Saint Augustine: From Bad Boy of the Ancient World to Man for a Millennium


by Maureen McKew

Villanova Magazine

Summer 1998


It's virtually impossible these days to switch on a TV or radio, surf the Web or read a newspaper without finding at least one pundit or politician bemoaning the "moral decay" afflicting the world, the country or an opposition political party. End-of-the-century philosophies are booming with dire tomes on chaos in the house and barbarians at the gate. Actually, this sort of hysteria appears with the end of every epoch. Change is frightening, and people feel powerless. No one knew this experience better than St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived through the death throes of the Roman Empire. The barbarians really were at the gates of his city. However, Augustine was probably the most rational man in Hippo. He understood and preached that people dictate the conditions of the times, not the other way around. He is the ideal philosopher for today, when so many people feel the world is spinning out of control. At a point when his own life was in total disarray, he accepted the grace to take charge of his actions. Having done so, he survived and surmounted the chaos around him.

0n August 4, 1879, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris (On Restoring Christian Philosophy), which established St. Thomas Aquinas as the common teacher for the Catholic Church. As a result, Catholic seminaries and institutions of higher learning turned primarily to Aquinas and his Summa Theologica. St. Augustine, with his monumental Confessions, The City of God and hundreds of sermons and letters, was not a favorite among the Church leadership of that time, this according to the Rev. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., '64, assistant professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova and now teaching at the Augustinianum in Rome.

"The Catholic Church of the late 19th century was more comfortable with the organized methods of Thomas, whose Summa Theologica provided a full systematic or dogmatic theology," Father Fitzgerald explained.

"Thomas' Summa could be placed into neat little boxes," he continued. "You couldn't do that with Augustine. He was a 5th-century bishop/scholar who wrote from the trenches of a time and place in turmoil. By the time Thomas embarked on his Summa in the 13th century, the combined role of bishop and scholar had been divided in the creation of universities. Thomas wrote as a scholastic."

Not that Thomas himself did not acknowledge his respect for and debt to Augustine. Far from it. Of all the Church fathers cited by Aquinas in his Summa, Augustine is far and away the most quoted.

With the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Augustine re-emerged. In fact, it is said that he was the most quoted philosopher-theologian of Vatican II.

Many of his principles pervaded the teachings that came from that council: the primacy of love, the identification of Jesus Christ with every human being, the preferential option for the poor and the love for the word of God exercised through emphasis on the value of scriptural reading. (Some readers may recall that before Vatican II, private reading of the Bible was not strongly encouraged.)


The 1,644 Year Old Modern Man

Thirty-eight years after Vatican II, the 5th-century Bishop, of Hippo in North Africa continues to be a very lively source of inspiration.

Augustine is a major source for philosophical and theological studies, not only in Catholic institutions but also in other seminaries and universities. Augustine even appears on the World Wide Web.

From this issue through the year 2000 (and maybe beyond), "All Things Augustine" will be a regular feature of Villanova Magazine. Many members of the Villanova community who teach and do scholarly work will contribute.

This is only fitting. Augustine is at the heart of the University's commitment to the primacy of love in all things, including learning. This can be observed in the emphasis placed on Augustine in the core curriculum and by a growing interest on service learning; that is, the integration of learning with real-life experience.

There is another reason. Our times call out for his wisdom. Augustine would not be intimidated by the noise of the 1990s. Nor would he be surprised by the shifting and quality of modern life, or the rapid elevation and destruction of today's heroes and heroines. The expression "15 minutes of fame" would bring a nod of recognition from this man who both warned and comforted his contemporaries that in this world, everything is passing. And certainly the "moral high ground" over which today's political, business and religious figures battle would be familiar geography to him.


Survivor in the Midst of Chaos

Augustine lived through one of the most turbulent eras in history: the fall of the Roman Empire. He was Bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa when the barbarians literally were at the gate, and many of these barbarians were Christians.

In spite of the fact that he lived over a millennium and a half before we were born, he shared our dreams, ambitions, weaknesses, strengths and longings for something greater than ourselves. The Rev. Thomas F Martin, O.S.A., assistant professor of theology and religious studies, has examined Augustine as a rhetorician. He has discovered a man who used his speaking skills in ways that would make today's politicians stand in awe.

Augustine was a great communicator long before the term was invented. In his time, books were few and far between, so the role of rhetorician combined the ability to digest and retain massive amount of information, then communicate it accurately and interestingly. With energy that would today classify him as a workaholic, Augustine learned, talked and networked his way to the very center of the Roman Empire.

Throughout his entire life, he exercised his rhetorical prowess. After his conversion, he continued to be a spellbinding orator-with love of Christ replacing personal ambition. An admirer of St. Paul, he was strongly influenced by Paul's admonition, "If I speak with the tongues of angels and of men and I have not love, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal."

Augustine knew that his own weakness was his constant companion, and he had a blazing honesty about temptations great and small. In his Confessions, he admitted that while he was able to give up most of the pleasures of his early life, his fondness for food remained a constant temptation. "I hear the voice of my God commanding us, Let not your hearts become gross with gluttony and drunkenness," he wrote in Book 10. "In my case, drunkenness is far away, and by your mercy it will not come near me. Gluttony is a different matter; sometimes it creeps up on your servant and only your mercy will drive it away." And later on the same subject: " there anyone, Lord who is not sometimes dragged a little beyond the bounds of what is needful? If there is such a man, he is a great man, so let him tell out the greatness of his name. I am not he..."

Even as he lay dying at the age of 76, he asked his associates to write psalms on the walls of his room so he could read them from his bed and stay out of trouble until he met his maker.

As the Rev. Donald X. Burt, O.S.A., professor of philosophy, has demonstrated in his recently published book, The River (The Liturgical Press, 1998), a series of reflections based on Augustine's metaphor of a flowing river as human life, this bishop of long-ago North Africa is a very good guide to navigating the treacherous waters of 1998. Let us begin our journey with Augustine by examining the man himself.


Young Augustine: The Wrecker

The two most reliable biographical sources come from Augustine's own time. The first is his own Confessions, which he began writing in the year 397 at the age of 43, when he had been baptized for 10 years, a priest for six years and a bishop for three. The second is The Life of Augustine by Possidius, Bishop of Calama, a close friend and disciple of Augustine. Both are available in modern English from the Augustinian Press, which, under the direction of the Rev. John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., is engaged in a 10 year project to translate all extant works of the saint, beginning with those not available in English; 16 volumes have appeared already.

Augustine was born in 354 in Thagaste, now called Souk-Ahras in Algeria. His father, Patricius, was a small landowner. His mother was the tenacious and determined Monica. He had at least one brother, Navigius, and a sister whose name is lost to history. Both parents were ambitious for their gifted son, but in different ways. It was the custom of the time to delay baptism, so the devoutly Christian Monica made sure her newborn was signed with the sign of the cross and received salt; this designated Augustine a catechumen. Patricius, who was not baptized until just before his own death, had other plans.

He had found a patron for his boy, a wealthy man named Volusianus, who arranged for him to be sent to the nearby town of Madouras for his education. At 16, Augustine came back to Thagaste to enable his father to raise more money to send him to Carthage, a major city of the Roman Empire, for higher education.

To say Augustine misspent this year is an understatement. In spite of his mother's best efforts to control him, he turned into a juvenile delinquent and joined what appears to have been a 4th-century street gang.

"I was quite reckless," he wrote many years later. "I rushed on headlong in such blindness that when I heard other youths of my own age bragging about their immoralities, I was ashamed to be less depraved than they .... Afraid of being reviled [by them], I grew viler and when I had no indecent acts to admit that could put me on a level with these abandoned youths, I pretended to obscenities I had not committed, lest I be thought less courageous for being more innocent and cheaper for being more chaste."

Even worse, Augustine admitted, he enjoyed the thrill of being bad. On the many thefts he and his gang committed, he wrote: "I wanted to steal and steal I did. I already had plenty of what I stole and of much better quality, too, and I had no desire to enjoy it when I resolved to steal it. I simply wanted to enjoy the theft for its own sake and the sin."

In one famous episode, he and his friends raided a neighbor's pear tree, shaking loose the fruit and destroying it. This was pure and simple vandalism. [The word vandalism comes from vandalus, the Latin word for a Germanic tribe that overran North Africa in the 4th and 5th centuries-Augustine's time. He might well have been compared to these marauders by his victims.]

Eventually Patricius raised enough money to pack Augustine off to Carthage for more education ...and more gangs. The name he and his Carthage associates called themselves has survived, and provides a fairly good description of their behavior: the Wreckers.

Augustine proved to be a brilliant scholar and a moral risk-taker, according to Father Burt. Augustine occasionally appeared in church but probably to look for girls. He led a double life, trying to act respectable and sophisticated while being driven by his private lusts.

When he was about 18 years old, he met and fell in love with the woman who was the love of his life (her name remains Augustine's secret). That he adored her is beyond doubt, and they had a son, Adeodatus, who was his father's pride and joy. But Augustine never married the lady. She was from a lower class and marriage to her would have put a crimp in his lofty career plans. So they lived together for 11 years until he decided he needed a respectable union.


The Spindoctor

By this time, Augustine had become a wily mover and shaker. He had to; he needed to support his family. In 383, he traveled to Rome and became a professor of rhetoric. His oratorical gifts and some helpful friends brought him to the attention of Symmachus, the prefect of the city. The friends were members of a heretical sect, the Manicheans, to which Augustine also belonged at the time.

This was a difficult time for Augustine. He was constantly in need of money and was frequently ill with what appears to have been asthma or a similar chronic lung disease. In 384, Symmachus appointed him professor of rhetoric for the city of Milan, where the Imperial Court was located. There he functioned as the spokesman for the boy emperor Valentinian II. This position would be comparable to that of the press secretary for the President of the United States.

Augustine moved his mistress and Adeodatus to Milan. His mother followed later... on her own apparently, and soon set about finding her son a suitable wife. She found a candidate from a noble family, but the girl was underage. Augustine sent his mistress back to Africa and, while he was waiting out the two years necessary for the bride-to-be to reach legal age, he busied himself with yet another woman. He never did marry. Adeodatus remained with Augustine and only went back to Africa when his father did, after his mother's death.


The Wanderer

While Augustine's ambitions for himself were clear, his philosophical views were a jumble. He could not escape the guilt he felt for his immoral behavior.

While studying in Carthage, he became disenchanted with Christianity. He pursued an Eastern philosophy called Manicheism, which professed that there were two eternal principles, good and evil, always at war. Manicheism gave Augustine an "out" for his guilty conscience, enabling him to blame some evil alien force for his lusts.

His interest in this philosophy soon waned. However he remained a Manichean for 10 years and used his connections with several influential Manicheans, including Symmachus, to further his career. By the time he moved to Milan, he was a skeptic, with his private world in total disarray. However, his life was about to change.

Welcome to All Things Augustine, a place of scholarship, reflection, and devotion related to Saint Augustine of Hippo. This site seeks to stimulate an engagement not only with Augustine the man, but also with his thought. You are welcome to explore our site further—and even to join our mailing list for more content and updates.