Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Chapters 8-11
Augustine discusses his childhood. During that time, by observing how adults use words and using the power of memory, Augustine grasped that a word indicated a certain thing. In learning language, Augustine joined human society. Next, he was sent to school. When he was lazy, he was beaten. He found punishment miserable, although adults only laughed at his misery. Augustine loved to watch adult sports and shows, and he was punished for this, as well.
As a boy, Augustine was introduced to Christianity. When he fell seriously ill, he pleaded to be baptized. His mother would have arranged it, but Augustine got better, so his baptism was postponed. Augustine laments that he was not baptized as a child, but his mother thought it better to let him face the temptations of adolescence before baptism.
Augustine's childhood is the subject of this section. His description of how he learned to speak is charmingly simple, but it displays Augustine's fine eye for observation of human behavior. It is notable that he describes his motivation for learning to speak as a selfish one: He wanted to get others to obey his wishes.
Language is Augustine's key to entry into human society, and it becomes his key to worldly success. He makes clear from the beginning that his parents had only the most shallow goals for promoting his education; namely, getting him into a good career as a rhetor. The follies of children, contrasted satirically with the follies of adults, form another theme of this section, pointing up the shallowness of Augustine's education and the futility of desire for wealth or fame: The masters who punish him share the same childish sins of jealousy and anger that he does, and the parents who disapprove of his love of theatrical shows punish his idleness only so that he can grow up to be as rich as the men who stage the shows. However, Augustine admits that education itself is good, and he might have put his training to better use. Augustine devotes considerable space to the beatings inflicted on him by his schoolmasters. He is drawing on stock literary devices in lamenting the miserable life of a schoolboy and in comparing the "minor" affairs of children to the supposedly "major" affairs of adults, but the forcefulness of his description suggests that he genuinely disapproves of corporal punishment.
Nonetheless, Augustine specifically states that he deserved his punishment, not because he was lazy or stupid, but because he disobeyed his parents and teachers. Augustine's insistence on this point is easier to understand if you recall that disobedience is at the foundation of all human sinfulness. By emphasizing his disobedience, Augustine draws comparisons between his own childish impulses and the condition of all human beings.
As Augustine helpfully explains, it was a common practice in the early Christian church to defer baptism, a major Christian sacrament, for as long as possible, even to the end of one's life. Baptism was regarded as cleansing the believer from all previously committed sins and, therefore, any sins committed after baptism would be much harder to forgive. This explains Monica's pious reluctance to baptize her son after his illness improves, because he has a long life of sins looming in front of him. Augustine strongly disapproves of the practice of deferring baptism, feeling it would have been better to bring him to God's salvation than to let him go on sinning because he was young. Baptism would not have kept him from sinning, but for Augustine, forgiveness of sin is not a single, all-or-nothing event. Because all human beings are subject to the influence of original sin, they constantly sin and are constantly in need of God's forgiveness and grace. Once again, Augustine draws an analogy from everyday life: No one would ever recommend letting a sick man get worse, merely because he was not completely cured yet.
This chapter marks the first real appearance of Augustine's family, beyond the fuzzy images of his mother and nurses feeding and caring for him in infancy. His mother Monica steps forward as a woman of strong character and already an enormous influence on young Augustine, particularly in her example of Christian faith. He praises Monica's piety, particularly because she had to contend with a husband who was still a pagan, but the portrait of her is not uniformly glowing. She lets an important opportunity to save Augustine pass by, and this is the only time she does so in his life. Augustine understands her reasoning, but expresses his disappointment. In comparison, Augustine's description of his father is that of someone distant, as if his father's influence is scarcely felt in the dominating presence of his mother. At least his father does not forbid his mother to practice her religion, allowing all the children to be raised as Christians. Still, it is Monica who gets Augustine's praise for being obedient to her husband, because in obeying him she was obeying God's will.
catechumen a Christian receiving instruction in the faith but not yet baptized. As the child of a Christian mother, Augustine was at least nominally a catechumen from early childhood onward.
sign of the cross a gesture of blessing; a priest would bless catechumens by making the sign of the cross over them.
salt salt was placed on the tongues of new catechumens. Salt was frequently used as a protection against evil spirits, and it also recalled Christ's admonition to the church that "you are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13).