Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620) describe his life to 387, the year he converted to Christianity. Born in a North African province of the Roman Empire, his name in Latin was Aurelius Augustinus. His father, Patricius, a farmer, local official, and a pagan, later converted to Christianity. His mother, Monica, a devout Christian, who was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, prayed and struggled for her son’s conversion. She raised him as a Christian, but following the church practice of the day he was not baptized until adulthood. Augustine began his education in Tagaste, Numidia (now Souk Akras, Algeria), and when he was eleven or twelve, his parents sent him to school in nearby Madauros (now near Mdaourouch, Algeria).
In Madauros, Augustine studied classical languages and literature, as well as music, mathematics, and natural sciences. He rapidly gained eloquence in his native Latin, as well as Punic, a dialect of the ancient Phoenicians. The Roman poet Vergil made a lasting mark on his thought and expression. His immersion, both inside and outside the classroom, into pagan myth and literature, with all its moral and religious ambiguities, caused him to set aside his Christian upbringing, for a while becoming a pagan. He sought pleasure in lust, mischief, and notoriety for his indiscretions.
When Augustine returned to Tagaste in 370, his father Patricius wanted him to pursue rhetoric—public speaking, the art of writing effective prose, and the study of grammar and logic. His father sent him to the great city of Carthage, near present-day Tunis, Tunisia, to complete his training to become a teacher. A businessman, Romanianus, assisted Patricius in financing Augustine’s education in Carthage. At this time, Augustine met a Catholic woman who bore his child, Adeodatus, in 373; he lived with his son and common-law wife for nearly fourteen years.
In Carthage, Augustine studied rhetoric from 371 to 374. He adopted the teachings of Mani, a Persian who declared himself a prophet in 240. Mani taught a conflicting dualism of light and dark, good and evil, which was said to explain all facts, processes, and events. Augustine, trying to find an explanation for the problem of evil, thought Manicheanism a rational alternative to Christianity. Manicheanism accounted for evil by making God’s power equal to the power of evil and by making God a material rather than a spiritual being. Augustine also was influenced in his quest for truth by reading Cicero, the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher.
In 375, Augustine resumed teaching in Tagaste but the following year returned to Carthage. There, he started a school of rhetoric and renewed his association with the Manicheans, although doubting their teachings. In 382, he abandoned Manicheanism.
The next year, Augustine moved to Rome and later to Milan, where he became a professor of rhetoric. With much sorrow, he separated from his common-law wife. He studied the neo-Platonic philosophers Plotinus and Porphyry. Eventually, he learned of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan who would later attain sainthood. Ambrose’s writings and sermons, as well as the conversion accounts of others, moved Augustine to rediscover Christianity. In 387, on Easter eve, he and his son were baptized by Ambrose. In 388, Augustine and his son returned to Africa, though his son died later that year.
In Tagaste, Augustine founded a lay monastery, an effort that led to the Rule of Augustine, the basis of several Augustinian religious orders. While visiting the neighboring port city of Hippo, he was called upon by its Catholics to be their priest, but he felt unworthy. He was ordained in 391 and consecrated a bishop in 395. As bishop of Hippo, Augustine defend Christianity from heresy and schism for forty years, formalizing fundamental Church doctrines. His comprehensive and detailed explanation of Christianity—the Gospel of faith, hope, and...
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