Summary and Analysis
Book 3: Chapters 1-5
In school at Carthage, Augustine continues to be lost in carnal desires. He enjoys the vicarious suffering he could experience by watching theatrical shows; he stops to consider the agonies of love. He has begun his studies of law, and he keeps company with a group of unruly students, although he disapproves of their malicious acts.
In the course of his studies, Augustine reads Cicero's Hortensius, and it changes his entire outlook. Reading the book excites his love of philosophy, and he resolves to pursue true wisdom. Augustine decides to study the Bible, but finds it lacking in literary style.
Now about 18 years old, Augustine is studying to become a lawyer and living a life not so different from that of a modern college student. He is away from home, on his own in a large city, doing well at school, leading an active social life, and going to plays. He reports that he fell in love, although he does not say with whom; many readers have assumed this to be his unnamed concubine. In contrast to Book 2, Augustine is beginning to resist peer pressure. He is acquainted with a group of upperclassmen who take pleasure in tormenting shy, younger students. Augustine does not completely disassociate himself from this group, but he disapproves of their actions and refuses to participate in their cruelty.
In Carthage, Augustine continues to be plagued by his sexual impulses and by his misdirected desire for love. The torments of sexual desire are a prominent theme of the Confessions, and Augustine often seems to identify all human sin with lust, or in his terms, "concupiscence." "Concupiscence" is ultimately a selfish and excessive desire for anything, not only for the pleasures of the flesh, and Augustine constantly identifies misdirected desire as the root cause of his wanderings from God. Augustine has frequently been accused of equating sex with original sin; the sexual act itself for him becomes a kind of infection that contaminates with original sin the children it conceives. In the Confessions, this connection is not directly stated, but it is reflected in Augustine's attitude toward sex as a sinful impulse that reason cannot control, an intractable habit that only the grace of God allows him to break.
Augustine has already shown his weakness for the emotional appeal of fiction in Book 2, and now it manifests in his reaction toward theater. As with fiction, Augustine disapproves of the empty emotional reactions that theater creates in the audience. In essence, Augustine views fiction and theater as emotional titillation; merely producing sensations, but having no moral ends. This discussion of the empty suffering provoked by theater leads Augustine into a dense argument that compares the suffering produced by genuine love (compassion) to the suffering produced by carnal love (passion) and the false suffering produced by theatrical shows. Augustine clarifies that suffering for the sake of others is not wrong, because pity (compassion) is always linked with suffering. But the enjoyable suffering of love is easily perverted, and even human compassion can proceed from mixed motives. Only God's compassion is completely pure.
Augustine's encounter with the Hortensius is one of the critical turning points in his life, and it is often referred to as his "first conversion." Cicero was one of the most-studied classical Latin authors, and his rhetorical style was considered near perfect, a model for all students to imitate. The Hortensius itself has not survived, and much of what scholars know about it comes from quotations in Augustine's works. It was a defense of the study of philosophy, exhorting readers to look for truth in whatever guise truth may take. As a bright, impressionable young man, apparently already feeling a sense of spiritual emptiness, Augustine takes this advice directly to heart and resolves to pursue true wisdom from now on. But Cicero is a pagan, and having been raised Christian, Augustine feels he should look to his religion for answers. His education has led him to value elegance of expression, and the Bible is too simple and homespun for his refined tastes. Looking back, Augustine concludes that he was too intellectually conceited to see the complex meanings behind the simple words. Augustine's dislike of the plain-spoken Christian Bible has major consequences for his burgeoning spiritual life, as he soon becomes attracted by a more refined and intellectual species of Christianity: Manichaeism.
In this section you also learn, in an almost off-hand remark, that Patricius has been dead two years, and Monica is now supporting Augustine at school. His father's death appears to have made very little impression on Augustine, and at any rate, it is not important to the tale of Augustine's conversion.