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Augustine of Hippo

Architect of the Middle Ages

"Mankind is divided into two sorts: such as live according to man, and such as live according to God. These we call the two cities… The Heavenly City outshines Rome. There, instead of victory, is truth"

Barbarians surged into the empire, threatening the Roman way of life as never before. The Christian church also faced attack from internal heretics. The potential destruction of culture, civilization, and the church was more than an occasional nightmare—it was perceived as an immediate threat. And Augustine answered with such wisdom, his responses are still considered by some to be the church's most important writings after the Bible.

Sex and fun

From his birth in a small North African town, Augustine knew the religious differences overwhelming the Roman Empire: his father was a pagan who honored the old Punic gods; his mother was a zealous Christian. But the adolescent Augustine was less interested in religion and learning than in sex and high living—like joining with friends to steal pears from a neighbor's vineyard "not to eat them ourselves but simply to throw them to the pigs."

At age 17, Augustine set off to school in Carthage—the country boy in the jewel of North Africa. There the underachiever became enraptured with his studies and started to make a name for himself. He immersed himself in the writings of Cicero and Manichaean philosophers and cast off the vestiges of his mother's religion.

His studies completed, Augustine returned to his home town of Thagaste to teach rhetoric—and some Manichaeism on the side. (The philosophy, based on the teachings of a Persian named Mani, was a dualist corruption of Christianity. It taught that the world of light and the world of darkness constantly war with each other, catching most of humanity in the struggle.) Augustine tried to hide his views from his mother, Monica, but when she found out, she threw him out of the house.

But Monica, who had dreamt her son would become a Christian, continued to pray and plead for his conversion and followed him to Carthage when he moved there to teach. When Augustine was offered a professorship in Rome, Monica begged him not to go. Augustine told her to go home and sleep comfortably in the knowledge that he would stay in Carthage. When she left, he boarded a ship for Rome.

Darkness vanquished

After a year in Rome, Augustine moved again, to become the professor of rhetoric for the city of Milan. There he began attending the cathedral to hear the impressive oratory of Ambrose the bishop; he kept attending because of Ambrose's preaching. He soon dropped his Manichaeism in favor of Neoplatonism, the philosophy of both Roman pagans and Milanese Christians.

His mother finally caught up with him and set herself to find her son a proper wife. Augustine had a concubine he deeply loved and who had given him a son, but he would not marry her because it would have ruined him socially and politically.

Added to the emotional strain of forsaking his lover and the shift in philosophies, Augustine was struggling with himself. For years he had sought to overcome his fleshly passions and nothing seemed to help. It seemed to him that even his smallest transgressions were weighted with meaning. Later, writing about the pear stealing of his youth, he reflected, "Our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden. The evil in me was foul, but I loved it."

One afternoon, he wrestled anxiously about such matters while walking in his garden. Suddenly he heard a child's sing-song voice repeating, "Take up and read." On a table lay a collection of Paul's epistles he'd been reading; he picked it up and read the first thing he saw: "Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites" (Romans 13:13–14).

He later wrote, "No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away."

From monk to bishop

Augustine's conversion sent shockwaves through his life. He resigned his professorship, dashed off a note to Ambrose telling of his conversion, and retreated with his friends and mother to a country villa in Cassiciacum. There he continued discussing philosophy and churning out books in a Neoplatonist vein. After half a year, he returned to Milan to be baptized by Ambrose, then headed back to Thagaste to live as a writer and thinker.

By the time he reached his home town (a journey lengthened by political turmoil), he had lost his mother, his son, and one of his closest friends. These losses propelled Augustine into a deeper, more vigorous commitment: he and friends established a lay ascetic community in Thagaste to spend time in prayer and the study of the Scriptures.

In 391, Augustine traveled to Hippo to see about setting up a monastery in the area. His reputation went before him. The story goes that, seeing the renowned layman in church one Sunday, Bishop Valerius put aside his prepared sermon and preached on the urgent need for priests in Hippo. The crowd stared at Augustine and then pushed him forward for ordination. Against his will, Augustine was made a priest. The laity, thinking his tears of frustration were due to his wanting to be a bishop rather than priest, tried to assure him that good things come to those who wait.

Valerius, who spoke no Punic (the local language), quickly handed over teaching and preaching duties to his new priest, who did speak the local language. Within five years, after Valerius died, Augustine became bishop of Hippo.

Orthodox champion for a millennium

Guarding the church from internal and external challenges topped the new bishop's agenda. The church in North Africa was in turmoil. Though Manichaeism was already on its way out, it still had a sizable following. Augustine, who knew its strengths and weaknesses, decaption it a death blow. At the public baths, Augustine debated Fortunatus, a former schoolmate from Carthage and a leading Manichaean. The bishop made quick work of the heretic, and Fortunatus left town in shame.

Less easily handled was Donatism, a schismatic and separatist North African church. They believed the Catholic church had been compromised and that Catholic leaders had betrayed the church during earlier persecutions. Augustine argued that Catholicism was the valid continuation of the apostolic church. He wrote scathingly, "The clouds roll with thunder, that the house of the Lord shall be built throughout the earth; and these frogs sit in their marsh and croak 'We are the only Christians!' "

In 411 the controversy came to a head as the imperial commissioner convened a debate in Carthage to decide the dispute once and for all. Augustine's rhetoric destroyed the Donatist appeal, and the commissioner pronounced against the group, beginning a campaign against them.

It was not, however, a time of rejoicing for the church. The year before the Carthage conference, the barbarian general Alaric and his troops sacked Rome. Many upper-class Romans fled for their lives to North Africa, one of the few safe havens left in the empire. And now Augustine was left with a new challenge—defending Christianity against claims that it had caused the empire's downfall by turning eyes away from Roman gods.

Augustine's response to the widespread criticism came in 22 volumes over 12 years, inThe City of God. He argued that Rome was punished for past sins, not new faith. His lifelong obsession with original sin was fleshed out, and his work formed the basis of the medieval mind. "Mankind is divided into two sorts," he wrote. "Such as live according to man, and such as live according to God. These we call the two cities… The Heavenly City outshines Rome. There, instead of victory, is truth."

One other front Augustine had to fight to defend Christianity was Pelagianism. Pelagius, a British monk, gained popularity just as the Donatist controversy ended. Pelagius rejected the idea of original sin, insisting instead that the tendency to sin is humankind's own free choice. Following this reasoning, there is no need for divine grace; individuals must simply make up their minds to do the will of God. The church excommunicated Pelagius in 417, but his banner was carried on by young Julian of Eclanum. Julian took potshots at Augustine's character as well as his theology. With Roman snobbery, he argued that Augustine and his other low-class African friends had taken over Roman Christianity. Augustine argued with the former bishop for the last ten years of his life.

In the summer of 429, the Vandals invaded North Africa, meeting almost no resistance along the way. Hippo, one of the few fortified cities, was overwhelmed with refugees. In the third month of the siege, the 76-year-old Augustine died, not from an arrow but from a fever. Miraculously, his writings survived the Vandal takeover, and his theology became one of the main pillars on which the church of the next 1,000 years was built.

Last modified: Thursday, August 9, 2018, 1:12 PM