Saint Augustine of Hippo and His Detours on the Long and Winding Path to Christianity
Saint Augustine of Hippo is one of the most important Christian theologians, and his works have exerted a great influence not only on the development of Western Christianity, but also on Western philosophy. Apart from the Roman Catholic Church, where he is honored as a saint as well as a Church Father, Saint Augustine of Hippo is also a prominent figure in the Anglican Communion, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and even in some of the churches that grew out of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
Saint Augustine of Hippo was born on November 13, 354 AD, in Tagaste (now Souk Ahras, Algeria), a city then pertaining to Roman Africa. Though his family was not wealthy, they were highly respected in the city. His father was a man by the name of Patricius, and it is recorded that he was one of the curiales (leading members of a clan) of the city. Patricius was a pagan, though he converted to Christianity on his deathbed in accordance with his wife, Saint Monica’s, wishes. Augustine too would be greatly influenced by the Christian virtues of his mother.
As a boy, Augustine received a Christian education, and was enrolled amongst the catechumens (young Christians preparing for confirmation). Nevertheless, he only became a Christian later on in his life.
Painting entitled ‘The Saint Augustine Taken to School by Saint Monica’ (1415) by Pinacoteca Vaticana. (Public Domain)
One story recounts that Augustine once fell terribly ill, and asked for Baptism, fearing that he may die. When the danger had passed, however, he changed his mind, and decided not to receive the ceremony.
Studies in Philosophy and “Wild Ways”
As a young man, Augustine studied rhetoric in Carthage. It was during this time that Augustine encountered Cicero’s Hortensius, and became enamored with philosophy. Despite his new-found love for philosophy, Augustine continued his studies in rhetoric, and then returned to Tagaste to teach grammar.
Shortly afterwards, he returned to Carthage, this time as a teacher of rhetoric. Augustine’s way of life during this period (the 370s) may be said to be a stark contrast to what he would later become. For example, during his studies in Carthage, he was seduced by the city’s ‘un-Christian’ way of life, and indulged in various forms of debauchery. For instance, he had a love affair with a young woman of the city, with whom he had a son, Adeodatus.
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A Period as a Manicheanism Follower
Additionally, Augustine converted to Manicheanism, a religion founded by the Iranian prophet Mani. For a time, he was an ardent follower of this religion, and defended his new beliefs passionately. However, this caused problems within his family, as his mother was distressed by her son’s heresy, and would not even receive him into her home or at her table for some time.
It was only after a disappointing meeting with the Manichaean bishop, Faustus of Mileve, at Carthage that Augustine became disillusioned by the teaching of Manicheanism. Although he did not abandon that faith immediately, he began to reject the doctrines.
‘La conversion de Saint Augustin.’ (The conversion of Saint Augustine) (circa 1430-1435) by Fra Angelico. (Public Domain)
Teacher of Rhetoric in Italy
It was in the early 380s that Augustine decided to leave Carthage for Italy. At Rome, Augustine opened a school of rhetoric, which was prosperous. Eventually, he was appointed as chief professor of rhetoric for the city of Milan, which was at that time the capital of the Western Roman Empire, hence an extremely prestigious position.
The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine. Rome, Italy. (Public Domain)
It was in Milan that Augustine would meet Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, who brought him back to the Christian faith. Augustine also became a Neo-Platonist, and the influence of Plato can be seen in his theological writings.
Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that Augustine was a Christian first, and that when contradictions between Platonism and Christianity arose, Augustine chose to subordinate his philosophical beliefs to those of his religion.
Saint Augustine. (Circa 1645-1650) by Philippe de Champaigne. (Public Domain) When there were contradictions between his philosophical and religious beliefs, Augustine chose his faith.
Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo
Augustine was baptized in 387 AD, and was ordained as a priest in 391 (though he initially had no intentions of becoming a priest). Augustine became the bishop of Hippo in 396, and occupied that position until his death in 430. Some of the best-known works of Saint Augustine include The City of God, Confessions, and On Christian Doctrine.
Consecration of Saint Augustine. (Circa 1463-1470/1475) by Jaume Huguet . (Public Domain)
Doctor of the Church
Saint Augustine’s contribution to Christian theology was so great that he would later be called a ‘Doctor of the Church,’ as well as the ‘Doctor of Grace.’ His status as a saint and a Doctor of the Church is also seen in the Anglican Communion.
Additionally, Saint Augustine is honored by the Eastern Orthodox Church, where he is known as Blessed Augustine of Hippo. Furthermore, the founder of Calvinism, John Calvin, is said to have been greatly influenced by the teachings of this saint, and looked to him for intellectual support.
The path of Augustine to Christianity was a winding one and not without detours. In the end, he combined his religious roots with his life experiences, and did not abandon his scholarly pursuits.
Featured image: ‘Visione di sant' agostino’ (vision of Saint Augustine) (1502) by Vittore Carpaccio. Photo source: Public Domain
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