Book 3: Wayward Life as a College Student

Confessions Book 3 theatre mask 200 x 113This page is the third 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 3, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.


In effect, Augustine was a college freshman arriving at a secular university. Externally, his life was dominated by sex and attendance at the theater (chapters 1–3). A positive development was Augustine’s reading of Cicero’s treatise Hortensius (chapter 4), which awakened within him the desire to live the philosophic life and rise above sensual indulgence. But a negative development was his embracing of a heretical philosophy known as Manichaeism, which would claim his allegiance for nearly a decade (chapter 5).

Halfway through Book 3, Augustine does what he also did at the midway point of Book 2—he subjects his misconduct to extensive analysis (chapters 6–10). Then at the end of the book, analysis gives way to the narrative of how Monica’s concern for her son’s spiritual life expressed itself on his behalf (chapters 11–12).


When composing the Confessions, Augustine chose the landmark events of his life for inclusion and analysis. Arriving at college as an immature teenager was such an event. So was his reading of Cicero’s Hortensius. Reading this book is one of several conversions that Augustine records in the Confessions—not the major conversion to the Christian faith but a significant change of direction nonetheless. We might note that the embracing of the philosophic life was occasioned by the reading of a book, and we can reflect on examples of life-changing books in our own lives.

Augustine’s account of his college years follows a similar pattern to that found in Book 2. He begins the book with a heightened and impressionistic description of sexual indulgence that included a secret “liaison” involving sexual intimacy. (Scholars do not agree about whether this woman is the same woman who was his common-law wife of fourteen years.)

Augustine devotes much more space to his attending tragic plays in the theater. Looking back, he can scarcely believe that he subjected himself to the repeated experience. Another temptation that Augustine confronted was the escapades of a group that he calls “the wreckers,” who made life miserable for freshmen by mocking them.

Despite the sordid side of Augustine’s college years, they were not all wasted. He discovered the Roman author Cicero, and in particular a book that extolled the philosophic life of the mind entitled Hortensius.

Cicero’s 'Hortensius' awakened within him the desire to live the philosophic life and rise above sensual indulgence. — Dr. Leland Ryken, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH

To live the philosophic life did not bring ultimate satisfaction, since “the name of Christ was not contained in the book,” but it was a halfway house on the journey toward Christian belief. It instilled in Augustine a desire for something more enlightened than sex and shows. But that gain was counterbalanced by Augustine’s losing his mind and soul to Manichaeism. Manichaeism was a religion founded by Mani, who lived in Persia in the third century AD. It was a leading rival to Christianity. Manichaeism had certain Christian trappings (such as churches and bishops) and incorporated parts of the New Testament.

Manichaeans viewed the world as a cosmic battleground between light and darkness, good and evil. Matter was regarded as evil and something that we are called to rise above. Manichaeism encouraged an ascetic lifestyle. These ideas were enshrined in an elaborate mythology and cosmology, and Augustine hints at these in Book 3.

Manichaeans viewed the world as a cosmic battleground between light and darkness. They regarded matter as evil and encouraged an ascetic lifestyle. — Dr. Leland Ryken, Professor Emeritus of English

Augustine reviles Manichaeism for misleading him, and he actually devotes most of chapters 7–10 to asserting Christian rebuttals to the teachings of the Manichaeans. The key to assimilating this part of the book is to realize that these Christian rebuttals represent the understanding of the author and narrator—the mature Christian, not the youthful Augustine.

Augustine returns to a narrative flow at the end of Book 3 and talks about his mother. Augustine pictures his mother as the agent who delivered his soul “from this deep darkness.”

For Reflection or Discussion:

Trace the places where Augustine, in the stance of prayer, asserts that God was using the negative events of his life to gradually bring Augustine to faith in him. Exactly how was this principle at work in Augustine’s various missteps?

To what extent has the same principle been at work in your life?

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