Aurelius Augustinus was born on November 13, 354, in the Numidian town of Thagaste in Roman North Africa (located in the present-day Algeria). His parents were Romans citizens of modest means; his father, Patricius, was a pagan, and his mother, Monica, a Christian. The first nine, of thirteen, books of his Confessions are autobiographical, dramatically recounting the first third of a century of his life to his second birth by baptism, in 387. The Confessions are mostly a narrative, addressed to God, of his painful, troubled search for spiritual fulfillment. As he writes on its very first page, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”
Augustine describes his adolescence in terms of “my past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of my soul.” When he was almost sixteen years old, he took a break from his studies, so that some money could be put together to send him away to study. During these times at home he says that he was pricked by the “briars of unclean lusts.” He tells a story about he a bunch of boys stole a load full of pears, for no reason at all except that it was wrong to do so.
In 370, the year his father died Augustine was sent to study rhetoric at Carthage. As he writes, “I came to Carthage, where a cauldron of illicit loves leapt and boiled about me. I was not yet in love, but I was in love with love.” Around 371, he took a concubine and “did fall in love, simply from wanting to.” He had a son by her, named Adeodatus about 372. But in 373, he read the Roman eclectic Stoic Marcus Tullius Cicero’s Hortensius, which “changed the direction” of his interests and kindled a passion for philosophy and its quest for truth.
Around 374, Augustine conducted a school of rhetoric at Thagaste. He writes that, throughout the “nine-year period, from my nineteenth year to my twenty-eighth, I was led astray myself and led others astray.” During this time he remained faithful to his concubine, bonded by “a lustful love,” and cared for their son. With the help of Manicheans he secured a professorship of rhetoric in Milan in 384. There he heard Bishop Ambrose preach. At first, Augustine was interested only in his eloquent style rather than in the content of his sermons. But gradually, he writes, Ambrose made him, “see that the Catholic faith, for which I had thought nothing could be said in the face of the Manichean objections, could be maintained on reasonable grounds: this especially after I heard explained figuratively several passages of the Old Testament which had been a cause of death for me when taken literally.”
But in 386, sexual passion still restrained him from committing to Christianity. “I in my great worthlessness [he writes to God] had begged You for chastity, saying: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For I was afraid that You would hear my prayer too soon, and too soon would heal me from disease of which I wanted satisfied rather than extinguished.”
One day he was wondering how long it would take before his intellectual conversion would be accompanied by a moral one, when suddenly a child’s voice, in “a sort of sing-song, repeated again and again, ‘Take and read, take and read.'” He thought that this was a message from God, and picked up the bible and read the first passage he saw. It was from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 13:13-14: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” He says that as soon as he finished the sentence, he felt as if “all the darkness of uncertainty vanished away.” Now his will as well as his mind was converted to God. In 391, Augustine visited Hippo to hear Bishop Valerius speak. The people of Hippo offered Augustine priesthood, and Augustine was ordained a priest, where he setup a monastery there. The Bishop Valerius died around 396, and Augustine became the Bishop of Hippo.
On August 28, 430, while Vandals were besieging Hippo, he died, while reciting the Psalms. When the Vandals conquered Hippo, they burned down the town, but out of respect for Augustine, they left his cathedral and library undamaged.
- “I recall how miserable I was, and how one day you brought me to a realization of my miserable state. I was preparing to deliver a eulogy upon the emperor in which I would tell plenty of lies with the object of winning favor with the well-informed by my lying; so my heart was panting with anxiety and seething with feverish, corruptive thoughts. As I passed through a certain district in Milan I noticed a poor beggar, drunk, as I believe, and making merry. I groaned and pointed out to the friends who were with me how many hardships our idiotic enterprises entailed. Goaded by greed, I was dragging my load of unhappiness along, and feeling it all the heavier for being dragged. Yet while all our efforts were directed solely to the attainment of unclouded joy, it appeared that this beggar had already beaten us to the goal, a goal which we would perhaps never reach ourselves. With the help of the few paltry coins he had collected by begging this man was enjoying the temporal happiness for which I strove by so bitter, devious and roundabout a contrivance. His joy was no true joy, to be sure, but what I was seeking in my ambition was a joy far more unreal; and he was undeniably happy while I was full of foreboding; he was carefree, I apprehensive. If anyone had questioned me as to whether I would rather be exhilarated or afraid, I would of course have replied, “Exhilarated”; but if the questioner had pressed me further, asking whether I preferred to be like the beggar, or to be as I was then, I would have chosen to be myself, laden with anxieties and fears. Surely that would have been no right choice, but a perverse one? I could not have preferred my condition to his on the grounds that I was better educated, because that fact was not for me a source of joy but only the means by which I sought to curry favor with human beings: I was not aiming to teach them but only to win their favor.”
- “I was in misery, and misery is the state of every soul overcome by friendship with mortal things and lacerated when they are lost. Then the soul becomes aware of the misery which is its actual condition even before it loses them.”
- “Theft is punished by Your law, O Lord, and by the law written in men’s hearts, which iniquity itself cannot blot out. For what thief will suffer a thief? Even a rich thief will not suffer him who is driven to it by want. Yet had I a desire to commit robbery, and did so, compelled neither by hunger, nor poverty through a distaste for well-doing, and a lustiness of iniquity. For I pilfered that of which I had already sufficient, and much better. Nor did I desire to enjoy what I pilfered, but the theft and sin itself. There was a pear-tree close to our vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was tempting neither for its colour nor its flavour. To shake and rob this some of us wanton young fellows went, late one night (having, according to our disgraceful habit, prolonged our games in the streets until then), and carried away great loads, not to eat ourselves, but to fling to the very swine, having only eaten some of them; and to do this pleased us all the more because it was not permitted.Behold my heart, O my God; behold my heart, which You had pity upon when in the bottomless pit. Behold, now, let my heart tell You what it was seeking there, that I should be gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved to perish. I loved my own error— not that for which I erred, but the error itself. Base soul, falling from Your firmament to utter destruction— not seeking anything through the shame but the shame itself!”
- “I look forward, not to what lies ahead of me in this life and will surely pass away, but to my eternal goal. I am intent upon this one purpose, not distracted by other aims, and with this goal in view I press on, eager for the prize, God’s heavenly summons. Then I shall listen to the sound of Your praises and gaze at Your beauty ever present, never future, never past. But now my years are but sighs. You, O Lord, are my only solace. You, my Father, are eternal. But I am divided between time gone by and time to come, and its course is a mystery to me. My thoughts, the intimate life of my soul, are torn this way and that in the havoc of change. And so it will be until I am purified and melted by the fire of Your love and fused into one with You.”
- “The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.”
- “The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance. The mind commands the hand to move, and it so easy that one hardly distinguishes the order from its execution. Yet mind is mind and hand is body. The mind orders the mind to will. The recipient of the order is itself, yet it does not perform it.”
- “Life is a misery, death an uncertainty. Suppose it steals suddenly upon me, in what state shall I leave this world? When can I learn what I have here neglected to learn? Or is it true that death will cut off and put an end to all care and all feeling? This is something to be inquired into.
But no, this cannot be true. It is not for nothing, it is not meaningless that all over the world is displayed the high and towering authority of the Christian faith.
Such great and wonderful things would never have been done for us by God, if the life of the soul were to end with the death of the body. Why then do I delay? Why do I not abandon my hopes of this world and devote myself entirely to the search for God and for the happy life?”
- “Such is the strength of the burden of habit. Here I have the power to be but do not wish it. There I wish to be but lacks the power. On both grounds, I’m in misery.”
- “I probably felt more resentment for what I personally was to suffer than for the wrong they were doing to anyone and everyone. But at that time I was determined not to put up with badly behaved people more out of my own interest than because I wanted them to become good people.”
- “Time takes no holiday. It does not roll idly by, but through our senses works its own wonders in the mind. Time came and went from one day to the next; in its coming and its passing it brought me other hopes and other memories.
- O mortals, how long will you be heavy-hearted? Life has come down to you, and are you reluctant to ascend and live? But what room is there for you to ascend, you with your high-flown ways and lofty talk? Come down, that you may ascend, ascend even to God…”
- “Someone who knows enough to become the owner of a tree, and gives thanks to you for the benefits it brings him, is in a better state, even if ignorant of its height in feet and the extent of its spread, than another who measures and counts all its branches but neither owns it nor knows its creator nor loves him.”
- “Is truth then a nothing, simply because it is not spread out through space either finite or infinite?” Then from afar you cried to me, “By no means, for I am who I am.”
- “He was not utterly unskilled in handling his own lack of training, and he refused to be rashly drawn into a controversy about those matters from which there would be no exit nor easy way of retreat. This was an additional ground for my pleasure. For the controlled modesty of a mind that admits limitations is more beautiful than the things I was anxious to know about.”
- “After saying all that, what have we said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What does anyone who speaks of you really say? Yet woe betide those who fail to speak, while the chatterboxes go on saying nothing.”
- Biography at New Advent, a Catholic Website.
- Augutine Article from the Stanford Encyclopedia
- Augustine’s Political Philosophy, at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Extensive site about Augustine; offers texts and translations, commentary and research materials, images, and related links. By James O’Donnell.