St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 8: Chapters 1-4

Summary

Augustine is now a Christian in his heart, but he is unable to give up his worldly affairs, particularly sex. He goes to speak with Simplicianus, Ambrose's teacher. Simplicianus congratulates him for studying the books of the Platonists and tells him the story of Victorinus. Victorinus was a distinguished rhetor in Rome, and for most of his life he was a vocal defender of paganism. In his old age, he accepted Christianity, but he was afraid to attend church or be baptized. Finally, he decided to be publicly baptized. Augustine observes that things lost are dearer when found again, and that the conversion of those who were previously opponents of the faith sets a great example for others.

Analysis

Augustine's internal conversion now must be matched by an external conversion. Augustine's way of thinking has changed, but he is still a man of the world, pursuing a high-powered career, planning to marry an heiress, and maintaining a lover on the side. Looking for advice, he meets with Simplicianus, Ambrose's mentor. Like Augustine, Simplicianus and Ambrose are both Christian Platonists. Simplicianus offers Augustine a lesson in the example of Marius Victorinus, the scholar who was responsible for translating Augustine's "books of the Platonists" into Latin. Victorinus' career mirrored Augustine's: He was a successful rhetor and a prominent enemy of Christianity before his conversion.

Not surprisingly, Augustine sees his own situation in this story. He adds to it New Testament examples of the return of the lost, referring to a housewife's lost coin, the good shepherd who finds his lost lamb, and the return of the Prodigal Son, whose story forms a kind of framework for the Confessions. Augustine's other prominent model of conversion, Saint Paul the Apostle, also makes an appearance in this section. Like Augustine and Victorinus, Paul was a prominent opponent of Christianity before becoming its advocate. Augustine observes that such public examples of conversion lead others to salvation. For Augustine, this has a double significance: His own example will be first in his public acceptance of baptism and second in the writing of the Confessions itself.

Public affirmation of the Christian religion is difficult enough for Augustine, but with typical ambition, he has raised the bar for himself to its ultimate height. As he points out, anticipating his readers' objections, it would have been perfectly acceptable for him to join the church but to remain in public life and to marry. But Augustine cannot be satisfied with anything less than a total commitment to his new faith: withdrawal from the world, his career, his honors, and most painfully, from all sexual activity. In a sense, this commitment substitutes one kind of ambition for another: Formerly driven to excel in the world, Augustine is now driven to excel in his faith. Characteristically, Augustine cannot do anything by halves, and his painful deliberations over this radical change in his life are about to reach a crisis point. His return home to God is imminent, and he quotes the story of the Prodigal Son twice in 8.3, referring to the one who was dead, but is now alive.

Glossary

Simplicianus d. c.400. Ambrose's spiritual father; succeeded Ambrose as bishop of Milan in 397.

pearl in Christ's parable of the "Pearl of Great Price," (Matthew 13:45-46) a merchant finds a precious pearl and then sells everything that he has in order to buy it.

Anubis, Neptune, Venus, Minerva Anubis was an Egyptian god of the underworld. Neptune, Venus, and Minerva were the Roman gods of the sea, love, and wisdom, respectively. The line is quoted from the Aeneid. The point was that the Romans had become devoted to cults imported from Egypt, a conquered Roman territory.

old leaven (or yeast) a reference to I Corinthians 5:7-8: "Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast; not with the old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."

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