In his own day the dominant personality of the Western Church, Augustine of Hippo today stands as perhaps the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity, and his Confessions is one of the great works of Western literature. In this intensely personal narrative, Augustine relates his rare ascent from a humble Algerian farm to the edge of the corridors of power at the imperial court in Milan, his struggle against the domination of his sexual nature, his renunciation of secular ambition and marriage, and the recovery of the faith his mother Monica had taught him during his childhood.
Now, Henry Chadwick, an eminent scholar of early Christianity, has given us the first new English translation in thirty years of this classic spiritual journey. Chadwick renders the details of Augustine's conversion in clear, modern English. We witness the future saint's fascination with astrology and with the Manichees, and then follow him through scepticism and disillusion with pagan myths until he finally reaches Christian faith. There are brilliant philosophical musings about Platonism and the nature of God, and touching portraits of Augustine's beloved mother, of St. Ambrose of Milan, and of other early Christians like Victorinus, who gave up a distinguished career as a rhetorician to adopt the orthodox faith. Augustine's concerns are often strikingly contemporary, yet his work contains many references and allusions that are easily understood only with background information about the ancient social and intellectual setting. To make The Confessions accessible to contemporary readers, Chadwick provides the most complete and informative notes of any recent translation, and includes an introduction to establish the context.
The religious and philosophical value of The Confessions is unquestionablenow modern readers will have easier access to St. Augustine's deeply personal meditations. Chadwick's lucid translation and helpful introduction clear the way for a new experience of this classic.
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Reading Group Guide
1. What is Augustine's conception of the self? If you have read other autobiographies, can you remember a self-examination written with such acute awareness and observation of both external and internal conditions? How is Augustine's intelligence particularly suited to the writing of both self-analysis and philosophy? What is Augustine's understanding of the role of God in forming self and soul?
2. What are the turning points in Augustine's conversion? How does he characterize his early theft of pears from the orchard? His relationship with his mistress and his child? Why is it so difficult for him to leave carnal desire behind? How important are the voice of the child singing "Take it and read" and the inspiration to pick up the Scriptures at that moment?
3. Many moments in Confessions are striking in their sheer dramatic or literary power. Which passages or event do you find most moving, and why?
4. Could Confessions have been written today? Does our culture support such serious, intensive, analysis of the self and the meaning of life? Or have psychotherapy and such phenomena taken the place of self-motivated searching like that engaged in by Augustine? What role does reading play in Augustine's search?
5. Thomas Merton has commented on the role of spirituality in helping us to come into contact with our "deep selves." How important is the search for God in Augustine's establishment of his true self? Do you think he would have achieved any sense of peace or satisfaction with his life had he not ultimately taken the path he did? How would you characterize the difference between a "deep self" and a "false self"?
6. What are the stages Augustine goes through in his effort to understand the nature of evil? What do you think of his final definition of evil as the absence of good? How do people become evil? Do you think evil has changed since Augustine's time, or is the nature of human evil a constant throughout history?