St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapters 12-20

Summary

As a child, Augustine hated being forced to study, and those who forced him had only empty wealth and glory in mind. Augustine reports that he loved reading Latin literature but always hated Greek. He disliked learning the mechanics of Latin, but it was better than reading vain stories, which directed Augustine's emotions to wrong ends. According to Augustine, traditional education teaches immoral fictions, encouraging readers to sin. Augustine says it was not surprising that he wandered away from God when he was expected to follow these empty examples. Like the Prodigal Son, he was blinded by wickedness and could not find his way back to God. Augustine excelled in school and enjoyed earning approval from his elders. Nonetheless, he was a troublemaker at school and at home. God gave Augustine many admirable talents and qualities, but he sinned in looking for truth and beauty in the world, rather than in God, and this led Augustine into confusion.

Analysis

Book 1 closes with Augustine's lament over his empty education. He is sharply critical of the literature-based curriculum of his childhood, which valued artistic style over moral content. Already, Augustine is being trained to manipulate words to produce emotional responses in an audience, but these responses are without any real substance, or worse, are directed toward ends that are actually immoral. Augustine seems to have had a particular weakness for theater (see Book 3), based mainly on the strong emotional responses it aroused. He learned as an adult to condemn these empty emotional displays. How can it be right, Augustine argues, for you to weep over a fictional tragedy, but feel no sorrow for your own sins, or to condemn someone for a minor academic error, but fail to condemn your hatred of your fellow human beings? Education without moral content leads only to further estrangement from God, entangling humans in a world whose values are fundamentally skewed.

Augustine describes himself as a very bad little boy: He lies; he steals; he tattles on his friends; he cheats in order to win; and he is angry if anyone else employs those same tactics on him. It takes only a little imagination, however, to see him behaving no worse than any other bright and energetic child at school. All of his faults are minor if you see them in this light, but for Augustine, these faults are evidence of his fundamental sinfulness, and he cannot dismiss them as innocent childhood incidents. Augustine does take time to describe some of his good personal qualities: He loves the truth; enjoys his friends; is intelligent; and has a good memory. It is also clear that he loves to be praised and to earn the approval of the adults around him; this quality in adulthood will become part of the ambition that drives him toward a successful career as a rhetor. Ultimately, however, Augustine's good impulses are misdirected. Instead of looking for the true source of beauty, happiness, and truth, which is God alone, he looks for these things in the world around him, where the warped values of his education dominate.

Glossary

Aeneas and Dido Aeneas was the legendary founder of Rome and the hero of Virgil's Aeneid. Dido, the queen of Carthage, kills herself after being abandoned by Aeneas.

Troy, ghost of Creusa Creusa, Aeneas' wife, died trying to escape from the besieged city of Troy. In Book 2 of the Aeneid, Aeneas describes how he met her ghost as he also fled.

Homer Greek poet and author of the Odyssey.

Terence Latin playwright, author of six comedies written in the 160s B.C.. Augustine is quoting from Terence's play The Eunuch.

Jupiter and Danae Jupiter is the king of the gods in Roman mythology. To seduce Danae, a human woman who had been locked up in tower by her father, Jupiter turned himself into a golden shower and rained into Danae's lap.

Juno the queen of the gods in Roman mythology. Augustine's contest involved an angry speech Juno gives in Book 1 of the Aeneid after Aeneas escapes from her.

Prodigal Son the subject of one of Christ's parables (Luke 15:11-32). The son of a rich father, he demands his inheritance, and then squanders it in dissolute living. Destitute and humiliated, he finally returns home to beg from his father, who joyfully takes him back.

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