Both Augustine and Rousseau wrote books by the same name, Confessions, wherein they delineate their life’s story, exposing their corruptions for all the world to see (if they wish). While there exists a debate on whether Rousseau wrote his Confessions in response to Augustine, even if Rousseau knew nothing of Augustine, it is still worthwhile to compare – better yet, contrast – these works, if for no other reason than the nature of their confessions – what they confess and to whom – reveals their fundamental differences of thought on God and man.
Confessing to Whom?
It makes most sense to begin with the recipient(s) of their confessions for the simple reason that both men begin here. Augustine opens his Confessions with a praise to God and then states the famous line, “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (3, 1.1). Augustine therefore addresses his confessions to God, the one by whom and for whom man is made. The fact that Augustine speaks of man generally is also significant. He goes on to say that God has “given mankind the capacity to understand oneself by analogy with others” (8, 1.10). He therefore sees himself as a man among men, alike in nature and need.
Rousseau begins his Confessions with “I want to show my fellow-men a man in all the truth of nature; and this man is to be myself.” He immediately follows this up with, “Myself alone. I feel my heart and I know men. I am not made like any that I have seen; I venture to believe that I was not made like any that exist” (5). Rousseau therefore brings his confessions before his fellow men, but he does so as one unique among them, placing an emphasis on the sentiments of his own heart.
Generally speaking, Augustine views himself in the context of man (anthropology) in relation to God (theology). Rousseau views himself in the context of himself (psychology) in relation to his fellow men (sociology). This is a striking contrast that is immediately apparent in their writings.
As can be expected, Augustine’s confessions are deeply religious. In short, he confesses his dependency on God – “Accordingly, my God, I would have no being, I would not have any existence, unless you were in me” (4, 1.2) – and his sins, even from youth – “Lord my God, I sinned by not doing as I was told by my parents and teachers” (12, 1.16).
Rousseau’s confessions, on the other hand, while including the sense of wrongdoing or vice, are largely psychological in nature. Unlike Augustine, Rousseau is fundamentally interested in communicating to his readers the emotions – desire, fear, shame, anger, etc. – that he felt during the events of his life. Whereas Augustine takes full blame for the sins he has committed, Rousseau tends to focus on the wrongs done to him, as well as his environment, as the reasons for his committed faults.
This is evident in Rousseau’s confession on stealing the asparagus. He did it on the behalf of a superior co-worker, M. Verrat, who pressured him into it through flattery. Rousseau concludes, “So it is among every condition of men: the guilty and powerful save themselves at the expense of the innocent and weak” (32), with Rousseau being the innocent and weak in this case. As Rousseau sees it, his motivation was good, being a desire to help M. Verrat, and therefore he is truly innocent in the matter. This understanding is equally employed in the accounts of his stealing apples and his master’s tools. Regarding the latter, he notes: “These thefts were, when it came down to it, quite innocent, since everything I acquired through them was used in his service” (34). Lam remarks, “The injustice of the rule [i.e. not being allowed to use the tools] made him take the initiative to steal” (107). In other words, Rousseau sees himself as being restricted and enslaved by outside forces pressuring him to steal.
On Man and God
Trueman notes Rousseau’s assessment of his thefts as important for understanding his view of man’s inherent nature. For Rousseau, corruption is “something that is created and fostered by social conditions and not something to be considered innate” (Trueman 109). This is because Rousseau believes man to be basically good, corruptions arising from the outside pressures of society. Man must therefore free himself from society’s restrictions, lest he remain a slave. In noting the strong similarities between Rousseau’s theft of asparagus and Augustine’s famous account of his theft of pears, Trueman draws out the contrast in their self-assessments: “For Augustine, the moral flaw is ultimately intrinsic to him…. For Rousseau, by way of contrast, his natural humanity is fundamentally sound, and the sinful act comes from social pressures and conditioning” (111). If only Rousseau didn’t have these strictures placed upon him, then the desire to steal would be nonexistent, for he would never be in need.
This has further implications for man’s relationship to God. As Cooper puts it, for Rousseau, “the entire spiritual universe is internalized,” and the reconciliation is seen “not between man and God but between man and himself” (Cooper 473). Rousseau’s recollections therefore take the form of self-justification, as if laying out the good and bad of his life will allow him to stand before “the Supreme Judge” because of his “sincerity” (Rousseau 5). Because of this sincerity, Rousseau can know himself as God knows him, so he thinks, and can therefore judge of his own goodness. “Thus, sincerity, like divine truth, becomes the criterion for the judgment of man” (Lam 14). Indeed, Rousseau even concludes his Confessions with the statement that a person who thinks of him as dishonourable, without having read his writings, “ought to be choked” (642). The implication being that one would not think him dishonorable if they only read his writings, which show his inner sincerity, thus demonstrating his basic goodness and the corrupting influence of society.
Differing significantly again, Augustine brings to memory his past corruptions, not as a means of demonstrating his basic goodness, but in order that he may love God all the more, for God has shown grace to him by loving him despite his sins: “I intend to remind myself of my past foulnesses and carnal corruptions, not because I love them but so that I may love you, my God. It is from love of your love that I make the act of recollection” (24, 2.1). Again, for Rousseau, the recollections of his sincerities — something within him — are a means of making God and his fellow men love him, whereas Augustine roots God’s love in grace.
So, we have two very different men doing the same thing from strikingly different perspectives. Augustine fundamentally sees himself before the eyes of God and accountable to him for his sins, finding rest in God’s grace. Further, he is representative of mankind, all being of the same fallen nature and having the same spiritual needs. Rousseau fundamentally sees himself before his fellow men and accountable to himself, or accountable to God but justified by his sincerity (his heart). He is unique among mankind, for his heart and feelings are his own.
Augustine. Confessions. Oxford University Press. 2009.
Cooper, Laurence D. “Nearer My True Self to Thee: Rousseau’s New Spirituality–and Ours.” The Review of Politics, vol. 74, no. 3, 2012, pp. 465-488. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/nearer-my-true-self-thee-rousseaus-new/docview/1023784906/se-2?accountid=8289, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0034670512000526.
Lam, W. K. A. (2009). The Natural Goodness of Man in Rousseau’s Confessions: A Reply To Augustine’s Confessions (Order No. 3352429). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304831236). Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/natural-goodness-man-rousseaus-confessions-reply/docview/304831236/se-2?accountid=8289
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Confessions. NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Trueman, Carl. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. IL: Crossway, 2020.
 The first number in the reference refers to the page number of the book, followed by the book and section number in Augustine’s work.