Crucial Themes and Ideas in Confessions by Augustine
In Confessions by Augustine, the theme of sin is one that takes up much of his life accounts. He is infatuated with understanding sin itself and why we do it. The discussion of his life analyzes different aspects of his goings with sin and his reflection of how he became drawn closer to God. Augustine specifically makes note of how babies are responsible for their sins, some sins are worse than others, and the goodness of God in relation to sin.
Augustine regards sin as the willing abandonment of greater goods for lesser goods, and this abandonment is contrary to God’s commands. He specifically believes in the concept of original sin. This means that the tendency to sin in innate in all human beings. In other words, original sin is the condition that inclines human beings to selfishness and disobedience, even when they may want to act otherwise. In relation to this concept, Augustine says, “ we are carried away by custom to our own undoing and it is hard to struggle against the stream”. Along the same lines, he continues later to say “Let my heart now tell you what prompted me to do wrong for no purpose, and why it was only my own love of mischief that made me do it” which is an example of he believes that the natural inclinations of humans is the cause for his mischief.
Because of this belief that humans innately are sinners, Augustine discusses how babies themselves are responsible for their own sins. To prove his point, he shares this example from his own childhood: “When my demands were not fulfilled (either because they misunderstood me or to avoid harming me) I became furious with my elders who disobeyed me, and with those who were independent and who did not bow to my will: I got my revenge on them by crying.” The original sin of Augustine’s beliefs is evident in children through the tantrums and unreasonable anger. Characteristically, he reasons from everyday child actions that this behavior must be wrong, since similar behavior in an adult would be condemned. With this in mind, Augustine concludes that “So the weakness of infant limbs compasses innocence, but with the minds of infants it is not so.”
Augustine continues on in Confessions to discuss what he feels are several serious sins. One of the most prominent sins, and the one that Augustine himself struggled greatly with, is sexual lust. As Augustine describes himself, he was a slave to his sexual impulses. He writes “Thorny growths of sexual immorality sprouted up higher than my head, and there was no hand to uproot them.” This passage is just his introduction to his experience with the temptations of sex, but the word choice when describing it speaks for itself. Throughout the entire writing, Augustine uses negative language describe his sexual impulses, painting images of filth and corruption. However, as a young man, he was sexually active, and later, he lived openly with a concubine who bore him a son.
While Augustine mainly focuses on the topic of lust in his confessions, he also speaks of a few other sins. He speaks of his own desires to achieve a great status and fortune. He writes,” I was inflated with self-esteem, which made me think myself a great man”. In Book II Augustine also talks about his parents caring less about the fate of his soul and more about him getting good grades and becoming successful. The idea of caring more for worldly ambitions than spiritual ones is against God’s will. Similarly, he talks about the severity of pride. Augustine defined pride as the creature’s refusal to submit to God. One famous story from Confessions is his story of the pear theft. Augustine talks of his adolescent years and how he and his friends decided to steal pears for fun. The emphasis in this story is placed on how the theft was done not out of necessity, but just for the sake of sinning. While this story is a great example of Augustine’s belief in original sin, it also showcases the sin of pride. The teenage Augustine performed this act and did it as if he is above God and his Law. With these examples, we can see that the sins of worldly ambition and pride are also greatly condemned.
While Augustine attempts to analyze his wrongdoings in life, he also assess God’s hand in turning him away from sin. His attitude towards God can be seen from the first sentence of Confessions: “Great are you, O Lord, and surpassingly worthy of praise. Great is your goodness, and your wisdom is incalculable And humanity, which is but a part of your creation, wants to praise you; even though humanity bears everywhere its own mortality and bears everywhere the evidence of its own sin and the evidence that you resist the proud”. Because sin is this horrid thing, Augustine turns the praise towards his heavenly master in order to seek redemption. He speaks frequently of how God is the one to guide him away from sin towards His light. His accounts suggest that God is not the creator of sin, but the dispeller of sin. In looking back on all of his sins, Augustine writes to God, “After all, you were always there, merciful even in your severity, sprinkling all my forbidden pleasures with the bitterest of disappointments, so that I would seek a kind of pleasure that is free from disappointment, and when I did so I would find none other but yourself, Lord, yourself alone”.
Sin is a major theme in Augustine’s Confessions, as he is able to look back on his life and take note of his actions and thoughts which pulled him away from God. Humans innate nature is to sin, and it is one that starts from birth. Throughout life, Augustine knows we will encounter many sins such as lust, pride, and worldly ambitions. Regardless of the sin we have partaken of, God is the opposer of sin and will bring us back into his light.
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