Augustine’s Confessions: A Model for Conversion?
Above is the title page from the 1631 edition of the Confessions – note the flying cherubs/children who direct a stream of speech towards Augustine, ‘take up and read, take up and read’. In the bottom left hand corner is a Bible open at the passage from Paul to the Romans (13: 13-14) which brought about Augustine’s conversion.
Augustine writes the Confessions at the end of the fourth century AD, eleven years after his conversion in Milan, when he is Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. In many respects it was designed to refute the accusation that he was still a Manichee (a member of a sect who followed the teachings of Mani).
The conversion stories of Victorinus, Ponticianus, and Paul (mentioned briefly in relation to his change of name from Saul to Paul following his conversion) precede Augustine hearing the disembodied words ‘tolle, lege, tolle, lege’ (‘take up and read, take up and read’) in a garden in Milan. He picks up the book of the apostle Paul ‘opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit’. After reading the following passage, ‘All shadows of doubt were dispelled’:
‘Not in riots or in drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.’ (Rom. 13:13-14)
As Augustine’s own conversion takes place after listening to the conversion narratives of others, what implications does this have for the power of narrative? Particularly as it is the injunction to ‘take up and read’ which results in his conversion. Conversion via story, via text, is this a cumulative reading process?
What is the role of the senses: the hearing of stories, of voices (spiritual and temporal), the reading of scripture (out loud?). Augustine’s mentor Ambrose read silently – something which surprised Augustine.
The first English translation of the Confessions appears to have been printed in 1620. This is very late considering the weight it is often given by scholars as a model for early modern life writing; did it circulate in manuscript, are parts of the story contained in other compilations? This edition is dedicated to ‘The Most Glorious Perpetvall and Al- Immacvlate Virgin Mary’ but in the preface it claims to be presented to ‘both Catholikes, and Protestants’ – a text which perhaps surmounts the religious divide?
To what extent is Augustine’s conversion story used as a model for later converts? Is any assumption of its precedence as a model perhaps undercut by the apparent lack of an English translation until 1620?
If anyone knows of earlier English translations of the Confessions, in both manuscript or print, please let us know.
This excellent website has James J. O’Donnell’s Oxford 1992 edition of the Confessions with a full intro and detailed commentary
This site only gives the Latin edition of the text; for an English translation go to:
Henry Chadwick, Saint Augustine: Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)
James J. O’Donnell, Augustine, Sinner and Saint: A New Biography (London: Profile Books, 2005)
Henry Chadwick, Augustine of Hippo: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)