The Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine was perhaps the most important figure of antiquity (the fourth and fifth centuries). We know a lot about him thanks to his Confessions, his autobiography—which some say is maybe the first such Western biography—written when he was forty-three years old. As a text it is problematic, since it was unfinished by the time of Augustine’s death and neglects important bits of information which historians would like to know (such as: the name of his concubine for which he lived with for fifteen years, and his family are largely absent). Even so, it is a remarkable text.
In 428, two years before his death, Augustine writes a list of all of his works to date—the date in which he had written them as well as the order of his writing of them. This is something which actually greatly helps modern historians since with many ancient thinkers—such as Plato, for example—there is considerable argument over the genealogy of their works, how they should be placed in relation o each other in order to trace the evolution of the thinker’s thought. Not so with Augustine, whom removes any such doubt for us by providing such an extensive listing of the works and their dates of writing.
Born in 354, Augustine is an African who was born in Nigeria. He is a citizen of the Roman Empire but is considered a provincial. His family has some local importance but certainly none of imperial importance; Augustine’s father, like many Romans, was a pagan and a member of the local town council. Augustine’s father seems to be a remote figure in his early life. Augustine’s mother (Monica), meanwhile, is a Christian who played a large role in Augustine’s life.
With education being the way to a future better than provincial life, Augustine enters school at Carthage, a North African town, to study the art of rhetoric, or arguing persuasively. To the Romans, rhetoric was the ultimate art which, if mastered, meant that nothing was closed to the master; meaning, it opened up great career opportunities which would, perhaps, allow Augustine to travel to various parts of the empire.
Augustine’s conversation to Christianity was a long route. Originally, he rejected Christianity in favor of Manicheism (a religion which combined aspects of Christianity with Persian and even Indian religion), since he thought the writing of the Hebrew Bible was very lacking; as an aspiring rhetorician, to him style was everything. Adherents to Manichean thought were reviled by the local Christian population. When Augustine’s mother discovered that he has converted, she refused to allow Augustine into the family home, relenting only later in life.
Eventually, though, Augustine managed to travel to Italy and study abroad. There, he has hopped to find fellow travelers with whom he had common academic interests; unfortunately, he would be disappointed with his discovery that a lot of the Italian students were apathetic to their schoolwork. In short order, Augustine wanted to leave Rome.
Things worked out well for Augustine, though, when his collaboration with an openly pagan Roman official lands him the professorship of rhetoric at a Milan University, one of the most sought after positions in the Western half of the Roman Empire. Though Augustine’s stay at Milan would be brief at just a few years, it would be eventful.
One of the most important contacts that Augustine makes is with the Christian bishop Ambrose. Augustine attended Ambrose’s lecture in the hopes of learning something about Latin rhetoric, since Ambrose was known to be a master rhetorician. Ambrose is one of the few Christian officials who is able to gain independence from the secular legislation and actually impose a kind of will on the emperor himself, something which is highly uncommon for the period.
Thanks to the influence of Ambrose’s lectures, Augustine moves away from Manicheism. However, he does not outright abandon it and embrace Catholicism; instead, he dabbles in a philosophical movement known as Neo-Platonism, an attempt to reconcile the works of Plato and Christian thought.
Augustine’s stay at Milan though is notable for his mother following him there (thus killing any chance for Augustine to wildly party—bazinga!), where she convinces him to dump his concubine and to arrange a marriage between Augustine and a prominent Catholic woman, something which would have advanced his career. Monica also became a follower of Ambrose developing a separate relationship with him and admiring him greatly for leading Augustine away from Manicheism.
In the summer of 386, however, in a garden, a crisis would strike at Augustine’s heart. He was going to abandon his teaching post, ditch the idea of marriage, and quit studying rhetoric; instead, he would devote himself to philosophy and the religious life. He decided to convert to Catholicism and is baptized by Ambrose himself in 387. He returns home to Africa but on the journey there, both his mother and son dies, leaving him relatively alone in the world.
At his home town, Augustine gathers together a group of like-minded friends, and they establish a lay community. He remains a part of this community until 391 where he travels to Hippo. While there, he is forced by the local inhabitants to become a priest. Shortly after, in 395, he is elevated to bishop, a position he would remain at until the city is besieged by Vandals some years later.
As co-bishop of Hippo, Augustine abandoned his Neo-Platonism. He was convinced that Neo-Platonism was overly optimistic and therefore misguided. Augustine increasingly found himself rejecting notions of free will in his writings which emphasized notions of humans finding themselves locked into patterns of behavior which they could not break. Augustine became embroiled in several controversies due to his position and outlook; additionally, his difficulty in maintaining a celibate lifestyle added stress to his already overworked schedule of presiding over local courts and theological debate.