St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 7: Chapters 1-21

Summary

Augustine describes his attempts to think about the nature of God. He still conceives of God as a kind of matter, like air or water, filling the spaces of the universe. Nebridius has already proposed a convincing argument against the dualist mythology of the Manichees: If God can be harmed by evil, then God is not all-powerful, which is absurd; if God cannot be harmed by evil, why is there any need for God to fight evil? But Augustine is still troubled by the origin of evil, which he cannot comprehend because he still does not comprehend Christ. He begins to understand that sin results from the corruption of the human will. He is finally convinced that astrology is false, after he hears the story of a rich man and a beggar born at exactly the same moment, so that their horoscopes must be the same. Then he reads the works of the Platonists, and he sees Christ reflected in them. Using Platonic ideas, he is finally able to move upward through material things to the contemplation of the immaterial divine. Augustine comprehends that to God, there is no evil; seen as a totality, from the perspective of God's eternity, the entire creation is harmonious and good. Sin is a rejection of the higher good, God, for the lower goods of material things. Contemplation of these truths is too much for Augustine's strength, but by the mediation of Christ between the material and immaterial, understanding is possible. Having read the Platonists, Augustine is now able to study the Bible with a clearer understanding, because Platonism alone is not enough to save him.

Analysis

Book 7 is one of the most tightly constructed sections of the Confessions, in which Augustine describes in detail how he finally comes to understand God, Christ, and evil. As the middle book of the 13 in the Confessions, Book 7 marks the decisive turning point in Augustine's thought. Only one piece of narrative interrupts the dense description of Augustine's intellectual processes: the story of the slave child and the rich child born at the same moment, which finally convinces Augustine that astrology is phony. For many readers, this story seems out of place, so much so that some scholars have argued it was a later addition to the original text, but it does have possible ties to the rest of Book 7. Rejection of astrology relates to the question of free will. Augustine has already stated in Book 4.3 that astrology denies the freedom of the will, and Augustine's realization in Book 7 that sin is a perversion of the human will forms another part of his rejection of Manichaeism.

The key to Augustine's intellectual prison comes in the form of "some books of the Platonists." No one knows the identity of the man "puffed up with pride" who gave Augustine these books or even what books they were, although scholars find strong echoes of the writings of Plotinus and Porphyry in Book 7. Interestingly, Augustine begins his discussion of the Platonic books by quoting from the opening of the gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word…" The Platonic books contain these same notions, Augustine insists, even if they do not mention Christ, the Word. Augustine is exploiting the "gold of the Egyptians" — taking whatever is useful from pagan philosophy without accepting all of pagan philosophy's ideas.

Platonism supplies Augustine with a theoretical framework that allows him to think of a God who has no physical substance. Unlike the ineffectual, physically limited Manichee deity, the Platonic divinity is eternal, infinite, immanent, incorruptible, unchanging, and perfect. The immaterial Platonic god represents a consummate good that is imperfectly glimpsed in the material world. In 7.17, Augustine offers a classic formulation of the "Platonic ascent" that leads from the material to the immaterial: from the physical body, to the soul, to the soul's inner power, to higher reasoning, to the source of higher reason. This is the beatific vision, in which the human mind has direct apprehension of the divine, but Augustine cannot sustain it for long, being pulled downward by his material body — specifically, by his sexual impulses. The beatific vision supplies Augustine with a radical solution for the problem of evil. Seen from God's perspective, outside of time, comprehending the entire universe, there is no evil; evil is nothing, having no existence of its own. It occurs only as a corruption of things that are good.

What the Platonic books do not offer Augustine is any notion of Christ's Incarnation as a human being or his death on the cross. The importance of Christ as a mediator between human and God, material and spiritual, is a key point for Augustine. Augustine must supplement his reading with Christian scripture, and especially with the letters of St. Paul, recorded in the New Testament. These letters are of primary importance in Book 8, when a passage from one of them finally clinches Augustine's emotional conversion. Christology occupies much of the last half of Book 7, where Augustine runs through the different heretical interpretations of Christ's nature. Augustine says that at the time, he held the Platonist's view that Christ was not divine simply a good and wise man, while Alypius shared the view of the Apollinarians that Christ was simply God poured into a human shape, not having a human soul or mind. Debates over the exact nature of Christ were rampant in the early church, having been resolved only in 325 by the Council of Nicea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed. Augustine finally affirms that view, that Christ was both fully God and fully human. For Augustine, Christ provides the only real resolution to the matter of human sin. In 7.5, the anxiety reflected in his restless flurry of questions about evil comes to rest only in a statement of faith in Christ, and when his mind is overwhelmed by the glory of the beatific vision in 7.17, his discussion in 7.18 turns to Christ, the only bridge between frail humanity and the transcendent glory of God.

Although Augustine's mistaken beliefs are now clear to him, this is not yet the end of his journey back to God. The intellectual process that has been at work since Book 4 finally culminates in Book 8, with Augustine's emotional acceptance of God's will.

Glossary

Vindicianus the doctor who tries to warn Augustine against astrology in Book 4.5.

Firminus nothing is known of Firminus beyond what Augustine says.

Jacob and Esau twin sons of Isaac (see Genesis, 25 and 27).

Photinus d. 376, condemned for heresy in 351. Photinus believed that Christ as the Son of God did not exist before the Incarnation; this belief was contrary to orthodox doctrine that the Son was eternal and uncreated.

Apollinarians the Apollinarian heresy held that Christ had a human body but not a human spirit.

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