St. Augustine is one of the greatest thinkers the West ever produced. Born in North Africa in the waning years of the Roman Empire, his Confessions detail his ultimate conversion to Nicene Christianity after a ten year journey through the various trendy sects of the 4th century C.E. Augustine was a member of the Manichean heresy, a follower of Astrology, and an all around sinner. He enjoyed the barbaric games of the coliseum, was overly proud of his education and teaching positions, and just couldn't bring himself to give up the ladies. He even had a son, Adeodatus, who was born out of wedlock. In short, Augustine loved the things that most people love, and he loved the same things that we love in our decadent age. This is what makes this book so relevant today; it shows how little the human race has come in 1500 years. Augustine's struggles are our struggles.
Two points of interest are worth mentioning here. The first is Augustine's mother, St. Monica. Throughout the book, Monica is an omnipresent figure in Augustine's life. She is a tireless Christian, and she does many things to try and bring Augustine into the faith. She prays incessantly, has visions and dreams from God that promise Augustine's conversion, and she follows her son everywhere he goes. Augustine gives much praise to his mother, but it's important to remember that he was writing this account after his conversion. At the time, Augustine must have been sick to death of some of her antics. He actually lied to her so he could sneak off to Rome without her, although she was soon on a boat so she could catch up with him. I also felt sorry for his father, Patricius. Dad wasn't really into the Christian thing, so Monica put on the pants in the family. Augustine even says that Monica made God the 'true' father in their house.
A second point of interest is Augustine's actual conversion. He seems to go through two of them in quick succession. The first is an intellectual conversion, as Augustine uses the texts of Neo-Platonic authors to prove to himself the fallacy of the Manichean theology. It seems the Manicheans believed in a Christ figure that was not fully divine, as well as the idea that God was a substance. Augustine shows how substance can be corrupted, making this idea totally incompatible with the idea of a perfect God. After all, if a substance can be corrupted, how can it be perfect? After the intellectual conversion, Augustine still can't totally believe because he can't give up the fleshly sin of lust with women. This second conversion finally comes about in the famous 'pick it up and read' incident in the garden. Augustine, wracked by his sins and on the verge of some type of mental collapse over his anguish, hears a child's voice singing, 'Pick it up and read.' Seeing this as a sign from God, he picks up Paul's Epistles and reads the first thing he sees in the book. He reads a passage about the evils of fleshly vice and his conversion is complete.
After this conversion, the rest of the book veers off on a tangent. Augustine examines the concept of time, in great detail, and writes an incredibly dense exegesis on the first parts of the book of Genesis. This section, with the exception of his discourse on time, isn't nearly as interesting as the account of his life and the fundamental changes he goes through as he tries to find the true way to live life. I do suspect that thousands have converted after reading this book because it speaks to every human on a fundamental level. The above description I've given doesn't even begin to cover the amount of information in this book. The Confessions is both beautiful and thought provoking and I would recommend it to anyone.
I do have a word of warning for those who are considering giving this one a shot. Avoid, like the plague, the John Ryan translation. It is wordy, dense, and not at all clear. Read this Penguin version, written by Mr. Pine-Coffin (great name, huh?). It is a clear and concise translation. It's one thing to struggle with ideas in a book, but why should we have to struggle with the syntax? Go forth and read, young man!