Augustine of Hippo
Augustine was born in 354 C.E. in Thagaste, a Roman colony (suffering from “egregious self-respect”) in North Africa. At the time of his birth, the expansion and prosperity of the previous centuries was beginning to slow, with most of the income moving from the cities to the cultivation of olive trees in the countryside. North Africa, and Roman power more generally, was in the early stages of the decline that would accelerate throughout Augustine’s life, but at the time of his birth Augustine’s surrounding culture nonetheless remained unquestionably Roman, placing the highest value on the study of Latin texts.
Though Augustine’s father Patricius was relatively poor, he was free and “civilized.” Since classical education offered the only possible means of social advancement, he sent Augustine to school. School was run on the “ancient Anidjar model,” focusing on very few texts in excruciating detail with attention to each word. Unlike nearly every other major philosopher of antiquity, Augustine did not learn Greek. Cicero, Virgil, Sallust, and Terence were the only authors read in detail. Brown argues that this mode of reading that takes every word extremely seriously and that valued verbal ingenuity would go on to characterize Augustine’s style as a biblical critic.
More immediately, though, Augustine’s exposure to Cicero’s Hortensius led to his decision at 19 to abandon his desire for worldly success as a lawyer to the pursuit of wisdom supporting himself as a teacher of rhetoric instead. Raised in a Christian household, Augustine sought a specifically Christian form of wisdom but, disappointed by the Bible, he turned instead to Manichaeism.
Manichaeism was founded by Mani in Mesopotamia, who was executed in 276 CE by the Persian government. Augustine was drawn to the religion, then a persecuted sect, by his fixation on the problem of evil. Afraid of charging God with creating evil, the Manichees chose, instead, to create a rigid dualism, limiting God’s omnipotence by attributing evil to an opposing dark power. Though the human world was unequivocally fallen and the source of all evil, each human had a shred of pure goodness in his soul that longed to return to and merge with the greater goodness of God. In later years, Augustine will attribute the appeal of this philosophy to its capacity to disown any personal sense of responsibility and guilt. Additionally, he will also condemn it for depicting good as totally passive.
In his period as a Manichee, Augustine takes a concubine (372), sails for Rome (383), and then later Milan (384). By the time he reaches Milan, he is mostly disillusioned by the Manichees, largely as a result of talking to Faustus, a man renowned for his learning who turned out to be completely incapable of resolving the questions Augustine had about the scientific claims of the Manichees.
Things improve somewhat when Augustine meets Ambrose in Milan. Ambrose had been the bishop of Milan for since 372 AD when, working as the governor of the province, he was seized by the population and forced to become their bishop. Ambrose, though not aristocratic by birth, was an extremely political religious leader, most evident in his confrontation with local city authorities when the mother of the emperor tried to force him to give up a church for pagan use. Ambrose gained popular support, forced the advancing troops to give up, and later built himself a basilica out of pure spite. One can see Augustine following in Ambrose’s model later in his dealing with Donatists.
Intellectually, Ambrose was important for offering Augustine an alternative to materialism. While Augustine had always thought within a materialist system, as with the Manichees, Ambrose suggested the existence of a purely spiritual reality. In addition, Ambrose did much to alleviate Augustine’s worries about biblical passages by offering “spiritual” interpretations of the text.
Platonism becomes Augustine’s new philosophy of choice, both through Ambrose’s references to it in his sermons and through his gradual absorption into social circle of Christian Platonists. The previous century, the writings of Plato had been rediscovered, leading to a philosophical Renaissance. Augustine received his Platonism through Plotinus (death, 270 CE), author of th Enneads and through Porphyry, his disciple, who systematized the writings of Plotinus. Most of the Platonists in Rome were Christian, largely because of the conversion of Victorinus, a prominent pagan who later publicly converted to Christianity. Augustine, I believe, mentions Victorinus’s conversion in the Confessions; Brown adds the information that Victorinus was the man responsible for translating many of the neo-Platonic works into Latin.
Christian Platonists believe that Platonism and Christianity dovetailed in the same conception of an otherworldly existence. Just as Plato’s ideas existed in another world, so too did Christ say “my kingdom is not of this world.” Similarly, both philosophies, at least as adopted by Augustine, shared the notion of the world as a decline, as an increasingly unclear and diffuse shadow emanating from the true reality of the One. All existence is a tension between this natural tendency to fall and move away from the real and the desire to return to or regain contact with the real. Plotinus’s universe, in sum, was a monistic one that did not admit the radical dualism of Manichaeism or their claim that evil was in anyway opposed to the good. Rather, evil was an absence or deficiency of the good, as blindness is a lack of sight. Evil can only be a turning away from the natural unity with the real. The links of all of this with the Confessions seems clear.
Conversion and Ordination:
Augustine decided upon reading Plotinus to “convert” decisively to the philosophical life and withdraw from public affairs. Conversion to Christianity wasn’t self-evident at this point, largely because Platonism offered the possibility that man could reach a vision of God through rational ascent, not through institutional guidance. Nonetheless, convinced by Ambrose that the Scriptures could be a source of authority and wisdom, Augustine began reading Paul. From here, Brown basically recapitulates Augustine’s account of conversion in The Confessions. Suffice to say, his conversion marks a decisive break from the ideal of autonomy found in neo-Platonists. Reason is not sufficient to lead one to truth; rather, grace is necessary.
From here, Augustine spends four years studying with friends - an ideal lifestyle, it sounds - before, one day, while visiting a friend in Hippo in 391 CE, he is shanghaied into the priesthood, in a scene I can only imagine resembled the moment in frat parties when the crowd starts shouting, “chug!” Shortly thereafter, in 395, he is named bishop.
Augustine writes the Confessions in 397 CE, at a point when Augustine was feeling overwhelmed and alienated by his duties as a bishop that he had assumed two years earlier. “Confessio” has the double meaning of praising of God and accusing oneself, both senses of which Augustine obviously has in mind. The piece straddles several different genres. In certain respects, the piece is a very recognizable type of a neo-Platonic philosophical treatise, which addresses itself to an unknowable God and uses prayer as a vehicle for speculative inquiry. However, Augustine’s formulation of the text as a dialogue with God breaks from this neo-platonic genre. Similarly, Augustine lifts the notions of God’s omnipresence, the existence of a spiritual reality, and the idea of a Fall characterized by turning outward (as with the concupiscences) from Plotinus; however, redefining the Fall as a personal one, rather than simply a cosmic one, is Augustine’s own innovation. Finally, regarding Platonism, the notion of an immeasurable inner world is also from Plotinus, but while Plotinus retains an optimistic faith in the impossibility of losing touch with God, Augustine believes our access to and perception of the divine can become obscured.
Likewise, the Confessions also holds an ambiguous relation to a Christian genre of confession. In “African Christianity” of Augustine’s time, there existed an extremely strong tradition of seeing saints and heroes as predestined. This comes out more fully in Augustine’s later theology, but we can can see it here in moments such as Monica’s dream. Yet the piece also breaks with the tendency to see baptism as an absolute break with the past. Had The Confessions been a traditional book of this genre, it would have stopped with the conversion scene in Book IX; as stands, the fact that it went on for another 3 books would have baffled the contemporary reader. Perhaps one could read here a Freudian understanding of the past, which refuses to discard anything as lost or overcome. In later years, Augustine would become even more adamant about the impossibility of ever overcoming human frailty and temptation, even through baptism. In this sense, the work can be read as iconoclastic, an effort to humanize the bishops who were such unquestioned figures of power at the time.
Stylistically, Augustine’s incorporation of the Psalms in the text was new. Content-wise, the book signals Augustine’s growing conviction that simple knowledge was not enough to overcome the power of force of habit. The scope of what Augustine thinks the intellect can accomplish visibly declines throughout the narrative, and in his life; the inadequacy of intellectual knowledge of truth is essentially the reason he turns from Plotinus to Christianity in the text. Instead, we need desire to motivate the will to act.
One of the two major controversies of Augustine’s life, the Donatist affair traces back to 311 CE. In the Persecution of Diocletian in 303 - 305, some bishops had collaborated with the authorities, handing over copies of the scriptures to be burned. A certain sect of Christianity, which considered the Church to be exclusively a place for the righteous, believed that such an act stripped a bishop of all ecclesiastical power and authority, making all of his actions null and void. Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, was rumored to have been ordained by such a fallen priest, which would make his ordination invalid. Consequently, a council of 80 bishops got together in 311, declared his ordination invalid and elected another, “pure” bishop in his place. Donatus. The emperor Constantine supported Caecilian against Donatus and, eventually, the Catholic Church reinstated Caecilian as the bishop. The Catholics imposed unity by force against a strong local Donatist group, but the reign of Constatine’s successor “Julian the Apostate,” brought renewed tolerance for the Donatists.
The issue at stake, particularly by Augustine’s time, was the identity of the Church. Was it universal, a place for sinners and saints alike, or a sanctuary for the pure? The Donatists saw themselves as something like the new Israel, and like the Chosen People of the Old Testament, they were filled with anxiety about the possibility of losing God’s favor through becoming ritually impure or violating his commandments. The emphasis on “pure” bishops was something between a symbol of and substitution for this ideal of purity.
When Augustine became bishop of Hippo, he was in a Catholic minority. Yet, through a series of campaigns, catchy jingles, and legislation, he managed to get legislative support outlawing the Donatists, but not yet forcing their conversion to Catholicism. The law was called “the edict of unity” and passed in 404.
However, in 410 Alaric sacks Rome, leading to a renewed period of toleration for the Donatists, as Rome is otherwise distracted. After a short while, though, this toleration ends and representatives of both the Donatist and Catholic positions are summoned to Carthage to be tried by Marcellinus, a good Catholic, regarding the legitimacy of the Donatist position. In 411, after relatively short trial, Marcellinus rules in favor of the Catholics, Augustine having saved the day, and in 412 the Edict against the Donatists is passed, allowing Augustine to ruthlessly persecute all members of the sect.
The main points regarding the Donatist controversy is that it shows Augustine consolidating his political power, and comes at his moment of greatest enthusiasm for the alliance between Church and Empire, something that will decline in later years, particularly when Marcellinus is executed by state officials despite his intervention. Additionally, this marks one of the moments when the Church settles on its message as a universal one, and not as another version of chosenness.
Sack of Rome and City of God:
I still don’t really know what City of God is about. Nonetheless, the background is that with the sack of Rome, a series of Roman aristocrats fled to the provinces, including Hippo. In reaction to their loss and anxiety, they developed a nostalgic valorization of the past, specifically through past classics. City of God is written in what I take is an extremely pretentious literary style, with an unnecessary number of references to Cicero, as a response to the anti-Christian dialogues such aristocrats wrote. The aim is to persuade the intelligent, cultivated pagan aristocrats of the rationality and appeal of Christianity.
The first 10 books are devoted to critiquing and deconstructing the pagan religion, contextualizing Rome as a merely earthly city, born of a “lust for domination.” This earthly city is contrasted with the “heavenly city.” The citizens of heavenly Jerusalem, as opposed to those of earthly Rome, are characterized by their capacity to yearn for the beyond. Consequently, Augustine turns to psalms, borrowing their language of love, longing, and desire. This split reveals something of Augustine’s relation to the sack of Rome; while still convinced that Roman civilization will endure, he sees the empire nonetheless as worldly, fallen, and characterized by deep, destructive pride. Though the sack of Rome is unfortunate, one’s true city is the City of God.
Concomitant with the division between two cities is the split between two types of history: earthly and prophetic. One could maybe conceive of the Augustinian earthly history as Benjamin’s mythic history. Without the prophetic history, it would be a blank, meaningless succession of events. However, it is punctuated by brief moments of revelation, such as the lives of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets. This red thread shows earthly history to be dynamic, providential, and meaningful. Prophetic history is the rupture which allows us to orient ourselves in relation to the earthly.
Pelagius was a well-connected British “servant of God,” a religious layperson in the same way Augustine had been before ordination. Very basically, he believed God had made man for happiness and that, therefore, not only was man capable of being corrected, if only he could buck corrupt human habit, but that perfection was mandatory. Pelagius was extremely eager to stay in good standing with the Church, believing his theology necessary to reform it.
By this point in his career, Augustine believed very firmly in predestination. Not only did Pelagius’s teachings contradict that, not only did they deny that all humans shared in the sin of Adam, which made their redemption by Christ necessary, they also seemed to resurrect the old Donatist mania for purity. On a basic phenomenological level, Augustine also thought Pelagius’s noion that one could control one’s desire and remain pure hopelessly naive. Like Freud, Augustine believed that not all desire were accessible to consciousness. Nocturnal emissions were the case in point.
Augustine appealed to the pope, asked these beliefs to be declared heretical and basically won, becoming in the process an international figure.
Brown reads predestination as a response to the instability of the time and, more generally, to the instability of human life. It seems a continuation of Augustine’s anxiety about the possibility of the self being dispersed through sin and inattention to God. Nothing could guarantee the coherence of the self except the presence of God, yet observation proved that nothing - neither baptism, nor conversion, nor desire - sufficed to keep a human sinless. Therefore predestination acts as a guarantee that for some individuals, if not for all, a coherent self does exists, providing the possibility of hope and the strength for action.