Summary and Analysis
Book 4: Chapters 4-13
A close friend of Augustine's, whom he had persuaded to become a Manichee, falls seriously ill, and while he is unconscious, his family has him baptized. He seems to recover, and Augustine jokes with him about the baptism, but his friend will not listen to his jokes. When his friend suddenly dies, Augustine is overcome with grief. Augustine eventually has to leave Thagaste for Carthage to escape the memories. The love of friends is good, but friends must be loved in God, not for themselves alone, for only God does not perish or change. People look for rest in the physical world and fix their hearts on things that pass away, not moving through them to recognition of the God who made them. True life and true love are found in Christ alone.
Augustine's passionate attachment to his friends serves as the basis of this section, which discusses the nature of friendship. The death of Augustine's childhood friend in Thagaste acts as another message from God. His friend's Catholic family has him baptized on his deathbed, just as was almost done to Augustine. Now a Manichee, Augustine no longer believes baptism is necessary, but his friend, also a Manichee, abruptly refuses to share in his contempt for Catholic ritual and rejects Augustine's attention. Whether the baptism has a miraculous effect on his friend or his friend simply had a deathbed conversion is not made clear. Augustine is shaken by his friend's conversion but still refuses to see the message God is sending.
Augustine's description of his grief is familiar to anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one. But Augustine's excessive grief becomes a sin. He revels in his own misery, weeping inconsolably over his friend. Characteristically, Augustine turns to analysis of his emotions: Why, he asks, do tears give relief? He cannot answer this question, but analysis of the emotion of grief is a subject to which he returns in Book 9.12, where he weeps over Monica's death. Here, he condemns his grief as misplaced. His misery is a selfish indulgence; he makes clear that he cared more about his own grief than he cared about the welfare of his friend.
If Augustine's grief is misplaced, it is because his love is also misplaced. Augustine does not condemn the emotion of friendship. Indeed, his description of the simple pleasures of friendship in Book 4.8 is eloquent and moving. Augustine's error lies in treating his friend as an ultimate good, as an end unto himself. In his book On Christian Doctrine, Augustine makes an explicit distinction between things that are used as means to an end and things that are enjoyed for their own sake. All temporal things are objects of use; God alone should be the object of enjoyment. Even good and beautiful things, like the love of friends, can become stumbling blocks if people set them up as substitutes for the God who is their ultimate source. All human loves pass away, and people err in loving friends as substitutes for God, who alone is eternal and unchangeable. Human perception, limited by sin to the physical realm, can see only isolated pieces of the whole, but if you could grasp the whole as it really is, you would not want to linger in the transitory present. Augustine concludes this section with an invocation of praise to Christ, who was human but conquered death, whose love is unfailing, and who is the only true source of rest and peace.
Orestes and Pylades characters from Greek literature, famous for their devoted friendship.