Book Review

Confessions by Saint Augustine of Hippo

Photo on 17-03-2014 at 17.28 #2

I have to leave the house in under ten minutes, so this’ll be a quick one.

As another addition in my attempts to read CLASSIC non-fiction, classic memoir, I decided Saint Augustine’s Confessions a go. It is heralded as the world’s first confessional memoir, confessional autobiography, whatever, and is the story of Augustine’s slow movement from colossal shagger to holiest man in the Roman empire.

In counterpoint to many other texts of this type (more recent ones, certainly) there is not a prurient obsession with his former life. One does not read this text and feel that Augustine wrote it in his mid-40s as a regressive, vicarious remembrance of his youthful fun, because the level of shame isn’t a mask. The sex he had as a young man isn’t remembered as something good and something truly pleasurable, but acknowledged as something “wrong” that he, through discovery of the godhead, became able to transcend.

And this was, for me, the real problem with this text (other than the pointless 150 pages at the end, after his life history is up to date, where he explores is EXCESSIVE detail the first few verses of Genesis (the book, not the band)) is its occasional inconsistencies. Augustine, as a devout man, does bleed his faith into every word, and there are passages of great beauty and, if one were reading it looking to convert to Christianity, I can well believe it would be useful, THESE SENTENCES ARE MESSY. Augustine makes it clear that he believes that everything, everything good, all beauty, all pleasant sensations, were created by his god. He believes that enjoying anything is an inherent act of worship. BUT then he talks at great length about the importance of not enjoying anything, as all pleasure – be it sex, food, or music (even music backing a hymn!) – is a sin.

He contradicts himself, but one gets the sense that this is not through any kind of accident, but because he has faith of such a level in a prescribed set of believes and ideas that he is easily led to accept the inconsistencies of others.

But, to reiterate, there is beautiful language, moving passages of conversion and some lovely IDEAS. As someone non-religious but with great intellectual interest in the ideas and the history of faith, I really enjoyed this as a document.

I also loved reading a text written whilst the Roman Empire was still going, and had no signs of falling down. One imagines that Roman society was in decline by the late fourth century, and though militaristically it was (Augustine died in 430 during a Vandal siege), the majority of this text deals with a period when it was still on the rise. That alone makes it an interesting read. For me.

Not bad. But I find it hard to believe that Rousseau’s Confessions (also on the pile) won’t be a lot more fun to read…

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