Augustine certainly did not want readers to treat his Confessions lightly. They might be attracted to pick up the book out of curiosity or interest (and, skilled both in rhetoric and the psychology of human nature, he knew how best to entice them to do so). But Augustine wanted the Confessions to lead them to "make Truth" in their own lives, to make their own interior journey in search of themselves and their God.
This educational purpose was not his primary one in writing this book, yet it was a motive that crossed his mind. To Darius he wrote, "Join me in praising Him to whom, and not to myself, I desire praise to be given." (Letter 231, 6) The Confessions portrays not just Augustine as the prodigal son or daughter, but portrays each and every person on his or her sojourn through the City of Man on earth on the way to the City of Jerusalem in heaven.
It is not widely known that in his Confessions Augustine was not offering the first major Christian biography about self. There is even the question whether, strictly speaking, the term "autobiography" should be applied to the Confessions at all. The great poem, De Vita Sua, by Gregory Nazianzen may claim to that distinction.
In his Confessions Augustine does not pretend to be telling a full biography, but only selects the events that specifically suit the purposes of his writing. He does not, for example, satisfy our curiosity by giving the name of either his concubine of seventeen years or that of his good friend who died at Thagaste when Augustine was back in their native town as a teacher at the age of eighteen years in 374. Neither does he give the name of his sister.
The first nine books ("chapters") of the Confessions deal mainly with the conversion of Augustine, and what during his earlier years lead up to it. The book then jumps over to the four years immediately before Augustine was writing the Confessions. There is no account given of the twelve important years between the death of his mother Monica soon after his baptism and his life as the Bishop of Hippo. The final four Books ("chapters") of the Confessions seem out of place, or else their inclusion requires a lot of explanation. The best theory may be the simplest one.
Did Augustine simply place them awkwardly there because he had various requests on these various topics, was pressed for time, and thus simply added them to his Confessions? There is no expectation that Augustine anticipated that the Confessions was going to be popular, or that he felt it would be harmed by the addition of separate chapters that he had been asked to write by a number of different correspondents. In all, Augustine in his Confessions uses examples from his own life to sing his praise of the grace of God (in Latin, gratia) to himself.
As well, for the benefit of his readers, he draws on his own life as powerful illustrations of his theory of anthropology, in which the same God is prompting his readers to seek Truth and to accept God in their lives also.
The reaction of his contemporaries
Was it possible that some Christians of his era were unsure if Augustine’s conversion to the Christian faith was total? If so, his Confessions was a timely assurance to them. During the three years after he became Bishop of Hippo, Augustine took a spiritual and psychological assessment of himself and his past thoughts and behaviour. During this reflecting on the grace of God that allowed him to change from his past years that in his estimation had been so filled with pride, he wrote his Confessions.
Publishing these writings helped him to praise and thank God publicly, but it also had a secondary pastoral advantage. It dampened any lingering suspicion within the local community that his acceptance of the Christian religion might not be total, and that his teaching and preaching might still be influenced by some Manichean doctrines. His original appointment as bishop had carried with it a degree of controversy because some people remembered his past as a Manichee, and, in an area where most priests were poorly educated in both Christian doctrine and general education, others were wary of his great intelligence.
The concern that he might still have lingering Manichean flavourings to his belief was to be expected. For over ten years that had ended only five years previously, Augustine had been a Manichean, and now as a Catholic bishop he was very publicly and very forcefully teaching the Christian Faith. The situation was reminiscent of the conversion of Saul (Paul) of Tarsus from being a persecutor of Christians to becoming an Apostle. Paul had been kept away from ministry for a dozen years after his conversion, yet here was Augustine promptly - and contrary to the local practice - preaching even though not yet a bishop.
In producing his Confessions, Augustine had much to prove to his readers that he had really renounced his Manicheanism totally. There was an element of self-vindication in his writing of this work. Professor Henry Chadwick, an Augustinian scholar in the late-twentieth century, has noted that some of the contemporaries of Augustine were not quite convinced of the depth of his conversion - both intellectual and moral - at Milan. Augustine was not going to remain silent about the providence and powerful action of God in leading him to conversion.(Confessions continued on the next page.)AN2141