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Augustine's Review - Augustine's "Confessions"
A Biography
by Gary Wills
Princeton University Press, 2011
Review by Stephen Leach
May 18th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 20)

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).


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