Book 6: The Second Year in Milan

Confessions Book 6 winding road 200 x 113This page is the sixth 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 6, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.


Book 6 begins with the arrival of Augustine’s mother in Milan (chapters 1–2). Then, Augustine paints a selective portrait of Ambrose (chapters 3–5). The opening focus is followed by three more important people in Augustine’s life. One is a drunken beggar Augustine observed celebrating his good fortune at having received a few coins, which made Augustine realize how empty his life of ambitions was (chapter 6). Then comes a long section devoted to Augustine’s friend Alypius (chapters 7–10) being saved from an addiction to attendance at gladiatorial games, his being miraculously spared from false accusation of a crime, and his integrity as a lawyer who refused to take a bribe. Augustine devotes a paragraph to his friend Nebridius (conclusion of chapter 10).

The last third of Book 6 returns to the more familiar mode of the first five books. Identifying himself as being in his thirtieth year at this point, Augustine composes an interior monologue that takes us inside his chaotic life of internal instability (chapter 11). This recollection slides into the subject of marriage.


Book 6 has baffled readers and commentators by its wide-ranging excursions into the lives of people other than Augustine himself. At no point has the Confessions been governed by strict unity. Then, too, the linear narrative line is not the only way to conduct a biography or autobiography. In Book 6 we become familiar with some of Augustine’s acquaintances and influences in his life, and in this process we get to know
Augustine better.

He lavishes his attention on the zeal of Monica’s church attendance and the quickness with which she agreed to Bishop Ambrose’s desire that she offer prayers instead of food and drink on behalf of the martyrs. These activities are offered as evidence of the piety of Monica and the towering stature of Ambrose.

The primary influence of Ambrose came by way of his preaching and in particular his way of interpreting the Old Testament. The effect of that exposition is made very clear: it removed Augustine’s intellectual objections to the teachings of the Church. Gradually Augustine came to an intellectual acceptance of Christian doctrine and the truthfulness of the Bible.

The story of Alypius can be read as an example story that holds up a model to be emulated. In contrast to the complexity of Augustine’s portrait of Alypius, Nebridius functions at a single level: in being a restless spirit he is in every way a kindred spirit to Augustine at this state of his life.

This brief portrait of the fugitive spirit leads naturally to a typical section of  introspection and self-analysis on the part of Augustine (starting with chapter 11).

The second half of this unit (chapter 12) is devoted to Augustine’s indecision regarding marriage, as worked out in conversation with Alypius. Augustine puts his oversexed temperament on display, with no attempt to conceal it.

Book 6 has baffled readers... [by focusing on] the lives of people other than Augustine himself... in the process, we get to know Augustine better. — DR. LELAND RYKEN, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH

This downward slide reaches its low point with the story of the dismissal of Augustine’s common-law wife of fourteen years. As Augustine tells us this, he combines two further subjects at the very end of Book 6 that are familiar to us from the first five books: he castigates himself for his sinful lifestyle and indecision about God, and he utters prayers to God, thanking him for having used the sins and emptiness in his life to draw him ever closer to Christian belief.

For Reflection or Discussion:

Why do you believe that Augustine chose these people (and the specific things that he tells us about them) and events for inclusion in his Confessions? What do we learn about Augustine in a general sense from these characters and events, and more specifically, what role did each play in Augustine’s spiritual pilgrimage?

The two most persistent modes by which he returns to the thread of spiritual quest are (a) his statements of self-accusation and (b) his prayerful addresses to God. At what points in Book 6 does Augustine use those two forms (self-rebuke and prayer to God) to keep alive our awareness that the circumstances in his life were a story of providential direction toward eventual faith in God?

Augustine is giving us progress reports or landmark moments in his journey to salvation. Do you mark specific moments, experiences, or people as important in your own journey?

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