Summary for St. Augustine, Confessions and City of God
Written circa A.D. 398, this work by St. Augustine serves as a spiritual autobiography, outlining the author’s life and his eventual conversion to the Christian faith. Therefore, the Confessions are really an insight into the author’s self-consciousness, which is best expressed in the statement that opens the work: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”, which means humans originated from God, and human action should be ordered to God (1.
Therefore, in the two books detailing his early years and adolescence, Augustine is heavily critical of himself, lamenting the sins of his youth, noting that “in my misery seethed and followed the driving force of my impulses, abandoning you” (2.4). The source of his lamentation now comes from, according to Augustine, God “touching with a bitter taste all my illicit pleasures” (2.4).
After recounting the sins of passion of childhood and youth, Augustine now brings to light the sins of the intellect that manifested themselves in late adolescence and adulthood.
Augustine introduces this section with a book introducing the period in which Augustine studied at Carthage, a period in which due to what philosophies the author cherished, put “[his] soul in rotten health” (3.1). There, Augustine fell into believing Manicheism, a bitheism that believes that matter was evil and spirit was good (and so a bad God created the material world and a good God created the spiritual world), and also fathered a child out of wedlock, ignoring the materiality of marriage. Augustine eventually became a professor of rhetoric at universities in Rome and Milan. Before leaving for Rome, the saint became disillusioned with Manicheism due to a visit from the Manichean bishop of Carthage. Augustine then teaches rhetoric at Rome until he is called to Milan, where St. Ambrose is the local bishop. Ambrose’s teaching moves Augustine to become a catechumen in the Catholic Church.
Augustine then encounters Neoplatonic Christianity and St. Paul’s works, further motivating the saint to convert to Christianity. After two friends talk about conversion stories of past saints, Augustine, while reflecting in a garden, hears a child chanting, “Take up and read!” (cf. 8.29) Augustine then picks up the nearest Bible, reads a passage saying that Jesus comes to redeem mankind from carnal passions, which confirms Augustine’s decision to convert to Christianity. Augustine then stops teaching rhetoric, gets baptized, and then Monica, his mother, who prayed for his conversion over many years, dies. The last four books now shift to personal introspection on the author’s new beliefs, which possibly helped Augustine minister to his congregations as a priest and bishop.
In the end, Augustine’s Confessions, especially in the last four books, which present a philosophy of the Christian religion, joins Neo-Platonism and Christianity, personalizing the ideas of St. Gregory of Nyssa in Life of Moses and Pseudo-Dionysius in The Divine Names. That means that Augustine, in Confessions, has disclosed his personal spiritual journey to God, intended to be “an ensign for the nations” as Gregory intends the example of virtue shown in Moses to be, therefore bringing other people to contemplating the mystery of God revealed in Christ as Pseudo-Dionysius marvels at, as well as the earlier Church Fathers that defended the Incarnation (Isaiah 11:10). Ultimately, Augustine’s Confessions makes the message of Christianity relevant to all people, especially during the later stages of the Roman Empire, in which Christianity was a tolerated religion, thus bearing less motivation to convert.
City of God, written between the years 412 and 426, which occur soon after the Visigoths’ sack of Rome in 410, discusses the universal application of Augustine’s conversion experience. “And now, with God’s help, [Augustine] must turn to what [he thinks] ought to be said about the origin, progress, and respective destinations of the two cities, in order to exalt the glory of the City of God, which by contrast with other cities will gleam the more brightly” (64). Therefore, Augustine is arguing that one way of life will lead to communion with God and eternal life and happiness in heaven, and that another way of life will not lead to that eternal bliss. Since he is arguing to a Roman audience once again, appealing to universality will aid Augustine’s case.
As opposed to Eusebius’s mere reporting of human history and events (which were happenings of Christianity from biblical times through the reign of the Roman Empire), Augustine supplies an interpretation of Roman history in light of Christianity, beginning the work with explaining the sack of Rome on the spiritual level.
In the first two parts, beginning with “The Pagan Gods and Earthly Happiness”, the saint seeks to defend Christianity as a whole because many Romans thought that the pagan gods were punishing Rome through the Visigoths’ sack for worshipping the false god “Yahweh”. Augustine uses historical examples to prove that Rome really suffered due to the rampant vices of its citizens. The second part, entitled “The Pagan Gods and Future Happiness”, moving these historical arguments into the abstract and philosophical, arguing that the pagan gods and therefore the “city of man” cannot provide the eternal bliss that the “city of God” does. Augustine especially critiques pagan philosophy and polytheism, soundly debunking those philosophies on the basis of the worship of pagan gods being rooted in temporal benefits, even noting the rejection of superstitious practices by even the most esteemed pagan theologians. Augustine then demonstrates that Janus, Saturn, Jupiter, and other selected gods cannot grant eternal life, and neither will Platonism, despite its strong similarities to Christianity. Augustine alsok debunks Platonism, noting its belief in witchcraft and its matter-spirit dualism that essentially denies the Incarnation.
In the next three parts of the work, Augustine presents a new vision of reality that will not lead to suffering and agony since it stems from God and his Incarnation in Christ, contrasting this new way of life with the lives and belief systems of vice that led to the fall of Rome. Therefore, Part III of City of God officially introduces the dichotomy between the “city of man” and the “city of God”. Part III describes their origin, noting distinctions of good and evil on heaven and on earth, as well as sin and its consequences (bringing the city of sinful man to clash with the virtuous city of God). Part IV describes the development of the two cities throughout biblical history, culminating in Christ, who came to fully establish the “city of God” on earth through the Church. Lastly, Part V explains the ends of both cities, exposing the pagan and Christian philosophies on man’s end and the Last Judgment, which necessarily entails the “end and punishment of the earthly city” and “the eternal bliss of the city of God” (6).