Monday, November 28, 2005

Confusion & Conversion

Augustine was born in Tagaste, North Africa -- which was part of the Roman Empire. His mother (Monica) was a Christian; his father was not. His part of the world was wealthy and cosmopolitan. Great works of literature were available. People were highly educated.

When he was 16, Augustine studied law at Carthage, but in 375 (when he was 21), he began studying philosophy. He had read Cicero's HORTENSIUS, and that set him on a new path. He became a member of the Manichean cult and was Professor of Rhetoric at Rome in 383.

He was only there a short time, however, moving to Milan and meeting a man named Ambrose -- a Christian bishop. Ambrose was the first Christian Augustine ever met who was smarter than he. This fascinated Augustine, but he maintained the notion that Christianity was intellectually weak -- even though he was hard-pressed to say why. He began to be drawn towards neo-Platonism but eventually became a Christian in 386.

At first, Augustine just wanted to live a solitary, monastic life. But in 391 he was foricibly ordained Bishop of Hippo (now a city in Algeria). He remained bishop there for 34 years, writing a ton, battling heresy and living in community with other Christians.

We know more about Augustine than any other ancient writer, because he wrote the most famous and influential of all ancient autobiographies: CONFESSIONS. Begun in 391, this book gives a detailed portrait of his early life and education. He paints himself as a worldly, passionate young man, driven by his quest for truth. He battled constantly with his own emotions and weaknesses.

The writing style is amazingly modern, concise and compelling. His relentless search drove him to adopt a variety of intellectual positions at different times. Among his greatest influences were:

Cicero (106-43 BC). When he was 19, Augustine read this from Cicero: "The mere search for higher happiness, not merely its actual attainment, is a prize beyond all human wealth or honor or physical pleasure." This set Augustine on the long search for truth.

Manicheism, a religion or cult which combined Christian and Zoroastrain elements. Augustine followed it for 10 years. From Persia, this religion had two ultimate principles -- Light and Darkness -- making it a dualistic religion. Basically, the human soul originates from the Light; matter and the physical universe are evil and originate from Darkness. This is how they explained the origin of evil, but it ultimately denies human responsibility for evil actions. Augustine was especially concerned with the problem of evil. Manichean negativity towards matter and the body left its mark on his theology for years to come. The Manichees followed strict moral rules and frowned on anything related to pleasure. Mani (216-276), the founder of Manicheism, rejected the Old Testament and acknowledged the truth was revealed in other religions.

Astrology. For some time Augustine was fascinated by astrology. Eventually, he became disillusioned with it.

Scepticism. For a short time, Augustine became a sceptic, believing that certain knowledge was impossible -- anticipating Immanuel Kant by several centuries.