Critical Essays The Confessions and Autobiography


At its most basic, an autobiography is the story of a person's life, written by that person. It is sometimes said that Augustine invented the modern autobiography. Augustine did not simply establish a pattern; he produced a work whose influence was so pervasive that all later autobiographers were affected by it, either positively or negatively. (The most famous example of a reaction against Augustine's Confessions appears in the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French Romantic writer and philosopher.) However, Augustine's Confessions was certainly not the first work of autobiography in Western literature. Numerous Classical authors had produced stories of their own lives, and Augustine also had specifically Christian examples to draw on, such as the passion narratives of martyred saints like Perpetua.

However, Augustine's autobiography is unique in several ways. The Confessions is not a straightforward account of the events of Augustine's life. In fact, Augustine frequently leaves out events that readers may consider important. The death of his father, for example, is mentioned only in passing, and large portions of his life are simply glossed over. On the other hand, Augustine gives special emphasis to seemingly small events, such as the theft of pears. In telling the story of his life, Augustine selects only those events that illustrate his spiritual development; everything else is pushed into the background. In focusing so tightly on his spiritual life, Augustine also trains his acute powers of observation on his own psychology. The intensely personal nature of Augustine's self-portrait is one of the aspects that has made it so appealing over the centuries. In the Confessions, Augustine is a fully rounded person: candid, acerbic, passionate, ambitious, restlessly intellectual, devoted to his friends, subject to flaws of pride and excess. Augustine's voice is uniquely identifiable, and it gives readers a genuine feel for his personality and character. Readers see Augustine not only from the outside, but from the inside.

By its nature, autobiography is a tricky genre. Because autobiography has an element of history, readers expect some measure of historical accuracy from the author. But because autobiography is also a form of literature, it shares some of the elements of fiction: a story arc, specific events that move the story, and details of style and narrative that affect your interpretation. Readers, therefore, may wonder how much of an autobiography is true. This question does not necessarily imply deliberate deception on the part of the author; human memory is naturally selective, and your perceptions of your own life are shaped by your experiences. Throughout the Confessions, readers are constantly confronted with two Augustines: the young Augustine struggling along his spiritual path, and the older Augustine, the narrator, who looks back over this path and finds that it had a direction he was unable to recognize at the time.

By being selective about the events he chooses in order to illustrate his life, Augustine is giving a deliberate shape to his narrative, a shape that the messy events of life generally do not possess. As an author, he is aware of the tricks that memory can play; he devotes much attention to examining how memory works. Furthermore, Augustine gives his story a distinct arc, as event builds upon event in Augustine's spiritual struggle. Augustine also uses clear literary echoes to lend meaning to his story. He repeatedly compares himself to the Prodigal Son, the wandering sinner returning home, and when he abandons Monica at Carthage, his story parallels that of another famous wanderer, Aeneas. The scholar Pierre Courcelle, examining the Confessions, identified literary parallels for almost every part of Augustine's story. But does that mean the story is fictional?

In one sense, to ask whether the Confessions is empirically true is to ask the wrong question. You have only the story as Augustine tells it, and ultimately, you must judge it on its own merits. The game of "hunt the author" can quickly become an exercise in absurdity. Scholars have spent considerable time and energy, for example, debating what exactly happened to Augustine in his garden at Milan: What could a child from that period of history have said, in the course of a game or a conversation, that Augustine would have misheard or interpreted as "Take and read"? Such questions may be entertaining, but they do not shed much light on the meaning of the Confessions, either for Augustine as writer or for his readers. As Augustine's own interpretations of Christian scripture demonstrate, he was always looking for the meanings hidden under the surface of a text, and he believed that even seemingly simple texts could support multiple interpretations. For Augustine, historical truth and symbolic significance were not mutually exclusive. If you view the Confessions as both autobiography and literary artwork, you can open up your understanding of it in ways that the Confessions itself invites.