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Reflections on the Life of Augustine10 min read

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1. Thagaste: The Childhood of Augustine

One of the most important influences on any human being is the character and quality of their parents and childhood experience. As the child of a fairly well-to-do Italian family in a northern-African outpost of the Roman Empire, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) was privileged to get an education as a Roman citizen. His father worked hard to secure this education but was a pagan and a regular drinker who probably exhibited many of the negative characteristics of a father with such habits (Strathern, 1997, p. 12).

In contrast, Augustine’s mother Monica seemed a devout Catholic and held a prominent influence, if not control with Augustine for his entire life. It would almost appear that her influence and desire to be with Augustine bordered on codependence, though that remains to be proven. These two personalities likely combined to provide the ambition and ideological framework to motivate an intelligent Augustine into academics, and into his teens and 20’s with an acutely active, if not scrupulous conscience and preoccupation with sex and sexual sin (Sinclair, 2013).

2. Carthage: The Profligate Youth of Augustine

It is not clear if Augustine’s youth was any more profligate than others of his time or age, but his conscience may have tormented him even before his conversion due to his mother’s influence. The acquisition of a concubine that he came to love seemed both a joy and a trap to him, and certainly to his mother who attempted to get him to marry an heiress to progress his vocation.

We must also consider the ideological milieu during his initial ventures into intellectual studies. The two main philosophies of the time were Stoicism and Epicureanism. The former was cynical and ascetic, promoting virtue as the road to satisfaction (“happiness”), while the Epicureans emphasized enjoying simple pleasures and avoiding pain, especially that of excess pleasure or ambition. The Romans reinterpreted Epicureanism into a hedonistic enjoyment and excess of pleasures. Along with a strong Roman Catholicism that was largely Donatist (Levering, 2013, p. xv), these ideologies created the background in which he began his thinking.

Of course, it was the Stoic Cicero who inspired him to dig deeply into philosophy and wisdom seeking, which for Augustine  began with the Bible. However, his discontent with the God of the Old Testament, and bible stories of “immoral men” led him on a search as he began his schooling in Carthage.

3. Carthage: Ambitions, Friends, and Gnosticism

North African culture was strongly Roman, and Christianity there had become “lawyerly, hard-headed and relentless” (Brown, 2000, p. 11). This culture created talented orators whose value was often measured in the power of their rhetoric, meter, and rhyme. However, this narrow and stern Christianity was off-putting to the intelligent and ambitious Augustine, though he loved being rewarded with adulation for excellent turns of phrase. It is here that Augustine understandably fell into the life of the public intellectual – freedom to study, admiration in popular speaking, enjoyment of the fellowship of other students, the theater, and of course, finding a concubine to address the sexual urges of young manhood.

However, Augustine’s desire to find the wisdom Cicero spoke of was eluding him in the classical education and Christianity he was experiencing, and he soon fell in with the followers of Mani, a Persian religious leader of the Manicheans who were a quasi-Christian gnostic cult that promised both wisdom and practical tools for spiritual awakening.

These promised to answer Augustine’s deep spiritual questions. They agreed with his low view of the Old Testament and gave him a doctrinal system in which to deny it. Since Manichaeism was illegal and later to be persecuted by the Romans and Roman Church, it may have appealed to the rebellion of youth still in Augustine, not in part driven by his conscience.

Again, however, Augustine eventually became disenchanted, because Manichaeism seemed to fail intellectually.  Augustine spent time with Manichaeism‘s primary teacher, the Manichean Bishop Faustus, but Faustus was not a trained intellectual, though he did display the kindness and character of a man dedicated to reforming Christianity with devotion and monasticism. Faustus could not quell Augustine’s concerns regarding the faults of Manichaeism.

The faults with which Augustine was primarily concerned were twofold. First, Manichaeism taught a one-time enlightenment and liberation from our dark side, followed by a “simple” dedication to its prescribed disciplines. Not only was this simplistic and superficial, its lack of understanding of the search for wisdom as a lifelong pursuit, a truth Augustine learned from the neo-Platonism of Plotinus, seemed false to Augustine.

Second, Manichaeism condemned the combined Astronomy/Astrology of the day, but Augustine had come to learn that astronomy was a powerful science. He later learned from an unnamed medical doctor that astrology was different from astronomy, and he rejected it, mainly on the objection that twins born at the same time usually have different fates but identical predictions according to their astrological charts (Augustine, 2018, p. 79; Brown, 2000, p. 47).

4. Rome and Milan: Ambrose

With the doctrine of Neo-Platonism’s “One” (God) in his head, the death of a dear friend shaking his emotional and intellectual foundations, his disenchantment with the shortcomings of Manichaeism, the loss of his beloved concubine (banished back to her home country so that Augustine could be engaged to a woman of society), and his doctrinal wrestling over the problem of evil, Augustine arrived in Rome largely beaten.

There, he came into contact with the great Christian orator and Bishop Ambrose, who taught him many powerful truths. First, that Christianity had intellectual depth, including the idea that the Old Testament should not be read merely literally, but also metaphorically. Additionally, he was not above incorporating the general truths of pagan philosophy into his Biblical framework.

Second, Ambrose defended Christianity well against the criticisms of the Manicheans, teaching also that evil was not outside of us as some substance, but inside of us as something spiritual and immaterial. This helped answer Augustine’s struggles over the problem of evil.

Lastly, Ambrose was courageous. Not only did he condemn the Roman pantheon of gods as demons, he stood up to the Roman Emperor and his armies in an incident that could have seen him murdered by the armies of Rome.

The insufficiencies of Manichaeism, the brilliant apologies, exposition, and courage of Ambrose, combined with the ongoing pressure of his mother’s presence and prayers finally drove Augustine to his knees in crisis, during which time he was converted by the letters of Saint Paul in a subjective roulette-style reading urged on by a neighboring child saying “take and read.” Augustine’s random reading in Romans 13:13-14 convinced him to forego marriage and sex altogether and devote himself to the God of Christ.

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:13-14 ESV)

5. Hippo: Fighting Heretics

From his baptism as a Christian onward he began to write, mostly in response to the heresies of the day. He began with the cult he had left, addressing his writing to the kindly Faustus (Augustine & Overett, 2018). As a public orator, he was also expected to address the concerns of the day, and as Bishop of the Church in Hippo, that meant addressing the primary heresies of the time, meaning Donatism, Pelagianism, and anti-trinitarianism. He addressed these in Homilies on the First Epistle of John, On the Predestination of the Saints, and On the Trinity respectively.

As Augustine approached old age, it was obvious that the Roman empire was temporal and passing from power, being replaced by Byzantium in the east, and later overrun by both the Visigoths and the Vandals in the west. In response, Augustine outlined the difference between the temporary and cruel Pax Romana and the peace of the coming City of God. Lastly, and towards the end of his life, he penned his autobiographical Confessions.

6. Epilogue: Reflection on the life of Augustine

There is much to appreciate about the life and teachings of Augustine. I relate to being young and ambitious for both career and spiritual truth. I myself ended up in a cultlike unhealthy Christian organization in my early 20’s, drawn by both its devotion and boldness.

Like Augustine, I struggled with its great limitations, passing into a valley of doubt and questioning, eventually returning to a healthy and largely orthodox Christianity. I also appreciate his broad thinking and conjecturing around philosophical and theological problems. In his case, he invented some seminal thinking around existence, anticipating Descartes’ cogito ergo sum in Soliloquies eleven centuries before Descartes (Strathern, 1997, p. 28), as well as the idea that God exists outside of time (Augustine, 2018, Chapter 11).

I enjoyed his Confessions, though for varying reasons. His scrupulous conscience concerning his sinfulness in infanthood, childhood, and youth was a bit overwrought to the point of humor, though they did reflect his deep contrition and acknowledgment of the depths of sin, his own sin included. His passages of Socratic questioning followed by free conjecturing were pleasant philosophical romps not unlike how I think in trying to solve problems often locked in or obscured by orthodox or uncharted waters. Altogether, I find Augustine’s story invigorating, though I don’t necessarily find is theology and philosophy well developed, and often, it seemed poorly formed and nonsensical, such as his discussion of the tripartite image of God in man and his resulting anthropology. But his seminal work is fun and impressive.

7. References

Augustine. (2018). Confessions (S. Ruden, Trans.). The Modern Library.

Augustine, S., & Overett, A. M. (2018). Reply to Faustus the Manichaean (R. Stothert, Trans.). Lighthouse Publishing.

Brown, P. (2000). Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (45th Anniversary). University of California Press.

Levering, M. (2013). Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide To His Most Important Works. Baker Academic.

Sinclair, D. (2013, October). SERIES: Scrupulosity. Whole Reason.

Strathern, P. (1997). St. Augustine in 90 Minutes. Ivan R. Dee.