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Augustine's Commentary on GalatiansIntroduction, Text, Translation, and Notes$

Eric Plumer

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780199244393

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2004

DOI: 10.1093/0199244391.001.0001

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(p.242) Appendix 3 The Historicity of the Confessions

(p.242) Appendix 3 The Historicity of the Confessions

Augustine's Commentary on Galatians

Eric Plumer

Oxford University Press

Although I have already cited and endorsed J. J. O'Donnell's judicious remarks on the historicity of the Confessions,1 it is only fair that I should offer my own views on this difficult and complex subject. To what extent is it legitimate to address what are essentially questions of historical fact to the Confessions? Certainly historical interrogation of the text is not easy: Augustine deliberately omits many names and dates that we would like to have, presents incidents out of chronological order and with a dramatic heightening of emotion, and generally appears more interested in symbolism and typology than in historical event as we understand it. Moreover, such past events as are included in the Confessions are narrated from the present perspective of Augustine the bishop, who is deliberately attempting to view them from the standpoint of the eternal. For reasons such as these a vast debate over the historical value of this text, focused principally on the scene in the garden at Milan, has persisted for more than a century, without attaining any definitive resolution.2 But to impugn the historicity of the garden scene, the climax of the narrative of Books 1–8, is by implication to impugn the historicity of every other scene. Although the debate obviously cannot fully be entered into here, it must be engaged in to some extent in order to justify the use made above of the story of Victorinus' conversion as a historical source.3

On the one hand, it would be wildly anachronistic to suppose that Augustine set out to write Rankean scientific history wie es eigentlich gewesen, ‘exactly as it happened’.4 Yet the Confessions deviate not only from modern notions of historical narrative but from ancient ones as well. Indeed, because of their originality and complexity they resist classification of any kind.5 Attempts have been made to illuminate the genre of the Confessions by interpreting its language and thought in exclusively Neoplatonic or Ciceronian or biblical categories, but the fact remains that in the text itself these categories have been fused into a profoundly unified whole, rendering the search for exact literary parallels highly problematic. (p.243) Augustine himself described the work thus in his Retractations: ‘The thirteen books of my Confessions praise the just and good God for my evil and good acts, and lift up the understanding and affection of men to Him.’6 The first point to note is the title itself, which (unusually in Augustine's works7) is deeply significant. Moreover, Augustine's description suggests that the work contains elements which are epideictic (‘praise’), autobiographical (‘my evil and good acts’), and protreptic (‘lift up etc.’). An additional element not explicitly referred to in his statement is the form in which the work as a whole is cast: that of a long prayer, modelled largely on the Psalms. No interpretation that ignores any one of these elements can avoid being reductionistic, but provided this caution is borne in mind, then the historical, autobiographical element—which is, after all, presented as the basis for Augustine's praise of God and the grounds for others to praise God also—ought to be amenable to critical examination.

We may begin by considering the title. For Augustine the term confessio has at least two basic and interrelated meanings: confession of praise and confession of sin.8 As the quotation above suggests, it is the first of these meanings that Augustine especially wishes to emphasize. But inasmuch as praise is subsumed under the category of epideictic rhetoric in ancient theory, and as in practice epideictic rhetoric condoned the fabrication of facts,9 it has been argued that the Confessions may be fictional.10 Now on the one hand it must be admitted that as a professional rhetor Augustine was guilty of such fabrication, and refers to a specific instance of it in the Confessions.11 On the other hand, as the author of the Confessions he is acutely aware of the dangers of rhetoric and sharply critical of his own rhetorical past.12 But more to the point, he is conscious of the inherent danger and difficulty of all religious language13 and judges himself harshly for having misrepresented God in the past, accusing himself of nothing less than idolatry.14 What Augustine says elsewhere points in the same direction: in a passage in On Lying, written about two years before the Confessions, he absolutely condemns the (p.244) idea that an untruth could be justified on the grounds that it had been told in order to praise God.15

With regard to the second meaning of confessio, ‘confession of sin’, it is notable that penance was essentially linked to baptism and the Eucharist and deemed necessary for salvation.16 In offering his own story as an exhortation to penitence and confession,17 therefore, Augustine the bishop is consciously involving himself in the salvation of others. Moreover, penance was the subject of ecclesiastical debate and legislation in Africa at this time,18 and few can have taken such things more seriously and scrupulously than Augustine. Such considerations militate strongly against the interpretation of Augustine's Confessions as a fictional as opposed to a stylized but trustworthy representation, at least in so far as they recount past and present sins.

So from the outset Augustine is concerned to be truthful. Precisely because ‘confession’ has been sanctioned by God in both liturgy and Scripture, it offers Augustine hope of being able to speak to God and to others about God with some measure of authenticity. In particular the voice of the Psalmist provides him with a model of authenticity. The ability to speak to God and of God is an inestimable gift and at the same time an immense responsibility. As Augustine says elsewhere of the Psalms: when we sing the Psalms, the words are indeed ours, but they are even more the words of God.19 Confession is in fact a grace that empowers faith to self‐expression and thereby to self‐understanding.

The grace of God is entirely unmerited,20 as Augustine had understood from St Paul's saying, What have you that you did not receive? (1 Cor. 4: 7);21 in fact, insight into the meaning of this verse c.397 had revolutionized his understanding of grace.22 But if the theology is such, then the idea that the incidents recorded are purely and deliberately the product of Augustine's unfettered imagination is seriously undermined. Augustine insists that it is God who took the gracious initiative in his life; all the initiatives he himself had ever taken were abortive until (p.245) God's transforming grace intervened and redeemed them.23 Augustine's conception of his writing must therefore be sharply distinguished from any Romantic notion of the artist as godlike creator.

Moreover, God's grace is portrayed as surprising, improbable, paradoxical, so that Augustine's conversion appears less a direct, linear progression than a long, circuitous odyssey.24 In the words of another of his favourite texts from Paul: How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! (Rom. 11: 33).25 God's ways are not our ways; in fact, they subvert our ways. Such a view of divine providence undermines the notion that the historical element of the Confessions is a deliberate, fictional construct, a view further undermined by the very tone of the text, especially the wonder and awe at God's mysterious providence, and the gratitude and love for the deliverance it has accomplished. The fact that Augustine finds profound symbolic meaning in incidents, some of which seem trivial to the reader, is in harmony with this view, for the things that Augustine initially misinterpreted or failed even to notice must take on new meaning once Augustine has accepted that his life has all along been directed—even predestined—by an overarching providence.

But what if Augustine's conception of truth is transhistorical? What if he is thinking not of ‘what Alcibiades did and suffered’, but rather of Jesus Christ, ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14: 6)?26 Such an objection is accurate but misleading, for Augustine is at pains to emphasize that the eternal Truth was revealed and embodied in a historical Person, sent by God the Father ‘so that from his example [humanity] should learn humility’.27 Moreover, the confession of this sending in terms of John 1: 14 (the Word was made flesh) occurs at one of the great climaxes of the work: Augustine's confession that although Neoplatonism knew the Truth, it did not and indeed could not know the Truth Incarnate.28

(p.246) This incarnational theology permeates Augustine's understanding of Sacred Scripture, for the Word made flesh is the logical antecedent and archetype of the scriptural Word.29 Now to the extent that the Confessions are cast in a biblical form, it suggests that Augustine intended them to be read analogously, that is, as both history and symbolism.30 If so, his comments on biblical interpretation may provide a key to the interpretation of the Confessions:

But first and above all, brothers, I must in the name of the Lord to the best of my ability both urge upon you and insist upon one thing: when you hear the hidden meaning explained of a story in scripture that tells of things that happened, you must first believe that what has been read to you actually happened as read, or else the foundation of an actual event will be removed, and you will be trying to build castles in the air.31

The concreteness of Augustine's understanding of God's self‐revelation in history is paralleled by a similar concreteness in his understanding of moral experience. Characteristic is his emphasis upon the force of habit (consuetudo) leading to slavery to sin.32 According to his analysis, the pleasure associated with specific, sinful acts is recalled and enhanced by memory, provoking repetition; repetition in turn strengthens the memory, accentuates its provocative power, and leads the sinner to experience increasing difficulty in resisting temptation. Those who fail to conquer temptation are eventually conquered by it. Such an analysis gives extraordinary depth and seriousness to Augustine's view of his own and others' past. As Peter Brown has noted, for Augustine individuals ‘were different from each other precisely because their wills were made different by the sum total of unique, past experiences’.33

This consideration in turn helps to explain the extreme care with which Augustine searches his memory in selecting incidents for inclusion in his (p.247) narrative.34 Acknowledging that he is being selective,35 he distinguishes between the occurrence and his attitude towards it—occasionally even between his present attitude and his attitude at the time.36 He searches his memory arduously and even when he has found something that seems suitable the possibility remains that it may be false, and he implies that such falseness is sin.37 His anxiety thus goes beyond that of a writer seeking the fittest artistic expression.38 That is not to say that Augustine is incapable of self‐deception. On the contrary, he is capable and acknowledges it.39 But he is also extremely attentive to the possibility and prays to be delivered from it.40 It is important to recall that the Confessions express not self‐assurance, but the very opposite: the awareness that the self is wholly unreliable except in so far as it is truly grounded in God, and that this grounding can never be taken for granted.41

One stimulus to writing at least part of the Confessions was probably Paulinus of Nola's request for facts concerning the life of Alypius.42 This would help to explain the ‘biography of Alypius’ in Book 6.43 It is notable that here Augustine appears to have combined factual content with striking literary form,44 suggesting that he may have done so elsewhere as well. Moreover, while the passage concerning Alypius at the gladiatorial spectacles clearly serves didactic purposes, it can hardly have been fabricated out of whole cloth, since it must have imperilled Alypius’ current reputation as a bishop and judge.45 The story's inclusion makes sense only if Alypius and Augustine shared the same understanding of confession as a divinely ordained (p.248) remedy for pride. This understanding is also necessary to account for Augustine's inclusion of so much damning evidence about his own life as a Manichee, which could be turned against him by malevolent adversaries.46

To try to anticipate the hermeneutics of suspicion any further would be possible but not, I think, profitable. Ultimately each reader must decide for himself or herself what degree of historical reliability to place in the Confessions.47 My own conclusions are: none of the reasons I have given is compelling in and of itself. In combination, however, they carry considerable weight, for most of them are not isolated and exceptional points on the periphery of the author's interests, but ones central to his theological agenda. Moreover, their interconnections are reinforcing, so that their cumulative effect is multiplied. The combination thus establishes a high degree of probability that the Confessions may be approached as a source of historical facts concerning Augustine's life and shifts the burden of proof onto anyone who would wish to propose that the Confessions are essentially a fictional construct.48


(1) See n. 22 in Ch. 2 of the Introduction.

(2) For a summary of the issues see Bonner, St Augustine of Hippo, 42–51, and A. Solignac, Les Confessions, BA 13: 55–84.

(3) See Introduction, 2. A, under ‘Victorinus in Augustine's Confessions’. I would agree with O'Donnell's nuanced comments on the historicity of the garden scene in Augustine: Confessions, iii. 59–69, and much of what I have to say presupposes those comments.

(4) For this particular rendering of Ranke's famous phrase I am indebted to Tilley, Bible, 1.

(5) Cf. Conte, Latin Literature, 688–90.

(6) retr. 2. 6 (32). 1 (Bogan, trans., 130 (CCSL 57: 94. 2–4: ‘Confessionum mearum libri tredecim et de malis et de bonis meis deum laudant iustum et bonum atque in eum excitant humanum intellectum et affectum’)).

(7) Cf. P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 175.

(8) A third is confession of faith. See O'Donnell, Augustine: Confessions, ii. 3–5, and Bonner, St Augustine of Hippo, 48–51.

(9) See Burgess, Epideictic Literature, 116.

(10) Thus Boyle, ‘A Likely Story’, 24–8.

(11) conf. 6. 6. 9: ‘How unhappy I was, and how conscious you made me of my misery, on that day when I was preparing to deliver a panegyric on the emperor! In the course of it I would tell numerous lies and for my mendacity would win the good opinion of people who knew it to be untrue’ (Chadwick, trans. (and so throughout), 97; CCSL 27: 79. 9–11: ‘Quam ergo miser eram et quomodo egisti, ut sentirem miseriam meam die illo, quo, cum pararem recitare imperatori laudes, quibus plura mentirer, et mentienti faueretur ab scientibus’).

(12) See conf. 1. 16. 25–18. 29, 3. 3. 6–4. 7, 4. 2. 2, and 6. 6. 9.

(13) That consciousness is eloquently expressed in the proem (conf. 1. 1. 1–5. 6).

(14) conf. 7. 14. 20. The same accusation is brought against others in 5. 3. 5 and 7. 9. 15.

(15) mend. 12. 20–13. 21 (CSEL 41: 439–40), arguing from Exod. 20: 16 and 1 Cor. 15: 15. (A similar argument is used at ep. 28. 3. 4.) At mend. 21. 42 (CSEL 41: 463–5) he condemns the idea of lying even for the sake of another's eternal salvation.

(16) Cf. ench. 17. 65: ‘For outside the Church there is no remission of sins. She received as her very own the pledge of the Holy Spirit, without whom no sin whatever is remitted, so that those to whom sins are remitted receive life everlasting’ (Arand, trans., 66; CCSL 46: 84. 38–41: ‘Extra [ecclesiam] quippe [peccata] non remittuntur: ipsa namque proprie spiritum sanctum pignus accepit, sine quo non remittuntur ulla peccata ita ut quibus remittuntur uitam consequantur aeternam’).

(17) Cf. e.g. conf. 10. 3. 4, 11. 1. 1. Augustine also asks for prayers for his parents and himself on the basis of what he has narrated (9. 13. 37, 10. 4. 5).

(18) See e.g. Canon 30 of the Hippo Breviary (CCSL 149: 41. 170–42. 177). Augustine would have been present when that canon was originally drafted at the Council of Hippo in 393 and again when it was formally ratified at the Council of Carthage in 397.

(19) en. Ps. 26. en. 2. 1 (CCSL 38: 154. 4–7).

(20) It was, of course, a variation on this theme that so angered Pelagius. Cf. perseu. 20. 53.

(21) Echoed at conf. 1. 4. 4, 7. 21. 27, and 13. 14. 15.

(22) Commenting on Simpl. at retr. 2. 1. 1. (Quoted at praed. sanct. 4. 8.)

(23) Cf. e.g. conf. 4. 1. 1: ‘Without you, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self‐destruction?’ (trans., 52; CCSL 27: 40. 17: ‘Quid enim sum ego mihi sine te nisi dux in praeceps?’). Cf. also his reflection on the conf. in ep. 231. 6: ‘For He made us, and not we ourselves (Ps. 99 (100): 3); indeed, we had destroyed ourselves, but He who made us has made us anew’ (Cunningham, trans., 584 (modified); CSEL 57: 509. 4–6: ‘Quoniam ipse fecit nos et non ipsi nos; nos autem perdideramus nos, sed, qui fecit, refecit’).

(24) With allusions to Virgil, Plotinus, and above all the parable of the Prodigal Son. Cf. 1.18. 28. (Note also the use of the word circuitus in conf. 4. 1. 1, 6. 6. 9, and 8. 2. 3.)

(25) Echoed in conf. 4. 4. 8 (CCSL 27: 43. 19).

(26) Thus Ferrari, ‘Truth and Augustine's Conversion Scene’, 12, infers from various passages in the conf. that Augustine was thinking in terms of ‘an interiorized mystical mode of truth far removed from the empirically verifiable kind called for by the debate about the conversion scene’.

(27) conf. 10. 43. 68 (trans., 219; CCSL 27: 192. 2–3: ‘ut eius exemplo etiam ipsam discerent humilitatem’). Cf. 10. 4. 6: ‘You have commanded me to serve them if I wish to live with you and in dependence on you. This your word would have meant little to me if it had been only a spoken precept and had not first been acted out’ [i.e. ‘by Jesus Christ’] (trans., 182 and n. 3; CCSL 27: 157. 27–9): ‘ . . . quibus iussisti ut seruiam, si uolo tecum de te uiuere. Et hoc mihi uerbum tuum parum erat si loquendo praeciperet, nisi et faciendo praeiret’).

(28) conf. 7. 9. 13–14; cf. 7. 18. 24–19. 25.

(29) Cf. e.g. cons. eu. 1. 35. 54, c. Faust. 12. 7. See further Polman, The Word of God According to St. Augustine (passim).

(30) Cf. Chadwick, ‘History and Symbolism in the Garden at Milan’, 44–5, and Mohrmann, ‘The Confessions as a Literary Work of Art’, 378. The latter writes: ‘This idea of a two‐fold significance which Augustine always seeks in the Scriptures, now influences too the account of his own spiritual development, which he consciously clothed in Biblical form. Here too he takes the literal meaning as his point of departure, i.e. he describes the facts as he remembers them after so many years. But he always sees in and behind these facts a spiritual significance, a symbol. For us it is difficult to understand such a mentality, hovering between reality and symbol, but for Augustine and his contemporaries, accustomed to the methods of the Alexandrian exegetists, this attitude towards the facts was by no means uncommon. The “factum” contains one might say, the “mysterium”, but—and here I tend to disagree with Courcelle—the “factum” is primary in its concrete sobriety.’

(31) s. 2. 7 (Hill, trans., i. 179; CCSL 41: 14. 169–74: ‘Ante omnia tamen, fratres, hoc in nomine domini et admonemus quantum possumus, et praecipimus, ut quando auditis exponi sacramentum scripturae narrantis quae gesta sunt, prius illud quod lectum est credatis sic gestum, quomodo lectum est, ne subtracto fundamento rei gestae, quasi in aere quaeratis aedificare’). Cited by Mohrmann, ‘The Confessions as a Literary Work of Art’, 378. Cf. Marrou, Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, 493.

(32) Famously described at conf. 8. 5. 10–12.

(33) Augustine of Hippo, 173–4, with a further reference to diu. qu. 40.

(34) On this topic see O'Meara, The Young Augustine, 5–7.

(35) e.g. conf. 10. 8. 12, 10. 40. 65.

(36) e.g. ibid. 3. 5. 9, 3. 12. 21.

(37) e.g. ibid. 11. 2. 3.

(38) Some of that anxiety still lingers in his remarks on conf. 4. 6. 11 in retr. 2. 6 (32). 2, where he accuses himself of having used hollow rhetoric at one point. Although the retr. are by no means free from Tendenzen and hence must be approached cautiously, it is nevertheless remarkable that Augustine does not criticize any other passage in the conf. in this way. That the conf. as a whole are not hollow rhetoric is also implied at ep. 231. 6 (and cf. Possidius, Vita, pr.). On Tendenzen in the retr. see J. Burnaby, ‘The Retractationes of St. Augustine’, and R. J. O'Connell, The Origin of the Soul, 321–35.

(39) e.g. conf. 10. 32. 48: ‘That is how I see myself, but perhaps I am deceived’ (trans., 207; CCSL 27: 181. 2: ‘Ita mihi uideor; forsitan fallar’). See also 1. 5. 6, 10. 5. 7, 10. 41. 66.

(40) e.g. conf. 11. 2. 3.

(41) Cf. conf. 10. 40. 65: ‘But in all these investigations which I pursue while consulting you, I can find no safe place for my soul except in you’ (trans., 218; CCSL 27: 191. 18–20: ‘Neque in his omnibus, quae percurro consulens te, inuenio tutum locum animae meae nisi in te’). The temptations associated with episcopal authority and prestige have only added to his peril (cf. 10. 36. 59).

(42) ep. 24. 4 and 27. 5 (CSEL 34: 76 and 100–1). The term used by Paulinus and repeated by Augustine is historia.

(43) conf. 6. 7. 11–10. 16.

(44) On the artistry of conf. 6. 8. 13 in particular, see Auerbach, Mimesis, 66–72.

(45) Certainly a similar story of youthful addiction, that of Monica to wine (conf. 9. 8. 18), was later used by Julian of Eclanum in a way that Augustine found deeply offensive. See c. Iul. imp. 1. 68 (specifically, CSEL 85. 1: 73. 7–9 (Julian's insult) and 74. 39–45 (Augustine's response)).

(46) Cf. e.g. c. litt. Pet. 3. 16. 19; Cresc. 3. 80. 92; c. Iul. imp. 1. 25. Not to mention that Augustine knew some of his confessions left him open to mockery (see e.g. conf. 4. 1. 1; 5. 10.20), a thing to which he was always keenly sensitive.

(47) Augustine was well aware of this and asks for love, which alone, he says, can recognize the sincerity of his voice. Cf. conf. 10. 3. 4–4. 5: ‘The love which makes them good people tells them that I am not lying in confessing about myself, and the love in them believes me. . . . To such sympathetic readers I will indeed reveal myself’ (trans., 181; CCSL 27: 157. 34–5, 3–4: ‘Dicit enim eis caritas, qua boni sunt, non mentiri me de me confitentem, et ipsa in eis credit mihi. . . . Indicabo me talibus’). See also his response to Secundinus, an early reader of the Confessions who called in question his motives for leaving the Manichees: ‘You are passing judgement on things hidden in my mind, which I obviously cannot place before your eyes and show you. . . . I can say nothing more about my mind unless you believe me; if you are unwilling, I don't know what I can do’ (c. Sec. 1–2; CSEL 25. 2: 906. 7–8 and 907. 17–18: ‘Latebras animi mei arguis, quas utique promere ad oculos tuos et demonstrare non possum. . . . De animo meo nihil amplius possum dicere, nisi ut credas mihi; quod si nolueris, non inuenio, quod faciam’ (quoted by Courcelle, Recherches, 238 n. 7)).

(48) Of course, this is not to say that critical caution is unnecessary or that external corroboration of the narrative is unimportant.