The Confessions | Study Guide

Saint Augustine

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Saint Augustine | Biography


Aurelius Augustinus, known as Saint Augustine of Hippo or Augustine, was born on November 13, 354, in Thagaste, Numidia, a center of Berber culture in North Africa. Today this area is Souk Ahras, a municipality in the country of Algeria. He is one of the doctors of the Catholic Church, which means he is regarded as a learned authority in matters of religious teaching. Augustine adapted aspects of Neoplatonic thought to Christian beliefs, creating a strong theological foundation for Christianity, which was still being shaped as a religion in the fourth and fifth centuries. Neoplatonism refers to the school of philosophy that followed the Greek philosopher Plato (428/427 BCE–348/347 BCE).

Augustine's father, Patricius, was a pagan or a follower of the ancient gods of Rome, and his mother, Monica, was a Catholic. He had at least one brother and a sister (who later became a nun). Augustine was received into the Catholic Church as a catechumen, which meant he was being educated in the faith and awaiting baptism. At this time in history it was not uncommon for people to wait a long time to be baptized. A promising student, Augustine completed his early schooling and was sent to Madaura for further education and then to Carthage, the largest city in Roman-controlled Africa. In Carthage Augustine began a long, monogamous but unmarried relationship (14 or 15 years) with a woman who bore his first and only child, Adeodatus, when the saint was about 17. Augustine also rejected his mother's religion during this period and instead became a practicing Manichaean, a member of the rebel sect of Christians claiming privileged, mystical knowledge and refuting many Christian beliefs that were rapidly becoming part of the mainstream. He continued in this faith for several years until he formally renounced it when he was about 30.

After completing his education, Augustine became a teacher of rhetoric, first working in Thagaste and moving on to Carthage when he was 22 and then to Rome about seven years later. The following year he was appointed the emperor's chief rhetor, or teacher of the craft of persuasive argument, and he moved to Milan, where Valentinian II, the ruler of the Western Roman Empire, kept his residence. Augustine's mother arrived in Milan when Augustine was 29 and engineered an engagement between her son and a young girl in the upper class. Thus, he was forced to give up his common-law wife, who returned to her home. In Milan he also met Bishop Ambrose, whose sermons helped him understand the Old Testament (now also called the Hebrew Bible) metaphorically, and he was introduced to Neoplatonic philosophy, which helped him reconceive his relationship with God as a transcendent being without a material form. As a result he had a mystical experience of being in the presence of God and, consequently, began wrestling with his desire to live an ascetic, celibate life as a Christian. In a second incident he heard God in the form of a nearby voice, which told him to open a book and read. He believed he received a commandment from God, based on the passage to which he had randomly turned. He determined to give up his current way of life and convert to Christianity. At the age of 33 he was baptized by Ambrose, along with his son and his best friend, Alypius. His mother died shortly thereafter.

Augustine intended to lead the quiet life of a hermit, returning to his hometown with his teenage son Adeodatus (who died shortly thereafter). By this time the saint's reputation as a Christian apologist (defender of the faith) had been growing through his writings, and he was warned it might be dangerous to travel outside his hometown. Augustine thought it was safe to move to an obscure seaport town—Hippo Regius—where he meant to set up a monastery. But when he arrived in 391, he was "drafted" for the priesthood, and four years later, at age of 41, he was made an auxiliary bishop by Valerius, the current bishop. When Valerius died Augustine became the chief bishop of Hippo.

The rest of Augustine's career was largely taken up with battling the day's various heresies, or doctrines considered false or dangerous by the mainstream religion. These were alternative forms of Christianity that the Catholic Church wished to stamp out as it consolidated its power and belief system and sought to increase its followers. Altogether more than 5 million of Augustine's words have been preserved in his various books. The Confessions and The City of God, Augustine's two most important works, "shaped the practice of biblical exegesis and helped lay the foundation for much of medieval and modern Christian thought," according to Augustinian scholar James O'Donnell. Exegesis is a theological term that refers to methods of interpreting the meaning of a religious or spiritual text. Other notable works include The Trinity, his treatises on the Book of Genesis, sermons, and Reconsiderations, a retrospective reading of his work in the form of a catalog with commentary. Augustine died of fever on August 28, 430 CE, at age 76, with the five penitential psalms (poems from the Hebrew Bible asking God for forgiveness) on his cell's walls—where he had asked his brothers to post them to keep him company.

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