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Worldly Ambition and Dissatisfaction: St. Augustine, Part 4

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) was a gifted rhetorician and after teaching in his hometown of Thagaste for some time, he opened a school in Carthage. But Carthage’s unruly students and a personal hope for greater success elsewhere soon motivated Augustine to leave for Rome. In moving to the Eternal City, Augustine believed that a man of his ability could aspire to greatness and possibly reach the upper echelon of Rome’s power structure.

His immense talent and deep ambition made his prospects for future triumph seem very promising. He opened a school of rhetoric in Rome but discovered that while the students were well-mannered, they habitually failed to pay their tuition. Shortly after his move, the 30-year-old Augustine was appointed municipal professor of rhetoric in Milan. His new position brought him notable prestige and affluence.

Yet despite the real possibility of fulfilling his career goals, Augustine still longed inwardly for ultimate truth. Was there a philosophy of life that could provide his restless heart with authentic meaning, purpose, and significance?

In Milan, Augustine’s intellectual and existential pilgrimage entered a new phase. Disillusioned in his pursuit of hedonism, paganism, Manicheanism, and even worldly power and ambition, he began to entertain the notion that ultimate truth may be simply unknowable or unattainable. He became impressed with the philosophical skepticism that had become prominent in Plato’s old school, the Academy. At this point a number of factors began to coalesce that would lead to Augustine’s reassessment of the religion of his childhood. Augustine would later write about his intellectual, moral, and spiritual conversion in his classic work Confessions.

Continued next week