Friday, October 21, 2011

The Life of St. Augustine, Ascension to the Episcopate

I intend this article to address who it is that St. Augustine is, his history, a broad look at his works, and the influence that he has made on Christian theology and philosophy at large. Largely I will make use of secondary literature to address these topics, though from time to time I will make comments of my own regarding the saint.

St. Augustine was born November 13th, 354 AD in the small city of Tagaste (now Souk Ahras, Algeria), a small city recently during that time heavily influenced by the Donatists. St. Augustine’s father was Patricius, a pagan curiale (it was common for Roman officials to remain true to the older rites and beliefs of the Roman pagan religion), and mother was the Christian St. Monica. The family was a relatively well-off family though not rich by any means.

During his youth he had been enrolled as a catechumen and he it thought to have been taught Latin from his youth. St. Augustine at one point had become very ill and was to be baptized but this was delayed, as was often the impious custom sometimes, due to an improvement in health. In his Confessions he relates how he, along with the rest of the household was a believer in the Christian faith, though as he grew older he fell from his beliefs. The young man had shown promise in his studies in Tagaste and Madaura to which his father decided to send him to Carthage to pursue a legal profession, though it took quite some time to gather the proper money to send him off. In this time it was that St. Augustine, being out of school with much free time was taunted and encouraged by his peers to take up an unchaste love with women in the city. He then moved by the end of this year to Carthage near the end of 370.

Within Carthage St. Augustine studied rhetoric and studied the works of Cicero (Hortensius) from which he derived a sense of love of wisdom. During the year 372 he bore a son from the woman who he had been in relations with for some time.  The following year St. Augustine fell into the following of the Manichean faith, an eastern religion that held to a materialistic dualism and a pursuit of philosophy without a requirement of too much faith. The young Augustine ardently pursued the Manichean faith enough so to convince his friends Alypius and Romanianus into joining him.

As St. Augustine matured he returned to Tagaste to teach grammar, from which one of his pupils, Alypius, would later decide to leave the teachings of the Manichi, become baptized and eventually become the bishop of Tagaste. In due time St. Augustine returned to Carthage to teach rhetoric and as he became a more disciplined and rigorous philosopher he soon saw that many of the Manichi’s claims at knowledge and science and love of virtue were no more than simply a fa├žade. His clash with the Manicheans began during the now lost publication of his work On the Beautiful and the Fitting, a work on aesthetics and discussion on things that were beautiful in themselves or in their uses; a work St. Augustine would later repudiate. After much debate he finally debated with the Manichean bishop Faustus in which he saw little more than a rhetorician. St. Augustine later moved to Rome to teach.

It was within Rome that St. Augustine was perhaps even more disgusted with his students than those he left in Carthage and after recovering from an illness that he contracted in Rome he left for a vacant professorship in Milan. Providentially, it was in Milan that he met St. Ambrose whose kindness and spiritual discipline moved him so strongly to consider the Catholic faith. The following three years St. Augustine underwent a trial of considering several philosophies such as the skepticism of the Academics and then the neo-Platonism that restored his hope in a virtuous life and in the life of wisdom. St. Monica the mother of St. Augustine during these times had hoped her son to be betrothed to the woman he had still been engaged with (the mother of his son Adeodatus), but he refused. It was not until the saint relates that he had heard the voice of a child calling him to take up and read the words of the Christian Scriptures that St. Augustine was moved by grace to convert.

In addition to the words of St. Paul in the letter to the Romans, Simplicianus a future successor of St. Ambrose told St. Augustine of the conversion of a famed neo-Platonist who became a Christian. Inspired by this St. Augustine in 386 went with his mother and a few friends to Cassisiacum to study true philosophy, which the saint had established to be irrevocably connected with the hope of the Christian faith.

It is during this period that we receive the philosophical texts that very much probably were for St. Augustine his defense of the Christian faith or at least a repudiation of all of his prior moral and philosophical failings. We receive works such as Against the Academics, On a Happy Life, On Order, Soliloquies, and parts of On the Immortality of the Soul. The Lent of 387 AD St. Augustine went to be baptized in Milan (which he received on Easter) by St. Ambrose, supposedly to the hymn now known as Te Deum, though it is highly doubted amongst scholars that this hymn exists from this period.

St. Augustine remained in Milan for the rest of the year wherein he was present for the passing of his saintly mother, to whom he devotes a beautiful set of pages within the Confessions. Following this St. Augustine went again to Rome to continue striving to dispute the Manicheans and left for Carthage only to finally reside in Tagaste again. He withdrew to his own housing to live a life of charity to the poor, prayer, study of Scripture, and spiritual discipline. St. Augustine began the composition of a number of works in this time, and eventually began to move from city to city where bishops were to be elected so as to avoid being called to the episcopacy.

He soon found himself however traveling to Hippo for the sake of the salvation of one of his friends souls. He was praying in a church when a crowd surrounded him and begged the bishop of the Church to ordain him as a priest. St. Augustine wept for he did not wish to be raised to the clerical state but obliged himself to the state, being ordained in 391. The bishop Valerius then gave way to St. Augustine’s desire for a monastic lifestyle back in Tagaste wherein the saint began a small monastic community. St. Augustine’s priesthood was so successful in winning souls over that Valerius made it a point to have St. Augustine preach which was a custom reserved in Africa to the bishopric. St. Augustine is said to have defeated many Manicheans in debates including reducing a reputed doctor of the Manichean faith to humiliation. St. Augustine in some time then was raised to become bishop Valerius’ coadjutor as Valerius came nearer to the ends of his life. He was soon raised to the episcopate chair of Hippo and resided in a monastery with other clerics and monks, though it is a question whether St. Augustine created a monastic order or considered the clerical state and the monastic life to be one and the same. St. Augustine’s monastery came to be said to have created many founders of other monastics communities in Africa, earning him the title of patriarch of the religious, as well as fostering 10 episcopacies from those who were his friends.

It is in his rising to the episcopacy that St. Augustine’s foremost role in guarding the Catholic faith was however clear as he rose to the defense against the Manichean doctrines, the Donatist schism, the Pelagian controversy (to which he receives the title Doctor of Grace), and in his final years his staunch attack against Arianism. He numbers amongst the most prolific writers of the theologians of the Latin Church and he was much the foundation of the later doctrines of more than a thousand years of Christian thought. St. Augustine left this vale of tears on August 28, 430.

The source I relied on the most for this article is the Catholic Encylopedia article on St. Augustine’s life, see one of the links at right, as well as my familiarity with St. Augustine’s Confessions and writings.

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