Augustine’s Confessions

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.


Online resources:

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)

15 thoughts on “Augustine’s Confessions

  1. There was much in Augustine’s account which dealt with proof – God, effectively, proving himself to Augustine, that his way is right, and that Augustine’s previous life had been misled. A further area of thought might be the balance of proof which a narrative claims was either neccessary or happened; or, perhaps more to the point, was not not neccessary and did not happen, prior to a conversion.

    • The private/public and individual/communal distinctions mentioned by Marleen and CG figure prominently in the conversion of Victorinus in Book 8. The dispute of the ‘conceit of the “walls”’ (8.2.4) is enacted between Victorinus and Simplicianus. For the latter, the locus of divine communion is bounded by place and is to be sought in the ‘the Church of Christ’, while for the former it is independent of religious institutions or edifices, and resides in the interior space of the elevated mind.

      Victorinus, however, later relinquishes this position and agrees to (both literally and figuratively, and perhaps only figuratively because literally) enter the church, and to enact the ritual of baptism, thus making the transition from internal and individual to external and communal. This shift is consolidated by the decision to ‘profess his salvation in the presence of the holy multitude’ rather than keeping with convention to ‘make his profession more privately’ (8.2.5).

      It seems that the witnessing of conversion is an important part of legitimising it here. There is a clear impulse to make the experience or narrative of conversion a shared one, an overt story-telling. The salvation of Victorinus is received by a joyful congregation in a ceremony that is emphatically physical as he is universally accepted within the walls of his newly acquired religion.

  2. Augustine’s narrative draws on the theme of passage: from light to dark, ignorance to truth. Interestingly he refers to this state of transition as wanderings within a maze, such a process is necessary in or order to be ‘found’, and perhaps suggesting that one must suffer such trials as to prove worthy of revelation? Following from Ian’s comment, confronted with the ‘maze’ that is ‘truth’, it is only natural to wander until we receive guidance – the agency been on the part of god to rescue the lost sheep!

  3. It looks like the part in the confession of Augustine about his conversion is an ‘individual’ or ‘private’ confession. He is clearly struggling with his inner ‘self’. But is it possible to look at conversion narratives as a private or individual story, as religion and faith are always part of a community of several individuals?

  4. What I find most striking in the account of Augustine’s conversion is this (potentially metatextual) observation: ‘Good God! what takes place in man, that he should more rejoice at the salvation of a soul despaired of, and freed from greater peril, than if there had always been hope of him, or the danger had been less?’

    Here, Augustine wonders at his own emotional response to the conversion narrative of Victorinus Afer, but the question can just as easily be applied to the _Confessions_ themselves. Augustine was so inspired by Victorinus that he ‘was on fire to imitate him’, and presumably we are to feel as excited by the narrative tension released in Book 8 of the _Confessions_ as Augustine was in hearing the story of Victorinus.

    This would appear to make imitation a cornerstone of the successful first-person conversion narrative. The struggling would-be convert seeks to imitate the successfully converted forebearer, with all Christian conversion ultimately having its basis in the yearning to imitate Jesus. I would be interested to find out through further research whether this model applies to third-person narratives as well (particularly in colonial/missionary settings), and if it has non-Christian equivalents.

  5. Augustine’s conversion is represented as both a complete and a sincere change of belief, a representation which has come to shape the meaning and implications of the term ‘conversion’. But need the experience of conversion be both complete and sincere, in order to properly be called ‘conversion’?

    New converts might completely follow the practices and proscriptions of their new faith, yet for a variety of reasons, not be sincere in their belief. Equally, converts might sincerely follow their new religion, yet their conversion may not be complete, as they allow their old beliefs to coexist alongside the new ones. Given, then, the actual practice of converting people in the early modern period, would Augustine’s representation of conversion still have been a useful model for early modern converts?

  6. If we’re thinking about Augustine as a model for later converts, then it’s certainly worth comparing him with John Donne. Reading Augustine’s narrative with its emphasis on self-flagellation, it’s very easy to see how Donne was inspired to write some of his Holy Sonnets. ‘Batter my heart’ is entirely reminiscent of a passage at 8.11.25 in Augustine’s Confessions (I quote both here):

    ‘Thus soul-sick was I, and tormented, accusing myself much more severely than my wont, rolling and turning me in my chain, till that were wholly broken, whereby I now was but just, but still was, held. And Thou, O Lord, pressedst upon me in my inward parts by a severe mercy, redoubling the lashes of fear and shame, lest I should again give way, and not bursting that same slight remaining tie, it should recover strength, and bind me the faster.’

    ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
    As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
    That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
    Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
    I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
    Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
    Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
    But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
    Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
    But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
    Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
    Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
    Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
    Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.’

    Linking religious conversion with descriptions of physical torment definitely gives us food for thought, especially when compared to other conversion case studies such Allan Greer’s article on Iroquois Christianity in C17th New France, where the converts inflicted physical suffering on themselves to expiate religious guilt.

    Given that internal religious anguish is so often expressed in physical terms might reveal the difficulty of writing/speaking about experiences of spirituality. Of course, ‘In the beginning was the word’ – yet the word itself has shortcomings when it comes to professing the complexities of personal faith.

  7. I think some of the questions raised already relating to the distinction between the private and the public are interesting. Does the re-telling of private conversion or conversion in public or as a collective group somehow enhance the validity of the conversion?

    Also it is interesting to explore what conversion narratives reveal about the character of the religion. Do the first acts of the convert indicate which aspect of faith they see as most important- for example Augustine’s conversion is based on scriptural enlightenment, so is this the key to understanding his view of faith?

    What acts do missionaries encourage converts to engage in and what does this reveal about their conceptions of their faith?

  8. On a more general term: When is someone actually considered a convert or, more precisely, when does the individual consider itself converted and when does it’s environment? Especially in regard to the latter, my main concern is the difference and interaction between inner and overt piety especially in connection with forcefully imposed conversion. Elizabeth I did, if we follow Bacon, not have the ‘desire to make windows into peoples souls’ and seemed content if they did abide by the rules and partook in the relevant rituals. The Spanish under Philip II showed more zeal in regard to peoples inner beliefs. Can someone, for instance, observe the rules of the Christian church and remain a Jew? It appears that the considerations which went into religious affiliation varied and depended upon the ends it was supposed to serve, on an individual as well as on a broader, social level.

  9. To what extent are Augustine’s confessions tainted by his personal agency and memory? For example, did the affair in the garden of Milan take on new resonances when recalled by the author in his reformed state? And is it possible to overcome this issue by looking at his earlier works and Soliloquies?

  10. Augustine’s conversion involved an intense inward struggle — `soul-sick and tormented’, he experienced the severity of God’s mercy and the forced recognition of his own foulness and iniquity. Elsewhere he writes of joy, and how much greater it is if the peril endured beforehand was great as well. I wonder if conversion always involves these conflicting, extreme, and fevered mental sensations, or if it can come simply from a sober acceptance of the historical truth of the gospels. A friend of mine experienced this latter form of conversion to Catholicism, after a period of serious study (I wonder if he heard the command `take up and read’, as well …). His was an intellectual as much as it was a spiritual conversion.

    In Book II of The Faerie Queene, Spenser allegorises the relationship between will, reason and the passions, and Acrasia’s temptations of incontinence. It would be interesting to examine this in light of Augustine’s discussion of Continency, `not barren, but a fruitful mother of children of joys’. Mental conflict, misdirected sexual energy and diverse and distracting wills confound Guyon, just as they do Augustine.

  11. Augustine asserts the seemingly superior merits of the saving of a soul,’despaired of, and freed from greater peril,’ compared to one for which there had always been hope for, ‘or the danger less.’As well as asserting that, ‘Thou also, merciful Father, dost more rejoice over one penitent than over ninety-nine just persons that need no repentance.’ To what extent was this attitude, which seems to give much more credit/ to dramatic conversions as opposed to steady christians, reflected in later narratives, is it a self justification?

  12. The passage of time and waiting for the appropriate moment for conversion is a recurrent element of Augustine’s narrative. While his struggle heightens the emotional impact of the conversion when it finally happens, I wonder what looking at time in later narratives would tell us about the path to conversion. Do missionaries expect to achieve conversions quickly, or over several contacts with individuals? If a ‘priest’ were unavailable, would members of the community foster the development of new converts, as Alypius does for Augustine?

  13. Augustine says in his ‘Exposition on Psalm 138’ that: “confession of sin all know, confession of praise few attend to”. The dual themes of penitence and praise run throughout the Confession, Augustine atones for his sins through constantly carrying his penance with him yet he firmly places his sins in the past, going into little detail about their exact nature. This duality of the confession and its link to the process of conversion is highly intriguing if we extrapolate them forward to the context of the early modern confession era. Was the end goal of an early modern conversion more similar to the Divine revelation of St Paul as described in the New testament (Galatians 1: 11-16; Corinthians 15: 3-8), a conversion that was instantaneous and everlasting? Or was the idea that the confession and conversion could be initially a skin deep admittance of sin and subsequent unearthing of faith (displayed through penance) on the assumption that this could be the first step toward an Augustinian style conversion, more tortured yet drawn by God’s hand?

    Link to Exposition 138:

  14. Pingback: Alien Encounters as Conversion Parables | Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe

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