Sunday, November 8, 2015

Tolle, Lege

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the first major Christian thinker whose work transcended faith. He is considered a major contender in nonreligious thought, in issues ranging from war and peace to slavery to morality and civic order, as well as in key theological questions such as grace, sin, sacraments and the sanctity of the Church.


Augustine was born in Tagaste, Numidia (modern-day Souk Ahras, Algeria) in a comfortable but not rich family of freed African slaves, possibly among those granted full Roman citizenship in 212. His mother, St. Monica, was a Christian; his father, Patricius, was a pagan who converted on his deathbed.

At the age of 17 he went to study rhetoric in Carthage, where he came across a speech of Cicero’s that is now lost to us, which sparked his interest in the rhetorical arts and philosophy. Raised a Christian, Augustine converted to an offshoot of Gnosticism known as Manicheism, which taught a cosmology in which a good, spiritual world of light was at war with an evil, material world of darkness. He lived a young man’s licentious life, which inspired his prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” He eventually became a teacher of rhetoric, moving to Rome to teach.

At 19, Augustine began a 12-year monogamous unmarried relationship with a woman whose name is lost to us, but who gave him a son, Adeodatus. Monica opposed that union—even though in Rome concubinage was a respectable way to cohabit when marriage was not legally possible, which may have been the case—and tried to break up the relationship by arranging a marriage to an heiress who was 10, not yet the legal marriage age of 12. Augustine regretfully broke up with the mother of his only child but spent the two years awaiting marriage in the company of two concubines.

Also while living in Rome, Augustine heard of Ambrose of Milan, who was noted for his rhetorical skills. Augustine saw in Ambrose a spectacular orator, a mentor to whom he became attached and whose orations unwittingly led him to the Christian faith.

At 31, reading of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, Augustine converted to Christianity. In his autobiography, he says he was prompted by a childlike voice saying, “tolle, lege” (Latin for “take up and read”); he took it as a command to open the Bible and read the first thing he saw, which happened to be Romans 13:13-14, on how conversion transforms believers, to wit: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, baptized Augustine and Adeodatus, at the Easter Vigil in 387. Shortly thereafter Augustine decided to lead a celibate life. His son and mother died, and he returned to Africa to sell his possessions and give them to the poor. He was ordained a priest in 391 and later bishop of Hippo in 395. He had kept a family home in Hippo, which he used as a monastic residence for himself and his priests.

The story of his early life and conversion is found in his Confessions, a major piece of autobiographical literature. That was, of course, only one of his many works, to which we now turn.


From his seat as a bishop, Augustine the thinker was given rein to produce some of the most influential works of Western philosophy and Christian theology. His work encompasses roughly 80 books and essays, not counting tens of preserved sermons, which stand as the foundation of modern Christianity and of many ideas in secular philosophy.

He was an enormous influence on Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Augustine developed Irenaeus’ notion of original sin and concupiscence, adding his thoughts on the efficacious grace of Christ. He delved into matters as diverse as free will, the emotions that inform sexual morality, the validity of sacraments, the chosenness of the Jews (and rejection of their persecution), metaphorical interpretation of the Bible, eschatology and epistemology (including a teaching on inner illumination).

He saw in human beings a marriage of body and soul, which he considered separate (the Manichean influence) yet united (the Hebraic biblical influence). With respect to the Church, he distinguished between the visible human institution of sinners and saints and the invisible communion of saints, dead and alive, known only to God.

Augustine also authored one of the earliest rules of monastic life, which was the basis for the much later Augustinian Order of monks, to which Luther belonged. He wrote the rule for a troubled convent in which his sister and several cousins lived.

He was the first major Christian thinker to address a world in which Christianity was an influential voice amid the crumbling power of Rome, which leads some to call him the first medieval philosopher. He ventured into areas of social and political theory in, among other things, opposing slavery and war as contrary to the divine will.

However, in his major work, the City of God, he coined the term “just war” to address cases in which a grave wrong can be stopped only by violence; he thought that it would be a sin to insist on peacefulness in such a circumstance. Many centuries later, Aquinas would draw on Augustine to develop his own full-fledged theory of just war.

Augustine’s turnabout from pacifism to just war may stem from the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. City of God states that the virgins who were raped during the sacking were not to be deemed at fault. It also asserts to the still-pagan world that Christianity did not weaken the Roman Empire, as some Romans were beginning to argue.

Augustine’s thought anticipated a world in which Christianity would have to take stand not merely on personal matters, church order and biblical interpretation but also on broader social, political and economic issues.

Nothing places Augustine more perfectly in the context of his time than his death. Shortly before he died, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, invaded Roman Africa. They besieged Hippo early in 430, as Augustine collapsed from his final and fatal illness. One of the few miracles attributed to Augustine, the healing of a sick man who invoked the dead bishop, took place during the siege.

Augustine was canonized in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII. He is considered “blessed” by the Orthodox Church, but not a saint due to his view of the trinity, which is at the heart of the controversy with the West. His feast day is August 28, the day he died. He is revered as the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians and sore eyes, as well as of several cities and dioceses.

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