Augustine the African

by James J. O'Donnell

Augustine was born in Tagaste (modern Souk Ahras, Algeria) in 354 and died almost seventy-six years later in Hippo Regius (modern Annaba) on the Mediterranean coast sixty miles away. In the years between he lived out a career that seems to moderns to bridge the gap between ancient pagan Rome and the Christian middle ages. But to Augustine, as to his contemporaries, that gap separated real people and places they knew, not whole imaginary ages of past and future. He lived as we do, in the present, full of uncertainty.

Augustine's African homeland had been part of Rome's empire since the destruction of Carthage five hundred years before his birth. Carthage had been rebuilt by Rome as the metropolis of Roman Africa, wealthy once again but posing no threat. The language of business and culture throughout Roman Africa was Latin. Careers for the ambitious, as we shall see, led out of provincial Africa into the wider Mediterranean world; on the other hand, wealthy Italian senators maintained vast estates in Africa which they rarely saw. The dominant religion of Africa became Christianity--a religion that violently opposed the traditions of old Rome but that could not have spread as it did without the prosperity and unity that Rome had brought to the ancient world.

Roman Africa was a military backwater. The legions that were kept there to maintain order and guard against raids by desert nomads were themselves the gravest threat to peace; but their occasional rebellions were for the most part short-lived and inconsequential. The only emperors who ever spent much time in Africa were the ones who had been born there; by Augustine's time, decades had passed without an emperor even thinking of going to Africa.

Some distinctly African character continued to mark life in the province. Some non-Latin speech, either the aboriginal Berber of the desert or the derelict Punic the Carthaginians had spoken, continued to be heard in dark corners. In some of the same corners, old local pagan cults could still be found. When Augustine became a Christian clergyman, he found Africa rent by an ecclesiastical schism that had its roots at least partly in the truculent sense of difference maintained by the less-Romanized provincials of up-country Numidia, near the northern fringes of the Sahara.

So a young man like Augustine could belong irretrievably to the world Rome had made, but still feel that he was living on the periphery of that world. Augustine set out to make himself more Roman than the Romans and to penetrate to the center of the culture from which he found himself alienated by his provincial birth. But that was only the beginning of his story.

Augustine was born on 13 November, A.D. 354, in Tagaste, a town large enough to have its own bishop but too small for a college or university.[[1]] His parents, Patricius and Monica, belonged to the financially imperilled middle class. They were well enough off to have educational ambitions for their son, but too poor to finance those ambitions themselves. The fourth century was an age of mixed marriages at this level of society, in which devout Christian women like Monica were often to be found praying for the conversion of their irreligious husbands. Her prayers were not unavailing; Patricius accepted baptism on his deathbed. Though Patricius offered no direct impulse towards Christianity for his son, he must not have been much more than a passive obstacle.

Of Augustine's childhood we know only what he chooses to tell us in the highly selective memoirs that form part of the Confessions. He depicts himself as a rather ordinary sort of child, good at his lessons but not fond of school, eager to win the approval of his elders but prone to trivial acts of rebellion, quick to form close friendships but not always able to foresee their consequences. He studied Latin with some enthusiasm but never loved Greek. While he was leading what he wants us to think was a rather conventionally boisterous adolescence (it is best to imagine him in a crowd of conformists, but edging towards the quieter fringes of the crowd), his parents were worrying about paying for his education. Finally, with the help of an affluent family friend, they managed to scrape together enough to send him to the nearest university town a dozen miles away, Madaura, the home of the famous second-century sophist and novelist Apuleius, which was the second city in the life of the mind in Africa.

After a time at Madaura, the youth's talents made Carthage inevitable. There he seems to have gone at about the age of seventeen. Not long after, his father died and his mother was left with modest resources and nothing to tie her to Tagaste. Augustine himself quickly set up housekeeping with a young woman he met in Carthage, by whom a son was born not long after. This woman would stay with Augustine for over a decade and, though we do not know her name, he would say that when he had to give her up to make a society marriage in Milan "his heart ran blood" with grief as she went off to Africa--perhaps to enter a convent. The son, Adeodatus, stayed with Augustine until premature death took him in late adolescence.

So far the conventional outward events of Augustine's young manhood. His intellectual life was a little more remarkable. The education he had received in Tagaste and Madaura had made him a typical late Roman pedant, with a comprehensive knowledge of a few authors (especially Cicero and Vergil) and a taste for oddities of language and style.[[2]] Only at Carthage did his education show any signs of breaking the usual molds, but even then only in a conventional way. In the ordinary course of the curriculum, he had to read a work of Cicero's called the Hortensius.[[3]] This book, since lost and known only from fragments quoted by Augustine and other ancient writers, was a protreptic, that is, a treatise designed to inspire in the reader an enthusiasm for the discipline of philosophy. Through all his other vagaries of interest and allegiance, until the time of Augustine's conversion to Christianity Cicero would remain the one master from whom the young African learned the most; Augustine is in many ways the greatest of Cicero's imitators in point of Latin style.

The zeal for philosophy led first in what may seem a strange direction. Fired with the love of wisdom from his reading of the quintessential Roman politician, Augustine immediately joined a religious cult from Persia that had planted itself in the Roman world as a rival of Christianity: Manicheism. This sensual but sensitive young man, brought up around but not exactly in Christianity, took his Ciceronian enthusiasm with the utmost seriousness on the moral plane. He knew his own life did not in fact match his noble ideals. He was torn between the conventional pleasures of adolescence and the conventional rigors of philosophy. For this tension, Manicheism offered soothing relief. Augustine was not to blame that he felt this way, the Manichees told him, for he was only the pawn of greater forces that could, because Augustine was lucky and clever, be propitiated. Security could be had without sacrifice, and guilt removed without atonement.

The world the Manichees imagined was torn between two contrary powers: the perfectly good creator and the perfectly evil destroyer.[[4] The world seen by human eyes was the battleground for their cosmic conflict. The Manichees and their followers were the few who were on the side of the good spirit and who would be rewarded for their allegiance with eternal bliss. In the meantime all sorts of misfortune might befall the individual, but none of the wicked things he found himself doing were his fault. If the devil does compel sin, then guilt does not ensue. A few Manichees, the inner circle, were said to live perfect lives already, but the claim was hard to verify since the many disciples were kept busy waiting on the perfect few hand and foot, to keep the few from being corrupted by contact with the evil world of matter. The many were thus kept on a leash with easy promises and a vague theology.

Augustine was too clever to settle for vague theology for long. His most poignant moment of disillusion is recounted in the Confessions, when he finally met Faustus, the Manichee sage who would (Augustine had been promised) finally answer all the questions that troubled Augustine. When the man finally turned up, he proved to be half-educated and incapable of more than reciting a more complex set of slogans than his local disciples had known.

But while Augustine soon dissented privately from the Manichees, he did not break with them publicly. Even when he had decided the slogans were nonsense, they still provided the assurance that all the evil in Augustine's life was not his own fault and could not be let go of easily. Augustine associated with Manichees who thought he was one of them as late as 384, more than a decade after his first involvement with the sect.

Once initial enthusiasm faded, Augustine's attention drifted from the niceties of metaphysics to the realities of his career, which preoccupied him through his twenties. At about age twenty-one, after four years or so in Carthage, he went back to his home town to teach. He could well have stayed there forever, but his talent encouraged him to entertain loftier ambitions. He left again the next year.

From this decisive return to Carthage can be traced a career to which the adjective "brilliant" scarcely does justice. Seven years in Carthage matured the young teacher into a formidable scholar and orator. Education in a university town like Carthage at that time was a free-market enterprise, with each teacher setting up independently around the city center to make a reputation and inveigle students into paying for his wares; it was a competition in which many young men like Augustine must have fallen by the way. Augustine prospered, however, for when he became unhappy with conditions there (the students were rowdy and tried to cheat the teachers of their fees), he could think only of one place to which to move--Rome.

Rome of the fourth century was no longer a city with political or military significance for the Roman empire, but nobody at the time dared say such a thing. By common consent, the pretense was maintained that this was the center of civilization--and so the pretense became self-fulfilling prophecy. Academic prestige, the emptiest of glories, is a matter of reputation rather than reality; Rome had a reputation stretching back for centuries. Understandably it took Augustine a few months to find a place there, but when he finally found his feet, he could not have done better.

Some Manichee friends arranged an audition before the prefect of the city of Rome, a pompous and inept pagan named Symmachus, who had been asked to provide a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan.[[5] The young provincial won the job and headed north to take up his position in late 384. Thus at age thirty, Augustine had won the most visible academic chair in the Latin world, in an age when such posts gave ready access to political careers. In the decade before Augustine's rise another provincial, Ausonius of Bordeaux, had become prime minister in the regime of a teen-aged emperor whose tutor he had been.[[6]] Our estimate of Augustine's talents is based largely on his later achievements; but that judgment together with his swift climb to eminence as a young professor makes it safe to assume that if Augustine had stayed in public life, he would have found very few limits to his advancement.

Augustine saw his prospects clearly. When his mother followed him to Milan, he allowed her to arrange a good society marriage, for which he gave up his mistress. (But then he still had to wait two years until his fiancee was of age and promptly took up in the meantime with another woman.) He felt the tensions of life at an imperial court, lamenting one day as he rode in his carriage to deliver a grand speech before the emperor that a drunken beggar he passed on the street had a less careworn existence than he.

Thus the strain of rapid advancement began to tell. His old perplexities rose again to plague him. He had tried Manicheism and it had failed; he owed some allegiance to Cicero, but in his day Cicero stood for little more than style and skepticism. He settled for ambivalence and prudent ambition. He had been enrolled as a catechumen (pre-baptismal candidate) in the Christian church by his mother when he was a child; he acknowledged this status publicly (it was good for his career) to conceal anxiety and doubt.

His mother was there to press the claims of Christianity, but Augustine could probably have held out against her will alone indefinitely. Because, however, Monica was in Milan, and because Augustine was in public life and needed connections, he was soon caught between her and the most influential man in Milan, the bishop Ambrose. At first their encounters seem to have been few and perfunctory, but soon (due regard for his career probably required it) Augustine began to sit through a few of the bishop's sermons. Here Christianity began to appear to him in a new, intellectually respectable light. As before, his most pressing personal problem was his sense of evil and his responsibility for the wickedness of his life; with the help of technical vocabulary borrowed from Platonic philosophy Ambrose proposed a convincing solution for Augustine's oldest dilemma. Augustine had besides a specific objection to Christianity that only a professor of belles-lettres could have: he could not love the scriptures because their style was inelegant and barbaric. Here again Ambrose, elegant and far from barbaric, showed Augustine how Christian exegesis could give life and meaning to the sacred texts.

Resolution of his purely intellectual problems with Christianity left Augustine to face all the pressure society and his mother could bring to bear. More will be said below about the inner journey of his conversion, but the external facts are simple. In the summer of 386, not quite two years after his arrival in Milan, Augustine gave up his academic position on grounds of ill health and retired for the winter to a nearby country villa loaned by a friend in a place called Cassiciacum. He took along his family (son, mother, brother, and cousins) and friends, plus a couple of paying students who were the sons of friends. There they spent their days in philosophical and literary study and debate. Some of their conversations were philosophical and religious and come down to us in philosophical dialogues,[[7] and we know that they spent part of every day reading Vergil together. Though Augustine says he often spent half the night awake in prayer and meditation, the dialogues themselves are not dramatically theological. They seem to have been modest attempts to use the professional expertise of a rhetorician and philosopher to clarify technically the questions that had perplexed him. (The dialogues show a charming modesty about the powers of philosophical argument. In the midst of a long, abstract argument among the men, Monica would come into the discussion and in a few words, often quoting scripture, summarize an argument more clearly and concisely than the men had been able to do.)

In the spring of 387, Augustine and his friends returned to Milan for the forty days of preparation for baptism that preceded Easter. Then at the Easter vigil service on the night of Holy Saturday Augustine was baptized by Ambrose. Many people at that time, when Christianity was the fashionable road to success in the Christian empire, may have taken such a step casually and returned to their old ways, but Augustine was not one of them.

The great world of Rome had to be given up. Ambition now seemed hollow and sterile. Instead, Augustine and his friends decided to return to Africa, where they could still command a little property at Tagaste, to live in Christian retirement, praying and studying scripture. For a time their return home was held up by military disorders: a usurper came down out of Gaul and killed the emperor who resided at Milan, with ensuing disruption to the ordinary flow of commerce and travel in the western Mediterranean. While Augustine's party was at the port of Ostia near Rome, waiting for a boat back to Africa, Monica died.

Augustine returned to Africa at about the same age at which Dante found himself in the dark wood--thirty-five, halfway to the biblical norm of threescore and ten. He settled down at Tagaste in 389 with a few friends to form what we call, somewhat anachronistically, a monastery; it was probably very like the household at the villa at Cassiciacum in the winter of 386-87, but without the Vergil. Augustine would gladly have stayed there forever.

But such talent and devotion could not be left alone. Two years later, while on a visit to the coastal city of Hippo Regius, he found himself virtually conscripted into the priesthood by the local congregation. He broke into tears as they laid hands on him in the church and his fate became clear. Cynics in the audience thought these were tears of ambition and disappointment at not being made bishop straight off, but they were only tears of deeply felt inadequacy. Augustine had for some time been avoiding cities that needed bishops in fear of just such a fate.

He soon enough accepted his fate. He asked his new bishop, Valerius, for a little time to prepare himself for his duties. Now, if not before, he devoted himself to the mastery of the texts of scripture that made him a formidable theologian in the decades to come. His first expressly theological treatises come from this period, devoted mainly to attacking the Manichees he knew so well. (Not only did his experience make him an astute critic of the cult, but it was politic for him to take a stand publicly, to thwart the inevitable innuendoes from other Christians that perhaps he had not truly abandoned the Persian cult but was some kind of Trojan horse sent to subvert the church.) His abilities were quickly recognized, and by 393 he was being asked to preach sermons in place of his bishop, who was a Greek speaker by birth. The old man passed on in 395 and Augustine assumed responsibility for the church at Hippo. He would remain at this post until his death thirty-four years later.

Conventional accounts sketch Augustine's episcopal career in terms of the controversies in which he took part. This brief sketch will do likewise; but I must first point out the main inadequacy of this approach. Augustine's first order of business through the decades of his episcopate was the care of the souls entrusted to him. Most of his life was an endless round of audiences with his clergy and his people. He was constantly called upon to adjudicate all kinds of disputes that had arisen in a world where the man of God was more to be trusted as judge than the greedy magistrate sent from abroad to represent Roman justice.[[8]] The real focus of his activity lay elsewhere still: the liturgy.

The early church was an institution centered upon the worship of the community. Of a Sunday, every orthodox Christian in Hippo could be found jammed into Augustine's basilica, standing through a service that must have lasted at least two hours. We know from the hundreds of sermons that survive how much care and imagination Augustine put into preaching, tailoring his remarks to suit the needs and capacity of his audience. The man who had been orator enough to declaim for emperors must have been a spellbinding preacher.

But even the homiletics of Augustine did not efface the dignity of the central act of worship. God was present on the altar for these people and this event was the center of Christian community life. Lukewarm believers in the throng attended out of respect for social pressure and a fear of divine wrath and were not much moved, but for Augustine, this was his central task. The controversies were only sideshow, important only when they threatened to disrupt the unity of the community's worship.

But we know Augustine for his writings, and many of them were controversial. Three great battles had to be fought: the first was an ecclesiastical struggle for the very life of his community, the second a philosophical battle to effect the Christianization of Roman culture, and the last a theological quarrel of great subtlety over the essentials of faith and salvation. The first is the most obscure to moderns, while the second and third will be treated in more detail in the chapters that follow. Here we will concentrate on the ecclesiastical war that Augustine fought and won in his first decade and a half as bishop.

Donatism is the movement Augustine opposed, named after a bishop at Carthage some eighty years before Augustine's time to Hippo.[[9]] In those days the church had just recovered from the last bitter wave of persecution begun in 303 by the emperors Galerius and Diocletian. When fear subsided, Christians could breathe again and indulge in recriminations over the lapses of some of their number in time of trial.

The official position of the church was that those Christians who had compromised their religion in time of persecution could, with due repentance and atonement, be readmitted to full membership in the religious community. But there was a minority faction of enthusiasts who insisted that cooperation with the authorities in time of persecution was tantamount to total apostasy and that if any traitors wanted to reenter the church they had to start all over again, undergoing rebaptism. Evaluation of the credentials of those who sought reentry would be in the hands of those who had not betrayed the church.

The logical result of the Donatist position was to make the church into an outwardly pure and formally righteous body of redeemed souls. The orthodox party resisted this pharisaism, seeing in it a rigorism inimical to the spirit of the gospels. But Africa was known for its religious zealots and the new Donatist movement proved a resilient one. Even after official imperial disapproval had been expressed, the schismatic church continued to grow and prosper. By the time of Augustine's consecration as bishop, in fact, it looked as if the "orthodox" party was on the wane. In Hippo itself the larger church and the more populous congregation belonged to the Donatists in the early 390s. A constant state of half-repressed internecine warfare persisted between the communities. Popular songs and wall posters were pressed into service in the cause of sectarian propaganda. In the countryside, Donatist brigands ambushed orthodox travelers in bloody assaults.

Augustine began his anti-Donatist campaign with tact and caution. His first letters to Donatist prelates are courteous and emphasize his faith in their good will. He assumed that reasonable men could settle this controversy peaceably. But Augustine quickly discovered that reason and good manners would get him nowhere. In the late 390s, then, Augustine resigned himself to a course of action others in the church had long been urging: the invocation of government intervention to repress the Donatists. Augustine was dismayed at coercion in matters of religion, but consented to the new policy when he became convinced that the perversity and obtuseness of the Donatists were complete.[[10]] Even charity itself demanded that the Donatists be compelled to enter the true church in the hope that at least some would genuinely benefit from the change. They could not be worse off than they were.

Even when this policy had been settled upon, another decade of instability remained. Finally, in 411, an imperial commissioner conducted a detailed hearing into the facts of the matter, attended by hundreds of bishops from both orthodox and Donatist factions, and decided in favor of the orthodox party. From this time on Donatism was illegal and, though the schismatic community apparently showed some signs of life in remote parts of Africa until the Moslem invasions centuries later, the back of the movement had been broken, and at least the security and position of the orthodox party had been guaranteed.

The principle for which Augustine fought deserves emphasis. Christianity was not, he claimed, something external and visible; it was not to be found in obedience to certain clearly-defined laws. Christianity was a matter of spirit rather than law, something inside people rather than outside. Most important, the church had room within itself for sinners as well as saints, for the imperfections of those in whom God's grace was still working as well as for the holiness of the blessed. Augustine drew the boundary of the church not between one group of people and another but rather straight through the middle of the hearts of all those who belonged to it. The visible church contained the visible Christians, sins and all; the invisible church, whose true home lay in heaven, held only those who were redeemed. Charity dictated that the visible church be open to all, not lorded over by a few self-appointed paragons choosing to admit only their own kind.

In A.D. 410, the city of Rome, with all its glories, was taken by barbarians under the leadership of the Visigoth Alaric. It is customary to say that shock waves ran throughout the Roman world at this event, but it is more correct to say that shock waves ran through those citizens of the Roman world prosperous enough to care about expensive symbols of Roman grandeur. A fair number of wealthy Romans fled the city to country estates in Campania, in Sicily, and in north Africa. Enough of them showed up in Hippo for Augustine to warn his flock that they should receive the refugees with open arms and charity.

Not long after the refugees settled on their African estates and began to frequent the salons of Carthage, the more intellectual among them began to wonder aloud whether their new religion might not be to blame for the disaster they had suffered. After all, the argument ran, Rome had been immune from capture for fully eight hundred years; but now, just two decades after the formal end of public worship of the pagan gods (commanded by the emperor Theodosius in 391), the city fell to the barbarians. Perhaps it was true what pagans had said, that the new Christian god with ideas about turning the other cheek and holding worldly empires in low esteem was not an efficient guardian of the best interests of the ruling class. Most of the people who indulged in these idle speculations were themselves Christian. The "paganism" of these people was no revival of ancient religion, but only the persistence of the ancient notion of religion as a bargain you struck with the gods in order to preserve your health, wealth, and complacency.

Augustine was invited by a friend, the imperial commissioner Marcellinus, who was in Africa to look into the Donatist quarrel for the emperor, to respond to these charges. He knew that it was more than a question of why Rome fell; here were Christians who still did not know what Christianity was about, how it differed from the Roman religions it had replaced. His response was a masterpiece of Christian apologetics, City of God, whose composition stretched over fifteen years. The first books, consoling those the Visigoths had frightened, were published quickly and seem to have done their job. But the work as a whole continued to come forth in installments, revealing a broad vision of history and Christianity.

Marcellinus, a devout layman, also played a part in the the last great controversy of Augustine's life. One of the refugees from Rome had been an unassuming preacher named Pelagius, who had stirred up a moral rearmament movement at Rome.[[11]] Pelagius seems to have appealed particularly to affluent ladies whom he urged to set an example through works of virtue and ascetic living. He apparently had a considerable effect for the good on the conduct of those with whom he came in contact. But Augustine saw in Pelagius and his followers an extreme position exactly opposite to the one he had just rebuked in the cultured critics of Christianity, but one no less dangerous. Pelagianism, as we shall see in more detail later on, was theologically rather similar to Donatism, in that it assumed that people could, by their own virtue, set themselves apart as the ones on whom God particularly smiled.

Augustine never met Pelagius, though the latter had passed through Hippo in late 410. Instead, he had to deal at all times with the "Pelagians," the most notorious of whom, Caelestius, was apparently a good deal more tactful and restrained than his teacher had been. While Pelagius went off to the Holy Land, where he became an unwilling center of controversy as he visited the sacred sites, Caelestius and others back in Africa waded into the fray with Augustine. Whatever the merits of the case, Augustine's side prevailed in the ensuing controversy. The authority of the papacy was invoked eventually--not without difficulty--and later that of the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431. Pelagius and his disciples were clearly and soundly defeated.

But the controversy did not end with the defeat of Pelagius. Augustine had to face further questions, as the logical consequences of the positions he took against Pelagius were examined by friend and foe alike. Both in Africa and in Gaul, monks and their leaders protested that the Augustinian theology of grace undermined their own ascetic efforts in the cloister. In Italy, the young bishop of Eclanum, Julian, engaged Augustine in a bitter debate that tainted the last decade of the old bishop's life. A deep poignancy marks the old man's dogged defense of himself and his belief against a young, resourceful, and resilient foe.

Old age and pressing concerns at home eventually delivered Augustine from the necessity of answering Julian. By 430, a band of barbarians had found its way even to Africa. The Vandals, who had first come from Germany into Roman Gaul in 406 and later passed through Gaul into Spain, had been invited into Africa by a Roman governor in rebellion against the emperor. The Vandals, like the Saxons later in the same century, proved to be deadly allies. In the summer of 430 they were besieging the city of Hippo as the aged bishop lay dying within. Shortly after his death they captured the city. Not long after, they captured Carthage and established a kingdom that lasted a century.