreme brevity. His attitude toward his calling of teaching is cynical. He taught out of greed. He taught his students the skills of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage them never to secure the judicial condemnation of an innocent person, even if (on the other side) occasionally they secured the release of a guilty person.
Augustine prides himself on having taught “honestly,” even though his students (and he with them) pursued “worthless things.”
Augustine handles the information about his sexual partner briefly and with understatement. Scholars often use the terms concubine and mistress to describe this female partner. More contemporary terminology would make her a live-in girlfriend or a common-law wife (a marriage by agreement but without a formal marriage contract). Augustine lived with his common-law wife for fourteen or fifteen years, and with her produced a son whose conception was unplanned and unwanted.
Augustine’s flirtation with astrology is also treated. Perhaps Augustine included it to show his inability to overcome temptation at this stage of his life and to suggest that he had a thirst for the supernatural, even though he did not satisfy that thirst in God.
The most important and surprising note is Augustine’s claim to God that he is confessing his disgraceful deeds as a way of 'confessing praise to you.'— DR. LELAND RYKEN, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH
The big event of Book 4 is the illness and death of Augustine’s close friend. Augustine had been instrumental in luring his friend from Christianity to Manichaeism. The external events of the friend’s illness and death were superintended by divine providence: as the illness seemed to be beyond remedy, the friend was secretly baptized; but then he regained health momentarily and made it clear that his baptism had been the occasion for his conversion; then before Augustine could attempt to dissuade him from his newfound faith, he died.
It is Augustine’s response to these momentous events that is primarily important in Book 4: overwhelmed by grief to the point of despair. His only consolation was his friendships (which prompted him to move back to Carthage).
The incident of the lost friend leads to an extended meditation on the transience of created things. But that in turn leads the now-Christian narrator to value God, “who does not pass away.” Augustine even composes a speech that he imagines people saying to their friends in order to “seize what souls you can to take with you to [God].” The speech is nothing less than an outline of the gospel and an appeal to confess Christ as Savior. It is an evangelistic address encouraging people to believe in the triune God. The address can be read devotionally, but also as a summary of the gospel that we can share with unbelievers.
But that awareness belongs to Augustine after he became a Christian. He writes, “At that time I did not know this. I loved beautiful things of a lower order.” He even wrote a book titled The Beautiful and the Harmonious (already lost when Augustine wrote the Confessions).
These pages of Book 4 will fall into place if we see them as Augustine’s devotion at that time to what today we call the success ethic (worship of success) and the celebrity syndrome (being in awe of famous people).
The next unit describes Augustine’s reading of Aristotle’s treatise The Ten Categories (chapter 16). Augustine’s rhetoric professor and fellow students were much impressed by this work. But Augustine read the treatise privately and understood it readily, leading him to wonder whether Aristotle was as great as was claimed.
But that quickly turns to the confession that his intellectual abilities “did not move me to offer them in sacrifice to you [God],” leading to the question, “What good did [my abilities] do for me?”
Satire is the exposure of human vice and folly by means of either rebuke or ridicule. The Confessions is a masterpiece of satire. In Book 4, some of the satire is directed outward to pretenders of knowledge, but mainly the satiric gaze is turned inward, as Augustine repeatedly mocks himself for what he was like in his twenties. Tracing this satire of the self through Book 4 will yield much insight.
Augustine’s direct addresses to God (in effect, prayers) are for many readers the most precious part of Augustine’s masterpiece. These brief prayers cover many different areas of Augustine’s life and many aspects of God’s character and works. One of the most fruitful motifs to explore is the pattern of addresses in which Augustine explains how he can see God pulling him to himself in the various events of Augustine’s life, including the tragedies.
For Reflection or Discussion:
Why did Augustine choose these events to analyze and share with his readers?
Early in Book 4 Augustine says that he will "confess to you my shame, since it is for your praise.” How is this claim true of the accusations that Augustine heaps on himself?
Book 4 can be read as a meditation on the experiences of death and mortality: What does it say about these things? What have been your own experiences of them?