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337 The death of the Emperor Constantine was followed by the division of the Roman Empire into East and West. Constans, an orthodox Catholic, ruled the West from 337 to 350. Constantius II, an Arian who disputed the divinity of Christ, acquired the East. He became sole emperor in 350.
354 Born November 13 in Thagaste in the province of Numidia in North Africa (today Souk Ahras in Algeria), Aurelius Augustinus was the son of a pagan father, Patricius, and a Berber Christian mother, Monica. The family, which included two brothers and a sister, was respectable but somewhat impoverished.
354-365 The infancy and early schooling of Augustine. Determined to secure a future for his intelligent son, Patricius made great financial sacrifices to see that Augustine received a classical Latin education in the local school. Augustine delighted in Latin literature, but he detested the brutally enforced rote learning of arithmetic and Greek.
361 Following the death of Constantius II in 361, Julian the Apostate ruled as emperor of Rome until 363, fostering the dominance of paganism even though freedom of worship for all religions had been proclaimed by Constantine in 313.
364 Valentinian I succeeded Julian as emperor in the West until 378. He reestablished toleration for Christian practice. He was the last emperor to subscribe to Arianism.
366 Augustine's education continued at Madaura, a center of education in Roman North Africa twenty miles south of Thagaste, where he was sent to study rhetoric at age twelve. A formal command of rhetorical art, i.e., expressive, ornamented, and persuasive speech, was fundamental to any professional career, such as law or public life, at the time.
370 Augustine had to return home for a year while Patricius saved money for his further education. A year of idleness led the adolescent student into acts of dissipation and sexual adventure, vividly recounted in Book II of The Confessions.
371 Augustine left home again to study at Carthage, which he described as "a cauldron of illicit loves." He frequented the theater and kept company with a group of coarse friends whom he called "the wreckers." Here he entered into a long-term relationship with a woman whom he came to love dearly but whose name we do not know.
372 Augustine's unnamed lover bore him a son, Adeodatus, "God-given." Augustine's father died, baptized a Christian on his deathbed. At the time he merited from his son a cold contempt for his marital infidelity and for failing to give Augustine the guidance and sense of self-discipline he needed during his turbulent adolescence. It is clear, however, that Augustine's extraordinary gift for affection and generosity in friendship was a legacy from his sociable, open-handed father. At the conclusion of Book IX of The Confessions, Augustine beseeches his readers that both his parents be remembered in prayer with "devout affection."
At this time Augustine became a Manichaean "hearer." Manichaeism was a pseudo-Christian sect developed in the third century A.D. by its founder, Mani, who drew on elements of Babylonian, Judaic, and Christian sources. It was a gnostic religious system based on a fundamental concept of the duality of light and darkness. Goodness was thought to be manifested in what belongs to the realm of light: knowledge, spirit, and soul. Evil, or darkness, was viewed as connected to ignorance, matter, and the body. Redemption was to be achieved through a special, intuitive knowledge and through moral practices that included abstinence from meat, wine, and sex for those who were fully initiated. Augustine was attracted to its dualistic concept of human nature because it allowed him to evade accepting full responsibility for his moral failures by taking refuge in the rational aspect of his beingthrough a spurious detachment from the activities of his bodily self. He accepted the Manichaean rejection of the Old Testament along with its highly critical approach to the New Testament.
373 On reading Cicero's Hortensius, a strong desire for true wisdom was awakened in Augustine. This dialogue on the necessity of philosophical thinking inspired him to dedicate himself to the study of philosophy. He abandoned his career as a lawyer in the imperial civil service, a career planned for him by his father and by Romanianus, a wealthy patron who had supported his studies. The Hortensius counseled against the pursuit of sensual pleasure as inimical to the discipline of thought. However, Augustine stayed with his lover and continued to be influenced by Manichaeism for the next nine years. He began to question deeply the meaning of evil and the power of sin.
374 Augustine returned home to Thagaste to teach grammar, the underlying foundation for the study of rhetoric. Monica, appalled at his alliance with the heretical Manichees, at first refused to allow him to enter her house. She prayed unceasingly for his conversion to the Catholic Church.
376 Augustine returned to Carthage following the death of a dear friend in Thagaste, which had made the associations of that city unbearable to him. In Carthage he opened a school of rhetoric. The rowdiness and pranks of the students made teaching extremely difficult and wore on his nerves. He persisted, however, in this career for eight years.
379 Theodosius I became emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled until 395. During this period, orthodox Christianity was established as the official state religion and Arianism was suppressed. All subjects of the Roman Empire were enjoined to accept the Nicene Creed, formulated at the Council of Nicea in 325, which is still in use today to express Catholic Trinitarian theology.
383 Augustine left for Rome to teach rhetoric after several good friends, including Alypius, a former student of his, wrote urging him to join them there and promising him serious students and better pay. He deceived Monica about his departure so that she could not follow him. After suffering a siege of illness upon arrival, Augustine then had to endure cheating students who skipped out on him when it was time to pay their fees. But good fortune came his way when Symmachus, prefect of the city, chose Augustine for a post in Milan as professor of rhetoric.
384 Augustine moved to Milan and took up study of the Neoplatonists, especially Plotinus (A.D. 205-270), who had taught that one is awakened to a sense of divine destiny through purification from carnal appetites. He became increasingly disillusioned with Manichaean materialism and with the New Academy skepticism about certitude that was fashionable at the time. (This was a Greek school of thought that had its origin in pre-Socratic philosophy; it insisted that no certainty about truth can ever be attained, that there are only degrees of probability, and that all judgments are thereby relative. Augustine would write Contra academicos in the fall of 387 to refute these ideas.) The basic Christian principles his mother had taught him remained intact.
Augustine eventually decided to become a catechumen in the Catholic Church of Milan after being impressed by the sermons of Bishop Ambrose, who showed him how to appreciate the Bible in spiritual terms, and whose discourses were mystical, with Neoplatonic concepts of the soul. Augustine recognized clearly now that his carnal activity weakened his efforts at introspective contemplation.
385 Monica arrived in Milan a year after Augustine and set about arranging a marriage for him with a Catholic woman of an appropriate rank and means to further his career. As a condition for the marriage, the woman's family insisted that Augustine be separated from his concubine for at least two years before the ceremony could take place. He had been faithful to his lover for some fourteen years, and this separation was emotionally wrenching for both of them. However, instead of accepting the period of celibacy, Augustine soon after replaced her with another woman to satisfy his needs. By now, Augustine's carnal appetites were in deep conflict with his spiritual desire to seek metaphysical truth.
386 In late summer, Augustine and his companion Alypius entertained a visitor, Ponticianus, who spoke to them about St. Anthony and the desert monks of Egypt who had left all they had in the world to devote themselves to lives of asceticism and prayer. Augustine began to feel his heart burn in his breast with the power that the call to a life of renunciation was exerting on him. He repaired to the garden of the house, where he wrestled with the demands of his flesh and wept with great, tormented sobs over his inability to accept the challenge of continence.
Hearing an unseen child say, "Pick up and read. Pick up and read," Augustine opened the book of St. Paul, which he had been studying, to Romans 13, where he read: "Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts."
At this moment, confidence and peace flooded into his heart and dispelled the anguish that had overwhelmed him in the garden. Paul's question, "Who will free me from this body of death?" became Augustine's question. Paul's answer, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" became precisely the truth he had long sought. Augustine reported all this to his mother, who rejoiced in God for His answer to her lifelong prayer for her son.
387 That summer Augustine, Monica, and their fellow companions had to remain in the port of Ostia while the harbors of Rome were blockaded by an ongoing civil war. Here Augustine and his mother, standing together as they looked out into a garden, shared a mystical vision as they talked about the utter silence in which God may be heard once the clamor of the flesh, the appeals of the world, and even the sounds of the heavens and soul are stilled.
A few days later, Monica fell ill with a fever and died, age fifty-six, leaving Augustine resigned to, though deeply aggrieved over, her death.
Book IX of The Confessions ends here with the description of his mother's death and Augustine's prayer for both Monica and his father, Patricius. It brings to a close Augustine's account of his purgation from sin, the illumination of his conversion and baptism, and the complete surrender of himself in unity with God. In Book X, Augustine gives an account of his state of mind at the time when he was composing The Confessions. Books XI-XIII set forth his own theological position on Creation, time and eternity, and the destiny of man to know himself and to know God.
388 Augustine remained for about a year in Rome, where he investigated several monastic communities. He then returned to Thagaste in Africa with Alypius and Adeodatus, settled his property, established his own monastic community, and began to live a contemplative life as a lay "servant of God."
390 Augustine's tranquil life of prayer and study in community was soon shattered by the death of his gifted son, Adeodatus, at age seventeen, and of another dear friend, Nebridius.
Bishop of Hippo
391 Grief made Augustine restless, and he visited Hippo to see about setting up another monastery there. While at Mass one day, when Bishop Valerius was describing the urgent needs of the Catholic minority, besieged and persecuted by heretical sects, the congregation turned to Augustine and importuned him to accept ordination. He was made a priest on the spot. Augustine remained in Hippo for the rest of his life.
393 In December, the General Council of Hippo met, providing an occasion for the assembly of Catholic bishops to see and hear Augustine. The subject about which he spoke to them clearly and eloquently was "On the Faith and the Creed." It was highly unusual for an ordinary priest to preach to bishops in this manner.
During this period and through A.D. 405, Augustine wrote against the Manichaean heresy, which he now completely repudiated.
394 For the next eight years, Augustine would combat the errors of the Donatist heresy, a schismatic group that considered itself the "pure" Church and insisted on rigorously observing ritual actions to the point of fanaticism. The Donatists turned away from the world to face inwardly toward their own static community, made up of an elite that vigorously and violently persecuted nonmembers. Augustine held that the Church must, on the contrary, be coextensive with society and function as a leaven in the world.
395 Augustine was ordained coadjutor (assistant) bishop of Hippo. In less than two years he would be made bishop. During his episcopate, he drove out of Hippo the Donatists and other heretical Christian rivals. He led the community like a father heads a family, adjudicating disputes, intervening for prisoners to save them from torture and execution, advocating for the poor, buying freedom for badly treated slaves, and charging religious women with the care of abandoned and orphaned children. He preached abundantly and wrote On Christian Doctrine. By 410 Augustine had written thirty-three books.
395 Arcadius became emperor in the Roman East until 408.
395 Honorius, a devout Catholic, became emperor in the West until 423. He granted legal recognition to the orthodox Catholic Church in Africa. This gave Augustine political power in his struggle with the Donatists.
396 Bishop Valerius died and Augustine succeeded him as bishop of Hippo. He remained in this office until his own death in 430.
397 Augustine began to write The Confessions, which were completed in 400 or 401. This work expresses three main concerns. One is Augustine's frank and detailed acknowledgment of his personal sinfulness and the power he came to recognize as God's provident graceprotective, creative, salvificin every moment of his life. He also wrote in order to confess his own Christian faith and to clearly repudiate any supposed lingering connections on his part with Manichaeism. Finally, The Confessions are a heartfelt paean of praise and thanksgiving in honor of God's glory.
This extraordinary document is a formidable act of memory by which Augustine reveals, vividly and specifically, the personal deeds, events, men and women, and ideas that formed the texture of his life. The Confessions are written as a long prayer addressed directly to God and are an exercise in scrupulous honesty and candor. The theme is stated in the opening paragraph: "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."
399 For twenty years Augustine labored over On the Trinity, his most profound theological treatise. In it he exposed the errors of the Manichaeans, Donatists, Pelagians, and Arians. It included exegetical works and commentaries on scripture.
408 The eastern German Visigoths crossed over the borders of the Roman Empire seeking refuge from the Huns and looting Roman cities as they came. Rome was besieged twice during this time and the citizens starved into acts of cannibalism. In the year 410, on August 24, the Gothic army general Alaric and his men sacked Rome, burning parts of the city.
410 Pelagius, a British monk, had taught an austere and reformed ideal of the Christian church for about ten years in Rome. He had gathered a small but devoted group of followers when Alaric's army forced him to flee to Africa. The battle against the Donatist heresy, which Augustine had fought vigorously for years, would be succeeded by his controversies with Pelagianism. Contrary to Augustine, Pelagius taught that human beings achieve salvation through personal acts of will by which they take total responsibility for their actions. He denied the doctrine of original sin, which held that the human will was weakened by sin and in need of divine assistance. With no concession in his system for "amazing grace," Pelagius placed on each individual the burden of and blame for every sin as a fully deliberate act. A person can be saved if he or she makes up his or her mind to live a correct, moral life by exercising self-control. One must choose the good and reject what is evil. One is born free to make one's choices as one will. Jesus is more model than savior in the view of Pelagius.
Augustine accepted a fallen, flawed human nature, helpless in sin without the intervention of Gods provident and salvific grace. His compassionate tolerance for the weakness of human nature contrasted sharply with the Pelagian stoic puritanism which allowed no excuse for personal sin. For Augustine, true freedom is achieved only through a long process by which the individual's knowledge and will are healed by grace. Pelagius ultimately moved onto the Holy Land without ever meeting Augustine face-to-face. The bishop of Hippo fought with Pelagius on the basis of his written works.
412 An imperial decree was issued from Rome banning the Donatist church.
413 For the next thirteen years, until 426, Augustine worked on his masterpiece, The City of God, a summation of his Christian philosophy of history, occasioned by Alaric's sack of Rome. In its wake the charge had come from all corners of the empire that this tragic event was the result of the forsaking of old pagan deities in favor of the Christian religion. Augustine refuted this charge by citing the fall of Troy, "the parent of Rome," which had been faithful to all its gods.
Augustine, instead, viewed the immense suffering caused by the invasion as a necessary discipline, or remediation, of human society. Envy, rpide, and the lust to dominate lead to the misery of the human race and are tendencies present in every human heart. But in disasters, souls are sifted by what they endure. Those who are evil blaspheme against God, while those who are humble and pious revere Him. However, both good and evil persons are similarly taught that the goods of this world, all gifts from God but liable to misuse, are temporary and will pass away. True and lasting riches are to be found only in God's kingdom. The rewards of heaven will eclipse with their splendor all the brilliance of Creation as we know it now.
415 The synod at Diospolis in Palestine pronounced the writings of Pelagius to be orthodox.
417 The teachings of Pelagius were condemned in Italy. He and all of his supporters were forbidden to remain in Rome.
418 The Council of Carthage, with over two hundred bishops under Augustine's leadership, pronounced Pelagianism heretical.
423 Valentinian III became emperor in the West. He ruled until 455.
426 On September 26, Augustine nominated Eraclius to be his successor.
429 Vandals, who were Arian Christians led by Genseric, invaded Africa from Spain.
430 The North African coastal provinces of Mauretania and Numidia were ravaged by Vandals, who raped, tortured, and pillaged, burning Catholic churches along the way. Catholic bishops and refugees fled to Hippo, which was a fortified city.
On August 28, Augustine died after suffering a fever for several days. He had prayed with his frightened flock for the gift of perseverance in the faith by which the weak individual can come to share in the eternal stability of Christ. Bound as a father to his family, the bishop of Hippo stood firm until the end while all his world and life's work were destroyed in the violence around him. Though Hippo was partly burned, the library of Augustine was preserved from destruction. It contained much of what he felt and believed and has been handed down to us as our priceless inheritance. It comprised some 100 books, 240 letters, and more than 500 sermons.