The facts of Augustine’s early life are well-known, because he wrote them down in his Confessions, one of the most famous of his books. Augustine was born on November 13, 354, the son—perhaps the eldest; we know of a brother Navigius and a sister—of a pagan father, Patricius, and Christian mother, Monica. The fourth century was an age of mixed marriages at this level of society, in which devout Christian women like Monica were often to be found praying for the conversion of their irreligious husbands. Her prayers were not unavailing; Patricius accepted baptism on his deathbed. Patricius was a municipal official and small property-holder at Thagaste in Numidia. Aspiring to better his lower middle-class family, Patricius sacrificed in order to give his son the sort of liberal education that would lead him into an honoured position in Roman society.
Augustine thus studied first at Thagaste, and afterwards at Carthage, where he went to university in 371 at the age of 17. He was to remain there until 383. His father, who became a believer late in life, seems to have had little influence on his son. On the other hand, his mother Monica was a devout Christian, one whose prayers were used of God to bring her son to Christ.
Before he left for Carthage, Monica warned him earnestly not to engage in fornication and above all never to contemplate committing the sin of adultery. But, Augustine said, “I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust… My real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul. I was not aware of this hunger.”
Given a love for wisdom
In his first year at Carthage Augustine led what many might regard as a typical life of a student: enjoying the bawdy theatre of the day, using sex in search of love, consorting with a group called the Eversores—“the Smashers.” Within two years all had changed though. He had taken a concubine to live with—this arrangement was not regarded as scandalous by pagan Roman society, since many pagans of the upper and middle classes would have such an arrangement with a social inferior until the complicated arrangements for a financially advantageous match with some girl of their own class could be made. He had a son by her—Adeodatus (“Gift from God”). And he had been smitten by a desire to find the truth after reading the dialogue Hortensius by Cicero. This book, since lost and known only from fragments quoted by Augustine and other ancient writers, was a protreptic, that is, a treatise designed to inspire in the reader an enthusiasm for the discipline of philosophy. Through all his other vagaries of interest and allegiance, until the time of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity Cicero would remain the one master from whom the young African learned the most in terms of literary style.
Seeking for wisdom and truth, Augustine fell prey to a cult called Manichaeism. Founded by a Persian named Mani (216-276), who claimed that the Holy Spirit had come upon him in such a way as to reveal hidden mysteries to him and with the result that Mani was wholly united with the Spirit. The end result? Mani was the promised Paraclete of John 14-16 and the Holy Spirit spoke through him.
The views promoted by the Manichaens familiar to Augustine were very similar to Gnosticism—combining a radical cosmological dualism with ascetic practices. Little fragments of God were scattered throughout the universe, in both animals and plants, a result of the war between good and evil. Melons and cucumbers were considered to contain a particularly large amount of divinity, and were therefore prominent in the Manichaean diet. Mani, moreover, regarded the lower half of the body as the disgusting work of the devil, and thus viewed sexuality as the devil’s invention. Celibacy was encouraged, and having children frowned upon.
Augustine was a member of this cult for roughly 9 years, from 372 to 383. Augustine was too brilliant to settle for such vacuous theology for long. His most poignant moment of disillusion is recounted in the Confessions, when he finally met Faustus, the Manichee sage who would (Augustine had been promised) finally answer all the questions that troubled Augustine. When the man finally turned up, he proved to be half-educated and incapable of more than reciting a more complex set of slogans than his local disciples had known.
The impact of Ambrose’s witness
In 383, at the age of 28, Augustine moved to Rome to reach the apex of his career ambitions. Rome of the fourth century was no longer a city with political or military significance for the Roman empire, but nobody at the time dared say such a thing.
Augustine was seeking academic prestige, the emptiest of glories. But in Rome everything went wrong: his health began to suffer, his students would not pay their fees, and soon he became quite discouraged. Finally, hearing of a professorship in Milan he moved to northern Italy in 384 and rented a home belonging to a man named Verecundus. There his mother Monica joined him along with his common-law wife (whom he never names), Adeodatus, his brother Navigius, and two life-long African friends, Alypius and Evodius.
At the same time he started to go back to church. The pastor of the congregation with whom he was worshipping was Ambrose (c.340-397), the bishop of Milan and a famous preacher. Augustine found in Ambrose a man whose piety was fused with an intellect matching his own. Here Christianity began to appear to him in a new, intellectually acceptable light.
Slowly God began to bring conviction regarding his sinful ways into his heart. Describing Ambrose’s preaching, Augustine says this: “I was all ears to seize upon his eloquence, I also began to sense the truth of what he said, though only gradually. …I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you…and, far off, I heard your voice saying I am the God who IS.”
This experience, though, was not yet what we would call conversion. In Augustine’s own words: “I was astonished that although I now loved you…I did not persist in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I plunged again into the things of this world.”
Wrestling with sin
The central thing in what Augustine calls “the things of this world: was his relationship with his concubine/common-law wife. Now, Monica, his mother, had come to Milan with the express purpose of persuading her son to give this woman up and preparing for a proper marriage with a well-to-do Christian woman. Augustine gave in to his mother’s sinful suggestion and sent his concubine of fifteen years back to Africa. “The woman with whom I had been living,” Augustine later wrote in his Confessions, “was torn from my side as an obstacle to my marriage and this was a blow which crushed my heart to bleeding, because I loved her dearly. She went back to Africa, vowing never to give herself to any other man. …But I was too unhappy and too weak to imitate this example set me… I took another mistress, without the sanction of wedlock.”
This is the immediate background to Augustine’s conversion in 386. One day in August of that year, while Augustine was labouring under deep conviction of sin, a fellow North African, Ponticianus, came to see him. In his Confessions 8.6-12 he tells the story of what transpired that day as God converted him to himself (Confessions 8.12). It really needs to be read entire, for no adequate summary can do it justice.
In the spring of 387, at the Easter vigil service on the night of Holy Saturday, Augustine was baptized by Ambrose. Many people at that time, when Christianity was the fashionable road to success in the Christian empire, may have taken such a step casually and returned to their old ways, but Augustine was not one of them.
Presbyter and bishop
That autumn Monica died at Ostia, rejoicing in the knowledge that her son was safe in Christ. In 388 Augustine made his way back to Africa, hoping to establish a kind of philosophical monastery for himself and his friends at Thagaste.
But God had quite different plans. When, in 391, he was visiting the coastal town of Hippo Regius, some 150 miles from Thagaste, he was grabbed by the congregation and ordained as elder/presbyter. In a sermon that he preached in the city much later, Augustine recalled this important event:
“A slave may not contradict his Lord. I came to this city to see a friend, whom I thought I might gain for God, that he might live with us in the monastery. I felt secure, for the place already had a bishop. I was grabbed. I was made an elder…and from there, I became your bishop.”
He broke into tears as they laid hands on him in the church and his calling became clear. Agustine asked his new bishop, Valerius, for a little time to prepare himself for his duties. Now, he devoted himself to the mastery of Scripture that made him a formidable theologian in the decades to come. His abilities were quickly recognized, and by 393 he was being asked to preach sermons in place of his bishop, who was a Greek speaker by birth. The old man died in 395 and Augustine assumed responsibility for the church at Hippo the following year. He would remain at this post until his death thirty-four years later.
Augustine the author
Conventional accounts sketch Augustine’s career in terms of the controversies in which he took part. But at the centre of his ministry was daily preaching; presiding at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; the leadership of elders and other clergy in Hippo; extensive travel in North Africa to minister to Christians and debate with heretics; copious correspondence with Christians throughout the Empire; and a life-time of writing and commenting on Scripture. He produced the largest corpus to survive of any ancient author. This corpus was catalogued a few years before Augustine’s death by Augustine himself in his Retractiones, best translated Reconsiderations. As Otto Bird has noted: “Augustine was…a very bookish person. Reading and writing meant a great deal to him. [“Saint Augustine on Reading”, The Great Ideas Today (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1988), 135].
Of his vast amount of books, three are central to understanding his thought and the impact of that thought upon the history of the West: the Confessions (397-401), the City of God (413-426) and On the Trinity (399-419). Outside of Scripture, the books of no other figure had a greater impact on Christian thought down to the time of the Reformation than Augustine. It can be said of him with regard to the realm of theology what Cassius says of Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar: “he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs” [Julius Caesar Act I, Scene 2, lines 135-137].
Augustine died on 28 August, 430, with the city of Hippo Regius being besieged by a Germanic people known as the Vandals, who were originally from the region of the Baltic Sea. We are thankful to God that they did not destroy the greatest North African theologian’s library in their sack of the city.