[In Our Time] Augustine’s Confessions (Summer Repeat)

Augustine’s Confessions (Summer Repeat)

29/08/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=79709591
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p07jtm5l.mp3

Augustine’s Confessions
In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss St Augustine of Hippo’s account of his conversion to Christianity and his life up to that point. Written c397AD, it has many elements of autobiography with his scrutiny of his earlier life, his long relationship with a concubine, his theft of pears as a child, his work as an orator and his embrace of other philosophies and Manichaeism. Significantly for the development of Christianity, he explores the idea of original sin in the context of his own experience. The work is often seen as an argument for his Roman Catholicism, a less powerful force where he was living in North Africa where another form of Christianity was dominant, Donatism. While Augustine retells many episodes from his own life, the greater strength of his Confessions has come to be seen as his examination of his own emotional development, and the growth of his soul.


Kate Cooper
Professor of History at the University of London and Head of History at Royal Holloway

Morwenna Ludlow
Professor of Christian History and Theology at the University of Exeter


Martin Palmer
Visiting Professor in Religion, History and Nature at the University of Winchester

Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Listen Date: early November 2019


  • This was an episode where I learned a lot, got reminded of a lot, and made many connections. And to think that I almost ignored it all because of bad traffic. Eventually I restarted it the next morning, and I’m glad I did.
  • It kicks off with Augustine believing that the original sin of man was not lust (Adam lusting after Eve) but pride (Eve and Adam thinking they knew better than to follow God’s instructions)
  • Augustine’s mother determined to see her younger son do well and raise the family up reminds me of the stories told about my great grandmother Veeranwali Khanna who also gathered wood in the forests.
  • I listened with interest on hearing the panelist blame Augustine for the worst aspects of Protestantism – laying the grounds for the theory of predestination, and of salvation through grace and not works.
  • The panelist who talked about Augustine as extremely clever, and clever beyond both his peers and his teachers – that was very humanising.
  • One thing about In Our Time‘s religion episodes in general, but this one in particular, is how it makes Christian theology out to be this sort of faith tempered with reason; or at least makes the purpose of theology out to be to find something more than just faith. I wonder who in Hinduism has that sort of approach (certainly not the Bhagvad Gita); though I saw flashes of that in Why Buddhism is True. Though maybe that says more about my fanboying than about Buddhism.
  • And Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash also meanders around that question; while the later books seem to keep going back and forth on it.
  • Another interesting bit was Augustine’s exploitative relationship with his concubine, and how even though he loved her, he was very much in a position of power and it could never have been a relationship of equals. Which would have been true for most of history, but especially so for him. And it probably doesn’t live up to the press release he issued in his Confessions.
  • Oh, that reminds me of the discussion of how he was in the tradition of St Paul writing letters.
  • But, I also learned that he was Libyan (half Berber), and ended up being a pariah in his own community on coming back Catholic while they were Donatist.
  • Augustine thinking about how he stole pears for the fun of it rather than to eat them; and how that means that everybody is inherently sinful, and where the motivation for evil comes from – and then the panelists saying that it was naughty more than wicked – reminds me of the hacker mentality (penetrate and exploit just to see if it can be done) – which again links up with Neal Stephenson; and one step removed from that, it also has connections to trickster Gods like Loki – and there we go with pride again! Meanwhile, the reference to how Aristotle (or was it Plato?) believing that nobody who knew how to be good would ever be otherwise, also comes back to our old friend Tolstoi and his bit in Anna Karenina about the peasant not wanting to work in the best way, but in the way he was most comfortable with.
  • And I got reminded of Manichaenaism, which I keep reading about, but which I also keep forgetting about. So, Mani was a Persian Christian whose Christianity was heavily influenced by prevailing Zorastrianism; and so he believed that God and the Devil were equally powerful and were waging a battle within the human soul. And I learned that Augustine started out as a Manichaean, but eventually ended up believing that sin was not something with an independent existence, but just a rupture of the human self from the divine will. To which I say: cool story bro.


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