Philosophy, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in RELIGIOUS STUDIES v. 24, no. 3 (Sept. 1988), pp. 291-302. Copyright 1988 Cambridge University Press. Used by permission.


Augustine tells us in the Confessions that his reading of Cicero's Hortensius at the age of nineteen aroused in him a burning 'passion for the wisdom of eternal truth'. He was inspired 'to love wisdom itself, whatever it might be, and to search for it, pursue it, hold it, and embrace it firmly'. And thus he embarked on his arduous journey to the truth, which was at the same time a conversion to Catholic Christianity, and which culminated twelve years later in his experience in the garden in Milan.

In the first part of this paper I will trace Augustine's search for intellectual knowledge and truth -- the pathway from Manicheeism to Catholicism by which he achieves what he takes to be a true conception of God. Consideration will be given to the way in which his intellectual progress affects and is affected by the conative side of his nature -- his desires, habits and affections. I will then ask whether the insight into God's nature that Augustine achieves suffices to give him the wisdom that he seeks, and will consider his novel suggestion that it does not. We will see that Augustine attempts to set out additional, non-intellectual criteria for attaining knowledge of God -- where 'knowledge' has a richer sense that involves 'holding' the truth, and 'embracing it fully'. Augustine's conversion to the truth essentially involves a reorienting of the will, a radical change in attitude and motive.

My second concern is with Augustine's conception of how his own will functions in his conversion. Clearly he thinks of his conversion as a process of change within the whole self, but one that culminates in a final act of will. His highly dramatized and metaphorical description of the struggle that goes on within him leading to his final decision is a repository of insight into human willing. I will attempt to elicit from the text of the Confessions Augustine's conception of the will -- whether it functions as liberum arbitrium, capable of choosing between presented alternatives, or simply as the executive organ of reason or desire. Secondly, I will consider the extent to which Augustine views himself as contributing by his overall process of conversion and to the final moment of decision. Consideration of Augustine's participation in the process must take into account his explicit recognition that he is in St Paul's predicament of not being able to do what he wants to do. The relevant questions are : What does Augustine do to bring about his conversion and Is his final decision something that he accomplishes by his own effort and striving?

Included in

Philosophy Commons