Augustine probably began work on the Confessions around the year 397, when he was 43 years old. Augustine's precise motivation for writing his life story at that point is not clear, but there are at least two possible causes.
First, his contemporaries were suspicious of him because of his Classical, pagan-influenced education; his brilliant public career as a rhetor; and his status as an ex-Manichee. In the midst of Augustine's prominent role in the Donatist controversies, he was suspected both by his Donatist enemies and by wary Catholic allies. One purpose of the Confessions, then, was to defend himself against this kind of criticism, by explaining how he had arrived at his Christian faith and demonstrating that his beliefs were truly Christian.
Another motivation may have been a bit of correspondence between Augustine's close friend Alypius and a notable Christian convert, Paulinus of Nola, a Roman aristocrat who had renounced the world and his immense family fortune upon converting to Christianity. Alypius wrote to Paulinus and sent him some of Augustine's works. Paulinus wrote back to ask Alypius for an account of Alypius' life and conversion. Alypius apparently conveyed the request to Augustine, which may account for the space devoted to Alypius' life story in Book 6.
The word "confession" has several senses, all of which operate throughout the work. Confession can mean admitting one's sins, which Augustine does with gusto, confessing not only his ambition and his lust but also his intellectual pride, his misplaced faith in Manichaeism, and his misunderstanding of Christianity. Confession also means a statement of belief, and this aspect is reflected in Augustine's detailed account of how he arrived at his Christian beliefs and his knowledge of God. Finally, confession means a statement of praise, and in the Confessions, Augustine constantly gives praise to the God who mercifully directed his path and brought him out of misery and error. In essence, the Confessions is one long prayer.
Structurally, the Confessions falls into three segments: Books 1 through 9 recount Augustine's life and his spiritual journey. Book 10 is a discussion of the nature of memory and an examination of the temptations Augustine was still facing. Books 11 through 13 are an extended exegesis of the first chapter of Genesis. The sharp differences between these three parts have raised many questions about the unity of the Confessions. Augustine himself commented in his Retractiones that the first ten books were about himself, and the other three were about scripture. Some critics argue that, in fact, the Confessions has no unified structure, and Augustine simply proceeded without an overall plan for the work. Others think the final four books were tacked on at a later date. Still others have contended that the Confessions is, in fact, unfinished, and that Augustine intended the autobiographical portion simply as an introduction to a much longer work, either a full analysis of the book of Genesis (Augustine produced several of these analyses) or a catechism for new members of the church. Other critics have pointed to repeated themes across the three sections — the explorations of memory and time, in particular — in attempting to find unifying elements. Another way of looking at the structure of the Confessions is to view it as a journey in time: The first part recalls Augustine's past; the middle looks at his present situation; while the third part examines God's activity in history, from the beginning of the world, stretching up through the present and into the future. Nonetheless, many readers feel that the Confessions should have ended at Book 9, and even today, you can find copies that do not include the final four books.
The Confessions is always called a story of conversion. Augustine actually undergoes several conversions: to Manichaeism; to the pursuit of truth, with Cicero's Hortensius; to an intellectual acceptance of Christian doctrine; and finally to an emotional acceptance of Christian faith. Yet the term "conversion" is somewhat misleading. Even the young Augustine was never truly in doubt about the existence of God. Although he flirted briefly with the radical skepticism of the Academics, he was always certain, even as a Manichee, that Christ was the savior of the world. Augustine simply had the details wrong — in his view, disastrously wrong. Readers who do not share Augustine's religious beliefs will observe that he assumes God exists, so he finds the God he expects. Augustine's faith always colors his interpretation of events, and it is his measuring-stick for determining truth or falsehood. The Confessions is in one sense Augustine's personal story, but it is also a story with an almost mythological or archetypal appeal. Augustine is a kind of everyman, representing a lost and struggling humanity trying to rediscover the divine, the only source of true peace and satisfaction. As in a fairy tale, the outcome of the Confessions is never really in doubt; its hero is predestined, as Monica foresees, to find what he seeks.
Augustine's Influences: Neo-Platonism
Neo-Platonism has its roots in Platonism, the philosophy outlined by the Greek philosopher Plato (died 347 B.C.). One of the distinguishing features of Platonism is its assertion that the visible, tangible forms of the physical world are based on immaterial models, called Forms or Ideas. Tangible forms are transitory, unstable, and imperfect, whereas ideal Forms are eternal, perfect, and unchanging. Physical forms are many and diverse, but ideal Forms are single and unified. Platonism places a definite hierarchy of value on these qualities: Eternity is superior to the temporal; unity is superior to division; the immaterial is superior to the material. In Platonism, the fleeting physical world that humankind inhabits becomes a kind of flawed manifestation of a perfect and eternal model that can be perceived only by the intellect, not by the senses.
The Neo-Platonist philosophers Plotinus (c. 205-270 A.D.) and his disciple Porphyry (232-c.300 A.D.) expanded Plato's philosophical ideas into something more like a full-fledged cosmology. In the Enneads, Plotinus proposed a supreme divinity with three aspects. The "One" is a transcendent, ineffable, divine power, the source of everything that exists. It is complete and self-sufficient. Its perfect power overflows spontaneously into a second aspect, the Intelligence (Mind or Nous), which contemplates the power of the One. By contemplating the One, the Intelligence produces Ideas or Forms. The unity of the One thus overflows into division and multiplicity. These Forms are translated into the physical world through the creative activity of the World Soul. In the immaterial realm, the higher part of the Soul contemplates the Intelligence, while in the material realm, the lower part of the Soul acts to create and govern physical forms. According to Plotinus, the Soul, in descending from the immaterial to the material world, forgets some of its divine nature. All human individual souls, therefore, share in the divinity of the One and will eventually return to the divine realm from which they came, after they shed their physical bodies. Porphyry further developed Plotinus' ideas about the soul, asserting that individual human souls are actually separate from and lower than the World Soul. However, by the exercise of virtue and contemplation of the spiritual, the human soul can ascend from the lower, material realm, toward the highest good, the absolute beauty and perfection of the immaterial One. Augustine refers to this Platonic "ascent of the soul" in Book 9 of the Confessions.
Christians, for their part, were deeply suspicious of Platonism and of all the old pagan philosophies that Christianity had superseded. Nonetheless, Neo-Platonism had qualities that made it attractive to intellectual Christians. Neo-Platonism's three-fold model of divinity fit well with the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Neo-Platonism's stress on the transcendent, immaterial realm as the highest good also appealed to the ascetic streak in Christianity. Augustine found Neo-Platonism to contain all the major ideas of Christianity, with the important exception that it did not acknowledge Christ.
Augustine's Influences: Manichaeism
Augustine's other great spiritual influence was the religion of Manichaeism. Manichaeism was actually one of several Gnostic religions that flourished during this period. Gnostic religions (from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge) promise believers a secret knowledge, hidden from non-believers, that will lead to salvation. Gnostic religions are also intensely dualistic, viewing the universe as a battleground between the opposing forces of good and evil. Like all Gnostic religions, Manichaeism held that darkness and the physical world were manifestations of evil, while light was a manifestation of good.
Manichaeism was founded by the prophet Mani (216-277 A.D.). Born in Persia, Mani was raised as a member of a Christian sect, but as a young man he received a series of revelations that led him to found a new religion.
Manichaeism was distinguished by its elaborate and detailed cosmology. According to Manichee myth, Light and Darkness originally existed separately, without knowledge of each other. The realm of Light, ruled by the Father, consisted of five orderly elements, called Fire, Water, Air, Ether, and Light. Its opposite, the realm of Darkness and matter, consisted of five disorderly elements. The Prince of Darkness then discovered the realm of Light and tried to conquer it. To defend Light, the Father produced the Mother of the Living, who in turn produced the Primal Man. Together with the five elements, the Primal Man went out to battle Darkness, but he was overcome, and demons of Darkness devoured his Light.
Light became trapped in evil physical matter. In order to rescue the Light, the Father created the Living Spirit. Together, the Primal Man and the Living Spirit battled the demons of Darkness. From the demons' corpses, they fashioned heaven and earth. They formed the sun and the moon from liberated bits of Light. Plants and animals were formed by the abortions and ejaculations of demons, as they tried to imprison the Light. The demons, overcome by lust, copulated, eventually giving birth to the first human couple, Adam and Eve. Salvation began when Adam received enlightenment about his true state from the Primal Man. One of the central beliefs of Manichaeism was the notion that every human being had two warring souls: one that was part of the Light, and another that was evil. Human sin was caused by the activity of this evil soul; salvation would come when the good part of the soul was freed from matter and could return to the realm of pure Light. Through lust and the act of procreation, the Darkness tries to imprison more and more bits of Light within matter. Through Mani, the true revelation of knowledge will allow believers to liberate the Light within themselves and achieve salvation.
Manichee believers were of two types. The Elect, having reached spiritual perfection, practiced extreme asceticism, fasting regularly, following a strict vegan diet, and abstaining from all sexual activity. The Hearers, who made up the majority of believers, devoted themselves to caring for the Elect. Hearers were not held to the same rigorous standards of asceticism, but they were admonished not to have children, because doing so imprisoned more Light within matter. Manichees were not to eat any food derived from animals, because after it was dead and, therefore, empty of Light, animal flesh was nothing but evil matter. Eating fruits and vegetables, however, was a sacred act. Plants contained Light, and by eating them, the Manichee Elect freed the Light from bondage. Finally, no Manichee was to ever give food to an unbeliever, because by doing so, the Manichee would be imprisoning more bits of Light in matter. (Augustine mocks this belief in Book 3.10.)
Manichaeism had a strong missionary element, so it spread rapidly through the Middle East. Because Manichaeism had absorbed some elements of Christianity, it appealed to many mainline Christians. The Manichees, however, viewed Christianity as a flawed and incomplete religion. They were sharply critical of the moral failings of the patriarchs of the Old Testament, such as Abraham, David, and Moses. The Manichees pointed to Old Testament stories that described episodes of lust, anger, violence, and deceit to support their claims that the Old Testament God was really an evil demon, not a God of Light. The Manichees believed that parts of the New Testament were true, but they argued that the books of the New Testament had been altered to corrupt Christ's actual teachings, which reflected the true faith of Manichaeism. The Manichees specifically rejected the idea that Christ had been born from a human mother into a material body, because they viewed the body as evil. It was, therefore, also impossible that Christ could have suffered a physical death on the cross. Despite its popularity, Manichaeism was viewed as subversive by most civil authorities, and it was repeatedly banned. By the sixth century, Manichaeism had largely disappeared in the western part of the empire, although it survived well into the 14th century in parts of China, and religions similar to Manichaeism reappeared in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Augustine was a Manichee Hearer for almost ten years, and in the Confessions, he frequently refers to Manichaean doctrine and practices. Although they are distinctly different, Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism agree on a few basic ideas: that matter is evil (or at least inferior) and traps the human spirit; that human spirits contain some spark of the divine that must escape the material world to rejoin the ultimate Good; and that the true reality is not the one that people see around them. Unlike Neo-Platonism, Manichaeism was intensely materialistic. Where Neo-Platonism posits a completely spiritual, immaterial realm of being, even the Manichee Light seems to have a kind of substance, which was literally imprisoned within the bonds of physical matter.