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Wayward Youth in a Pagan Empire: St. Augustine, Part 2

Named for two Roman Emperors, Aurelius Augustinus was born November 13 AD 354, in Thagaste, a small Roman province of Numidia in North Africa (present day Algeria). His family was what might be called a lower middle-class. His father, Patricius, was a small-landowner with pagan beliefs who seemed to care more about his son’s education than his character.

His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian who sought to catechize her son in Christian doctrines and values. Augustine remained extremely close to his mother throughout his life, and she wielded a great deal of influence over him. Both parents recognized early on their son’s tremendous intellectual promise and were committed to giving him the best education available.

Augustine received his early education locally in Thagaste and then in nearby Madaura, studying rhetoric (the persuasive use of language) and Latin literature, in particular. He learned to read by studying the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BC) (though acquainted with Greek, he preferred the Latin Virgil over the Greek Homer), and he learned oration by studying the Roman orator and politician Cicero (106–43 BC).

Since he excelled as a student, Augustine was sent to study in the North African capital of Carthage. This big city pagan environment, combined with his own loose sexual morals, succeeded in detaching Augustine from the Christian value system he had known as a boy. In Carthage, he experimented with the hedonistic lifestyle so prevalent in that pagan Roman city. He later wrote: “I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.”1 At 17 years old, he took a mistress (with whom he cohabited for more than 14 years) and a year later he had an illegitimate child, his son, Adeodatus.

Though a rhetorician and man of letters by training, Augustine fell in love with the concept of “wisdom” through reading Cicero’s book Hortensius, which was lost in antiquity. This work taught Augustine “to love wisdom itself, whatever it might be, and to search for it, pursue it, hold it, and embrace it firmly.”2 Since Cicero makes no mention of Christ, Augustine decided to compare the wisdom of Cicero to the Christian Scriptures he had heard of as a boy.

In light of Cicero, however, Augustine found the Sacred Writings disappointing. He asserted: “To me they seemed quite unworthy of comparison with the stately prose of Cicero.”3 Augustine departed decisively from the Christian teachings concerning truth and morality and began to look elsewhere for religious fulfillment.

Continued next week

  1. Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992), Book III, 1.
  2. Confessions, Book III, 4.
  3. Confessions, Book III, 5.