St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 6: Chapters 1-10

Summary

Monica has come to join Augustine in Milan. She is pleased, but not surprised, to hear that Augustine has given up Manichaeism. When Bishop Ambrose forbids her from making offerings for the dead, as was customary in Africa, she obediently gives up the practice. Augustine admires Ambrose and is eager to speak with him, but Ambrose is always busy. Augustine is beginning to understand that in his intellectual pride, he completely misinterpreted the ideas of the Catholic Church. He is still driven by ambition and pride, and he worries about his career. He sees a beggar in the street and is dismayed to think that the beggar is happier than he is.

Augustine discusses his friends Alypius and Nebridius, who had joined Manichaeism because of him and were with him in Milan. In Carthage, Alypius had a weakness for the circus games, which he gave up immediately after a rebuke from Augustine. But in Milan, he is seduced by the gladiatorial shows, against his better judgment. He is mistakenly accused of crime he did not commit, and only God's intervention saves him, in the form of a witness to his good character. Alypius earned his reputation for integrity as a junior lawyer by resisting the bribes and threats of a powerful senator. Like Alypius, Nebridius is also a dear friend to Augustine, a Manichee, and a brilliant thinker. The three of them look for truth together.

Analysis

Book 6 is distinguished by several digressions from the narrative of Augustine's life into the lives of those around him, most notably Monica and his friend Alypius. A parallel theme in the stories concerns giving up a bad habit after being corrected by a wise friend. Monica, who has already earned a reputation for piety in Milan, is following the traditions of her homeland by bringing offerings of food and wine to the tombs of martyred saints. Although Monica herself is absolutely sober and respectful, Ambrose has forbidden the practice because of its tendency to be misused as an occasion for wild parties and its similarity to pagan rites. Somewhat to Augustine's surprise, Monica gives it up without complaint after she hears Ambrose's order. Monica's story also emphasizes one of Augustine's recurring themes: the abandonment of the physical for the high good of the spiritual. Instead of food, Monica learns to bring her heartfelt prayers to honor the saints. Like Monica, Alypius also gives up a bad habit, his addiction to circus games, after hearing a veiled rebuke on the subject during one of Augustine's lectures. Like Monica, he does not complain or take offense, but immediately changes his behavior. The circus games were violent public spectacles involving wild animals, and Alypius' weakness for them may be compared to Augustine's own weakness for the theater, in that both stir up negative emotions for no good purpose.

The behavior of Monica and Alypius contrasts with that of Augustine at this point in his life. Like them, he has heard a rebuke, at least in a figurative sense: He has discovered that Manichaeism is false, and he knows that he has misinterpreted Catholic doctrine. Unlike his companions, however, Augustine fails to change his bad habits. He is stuck, unable to go back to Manichaeism or fully embrace Catholicism, instead wavering about his beliefs and his plans. The force of simple habit in encouraging sinful behavior is a recurring theme in Augustine's works. In fact, even Alypius does not escape it entirely. After he arrives, he is cajoled by a group of friends into going to the gladiatorial games, another extremely violent and bloody public entertainment. Thinking himself strong enough to resist the temptation, he sneaks a peek at the action and is once again hooked, despite his best intentions. Sin is not so easily conquered by the simple force of human will. The same kind of peer pressure that operated on Augustine's theft of pears in Book 2 also operates on Alypius, as his group of friends carries him along to a sin he would never have committed alone.

Alypius also appears in what can only be called a comic interlude. In a plot that reads like something out of a stock melodrama, he is accused of a crime after he is discovered innocently examining the axe that a thief discarded while being pursued. In some respects, the little collection of tales about Alypius has the tone of a hagiography, the legend of a saint's life. Exactly why it appears here in such detail is not completely clear. Alypius was alive at the time Augustine was writing, was still a close friend, and was the bishop of Thagaste, their childhood home. The scholar Pierre Courcelle theorized that Augustine had intended to write a biography of Alypius, and Book 6 gives the remnants of that biography. Most critics are skeptical of this theory, but convincing explanations are hard to find. Alypius' prominent appearance may simply reflect the fact that Paulinus of Nola's request for information about Alypius' life and Augustine's life — a request originally sent to Alypius — helped encourage Augustine to write the Confessions. In a literary sense, the good Alypius, who is chaste and honest, does act within the narrative as a contrast to Augustine's portrait of his own bad character. Perhaps, finally, Augustine simply wanted to pay a compliment to an old friend. Interestingly, the tale of Alypius' close call is not the only comic touch in this section. Augustine slips in an affectionate dig about Monica when he mentions that Nebridius also left his father and mother — a mother who did not follow him all the way to Milan.

The final important character in this section is Ambrose, seen from afar through young Augustine's eyes. For Augustine the bishop, Ambrose must have served as a role model, and Augustine's description of the many demands on Ambrose's time has the plaintive ring of personal experience. Augustine never gets to question Ambrose alone, as he did with Faustus in Book 5. Augustine had hoped Faustus could privately give him secret answers; with Ambrose, all the answers are out in the open, in his public sermons and in the Christian scriptures that anyone is free to study. When not preaching or ministering to his congregation, Ambrose reads silently. While silent reading was not necessarily unusual, it was common in the Classical world to read aloud, particularly if the reader was not alone. Ambrose's concentrated silence is the opposite of the "loquaciousness" of the Manichees, who use their pretty words for deceit, just as Augustine the rhetor does. Rather than talking, Ambrose is listening to the word of God, something Augustine has as yet not done.

Glossary

assessor a person acting as a consultant or advisor in matters of law.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

According to Manichee myth, Light and Darkness originally existed




Quiz