Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ as Anti-Autobiography

Augustine’s ‘Confessions’is not in fact merely not autobiographical, it is properly speaking anti-autobiographical.

First, in terms of genre, the Confessions may be the least apologetic text Augustine ever wrote, despite all those who try to read their way to faith through it; it is not meant for those outside of the church, but for those inside, to help them in their quest to become more fully Christians.

 

What type of literature is Augustine’s Confessions? Most of us would be tempted to call it an autobiography in the form of an extended prayer.

But in a brilliant essay on Book One of the Confessions, Charles Mathewes, Carolyn M. Barbour professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, argues, “Not only do our expectations of autobiography as a genre mislead us about Augustine’s aims in the Confessions; they positively obstruct our apprehension of its purposes.”

The problem beneath our urge to autobiography, he argues, it “our presumption of beginning.” And Mathewes argues that throughout his work, Augustine is targeting this very presumption:

He takes as his task not so much to help us directly to escape from the tendency to narrate ourselves . . . , but rather to tell a story that is ultimately legible only from the perspective of salvation, from the perspective of one whose understanding has been redeemed from the ceaselessly futile task of trying to tell one’s own story. In doing so, he urges on the reader’s reconsideration of not just the propriety, but the very possibility of imagining that one can tell one’s story from within it. The Confessions is the story of a life, but it is a life still in via, and until death or (better and more appropriately) the eschatological consummation of that life, its meaning remains, for us and for Augustine, unknown. The work is not in fact merely not autobiographical, it is properly speaking anti-autobiographical. Yet this, Augustine seems to be saying, is what any true “autobiography” should be: it is the story of a life from the inside, and from the insider, our lives are not yet narratable.

The aim of this anti-autobiography is pedagogical and psychological: it wants not directly to reshape our dispositions (it has no hope that a text alone can do that; such is the work of God alone), but rather to vex our comprehension until those dispositions begin to be reshaped. Rather than seeking to comprehend our lives better, Augustine hopes his readers will more appropriately fail to comprehend them; and insofar as one fails to comprehend in the right way, one is blocked from understanding the deep character of what the Confessions is all about. This is a crucial exegetical fact about the Confessions, though one rarely noticed.

Read More