“The Confessions is written as a prayer of praise and thanks to God, containing personal introspection and reminiscence, philosophical reasoning, and religious apologetic. Garry Wills' short work on the Confessions (Augustine's Confessions: A Biography) judges that "we are not the realm of autobiography but of spiritual psychodrama" (25); however, although Wills suggests that to understand the Confessions as autobiography is a misreading, that is how the book has often been understood, and it is the autobiographical elements that are likely to appeal most readily to the general non-philosophical reader seeking to engage with a work of world literature.
Augustine's world has some resonances with our own: he grew up in an environment in which religion was still a matter of personal choice, and there seems to have been no social stigma attached to living unmarried with a partner. Some of Augustine's recollections are perennial: the infamous "pear scrumping" incident seems to have been a typical adolescent challenge to authority ("our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden", II.4); as a teacher (of rhetoric), Augustine struggled with student discipline. A plan to establish a commune with some friends to study philosophy fell through for familiar domestic reasons: "when we began to ask ourselves whether the women would agree to the plan, all our carefully made arrangements collapsed and broke to pieces in our hands and were discarded" (VI.14).
Augustine was a questioning young man, and he had the leisure time and the education to go looking for answers. Like others in a similar position today, he was at first attracted to a New Religious Movement from the east. This, of course, was Manicheeism, and the older Augustine, like many ex-members of NRMs, is very keen to convey his eventual intellectual repudiation of the religion. He found Faustus, a Manichee sage, to be an "agreeable personality, with a pleasant manner of speech" (V.6), but ultimately unimpressive.
The book also contains details of interest for church history: Augustine was baptised by Bishop Ambrose of Milan, and his decision to convert was influenced by Ambrose’s "spiritual father", Simplicianus. Simplicianus had also persuaded Victorinus, the Latin translator of Plotinus, to accept baptism; Victorinus did so publicly, despite the option of a private ceremony which was offered "for people who seemed likely to find the ceremony embarrassing". (VIII.3). In another section (VIII.6), Augustine hears from a certain Ponticianus about "the groups of monks in the monasteries, of their way of life that savours of your [i.e., God’s] sweetness, and of the fruitful wastes of the desert". He is then told of how two courtiers headed for the desert after coming across a Life of Anthony. Confiding to his friend Alypius, Augustine exclaims, “What is the matter with us?... These men have not had our schooling, yet they stand up and storm the gates of heaven while we, for all our learning, lie here grovelling in this world of flesh and blood!” (VIII.8). Augustine also note the beginning of hymn singing in Milan (IX:7).
Although Augustine affirms the existence of miracles, having received release from toothache (IX.4), they do not loom large in the story – Wills' book on the Confessions tells us that Augustine's letters in fact express a low opinion of Ambrose, absent from the Confessions, that the bishop was a "demagogic miracle monger" (22). Augustine is more concerned, rather, with philosophical justifications for faith, and in the final four books of the text he refers to the first chapter of Genesis to ponder topics such as time, creation and memory. There's also some interesting ancient science included here: one passage (XIII.32) tells us that "it is the evaporation of moisture which makes the air dense enough to support [birds] in flight".
The version reviewed here dates from 1961, and it is still the standard Penguin edition. The Confessions contains many Biblical quotations, and in this instance the translator, the strangely-named R.S. Pine-Coffin, chose to use Ronald Knox's Bible translation. Given that Knox translated from the Vulgate, and that Augustine had little ability in Greek, this is a particularly appropriate choice.
Pince-Coffin also includes a short workmanlike introduction, which includes a paragraph about previous English translations. The first, by Sir Tobie Matthew, was published anonymously in Saint Omer in 1620; William Watts, Rector of St Alban's, Wood Street, rejected it as "Popish" and provided an alternative in 1631. Some of the earlier translations did not include the final part of the text.
Pine-Coffin's biographical blurb at the front of the book is short and rather enigmatic, but further details can be found elsewhere. The "R" was for Robert, and Michael Gorman's memoir Broken Pieces: A Library Life, 1941–1978 (2011) has the following detail on page 146:
"...I asked the person in charge of cataloguing in the British Museum's Department of Printed Books, R. S.Pine-Coffin, if the cataloguing staff of the museum could consider adopting the new cataloguing rules (an international standard) when the British Library came into being and was told that he did not care which code was used 'if we have to give up proper cataloguing'… Mr. Pine-Coffin was a gentleman with perfect manners, a scholar, and a member of an old and grand family but, like the vast majority of his colleagues, not a trained librarian."”