Augustine was born in a small North African town to a pagan father and a zealous Christian mother. The adolescent Augustine was less interested in religion and learning than in having a lark —like joining with friends to steal pears from a neighbour’s vineyard ‘not to eat them ourselves but simply to throw them to the pigs.’
Aged 17, Augustine went to school in Carthage where he became enraptured with his studies and started to make a name for himself. He immersed himself in the writings of Cicero and Manichaean philosophers and cast off the vestiges of his mother’s religion.
On return to his home town of Thagaste, Augustine began to teach rhetoric and Manichaeism, a dualist corruption of Christianity. It taught that the world of light and the world of darkness constantly war with each other, catching most of humanity in the struggle. Augustine tried to hide his views from his mother but, on finding out, she threw him out of the house.
However, she continued to pray and plead for his conversion and followed him to Carthage. When Augustine was offered a professorship in Rome, Monica begged him not to go. He told her to go home and sleep comfortably in the knowledge that he would stay in Carthage. When she left, he boarded a ship for Rome.
Later, he became the professor of rhetoric for Milan. He began attending the cathedral drawn by the preaching of Ambrose the bishop.He dropped his Manichaeism in favor of Neoplatonism, the philosophy of both Roman pagans and Milanese Christians.
Struggling with himself, Augustine had sought to overcome his fleshly passions and nothing seemed to help. Later, writing about the pear stealing of his youth, he reflected, ‘Our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden. The evil in me was foul, but I loved it.’ One afternoon, while wrestling about such matters, he heard a child’s sing-song voice repeating, ‘Take up and read.’ On a table lay a collection of Paul’s epistles he’d been reading; he picked it up and read: ‘Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites’ (Romans 13:13–14). He wrote, ‘No further would I read; for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.’
Augustine’s conversion sent shockwaves through his life. He resigned his professorship, and retreated to a country villa; he established a lay community to spend time in prayer and the study of the Scriptures.
In 391, Augustine travelled to Hippo. Against his will, Augustine was ordained, and then became bishop. He had no desire for Church office, desiring to spend his time in reading and reflection. The church in North Africa was in turmoil, and he dealt with many challenges to its beliefs. When Barbarians sacked Rome he stoutly defended Christianity against claims that it had caused the empire’s downfall by turning eyes away from Roman gods.
Augustine’s response to the widespread criticism came in 22 volumes over 12 years, in The City of God. His lifelong obsession with original sin was fleshed out, and his work formed the basis of the medieval mind. ‘Mankind is divided into two sorts,’ he wrote. ‘Such as live according to man, and such as live according to God. These we call the two cities… The Heavenly City outshines Rome. There, instead of victory, is truth.’ This comprehensive writing remains in print today.
In the summer of 429, the Vandals invaded North Africa and during the siege Augustine died. His writings survived the Vandal takeover, and his theology became one of the main pillars on which the Church of the next 1,000 years was built.