The Confessions of Saint Augustine — Chapters 6-10
6. Cramped is the dwelling of my soul; expand it, that You may enter in. It is in ruins, restore it. There is that about it which must offend Your eyes; I confess and know it, but who will cleanse it? Or to whom shall I cry but to You? Cleanse me from my secret sins, O Lord, and keep Your servant from those of other men. I believe, and therefore do I speak; Lord, You know. Have I not confessed my transgressions unto You, O my God; and You have put away the iniquity of my heart? I do not contend in judgment with You, (Job 9:3) who are the Truth; and I would not deceive myself, lest my iniquity lie against itself. I do not, therefore, contend in judgment with You, for if You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
Chapter 6. He Describes His Infancy and Lauds the Protection and Eternal Providence of God.
7. Still suffer me to speak before Your mercy — me, dust and ashes. (Genesis 18:27) Allow me to speak, for, behold, it is Your mercy I address, and not derisive man. Yet perhaps even You deride me; but when You are turned to me You will have compassion on me. (Jeremiah 12:15) For what do I wish to say, O Lord my God, but that I know not whence I came hither into this — shall I call it dying life or living death? Yet, as I have heard from my parents, from whose substance You formed me — for I myself cannot remember it — Your merciful comforts sustained me. Thus, it was that the comforts of a woman’s milk entertained me; for neither my mother nor my nurses filled their own breasts, but You by them gave me the nourishment of infancy according to Your ordinance and that bounty of Yours which underlies all things. For You caused me not to want more than You gave, and those who nourished me willingly to give me what You gave them. For they, by an instinctive affection, were anxious to give me what You had abundantly supplied. It was, in truth, good for them that my good should come from them, though, indeed, it was not from them, but by them; for from You, O God, are all good things, and from my God is all my safety. (Proverbs 21:31) This is what I have since discovered, as You have declared Yourself to me by the blessings both within me and without me which You have bestowed upon me. For at that time, I knew how to suck, to be satisfied when comfortable, and to cry when in pain — nothing beyond.
8. Afterwards I began to laugh — at first in sleep, then when waking. For this I have heard mentioned of myself, and I believe it (though I cannot remember it), for we see the same in other infants. And now little by little I realized where I was, and wished to tell my wishes to those who might satisfy them, but I could not; for my wants were within me, while they were without, and could not by any faculty of theirs enter into my soul. So I cast about limbs and voice, making the few and feeble signs I could, like, though indeed not much like, unto what I wished; and when I was not satisfied — either not being understood, or because it would have been injurious to me — I grew indignant that my elders were not subject unto me, and that those on whom I had no claim did not wait on me, and avenged myself on them by tears. That infants are such I have been able to learn by watching them; and they, though unknowing, have better shown me that I was such a one than my nurses who knew it.
9. And, behold, my infancy died long ago, and I live. But You, O Lord, whoever lives, and in whom nothing dies (since before the world was, and indeed before all that can be called before, You exist, and are the God and Lord of all Your creatures; and with You fixedly abide the causes of all unstable things, the unchanging sources of all things changeable, and the eternal reasons of all things unreasoning and temporal), tell me, Your suppliant, O God; tell, O merciful One, Your miserable servant — tell me whether my infancy succeeded another age of mine which had at that time perished. Was it that which I passed in my mother’s womb? For of that something has been made known to me, and I have myself seen women with child. And what, O God, my joy, preceded that life? Was I, indeed, anywhere, or anybody? For no one can tell me these things, neither father nor mother, nor the experience of others, nor my own memory. Do you laugh at me for asking such things, and command me to praise and confess You for what I know?
10. I give thanks to You, Lord of heaven and earth, giving praise to You for that my first being and infancy, of which I have no memory; for You have granted to man that from others he should come to conclusions as to himself, and that he should believe many things concerning himself on the authority of feeble women. Even then I had life and being; and as my infancy closed, I was already seeking for signs by which my feelings might be made known to others. From where could such a creature come but from You, O Lord? Or shall any man be skillful enough to fashion himself? Or is there any other vein by which being and life runs into us save this, that You, O Lord, has made us, with whom being and life are one, because You Yourself are being and life in the highest? You are the highest, You change not, (Malachi 3:6) neither in You does this present day come to an end, though it does end in You, since in You all such things are; for they would have no way of passing away unless You sustained them. And since Your years shall have no end, Your years are an ever-present day. And how many of ours and our fathers’ days have passed through this, Your day and received from it their measure and fashion of being, and others yet to come shall so receive and pass away! But You are the same; and all the things of tomorrow and the days yet to come, and all of yesterday and the days that are past, You will do today, You have done today. What is it to me if any understand not? Let him still rejoice and say, What is this? Let him rejoice even so, and rather love to discover in failing to discover, than in discovering not to discover You.
Chapter 7. He Shows by Example that Even Infancy is Prone to Sin.
11. Hearken, O God! Alas for the sins of men! Man says this, and You have compassion on him; for You created him but did not create the sin that is in him. Who brings to my remembrance the sin of my infancy? For before You none is free from sin, not even the infant which has lived but a day upon the earth. Who brings this to my remembrance? Does not each little one, in whom I behold that which I do not remember of myself? In what, then, did I sin? Is it that I cried for the breast? If I should now so cry — not indeed for the breast, but for the food suitable to my years — I should be most justly laughed at and rebuked. What I then did deserved rebuke; but as I could not understand those who rebuked me, neither custom nor reason suffered me to be rebuked. For as we grow we root out and cast from us such habits. I have not seen any one who is wise, when “purging” (John 15:2) anything cast away the good. Or was it good, even for a time, to strive to get by crying that which, if given, would be hurtful — to be bitterly indignant that those who were free and its elders, and those to whom it owed its being, besides many others wiser than it, who would not give way to the nod of its good pleasure, were not subject unto it — to endeavor to harm, by struggling as much as it could, because those commands were not obeyed which only could have been obeyed to its hurt? Then, in the weakness of the infant’s limbs, and not in its will, lies its innocence. I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous though it could not speak. It became pale and cast bitter looks on its foster-brother. Who is ignorant of this? Mothers and nurses tell us that they appease these things by I know not what remedies; and may this be taken for innocence, that when the fountain of milk is flowing fresh and abundant, one who has need should not be allowed to share it, though needing that nourishment to sustain life? Yet we look leniently on these things, not because they are not faults, nor because the faults are small, but because they will vanish as age increases. For although you may allow these things now, you could not bear them with equanimity if found in an older person.
12. You, therefore, O Lord my God, who gave life to the infant, and a frame which, as we see, You have endowed with senses, compacted with limbs, beautified with form, and, for its g general good and safety, hast introduced all vital energies — You command me to praise You for these things, to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praise unto Your name, O Most High; for You are a God omnipotent and good, though You had done nought but these things, which none other can do but You, who alone made all things, O You most fair, who made all things fair, and orders all according to Your law. This period, then, of my life, O Lord, of which I have no remembrance, which I believe in the word of others, and which I guess from other infants, it chagrins me — true though the guess be — to reckon in this life of mine which I lead in this world; inasmuch as, in the darkness of my forgetfulness, it is like to that which I passed in my mother’s womb. But if I was shaped in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me, where, I pray you, O my God, where, Lord, or when was I, Your servant, innocent? But behold, I pass by that time, for what have I to do with that, the memories of which I cannot recall?
Chapter 8. That When a Boy He Learned to Speak, Not by Any Set Method, But from the Acts and Words of His Parents.
13. Did I not, then, growing out of the state of infancy, come to boyhood, or rather did it not come to me, and succeed to infancy? Nor did my infancy depart (for whither went it?); and yet it did no longer abide, for I was no longer an infant that could not speak, but a chattering boy. I remember this, and I afterwards observed how I first learned to speak, for my elders did not teach me words in any set method, as they did letters afterwards; but myself, when I was unable to say all I wished and to whomsoever I desired, by means of the whimperings and broken utterances and various motions of my limbs, which I used to enforce my wishes, repeated the sounds in my memory by the mind, O my God, which You gave me. When they called anything by name, and moved the body towards it while they spoke, I saw and gathered that the thing they wished to point out was called by the name they then uttered; and that they did mean this was made plain by the motion of the body, even by the natural language of all nations expressed by the countenance, glance of the eye, movement of other members, and by the sound of the voice indicating the affections of the mind, as it seeks, possesses, rejects, or avoids. So it was that by frequently hearing words, in duly placed sentences, I gradually gathered what things they were the signs of; and having formed my mouth to the utterance of these signs, I thereby expressed my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me the signs by which we express our wishes, and advanced deeper into the stormy fellowship of human life, depending the while on the authority of parents, and the beck of elders.
Chapter 9. Concerning the Hatred of Learning, the Love of Play, and the Fear of Being Whipped Noticeable in Boys: and of the Folly of Our Elders and Masters.
14. O my God! What miseries and mockeries did I then experience, when obedience to my teachers was set before me as proper to my boyhood, that I might flourish in this world, and distinguish myself in the science of speech, which should get me honor among men, and deceitful riches! After that I was put to school to get learning, of which I (worthless as I was) knew not what use there was; and yet, if slow to learn, I was flogged! For this was deemed praiseworthy by our forefathers; and many before us, passing the same course, had appointed beforehand for us these troublesome ways by which we were compelled to pass, multiplying labor and sorrow upon the sons of Adam. But we found, O Lord, men praying to You, and we learned from them to conceive of You, according to our ability, to be some Great One, who was able (though not visible to our senses) to hear and help us. For as a boy I began to pray to You, my help and my refuge, and in invoking You broke the bands of my tongue, and entreated You though little, with no little earnestness, that I might not be beaten at school. And when You heard me not, giving me not over to folly thereby, my elders, yea, and my own parents too, who wished me no ill, laughed at my stripes, my then great and grievous ill.
15. Is there anyone, Lord, with so high a spirit, cleaving to You with so strong an affection — for even a kind of obtuseness may do that much — but is there, I say, anyone who, by cleaving devoutly to You, is endowed with so great a courage that he can esteem lightly those racks and hooks, and varied tortures of the same sort, against which, throughout the whole world, men supplicate You with great fear, deriding those who most bitterly fear them, just as our parents derided the torments with which our masters punished us when we were boys? For we were no less afraid of our pains, nor did we pray less to You to avoid them; and yet we sinned, in writing, or reading, or reflecting upon our lessons less than was required of us. For we wanted not, O Lord, memory or capacity, of which, by Your will, we possessed enough for our age — but we delighted only in play; and we were punished for this by those who were doing the same things themselves. But the idleness of our elders they call business, while boys who do the like are punished by those same elders, and yet neither boys nor men find any pity. For will anyone of good sense approve of my being whipped because, as a boy, I played ball, and so was hindered from learning quickly those lessons by means of which, as a man, I should play more unbecomingly? And did he by whom I was beaten do other than this, who, when he was overcome in any little controversy with a co-tutor, was more tormented by anger and envy than I when beaten by a playmate in a match at ball?
Chapter 10. Through a Love of Ball-Playing and Shows, He Neglects His Studies and the Injunctions of His Parents.
16. And yet I erred, O Lord God, the Creator and Disposer of all things in Nature, — but of sin the Disposer only — I erred, O Lord my God, in doing contrary to the wishes of my parents and of those masters; for this learning which they (no matter for what motive) wished me to acquire, I might have put to good account the afterwards. For I disobeyed them not because I had chosen a better way, but from a fondness for play, loving the honor of victory in the matches, and to have my ears tickled with lying fables, in order that they might itch the more furiously — the same curiosity beaming more and more in my eyes for the shows and sports of my elders. Yet those who give these entertainments are held in such high repute, that almost all desire the same for their children, whom they are still willing should be beaten, if so be these same games keep them from the studies by which they desire them to arrive at being the givers of them. Look down upon these things, O Lord, with compassion, and deliver us who now call upon You; deliver those also who do not call upon You, that they may call upon You, and that You may deliver them.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine – Background
Remember that this is an autobiography that Augustine is writing, and he really begins at the start. Sometimes we can look back upon previous ages with a certain feeling that they are not as smart as we have become today. Yet is seems the Augustine shows us that our modern understanding of child development was present even in his time. I refer especially to his reflections on his infancy. He articulates how it is that the infant interacts with the world. Perhaps most, we understand from his observations what parents seem almost instinctively to know. That even though, as Augustine admits, we do not know or remember those times when we were infants, these experiences have profound impact upon us. It is why parents of infants and toddlers seek to create great experiences for their children even though their children will likely remember little, if anything, of the experience.
And while the descriptions of the schooling of the young boy Augustine might cause us some pause (most teachers no longer hit students) the principle of parents understanding the importance of education for the future and the expectation this knowledge will provide for their successful lives as adults is still present.
One important observation to understand is that Augustine had a high respect for the thought of the philosopher Plato. As this applies here, consider the important understanding that the things Augustine learned, either as an infant or a boy, contain the suggestion that such knowledge was already present, even though Augustine did not know this. This is an important consideration because philosophical thought underlies what Augustine will write about. (For an academic presentation of the thought of Plato, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
There are still questions today about the best way to educate students. For much of the twentieth century it concerned the tension between knowing essential facts and ascribing meaning to the facts we learn. It is still the case today.
Augustine embodies the struggle even though he was in school centuries ago. There have always been times where students are not engaged in school or are not interested in every subject. This was true for Augustine.
The problem, of course, today, is to decide which facts are essential and whose meaning we are discussing. In many ways this is a false distinction between essential facts and meaning. It is the case that we will remember for a longer period of time those facts that fit into our meaning of the world. And our meaning of the world is shaped by the facts to which we are exposed.
Questions to Ponder
When you think of what your life was like as an infant, how would you write about those times in your life? In what was does something you do not remember influence you today?
We might not condone the use of physical discipline in schools, but how did your parents react to what they may have heard from the teachers about your behavior, especially when it was not so good?
What is the connection you have between what we learn in school and what we learn about God?
Augustine speaks of his early memories of faith and of God. What are your earliest memories of faith? What role did faith play in your life in your family growing up?
The Previous Chapters of The Confessions of Saint Augustine
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 6-10
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 3-5
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Chapters 1-2
The Confessions of Saint Augustine Introduction