The Life of Augustine
The North Africa in which Augustine was born was a miscellany of breeds and creeds. Punic and Numidian blood mingled with Roman in the population, perhaps in Augustine; so many of the people spoke Punic—the old Phoenician language of Carthage—that Augustine as bishop appointed only priests who could speak it. Donatism challenged orthodoxy, Manicheism challenged both, and apparently the majority of the people were still pagan. Augustine’s birthplace was Tagaste in Numidia. His mother, St. Monica, was a devoted Christian, whose life was almost consumed in caring and praying for her wayward son. His father was a man of narrow means and broad principles, whose infidelities were patiently accepted by Monica in the firm belief that they could not last forever.
At twelve the boy was sent to school at Madaura, and at seventeen to higher studies at Carthage. Salvian would soon describe Africa as “the cesspool of the world,” and Carthage as “the cesspool of Africa”; hence Monica’s parting advice to her son:
She commanded me, and with much earnestness forewarned me, that I should not commit fornication, and especially that I should never defile any man’s wife. These seemed to me no better than women’s counsels, which it would be a shame for me to follow . . . . I ran headlong with such blindness that I was ashamed among my equals to be guilty of less impudency than they were, whom I heard brag mightily of their naughtiness; yea, and so much the more boasting by how much more they had been beastly; and I took pleasure to do it, not for the pleasure of the act only, but for the praise of it also; . . . and when I lacked opportunity to commit a wickedness that should make me as bad as the lost, I would feign myself to have done what I never did.
He proved an apt pupil in Latin also, and in rhetoric, mathematics, music, and philosophy; “my unquiet mind was altogether intent to seek for learning.” He disliked Greek, and never mastered it or learned its literature; but he was so fascinated by Plato that he called him a “demigod,” and did not cease to be a Platonist when he became a Christian. His pagan training in logic and philosophy prepared him to be the subtlest theologian of the Church.
Having graduated, he taught grammar at Tagaste, and then rhetoric at Carthage. Since he was now sixteen “there was much ado to get me a wife;” however, he preferred a concubine—a convenience sanctioned by pagan morals and Roman law; still unbaptized, Augustine could take his morals where he pleased. Concubinage was for him a moral advance; he abandoned promiscuity, and seems to have been faithful to his concubine until their parting in 385. In 382, still a lad of eighteen, he found himself unwillingly the father of a son, whom he called at one time “son of my sin,” but more usually Adeodatus—gift of God. He came to love the boy tenderly, and never let him go far from his side.
At twenty-nine he left Carthage for the larger world of Rome. His mother, fearing that he would die unbaptized, begged him not to go, and when he persisted, besought him to take her with him. He pretended to consent; but at the dock he left her at prayer in a chapel, and sailed without her. At Rome he taught rhetoric for a year; but the students cheated him of his fees, and he applied for a professorship at Milan. Symmachus examined him, approved, and sent him to Milan by state post. There his brave mother overtook him, and persuaded him to listen with her to the sermons of Ambrose. They moved him, but even more by the hymns the congregation sang. At the same time Monica won him over to the idea of marriage, and in effect betrothed him, now thirty-two, to a girl with more money than years. Augustine agreed to wait two years till she should be twelve. As a preliminary he sent his mistress back to Africa, where she buried her grief in a nunnery. A few weeks of continence unnerved him, and instead of marrying he took another concubine. “Give me chastity,” he prayed, “but not yet!”
Amid these diversions he found time for theology. He had begun with his mother’s simple faith, but had cast it off proudly at school. For nine years (374-83) he accepted Manichean dualism as the most satisfactory explanation of a world so indifferently compounded of evil and good. For a time he flirted with the skepticism of the later Academy; but he was too emotional to remain long in suspended judgment. At Rome and Milan he studied Plato and Plotinus; Neoplatonism entered deeply into his philosophy, and, through him, dominated Christian theology till Abélard. It became for Augustine the vestibule to Christianity. Ambrose had recommended him to read the Bible in the light of Paul’s statement that “the letter killeth but the spirit maketh to live.” Augustine found that a symbolic interpretation removed what had seemed to him the puerilities of Genesis. He read Paul’s epistles, and felt that here was a man who, like himself, had passed through a thousand doubts. In Paul’s final faith there had been no mere abstract Platonic Logos, but a Divine Word that had become man. One day, as Augustine sat in a Milan garden with his friend Alypius, a voice seemed to keep ringing in his ears: “Take up and read; take up and read.” He opened Paul again, and read: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” The passage completed for Augustine a long evolution of feeling and thought; there was something infinitely warmer and deeper in this strange faith than in all the logic of philosophy. Christianity came to him as a profound emotional satisfaction. Surrendering the skepticism of the intellect, he found, for the first time in his life, moral stimulus and mental peace. His friend Alypius confessed himself ready for a like submission. Monica, receiving their capitulation, melted her heart out in grateful prayer.
On Easter Sunday of 387 Augustine, Alypius, and Adeodatus were baptized by Ambrose, with Monica standing happily by. All four resolved to go to Africa and live a monastic life. At Ostia Monica died, confident of reunion in paradise. Arrived in Africa, Augustine sold his modest patrimony and gave the proceeds to the poor. Then he and Alypius and some friends formed a religious community, and lived at Tagaste in poverty, celibacy,study, and prayer. So was founded (388) the Augustinian order, the oldest monastic fraternity in the West.
In 389 Adeodatus passed away, and Augustine mourned him as bitterly as if still uncertain of the eternal bliss awaiting those who died in Christ. Work and writing were his only consolations. In 391 Valerius, Bishop of near-by Hippo (now Bone), asked his aid in administering the diocese, and for this purpose ordained him a priest. Valerius often yielded the pulpit to him, and Augustine’s eloquence impressed the congregation even when they could not understand him. Hippo was a seaport of some 40,000 population; the Catholics had one church there, the Donatists another; the remainder of the people were Manicheans or pagans. The Manichean bishop, Fortunatus, had hitherto dominated the theological scene; Donatists joined Catholics in urging Augustine to meet him in debate; he consented; and for two days these novel gladiators crossed words before a crowd that filled the Baths of Sosius. Augustine won; Fortunatus left Hippo, and never returned (392).
Four years later Valerius, alleging his age, asked the congregation to choose his successor. Augustine was unanimously elected; and though he protested and wept, and begged the privilege of returning to his monastery, he was prevailed upon, and for the remaining thirty-four years of his life he was Bishop of Hippo; from this foot of earth he moved the world. He chose one or two deacons, and brought two monks from his monastery to help him; they lived monastically and communistically in the episcopal rectory; Augustine was a bit puzzled to understand how one of his aides, at death, could leave a tidy legacy. All subsisted on a vegetarian diet, reserving meat for guests and the sick. Augustine himself is described as short and thin, and never strong; he complained of a lung disorder, and suffered unduly from the cold. He was a man of sensitive nerves, easily excited, of keen and somewhat morbid imagination, of subtle and flexible intellect. Despite a tenacious dogmatism and some occasional intolerance, he must have had many lovable qualities; several men who came to learn rhetoric from him accepted his lead into Christianity; and Alypius followed him to the end.
He had hardly taken his seat as bishop when he began a lifelong war against the Donatists. He challenged their leaders to public debate, but few cared to accept; he invited them to friendly conferences, but was met first with silence, then with insult, then with violence; several Catholic bishops in North Africa were assaulted, and some attempts seem to have been made upon the life of Augustine himself; however, we do not have the Donatist side of this story. In 411 a council called by the Emperor Honorius met at Carthage to quiet the Donatist dispute; the Donatists sent 279 bishops, the Catholics 286—but bishop in Africa meant little more than parish priest. The Emperor’s legate, Marcellinus, after hearing both sides, decreed that the Donatists must hold no further meetings, and must hand over all their churches to the Catholics. The Donatists replied with acts of desperate violence, including, we are told, the murder of Restitutus, a priest of Hippo, and the mutilation of another member of Augustine’s staff. Augustine urged the government to enforce its decree vigorously; he retracted his earlier view that “no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ . . . that we must fight only by arguments, and prevail only by force of reason;” he concluded that the Church, being the spiritual father of all, should have a parent’s right to chastise an unruly son for his own good; it seemed to him better that a few Donatists should suffer “than that all should be damned for want of coercion.” At the same time he pled repeatedly with the state officials not to enforce the death penalty against the heretics.
Aside from this bitter contest, and the cares of his see, Augustine lived in the Country of the Mind, and labored chiefly with his pen. Almost every day he wrote a letter whose influence is still active in Catholic theology. His sermons alone fill volumes; and though some are spoiled by an artificial rhetoric of opposed and balanced clauses, and many deal with local and transient topics in a simple style adapted to his unlettered congregation, many of them rise to a noble eloquence born of mystic passion and profound belief. His busy mind, trained in the logic of the schools, could not be confined within the issues of his parish. In treatise after treatise he labored to reconcile with reason the doctrines of the Church that he had come to revere as the one pillar of order and decency in a ruined and riotous world. He knew that the Trinity was a stumbling block to the intellect; for fifteen years he worked on his most systematic production—De Trinitate—struggling to find analogies in human experience for three persons in one God. More puzzling still—filling all Augustine’s life with wonder and debate—was the problem of harmonizing the free will of man with the foreknowledge of God. If God is omniscient He sees the future in all details; since God is immutable, this picture that He has of all coming events lays upon them the necessity of occurring as He has foreseen them; they are irrevocably predestined. Then how can man be free? Must he not do what God has foreseen? And if God has foreseen all things, He has known from all eternity the final fate of every soul that He creates; why, then, should He create those that are predestined to be damned?
In his first years as a Christian Augustine had written a treatise De libero arbitrio (On Free Will). He had sought then to square the existence of evil with the benevolence of an omnipotent God; and his answer was that evil is the result of free will: God could not leave man free without giving him the possibility of doing wrong as well as right. Later, under the influence of Paul’s epistles, he argued that Adam’s sin had left upon the human race a stain of evil inclination; that no amount of good works, but only the freely given grace of God, could enable the soul to overcome this inclination, erase this stain, and achieve salvation. God offered this grace to all, but many refused it. God knew that they would refuse it; but this possibility of damnation was the price of that moral freedom without which man would not be man. The divine foreknowledge does not destroy this freedom; God merely foresees the choices that man will freely make.
Augustine did not invent the doctrine of original sin; Paul, Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose had taught it; but his own experience of sin, and of the “voice” that had converted him, had left in him a somber conviction that the human will is from birth inclined to evil, and can be turned to good only by the gratuitous act of God. He could not explain the evil inclination of the will except as an effect of Eve’s sin and Adam’s love. Since we are all children of Adam, Augustine argued, we share his guilt, are, indeed, the offspring of his guilt: the original sin was concupiscence. And concupiscence still befouls every act of generation; by the very connection of sex with parentage mankind is a “mass of perdition,” and most of us will be damned. Some of us will be saved, but only through the grace of the suffering Son of God, and through the intercession of the Mother who conceived Him sinlessly. “Through a woman we were sent to destruction; through a woman salvation was restored to us.”
Writing so much and so hurriedly—often, it appears, by dictation to amanuenses—Augustine fell more than once into exaggerations that later he strove to modify. At times he propounded the Calvinistic doctrine that God arbitrarily chose, from all eternity, the “elect” to whom He would give His saving grace. A crowd of critics rose to plague him for such theories; he conceded nothing, but fought every point to the end. From England came his ablest opponent, the footloose monk Pelagius, with a strong defense of man’s freedom, and of the saving power of good works. God indeed helps us, said Pelagius, by giving us His law and commandments, by the example and precepts of His saints, by the cleansing waters of baptism, and the redeeming blood of Christ. But God does not tip the scales against our salvation by making human nature inherently evil. There was no original sin, no fall of man; only he who commits a sin is punished for it; it transmits no guilt to his progeny. God does not predestine man to heaven or hell, does not choose arbitrarily whom He will damn or save; He leaves the choice of our fate to ourselves. The theory of innate human depravity, said Pelagius, was a cowardly shifting to God of the blame for man’s sins. Man feels, and therefore is, responsible; “if I ought, I can.”
Pelagius came to Rome about 400, lived with pious families, and earned a reputation for virtue. In 409 he fled from Alaric, first to Carthage, then to Palestine. There he dwelt in peace till the Spanish priest Orosius came from Augustine to warn Jerome against him (415). An Eastern synod tried the monk, and declared him orthodox; an African synod, prodded by Augustine, repudiated this finding, and appealed to Pope Innocent I, who declared Pelagius a heretic; whereupon Augustine hopefully announced, “Causa finita est” (The case is finished). (We cannot find in the extant works or reliable traditions of Augustine the words often attributed to him on this occasion—“Roma locuta est, causa finita” [Rome has spoken, the case is finished]). But Innocent, dying, was succeeded by Zosimus, who pronounced Pelagius guiltless. The African bishops appealed to Honorius; the Emperor was pleased to correct the Pope; Zosimus yielded (418); and the Council of Ephesus (431) condemned as a heresy the Pelagian view that man can be good without the helping grace of God.
Augustine could be caught in contradictions and absurdities, even in morbid cruelties of thought; but he could not be overcome, because in the end his own soul’s adventures, and the passion of his nature, not any chain of reasoning, molded his theology. He knew the weakness of the intellect: it was the individual’s brief experience sitting in reckless judgment upon the experience of the race; and how could forty years understand forty centuries? “Dispute not by excited argument,” he wrote to a friend, “those things which you do not yet comprehend, or those which in the Scriptures appear . . . to be incongruous and contradictory; meekly defer the day of your understanding.” Faith must precede understanding. “seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand”—crede ut intelligas. “The authority of the Scriptures is higher than all the efforts of the human intelligence.” The Bible, however, need not always be taken literally; it was written to be intelligible to simple minds, and had to use corporeal terms for spiritual realities. When interpretations differ we must rest in the decision of the Church councils, in the collective wisdom of her wisest men.
But even faith is not enough for understanding; there must be a clean heart to let in the rays of the divinity that surrounds us. So humbled and cleansed, one may, after many years, rise to the real end and essence of religion, which is “the possession of the living God.” “I desire to know God and the soul. Nothing more? Nothing whatever.” Oriental Christianity spoke mostly of Christ; Augustine’s theology is “of the First Person”; it is of and to God the Father that he speaks and writes. He gives no description of God, for only God can know God fully; probably “the true God has neither sex, age, nor body.” But we can know God, in a sense intimately, through creation; everything in the world is an infinite marvel in its organization and functioning, and would be impossible without a creative intelligence; the order, symmetry, and rhythm of living things proclaims a kind of Platonic deity, in whom beauty and wisdom are one.
We need not believe, says Augustine, that the world was created in six “days;” probably God in the beginning created only a nebulous mass (nebulosa species); but in this mass lay the seminal order, or productive capacities (rationes seminales), from which all things would develop by natural causes. For Augustine, as for Plato, the actual objects and events of this world pre-existed in the mind of God “as the plan of a building is conceived by the architect before it is built;” and creation proceeds in time according to these eternal exemplars in the divine mind.
How shall we do justice so briefly to so powerful a personality, and so fertile a pen? Through 230 treatises he spoke his mind on almost every problem of theology and philosophy, and usually in a style warm with feeling and bright with new-coined phrases from his copious mint. He discussed with diffidence and subtlety the nature of time. He anticipated Descartes” “Cogito, ergo sum”: to refute the Academics, who denied that man can be certain of anything, he argued: “Who doubts that he lives and thinks? . . . For if he doubts, he lives.” He presaged Bergson’s complaint that the intellect, through long dealing with corporeal things, is a constitutional materialist; he proclaimed, like Kant, that the soul is the most directly known of all realities, and clearly stated the idealistic position—that since matter is known only through mind, we cannot logically reduce mind to matter. He suggested the Schopenhauerian thesis that will, not intellect, is fundamental in man; and he agreed with Schopenhauer that the world would be improved if all reproduction should cease.
Two of his works belong to the classics of the world’s literature. The Confessions (c. 400) is the first and most famous of all autobiographies. It is addressed directly to God, as a 100,000-word act of contrition. It begins with the sins of his youth, tells vividly the story of his conversion, and occasionally bursts into a rhapsody of prayer. All confessions are camouflage, but there was in this one a sincerity that shocked the world. Even as Augustine wrote it—forty-six and a bishop—the old carnal ideas “still live in my memory and rush into my thoughts; . . . in sleep they come upon me not to delight only, but even so far as consent, and most like to the deed;” bishops are not always so psychoanalytically frank. His masterpiece is the moving story of how one soul came to faith and peace, and its first lines are its summary: “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our hearts know no rest until they repose in Thee.” His faith is now unquestioning, and rises to a moving theodicy:
Too late I came to love Thee, O Thou Beauty both so ancient and so fresh . . . . Yea, also the heaven and the earth, and all that is in them, bid me on every side that I should love Thee . . . . What now do I love when I love Thee? . . . I asked the earth, and it answered, I am not it . . . . I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they answered: We are not thy God; seek above us. I asked the fleeting winds, and the whole air “with its inhabitants answered me: Anaximenes was deceived; I am not God. I asked the heavens, the sun and moon and stars; nor, said they, are we the God whom Thou seekest. And I replied unto all these: . . . Answer me concerning God; since that you are not He, answer me concerning Him. And they cried out with a loud voice: He made us . . . . They are not well in their wits to whom anything which Thou hast created is displeasing. . . . In Thy gift we rest; . . . in Thy good pleasure lies our peace (Cf. the theme line of Dante’s Paradiso (iii, 85): “La sua voluntate è nostra pace” [His will is our peace]).
The Confessions is poetry in prose; the City of God (413-26) is philosophy in history. When the news of Alaric’s sack of Rome reached Africa, followed by thousands of desolate refugees, Augustine was stirred, like Jerome and others, by what seemed an irrational and Satanic calamity. Why should the city whose beauty and power men had built and reverenced through centuries, and now the citadel of Christendom, be surrendered by a benevolent deity to the ravages of barbarians? Pagans everywhere attributed the disaster to Christianity: the ancient gods, plundered, dethroned, and proscribed, had withdrawn their protection from the Rome that under their guidance had grown and prospered for a thousand years. Many Christians were shaken in their faith. Augustine felt the challenge deeply; all his vast temple of theology threatened to collapse if this panic of fear were not allayed. He resolved to devote all the powers of his genius to convincing the Roman world that such catastrophes did not for a moment impugn Christianity. For thirteen years he labored on his book, amid a press of obligations and distractions. He published it in piecemeal installments; the middle of it forgot the beginning and did not foresee the end; inevitably its 1200 pages became a confused concatenation of essays on everything from the First Sin to the Last Judgment; and only the depth of its thought, and the splendor of its style, lifted it out of its chaos to the highest rank in the literature of Christian philosophy. Augustine’s initial answer was that Rome had been punished not for her new religion but for her continued sins. He described the indecency of the pagan stage, and quoted Sallust and Cicero on the corruption of Roman politics. Once Rome had been a nation of stoics, strengthened by Catos and Scipios; she had almost created law, and had given order and peace to half the world; in those heroic days God had made His face to shine upon her. But the seeds of moral decay lay in the very religion of ancient Rome, in gods who encouraged, rather than checked, the sexual nature of man: “the god Virgineus to loose the virgin’s girdle, Subigus to place her under the man, Prema to press her down . . . Priapus upon whose huge and beastly member the new bride was commanded by religious order to get up and sit!” Rome was punished because she worshiped, not because she neglected, such deities. The barbarians spared Christian churches and those who fled to them, but showed no mercy to the remnants of pagan shrines; how, then, could the invaders be the agents of a pagan revenge? Augustine’s second answer was a philosophy of history—an attempt to explainthe events of recorded time on one universal principle. From Plato’s conception of an ideal state existing “somewhere in heaven,” from St. Paul’s thought of a community of saints living and dead, from the Donatist Tyconius” doctrine of two societies, one of God and one of Satan, Augustine took the basic idea of his book as a tale of two cities: the earthly city of worldly men devoted to earthly affairs and joys; and the divine city of the past, present, and future worshipers of the one true God. Marcus Aurelius had provided a noble phrase: “The poet could say of Athens, Thou lovely city of Cecrops; and shalt not thou say of the world, Thou lovely city of God?”—but Aurelius had meant by this the whole orderly universe. The civitas Dei, says Augustine, was founded by the creation of the angels; the civitas terrena by the rebellion of Satan. “Mankind is divided into two sorts: such as live according to man, and such as live according to God. These we mystically call the “two cities” or societies, the one predestined to reign eternally with God, the other condemned to perpetual torment with the Devil.” An actual city or empire need not in all aspects be confined within the Earthly City; it may do good things—legislate wisely, judge justly, and aid the Church; and these good actions take place, so to speak, within the City of God. This spiritual city, again, is not identical with the Catholic Church; the Church too may have terrestrial interests, and its members may fall into self-seeking and sin, slipping from one city into the other. Only at the Last Judgment will the two cities be separate and distinct.
By a symbolic extension of her membership to heavenly as well as to earthly souls, to pre-Christian as well as Christian righteous men, the Church may be—and by Augustine occasionally is—identified with the City of God. The Church would later accept this identification as an ideological weapon of politics, and would logically deduce from Augustine’s philosophy the doctrine of a theocratic state, in which the secular powers, derived from men, would be subordinate to the spiritual power held by the Church and derived from God. With this book paganism as a philosophy ceased to be, and Christianity as a philosophy began. It was the first definitive formulation of the medieval mind.
The old lion of the faith was still at his post when the Vandals came. To the end he remained in the theological arena, felling new heresies, countering critics, answering objections, resolving difficulties. He considered gravely whether woman will retain her sex in the next world; whether the deformed and the mutilated, the thin and the fat, will be reborn as they were; and how those will be restored who were eaten by others in a famine. But age had come upon him, with sad indignities. Asked about his health he replied: “In spirit I am well . . . in body I am confined to bed. I can neither walk nor stand nor sit down because of swelling piles . . . . Yet even so, since that is the Lord’s good pleasure, what should I say but that I am well?”
He had done his best to deter Boniface from rebellion against Rome, and had shared in recalling him to loyalty. As Gaiseric advanced, many bishops and priests asked Augustine should they stay at their posts or flee; he bade them stay, and gave example. When the Vandals laid siege to Hippo, Augustine maintained the morale of the starving people by his sermons and his prayers. In the third month of the siege he died, aged seventy-six. He left no will, having no goods; but he had written his own epitaph: “What maketh the heart of the Christian heavy? The fact that he is a pilgrim, and longs for his own country.”
Few men in history have had such influence. Eastern Christianity never took to him, partly because he was thoroughly un-Greek in his limited learning and in his subordination of thought to feeling and will; partly because the Eastern Church had already submitted to the state. But in the West he gave a definitive stamp to Catholic theology. Anticipating and inspiring Gregory VII and Innocent III, he formulated the claim of the Church to supremacy over the mind and the state; and the great battles of popes against emperors and kings were political corollaries of his thought. Until the thirteenth century he dominated Catholic philosophy, giving it a Neoplatonic tinge; and even Aquinas the Aristotelian often followed his lead. Wyclif, Huss, and Luther believed they were returning to Augustine when they left the Church; and Calvin based his ruthless creed upon Augustine’s theories of the elect and the damned. At the same time that he stimulated men of intellect, he became an inspiration to those whose Christianity was more of the heart than of the head; mystics tried to retrace his steps in seeking a vision of God; and men and women found food and phrases for their piety in the humility and tenderness of his prayers. It may be the secret of his influence that he united and strengthened both the philosophical and the mystical strains in Christianity, and opened a path not only for Thomas Aquinas but for Thomas a Kempis as well.
His subjective, emotional, anti-intellectual emphasis marked the end of classical, the triumph of medieval, literature. To understand the Middle Ages we must forget our modern rationalism, our proud confidence in reason and science, our restless search after wealth and power and an earthly paradise; we must enter sympathetically into the mood of men disillusioned of these pursuits, standing at the end of a thousand years of rationalism, finding all dreams of utopia shattered by war and poverty and barbarism, seeking consolation in the hope of happiness beyond the grave, inspired and comforted by the story and figure of Christ, throwing themselves upon the mercy and goodness of God, and living in the thought of His eternal presence, His inescapable judgment, and the atoning death of His Son. St. Augustine above all others, and even in the age of Symmachus, Claudian, and Ausonius, reveals and phrases this mood. He is the most authentic, eloquent, and powerful voice of the Age of Faith in Christendom.