Saint Augustine
The Confessions
This work, written at the close of the fourth century, is often
considered as the first notable autobiography in Western
literature.  But the lasting appeal of this book is due less to its
precedence than to its depth and honesty.  Tales of eventful
lives had fascinated audiences long before the dawn of written
literature.  The oral tradition had previously celebrated the
exploits of heroes, telling of their successes and triumphs.  But
Augustine's work is a true confession, a baring of the soul, and
as such it probes into psychological realms typically untouched
by ancient literature.  

Yes, there is a triumphal ending, but the author himself is the
vanquished party, his worldly self sacrificed in order to cultivate
his spiritual being.  Along the way, the reader gains insight into
philosophical and theological currents of the time, as Augustine
falls under the spells of Aristotle and Manichaeism before his
conversion to Catholicism at age thirty-two.  Augustine also
develops his ideas on many concepts, such as time and
memory, or tackles metaphysical problems relating to the Trinity
and divinity.  But this work is cherished less for its ideas than
for its intimate portrait of a thinking, feeling man living in a time
of upheaval.   As such it sets the standard for later memoirs,
achieving an influence matched perhaps only by
Rousseau's
equally candid Confessions.  

The confessional tone has been around for a long time, but
mostly as a private affair.  The idea of baring one's soul in a
book is a distinctly modern notion, and still one that inspires
mixed responses.  When Rousseau told all of the seamier
details of his life, some were no doubt inspired by the raw
honesty, but I suspect even more were muttering to
themselves: "Why is he telling me all this?"  Usually it's the guy
next to you at the bar who starts laying out his dirty linen (and
only after the third drink), but a great philosopher?

But long before "confessional" became an adjective applied to
poetry and novels, the Catholic Church had institutionalized it
as a place, a requirement, even a
sacrament.   Perhaps, as
Foucault has suggested, we have a compulsion to confess, and
that the elimination of the sacred of society has given rise to
the psychiatrists and counsellors and other keepers of the
secular confessional.  But all later masters of tell-all, whether
following Freud, Rousseau, Plath or just the gossip columns,
owe their impetus to Augustine and his magisterial
Confessions.
 

Here we find it all:  the psychological penetration (at a rare
level given the concepts and precedents of the times), the
theology, the historical details, and, above all, the
heartwarming story of a bad boy who turns his life around.  In
short, this work is many things:  narrative and theory combined,
abstract and concrete laid side by side.  It is a rare book, one
that is a powerful echo from the past, but with a very
contemporary flavor.