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HALL OF FAMEon 3 February 2005
Augustine's 'Confessions' is among the most important books ever written. One of the first autobiographical works in the modern sense, it also represents the first time a psychological and theological enterprise were combined. It also helps to bridge the gap between the Classical world and the Medieval world, exhibiting strong elements identifying with each of those major historical periods.
Most undergraduates in the liberal arts encounter the book at some point; all seminarians do (or should!). Many adults find (or rediscover) the book later, after school. For many in these categories, there are concepts, narrative strands and historical data new and unusual for them. However, Augustine's 'Confessions' is still generally more accessible in many ways that truly classical pieces; it has interior description as well as external reporting that we are familiar with in modern writing.
The 'Confessions' shows Augustine's personality well - he was a passionate person, but his focus wavered for much of his life until finally settling upon Christianity and the Neoplatonic synthesis with this faith. Even while remaining a passionate Christian and rejecting the sort of dualism present in the Manichee teachings, he varied between various positions within these systems. Augustine's varied thought reaches through many denominational and scholarly paradigms.
The 'Confessions' are divided into thirteen chapters, termed 'Books' - the first ten of the books are autobiographical, with Augustine describing both events in his life as well as his philosophical and religious wanderings during the course of his life. The text is somewhat difficult to take at times, as this is writing with a purpose, as indeed most autobiographies are. The purpose here at times seems to be to paint Augustine in the worst possible light (the worse his condition, the better his conversion/salvation ends up being); at other times, one gets a sense (as one might get when reading the Pauline epistles) that there is some significant degree of ego at work here (Paul boasts of being among the better students, and so does Augustine, etc.).
Augustine also uses his Confessions as a tract against the Manichean system - once a faithful adherent, Augustine later rejects the Manichean beliefs as heretical; however, one cannot get past the idea that Augustine retained certain of their intellectual aspects in his own constructions even while denouncing them in his official life story.
The whole of the conversion turns on two primary books - Book Seven, his conversion to the Neoplatonic view of the world, including the metaphysics and the ethics that come along with this system; and Book 8, which describes his conversion to Christianity proper. This is where perhaps the most famous directive, 'Tolle! Lege!' ('Take and read!') comes from - Augustine heard a voice, and he picked up the nearest book, which happened to be a portion of the Pauline epistles, arguing against the undisciplined lifestyle Augustine lived. Scholars continue to debate whether Augustine's conversion to Christianity was more profound or more important than his conversion to Neoplatonism; in any event, Christianity interpreted through a Platonic framework became the norm for centuries, and remains a strong current within the Christian world view; Protestant reformers as they went back to the 'original bible' in distinction from the Catholic interpretations of the day also went back to the 'original Augustine' for much of their theology.
The final three books are Augustine's dealing with the creation of the world via narrative stories in Genesis 1 exegetically and hermeneutically. This is very different from what is done in modern biblical scholarship, but is significant in many respects, not the least of which as it gives a model of the way Augustine dealt with biblical texts; given Augustine's towering presence over the development of Western Christianity in both Catholic and Protestant strands, understanding his methods and interpretative framework can lead to significant insights into the ideas of medieval and later church figures.
This translation by Henry Chadwick is one of the standard editions of the book available. Chadwick, a noted scholar of early Christianity, provides a good introduction that gives synopses of the books as well as background and contextual information. This is a book that will be of interest to novice readers of Augustine as well as scholars, to students, clergy and laypersons, and anyone else who might have an historical, literary, philosophical, theological or other interest in Augustine - something for everyone, perhaps?
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on 6 August 2015
A beautifully written painfully honest account of Saint Augustine's life, full of tender reflection and philosophical enquiry. Perhaps one of the first ever autobiographies ever written. A fascinating insight into Roman culture & the Christian church as it existed back then.
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I first came across St. Augustine's "Confessions" when I was a freshman in college. It was a monumental experience in terms of both the content of his writing and the freshness and relevance of his writing style. After re-reading them again recently, I am still struck with how contemporary the book feels. Aside from many of its 4th century particularities, the concerns that St. Augustine had and the way he frankly and honestly dealt with them could be lifted from almost any contemporary tell-all autobiography. The biggest exception is the fact that "Confessions" is a quintessentially and irreducibly a religious text, and in an age when religious considerations are largely pushed towards the margins of their life stories, it is refreshing and uplifting to see what would a life look like for someone who took them very seriously and committed himself to reorganizing one's whole life around the idea of serving God wholly and uncompromisingly. "Confessions" is a very accessible text, and for the most part it does not deal with theological and philosophical issues. The exception is the latter part of the book, which are almost exclusively dedicated to those topics. You may want to skip those at the first reading, but I would encourage you to read them nevertheless. Maybe the very inspiring and uplifting story of St. Augustine's conversion to Christianity can lead you into deeper considerations about your faith or the meaning of life in general. I cannot think of a better introduction to those topics than "Confessions," nor of a better guide than St. Augustine.
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on 14 June 2017
I found this book while looking through my late wife’s things. I would be very surprised if she had read it given that in our 18 years together I rarely saw her complete the reading of any book. However, I am less surprised that she acquired it given her lifelong quest for some kind of spiritual understanding and peace.

This book, for me, was a very hard read. It is only 300 pages long but took me 7 weeks to finish it. When I have discussed this book with people who have read it, they say they are not surprised that it took that long and that they are surprised that anyone would want to read it for leisure purposes.

St Augustine’s confessions are famous for being his public renunciation of his old pagan ways, his laying open his soul to God. It contains his famous prayer, paraphrased as “Make me good but not yet.” Henry Chadwick more elegantly phrases it “Lord grant me chastity and continence but not yet”. In many ways, modern readers would wonder why Augustine was so hard on himself. He doesn’t seem to be confessing anything that serious, merely for being a typical Roman citizen, enjoying circuses and practising and teaching rhetoric.

The book is more than a mere autobiography of a sinner who has converted to Christianity. It is an account of Saint Augustine’s intellectual and philosophical awakening. He uses the full depth and range of his classical education and applies it to many aspects of theology to exhaustive effect. The book is full of numerous familiar biblical quotations. It is worth remembering that Saint Augustine was writing at a time at which Christianity was not the world faith it has since become. Much of the book is an argument against the Manichee sect of which I was entirely ignorant when I read it.

It is hard to rate this book given its classic status. I did find it hard going at times and often found myself struggling to understand what Augustine was going on about and often found that mental process by which he picked apart subjects quite exhausting to read. However, when I did persist, I found this process enthralling and immensely rewarding. His expounding on the creation and nature of the concept of time was especially fascinating.

So given its classic status and some of Augustine’s insights (many of which remain very contemporary), this is for me a 5 star book and one that I may well wish to revisit.
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on 23 November 2013
Just over half of Confessions is St. Augustine's autobiography, while the remainder is a series of reflections on the nature of God and on biblical texts. The autobiographical part is the most compelling because there is a clear narrative to carry it along and because it is a very human account of Augustine's search for meaning in life. He throws his energy into theatre-going, sexual adventures, Manicheeism, academic study and a career in the Imperial capital before concluding that serenity is not to be found in worldly things or the temptations of the senses. He resigns his teaching post, is baptized and returns to his homeland in North Africa to serve the Lord. You don't have to subscribe to Augustine's religious views to find this account moving.

The translator notes that Augustine was an accomplished Latin stylist, and while I have no way of judging this I can say that he writes with profound humility and rich imagery, and that the English translation has a beauty of its own and is very readable. Augustine became an extremist in his views about worldly pleasure - he renounced sex and explains that he only ate and drank because he had to sustain his body - but eschews fundamentalism in his attempts to interpret the Bible. He admits that the text is complex and open to multiple interpretations, and that he doesn't really understand the notion of the trinity or how God could have formed the world out of nothing. The last two books are increasingly complex and obscure biblical exegesis, but one can feel his struggle to make sense of the universe and our position in it.
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on 19 March 2014
There are quite a lot of translations of Augustine's Confessions around, so it’s worth pointing out to you that this review relates to the Henry Chadwick translation. I can’t comment on whether or not it is a particularly faithful translation as I haven’t attempted to compare it to the original. What I can say, however, is that it rendered Augustine eminently readable. There were a few instances where I suspected some inference on Chadwick’s part; one that comes to mind was the phrase “hodge-podge” which was rather unexpected. That said, for a relative newcomer to Augustine, I had no major issues with it and would not hesitate to recommend it.

What, then, of Augustine himself and what he wrote? The whole book is written as a poem addressed to God. Thankfully, Chadwick hasn’t tried to give it rhyme or rhythm in English, though I am assured that this existed in the original Latin. As the title suggests, it largely consists of Augustine confessing what he sees as his past sins.

But to imagine that it is simply a list of wrongdoing would grossly mislead you. It is, however, very difficult to summarise. That is because the book is no one thing; it is many. But those multiple aspects are not sequential items; they are layers and threads that are intertwined and overlaid in a majestic tapestry. The autobiography aspects include his very frank and rather modern view of sexuality, some close friendships and what they meant to him, especially moving when the friendship as terminated by mortality.

There is some theological disputation here, particularly against the Manichees, a group that Augustine first joined and later rejected. Mixed in with this then are Augustine meditations on the nature of good and evil, God, mankind, the universe and the like. It is not, however, a systematic work of philosophy. Though writing centuries after the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the stylisation is totally different. I read it mostly whilst commuting, with some excerpts whilst sat in a local park (yes, there has been a gap between finishing reading it and getting round to publishing the review - I didn't sit in the park in November). As such, I was sort of swept away by it and can offer little by way of detailed critique. It is a book to return to and dissect at some point in the future, possibly with the aid of further writings of someone who is more familiar than I with the full depth and breadth of Augustine's thoughts.

Being swept away however does not imply drowning. The text was not so obfuscating but provided some fascinating insights into Augustine's mind. For me, one of the more intriguing aspects was his musings on space and time. Though, with the hindsight of the discoveries of modern physics, some of it looks a little wide of the mark, it would be anachronistic to dismiss his ideas as irrational. Instead, it is quite a remarkable feat considering when it was written, and one could easily think him a thousand years ahead of his time.

The end of the book trails off somewhat with a look at the early chapters of Genesis. Again, here the modern reader may be tempted to look at him out of his time, though it is really not clear, given the modern polarisation between good science and creationism/ID, what box he might seem to fit in. I have for some time failed in my efforts to get my hands on his 'The Literal Meaning of Genesis', but this seems to cover similar ground. It is a thoughtful consideration of what Genesis means, but though Augustine doesn't explicitly refer to the creation story in modern terminology as a myth, he focuses on the meaning of it. Again, though it is hard to summarise and would hope you may do a better job than I did of getting your head around it.

There can be little doubt that this was the product of a great thinker of his time. The early emphasis on his struggles as a young man had strong resonances with me, making me wish I had read it in my late teens or early twenties. If you are reading this and you are in that age bracket then I would recommend this to you with some urgency. To anyone else, it is still a majestic piece of writing. Even if you are predisposed to disagree with Augustine, I would recommend it to you as an insight into the mind of one of the most influential figures from that time whose legacy has endured. If nothing else, the topics covered will almost certainly prompt you to think for yourself.
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on 25 April 2006
Aurelius Augustinus 354-430 AD.

He was born in Thagesta in Numidia (North-Africa).The Confessions' has two parts. The first part is a kind of autobiography and the second part is a commentary to the first chapters of Genesis.

He taught rhetorics first in Carthago in Africa, later in Milan in Italy. But after a while he developed an aversion not only for rhetorics ( he began to consider it as useless and conceited and as a pool of sins ) but also for his fellow-man.

He began to show neurotic behaviour like having a fainting fit without apparent cause. It's for those reasons that psychologists like to study Augustine's Confessions.

As a result of his problems, Augustine became a Christian and he was one of the first to found a monastery. Later on he became bishop of Hippo in North-Africa.

In the second part of 'The confessions', he tries to explain the first chapters of Genesis. ( This second part is very impressive and is the cause that "The Confessions" is in my personal top five of the best books I read during the last 30 years.)

His plan was to comment on the whole Bible but he soon understood that this was an impossible task for one man.

Nevertheless he's is considered as the Father of modern Theology because of his comments.

To give two examples: When the Bible says that God created man to His image, Augustine explains that it means that man knows the difference between good and evil just like God does, it doesn't mean a physical resemblance.

Another interesting thought is about Creation. Creation is not limited in space and time: since God is everywhere, Creation is also everywhere and goes on till eternity.

As conclusion I should mention that 'The Confessions'is also important because it is the first publication in Antiquity in which an author reveals his most inner feelings.
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on 9 June 2008
Augustine is one of these characthers from antiquity who illustrates that humanity is always and everywhere the same - we share the same form, namely the soul and we thirst always and everywhere for the same thing, namely the infinite, which is God. Augustine is poetic in his treatment of God, he addresses him as a bride to her husband. Let him speak for himself:

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."

His own struggle is the struggle of every man and woman to find God. And, yet, not only was Augustine the master of the inner life, he was a great philosopher - witness the chapter on time, which is wonderful. Miss not also his shared ecstatic vision with his mother, Monica.

This is a great work - but, there are bits that are not easy (his exegesis of Genesis, for example) but persevere, its worth it!.
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on 20 June 2013
This book, in my opinion, cannot but be given all the five stars. In fact, it should not be given any voting at all and before I have all the wisest minds in Christendom since the time Augustine wrote the Confessions, after my blood, I should like to explain that this book is above much that has been written that concerns God and man, after the Bible of course. It is a beautiful prayer to the Almighty written by a brilliant passionate man after he realises that without God, man is empty. Every person of every creed could do worse than read it, and although Augustine is a jewel of the Catholic Church, his sentiments belong to every conscience. It speaks to us and encourages us to be what we were created to be - like God. Otherwise, as Augustine says, "if we rest on our own support it is infirmity." This is quoted from page 71 which I think is the most beautiful of all passages.
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on 23 November 2009
For me the psychological and theological combined together by Saint Augustine in this book are simply beautiful. The way in which he writes is in itself a marvel and the self expression left me feeling bewildered and humbled. I adore the book and have read it many times. The articulation of thoughts on God and the thirst for divine knowledge by Saint Augustine are expressed like no other religious figure! I have read many books on different religions and none surpasses this.Please read this book.
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