Great Ideas Collection: St Augustine

In the fourteenth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews St Augustine’s  eminent ‘Confessions of a Sinner’. 

St Augustine of Hippo is well known as an early Christian theologian; his writings were very influential in the development of western Christianity, and he is considered the most important Church Father in establishing anew the ancient faith for the people located in his province of Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, Algeria) and for many others around the World.

He did the majority of his writing during the Patristic era. This is a period generally considered to run from approximately CE 100 to CE 451, where many Church Fathers wrote about Christianity and their understanding of it.

It is interesting then that St Augustine’s most prominent piece of work is the autobiographical Confessions of a Sinner. It’s not exactly what one would expect from a renowned Christian figure.

Written between CE 397 and CE 398, and addressed directly to God, Augustine outlines his sinful youth and eventual conversion to Christianity following his digressions into the Manichaean religion and beliefs in astrology. “Let me tell you, my God, how I squandered the brains you gave me on foolish delusions.”

Starting at the beginning of his life, he discusses the sin that a baby is born with: “I was born in sin and guilt was with me already when my mother conceived me”, but questioning how this is so when a baby knows no better. Moving on throughout his life, he charts how his sinful behaviour worsened as he grew:

For as I grew to manhood I was inflamed with desire for a surfeit of hell’s pleasures. Foolhardy as I was, I ran wild with lust that was manifold and rank. In your eyes my beauty vanished and I was foul to the core, yet I was pleased with my own condition and anxious to be pleasing in the eyes of men.

St Augustine shows much remorse in this retrospective look at his sinful and immoral behaviour. “I exhausted myself in depravity, in the pursuit of an unholy curiosity. I deserted you and sank to the bottom-most depths of scepticism and the mockery of devil-worship.” And, although remorseful, he accepts his past as a part of the person he is. Without such sin, he may not have become the person he grew into, discovering God and dedicating his life to him.

He appears to have struggled with faith in his early years; his mother, a devout Christian, prays for his immortal soul, while St Augustine was reckless and without care. When his mind was made up to examine the Holy Scriptures, he was filled with a sense of abandonment: “O God, Hope of my youth, where were you all this time? Where were you hiding from me?”

As he continued through the scriptures and became ever more involved in Christianity, St Augustine began to realise that God had been there all along, waiting for the right moment to lead him onto the right path. “I was told that we do evil because we choose to do so of our own free will, and suffer it because your justice rightly demands that we should.” The sinful behaviour of his youth was a valuable life experience for him.

And although he did eventually find God and accept the sinful behaviour of his past, St Augustine still held some guilt about his actions, “There is joy in my heart when I confess to you, yet there is a fear as well; there is sorrow, and yet hope.” Confessing his sins is obviously a cathartic act for him, but he will never be truly comfortable with the sins of his youth.

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