Neoplatonism Through the Renaissance
What did Augustine confess in Confessions?
The importance of Augustine’s (354–430) Confessions lies less in what he disclosed about himself and more in its intimate, first-person style of writing, which became a distinct genre in future religious works, as well as philosophical treatises. His Confessions, written when he was in his forties, relates his religious yearnings, strivings, and happiness.
Augustine’s early education was in rhetoric and literature. He claims that when, at the age of 18, he read Cicero’s now lost dialogue, Hortensius, he was inspired to devote his life to the search for wisdom. Although he converted to Christianity in 386, he made a living teaching rhetoric, and for a while his main religious interest was in Manicaeanism. (Manicaeanism denied the crucifixion of Jesus, united Christianity with Budhhism, and was preoccupied with struggles between good and evil, or light and darkness.) Augustine came into contact with Bishop Ambrose and Christian Neoplatonists in Milan and found a sufficiently sophisticated form of Christianity that appealed to him.
Augustine believed that Neoplatonism anticipated the basic Christian doctrines about God, the creation, and divine presence. When he returned to his home in North Africa, he was ordained as a priest and then became bishop of Hippo. He preached, traveled, and corresponded voluminously. In his scholarly and devotional activities, he came to believe that the Christian scriptures, particularly the Gospel account of the life of Jesus, were more important than the writings of philosophers. He concluded that more important than belief, which was an intellectual matter, was understanding, which began with faith: “Believe in order that you may understand.” Understanding required a vision of God.