Biography of Augustine

Augustine was a Christian theologian who lived over one and a half thousand years ago.  He was born in 354 CE in a town named Thagaste which is in present day Algeria (North Africa).

We know a lot about Augustine's life because he wrote an autobiographical book Confessions which recounted his spiritual journey.  However, it is important to remember that in Confessions he was trying to present his life in a certain way.  In other words, it is not a purely neutral account but has a spiritual (and perhaps a pastoral) agenda.  

'I was brought back home while my father, a modest citizen of Thagaste whose determination was greater than his means, saved up enough money to send me farther afield to Carthage.'

Confession Book II Chapter 3

Augustine was born to a Christian mother (Monica) and a pagan father (Patricius). His family was reasonably well off and the young Augustine received a good classical education in his home town.  He was apparently a gifted student although he disliked Greek and never managed to master it.

When Augustine was sixteen his parents decided to send him to university in Carthage.  Although they were comfortably-off they had to save up for a year before hand.  During that year Augustine apparently led a wild lifestyle and behaved in ways which he later came to regret.

'I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.'

Confessions Book III Chapter 1

When he did go to university he found that the city of Carthage was itself a hotbed of temptation!  It was there he met a woman who was to become his concubine for nine years.  He seems not to have been able to marry her (she may have been an ex-slave which would have made the marriage socially unsuitable) but he appears to have loved her.  He called her 'the one' in his book Confessions and was distraught when she was sent away.  Their relationship lasted thirteen years and led to the birth of a son.

'In those days I lived with a woman, not my lawful wedded wife but a mistress whom I had chosen for no special reason but that my restless passions had alighted on her.  But she was the only one and I was faithful to her.  Living with her I found out by my own experience the difference between the restraint of the marriage alliance, contracted for the purpose of having children and a bargain struck for lust, in which the birth of children is begrudged, although, if they come, we cannot help but love them.'

Confessions Book IV Chapter 1

It was also whilst he was at Carthage that Augustine became involved in the Manichaean sect.  Manichaeanism was a belief system founded by a Persian prophet named Mani ('the Illuminator') who believed that he was the latest in a line of prophets including Buddha and Jesus.  Mani taught that the evil in the world exists because there is a cosmic struggle between equal forces of light and dark, good and evil. According to Manichee teaching the soul is a creature of light and is trapped in the dark and evil physical world.  The Manichees presented themselves as an intellectual version of Christianity and they believed that the soul could become perfect through the exercise of reason.  Full Manichee members were expected to lead austere lives avoiding the pleasures of the flesh (i.e. be vegetarian and celibate).  Augustine became a 'hearer' rather than a full member but remained part of Manichaeanism for nine years.  

Augustine's involvement with Manichaeanism did not please his mother Monica who banned him from the house.  Augustine began to question elements of Manichaenism when he met a well respected Manichaean teacher named Faustus.  

'A Manichean bishop named Faustus had recently arrived at Carthage.  He was a great decoy of the devil and many people were trapped by his charming manner of speach.... Than Manichees talked so much about this man Faustus that I wanted to see what scholarly fare he would lay before me... I had already heard that he was very well versed in all the higher forms of learning and particularly in the liberal sciences.  I had read a great many scientific books which were still alive in my memory.  When I compared them with the tedious tales of the Manichees, it seemed to me that, of the two, the theories of the scientists were the more likely to be true...As soon as it became clear to me that Faustus was quite uninformed about the subjects in which I had expected him to be an expert, I began to lose hope that he could life the veil and resolve the problems which perplexed me.'

Confessions Book V Chapter 3

Augustine had many things that he wanted to ask Faustus and he had hoped that Faustus would be able to explain things clearly and convincingly to him.  To that end Augustine says that he

‘Put forward some problems that troubled me…Manichee books are full of immensely lengthy  fables about the heaven and stars and sun and moon.  I wanted Faustus to tell me, after comparing the mathematical calculations which I had read in other books, whether the story contained in the Manichee books was correct, or at least whether it had an equal chance of being so.’

However, Augustine was disappointed finding Faustus

 ‘Not clever enough to explain the matter’.

Despite his disappointment Augustine did not abandon Manichaeanism immediately.  He had been exposed to Christianity since birth by his mother but as a young man Augustine found much of the Bible - especially the Old Testament - hard to accept and he felt it did not live up to the classical philosophers he so admired.  He was also very interested in the problem of evil to which Manichaeanism seemed to provide an answer.

'All the same, the plans for my marriage were pushed ahead and the girl's parents were asked for their consent.  She was nearly two years too young for marriage, but I liked her well enough and was content to wait.'

Confessions Book VI Chapter 13

By this stage Augustine had become a university teacher.  However, he was disappointed by the number of students who failed to pay him for his teaching and left Carthage for Rome in search of better mannered pupils.  He did not stay in Rome long however, and accepted the post of professor of rhetoric in Milan. Augustine had not told his mother that he was leaving Africa, but she secretly followed him and met up with him in Milan.  Once there she managed to convince him to dismiss his concubine and arranged a suitable marriage for him.  He became betrothed to a girl who was too young for immediate marriage and Augustine found it impossible to be celibate and took other mistresses.  It is clear from his writings that the separation from his mistress caused him great pain and his inability to remain celibate left him guilty and frustrated by his own weakness.

'Meanwhile I was sinning more and more.  The woman with whom I had been living 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, wowing never to giver herself to any other man, and left with me the son whome she had borne me.  But I was too unhappy and too weak to imitate this example set me by a woman.  I was impatient at the delay of two years which had to pass before the girl whom I had asked to marry became my wife, and because I was more a slave of lust than a true lover of marriage I took another mistress, without the sanction of wedlock...the wound I had received when my first mistress was wrenched away showed no signs of healing. At first the pain was sharp and searing, but then the wound began to fester, and though the pain was duller there was all the less hope of a cure.'

Confessions Book VI Chapter 15

'First of all it struck me that it was, after all, possible to vindicate his arguments.  I began to believe that the Catholic faith which I had thought impossible to defend against the objections of the Manichees, might be fairly maintained, especially since I had heard one passage after another in the Old Testament figuratively explained.  These passages had been death to me when I took them literally, but once I heard them explained in their spiritual meaning I began to blame myself for my despair.'

Confessions Book V Chapter 14

Whilst in Milan Augustine met the bishop of Milan, St Ambrose.  Augustine was impressed by Ambrose's intelligence and his explanations for Christian doctrine. Ambrose taught Augustine to read the Old Testament allegorically rather than literally and Augustine found this version of Christianity more credible.  

However, he was also attracted to neo-Platonism.  Neo-Platonism was a philosophical movement based on the teachings of Plotinus.  According to neo-Platonists there exists in the world a scale of reality.  God is most real and other things get their reality from him.  Augustine's belief that evil is merely an absence of good certainly has some similarities with neo-Platonist thought as do his teachings about the soul as an incorporeal (non-physical) substance.

Despite the appeals of neo-Platonism, Augustine was eventually won over by Ambrose's interpretation of Christianity.  He converted in 386 he was baptised at Easter the following year.  He then returned to Africa where he lived peacefully and privately for several years before he was ordained a presbyter (priest) in 391 and became a Bishop of Hippo in 396.  According to Confessions Augustine did not really want to be a priest but was ordained by and enthusiastic congregation (an acceptable method of ordination at the time!

Augustine became a prolific writer of sermons, letters and books.  Much of his later writing was directed at the religious and philosophical ideas that previously appealed to him.  As well as trying to refute Manichaeism Augustine opposed other versions of Christianity regarded as heretical.  He wrote against the Donatists who claimed to be the only true Christians (although he also preached reconciliation and tolerance when relations between Donatists and Catholics deteriorated).  Later in life he defended traditional Trinitarian theology against the Arians who believed that Jesus was not fully God.

A very significant opponent for Augustine was with the Pelagians.  Pelagius was a British monk who had written a book entitled Nature (415) in which he argued that whilst Adam (and Eve) might have set a bad example by sinning they did not cause the rest of mankind to inherit their sinfulness.  In other words, he denied the concept of original sin.  Furthermore, he said that if humanity is not inherently sinful then it should – at least in principle – be possible to be good without the grace of God and lead a sinless life without the Holy Spirit.  Pelagius believed that this had occurred (though rarely).  He thought that doctrines like original sin lead people to behave immorally rather than encouraged them to achieve salvation through their own efforts.

This obviously contradicted Augustine's belief that human beings were inherently sinful and the only sinless life had been led by Jesus.  Throughout his life Augustine had keenly felt the difference between what he thought he should do and what he actually did.  He believed that in his son he had seen evidence that the rebellious nature exists from birth.  In his experience the spirit might be willing but the flesh is decidedly weak and frequently wins out.  He believed that Pelagius undermined the necessity of Jesus’ sacrifice by making salvation obtainable through human efforts.  Pelagius was excommunicated and officially declared a heretic in 417 AD but similar arguments were made by Julian of Eclanum.

Augustine died aged 75 in August 430 during the time that Hippo was under siege from invading Vandals.