Augustne the African Essay

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Augustne the African

Augustine the African

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

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

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
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