The author of the first and most famous autobiography ever written was born in 354 A.D. in Tagaste, in Numidia, which had long been part Roman Africa. Augustine himself was likely a mix of Punic (i.e., Carthaginian), Numidian, and perhaps Roman ethnic stock, but we have no accurate image or bust of his likeness that has survived. He does not appear to have had much of a relationship with his father, but was close to his mother, St. Monica. She was a devout Christian, a new religion at the time. It is likely that maternal influence may have played some role in forming the spiritual development of her famous son.
Augustine proved to be good student in rhetoric, philosophy, and Latin. His Confessions describes with enthusiasm how the reading of Cicero’s work Hortensius (now lost) fired his passion for philosophy. He would have had to learn Latin as a second language. Punic, the old Carthaginian language (a Semitic tongue derived from Phoenecian) was still the speech of the common man in his region of North Africa. He pursued women readily, as any healthy young man would, and describes these experiences in detail. He also relates in detail his robbery of a pear orchard. After completing his schooling in Carthage he cohabited with a concubine, who soon bore him a son. Such was the custom of the time. Those who know the Roman Church only in its present form would be surprised at how sexually open the early theologians of the early and medieval Church were.
One of the most touching parts of the Confessions is the passage where Augustine recounts his departure for Rome. In those days, any ambitious youth wanting to make his way in the world would at some point want to visit the Eternal City to polish off his higher education. His devout mother did not want him to go, afraid that he might die before being baptized. He pretended to agree with her, but then left secretly, a deception for which he expresses deep remorse:
And so I lied to my mother, and to so good a mother too. So I got away from her. For this also you [God] have mercifully forgiven me, preserving me from the ocean’s waters, then full of wickedness, and landing me safely at the water of your Divine Grace. As soon as I was purged with this, the tears of my mother’s eyes should be dried up, with which she daily watered the ground for my sake in prayer. [V.8]
He arrived in Rome, taught for a year, then moved to Milan for another teaching position. His mother eventually joined him. He also eventually replaced his mistress for a young wife, but not before enjoying the affections of another woman. His intellectual development was volatile: at various times he flirted with Manicheism and Neoplatonism, but listening to some sermons of Ambrose, combined with his own reading, won him over to Christianity. In a ceremony with his friend Alypius and his son (from his former mistress) Aeodatus, he was baptized and entered the faith.
From this point Augustine embarked on a remarkable career of teaching, organization, and writing. It is nothing short of amazing that this man, so instrumental in laying the structural and theological foundations of the early Church, found the time to write so voluminously. His collected writings fill thousands of pages, in the clearest, simplest, and most lucid Latin prose since Caesar. Two of his works—his Confessions and his City of God—are among the classics of world literature.
Reading St. Augustine’s Confessions is a deeply personal experience. Although arguably the most famous autobiography written, it is different from modern autobiographies in that it is a spiritual testament. One historian called it a “100,000 word act of contrition.” And it is. Augustine addresses it directly to God, and it reads like a series of meditations on his past. What strikes the reader, and impresses him the most, is the utter sincerity of the work. There is no false modesty, no hedging, no passive-aggressive asides, no attempt to dodge or rationalize. There is only the heartfelt words of a deeply religious yet accessible and human figure. It also feels surprisingly contemporary. Somehow the pure honesty of the work wins us over completely, and we are carried along by the gentle stream of his tender prose:
Let not the proud speak evil of me now. For that I meditate on the price of my redemption, and do eat and drink, and give to the poor. And being poor myself, desire to be filled by Him, amongst those that eat, and are satisfied. And they shall praise the God who seek him. [X.43]
The overall impression given is that of a pious man trying to help other men through the spiritual wilderness which he had to traverse before finding a belief system that gave him peace. What is shocking is to remember that this testament was written by Augustine when he was a forty-six year old bishop. His frank descriptions of his seductions, thefts, wanderings, jealousies, and theological doubts must have seemed incredible to his contemporaries. Never has a cleric so denuded himself.
Here is a theologian who has stripped himself down before the world, and revealed himself in a way that none had before or has since. To me, the Confessions has an overtly mystical tone to it, which reminded me of the writings of the medieval Islamic and Judaic mystics. If you have to read only one religious-themed book, this is the one to read. The Loeb Classical Library is to release a new translation next month, along with the original Latin text. Augustine’s Latin is clear and simple, and well within the reach of a student of the language with a few years of study under his belt. The Penguin edition of the Confessions is also recommended for those desiring a less expensive option.
Augustine’s later years were tempestuous. The early centuries of the Church were afire with controversies and disputes, as the new faith sought to hammer out its ideology among numerous competing heresies and visions. Politically, the world was also turbulent. The Roman Empire was on the wane, and the Church was doing its best to fill the vacuum left by the dwindling authority of the Caesars. When the Vandals surged through Spain and moved into North Africa, Augustine was still a bishop there, with authority over the region.
As the Vandal invasion progressed and the people began to suffer, he showed his physical courage by ordering other bishops not to abandon their posts, but to stay and take care of the populace. He led by example, remaining himself at Hippo. He died during the siege of his city at the age of seventy six.
His influence was immense. In an age of war, poverty, and rising barbarism, his words and teachings had an appeal that is difficult for us to grasp now. The classical world was collapsing, and the mood of the times was to turn away from the old gods, the old rationalism, and the old ways, and seek something that would answer the needs and wants of the harried and simple man. Men had become tired of the pursuits of rationalism, money, and temporal power, and longed for an ethic that would provide certainty and comfort amid the chaos, and a hope for eternal life after a physical death. No other Church theologian (save Aquinas) has exceeded him in influence.
The new faith promised what the old religions could not: a chance to share in the fountain of grace offered by God’s only son, who sacrificed himself for the redemption of every man. And no other religion of those turbulent centuries could match Christianity’s profound ethical and moral teachings. His Confessions is a monument to that ethic, and the voice of the age. It is the sincerest book ever written.
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