Why should we read Augustine’s Confessions? For the same reason that Augustine wrote them: to understand.
Around 397 AD, Augustine wrote what is sometimes considered to be Western literature’s first autobiography to understand himself, and with that understanding, he allows us to better understand ourselves. Though The Confessions is a profoundly religious text, it is almost more importantly a continuation of that search for a means to live the good life which Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle began. We are welcome eavesdroppers on the story of his search, written as an extended prayer to his God.
After an education in Carthage, Augustine became a teacher of rhetoric and was later impressed into the priesthood by his Hippo Regius (in modern-day Algeria) neighbors, who saw in him a great resource—both religious and philosophic. Controversially promoted to bishop so that he must remain in Hippo, Augustine found it necessary to validate himself, as Catholic and as philosopher. The Confessions finds Augustine writing to create a special role for himself: philosopher prelate.
And philosophize he did. He considered such varied topics as reason, freewill, knowledge of self, memory, education, astronomy, beauty, and of course, sin. He extends Greek philosophy and connects the dots between it and later philosophers such as Descartes, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. It does not hurt at all that he is a very, very fine writer—complex yet very accessible.
My God, what a great work to read and discuss!
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
“Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars,
and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
– Augustine, The Confessions