Table of Contents
Confessions of Saint Augustine: Cicero, the Manichaeans, Scripture
Of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth years of his age, passed at Carthage, when, having completed his course of studies, he is caught in the snares of a licentious passion, and falls into the errors of the Manichæans.
Chapter 5. He Rejects the Sacred Scriptures as Too Simple, and as Not to Be Compared with the Dignity of Tully.
9. I resolved, therefore, to direct my mind to the Holy Scriptures, that I might see what they were. And behold, I perceive something not comprehended by the proud, not disclosed to children, but lowly as you approach, sublime as you advance, and veiled in mysteries; and I was not of the number of those who could enter into it, or bend my neck to follow its steps. For not as when now I speak did I feel when I tuned towards those Scriptures, but they appeared to me to be unworthy to be compared with the dignity of Tully; for my inflated pride shunned their style, nor could the sharpness of my wit pierce their inner meaning. Yet, truly, were they such as would develop in little ones; but I scorned to be a little one, and, swollen with pride, I looked upon myself as a great one.
Chapter 6. Deceived by His Own Fault, He Falls into the Errors of the Manichæans, Who Gloried in the True Knowledge of God and in a Thorough Examination of Things.
10. Therefore I fell among men proudly raving, very carnal, and voluble, in whose mouths were the snares of the devil— the birdlime being composed of a mixture of the syllables of Your name, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, the Comforter. These names departed not out of their mouths, but so far forth as the sound only and the clatter of the tongue, for the heart was empty of truth. Still they cried, Truth, Truth, and spoke much about it to me, yet was it not in them; 1 John 2:4 but they spoke falsely not of You only — who, verily, art the Truth — but also of these elements of this world, Your creatures. And I, in truth, should have passed by philosophers, even when speaking truth concerning them, for love of You, my Father, supremely good, beauty of all things beautiful. O Truth, Truth! How inwardly even then did the marrow of my soul pant after You, when they frequently, and in a multiplicity of ways, and in numerous and huge books, sounded out Your name to me, though it was but a voice! And these were the dishes in which to me, hungering for You, they, instead of You, served up the sun and moon, Your beauteous works — but yet Your works, not Yourself, nay, nor Your first works. For before these corporeal works are Your spiritual ones, celestial and shining though they be. But I hungered and thirsted not even after those first works of Yours, but after You Yourself, the Truth, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning; James 1:17 yet they still served up to me in those dishes glowing phantasies, than which better were it to love this very sun (which, at least, is true to our sight), than those illusions which deceive the mind through the eye. And yet, because I supposed them to be You, I fed upon them; not with avidity, for You did not taste to my mouth as You are, for You were not these empty fictions; neither was I nourished by them, but the rather exhausted. Food in our sleep appears like our food awake; yet the sleepers are not nourished by it, for they are asleep. But those things were not in any way like You as You have now spoken unto me, in that those were corporeal fantasies, false bodies, than which these true bodies, whether celestial or terrestrial, which we perceive with our fleshly sight, are much more certain. These things the very beasts and birds perceive as well as we, and they are more certain than when we imagine them. And again, we do with more certainty imagine them, than by them conceive of other greater and infinite bodies which have no existence. With such empty husks was I then fed, and was not fed. But You, my Love, in looking for whom I fail that I may be strong, art neither those bodies that we see, although in heaven, nor are You those which we see not there; for You have created them, nor do You reckon them among Your greatest works. How far, then, are You from those phantasies of mine, fantasies of bodies which are not at all, than which the images of those bodies which are, are more certain, and still more certain the bodies themselves, which yet You are not; nay, nor yet the soul, which is the life of the bodies. Better, then, and more certain is the life of bodies than the bodies themselves. But You are the life of souls, the life of lives, having life in Yourself; and You change not, O Life of my soul.
11. Where, then, were You then to me, and how far from me? Far, indeed, was I wandering away from You, being even shut out from the very husks of the swine, whom with husks I fed. For how much better, then, are the fables of the grammarians and poets than these snares! For verses, and poems, and Medea flying, are more profitable truly than these men’s five elements, variously painted, to answer to the five caves of darkness, none of which exist, and which slay the believer. For verses and poems I can turn into true food, but the Medea flying, though I sang, I maintained it not; though I heard it sung, I believed it not; but those things I did believe. Woe, woe, by what steps was I dragged down to the depths of hell! Proverbs 9:18 — toiling and turmoiling through want of Truth, when I sought after You, my God — to You I confess it, who had mercy on me when I had not yet confessed, — sought after You not according to the understanding of the mind, in which You desired that I should excel the beasts, but according to the sense of the flesh! You were more inward to me than my most inward part; and higher than my highest. I came upon that bold woman, who is simple, and knows nothing, Proverbs 9:13 the enigma of Solomon, sitting at the door of the house on a seat, and saying, Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. This woman seduced me, because she found my soul beyond its portals, dwelling in the eye of my flesh, and thinking on such food as through it I had devoured.
Chapter 7. He Attacks the Doctrine of the Manichæans Concerning Evil, God, and the Righteousness of the Patriarchs.
12. For I was ignorant as to that which really is, and was, as it were, violently moved to give my support to foolish deceivers, when they asked me, Whence is evil? — and, Is God limited by a bodily shape, and has He hairs and nails?— and, Are they to be esteemed righteous who had many wives at once and did kill men, and sacrificed living creatures? 1 Kings 18:40 At which things I, in my ignorance, was much disturbed, and, retreating from the truth, I appeared to myself to be going towards it; because as yet I knew not that evil was naught but a privation of good, until in the end it ceases altogether to be; which how should I see, the sight of whose eyes saw no further than bodies, and of my mind no further than a phantasm? And I knew not God to be a Spirit, John 4:24 not one who has parts extended in length and breadth, nor whose being was bulk; for every bulk is less in a part than in the whole, and, if it be infinite, it must be less in such part as is limited by a certain space than in its infinity; and cannot be wholly everywhere, as Spirit, as God is. And what that should be in us, by which we were like God, and might rightly in Scripture be said to be after the image of God, I was entirely ignorant.
13. Nor had I knowledge of that true inner righteousness, which does not judge according to custom, but out of the most perfect law of God Almighty, by which the manners of places and times were adapted to those places and times — being itself the while the same always and everywhere, not one thing in one place, and another in another; according to which Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and David, and all those commended by the mouth of God were righteous, Hebrews 11:8-40 but were judged unrighteous by foolish men, judging out of man’s judgment, 1 Corinthians 4:3 and gauging by the petty standard of their own manners the manners of the whole human race. Like as if in an armory, one knowing not what were adapted to the several members should put greaves on his head, or boot himself with a helmet, and then complain because they would not fit. Or as if, on some day when in the afternoon business was forbidden, one were to fume at not being allowed to sell as it was lawful to him in the forenoon. Or when in some house he sees a servant take something in his hand which the butler is not permitted to touch, or something done behind a stable which would be prohibited in the dining-room, and should be indignant that in one house, and one family, the same thing is not distributed everywhere to all. Such are they who cannot endure to hear something to have been lawful for righteous men in former times which is not so now; or that God, for certain temporal reasons, commanded them one thing, and these another, but both obeying the same righteousness; though they see, in one man, one day, and one house, different things to be fit for different members, and a thing which was formerly lawful after a time unlawful — that permitted or commanded in one corner, which done in another is justly prohibited and punished. Is justice, then, various and changeable? Nay, but the times over which she presides are not all alike, because they are times. But men, whose days upon the earth are few, Job 14:1 because by their own perception they cannot harmonize the causes of former ages and other nations, of which they had no experience, with these of which they have experience, though in one and the same body, day, or family, they can readily see what is suitable for each member, season, part, and person — to the one they take exception, to the other they submit.
14. These things I then knew not, nor observed. They met my eyes on every side, and I saw them not. I composed poems, in which it was not permitted me to place every foot everywhere, but in one meter one way, and in another, nor even in any one verse the same foot in all places. Yet the art itself by which I composed had not different principles for these different cases, but comprised all in one. Still I saw not how that righteousness, which good and holy men submitted to, far more excellently and sublimely comprehended in one all those things which God commanded, and in no part varied, though in varying times it did not prescribe all things at once, but distributed and enjoined what was proper for each. And I, being blind, blamed those pious fathers, not only for making use of present things as God commanded and inspired them to do, but also for foreshowing things to come as God was revealing them.
Chapter 8. He Argues Against the Same as to the Reason of Offenses.
15. Can it at any time or place be an unrighteous thing for a man to love God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind, and his neighbor as himself? Therefore those offenses which be contrary to nature are everywhere and at all times to be held in detestation and punished; such were those of the Sodomites, which should all nations commit, they should all be held guilty of the same crime by the divine law, which has not so made men that they should in that way abuse one another. For even that fellowship which should be between God and us is violated, when that same nature of which He is author is polluted by the perversity of lust. But those offenses which are contrary to the customs of men are to be avoided according to the customs severally prevailing; so that an agreement made, and confirmed by custom or law of any city or nation, may not be violated at the lawless pleasure of any, whether citizen or stranger. For any part which is not consistent with its whole is unseemly. But when God commands anything contrary to the customs or compacts of any nation to be done, though it were never done by them before, it is to be done; and if intermitted it is to be restored, and, if never established, to be established. For if it be lawful for a king, in the state over which he reigns, to command that which neither he himself nor any one before him had commanded, and to obey him cannot be held to be inimical to the public interest, — nay, it were so if he were not obeyed (for obedience to princes is a general compact of human society) — how much more, then, ought we unhesitatingly to obey God, the Governor of all His creatures! For as among the authorities of human society the greater authority is obeyed before the lesser, so must God above all.
16. So also in deeds of violence, where there is a desire to harm, whether by contumely or injury; and both of these either by reason of revenge, as one enemy against another; or to obtain some advantage over another, as the highwayman to the traveler; or for the avoiding of some evil, as with him who is in fear of another; or through envy, as the unfortunate man to one who is happy; or as he that is prosperous in anything to him who he fears will become equal to himself, or whose equality he grieves at; or for the mere pleasure in another’s pains, as the spectators of gladiators, or the deriders and mockers of others. These be the chief iniquities which spring forth from the lust of the flesh, of the eye, and of power, whether singly, or two together, or all at once. And so do men live in opposition to the three and seven, that psaltery of ten strings, Your ten commandments, O God most high and most sweet. But what foul offenses can there be against You who cannot be defiled? Or what deeds of violence against you who cannot be harmed? But You avenge that which men perpetrate against themselves, seeing also that when they sin against You, they do wickedly against their own souls; and iniquity gives itself the lie, either by corrupting or perverting their nature, which You have made and ordained, or by an immoderate use of things permitted, or in burning in things forbidden to that use which is against nature; Romans 1:24-29 or when convicted, raging with heart and voice against You, kicking against the pricks; Acts 9:5 or when, breaking through the pale of human society, they audaciously rejoice in private combinations or divisions, according as they have been pleased or offended. And these things are done whenever You are forsaken, O Fountain of Life, who art the only and true Creator and Ruler of the universe, and by a self-willed pride any one false thing is selected therefrom and loved. So, then, by a humble piety we return to You; and you purge us from our evil customs, and art merciful unto the sins of those who confess unto You, and hears the groaning of the prisoner, and loosens us from those fetters which we have forged for ourselves, if we lift not up against You the horns of a false liberty —losing all through craving more, by loving more our own private good than You, the good of all.
Chapter 9. That the Judgment of God and Men as to Human Acts of Violence, is Different.
17. But amidst these offenses of infamy and violence, and so many iniquities, are the sins of men who are, on the whole, making progress; which, by those who judge rightly, and after the rule of perfection, are censured, yet commended withal, upon the hope of bearing fruit, like as in the green blade of the growing grain. And there are some which resemble offenses of infamy or violence, and yet are not sins, because they neither offend You, our Lord God, nor social custom: when, for example, things suitable for the times are provided for the use of life, and we are uncertain whether it be out of a lust of having; or when acts are punished by constituted authority for the sake of correction, and we are uncertain whether it be out of a lust of hurting. Many a deed, then, which in the sight of men is disapproved, is approved by Your testimony; and many a one who is praised by men is, Thou being witness, condemned; because frequently the view of the deed, and the mind of the doer, and the hidden exigency of the period, severally vary. But when You unexpectedly command an unusual and unthought-of thing — yea, even if You have formerly forbidden it, and still for the time keep secret the reason of Your command, and it even be contrary to the ordinance of some society of men, who doubts but it is to be done, inasmuch as that society is righteous which serves You? But blessed are they who know Your commands! For all things were done by them who served You either to exhibit something necessary at the time, or to foreshow things to come.
Chapter 10. He Reproves the Triflings of the Manichæans as to the Fruits of the Earth.
18. These things being ignorant of, I derided those holy servants and prophets of Yours. And what did I gain by deriding them but to be derided by You, being insensibly, and little by little, led on to those follies, as to credit that a fig-tree wept when it was plucked, and that the mother-tree shed milky tears? Which fig notwithstanding, plucked not by his own but another’s wickedness, had some saint eaten and mingled with his entrails, he should breathe out of it angels; yea, in his prayers he shall assuredly groan and sigh forth particles of God, which particles of the most high and true God should have remained bound in that fig unless they had been set free by the teeth and belly of some elect saint! And I, miserable one, believed that more mercy was to be shown to the fruits of the earth than unto men, for whom they were created; for if a hungry man — who was not a Manichæan— should beg for any, that morsel which should be given him would appear, as it were, condemned to capital punishment.
Cicero, the Manichaeans, Scripture
Saint Augustine above all else was an intelligent thinker seeking wisdom. At first he found Scripture (the bible) to be too simple as compared to the elegant writings of Cicero (referred to as Tully). At the heart of this time of his life is the desire to answer the question that so many face as they move from adolescence to adulthood. What is the meaning of life? What is life all about? Why am I here and where am I going? Who am I?
For Saint Augustine, this becomes a quest not for knowledge about God, but in fact, a desire to know God and to have a deep and personal relationship with him. To discover this, Augustine contemplates what it means to be God. What are the characteristics of God? What is the relationship between the spiritual and the material in God? (Does God have fingernails?)
In this reflection about spiritual and material, it is here that Saint Augustine begins to question, and then attack Manichaeism. It is the initial questions brought about by Scripture (the violence of the Old Testament, for example) that lead him to a deeper understanding of God and evil.
The first insight concerned evil itself. Namely, evil does not exist. While this seems to be absolutely untrue, what is meant is that evil is a privation, or an absence, of what should exist. For I should love my neighbor. But, if I murder my neighbor, the thing that should exist, namely my love and care for my neighbor, does not. It is not present, it does not exist.
This is important because it speaks to the impossibility of an evil God. If evil itself is a privation, then an evil God could not exist. It would be impossible, since evil itself does not exist. And in this realization, Saint Augustine’s acceptance of Manichaeism falls apart.
As is true with most error, the error of Saint Augustine starts with ignorance. He neither knew about God or knew God. But as we shall learn as we continue to read, this will soon change.
Thoughts to Ponder
What conclusions do you reach as you think about the Word of God and its place in your life?
How do you apply Augustine’s understanding of evil as not existing to your life?
How do you understand the difference and relationship between knowing about God and knowing God?