St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 9: Chapters 1-7

Summary

Following his conversion, Augustine has decided not to withdraw from public life immediately, not wanting to appear vain. He decides to resign his teaching job after an upcoming vacation period, and a chest illness gives him a further excuse to retire. Verecundus is upset that he cannot withdraw from public life because he is married, but he dies not long afterward as a baptized Christian. Nebridius also is baptized soon after Augustine, and he, too, dies soon after. Before that time, however, the friends set out for Verecundus' country estate, where they spend the vacation period studying scripture and philosophy. When the vacation is over, Augustine notifies Ambrose that he wants to be baptized. Alypius joins him in baptism, as does Adeodatus, Augustine's son; Adeodatus dies a few years later. Discussing how much the music of the church moved him, Augustine explains how Ambrose resisted a siege by Empress Justina while the faithful chanted psalms.

Analysis

Book 9 opens with Augustine's delayed decision to withdraw from his former life and dedicate himself to Christianity. He has to defend himself against critics who charged that if his conversion had really been sincere, he would have left public life immediately. Here, Augustine offers a counter argument: He does not want to appear vain and self-important by making a great show of conversion. At the time, Augustine was also suffering from a chest problem that left him short of breath — a condition he considers a merciful gift from God to allow him to retire. Modern readers may be more likely to think that the severe emotional turmoil preceding his conversion affected Augustine's health.

Death is a prominent theme of Book 9. In the first half of Book 9, Augustine mentions the deaths of three members of his circle. All three deaths are presented anachronistically, interrupting the chronology of the narrative. Verecundus, his rich friend who owns the estate at Cassiciacum, is the first. Verecundus cannot join his friends in a life of celibacy because he is married. Modern readers may not share Augustine's belief that God rewarded Verecundus by allowing him to die soon thereafter, so that he was released from his worldly entanglements. The date of Nebridius' death is uncertain, but he died relatively young, was a cleric like Augustine, and evidently remained a close friend to Augustine until his death. Finally, Augustine mentions his son, Adeodatus, who dies about two years after Augustine's baptism. Augustine speaks of him as a fine boy, intelligent and thoughtful. Augustine reports all three deaths with an air of wistfulness, but not sorrow; he is confident that all three of his loved ones died in God's keeping. Narratively, the deaths prepare the reader for the longer discussion of Monica's death that occupies the last half of Book 9. All of the deaths emphasize the theme of change — the death of the old life and the beginning of the new — just as Augustine's life is so fundamentally altered by his conversion and baptism. Interestingly, the account of his actual baptism, at Easter 387 in Milan, slips by almost unnoticed, with no narrative fanfare. The degree to which Augustine has changed is illustrated by an important detail: Ambrose advises the newly converted Augustine to read from the book of Isaiah. Augustine tries, but cannot make sense of it. In Book 3.5, when confronted with much the same problem, he decides that the Bible is simply unworthy of study; now, he sets aside the book for a time when he will be better prepared to interpret its meaning.

Augustine's withdrawal to Verecundus' country estate at Cassiciacum with his circle of friends and family was an intellectually and spiritually fertile time, lasting from the fall of 386 to the spring of 387. Augustine wrote four works during this period: Contra academicos (Against the Academics), De beata vita (On the Happy Life), De ordine (On Order) and Soliloquia (Soliloquies). But Augustine's account here of his time at Cassiciacum consists mainly of an extended analysis of Psalm 4, describing his emotion at breaking the hold Manichee philosophy had over him.

Music was a continuing interest of Augustine's: He returns to it in Book 10, and he wrote a treatise on the subject, De musica (On Music). The use of music during worship was viewed with suspicion in the early church, but Milan was the birthplace of Ambrosian chant, a form of plainchant that remained popular throughout the Middle Ages. Ambrose wrote verses for his congregation to sing, one of which Augustine quotes near the end of Book 8. Augustine introduces the idea of singing psalms during times of distress via the story of Justina's siege of Ambrose's basilica. The event Augustine describes actually took place just before Easter of 386, well before Augustine had his conversion experience. Justina, the mother of the child-emperor Valentinian, was an adherent of Arianism, one of the many competing varieties of Christianity in Augustine's time. The Arians held the heretical belief that Christ, as the son of God, was lesser than God himself. Justina had issued an edict of toleration for Arianism and ordered Ambrose to hand over his church for Arian worship services. Ambrose refused, staging a sit-in by the Catholic faithful inside the basilica to prevent Justina's troops from confiscating it. Ambrose won the argument, as Justina was finally forced to withdraw. Augustine associates a miraculous element with this tale: Ambrose has a vision that leads to the discovery of the incorrupt bodies of two martyred saints, Protasius and Gervasius; their relics then cure a blind man. The significance of this tale at this point in Augustine's narrative is not immediately clear, and Augustine himself protests that he is not quite sure why he included it. However, the element of the miraculous appears elsewhere in Book 9, in the mysterious voice with its message to Augustine and in his toothache suddenly healed by the prayers of his friends. Furthermore, the triumph of the Catholic church over its heretical opponents relates to Augustine's internal triumph over Manichaeism.

Glossary

vintage vacation a traditional Roman vacation period during harvest time, from late August to mid-October.

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According to Manichee myth, Light and Darkness originally existed




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