Book 3’s early chapters illustrate Augustine’s confused mindset, distracted by his frequent attendance at theatrical shows and pursuit of sexual relationships, before he committed himself to the pursuit of wisdom. He is beset by an itchy conscience in two key respects: pursuing transient pleasure is unsatisfying, and his attempts to expiate conscience—by attending theatrical shows and practicing illicit rites—are problematic.

Young Augustine, therefore, is open to a rule of life, i.e., to an objective structure providing knowledge of Truth and reconciling the contradictions in his personal life. While reading Cicero’s exhortation to wisdom (i.e., to philosophia) in Hortensius, he pledges devotion to wisdom. This authentic experience of wisdom, the older Augustine remarks, represented a significant shift in outlook: “It gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardor in my heart. I began to rise up to return to you” (Conf. 3.4.7). Young Augustine seems to recognize that the divine pledges love to humans on the condition that its subjects promise love to it. As such, divine wisdom, by its very nature, both discloses that man’s true end transcends secular success, and offers means whereby man can be appropriately ordered. But, young Augustine is motivated, by the influence of his maternal upbringing, to join a religious community upholding wisdom as Christ, and unites himself with Manichean Christianity.

In book 3’s remainder, Confessor Augustine claims young Augustine rightly joins a religious community upholding Christ as wisdom but details the two reasons for which he wrongly selected the Manichean cultus. First, Confessor Augustine states young Augustine picked the Manichean cultus because of “inflated conceit (tumor)” (3.5.9). In embracing secular success as his raison-d’être, he exhibited a ‘corporealist’ view of reality veering toward the imaginary rather than toward substance, i.e., toward real things. Hence, young Augustine rejected Catholic Christianity due to its alleged scriptural absurdities dismissed by the Manichean ‘sacred books’ – for instance, Catholic scripture’s claims about the origin of evil and man’s creation in the image of God.

Additionally, young Augustine found Manichean religious practice convenient since it offered an easy attitude toward and method of remitting guilt. How so? As 3.10.18 implies, he believed sin could be expiated through elect Manicheans’ digestive activities. By providing these Manicheans with certain fruits, including favorable circumstances to pick them, the non-elect could participate in the liberation of hitherto embedded divine particles. Young Augustine thought the Manicheans maintained not only that moral evil is unavoidable (since human being is comprised of divine and anti-divine particles) but also that it could be easily excised. Hence, his problem of personal guilt was conveniently subordinated to a dominant desire for secular success. Although young Augustine’s experience taught him that wisdom, rather than secular success, is man’s proper object, he embraced Manichean Christianity. In this respect, he had not conformed to wisdom but made it into his own image.

Confessor Augustine’s second indictment of young Augustine’s selection of Manichean Christianity is found in his discussion of Monica. Whereas young Augustine’s religious practice was motivated by conceit, her faith in Catholic Christianity (as evidenced by her love for Augustine and reverence for the unnamed Catholic bishop) is governed by love of God and neighbor. Moreover, while he veered toward upholding the imaginary as true reality (and so misinterpreted Monica’s dream), Monica steadfastly adhered to her dream’s literal meaning, and thereby showed affinity for true reality. Additionally, Monica’s faith illustrated the role of humility in pursuing wisdom. By any reckoning she lacked deep knowledge of God, but her humble faith, unlike her son’s arrogance, acknowledged (as confessio richly implies) that humans are in a perpetual state of discovery concerning wisdom. Monica lets God lead the way.

What, then, is Confessions 3’s teaching? Confessor Augustine’s most obvious point is that wisdom’s total love for humanity requires its subjects to love wisdom with all their hearts, minds, and souls. God is and shares wisdom so humans can enjoy wisdom. On the human side, thought and love should humbly conform to wisdom rather than try to make wisdom conform to it. By this manner, humans can be delivered from embracing secular success as their raison-d’être and come to realize both that wisdom’s love is absolute and that wisdom brings greater good from all things.


If you would like to read more of Barry A. David’s thoughts on Augustine’s Confessions, check out his latest book On The Confessions as ‘Confessio’: A Reader’s Guide (2022).