The conversion of Augustine

The appeal of Neoplatonism and Manich^ism as rivals of Christianity is vividly demonstrated in the spiritual pilgrimage of Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Born in North Africa of Latin stock, of a devoutly Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan father who became a Christian only late in life, as a youth Augustine was given Christian instruction. His mother did not have him baptized because, accepting the belief that baptism washed away sins committed before it was administered, she wished him to defer it until after the heat of youth was passed and with it the excesses of that ardent age. Brilliant, sensitive, intense, in his teens Augustine took a concubine who, before he was eighteen, bore him a son, named, perhaps conventionally, or deliberately by a strange perverseness, or from the religious feeling which characterized him, Adeodatus, "given by God." Unsatisfied religiously and seeking, Augustine dabbled with his inherited Christianity but was repelled by the crudity of the literary style of the Latin translation which was his only way to the Scriptures. For a time he tried Manich^ism, but finding that it could not answer his intellectual questions, abandoned it. A teacher, first in North Africa, then in Rome, and eventually in Milan, he continued his religious quest. For a time his hunger seemed to be met by Neoplatonism, but that did not fully satisfy him and in Milan he came under the spell of Ambrose, the bishop of that city, a man of strong character and an impressive preacher, of whom we are to hear more in a moment. Suffering from conscious moral impotence and self-disgust because of his inability to control his sexual desires, a member of a small coterie who, with him, were searching, at the climax of his struggle Augustine rushed from his friends into a quiet nook in a garden, seemed to hear the voice of a child commanding "take, read," found before him a copy of Paul's Letter to the Romans, and his eye fell on the passage in the thirteenth chapter which includes the words: "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 fulfil the lusts thereof." This crisis precipitated conversion (386). He and Adeodatus were baptized by Ambrose at the same time (April 25, 387). While victory over the flesh was quickly achieved, Augustine later said that he still found pride a problem. He returned to Africa, became a prodigious writer, was the centre of what in effect was a monastic community, and died as Bishop of Hippo.

No other Christian after Paul was to have so wide, deep, and prolonged an influence upon the Christianity of Western Europe and those forms of the faith that stemmed from it as had Augustine, We are to recur to him again and again. Here we must simply pause to note that his Confessions became one of the most widely read autobiographies and maintains its place among the most moving and profound of the self-recorded records of a human soul and its struggles. His De Civitate Dei, written as an interpretation of history, originally as an answer to those who accused Christianity of being responsible for the fall of Rome to the Goths, remains one of the landmarks in the philosophy of history.

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