Saint Augustine’s conversion to Christianity occurs in Book VIII, Section 12 (the final section of Book VIII) of his Confessions (Confessiones in Latin). Throughout Book VIII we are offered a glimpse into the inner turmoil faced by Augustine as he rejects Neoplatonism and Manichaeism, as well as his ongoing struggle with chastity and lust: “I had prayed to you [God] for chastity and said: ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not yet'” (8.7). Like Paul before him, Augustine was a deeply troubled man, believing his inner nature to be evil and in conflict with himself. In allusion to the gospels (Mark 13:25 and Matthew 12:25) Augustine says, “My inner self was a house divided against itself” (8.8).
Augustine goes to visit a virtuous and knowledgable friend named Simplicianus, the “spirital father of Ambrose who was a bishop” (8.2). Some have suggested it was St. Ambrose who played a large role in Augustine’s conversion, however the Confessions clearly points a direct path to Simplicanus as the leading figure in Augustine’s life. Simplicianus counsels Augustine against reading books written by the classical philosophers, even the Platonists (or at least the Ciceronian Platonists), and instead offers biographies of saints who converted to Christianity as examples for Augustine to consider (i.e. Saint Antony). In other words, the aesthetic image or eidos of a converted Christian is what initially pushes Augustine toward converting to Christianity. Simplicanus encourages Augustine to learn about Victorinus, an old man of great learning. Victorinus was a well-respected Roman who offered guidance to Roman senators. He was inducted into the early Christian mysteries and was baptized, though privately at first because Christianity was not fully accepted into the culture of Rome. Augustine becomes overwhelmed with a desire to “imitate” Victorinus (8.5). He also becomes fascinated by Christian monks who reject the world and live in great monasteries away from cities. He is drawn to the ascetic life. Augustine is offered these various images of Christian alternatives to life under Rome (an empire on the verge of crumbling). Augustine reflects on his inner struggle with a friend named Alypius while they sit in a garden in Milan.
In desiring to fully convert to Christianity, Augustine claims it must be “a resolute and whole-hearted act of the will” (8.8). However, he also claims that the human will is always in conflict with itself:
“For if the will were full, it would not command itself to be full, since it would be so already. It is therefore no strange phenomenon partly to will to do something and partly to will not do it. It is a disease of the mind, which does not wholly rise to the heights where it is lifted by the truth, because it is weighed down by habit. So there are two wills in us, because neither by itself is the whole will, and each possesses what the other lacks” (8.9).
So, how will Augustine be able to make a conscious decision to convert? Habit? Force? Teaching? Augustine briefly departs from his friend Alypius in the garden in Milan to weep in solitude under a fig tree (he is emotionally distraught). Augustine is unable to control his will. He hears a voice telling him to ‘take it up and read…’ (perhaps the voice of a child in a nearby house) so, like Saint Antony hearing the gospel for the first time, Augustine decides to open the gospel to a random section for divine inspiration. He leaps up and runs back to his friend, Alypius, and opens Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Augustine begins reading a random passage (midway through the verse):
“Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites” (Romans 13:13 -Augustine does not quote the full passage).
Thus, after reading the passage, Augustine decides to convert to Christianity, as does his friend Alypius who reads the passage a little further. Augustine then rushes to inform his mother, a Christian woman named Monica, who is pleased by her son’s conversion.
Is Augustine’s conversion to Christianity a hopeful path forward? Or merely an escape from his life of hedonism? In other words, is Christianity a deliberately chosen way of life, or a mere crutch to bear the weight of his lawlessness? Augustine seems to rely on Christianity as the foundation which preserves his mental consistency from day to day (a note which Descartes will later echo centuries later in his Meditations on First Philosophy). Augustine’s conversion moment is unusual, irrational, inexplicable, and seemingly innocuous. In a word, his conversion is simply divine. Was it the life of Antony that inspired him? The support of his friend and other? Or did something inexplicit from the passage in Romans persuade him? For Augustine, there is no explosive moment of revelation from on high, as in the case of Paul on the road to Damascus or even Constantine (both accounts of which are dubious at best).
Augustine’s struggle with human willpower, or what is sometimes called the question of ‘free will,’ brings to mind Nietzsche’s idea of the “will to power.” For Nietzsche at the root of Augustine’s struggle is a desire for power -or perhaps the ability to wield power over himself. Augustine agrees with Nietzsche to an extent: the good life is akin to the ascetic life. However, Augustine believes that the Christian life will allow man to better study the world without the clouding influence of sin. Yet the truth of his conversion still eludes us. Augustine’s conversion remains sudden, deeply personal, and divinely revealed in a way that makes sense only to the converted.
For this reading I used the Penguin edition of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin.