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St Augustine - Bishop of Hippo

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St Augustine was born in 354 AD in the town of Thagaste, about 200 miles inland from the port city of Carthage1 in what was then the Roman Empire's province of Numidia (Carthage is in modern day Tunisia and the province of Numidia is modern day Algeria). His father was a minor Roman official, and his mother, Monica, was a Berber Christian. Berber Christians, much to Augustine's later chagrin, were considered a bit odd, as they were fanatical regarding the worship of saints' relics. Monica, it seems, was the model wife and mother, trying hard to convert both her husband and son, but she failed miserably.

As a young man, Augustine was sent to Carthage to do what every good Roman citizen did; study the Classics. He found Latin easy, rhetoric simple, and Greek to be torture, although he seems to have had much more fun outside of class, carousing with his friends, chasing women, and drinking wine. He mentions wine so often in his Confessions, in fact, that he has been adopted as the Patron Saint of Brewers. While in Carthage, he became enamoured of a new religious tradition that was sweeping the African continent, that of the Manichees. Manichees believed in a very convoluted and somewhat apocalyptic cosmology, but suffice it to say that they believed strongly in the battle between good and evil, and that humans were the battleground. Augustine found them to be more fulfilling than the Roman pantheon of his father, or the bizarre Christianity of his mother. For a time, he became a member, but when he confronted them with questions, their answers were unsatisfying, and he abandoned the movement.

Soon after his flirtation with Manicheanism, he went to Italy to teach rhetoric. He found his students dull and somewhat silly, and to fill his time, he began reading Plotinus and other Greek philosophers, and decided that neo-Platonism was for him. After an attempt at reaching Platonic enlightenment failed, he again became discouraged, and decided yet again to abandon his new religion. Instead, he retreated into the mountains with several friends and his mother, intending on starting a sort of think tank, where he and other intelligent and philosophically minded individuals could debate lofty ideas, much as Augustine envisioned ancient Athens to have been.

Eventually, his ill health and wanderlust got the better of him, and he left the mountains for better weather. After visiting Rome, and being amazed by the sight of St Ambrose reading silently (reading was a very public event in those days), Augustine and his mother Monica arrived in the city of Ostia, on the coast. They were only planning on staying a few days at most, until they could secure passage back to Africa. Several things occurred, however, before Augustine returned to the land of his birth.

In Ostia, Augustine, while in the garden of his host, and turning over all he had heard lately about St Anthony and other amazing Christians, heard a voice out of nowhere tell him to 'pick it up and read'. Nearby, a Bible was laying on a bench, and Augustine picked it up and turned to a passage at random. What he read changed his life, for the passage he read told him that he was too proud, and he needed to turn his life over to Christ. Right then and there, he called out to his mother, and told her of his decision to convert. His mother, overjoyed, arranged for St Ambrose to baptise him, and a few months later, Augustine was baptised. His mother, with her mission completed, took ill and died within a few days of his baptism. Augustine, who had always been close to his mother, was grief stricken, and this, perhaps more than any other reason, caused this latest spiritual path to stick. Never again would he search for, find, and quickly abandon a faith. He remained a Christian for the rest of his life.

Without his mother, Augustine travelled back to Africa, flitting back and forth between Thagaste and Carthage. As was common practice in those days, he avoided all towns that needed a priest, as they tended to all but kidnap any relatively learned Christian they happened upon. Eventually, grudgingly, he took on the Bishopric of Hippo, a coastal town. There, he found his niche. As a preacher, he was very good, but it was as a writer that Augustine truly exhibited his brilliance. He was perhaps the foremost apologist for the faith, and wrote treatise after treatise defending it against all comers. Some of these enemies of the faith were themselves Christians, such as the Donatists and, later, the Pelagians. Some, like the Manichees, were outsiders. All of them must be eradicated, Augustine wrote, even if it meant actual bloodshed.

After a long and distinguished career, Augustine died in 430 in Hippo, which, at the moment of his death, was surrounded by Vandal hordes, ready to invade. Almost from the moment of his death, he was praised as a saint, and the Catholic Church numbers him among the Doctors of the Church and Defenders of the Faith.

A partial list of Augustine's works include:

  • On Christian Teaching
  • On the Trinity
  • Against the Donatists
  • Against the Manichees
  • Exegesis (critiques) of Genesis, Romans, and other books of the Bible

Of his two most famous works, Confessions is considered the first autobiography in Western history, and it includes additional chapters relating to memory, will, and time. The City of God, on the other hand, is a monumental look at why Rome fell to Arian Christians (a heretical sect) in 410. It contains observations and commentary which are still relevant today, including a section which some believe is the beginning of the concept of a 'just war'.

1Please note that Carthage was destroyed quite a long time ago, and no longer exists except as an archaeological site and as a small town devoted to the tourist industry.

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