The book tells of Augustine's youth and his conversion to Christianity. It is widely seen as the first Western autobiography ever written, and was an influential model for Christian writers throughout the Middle Ages. It is not a complete autobiography, as it was written when Augustine was about forty-six, and he lived for about thirty more years, during which he produced another important work (City of God); it does, however, provide an unbroken record of the evolution of his thought up until that point in his life, and is the most complete record of any single individual from the fourth and fifth centuries.
The Confessions is also a significant theological work. In it, Augustine talks about how much he regrets having led a sinful and immoral life, being a Manichaean, and believing in astrology. He relates the processes and influences that led him to change his mind on these and other matters, including his eventual conversion to his mother's Christian faith. He describes his regret concerning his youthful sexual behaviour.
Themes of the books
- His infancy and boyhood up to the age of fourteen. The sins of his childhood and youth, and his preference for sport over study. Thoughts on the education of children.
- His fall amongst bad companions at the age of sixteen, leading to theft and lust.
- His studies at Carthage; his impure love. His conversion to Manichaeism, with discussion of Manichaean teachings.
- His misleading of others. He becomes Professor of Rhetoric. His friend's death, and his grief. His studies of Aristotle between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine. Thoughts on astrology. His first book.
- Criticism of Manichaean teaching on science. He moves to Rome. Academic philosophy. He meets Ambrose in Milan.
- His move away from Manichaeism and towards Catholicism, leaving him temporarily neither. On celibacy; on a wife being sought for him. On the immortality of the soul.
- His idea of God. Nebridius' argument against manichaeism. Free will as the cause of sin; the origin of evil. His rejection of astrology. He encounters Platonism; the relationship between Platonisn and Christianity.
- On the conversion of sinners. His experience in the garden. The combat of flesh and spirit. His conversion to Christianity at the age of thirty-two, and his instruction by Simplicianus on how to convert others.
- On the goodness of God. He resigns his Professorship, and moves to Cassiciacum; the books he writes there. His baptism at Milan when he was thirty-three. About the life of his mother, Monica, and of her death and the deaths of his friends Nebridius and Vecundus.
- The object and value of this book. The workings of memory, as related to the five senses. Knowledge of mathematics.
- Reflections on the biblical book of Genesis, and searching for the meaning of eternity and time. The measurement of time, errors about time, and the solution.
- Continued reflections on the book of Genesis.
- Exploration of the meaning of Genesis and the Trinity. The Fall of angels and human beings. The goodness of creation.
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (§1) quotes the Confessions (I.8) on the topic of naming and reference. In the Confessions, Augustine gives a common sense explanation of the way language works: that babies begin to use language by, in effect, hanging names on different objects. In the late form of his philosophy, Wittgenstein attempts to raise doubts about this kind of theory of language (which he refers to as "the Augustinian picture of language").
Wittgenstein argues that human beings do not idly sit around naming objects, but rather use language for particular pragmatic purposes. Wittgenstein contends that attention to the actual use of language resolves many of the problems caused by Augustine's picture of language.
- Augustine The Confessions of St Augustine (translated by Rex Warner). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963. ISBN 0-451-62474-2
- Augustine The Confessions of St Augustine (translated by Tobie Matthew; revised and emended by Roger Hudleston). London: Burns & Oates, 1954.
- Augustine, Confessions (translated by Henry Chadwick). New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.