St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapters 1-5

Summary

Augustine opens with a statement of praise to God; to praise God is the natural desire of all men. In calling upon God, Augustine shows faith, because he cannot call upon a God he does not know. God fills all of creation; God is perfect, eternal, unchangeable, all-powerful, and the source of all goodness. God is beyond Augustine's ability to describe; he asks God for the words to describe such greatness. Augustine pleads that he is too small and weak for God to come to him, but only God can aid him.

Analysis

Augustine opens his spiritual biography with a magnificent flourish of praise to God. The opening paragraph contains one of Augustine's most famous statements about humanity's relationship with God: "You stir us to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (translation, Chadwyck). This pithy sentence summarizes a knotty proposition, one that is a major theme of Augustine's works and one that the rest of the opening simply restates and amplifies: Human beings naturally long to "rest" in God, to know God and to harmonize their wills with God's will. But because they are weak and sinful, humans can never hope to do this without God's assistance. In fact, all human impulses toward God have their origin in God.

Augustine has earned criticism throughout the centuries for this difficult proposition, which places so much emphasis on human weakness. Many readers have felt that Augustine denied human freedom of the will by portraying humankind as utterly passive, dependent upon God even for the impulse to love God. If human beings are powerless even to choose God without God's help, how can that choice have any moral value? Augustine, however, does not approach the problem in that way. Because Augustine's God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, it is impossible for any part of the creation to exist outside of God. The nature of human sin, however, means that human beings can be blind to their dependency on God. This, in fact, is the story of Augustine's conversion: He was blind to God's truth, but God patiently drew him back toward that truth. This particular story is Augustine's alone, but as he presents it, it can also express the story of all humanity, painfully separated from God and always struggling to return.

The intimacy of the relationship between God and humanity is reflected in the intimacy of Augustine's narrative. In the Confessions, the conversation is always between "I," meaning Augustine himself, and "You," meaning God. In an important sense, Augustine's first and most important reader, or audience, is his God. In this opening, Augustine addresses God directly, as he does throughout the Confessions, so much so that he sometimes seems to forget the presence of his human audience.

Augustine's opening flourish of praise also reflects one of the three senses of "confession," that of confession of praise. The story of the Confessions is the story of Augustine's return to God, so it is appropriate that story should begin with Augustine's tribute of praise to the God he loves. In making a confession of praise, Augustine says, he is also demonstrating his faith, because he is not praising some distant or unknowable deity; God is as close to him as his own life and experiences, always working for Augustine's good, even when Augustine is unable or unwilling to recognize that truth. It is this confession of faith that keeps Augustine's focus on his human readers. By expressing his faith through the vehicle of his life story, Augustine hopes to bring his readers to a better understanding of God's grace.

Stylistically, these opening chapters pile question upon question, each one seemingly unanswerable and contradictory, but always resolvable by reference to God's compassion and generosity. In one long paragraph, Augustine attempts to describe the all-encompassing nature of God by expressing a series of opposites: God is hidden but always present; gathering to himself but not needing anything; recovering things lost but experiencing no loss. Augustine's elegant rhetorical style is on display throughout this opening section and throughout the Confessions, he will rely on almost musical passages as he attempts to express God's transcendent greatness and unfailing love. Augustine also makes constant use of language from the Christian Bible, weaving it into his text even when he is not directly quoting a particular passage; some translations make note of these references, but others do not.

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