Part II: Augustine and Un-Modern (Autobiographical) Confessio: mihi quaestio factus sum

Contrary to the common interpretation of Augustine as precursor to the modern introspective subject, Augustine’s confession of his various misdirected loves is not an early form of psychoanalysis geared toward finding his true self or unleashing his repressed desires so that his unfettered, liberated self might emerge.[1] Instead, his account, although personal and existentially informed, is motivated by theological aims and is meant to have both personal and transcultural yet non-univocal application. Like the icon whose visibility must become invisible, pointing us not to itself but to God, so too, Augustine’s confessions, his narrations of embodied struggles and misdirected loves are meant to direct us to God. Augustine does, of course, describe in detail events from his own life; yet, the events are focused, arranged, and organized with theological goals in view. As Augustine recounts his own straining to hear the “inner melody” [interiorem melodiam] of God’s “sweet truth” [dulcis veritas],[2] his hope is that we, too, might follow suit.

In many ways, Augustine’s confessions stand in stark contrast with what Foucault would label as secular variants of confessional technologies with their promises of peace, increased self-knowledge, and freedom.[3] For example, Augustine characterizes his former self-absorbed life as delusional. In other words, rather than provide him with the answers to his most pressing questions, Augustine the narrator describes his autonomous life, his life lived as though his own soul or reasoning abilities were sufficient unto themselves, as akin to a pathology. “What could be prouder than my outlandish delusion, whereby I laid claim to be by nature what you are?”[4] Although this passage is found in the so-called “autobiographical” portion of the Confessions—books I-IX—Augustine here likewise engages philosophical concerns. He interprets his wanderings as in part due to his failure to understand his own as well as God’s nature. Continuing his reflections, he focuses first on his own mutable nature. “I was subject to change, as was obvious to me from the fact that I was clearly seeking to be wise in order to change for the better.”[5] Then he states that he was willing—presumably because of his pride—to “think you [God] changeable rather than admit that I was not what you are.”[6] Again, we see that Augustine’s text does not conform readily to the mold of modern autobiography. Not only does he engage in philosophical and theological investigations in the latter books of the Confessions, but his narrative from the very beginning is saturated with contemplative musings—all of which have as their goal a theocentric focus.

Chloë Taylor likewise contends that something is amiss in labeling Augustine’s narrative as a forerunner to modern autobiography. In her book, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault, Taylor observes that the Confessions fall outside of Foucault’s “dichotomized presentation of early of Christian confession.”[7] That is, Augustine neither engages in a ritual showing of his being as sinful (exomologesis) nor does he give us an account of his past verbal confessions to a spiritual director, who then interprets the inner movements of his soul (exagoreusis). Yet, in light of the fact that Augustine penned his text in the fourth century—a time frame to which Foucault devotes special attention—it is all the more surprising, given the widespread view of Augustine as the father of introspection, that Foucault fails to interact with Augustine’s work.[8] Although for my purposes, it is not necessary to elaborate Taylor’s proposal in its entirety as to why Foucault omits Augustine in his studies, I shall summarize one aspect of her thesis given its relevance to my argument in this chapter. As Taylor observes, Foucault was most interested in later transformations of Christian confessional technologies, that is, confession as a verbal hermeneutic activity of “telling the truth of the self.”[9] Since Augustine’s narrative does not have as its main focus confessing the truth about himself but rather “confessing the truth of the Christian faith,” perhaps, Taylor suggests, this plays into Foucault decision not to analyze Augustine’s text.[10]

In order to substantiate her earlier claim regarding the theological rather than anthropological thrust of Augustine’s narrative, Taylor draws attention to the first few lines of the Confessions, where Augustine states that the intense longing of the human heart is to praise God.[11] This initial paragraph concludes with the familiar lines mentioned earlier in our analysis, namely, our heart is unhinged or restless until it rests in God. With these verses in mind, Taylor writes: “[t]he human heart is […] described as anxious or ‘unquiet,’ as in the modern confessional, and yet the appeasement that it seeks does not seem to be sought in self-revelation, but in the opportunity to praise God, and ultimately to return to Him.”[12] Augustine continues his prayer to God, asking various questions about God’s nature and how one might call on Him, wondering also whether one can speak properly of God. All of these elements—prayer, praise, lengthy philosophical and theological ponderings—suggest something outside the characteristic form (and content) of modern autobiography.

Having in these initial paragraphs set forth many of the main themes to be developed as his composition unfolds, Augustine then turns to God in prayer once more and rhetorically asks: “[w]ho will grant me to find peace in you? Who will grant me this grace, that you would come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you”?[13] Although Augustine mentions his own struggles—those “evils that beset” him—, nonetheless, as Taylor notes, “he does not suggest that it is introspection which will cure him of his psychological torment, but rather that he will drown out his woes by becoming drunk with God.”[14] Neither introspective analysis of secret thoughts and tangled desires nor confession to a spiritual “expert” (as Foucault might put it)—but rather worship is said to bring peace to Augustine’s soul. In other words and stated somewhat provocatively: Augustine’s angst is alleviated through a kind of divine inebriation, a divine drunkenness. “The Confessions are the process of becoming drunk, of self-forgetting.”[15]

Taylor highlights another crucial point about Augustine’s text often overlooked in the literature. When we consider the personal landmark events that Augustine includes in his narrative— his mother Monica’s death, his faithful fourteen-year amorous relationship to an unnamed woman, his son Adeodatus—what we find in “his criteria for inclusion […] is that the event be relevant to a declaration of his faith.”[16] With respect to Monica’s death, Augustine wants to show how his faith and his new ability to love Monica in God allow him to deal with grief and loss in a way that had previously eluded him. His account of his long-term monogamous, romantic relationship, the termination of which he describes as extremely painful,[17] is mentioned so that Augustine can stress how his self-absorbed wanderings had ensnared him and how God was, nonetheless, working through these experiences to woo Augustine to himself.[18] Along the same lines, we hear nothing of his son Adeodatus’s birth and growth into adulthood; however, we get a detailed account of Adeodatus’s baptism and his growth in the faith fostered in part by Augustine’s instruction. With respect to his relation with his son, we have a counter-image of Augustine’s relation to his own father, Patricius. That is, as a result of Augustine’s conversion to and abiding in Christ, he is compelled to encourage his son to live virtuously, which for Augustine requires engaged and purposed moral and spiritual training—the two areas in which Patricius failed Augustine. In light of the theological aims of these carefully selected narrated events, we can substantiate further our claim that Augustine’s project neither serves as a prototype to modern autobiography nor do his interests lie in psychoanalyzing the soul; rather, “Augustine is writing his faith, not his life, and his life is recorded only in so far as it is a vehicle, among others, for writing his faith.”[19] Stated slightly differently, because Augustine’s faith has now so permeated his life, he structures his story intentionally to reflect his new relational, dependent, unfinished subjectivity in Christ—itself a chapter in a wider-reaching, even cosmic redemptive historical narrative into which Augustine was written in medias res.

This notion of belonging to and thus understanding one’s identity or subjectivity in relation to a narrative much larger than one’s local story in no way negates or overrides an individual’s desire for developing his or her subjectivity through specific, voluntary ascetical practices and other self-technologies. In contrast to Taylor, I argue that Augustine’s project in the Confessions and Foucault’s understanding of self-writing or self-fashioning share a number of similarities.[20]


[1] Augustine offers, as it were, his own critique of the “repressive hypothesis.”

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 4.15.27 [CSEL 33, 85]; my translation.

[3] In a subsequent section, I discuss these secular confessional technologies in more detail; thus, I simply mention them here in passing.

[4] Ibid., 4.15.26; 108.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Taylor, The Culture of Confession, 26

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Augustine begins the Confessions with the following prayer: “Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we humans, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you—we who carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. Yet these humans, due part of your creation as they are, still do long to praise you. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (1.1.1; 39).

[12] Taylor, The Culture of Confession, 39.

[13] Augustine, Confessions, 1.5.5; 41.

[14] Taylor, The Culture of Confession, 39.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 44.

[17] Recounting this event, Augustine says that she was “ripped from my side,” to which he adds, “[s]o deeply was she engrafted into my heart that it was left torn and wounded and trailing blood” (Augustine, Confessions, 6.15.25; 156).

[18] Summing up this period of his life and returning again to the restless heart theme, he writes: “[w]oe betide the soul which supposes it will find something better if it forsakes you! Toss and turn as we may, now on our back, now side, now belly—our bed is hard at every point, for you alone are our rest [et tu solus requies]. But lo! Here you are; you rescue us from our wretched meanderings and establish us on your way; you console us and bid us, ‘Run: I will carry you, I will lead you and I will bring you home’” (ibid., 6.16.26; 157 [CSEL 33, 139–40).

[19] Taylor, The Culture of Confession, 44.

[20] See, for example, Taylor’s comments at the end of her section on Augustine, ibid., esp. 45–6.


2 thoughts on “Part II: Augustine and Un-Modern (Autobiographical) Confessio: mihi quaestio factus sum”

  1. when you say:
    “Stated slightly differently, because Augustine’s faith has now so permeated his life, he structures his story intentionally to reflect his new relational, dependent, unfinished subjectivity in Christ…”

    do you think this is a way of understanding the relation of bks 1-9 and 10-13, that Aug. is providing a cosmic context for his confession of faith, which ultimately is Christological?

  2. Yes, I think that is definitely one really good way to understand the relation between 1-9 and 10-13. There are other good ways, of course, but one could make a good case for what you say.

Comments are closed.