St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 3: Chapters 6-12

Summary

Still searching for the truth, Augustine encounters the Manichees. He is taken in by their objections to the literal sense of the Bible and by the physicality of their mythology, because he fails to understand that only the spiritual reality is the true one, while the physical reality is merely the reflection of spiritual reality. He also does not realize that right and wrong are not determined by the customs of different places or times but by the unchangeable law of God. Augustine considers the nature of sin: Some sins offend God's laws, and some sins offend others by causing harm or suffering. Sin springs from three causes: lust for power, carnal lust, and lust of the eyes. But because Augustine is ignorant of all of this, he accepts the absurd mythologies of the Manichees as the literal truth.

Meanwhile, Monica is grieved by Augustine's conversion to Manichaeism. She has a dream in which she sees herself and Augustine standing on the same measuring stick. She goes to a bishop to plead with him to talk to Augustine, but he tells her that Augustine will recognize the errors of the Manichees soon enough on his own.

Analysis

Having found Christian scriptures too simple to be satisfying, Augustine turns to the more complex mythology of Manichaeism. Augustine explains his attraction to Manichean doctrine in terms of misplaced literalism — based on a literal reading of the Bible, the Manicheans accused Catholic Christianity of absurdity and immorality.

Here, as he so often does throughout the Confessions, the mature Augustine looks back to analyze and explain the errors of his youthful beliefs. Augustine's answer to the Manicheans' literal interpretation comes to him in the form of Platonism. Augustine's insistence on spiritual truths rather than literal interpretation allows him to answer the Manichees' accusations that the heroes of the Old Testament behaved immorally. Augustine responds with an interesting bit of moral relativism: God's laws never change, but throughout history, different human societies have applied those laws as was appropriate to their circumstances. Augustine allows for variations in local customs and practices, so long as the essence of God's law is not violated. Societies may determine what is acceptable behavior, but God's law is always supreme. When God commands something contrary to human custom, human custom must change.

This exploration of morality leads Augustine into a discussion of the types and origins of sin. Sinful acts either offend God's law, injuring the self, or they seek to injure others — whether physically or spiritually. Sin proceeds from three sources: pride, lust, and curiosity (or curiositas, Augustine's Latin term). Curiositas can literally mean intellectual curiosity, a restless seeking for things that are not God, but it is also closely related to Augustine's love of theater and other empty spectacles, and to the seduction of the visual that he discusses in greater detail in Book 10. All three of the causes of sin are varieties of concupiscence, excessive and mistaken desires for the transitory good offered by the material world.

Augustine refers to a few bits of the complex Manichean mythology, which he compares to the empty fictions of literature he was still studying at that time. By doing so, he identifies the appeal of Manichean mythology with the sin of curiositas: intellectual pride and a delight in meaningless spectacle that diverts one from the truth.

Monica reappears in Augustine's narrative as a model of Christian motherhood and almost as a personification of the Church herself. She reprimands her wandering son, although he ignores her. All the while, she remains simply and steadfastly faithful, constantly praying for her son's return to the faith. Like the Church, she becomes the vehicle for the communication of God's will, receiving two messages about Augustine that she believes come directly from God.

The first of these is a dream in which a young man reassures her that Augustine will eventually join her on the "rule," the straight way of correct Christian doctrine. Dreams were a recurring interest of Augustine's. Although he is often concerned with their capacity to deceive by imitating reality (as in 4.6, where he talks about food in dreams, and 10.30, where he considers sexual dreams), he also shared the general belief of his time that dreams could be direct communications from the divine.

Monica's second communication from God comes in the form of a message from an ex-Manichee bishop. The bishop is a foreshadowing of the mature Augustine, who is himself a bishop and ex-Manichee. Monica tearfully begs the bishop to talk to her son, and he responds with a famous admonition: "It cannot be that the son of these tears should perish" (translation, Chadwyck). These two messages close Book 3 on a note of hope. Although he will remain a Manichee for nine years, Augustine's return to the Church is inevitable, and the search for wisdom he has begun so tentatively will be successful. The Augustine who speaks for most of Book 3 is the Augustine who can now look back clear-eyed at the mistakes of his youth. God has already heard Monica's prayers for her son's rescue, but it will take time for God's will to be worked out in Augustine's life.

Glossary

husks After he wastes his inheritance, the Prodigal Son is reduced to eating the "husks" or scraps that are fed to pigs. Augustine uses this as a metaphor for the literature he was teaching to his students — he could not find spiritual nourishment in the "husks" of pagan fiction.

Medea a sorceress of Greek mythology; she flies through the air in a chariot pulled by dragons.

Five Elements, Five Caves of Darkness a reference to Manichean mythology.

Solomon's allegory King Solomon was believed to be the author of the Old Testament book of Proverbs. See Proverbs 9:17, where the "woman" is Folly or Ignorance.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David patriarchs of the Old Testament.

foot a metrical unit in poetry.

Sodom Biblical city destroyed by God (Genesis 18:20-19:25). The Sodomites were traditionally believed to have practiced homosexuality.

ten-stringed harp the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).

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