This page is the eighth 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 8, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.
Augustine has been moving toward embracing the Christian faith; the climax of his gradual conversion occupies Book 8. Chapter 1 is a prayer to God in which Augustine takes stock of his present situation. The subsequent story of final conversion is placed within a context of stories of conversion that parallel Augustine’s conversion and are an impetus to it. Thus Augustine visits a churchman named Simplicianus, who tells him the story of the conversion of Victorinus in which Simplicianus played a key role (chapters 2–4). Augustine is ardent to follow the example of Victorinus but is torn by an internal conflict of wills (chapter 5). Alypius and Augustine are visited by Ponticianus, who tells the story of how two of his friends had been converted while reading the Life of St. Antony (chapter 6). This story prompts Augustine to ponder his own conflict of wills and analyze his spiritual state (chapter 7). Then comes one of the most famous stories in the world. In a garden adjacent to his lodging, Augustine is torn between a desire to commit himself to God and his lifelong habit of sin (chapters 8–11).
In the midst of this turmoil of soul, Augustine hears a child’s voice saying, “Pick up and read,” prompting Augustine to hasten to the place where his friend Alypius is sitting (chapter 12). There he finds Paul’s epistle to the Romans, opens it, and reads Romans 13:13–14. The conclusion of Augustine’s long quest toward faith is immediately realized. He and Alypius report what has happened to Augustine’s mother, and Augustine is cured of his lifelong addiction to sex and devotion to worldly success.
The first thing to note is that we finally get a book of the Confessions that is predominantly narrative in form. Another genre is the conversion story; in fact, Book 8 emerges as a small anthology of conversion stories. Perhaps it ranks just behind the story of Paul’s conversion as the prototypical conversion story of Christian history.
In Book 8 Augustine portrays himself as sitting on the fence, in need of what today we call a 'tipping experience.'— Dr. Leland Ryken, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH
Augustine knows what he wants: he wants to move beyond the sin in his life and commit himself to Christ. That is the goal of his quest. This storyline has been unfolding for a long time. We can observe the things that hold Augustine back from surrendering to Christ and the things that push him in the opposite direction toward embracing the Christian faith. He has already made the intellectual decision that Christianity is true, but he holds back at the moral level and the level of repentance or turning from sin. In Book 8 Augustine portrays himself as sitting on the fence, in need of what today we call a “tipping experience.”
On one side, then, we see Augustine’s bondage to sin. This is what holds him back from achieving the goal of his spiritual quest. On the other side of the great debate we can chart the things that finally proved strong enough to conquer Augustine’s indecision. The first is the story of the conversion of Victorinus. The second is the conversion to the monastic life of two high-ranking public officials. All of this is a striking parallel to what was about to happen to Augustine.
The actual conversion account is preceded by a long section of meditation (chapters 9- 10). The general drift of Augustine’s meditation on the human will is that we do not have a good will and a bad will (as Manichaeism asserts) but a single will that is directed either to the good or the bad.
To climax his description of what transpired within him, Augustine resorts to his literary imagination: he invents a personified abstraction in the form of a beautiful woman named Lady Continence. She represents faithfulness to God.
The magic never fails in regard to the story of Augustine’s conversion: the garden setting; Alypius standing at Augustine’s side, waiting “in silence for the outcome of [Augustine’s] unprecedented state of agitation”; the child’s voice repeatedly saying, “Pick up and read”; Augustine’s eyes falling on the passage from Romans that perfectly fits his situation— “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” The last paragraph of Book 8 sounds exactly the right note in an understated way, being a brief prayer of gratitude and recollection of how Augustine was miraculously purged of his lust and ambition for success in the world.
For Reflection or Discussion:
What makes up the pull of evil within Augustine’s will, and what are the influences tugging him toward belief?
One of the great feats of Book 8 is its realistic portrayal of the bondage that the habit of sin can bring into a person’s life. What forms has it taken in your life?