The Confessions, the "spiritual autobiography" of Saint Augustine, is structured according to principles very different from earlier biographies and autobiographies. Instead of following a strict sequence of important dates and events, the Confessions, composed of thirteen separate books, highlights various episodes--some monumental, some seemingly trivial--that are essential to conveying the author's philosophy and feelings about God.
Throughout his Confessions, Augustine directly addresses God: "Great thou Art, O Lord, and greatly to be praised." The chronicle of his life has the feeling of an extended prayer. Augustine discusses his early life of indulgence in light of his later, radical conversion to Christianity.
Augustine relates his earliest memories from infancy and early childhood, of which he remembers little. He describes his mother Monica as a pious Christian. Yet in early life, Augustine was not interested in religion: instead the hero, Aeneas, fascinated him. Augustine tells of an episode in which, very ill from a stomach ailment, he begged to be baptized. But his mother thought it was false to become a Christian out of fear instead of real faith.
Growing up, Augustine studied Latin and Greek and enjoyed the theater. At the end of Book 1 he describes his many abilities as gifts from God, placing them in a unique context because he has not yet fully accepted God.
In Book 2 Augustine recounts his sixteenth year. Restless, disinterested, and roguish, he and his friends robbed a pear tree, just for the thrill of stealing something. He delighted in mischief for its own sake. Augustine wonders what caused him to act this way, straying from the path of good, and comments that he was a "wasteland" at that age.
At nineteen years old, Augustine traveled to Carthage to study. Although he tried to read the Scriptures, they did not affect Augustine profoundly. In fact, he found them secondary to the texts he was studying. Also during this time, Augustine had a mistress.
For nine years Augustine was involved with the Manicheans, a pseudo-religious sect founded by the Persian religious teacher Mani. The Manicheans encouraged a logical approach to the question of good versus evil, to which Augustine could relate. Although Augustine's mother was distressed that her son was a Manichean, she supported him, convinced that he would eventually change his path.
Augustine returned to his home of Tagaste, where he lived with his mistress. He continued to reject Christianity; however, during this time a close friend died who had embraced Christianity after condemning Augustine's lifestyle. This left Augustine badly shaken, and he returned to Carthage.
Teaching in Rome, and later in Milan, Augustine continued to discuss philosophy. Neoplatonism left an impression on him regarding the material existence of God. Augustine also took over caring for his young son after his mistress left him. As Augustine started to study Christianity, he had an vision of the One.
Augustine converted to Christianity, which began after hearing a child repeat "Pick it up and read it." Augustine interpreted these words as a command from God and opened his Bible randomly. He read "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 13:13.) Soon after, he was baptized. His mother died on the journey home from the baptism.
The final books of the Confessions delve into different philosophical and theological questions. First Augustine discusses the steps that lead the soul to God: A person first is able to admire the splendor of the outside world, then turns inward to self-analysis. Finally, a person is able to anticipate the knowledge of God.
Augustine then turns to the examination of time. He describes time as understood by the soul: the past is its memory, the present its observance, and the future its foresight. Finally, Augustine meditates on Creation. He considers Genesis, and comes to the conclusion of the goodness of creation.