Summary and Analysis
Book 8: Chapters 5-12
Augustine is moved by the story of Victorinus, but his old life has become a habit he cannot break. He is deeply distressed, therefore, that he cannot leave his old life now that he no longer has any doubts about Christianity. Augustine and Alypius are visited by Ponticianus, who tells them about St. Antony. Ponticianus then tells them about two of his friends who were inspired to dedicate their lives to Christ after reading the story of St. Antony. Augustine is overcome with shame at his inability to follow their example. Extremely agitated, Augustine retreats to the garden of their house. His will is divided, but Augustine observes that both contrary wills were his own, not a good will and a bad will, as the Manichees believe. Augustine breaks down in tears beneath a fig tree. He hears a voice saying, "Take and read." Interpreting this as a message from God, he picks up his copy of the letters of St. Paul and reads a passage that puts his mind at rest. He resolves to dedicate his entire life to God, and Alypius joins him in this resolve.
Augustine's final conversion at the end of Book 8 is the most famous episode from the Confessions. In a moment of intense emotional crisis, Augustine hears a mysterious child's voice chanting, "Take and read, take and read." When he does so, he encounters Romans 13:13-14, and the passage abruptly lays to rest all his doubts and fears about leaving his old life behind. In a way, it is almost a fairy-tale ending: Augustine has been desperately looking for certainty his entire spiritual life, and here, in one moment of clarity, he gets the relief that only absolute certainty can give him. Intellectually, he has been prepared for this moment for some time, and emotionally, he has been in a state of steadily growing anxiety. The "take and read" episode is the catalyst for decisive change in Augustine's life. (Incidentally, readers puzzled by Augustine's insistence on a life of complete continence need only look at the other examples in this chapter and Chapter 9 for a cultural context: The fiancées of two converted men immediately join them in dedicating their virginity to God; Verecundus is disappointed that he cannot withdraw from the world because he is married; and Alypius shows his self-denial by walking around barefoot all winter.)
The conversion episode is foreshadowed in Book 8 by two stories that mirror Augustine's experience. The story of Victorinus, the converted rhetor, appears in the first part of Book 8, although you are not certain from Augustine's description how much time separates his hearing of that story from his conversion experience. The second story, the one about Ponticianus' friends, immediately precedes the conversion episode. A third story, that of St. Antony of the Desert, provides the backdrop for the conversion of Ponticianus' friend and of Augustine, although Augustine does not supply the details for his readers. In a culture that valued asceticism, Antony was an exemplary model of self-denial. After reading Christ's exhortation to "sell all you have" in Matthew 19:21, Antony sold all of his family's estate, gave the proceeds to the poor, and retired to the desert as a hermit, eating little and praying constantly. God allowed Satan to tempt Antony in several visions, but Antony withstood all temptations. Antony's example of personal purity and withdrawal from the world has obvious connections to Augustine's situation. Furthermore, both Antony and Ponticianus' unnamed friends are moved to give up the world after reading a crucial passage, just as Augustine finally is. Echoes of Book 6, with its themes of giving up bad habits after hearing pertinent advice from a wise friend, are also apparent, both here and in the story of Victorinus, who was moved to convert publicly on the advice of Simplicianus. Habit is the force that ties Augustine to his worldly life of sins, even when he wants to try to leave it, and Augustine specifically associates this force of habit with the idea of original sin, inherited from Adam.
Biblical echoes also inform Augustine's description. Along with the parallels between this scene of Augustine's grief beneath the fig tree and his theft from the pear tree in Book 3, both of these have connections to the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. One Christian tradition held that a fig tree, rather than an apple, was the tree from which Adam and Eve ate, and the fact that they used fig leaves to cover their nakedness after the Fall contributed to making the fig a symbol of carnal lust. The fig tree has further echoes in the New Testament, where it has special significance as a symbol of faith without acts. Christ tells the parable of the fig tree that does not bear fruit and so is cut down and burned (Luke 13:6-9), and Christ curses the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit (Matthew 21:19). Finally, Christ calls his disciple Nathaniel from under the fig tree (John 3:48-50). Augustine's intense physical and emotional distress in his garden also recalls Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-45), which precedes his crucifixion.
From a narrative standpoint, Augustine saps some of the drama from his conversion narrative by inserting a long digression about the Manichees immediately prior the "take and read" event. Augustine is in the garden, in a state of intense physical and mental agitation, and then the garden seems to disappear as Augustine launches into an analysis of his divided will, taking the opportunity to point out errors of Manichee doctrine along the way. However, his discussion is relevant because it concerns the relationship between sin and the human will, introduced in Book 7. When Augustine reminds readers several paragraphs later that he is still in the garden, the transition is jarring.
Augustine also inserts into this section the appearance of Lady Continence. Some critics have insisted that Augustine is reporting an actual vision of the beautiful lady who beckons to him, but Augustine is simply using the literary device of personification. He amusingly represents his sins as annoying pests that hold him back and whisper doubts into his ears, while serene Continence and her followers encourage him onward to his new life.
With all of these symbolic, literary, and biblical connections, many modern readers have asked: Is Augustine's account of his conversion literally true? In some ways, this is not an entirely relevant question. Augustine presents the event through the lens of memory, accumulated experience, and literary art. If his account is stylized or laden with symbolic associations, it does not necessarily make it less true in a spiritual sense. Autobiography always presents the author's life events in hindsight, in the way that the author has come to understand them and wants the reader to interpret them. Under such circumstances, literal truth is no longer at issue.