St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 5: Chapters 8-14

Summary

At the urging of friends, Augustine leaves Carthage to teach in Rome, hoping to find a better-behaved group of students. Monica is violently opposed, and Augustine has to lie to her in order to get away from Carthage. At Rome, he falls ill and is on the verge of death. Although Monica does not know he is ill, God hears her constant prayers and prevents Augustine from dying while still a heretic. Augustine is growing steadily more skeptical about Manichaeism, feeling that the Academics, who doubt everything, may have the right idea. He still cannot believe Catholicism, because he can envision God and evil only as physical bodies, and he cannot answer Manichee criticisms of the Bible. To his disappointment, he soon discovers that Roman students are even worse than those he had in Carthage.

With the help of Manichee patrons, Augustine is appointed teacher of rhetoric in Milan, where he hears the sermons of Bishop Ambrose. At first, he is interested only in Ambrose's style, but he soon discovers that Ambrose applies a figurative interpretation to the Bible that allows him to defend against Manichee criticism. Augustine is still not completely convinced of the validity of Catholicism, but he decides to return to the Catholic Church for the time being.

Analysis

Now a successful rhetor, Augustine is nonetheless unhappy, professionally as well as spiritually. The disruptive students of Carthage, the Wreckers he had tried to avoid in his own student days, are making his life as a teacher miserable. Manichee friends promise him that the students in Rome are better behaved, and he will have greater opportunities for advancement there.

Monica is so opposed to Augustine's leaving that she insists on going with him, and Augustine resorts to blatant trickery to keep her from boarding the boat he leaves on. The Confessions are full of water imagery, and this passage contains a particularly lovely example: The sea-water Augustine travels is linked with the water of baptism that later washes him clean, and with Monica's rivers of tears for her son.

Augustine describes Monica's love for him as extreme, even excessive, and her sorrows are a deserved punishment for that excess. Although Monica has faith, she does not understand, any more than Augustine does at that time, that God is using Augustine's departure for a good end, so she protests what she cannot comprehend. Her attention is focused on herself, on the loss of the child she loves and the pain he causes her. Augustine points up the selfish nature of this love by referring to the "remnants of Eve" evident in Monica's behavior. Many scholars have noted the parallels between Augustine's desertion of Monica and Aeneas' desertion of Dido, mentioned in Book 3. In the Aeneid, Aeneas must leave Dido because her love threatens to distract him from his destiny; so, too, does Monica's love threaten to impede Augustine on his spiritual journey.

If his spiritual ties to Manichaeism are weakening, Augustine is still socially tied to the Manichee community — in fact, he is living with Manichee friends during his illness, and Manichee patrons arrange for his job in Rome. He remains preoccupied by the question of evil. The Manichees taught that evil or sin was distinct physical entity, alien to humankind, so that all human sin could be said to come from outside the human will. In Augustine's later estimation, this belief appeals to his vanity, because it allows him to excuse himself from responsibility for any wrong he committed by blaming a cause outside himself.

Disillusioned, Augustine becomes attracted by the radical skepticism of the Academics, a group of philosophers who held that absolute knowledge of the truth was impossible for human beings. His attraction to skepticism proceeds from a kind of despair: Although he feels doubt about Manichaeism, he also feels doubt about Catholicism. Nothing he has believed now seems secure or reliable. Augustine still cannot wrap his mind around anything except a material notion of good and evil; he thinks of them as things having mass, existing in space. At the same time, he cannot believe in the Incarnation of Christ. Catholicism holds that Christ was born from a human woman, the Virgin Mary; had a real human body; and was fully human as well as fully divine. Manichaeism, which believed the body to be evil and corrupt, could not accept that Christ had ever had actual flesh; instead, he was a being of pure light and merely projected the illusion of a body for the sake of his followers.

Augustine probably arrived in Milan in late 384, at the age of 30. Milan was a major center of power; the Roman Emperors kept court in Milan because Rome was becoming increasingly unsafe, threatened by barbarian armies. The formidable Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, was later declared a saint and a Doctor (or fundamental thinker) of the Catholic Church, just as Augustine himself later was. Ambrose was famous for his eloquent sermons. For the first time, Augustine finds not only beautiful words — he describes Ambrose's language as charming — but content, the substance he has been looking for. In this respect, Ambrose contrasts Faustus in Book 5, who has nothing beyond linguistic polish and a little personal charm to offer Augustine. Ambrose has been strongly influenced by the Neo-Platonists, and he applies a Platonistic, spiritual interpretation to the Christian texts he expounds for his congregation. In doing so, he frees Augustine, for the first time, from the literal interpretation of scripture that the Manichees relied on. Understood figuratively, the Bible suddenly begins to sound intellectually and morally defensible to Augustine. Ambrose's influence moves Augustine to make a distinct, although somewhat half-hearted, break with the Manichees. For the Augustine who looks back at his life, this turn of events is entirely providential: God has led him to Milan for the purpose of encountering Ambrose, so that he can begin his return to the true faith.

Glossary

Cyprian Bishop of Carthage and martyr, d. 258. He was a kind of patron saint for North Africa and the subject of intense popular devotion.

Elpidius nothing is known of Elpidius beyond what Augustine says.

Symmachus c.345-402. Roman prefect, aristocrat, and pagan. Symmachus had a reputation for promoting talent, but he also had reasons for recommending Augustine, a non-Catholic, to a public post in Milan. Just prior to Augustine's appointment, Symmachus had asked the Emperor in Milan to reinstate toleration of pagan rites, a request that Ambrose had managed to block.

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