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Confessions (Latin: Confessiones) is the name of an autobiographical work, consisting of 13 books, by St. Augustine of Hippo, written in Latin between 397 and 400 AD. Modern English translations of it are sometimes published under the title The Confessions of St. Augustine in order to distinguish the book from other books with similar titles. Its original title was "Confessions in Thirteen Books," and it was composed to be read out loud with each book being a complete unit.
The work outlines Augustine's sinful youth and his conversion to Christianity. It is widely seen as the first Western autobiography ever written, and was an influential model for Christian writers throughout the following 1,000 years, through the Middle Ages. It is not a complete autobiography, as it was written in his early 40s, and he lived long afterwards, producing another important work (City of God). It does, nonetheless, provide an unbroken record of his development of thought and is the most complete record of any single person from the 4th and 5th centuries. It is a significant theological work, featuring spiritual meditations and insights.
In the work St. Augustine writes about how much he regrets having led a sinful and immoral life. He discusses his regrets for following the Manichaean religion and believing in astrology. He writes about Nebridius's role in helping to persuade him that astrology was not only incorrect but evil, and St. Ambrose's role in his conversion to Christianity. The first nine books are autobiographical and the last four are commentary. He shows intense sorrow for his sexual sins, and writes on the importance of sexual morality. The books were written as prayers to God, thus the title, based on the Psalms of David; and it begins with "For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee." The work is thought to be divisible into books which symbolize various aspects of the Trinity and trinitarian belief.
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Confessions was not only meant to encourage conversion, but it offered guidelines for how to convert. Augustine extrapolates from his own experiences to fit other’s journeys. Augustine recognizes that God has always protected and guided him. This is reflected in the structure of the work. Augustine begins each book within Confessions with a prayer to God. For example both books VIII and IX begin with “you have broken the chains that bound me; I will sacrifice in your honour.” Not only is this glorifying God but it also suggests God’s help in Augustine’s path to redemption.
Written after the legalization of Christianity, Confessions dated from an era where martyrdom was no longer a threat to most Christians as was the case two centuries earlier. Instead, rising Christian’s struggles were largely internal. Augustine clearly presents his struggle with worldly desires, such as lust. Augustine’s conversion was quickly followed by his ordination as a priest in 391 AD and then appointment as bishop in 395 AD. Such rapid ascension certainly raised criticism of Augustine. Confessions was written between 397-398, suggesting self-justification as a possible motivation for the work. With the words “I wish to act in truth, making my confession both in my heart before you and in this book before the many who will read it” in Book X Chapter 1, Augustine appears to defend his position by admitting his imperfections not only to his critics but to God, in a form of reconciliation.
Much of our information about Augustine comes directly from Augustine’s own writing. Augustine’s Confessions provide significant insight into the first thirty three years of his life. While this text is inherently biased, Augustine’s perspective is valuable for the reader to understand how he wants to be perceived. Augustine does not paint himself as a holy man, but as a sinner. The sins that Augustine confesses are relatively minor and include his struggle with lust, stealing pears at a young age, and minor lies. For example, in the second chapter of Book IX Augustine references his choice to wait three weeks until the autumn break to leave his position of teaching without causing a disruption. He wrote that some “may say it was sinful of me to allow myself to occupy a chair of lies even for one hour.”  In the introduction, to the 1961 translation by R.S. Pine-Coffin, he suggests that this harsh interpretation of Augustine’s own past is intentional so that his audience sees him as a sinner blessed with God’s mercy instead of as a holy figurehead.
Due to the nature of Confessions, it is clear that Augustine was not only writing for himself but that the work was intended for public consumption. Augustine’s potential audience included baptized Christians, catechumens, and those of other faiths. Peter Brown, in his book The Body and Society, writes that Confessions targeted “those with similar experience to Augustine’s own.” Brown’s suggestion combined with the evidence that Augustine agreed with the Catholic gender hierarchy, indicates that Augustine’s intended audience was male. Furthermore, with his background in Manichean practices, Augustine had a unique connection to those of the Manichean faith. Confessions thus constitutes an appeal to encourage conversion.
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