The Sins of the Flesh

by cheri block

The word confession is an attractive one to nosey journalists, betrayed wives, and Catholic priests.

The Confessions of St. Augustine, written in the late 4th Century C.E., is the first autobiography.

In thirteen chapters, Augustine tells his story—that he was a sinner as a baby, that he was a sinner as a small boy, that he was a sinner as a teenager.

He tells the reader  he stole a pear from a tree in a garden just because he could.

His father was a pagan (obviously representing the Classical world) who funds Augustine’s classical education.

His mother was a devout Christian (obviously representing the oppressive 1000 years from 400-1400) who followed him wherever he lived—from North Africa to Italy– hounding him about his lifestyle and his sinning.

He adds Sins of the Flesh to his other sins. He writes that his desire for women overrode all his other sins, such as crying selfishly as a baby and eating stolen pears.

Women are flesh. The next 1000 years could be tough for us.

His sins continue to multiply. He took a mistress and  fathered  a bastard.

And then, in another garden in Milan, where is teaching, he sits under another tree—this time a fig tree—crying. He hears a child’s voice saying, Read it, read it.

His friend Alypius (obviously named for the Classical world) witnesses Augustine picking up his Bible and opening it to a random (but not so random) page.

The passage tells him to give up lust and other sins, so he does.

He cedes rationality to faith.

His mother can now die. She does.

He travels back to Carthage, hoping to live the monastic life, but Carthage teems with sinners. The Church crowns him the Bishop of Hippo. He must now contribute to the society at large, far away from the isolated and contemplative monastery.

The joys of the theater, the glory of the human body and its flesh– represented by the Olympics,  by stunning sculpture and art, and by the oratory of Pericles—all will be replaced by a dark cloud and controlling message: we are all filthy sinners and nothing can be done about that fact unless we allow Jesus to save us. He will take the sins off our sagging shoulders.

Pagans, sinners, and non-Christians (no matter what type of lives they have lived) will all go to Hell.

Dante will illustrate this place in 1302 C.E.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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26 Responses to The Sins of the Flesh

  1. lichanos says:

    …will be replaced by a dark cloud and controlling message: we are all filthy sinners and nothing can be done about that fact unless we allow Jesus to save us.

    Speaking as an atheist raised as a Jew, I have to say you’re way too hard on the Middle Ages here. Don’t let’s revive that Dark Ages nonsense.

    Besides, Saint A. was confessing for a reason – he wanted to convert. Exaggeration of one’s past ‘sins’ and the suddeness of redemption are useful progapanda tools.

    The only part of his Confessions I recall, besides the pear tree bit, is his bit on good and evil. Or was that from elsewhere. And doesn’t the Confessions begin with a meditation on time? Really, give him a break.

    • Cheri says:

      Since I am studying literature written from 400-1100 in this five week segment, why not revive it?

      Yes, his desire to understand evil let him to the Manichean philosophy ( Mani from Persia). He adhered to their beliefs until he began to study the neoplatonists.

      He was (as Zeus says below) a highly educated good man who admired St. Paul, greatly.

      Many of his thoughts come from Romans and Corinthians; many from the psalms, which he used to augment his beliefs.

      Not sure what you mean by nonsense.

      • lichanos says:

        Not sure what you mean by nonsense.

        I’m a big fan of the Middle Ages, aka The Dark Ages, but historians all agree that “Dark” only applies to a relatively small period of the Middle Ages, i.e., maybe 600-800.

        Maybe this is old news today, but as a kid, I was much aggrieved by the bad press the medieval period got. I loved castles, monks, the pope, the whole deal. Weird…yes, I know, but there it is.

      • Cheri says:

        I love all those things too and finished reading a monumental book on the Middle Ages from 400-1200 last week. ( See my Reading List for the title).

        My comments about A were in no way to sully that time in history–just my own short reaction after finishing the Confessions.

  2. You may be oversimplifying Augustine’s life. If I recall he got in trouble with Rome for being too liberal and too pagan in his meditations. As Lichanos says:”Give him a break.”

    • Cheri says:

      I agree! And you are correct in your recollection.

      Welcome to the blog, Paul!

      And as to oversimplifying Augustine’s life, yes, about 450 words or so is pithy compared to the 90-110 tracts he wrote.

      The short essay above is my take on the Confessions in general. Clearly, the Confessions were probably the most important piece of Christian writing for 1000 years. They should be read in order to understand the historical period.

  3. zeusiswatching says:

    St. Augustine wrote as a theologian and philosopher with the training of a lawyer, and that sometimes got him into trouble. He takes things to logical extremes and many who took the man’s ideas to heart took them even further (original sin and predestination being just two examples, and his clearly deficient view of human sexuality being another). Still “Confessions” (and “City of God”) is a monumental work by an incredible heart and mind that should be seen as only one soul in a consensus of Patristic thinkers.

    The best way to approach him, and many Christians still don’t, is in the context of a much wider Romano-Hellenic Christianity and culture that was evolving with real centers of thought, both pagan and Christian in Alexandria and the cities of the Levant — Jerusalem and Antioch especially.

    Another Latin writer of his Era that you might really enjoy is Boethius. Also strongly influenced in his thoughts by neo-platonist learning, he writes from a very different perspective and I was deeply moved by his “Consolations of Philosophy” in an older Penguin translation I found at a library book fare.

    • Cheri says:

      Welcome to the blog, Zeus!

      Still “Confessions” (and “City of God”) is a monumental work by an incredible heart and mind that should be seen as only one soul in a consensus of Patristic thinkers.

      Lovely statement of truth!

      In my graduate class, we are studying him (and others) in the context of the times–historical, artistic,religious, political, sexual.

      And when I have time, I will check out Boethius’ Consolations…

      Intriguing title.

      • lichanos says:

        Sorry to be a nit picker, but it’s The Consolation of Philosophy. It makes a slight difference, because the work has a dramatic beginning in which Philosophy suddenly appears, and consoles poor B. So, the title refers to this actual (fictional) event, not a list of propositions, etc.

        I just re-read this a few months ago, and the drama of it impressed me, thus my cavilling.

        Visit here if you like:

      • zeusiswatching says:

        My bad! lichanos is right about the title and why it is the title. Slap me for the goof.

        I remember my days in college very fondly, but I also remember what a joy it was to finish and then dive into books I hadn’t the time to read while in school.

  4. Phil says:

    Many years ago I bought “The Confessions of St Augustine”. I have yet to read it, and now, after reading your summary, I no longer feel I have to read it.

    You’ve saved me much time.

    For this, I thank you.

    • Cheri says:

      Based on the immediate reaction after my post, perhaps you might want to read it, so you can chime in (or at least add it as a literary reference to use in your short stories…)

  5. Douglas says:

    Cheri’s Notes – a much terser version of Cliff’s Notes.

  6. andreaskluth says:

    1) They call Augustine a “Neo-Platonist”. Since you know Plato and now Augustine, do you have any ideas what that might mean?

    2) The way you’ve outlined The Confessions, it seems that they were at or near the beginning of what Nietzsche considered the “slave rebellion” that inverted values, calling certain things (the “flesh”) and setting us off toward masochistic perversion. Correctly interpreted?

    3) Interesting contrast: Casanova, whose memoirs I recently read, also “confessed” all his digressions. But boy, what a different attitude and conclusion.

    • lichanos says:

      Neo-Platonists interpreted and integrated Plato’s work with Christianity. Starting with the early Christian era, and going on and off, through to the Renaissance, maybe beyond. If you were interested in the task, bending Plato’s notions of Idea with the Trinity, etc., offered many hooks for endless commentary.

      Nietzche…I’ve said way too much about him here and elsewhere…

      Casanova titled his memoirs, History of My Life – no intent at confession there! He was just telling the story of his adventures – no intent to convert anyone.

    • Cheri says:

      1) The way I understand neoplatonism is to think of Plato’s idea of the perfect form, unable to be seen through human eyes, yet visible when the soul leaves the body. The perfect flower we will never see here. This Platonic vision made the notions of good and the absence of good (evil) understandable to the rational mind.

      2) Absolutely. A complete denunciation of so much that was valued in the Classical World. Time to feel guilty, sinful, and shameful for all things worldly. This hellish suffocation of the human spirit would elevate popes and kings, who ironically, were enjoying much of the flesh.
      Fascinating digression of creativity and wonder.

  7. andreaskluth says:

    Missing word after “calling certain things”: “base”

    • Phil says:

      ……..Missing word after “calling certain things”: “base”………

      Ah, there’s nothing like reading out aloud – even in a preternaturally loud voice – before pressing the “submit” button, all which one has just written in a comment, the better to ensure that one hasn’t left out anything.

      For what it’s worth, I can write something and read it over ten times silently, and still won’t detect words missed, or even significant parts of sentences left out, or won’t detect words repeated, thus showing that the mind creates only what it expects to find.

      Having just written this, I will now read it over aloud. Even then, no doubt I’ll still see something egregiously wrong after pressing “submit”…………

      If only WordPress had the “preview” feature for comments, as does Blogger.

  8. Man of Roma says:

    Brava Cheri for bringing to the attention such theme. I have flu but how can I resist (temptation) 😉

    I’ll leave philosophy alone, and consider only some historical facts (with some opinions of mine).

    What happened from the time the Roman Empire turned into a Christian Roman Empire onwards? I mean, why one of the big joys of life, sex, turned into something LEWD? – possibly more a Christian than a Jewish thing, Lichanos, the Old testament being a bit like Kamasutra here and there.

    To Augustinus sexual intercourse was disgusting. To the rest of the fathers, if I’m not wrong, celibacy was to be preferred to marriage (I wonder why). And the great Origen from Alexandria, a very influential church father in the east of the Med especially, brought this concept to its extreme (and logical) consequences: he CASTRATED himself. Very Greek-like, or so at least seems to me.

    As far as I can tell, Augustinus is the main culprit, I may be wrong. All Fathers of the Church (Tertullianus, Jerom, Augustinus, Paulus, Origen – I might miss some) were affected by sex phobia, no doubt, a reaction to the excesses of the previous centuries, possibly. This is known, we have the texts and all.

    To me much more interesting is trying to understand WHY people were so silly to let these guys & their unnatural views on sex monopolize the entire culture so as to influence their private lives for so long, at least up to Petrarch’s time (even Dante was already mild with sexual sin, the least grave in its Commedia, and confessed himself a ‘lussurioso’).

    After Humanism and the Renaissance – Reformation gave a bit of a blow to this liberation process imo – this moronic view on sex popped up now and then again, if it is true the Victorians – sons of the Reformation btw – considered love deprived of passion the only acceptable, pure form of love.

    • lichanos says:

      Sorry to hear of your flu, but I must annoy you with a disagreement. Once again, I find myself defending an era against unreasonable categorizations:

      if it is true the Victorians – sons of the Reformation btw – considered love deprived of passion the only acceptable, pure form of love.

      Who are the Victorians? Let’s not confuse the people who lived under her reign with a few, mentally odd individuals, like John Ruskin, brilliant though he was, who didn’t feel comfortable with sex. As Peter Gay wrote often, the Victorians didn’t deny sex or really dislike it; they just thought it wasn’t proper to talk about it publicly. Living in an age of reality TV, I sort of think they were on to something there.

      There are many Victorian artists whose work is filled with luscious sensuality, and reading journals and letters of the time, it is clear that people had a pretty healthy appreciation of sex. Public scolds and pruitan crusaders didn’t speak for them, just as they don’t today.

      It was a more formal, restrained age, true, but hardly puritan or ‘patristic’ in its outlook.

      • Man of Roma says:

        Ah, generalizations again, we’ve discussed it ad nauseam! My dear blog bud, ‘Victorianism’, ‘Victorian morality’ are terms of all encyclopaedias which agree ‘Victorianism’ was stern, repressed, prudish as for sex.

        They also agree Victorianism not only refers to odd intellectuals but to entire societies, such as Great Britain (but also America) and much of the colonies of the British empire.

        India is an interesting case of Victorian survivals not only in their delightful English choice of words. Amazing how only on Jul,2, 2009 the Indian High Court has finally decriminalized homosexuality, finding that the (in)famous Victorian Section 377 of the Indian penal code “went against the Indian tradition”, much freer in matters of sex.

        Such section punished “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” with imprisonment up to life. In short, it punished same-sex love (bestiality being a minor detail).

        I have written *a post on this* which kicked off a good debate with the Indians.

        Thus being said, I admire the Victorians quite a lot. And I also adore their chief bard musician, Sir Edward Elgar, whose music to me explains in ways impossible to words the quintessence of what is Victorian.

  9. Man of Roma says:


    “We are all filthy sinners” you wrote Cheri.

    Sin as a concept is not totally wrong. Societies need rules, discipline. But focusing the sin concept on sex and heresy only was a big mistake. As for sex, since we cannot live without it, yes, we all are ‘filthy sinners’.
    Unless there’s some bits of paganism surviving in our souls 😉

    Sorry for the lengthy comments.

  10. Cheri says:

    While I slept, you gentlemen debated. Erudite, you both.

    Sorry to hear of your flu MoR! Be well. What is the equivalent of chicken soup in Italy?

    I may be wrong, but I see two book ends for the Middle Ages: Confessions and Commedia. And in between?

  11. Man of Roma says:

    I see two book ends for the Middle Ages: Confessions and Commedia. And in between?

    Interesting observation, but hard for me to say. I’m not into the Middle Ages that much, apart from a few masterpieces. Maybe Lichanos.

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