BMCR 2004.05.04

The Journey Toward God in Augustine’s Confessions: Books I-VI

, The journey toward God in Augustine's Confessions : books I-VI. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xi, 193 pages). ISBN 1417508612 $17.95 (pb).

Carl Vaught’s close textual exegesis of the first six books of Augustine’s Confessions constitutes a major contribution to Augustine studies. He argues that Augustine’s ascent to God follows a logical structure that develops along three axes, temporal, spatial, and eternal. The book contributes to a growing body of scholarship that weaves together a consideration of literary form with philosophical content, and constitutes a departure from earlier scholarship, which tended to keep those dimensions separate. It can thus be compared to works by Colin Starnes, Robert McMahon, the essays in A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions edited by Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy, and the studies by Frederick J. Crosson.1 Vaught presents us with a reading of the Confessions that is neither historical nor autobiographical in the modern sense, but a meditative reading and one that uncovers the protreptic character of Augustine’s ascent toward God. Its strength lies in its close reading of the text and attention to dramatic structure, as well as the author’s keen philosophical and psychological analysis of that ascent. Its other strength lies in the centrality it affords to the role of friendship in Augustine’s ascent: “As the narrative unfolds, commitment to his friends brings the temporality of Augustine’s experience into relation with a spatial community, and his developing orientation toward what lies beyond space and time gives his life eternal significance” (8). As a result, Vaught’s Augustine is less interested in doctrine (religious or philosophical) and more interested in illuminating the participatory character of reality that forms the basis of such doctrine.

In his treatment of Books One to Six, Vaught enucleates several key episodes that Augustine meditates upon in his recollection of his past sins that are key in the way he understands God to have reconstituted his soul. Augustine’s confession highlights stages that the soul moves through, and the early ones detailed in Vaught’s presentation include loving for its own sake, indeterminate love of wisdom, philosophic dualism as a means of providing determinacy for philosophical eros, the skepticism that rejects dualism, and finally the Neoplatonism that introduces him to Ambrose’s understanding of Christianity. The unifying thread is Vaught’s skilful analysis of Augustine’s way of symbolizing humanity’s metaleptic existence between time and eternity, which is reflected in his discussions of language, sin, the will, and wisdom.

The Introduction explains the challenges that the modern reader faces in untangling the spatial, temporal, and eternal dimensions of the text, as those dimensions are conveyed in historical, metaphorical, and analogical terms. Vaught writes: “The interaction between God and the soul unfolds within a temporal, spatial, and eternal framework, mobilizing the language of the restless heart as a way of bringing space, time, and eternity together. The relation between time and eternity is expressed most adequately in metaphorical discourse, while the relation between eternity and space requires analogical uses of language for its appropriate articulation. In both cases, figurative discourse is the key for binding God and the soul together” (2). The spatial dimension is expressed most clearly in Augustine’s “use of gardens to generate open spaces in his journey toward God. Gardens punctuate the metaphor of journey with ‘spatial’ moments that often display a dimension of eternal significance” (7).

Chapter One covers Books One and Two of the Confessions. Vaught explains the place of language within the meditation and unravels how the infant Augustine learns, from his meditation on language, of the embeddedness of humanity within the divinely created, and linguistically mediated, world. We learn of the nature of sin, and how original sin depends on original innocence (28). Vaught’s account of the pear-theft episode with Augustine’s “unfriendly friendship” brings together the notion of sin as an individual’s attempt to usurp the role of God, which is, in reality, a willing of nonbeing, with the false nature of the “friendship” that Augustine and his friends shared. As an act for its own sake (and thus for no sake because it is self-referential), the act of theft is sinful because it intends nonbeing. At the same time, however, Augustine states he never would have committed the theft had he not been with his friends. The episode is difficult to understand: “on the one hand, both the episode and the companionship are nothing; on the other hand, there is something about adolescent friendship that makes stealing possible” (62). Vaught skillfully weaves together the themes of reality and nonreality in friendship in his discussion of this episode to show how the object that binds these friends together is nothing. Aping God at creation, and imitating the citizens of Babel who exhort each other to build their tower, Augustine and his friends say, “Let’s go, let’s do it” (64-5; Confessions, 2.9.17).

Chapter Two, on Books Three and Four, covers Augustine’s turn from willing nothing to his abstract and self-referential experience of being in love with the idea of being in love. Augustine’s love is inspired by reading Cicero’s Hortensius, and, notably, Augustine does not tell the reader what he learned from it, only that he found its message beautiful and inspiring. Vaught argues that this existential experience leads logically to Manichaeanism as a way of providing determinate content to what Augustine longs for. With the death of his friend, Augustine finds determinate wisdom in a negative sense by finding nonbeing, something he experienced in a more general way in the pear-theft episode: “the death of his friend deepens his predicament by bringing him face to face with an existential negation that allows absolute nonbeing to express itself in human form. If nonbeing cannot be spoken about coherently from a systematic point of view because it violates the law of excluded middle, its human face is even more intolerable because it forces us to confront the ultimate limit of human existence…. As a consequence… it becomes a positive step in leading him back to God because it suggests that Manichaean dualism is inadequate” (94).

Chapter Three covers Books Five and Six. Vaught covers Augustine’s relations with the Manichaeans, his skepticism, his flight to Rome, his relationship with Ambrose, and his relationship with his mother. His turn to skepticism is a logical step beyond his embrace of false absolutes in his Manichaean stage, a step that many modern readers will surely have taken. Friendship unifies this chapter, as Vaught locates Augustine’s turning away from Manichaeanism within his experience of friendships with its members and his reserved admiration for Faustus, suggesting that it was his rewarding, but ultimately imperfect, friendships with its members, and the personal integrity of Faustus, that beheld him to that group. Even so, he found wisdom in Platonism and Christianity in Rome and with Ambrose, even though his relationship with Ambrose was less close than his relations with the Manichees. The chapter, and the book, conclude with Augustine and his friends, and the role that his friendships play in the drama of Augustine’s fragmentation and unity.

Vaught observes the centrality of friendship for Augustine in illuminating ways. Friendship has an ambivalent role within Christianity because Christians are enjoined to love their neighbor, which includes loving one’s enemy. The duty to love all is often taken to be in tension with relations with particular friends whom we love over others. The defense of particular friends by the later medieval monk Aelred of Riveaulx, and the critique of particular friends by Soren Kierkegaard constitute two poles in this debate. Augustine constitutes a kind of middle position in this tradition by allowing for particular friends as a way, or as a “school for virtue,” for individuals to practice the love of neighbor. Because humans are finite and restricted by time and space, they can only possibly love a select number of people. So, Augustine counsels in On Christian Doctrine that one’s neighbor is one who is in physical proximity to one, which preeminently includes those with whom, “by the lot,” one dwells (1.61-2, 68). Maintaining the love of strangers, Augustine observes that it is in one’s daily relations with one’s own where one’s virtue is tested and elevated.

Vaught’s analysis of the Confessions, and of Book Six in particular, shows how this dynamic manifests itself in the Confessions by explaining how Augustine came to them in his own spiritual ascent, but he also provides a useful philosophical and linguistic framework in which to see how the spatial, temporal, and eternal dimensions intersect. He locates the importance of Monica, while also explaining the important roles of Alypius and Nebridius. Vaught finds Alypius to be less erotic than Augustine (and therefore less teachable?), but better able to play the role of a spectator, which is first experienced sinfully in his love of gladiatorial games, but later virtuously in the fact that it is Alypius who is present at Augustine’s conversion, and who devotes himself to the life of virtue. Nebridius, on the other hand, joins Augustine in Milan to live in a philosophical community (Alypius went to Rome to study law) but is not present at Augustine’s conversion: “what will be required on that occasion [of Augustine’s conversion] is not acute analysis, but a volitional response to the transforming power of God” (149). These three friends bring out the best, and, at times, worst, in each other, just as they individually show potential for wisdom and righteousness while sinning. Even so, their relations with one another show how Augustine viewed friendship as a “school for virtue.” By focusing on friendship, Vaught shows us a view of Augustine that makes it impossible to hold him as a Neo-Platonist or as a proto-Cartesian, as he is often read, because the latter interpretations allow little to no room for friendship as a determining factor in the formation of the soul (see also, 98-106).

Vaught’s weaving together of literary form with philosophical content provides the reader with a penetrating and subtle analysis of the Confessions and its subtle ways of symbolizing the intersections between time, space, and eternity in Augustine’s ascent. However, at least on friendship, one sometimes wishes he had used his conceptual tools to tie some of the themes more closely together. For instance, Augustine’s meditations about friendship not only reflect those three dimensions by showing how the soul gets unified in the educative loves that Augustine experiences, but those friendships teach us about those dimensions themselves. The friendships are participatory as well as reflective, and enable us to achieve some reflective distance on the questing soul itself (Augustine’s and the reader’s). For example, the encounters with Alypius and Nebridius (along with the death of his friend, his friendship with some of the Manichees, and so on) point to his conversion, but they also tell us something about the road to that conversion. For instance, his first mention of Nebridius occurs back in Book Four, chapter three, immediately after Augustine learns the difference between fate and providence from a Roman proconsul. It sometimes happens that “chance” occurrences turn an individual in a particular direction, just as when reading one chances upon certain thoughts that become relevant to the reader. What Augustine learns from the proconsul points to the conversion and unifies the “chance” occurrence of Augustine opening the book and reading a particular passage relevant to him, with the “chance” occurrence of having the types of friendships that he has. The symbolic role of reading and of text that points to the providential order of reality in which Augustine participates is mirrored in the analogous symbolic role of his friends. As with words, friends point, and both friends and words push Augustine upwards in his ascent as much as his reflections upon them deepen as he ascends.

In any case, Vaught has provided a penetrating interpretation of the first six books of the Confessions that should be of interest both to philosophers and theologians, as well as political theorists and others who are interested in the basis of Augustine’s account of community. This book is the first installment of a larger project on the Confessions, and the reader can look forward to Vaught’s insights on Books Seven to Thirteen in later installments.


1. Colin Starnes, Augustine’s Conversion: A Guide to the Argument of Confessions, ι (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1991); Robert McMahon, Augustine’s Prayerful Ascent: An Essay on the Literary Form of the Confessions, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989); Kim Paffenroth and Robert Kennedy (eds.), A Reader’s Guide to Augustine’s Confessions, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003); Frederick J. Crosson, “Structure and Meaning in St. Augustine’s Confessions,” in The Augustinian Tradition, Gareth B. Matthews. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 27-38. Crosson and McMahon also contribute essays to the Paffenroth/Kennedy volume.