email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God50 Voices of DisbeliefA Companion to Buddhist PhilosophyA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Frightening LoveA People's History of ChristianityAdieu to GodAn Ethics for TodayAristotle's ChildrenAugustine's "Confessions"Bad FaithBehind the GospelsBig DreamsBig GodsBody Piercing Saved My LifeBrains, Buddhas, and BelievingBrief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and FaithBuddhism and ScienceBuddhist Boot CampConfucianismConfucianismConfucius and ConfucianismContemplative ScienceCorporal Punishment, Religion, and United States Public SchoolsCourage to SurrenderCross and KhoraDarwin's Gift to Science and ReligionDarwin, God and the Meaning of LifeDeath and the AfterlifeDebating DesignDeeper Than DarwinDivinity of DoubtEmbracing MindEncountering the DharmaEngaging BuddhismEsalenEscape Your Own PrisonEvidence for PsiEvilEvolution and ReligionExplorations in Neuroscience, Psychology and ReligionFaithFaith and Wisdom in ScienceFingerprints of GodFor The Bible Tells Me SoForgivenessFrom Shame to SinGod & TherapyGod Is Not GreatGod Is Not OneGod: The Failed HypothesisHereticHidden DimensionsHooked!Hours with the MysticsHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow Would Buddha Act?Incorporating Spirituality in Counseling and PsychotherapyInto Great SilenceIslam and the Future of Tolerance: A DialogueJewish DharmaLife After FaithLiving DeeplyLiving with a Wild GodLiving with DarwinMaking Chastity SexyMedicine and Health Care in Early ChristianityMedicine and ReligionMedicine of the PersonMysticism & SpaceNature and the Human SoulNothingOn Life After DeathPanpsychism and the Religious AttitudePathways to SpiritualityPeaceful Death, Joyful RebirthPhilosophers without GodsPhilosophical Myths of the FallPorn UniversityPray the Gay AwayPsychotherapy without the SelfRadical GraceReason, Faith, and RevolutionRecruiting Young LoveReligion without GodReligious and Spiritual Issues in Psychiatric DiagnosisSaving GodScience and NonbeliefScience and Religion at the CrossroadsScience and SpiritualityScience vs. ReligionSecular Philosophy and the Religious TemperamentSelf Hypnosis for Cosmic ConsciousnessSelf, No Self?Sex and the Soul, Updated EditionSmile of the BuddhaSpirit, Mind, and BrainSuperstitionTen Lectures on Psychotherapy and SpiritualityThe Accidental MindThe Belief InstinctThe Bodhisattva's BrainThe Cambridge Companion to AtheismThe Cambridge Companion to Science and ReligionThe Case for GodThe Chosen OneThe Dao of NeuroscienceThe Dark Night of the SoulThe Delight of Being OrdinaryThe Fundamentalist MindsetThe God DebatesThe God GeneThe Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Improbability of GodThe Joy of SecularismThe Language God TalksThe Language of GodThe MiracleThe New AtheismThe New Religious IntoleranceThe Philosophy of ReligionThe Power of FaithThe Power of ForgivenessThe Power of Religion in the Public SphereThe Psychology of Religious FundamentalismThe Psychology of SpiritualityThe Puppet and the DwarfThe Secular OutlookThe Sense of SelfThe Spirit of the BuddhaThe Spirit of Tibetan BuddhismThe Tibetan Book of the DeadThe Trauma of Everyday LifeThe Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular FaithsThe Watkins Dictionary of SymbolsTheology, Psychology and the Plural SelfThoughts Without A ThinkerTop SecretUnifying HinduismWays of KnowingWhat Is Buddhist Enlightenment?What Should I Believe?When the Impossible HappensWhy I Left, Why I StayedWilliam James on Ethics and FaithWriting as a Sacred PathYoga, Karma, and RebirthZealot
This is a short, reliable and well-written introduction to Augustine's Confessions that describes, firstly, how the Confessions came to be written and, secondly, the author's intentions in writing the Confessions these are not quite the same and, thirdly, the subsequent fate of the book.
Against those who argue that the book was written at intervals over a substantial length of time, Wills argues that it was written (or, strictly speaking, dictated) as a deliberate whole in the year 397 C.E.: "when Augustine was forty-three years old, ten years after his baptism, six years after his ordination as a priest, and a little after a year after his consecration as a bishop." (15)
Although the book has often been referred to as an autobiography, Wills argues that this is to misunderstand Augustine's intentions. It is only incidentally autobiographical: it is, first and foremost, a prayer: "Confessions is commonly read as an autobiography -- some even call it the first autobiography. It does not fit into that genre. God does not need to learn anything about Augustine's life. Augustine is trying to acknowledge the graces that make his life part of sacred history whence the constant use of Scripture." (22) As such, according to Wills, it stands closer to Pilgrim's Progress than to, for example, Rousseau's Confessions: "We are not in the realm of autobiography but of spiritual psychodrama." (25)
Wills argues that in acknowledging the part played in his life by God's grace, Augustine is preparing himself to write the theological works that were to follow. But although Augustine's motivation is not primarily to tell his readers of his life, yet he has a deep and profound motivation to recount moments of spiritual crisis. Indeed, Augustine's motivation to give an honest account of these crises is profound.
Wills use of modern insights derived from psychology is interesting. He argues that the experience of 'conversion' that Augustine described in the eighth book of the Confessions after which Augustine becomes celibate -- is unlikely to have been as sudden as Augustine relates: "modern psychological studies indicate that conversion especially stable conversion is far more often a gradual matter." (78) Sure enough, Augustine's writings immediately after his 'conversion' indicate that his conversion was not so sudden as Augustine remembered it ten years later. However, Wills points out that this discovery does not in any way undermine what Augustine is trying to tell us: he is telling us that he achieved celibacy by the grace of God that this was a more protracted affair than he remembered is not a mistake that would have concerned him. For, as Wills reminds us, Augustine is not writing an autobiography or a history.
Finally, Wills tells us of the fate of the book. Modern philosophers have found Augustine's thoughts on the passing of time of great interest. The following passage in particular, was a major influence on Heidegger: "So time is measured, my mind, in you. Raise no clamour against me I mean against yourself out of your jostling reactions. I measure time in you, I tell you, because I measure the reactions that things caused in you by their passage, reactions that remain when the things that occasioned them have passed on. I measure such reactions when I measure time." (145) But whereas Heidegger was impressed by Augustine on the subject of time, Wittgenstein was dismissive a difference that is itself of some interest. But why was Augustine himself interested in time? It was because he was interested in the idea of a timeless God in his view, we strive towards timelessness as we strive toward God.
With a deft touch, and in non-technical language, Wills' introductory book not only relays these ideas to the widest possible readership - but also communicates a sensitive understanding of the original context in which the Confessions were written and of Augustine's intentions in writing them.
© 2011 Stephen Leach
Stephen Leach is an honorary fellow at Keele University, where he has taught logic, the philosophy of mind and the history of archaeology. He is the author of The Foundations of History: Collingwood's Analysis of Historical Explanation (2009).