St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 5: Chapters 1-7

Summary

At 29, Augustine meets a Manichean bishop named Faustus, who is famous for his knowledge of doctrine. Augustine hopes Faustus can clear up some of his doubts regarding Manichean explanations of astronomy, which Augustine is starting to find improbable. The explanations of pagan scientists, although lacking in knowledge of Christ, are still more rationally consistent than those of the Manichees. Upon meeting Faustus, Augustine finds him pleasant and well-spoken, but no more knowledgeable than Augustine himself. Consequently, Augustine becomes disillusioned with Manichaeism, although he does not abandon it, because he still has found nothing better to replace it.

Analysis

Having been a Manichee for about nine years, Augustine is gradually losing faith in his chosen religion. Most importantly, the complex Manichean myths about the sun, moon, and stars have begun to strike Augustine as logically inconsistent and incompatible with the rational observations of science. Augustine's acceptance of the scientific knowledge of the pagan philosophers may seem strange at first glance. Augustine is careful to point out that scientific knowledge without knowledge of Christ is inadequate, but this idea in itself does not make scientific observation incorrect or worthless. For Augustine, the natural order is created by God to reflect divine order, and the ordered qualities of the physical world are accessible to human reason. Therefore, pagan astronomers can make valid observations about the natural order, predicting eclipses and plotting the courses of the stars, even if they do not have knowledge of God. However, amplifying a point he makes at the end of Book 4, Augustine asserts that simple faith, even without scientific knowledge, is better than scientific knowledge without faith. Augustine is always consistent in his assertion that knowledge of the created world, whether scientific or otherwise, is only good insofar as it leads upward, toward knowledge of the creator. However, Augustine also manages a note of criticism for those Christians who ignorantly assert incorrect beliefs about natural science.

Faustus, promised as someone who can answer Augustine's questions, turns out to be a disappointment. Faustus speaks agreeably and has a natural charm, but amidst the beautiful words, there is still no substance to satisfy Augustine's soul. Disillusioned, Augustine loses all enthusiasm for Manichaeism, but seeing no better alternatives, he does not make a break with it yet.

In the midst of this discussion, Augustine pauses to answer an objection that came from within the Catholic Christian community itself: the idea that truth cannot be expressed in elegant and polished language. Many Christians were deeply suspicious of the pagan traditions of education and rhetorical training that formed Augustine intellectually and whose failings he knew so well. Typically, Augustine avoids the simplistic answer. Beautiful expressions do not make something true, but neither do beautiful expressions make something false. Augustine explores the issue of a "Christian style" more fully in On Christian Doctrine. Augustine was deeply critical of traditional pagan education, but he also did much to rehabilitate pagan writers for Christian audiences by employing the metaphor of the "gold of the Egyptians." Just as the Israelites were allowed by God to plunder the gold of their Egyptian captors when they left slavery, so, too, are Christians allowed to make use of the wisdom of pagan writers, wherever such wisdom does not contradict revealed Christian truth.

Glossary

Faustus c.340-390(?), Manichee bishop. At about the same time he was writing the Confessions, Augustine was also working on the Contra Faustum Manicheum, a detailed refutation of the Manichee preacher's teaching.

Great Bear Ursa Major, the constellation of the Big Dipper.

Way, Word, Only-Begotten names for Christ used in the New Testament.

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