Garry Wills rightly called book 8 the “most famous and most cited book” in Augustine’s Confessions. Coming into book 8, Augustine had already accepted some biblical presuppositions (like God’s immateriality) via Neoplatonic literature. Book 9 will end Augustine’s conversion narrative with his baptism and the death of his mother Monica, who had prayed for his salvation. Between books 7 and 9, then, Augustine focused on his inability to turn his will towards God.

In describing this significant moment in his life, Augustine wrote three scenes in book 8 revolving around three of his mentors: Simplicianus, Ponticianus, and Paul. The them of mentorship appears through Conf., but it is especially prominent in book 8, where mentors are essential in moving him to make the final, complete turn to Christianity and to acquiesce to a public pronouncement of faith through baptism.

Prior to book 8, Augustine had come under the preaching of Ambrose of Milan. Influenced by his teaching, Augustine began to dig deeper into the Christian heritage that Monica had tried to teach him. Ambrose’s busy schedule prevented him from mentoring Augustine one-on-one, so he sought help from the presbyter Simplicianus of Milan. Augustine knew the gospel, but he still struggled with ambition and lust. He believed Simplicianus’ mentorship would help.

During one meeting with Simplicianus, Augustine mentioned the Platonic books that Marius Victorinus had translated. Simplicianus knew Victorinus from his time in Rome, so he told Augustine about Victorinus’ conversion. Victorinus spent most of his life defending paganism as a rhetor in Rome, but he began to read Scripture in his old age. Victorinus eventually told Simplicianus that he believed but did not want to profess publicly because he feared how his friends and the public would react. Over time, Victorinus saw that Scripture required a public profession of faith, so he consented to baptism, proclaiming his faith in Jesus to the astonishment of Rome.

Augustine remembered Victorinus’ reputation as a vehement defender of paganism and knew that he himself had a reputation for being associated with the Manichees prior to his arrival in Milan. Both Augustine and Victorinus taught rhetoric and eagerly sought career advancement. Both believed Christian doctrine but did not want to be baptized, and both eventually came to Simplicianus for advice. While Simplicianus urged Augustine to follow Victorinus’ example, Augustine delayed, likening himself to someone who knew he should get out of bed but wanted more sleep (Conf. 8.5.12).

Some time later, a fellow African named Ponticianus came to Milan as a member of the imperial court. He was delighted to learn that Augustine was reading Paul’s letters, so Ponticianus told Augustine about Antony, the great monk of Egypt, who sold all his property and took up an ascetic life. Although Antony’s life amazed Augustine, almost as much as it shocked Ponticianus that Augustine had not heard of him, he continued to put off his conversion (Conf. 8.7.16-18).

The final mentor for Augustine in book 8 is the apostle Paul, whose writings led Augustine to take the final step of accepting Christianity. After Ponticianus’ departure, Augustine’s internal struggle led him to burst out to his friend Alypius, “What is wrong with us?” (Conf. 8.8.19). Augustine wanted to convert, but the force of habit and his love for sin kept him from taking the final step. Angst drove him outside to the garden, where he hoped to settle the matter for good by reflecting upon the Pauline letters. After reading Galatians 5:17 and Romans 7, Augustine questioned how he could want to convert so badly yet still refuse to forsake his sin. He confessed that he only partially wanted conversion; part of his will – even a second will! (Conf. 8.10.22) – was against it. Augustine had no intellectual objections to Christianity, but he had bound himself to sin through habits so that he felt like he needed his sin, that they were part of his identity.

Eventually, Augustine became so distraught that he excused himself from Alypius and walked off alone, deeper into the garden. For the first time in the Conf., Augustine wept before God, an act that mirrored Monica’s prayers for her son earlier in book 3. After praying for mercy, he heard a child say, ‘Pick up and read; pick up and read’ (Conf. 8.12.29). In a sense, this child became another mentor for Augustine, who took this statement as a divine command. He went back to the house and read the first passage he saw, which was Romans 13:13–14. After reading Paul, Augustine fully embraced Christianity.

As these examples of mentors who shaped Augustine’s thought illustrate, Augustine’s life was not walked in solitude but in the company of others. Through detailing the impact others had upon his life, Augustine challenges us to think about our own lives. Who has been a major influence upon how we live and our worldview? Who are we currently shaping, and do we realize that we have – or can have – that sort of impact upon others? For Augustine in his Conf., the impact of mentors also has a distinctly Christian flavor. Book 8 exemplifies his quotation of Paul in Conf. 1.1.1: “But how shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14) By including his mentors as prominent figures in his conversion narrative, Augustine challenges his fellow Christians likewise to point people toward Jesus and help others develop the virtues that Jesus exemplified.