(Saint Augustine, painted by Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
A Wayward Son Who Became One Of Christianity’s Most Influential Figures
Augustine was born in 354 to a Roman family living in Algiers. His mother was a Christian, and it is thought that his father converted to the religion on his deathbed. Suffice it to say, Augustine was exposed to Christianity from a young age. As a child, Augustine was made a catechumen—a person learning about Christianity before baptism—but he decided not to go through with it, and sought spiritual enlightenment elsewhere.
Augustine’s parents had enough wealth and influence to obtain a sound education for their son. After receiving preliminary schooling in his hometown of Tagaste, Algeria, Augustine received further education at a university in the town of Madauros. From there, he went on to study at Carthage. He soon became qualified as a teacher, and would spend the majority of his young adult life relentlessly pursuing a career in rhetoric and philosophy.
In his youth and young adulthood, Augustine was in no way the stereotypical prudish and isolated monk-like figure that often comes to mind at the word ‘saint.’ No, in his young days, Augustine was not very saintly, at all. He was a hopelessly lusty man, and had a son with an unnamed lover. In his Confessions, St. Augustine comically reflected on his bouts against his lustful passions when he would make prayers such as this: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet” (Saint Augustine’s Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick, 1991).
Though Augustine was pursuing a career as a professor of rhetoric, taking him to places such as Rome and Milan, he also was actively expanding his spiritual views. First, Augustine took a liking to the philosophical mindset of Cicero. Around 373, however, he became a member of the Manichean movement, which was a standalone religion that many consider to be a heresy of Christianity. Whether the Manichean movement was a religion or a heresy is a problem of categorization and labeling—either way, the Christian Church did not like the Manichean movement, and St. Augustine would spend much of his later time as a Christian theologian and bishop attacking this very group. After becoming disillusioned with the Manichean movement, Augustine then focused on the works and philosophy of Plato, as well as the contemporary Platonists of his day. His respect for Plato never really waned, even after he converted to Christianity. Augustine’s many works contain attempts to connect themes and beliefs from Christianity to Platonism and vise versa.
Though some may see Augustine’s exposure to, and interest in, other religions and philosophies as a liability, Augustine’s diverse background proved to be one of his greatest tools. No one can attack the Manichean movement better than a former Manichean. No one can explain Christianity to the philosophers of Rome better than a well-studied student of philosophy. To top it all off, Augustine was a professor of rhetoric, so he knew how to attack, defend and proselytize with professionally crafted wording. Once Augustine converted to Christianity, he was a formidable tool for the religion.
Augustine’s path to priesthood, however, was hardly quick or enthusiastic. While Augustine was serving as a professor of rhetoric in Milan, he came across the local bishop, named Ambrose. Though Augustine had disregarded Christianity during his childhood, Ambrose of Milan somehow converted Augustine in the 380s. Even though Augustine was now Christian, he had no intention of becoming a member of the clergy. Instead, he resigned from his post in Milan and wandered back to his home in Tagaste where he stayed until the death of his son. From there, he traveled around North Africa, pursing his theological and spiritual ideas.
In the late 380s or early 390s, Augustine made his way to Hippo (modern day Annaba, Algeria). By this time, he had gained a reputation for both his rhetorical skill and his persuasive ideas on Christianity. Therefore, when he reached Hippo, a local bishop named Valerius (as well as the local population) quickly pressured Augustine to join the clergy—a profession for which he still had little enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Augustine joined the priesthood and quickly rose through the ranks of the clergy. He was appointed a presbyter, then a coadjutor with Bishop Valerius, and finally he was named the Bishop of Hippo in 396.
Though Augustine had already been a writer before he became a bishop, his most famous works occurred after he attained his position in Hippo. The two titles that have best withstood the test of time were his Confessions (written in 397) and City of God (written between 413-427). In addition to those two famous works, he also wrote many other pieces including sermons, refutations of heresies (such as Donatism and the Manichean movement) and commentaries on topics such as the Holy Trinity and other Christian doctrine.
From his promotion to Bishop of Hippo in 396 to his death in 430, St. Augustine spent his time combating different heresies with his words. He took on the Manicheans and the Donatists, then moved on to criticize the ideas of a man named Pelagius, as well another leader of the Pelagians, named Julian of Eclanum. One of the final heresies that Augustine refuted was that of the Arians, a version of Christianity especially favored by the kingdoms that crossed the Danube (Franks, Vandals, Goths etc…) and led to the eventual downfall of the Western Roman Empire. In the year that Augustine died, the Arian Vandals had already crossed through France and Spain into North Africa, and laid siege to Hippo. Though Augustine’s bishopric was taken by one of the heresies he was trying to defeat, his ideas and writings left a permanent impact on Christianity. He is considered one of the most important minds that helped shape Christianity into what it would become in the Middle Ages.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Christianity In Late Antiquity: 300-450 CE (A Reader) edited by Bart D. Ehrman and Andrew S. Jacobs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.