St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapters 6-7

Summary

Augustine discusses his infancy, which he knows only from the report of his parents. According to that report, Augustine became more aware and tried unsuccessfully to communicate his desires to the adults around him. Only God can say whether people exist in some form before infancy; Augustine says that his own knowledge is limited to what God reveals. God knows no past or future, only one eternal present. Even as an infant, Augustine was not free from sin. Observing infants, he notes that they throw tantrums if they do not get their way, although they are too weak to cause actual harm. Augustine thanks God for the good gifts of his body, his life, and his senses, gifts that reflect God's perfect ordering of all things.

Analysis

Chapter 6 introduces Augustine's infancy, although he has little to report about it, because he cannot remember it. He takes the occasion to make some observations about infants, which he concludes in Chapter 7. He emphasizes that everything that has sustained him, even the production of mother's milk, the instinct of a mother to feed her child, and a baby's desire for nourishment, are part of the natural order ordained by God and reflect God's goodness and generosity. He acknowledges the order God provides to the whole universe, of which God is the perfect and supremely beautiful model. This is an important point to remember when, as in Book 10, Augustine takes what appears to be a harshly negative view on the pleasures of the senses. In sharp contrast to the Manichees and the Platonists, Augustine ultimately affirms that the material world is good, because God made it, and the material world expresses God's perfect beauty and order.

However, Augustine does not share any sunny notions of the innocence of childhood. He believes in the idea of original sin, inherited by all human beings from the first man, Adam. Augustine is quick to clarify that God did not make sin; sin is humanity's responsibility. Augustine's views on original sin are complex, and he does not directly discuss the topic in the Confessions. Simply stated, original sin is the condition that inclines human beings to selfishness and disobedience, even when they may want to act otherwise. Original sin is evident in the tantrums and unreasonable anger of babies. In Augustine's view, even a baby may display murderous jealousy of his own brother at the breast. Characteristically, Augustine reasons from everyday existence that this behavior must be wrong, because similar behavior in an adult would be instantly condemned.

Augustine introduces the idea of language, the "signs" that he tried to use to communicate during his infancy his inward impulses to the external world. At this stage, Augustine's signs were woefully inadequate, but the inadequacy of language as a tool for genuine communication is one of Augustine's preoccupations, and it reappears in Chapter 8 and later in Books 10 and 11. As a man whose career was built on clever and skillful use of language, often for amoral purposes, Augustine displays ambivalence about language itself. Language is necessary to human life in society and to transmitting the knowledge of God, but it is also easily perverted and corrupted.

In this discussion of infancy, Augustine deliberately ducks the question of whether human beings exist before birth or even before conception, claiming that such things are simply beyond the knowledge that God has seen fit to reveal. Specifically, Augustine is avoiding making a statement about whether the soul exists prior to its union with the human body. Both the Neo-Platonists and the Manichees believed that the soul existed in a divine, immaterial realm before entering its prison of human flesh in the material world. Endorsing this view would have left Augustine open to accusations that he was still a Manichee, or that he was a Neo-Platonist with the trappings of Christianity. However, Augustine does not specifically refute this viewpoint; he simply refuses to address it, because it is something beyond what God has revealed to human knowledge.

On the subject of mysteries beyond human understanding, Augustine takes the opportunity to discuss God's eternity; that is, human beings perceive time as moving in a linear fashion, past, present, and future, but to God, all times are one simultaneous present, one "today." This discussion of human time versus God's time reappears as Augustine examines the creation of the world in Book 11.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

According to Manichee myth, Light and Darkness originally existed




Quiz