Note: I hope you enjoy a 3-part biography of Saint Augustine, a man I have greatly come to esteem, who laid much of the foundation for the modern Evangelical Church. A ‘Works Cited’ page will be included on part 3.
In the year 410 AD the world fell into shock, it was their “9/11”. Rome, the Eternal City, finally had fallen to an enemy, and the Roman Empire looked irreparable. The Visigoths, a powerful barbarian group from Spain, had overcome and looted the city of Rome, ravaging the beauty it once boasted of. Jerome was speechless, “My voice sticks in my throat, the City that took the whole world captive is itself captive.” Thousands fled and many found refuge in Northern Africa. There a man awaited them, a man of faith and conviction whose eyes were on heaven. When the world around him shook, he remained a solid monument to an unchanging God. Rome had fallen, but God had not; men were desperate for hope, and Augustine (later made a Saint by the Catholic Church) had the words of healing for which they longed (Shelley 124-5). The restlessness of the citizens of the Roman world simply displayed the restlessness of their hearts. Their battle was spiritual; their hunger was of the soul; and their fear was of eternal death. Saint Augustine knew their struggle intimately; he had warred in their battle and had found rest for his soul.
Only a handful of men have been able to drastically change the course of history, and Saint Augustine is among them, as his life displays the honesty of a man dependent on God’s grace, and the depth of his writing is to be compared to that of Paul. It is amazing to see how much this one man has influenced the course of history, bringing profound credibility to the Christian faith and answers to the deepest desire of the human heart—to be loved. Augustine has been greatly admired for centuries because of his life, his great works, and his theology. “To this day Christians feel the impact of his mind and soul” (Shelley 125).But what makes Saint Augustine so important to the modern man? He never preached repentance to thousands of people like Peter did, never did he nail a revolt to the doors of a church like Martin Luther did, nor did he become a martyr for God’s cause like Jim Elliott. Yet his impact is at least equal, if not greater, to theirs. In this essay, Augustine’s life will be examined so that we may understand his works and why he wrote as he did. Then his works will be looked at, although sparsely, to see what he taught. Lastly, as a conclusion, all these things will be tied together to see what kind of impact he has had on modern Theology and philosophical thought.
In 354 Aurelius Augustine was born to Patricius and Monica in Thagaste, North Africa. There he grew up speaking Latin and showed signs of brilliance early, so his parents found ways to send him to school in Carthage, the greatest city of Northern Africa. They were of modest means and struggled to scrape enough money together to send their son to study there, but thirteen years later it was well worth it as he came out an “accomplished scholar in what we would call today the speech and communication arts” (Bourke 11).
On the exterior, Augustine became a man of great talent, and the future looked very bright for the young man from Thagaste. He was to become a story of “rags to riches,” for his natural ability to sway crowds and command rhetoric would take him from the small town to the courts of the world’s greatest politicians. But internally, as soon as he had left his home, a devouring storm began to grow in his spirit, and a terrible tension began building as soon as he reached for manhood. Humans are not usually honest about what happens internally and all that matters, seemingly, is the external. Normally, the modern world would know very little about this man if he had not chosen to expose himself in the most intimate of ways. Later in life, Augustine documented his struggle in one of his most famous works, Confessions, which is the first autobiography ever known to be written. It is in the form of a prayer, and in it he gives his testimony, honestly and openly sharing his soul with his readers (Litfin 216-7).
While at Carthage, during his thirteen years of study, this struggle began. He had a deep-seated love for his mother, Monica, who was a devout Christian that always encouraged her son to give himself to God, to live for Him. But the Bible had “no appeal to him,” it seemed archaic, and he saw the Old Testament as crude and barbaric. His studies drove him to read Plato, Cicero, and Aristotle, to consider philosophy and logic. The Bible did not seem to hold such qualities, yet he knew he disappointed his mother by not living according to it or respecting it (Shelley 125). Again, had not Augustine shed more light through Confessions, his readers would never have known the deep-seated reason behind his rejection of Scripture, and ultimately of God.
He rejected the God of Scripture because he did not believe these could meet his longing for love or fulfillment. He searched in a wide variety of areas in order to find this, much like Solomon did and outlined in Ecclesiastes, and would come to the same conclusion. The world and its pleasures were fleeting. He pursued sex and found guilt; he searched out philosophy and found it hollow; and even the heights of success had him longing to live at peace. Augustine recalled this, “I aspired to honours, money, marriage, and you laughed at me. In those ambitions I suffered the bitterest difficulties; that was by your mercy” (Litfin 222). Perhaps his most famous quote embraces his desire for purpose: “Thou hast made us for Thee and our heart is unquiet (restless) until it finds its rest in Thee” (Augustine, Confessions 4, addition mine).
His first struggle was with the lust of sex; he had become a slave to the passionate chains of love. He was warned by his mother not to indulge in fornication, but he could not control his sin and plunged headlong into it. In his Confessions, he later admits, “I refused to satisfy my internal hunger with your spiritual food, my God, and I was unaware of any need…my soul was sick and covered in sores…to love and be loved in return was what excited me, especially if I could enjoy my lover’s body. So I polluted the stream of friendship with the filth of lust and obscured its brightness with foul passions” (Litfin 217-8).
Since age seventeen, Augustine lived with a lover, his mistress, and it is thought that she was a slave or at least from a very poor background. While he remained faithful to this one woman for over a decade and had a son with her, he knew he was simply using her as a tool, “With her I learned 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.” She was exploited by him to fulfill his sexual drive, and, as common in the Roman culture, she could be disposed of at any time. When Augustine moved to Milan, in order to become a public orator, he did dispose of her, yet took his son with him. He took another woman as a mistress there, and with the help of his mother, became engaged to the daughter of a wealthy family, who was only ten. Yet he could not forget his first concubine, and a deep-seated restlessness came upon him. He had given his heart to her, to be loved, and when he turned her away he was overcome with guilt. She returned back to Africa, penniless and shamed, never to marry again. Finally his sin was beginning to wear upon him, and become a burden (Litfin 221).
During his time in Carthage, Augustine also embarked on another “vanity.” that of human philosophy, namely Manichaeism, to fulfill his restlessness. Manichaeism taught that Christ was a great prophet and that there were two gods—making this philosophy a dualistic religion at its core. The concept that the flesh was evil was what attracted him because it enabled him to suppress the guilt of his lust. But this did not last long, and the Holy Spirit convicted him of his sin. This was done as Augustine slowly became convinced that Manichaeism was a flawed philosophy; it was much too simple. He had become deeply entrenched in it, but when he came to the end of its logic, he found it hollow and porous (Bourke 12).
When Augustine completed his thirteen years of schooling at Carthage, he embarked for Rome, and later Milan. The year was 383; he was now twenty-nine, and he was looking for a fresh start. This was the beginning of his last great “vanity,” worldly success. Within a year he was given professorship at the State University in Milan, a city rivaled only by Rome in greatness, and it was leading him straight for monumental success (Litfin 220). It was at this time that his mother had set up an engagement with the daughter of a wealthy family in order to promote him into the higher echelons of society. His ability with rhetoric and public speaking made him wildly successful and his prospects were phenomenal (Shelley 126).
But in all of this, Augustine found that he was completely dissatisfied; at the climax of his career, he was at the climax of his restlessness. The spiritual void he carried could not be filled with sex, even though at this time he found himself in “a whirl of vicious lovemaking” with his second concubine (Shelley 126). He had no philosophy that led him to correctly understand God or his purposes, so his spiritual life was running on the fumes of Manichaeism. And his success just produced lack of purpose—“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26a, ESV). Worldly success proved useless. On one occasion, while under the intense pressure of giving an important political speech, “he found himself envying the merry, drunken beggar he chanced to encounter in the streets” (Litfin 222).
No doubt Augustine wondered what was missing in his life. Everything he wanted was becoming available: he was brilliant, sought-after because of his great speaking ability, and had sex available at his convenience. But his soul was dying, and life was proving to be meaningless without the fulfillment of the spirit. The closer he climbed to the summit of the world, the farther his soul sunk into the depression of hell. There was nowhere to turn; he was at the end of himself. God had him just where he needed him.