Critical Essays Women in the Confessions


Given Augustine's strong opinions about sexuality, it is not surprising that his view of women is similarly complex and sometimes contradictory. The Confessions features a prominent female character in Augustine's mother Monica. Monica is an engaging character, strong, energetic, and completely devoted to Augustine, but she is also something of a stereotype. She is all mother. When Augustine praises her qualities in telling her life story, he praises typically feminine virtues: patience, mildness, obedience, selfless service of others, temperance, piety, and even an aversion to gossip, that stereotypical feminine vice. Monica would be the perfect mother, but for the fact that some of her attachment to Augustine is selfish. Augustine refers to the fact that she has the inheritance of Eve, the first woman, who was punished for her sins by bearing children with pain and suffering. She is a near perfect model of faith, as well — quietly converting her pagan husband to Christianity, steadfastly praying for the salvation of her wandering son — but here again, one flaw damages her perfection, namely her desire to see Augustine achieve worldly success. This misplaced desire motivates her to postpone baptizing Augustine, provide him an empty education, and arrange an advantageous marriage for him.

Monica's portrait is highly stylized. She is the Church, steadfast in devotion to God; she is Eve, the chastened sinner; she is Dido, the selfish lover; she the embodiment of simple, uneducated faith, untainted by the kind of intellectual striving that so plagues Augustine. Augustine wanders around the Mediterranean like the epic heroes Aeneas or Odysseus, but so, too, does Monica, for whom there is no epic female model. Modern critics have been fond of applying Freudian interpretations to Augustine's relationship with Monica, attempting to find psychoanalytic explanations for his personality based on his distant father and overbearing mother. With so much stylized and symbolic freight attached to her, it is almost surprising how vivid her character seems, and when Augustine describes his pain at her death, it feels like the very real grief of a loving son for a remarkable mother.

The other woman of the Confessions is Augustine's unnamed concubine, whom Augustine discusses much less than Monica. Even though she remains somewhat shadowy and vague in the text, her position is still complex. Augustine asserts that their relationship was based solely upon lust; yet he lived with her, apparently faithfully, for many years. He forcefully describes his pain at having to send her away, yet you are expected to see this as further evidence of his misdirected desires: He is suffering for the wrong reasons. Is there affection and respect in his description of her choice to live in chastity the rest of her life, or is she simply another of the ascetic models that appear repeatedly in the Confessions?

There is also a sense in the Confessions that women are a barrier, an obstruction to the spiritual life. Monica is a distinct barrier to Augustine's journey to Rome. The Empress who persecutes Ambrose is an active enemy of Catholicism. The plan of Augustine's friends to withdraw from the world in a spiritual community is scuttled by the fact that they are married or engaged. Verecundus cannot commit himself to Christianity because he has a wife; Augustine himself gives up a socially advantageous marriage when he converts, despite the fact that his bride was a Christian. Augustine's obsession with sex is in one sense an obsession with women, and it is the last obstacle to his full embrace of Christianity. Women in the Confessions are only lovers or mothers, and they achieve full worth only when they become chaste — Monica as a widow and the concubine as self-avowed celibate. No female scholars are among Augustine's crucially important circle of friends, nor did he have any female students.

Nonetheless, Augustine can state in Book 13.32 that women are equal to men in rational capacity. However, he qualifies this statement by adding that by virtue of the bodily sex, they are naturally submissive to men, just as the active energy of the mind must be submissive to the command of the rational intellect. To Augustine, this submission would have been evidence of a natural harmony, but modern readers must note that the quality Augustine values most, rationality, is associated with men, while unbridled energy is associated with women. And yet, the personification of Augustine's greatest desire, Lady Continence, is a woman. The Confessions conveys in subtle ways the idea that women are important, even vital, but that they also pose a serious risk.