This page is the fifth 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 5, from his work titled Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.
Book 5 is the most narrative-oriented book of the Confessions thus far. Augustine tells the story of developments in two areas of his life—his professional life as a teacher of rhetoric and his ongoing religious quest.
The history of Augustine’s professional life as recounted in Book 5 begins in Carthage at the age of twenty-nine, at the end of a teaching career there. Augustine’s students were so disrespectful that he accepted a position in Rome as a step toward a hoped-for improvement. But teaching in Rome was no more fulfilling than it had been in Carthage, and after one year there, Augustine was happy to land a new position in Milan.
Augustine’s religious quest also evolved in new directions. While still in Carthage, Augustine was disillusioned with the ignorance of a prestigious Manichaean bishop named Faustus. The position of the philosophic skeptics, who doubted that people can achieve any certainty of belief, came to seem plausible. Then, with the move to Milan, Augustine came under the influence of the bishop Ambrose. He moved toward the Christian position to the point of becoming a catechumen in the Church.
Book 5 begins with a moving invocation that introduces the imagery of fleeing from God, accompanied by the assertion that no one can flee from God because he is everywhere. The invocation functions as a lens through which we can assimilate the story that Augustine tells, and we should be looking for passages in which Augustine reminds us of the keynote that “you alone are always present even to those who have taken themselves far from you” (chapter 2).
Augustine’s encounter with the “big-name” Manichaean bishop Faustus (chapters 6-7) is a satiric portrait. A mocking tone pervades both the analysis of the deficiencies of Manichaeism and the exposure of the ignorance of Faustus.
This same note of disillusionment also pervades Augustine’s account of his professional life. Additionally, Augustine fell seriously ill when he arrived in Rome (chapter 9). It was a relief to Augustine to move from Rome to Milan after just one year. Within a year or two after arriving in Milan, Augustine abandoned his teaching career entirely.
We should be looking for passages in which Augustine reminds us of the keynote that 'you alone are always present even to those who have taken themselves far from you.'— Dr. Leland Ryken, Professor Emeritus of English
The background chorus of the Confessions is how all of the bad experiences in Augustine’s life were orchestrated by God to bring Augustine to faith.
If Augustine failed to make progress in his professional calling, he also stagnated in his religious quest during the era covered in Book 5. His disillusionment with Faustus and Manichaeism did not lead to much progress toward Christianity. In fact, the basis of Augustine’s growing distrust of Manichaeism was not Christianity but the physical sciences, which gave Augustine a more plausible understanding of the physical world than the fanciful mythology of Manichaeism (chapters 3–5).
In the midst of all this disillusionment and continuing (if halfhearted) devotion to a heretical religion, the seeds of Augustine’s spiritual breakthrough were being sown by two towering Christians who were influential in his life. One was his mother, Monica. Augustine paints an extended portrait of her as a champion of prayer on her son’s behalf (chapter 9). On the basis of this portrait, Monica has become a famous icon of the Christian faith from its early centuries.
The other guide was Bishop Ambrose, equally famous as a Christian from the early centuries of Christianity. The important gift that Ambrose bequeathed to Augustine is that he made the Christian faith appear “defensible” (Augustine’s term). This made a sufficient impact on Augustine that, at the end of Book 5, he records that he decided to leave the Manichaeans and become a catechumen (chapters 13–14). This should not be interpreted in an overly optimistic way, inasmuch as Augustine ends Book 5 at a stalemate.
For Reflection or Discussion:
Augustine keeps us informed about three main actions in Book 5—his changing professional situation as a teacher of rhetoric, his growth away from Manichaeism, and his subsurface move in the direction of Christianity.
What are the key ingredients in each of these stories?
At what moments is Augustine a sympathetic protagonist in the story, and at what points are you disappointed with him?
In what ways is Augustine’s story your own story?