Chiastic Structure of the Confessions: Two Snapshots of the Human Soul

The following is taken from a lecture given by Dr. Michael Foley at the University of Dallas (March 8, 2007).
Dr. Foley addressed the various ways in which one might respond to a common criticism of the Confessions, viz., it is unorganized, lacking in cohesion, and more or less without any sense of structure or unity. Of the many possible chiastic structures that unify the Confessions, I will share one in particular that Dr. Foley discussed. Upon deeper reflection, one can discern a chiastic pattern in books I-IX, which draws our attention to two snapshots of the human soul via images of descent and ascent. In book I, Augustine is characterized by a dis-ordered soul and is ruled by his passions. By the time we reach book IX, Augustine has been converted and is characterized by a well-ordered soul in submission to Christ. In book II, concupiscence and lust are the dominant themes, while conversely, book VIII illustrates how his lusts have been subdued by God’s grace and put to rest. Curiositas or an improper desire for knowledge grips Augustine in book III, and as a result, he becomes a Manichee. In book VII, Augustine reads the Platonists and gains an understanding of the mind as immaterial, which then allows him to break through the materialism that he imbibed for nearly a decade with the Manicheans. Consequently, he is better able to apprehend God’s nature, and his curiositas is replaced with a more accurate understanding of reality. In book IV, selfish ambition drives Augustine and he is most concerned with furthering his career as a rhetor. In contrast, in book VI, Augustine gains humility and begins to see a need to listen to others not only for the purposes of increasing his skills in rhetoric, but for a content that has something more than a fleeting significance (e.g., St. Ambrose). Book V is the center of this chiastic structure and is where Augustine encounters both Faustus and St. Ambrose. Faustus, of course, completely disappoints him, whereas Ambrose helps him to read Scripture with a new hermeneutic and many of his (Augustine’s) former difficulties with Scripture fall away.

One might also summarize the Confessions by saying that in books I-IX, Augustine learns to read the enigma of his past. To do this he must be converted to the good (book VII), to time (book XI), and to Christ (book VIII). Hence, we have a manifold conversion. Having been brought this far (by the end of book IX), he can then look back on his life properly. As mentioned above, from Ambrose Augustine learns to read Scripture in multiple senses. He then takes what he has learned from Ambrose about interpreting Scripture, and applies it to the interpretation of his own life. He tells of his past in order to help us to learn to read our pasts properly. In book X, we have something more than an abstract account of memory—we have as well the reading of our own memory. Lastly, in books XII-XIII, we have the reading of reality in two texts, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. In the final book of the Confessions, Augustine gives an extended meditation on Genesis 1 and brings us full circle back to our origin and telos, the Triune God in whom we live and move and have our being, and in whom, along with Augustine, we can find rest for our restless hearts.