A cursory review of the chronology of Augustine's life (ad 354-430) shows that it was spent mainly in North Africa (354-83, 388-430), with an important Italian sojourn (383-8)130 sandwiched between his two major African periods.
Aurelius Augustinus was born on 13 November 354 in Thagaste (Numidia
Proconsularis) in what is now eastern Algeria.131 Here he began his early education before passing to the nearby town of Madauros and thence to Carthage.132 He clearly disliked his schooldays, hating Greek literature though he did learn to love Latin.133 Three aspects of his early life have precipitated much comment from scholars: his own much-repented lust, the notorious theft of the pears, and his taking a Carthaginian concubine at about the age of 17 or 18 who bore him a son whom they called Adeodatus.
He tells in his Confessions how, in his sixteenth year, he was swallowed up in a maelstrom of lust which he indulged at every opportunity, vying in sexual deeds with his peers and even boasting of sexual acts which he had not committed.134 But, while Augustine clearly had a strong sexual drive, his actual sexual activity before his conversion was not particularly unusual or outrageous by the standards of his age.135 Wills reminds us that he was faithful to his concubine for fifteen years - and, indeed, such concubinage was recognised in Roman law and even by the Church itself (at the Council of Toledo in 400).136
Augustine himself, even in his early years, seems to have valued fidelity:
In those years I had a woman. She was not my partner in what is called lawful marriage. I had found her in my state of wandering desire and lack of prudence. Nevertheless, she was the only girl for me, and I was faithful to her. With her I learnt by direct experience how wide a difference there is between the partnership of marriage entered into for the sake of having a family and the mutual consent of those whose love is a matter of physical sex, and for whom the birth of a child is contrary to their intention - even though, if offspring arrive, they compel their parents to love them.137
Wills warns that, despite Augustine's own later sense of guilt exhibited throughout the Confessions, we must beware of exaggerating overmuch Augustine's early sexual adventures. For example, he believes that to suggest, as some scholars have done, that Augustine was perceived by his father either masturbating or with an erection in the public baths is to misinterpret totally Augustine's own phrase to the effect that 'when at the bathhouse my father saw that I was showing signs of virility and the stirrings of adolescence [inquieta adulescentia] he was overjoyed to suppose that he would now be having grandchildren'.138
The episode of the theft of the pears is more perplexing. With Garry Wills, the reader of the Confessions is amazed that more than half of Book Two is preoccupied with what many another writer might have ignored or passed over as a childish peccadillo.139 Augustine tells us that, filled with wickedness, he stole something with which he was already plentifully supplied. The idea of theft and wrongdoing excited him, and so he and a group of fellow youths targeted a pear tree near his vineyard which was endowed with somewhat indifferent fruit. They seized a large haul of pears, ate some and threw the rest to the pigs. The real pleasure, Augustine submits, lay in having done something illicit.140
The memory of that childish deed grieved him sorely in later life. Introspectively, he asked himself what it was that he loved in that act of theft. He acknowledged the beauty of the fruit , because it was created by the hand of beauty Himself. Bleakly, he confesses that his 'feasting was only on the wickedness which I took pleasure in enjoying'.141
In this whole puerile incident, there is much scope for both the pop psychologist and the commentator who would attempt superficial comparisons with other religious figures known for their delicate consciences in other ages - for example, Martin Luther (1483-1546), an Augustinian in every sense of the word. This is not to deny, of course, the very real impact of Augustine on the young Luther.142 What may be argued with some plausibility is that incidents such as that of the pears, together with his sexual peccadillos, created a sense of guilt and sin in Augustine which sought an outlet, firstly in what was considered to be heterodoxy and formal heresy, and, later, in purification of the intellect, faith and body in the authority and disciplines of the established Church.
The third aspect of Augustine's early life, to which we alluded earlier, was his cohabitation with a Carthaginian concubine for many years. Having remained faithful to her, he was then persuaded to abandon her, and she returned, heartbroken, to North Africa, even though she had borne him a much-loved son.143
This seemingly casual abandonment, and forced return, of the girl to Africa has shocked many observers. Henry Chadwick describes it as 'deplorable'.144 The chief reason seems to have been snobbery: the lowly status of the concubine was an impediment to Augustine's social, financial and professional advancement and his burning ambition to do great things in Milan.145 His mother, Monica, arranged for him to become engaged to a prepubescent heiress.146 But was all this just snobbery mixed with ambition, or did it also betray a profound streak of cruelty in Augustine? Was it the need for a large dowry by a relatively impecunious male making his way in the world, or was Augustine merely a product of his own society?147 The real answer is that it was probably a confused mixture of all these motives. Certainly, Augustine himself was deeply pained and upset, like his concubine, by what he nonetheless perceived as a necessary separation and dismissal of the girl.148
It is certainly true that Augustine did nothing by halves. His conversion in the summer of ad 386 has been characterised as 'an all or nothing affair'.149 James J. O'Donnell observes that 'our last impression of Augustine is of a man who never made things easy for himself'.150 He was clearly devoted to his concubine, whose name we do not know, and to their son Adeodatus, whose name we do.151 The huge pain which both felt at the separation is recorded in the Confessions:
The woman with whom I habitually slept was torn away from my side because she was a hindrance to my marriage. My heart which was deeply attached was cut and wounded, and left a trail of blood. She had returned to Africa vowing that she would never go with another man.152
In a poignant, and beautifully written, novel entitled Vita Brevis: A Letter to Saint Augustine,153 Jostein Gaarder, who achieved international fame with his philosophical novel Sophie's World,154 attempts to imagine the feelings of the rejected concubine, whom Gaarder names Floria Aemilia. She writes him a lengthy letter; and, through the medium of Gaarder's fiction, across the centuries, the girl expresses her terrible hurt, dwelling on the intimacy and near-marital closeness that they had shared for so many years which had produced their beloved son.155
The fiction of Gaarder expresses as clearly as the Confessions of Augustine that what had been sundered was indeed a marriage in all but name. In the end, though she has lived as a catechumen, she refuses baptism,156 proclaiming that she fears not God but the theologians. She prays that 'the God of the Nazarene' will forgive Augustine for all the love and tenderness which he has rejected and banished.157
In the light of all this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Augustine's doctrine of sin should have had such a powerful, brooding and far-ranging influence on the Church down the ages, even though it might be interpreted with more reference to his early Manichaeism, and then his struggles against the Manichees, the Pelagians and the Donatists, rather than to his repentance for youthful sins of the flesh.158
It is true that feminist theologians have blamed Augustine for 'the scapegoating of women for sin, particularly sexual sin'.159 However, Mary Grey reminds us that Augustine believed that both men and women shared a responsibility for sinl6° and that 'in both racism and sexism - the causal connection with the actual teaching of Augustine cannot be proved. It is the link between the penal character of sin and its societal expressions which has proved so damaging.'161
Henry Chadwick has rightly observed that 'Augustine's Confessions will always rank among the greater masterpieces of western literature'.162 Yet we will go badly astray if we regard this autobiography as a mere chronicle of sexual indulgence followed by repentance. It may indeed be 'an unparalleled account of a spiritual struggle with sexual desire', in the words of Mary Grey,163 but it is also much more than that. Garry Wills prefers to translate the Latin Confessiones as Testimony rather than the more usual Confessions. For him, the latter translation lacks 'theological resonance'.164 This is because the word confessio in Augustine means not solely 'confession of sin' but also 'praise of God and profession of faith' together with an even broader semantic range according to which 'Confiteri means, etymologically, to corroborate, to confirm testimony, and even inanimate things can do that'.165
For all these reasons, Wills prefers to translate confessio as 'testimony'166 (Latin testimonium); he quotes Augustine as proclaiming 'Pulchritudo eorum confessio eorum [Their beauty is their testimony]'.167 The standard dictionaries confirm, or at least justify, Wills's own preference for testimony as the mot juste:
confiteor -fiteri -fessus sum ... (1) to confess, admit, acknowledge ... (2) to reveal, make known: ... confessa deam, manifesting her divinity ...l68
In a very real sense, then, the Confessiones of Augustine are by no means just a confession of sexual peccadillo; nor are they just a testament, in Wills's phrase. The Confessiones are a manifestation to the civilised Christian world, and beyond, of the truth, as Augustine perceives it, as well as a tribute to the authority of the established Church against the 'heterodoxies' of Manichaeism, Donatism and Pela-gianism. Following Wills, then, and perhaps being slightly more daring, one might render the term Confessiones as The Manifestations of Saint Augustine or even The Epiphanies of Saint Augustine.
There is an interesting, and by no means unknown, psychosomatic association which may be made between poor health and worry or guilt. Just before his conver sion, as well as during the process and its aftermath, Augustine had been in poor health with asthma and the loss of his voice.169 In the Confessions, he mentions the acute state of anxiety in which he performed his routine duties;170 he was keenly aware of how physically and mentally ill he had become;171 his academic workload got the better of him and he suffered a weakness in his lungs, rendering breathing difficult. Chest pains prevented him from speaking clearly or at length.172 In 386, he decided to abandon his prestigious teaching career as Rhetor, or Professor of Rhetoric, in Milan.173 Francis Thompson's, 'Hound of Heaven'174 had not only pursued him but overtaken him and won. He had held his teaching post for a mere two years.
In all this, there are many parallels which may be drawn between the life of Augustine of Hippo and that of the great Islamic scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazall (1058-1111), whose career and significance will be dealt with at some length in a later section of this book.175 Particular areas of affinity and comparison include al-Ghazall's intellectual and spiritual crisis resulting in a number of similar psychosomatic symptoms, and the abandonment of his academic career in the Nizamiyya College in Baghdad for the peace of Tus. The vocal afflictions suffered by both men and the mutual desire and search for peace after their respective abandonments of academe - by Augustine in Cassiciacum (near Como) in 386-7176 and by al-Ghazall in Tus - make the two men particularly useful for comparative study. And al-Ghazall, too, wrote his own species of Confessions under the title of al-Munqidh min al-Dalal, usually translated as Deliverance from Error.177
The lives of Augustine and al-Ghazall were theologically grounded in doubt, quest, spiritual crisis, mental anguish and physical trauma; the result was a quest for refuge in the security of what was perceived by each to be 'right doctrine' while at the same time attempting to preserve a measure of independent thought and action within the framework of what was deemed to be acceptable by the custodians of intellectual and theological power.
The rest of Augustine's life is soon told: after the beginning of his famous conversion in the garden in Milan178 in July 386, and his Easter 387 baptism by Bishop Ambrose of Milan,179 Augustine found himself back in Thagaste on his father's land in 388.180 A shock was to follow: in 391, Augustine was unwillingly ordained priest by the Greek-speaking Italian Bishop of the seaport of Hippo Regius; the elderly prelate's name was Valerius. While such forcible ordinations were by no means uncommon,181 the impact on Augustine was no less traumatic. Worse was to follow for one who had desired only solitude and peace. Bishop Valerius induced the Numidian Primate in 395 to consecrate Augustine as his coadjutor in Hippo. Canon law seems to have been ignored in this case.182 And so it was that, for more than thirty years, until his death in Hippo on 28 August 430, Aurelius Augustinus wore a bishop's mitre. It is abundantly clear that, despite personal taste and unwillingness, a strong skein of obedience marks the man in all this. It was to be coupled with a predilection for defending the established Church by excoriating the three major heresies of the day: Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism.
Arius had represented a challenge to the rule of ecclesiastical and lay authority, whether represented in tradition, Church, council or emperor. Augustine, in a language borne of spiritual suffering and intimate personal knowledge of what he attacked, at least in its Manichaean incarnation, championed in his sermons and writings the rights of those authorities. Athanasius had fought Arianism without any prior embracing of that heresy; Augustine had embraced Manichaeism before he fought it.
In an intriguing article entitled 'On the Function of Heresy' Paul Parvis observed: 'The Church is a city under siege, the orthodox an army under attack. In the history of the Church, then, it is the heretics who make all the running.'183 Parvis uses the antique terminology of 'orthodoxy', but his meaning is clear. The task of theology may be perceived as the need to sail steadily on a course whose main direction is articulated by the rocks of heresy which are to be avoided.184 Parvis concludes, magisterially:
In the nature of the theological task, it must be by indirection that we find direction out. In that complex web of conflict which is the historical life of the Church, the running is made by those who care and those who see - those who can read the signs of the times - men like Arius and Athanasius, Nestorius and Cyril, Eutyches and Leo. And in that web of conflict, the heretics are those who lose. Indeed, the function of heresy is to lose. The function, the vocation, of heretics is to suffer defeat, that, through the failure of their attempts to speak, the words of others might find meaning.185
To paraphrase Parvis's initial words here, we might note that it was in the nature of Augustine's theological task, after the early 'indirection' of the Manichaeism in which he wallowed in his younger days, to find the 'right' direction in his mature years at Hippo. Like Athanasius and, indeed, Arius, he tried to read the signs of the times and produced a theological semiotics186 which ultimately rejected, rather than embraced, the 'indirections' of Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism and plain paganism.187
In De Civitate Dei (The City of God), Augustine signals, as John O'Meara reminds us, that 'the great lesson of the City of God is that out of all things comes good'.188 Both Christianity and Rome could gain mutual benefit from each other's good. Christianity would benefit from the acceptance which assimilation into the Roman Empire would bring; Rome could benefit from a new birth and longevity of rule; the Greek intellectual tradition would spread, develop and expand. O'Meara believes that the key to reading the signs of De Civitate Dei is an emphasis on 'fulfilment not destruction', even though 'the practical problem with which Augustine had to deal was the problem of a spiritual Church in a secular world: the city of God in the city of this world'.189
Yet, at first, Augustine seems to have misidentified the true nature of this 'city of God'. Reading a now lost dialogue of Cicero entitled Hortensius, at the age of 19, he embraced Manichaeism.190 In the Confessions, Augustine tells how he began to consort with a group of glib and voluble Manichees in whose mouths were 'the devil's traps and a birdlime' formed from their perverted mixture and interpretation of the names of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost into a Trinity in which Christ's humanity was rejected and 'the Paraclete is the other self of Mani'.191
J. N. D. Kelly notes that this Manichaean way of thought is often considered to be a Christian heresy but was, in fact, an independent, albeit highly syncretic, religion. Kelly identifies elements from Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, as well as Christianity. The Manichees claimed that Mani (who died c. ad 274) had brought a full and universal religion of which only parts had been previously known. Manichaeism, with its great mythical dramas, had much in common with Christian Gnosticism. Salvation was attainable by knowledge of a world in which two great forces, good and evil, opposed each other throughout eternity.192
This emphasis on salvation via knowledge had a particular appeal at first for the young Augustine: he was in love with learning and wanted to study what the classical texts had to say about eloquence when he chanced on Cicero's Horten-sius.193 He was studying hard with the goal of becoming a distinguished lawyer.194 And, like al-Ghazall at a later date, he too came to appreciate the hollowness of what he sought. The law courts where he sought distinction bestowed a reputation which was 'high in proportion to one's success in deceiving people'.195
Augustine would only finally break free from the doctrines of the Manichees when he learned 'to conceive of incorporeal reality'.196 By developing, theologically, what MacDonald characterises as a doctrine of 'cosmological monism', Augustine was at last able to argue that 'since God is what truly is, Manichaean theological dualism must be false. There cannot be two independent divine principles.'197
Augustine proclaimed the supremacy of God's authority. Even if God commanded something that was contrary to a people's established laws or customs, they were obliged to do it.198 God's ways may not be man's ways, but man's unquestioning obedience is always required. Augustine himself is the human paradigm of such Isaac-like obedience. He submitted to both sacerdotal and episcopal ordination when what he would really have liked was to embrace an eremitical or quasi-eremitical life.
For Augustine, there was also an obvious cascade of authority from God to both Church and text: the Bible is 'commended by the authority of your Catholic Church'.199 Henry Chadwick notes how the problem of authority was centred in the arguments and debates which flared between the Manichees and the Catholics, and he also draws attention to the way in which Augustine believed that the truth could be gained by the parallel routes of authority and reason, the latter being Plato and the former being Christ.200 However, Christ's authority is at the same time 'the highest reason. He is the very wisdom of God, identified with the Mind of Plotinus' supreme triad.'201 Chadwick stresses how, for Augustine, the Bible was representative of 'the principle of authority . the authority of Bible and Church rested on reciprocal support'.202
Not only did divine authority cascade from God to the institutional Church and the Text, but it could devolve further, in the human realm, both ecclesiastical and secular. Bishops were owed due obedience by other Christians because of the episcopal office.203 In the secular field, Augustine admits that there can be merit in 'institutionalised force'.204 He quotes approvingly Romans 13:1-8 in which it is stated that all are subject to 'higher authorities' whose ultimate source and confirmation is God Himself: 'Anyone who resists authority resists what God has established. But those who resist that, bring judgement on themselves.'205
However, Augustine was interested not so much in the forms that government should take as in the relationship between governor and governed. Some may need to exercise this authority by coercive means. This is the result of sin. Fallen man may need to be controlled by force, threat or coercion. It is clear that Augustine's preference is for a benevolent form of authority, the sort that a father or husband might exercise. Indeed, God is the arch-paradigm here.206
Augustine, then, is an upholder of authority in both the ecclesiastical and secular spheres. But any would-be authoritarianism - a grave temptation for any who hold episcopal office - is tempered by a tendency to mercy. He is willing, for example, to intercede with the secular authorities on behalf of Donatists who have murdered, and mutilated the bodies of, two Catholic priests.207 In his letter to Marcellinus, brother of Apringius, Pro-Consul for Africa, Augustine begs that injustice should indeed be condemned but a common humanity should be noted and observed.208 There should ideally be a symbiosis of justice and mercy: this, for Augustine, is the meaning and the framework of the proper exercise of authority. In De Civitate Dei, Augustine presents a paradigm for precisely this:
This is where domestic peace starts, the ordered harmony about giving and obeying orders among those who live in the same house. For the orders are given by those who are concerned for the interests of others; thus the husband gives orders to the wife, parents to children, masters to servants. While those who are objects of this concern obey orders; for example, wives obey husbands, the children obey their parents, the servants their masters. But in the household of the just man who 'lives on the basis of faith' and who is still on pilgrimage, far from that Heavenly City, even those who give orders are the servants of those whom they appear to command. For they do not give orders because of a lust for domination but from a dutiful concern for the interests of others, not with pride in taking precedence over others, but with compassion in taking care of others.209
In an age of sects and heresies - Manichaeism, Pelagianism, Donatism - whose teachings, as Augustine knew from personal experience, could be particularly attractive, there was a profound need to maintain and respect the authority of the established Church. This is a leitmotiv of his work and is underlined in his numerous writings refuting the heretics of the day, and in his preaching, especially against the Donatists. After the June 411 Conference held in Carthage, the Commissioner Marcellinus, sent by the emperor, found in favour of Augustine's views and effectively sounded the death knell for Donatism in Africa.210 The Conference was attended by both Catholic and Donatist bishops under the presidency of Marcellinus. Augustine's diplomacy and generosity won the day.211
Two aspects of the Conference are worthy of note: the interweaving of imperial, secular authority with ecclesiastical authority; and the fact that, although not a formal Council or Synod of the Church, Carthage conformed to the conciliar paradigm in its intention to resolve doctrinal and other ecclesiastical disputes.
Augustine lived through the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Goths in August ad 410; this event must have had a profound effect on him.212 Pragmatically, Augustine as a Bishop had to deal with the perennial problem of a Church which was spiritually inhabiting a world that was overwhelmingly secular. It was 'the city of God in the city of this world'.213
Yet Augustine does not entirely write off the latter. After all, God had created it.214 O'Meara is at pains to stress that Augustine has a generally positive attitude towards the secular states of Rome and Greece215 even though Augustine acknowledges that the pagan gods could not, and did not, protect or save Rome.216
Augustine is a pragmatist who, perhaps because of his own spiritual wounds, is able to filter the language of authority and 'right doctrines' through his own peculiar, but powerful, scriptural and hortatory sieve without damage to anything except his own delicate conscence.217
Was this article helpful?