Augustine: Conversions and Confessions

St Augustine wasn't always so saintly, which is why his honest 'Confessions' still resonates today When St Augustine appeared to Bob Dylan in a dream, he spoke in two very different voices. First, he was the preacher with “fiery breath” who scorches his listeners “without restraint”.

Then he became an ordinary man whose “sad complaint” moves Dylan, as he sings in the final plangent line of his 1967 song I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine, to bow his head and pray.

It is precisely this combination of spiritual fervour and acute self-analysis that makes Augustine’s Confessions, in which the North African bishop recounts his past sins and conversion to Christianity, so unusual and compelling, even 16 centuries later.

There have been hundreds of books on Augustine. The Oxford classicist Robin Lane Fox adds to their number with this long and detailed – perhaps overlong and overdetailed – work tracing the future saint’s life from his birth in 354 to the composition of Confessions in his early 40s.

Lane Fox sets Augustine’s life in its historical context by including the life stories of two of his near-contemporaries: Synesius, a philosophy-loving bishop; and Libanius, a pagan with a penchant for autobiography.

For long stretches of the book, however, these two figures fade from view. You can hardly blame Lane Fox for being drawn back to Augustine.

We know more about him than any other figure from the ancient world, and his personality and intelligence shine more brightly than his contemporaries.

Confessions is not strictly speaking an autobiography; it is a prayer addressed to God. But, as Augustine says, God knows it all already and so he can speak freely about his own sins – most notoriously, his sex life.

When he was 15, his father, Patricius, spotted him naked at the baths and was delighted with his budding virility. For Augustine, this was not a good omen. Patricius was a pagan who compulsively cheated on his long-suffering Christian wife, Monica. Augustine inherited his father’s sexual appetite. Moving to Carthage as a young man, he embroiled himself in a “seething cauldron of lust”.

He admits even to “procuring the fruits of death” while in church – Lane Fox tells us it was common for randy churchgoers to pick up married women in the aisles. He also took a long-term concubine with whom he had a son.

Augustine tells us he prayed for chastity, but “not yet”. (Noël Coward alludes to this famous phrase in Brief Encounter, where the lovers prolong their doomed affair with cries of “not yet”.)

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