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Early Life


Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste, a town in in what is today Algeria. His mother was Monica, a pious Christian who was later canonized as a saint for her influence on her son's life. His father, Patricius, was a pagan of significant social status in society. Patricius converted to Christianity and was baptized shortly before his death. At age 17, Augustine fell in love with a woman whom he never named. Although Augustine largely downplays the relationship in the Confessions, explaining that he was infatuated with the idea of romantic love and had no control of his lustful desires, it seems clear he loved her deeply. Unfortunately, however, he felt he could not marry her because she was of a lower social class.


This unnamed woman therefore became Augustine's concubine for 13 years. By all accounts he was faithful to her. In their second year together, when he was 18, she gave birth to a son. He was given the name Adeodatus, meaning "gift from God." The first of several significant turning points in Augustine's life occurred when, upon reading Cicero's Hortensius at the age of 19, he was converted to the higher life of philosophy. He later recalled, 'it gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart.' Augustine's new desire for wisdom sent him to the Scriptures, but he was disappointed by its unsophisticated Latin prose, which he felt paled in comparison to "the dignity of Cicero."



For a time Augustine was attracted to Manichaeism, a Christian heresy to which he would be devoted for nine years. Its founder was Mani, who regarded himself as 'the Apostle of Jesus Christ' and was martyred in 277 in Persia. Within only twenty years of the founder's death, Manichaean missionaries had brought the faith to North Africa, where it became an established tradition. Manichaeism was an eclectic mix of traditions, characterized primarily by dualism, asceticism, and determinism.


Although it may seem surprising that the bright Augustine could be a devoted follower of such a belief system, which Bonner describes as one of the 'strangest and most bizarre of the many strange and bizarre fantasies which the human mind has conceived,' it in fact held many attractions for him. He was impressed, first of all, by its appeal to philosophy and wisdom instead of authority. Secondly, the Manichees believed the God of the Old Testament to be different from that of the New Testament, even declaring the former to be evil and consequently refusing to accept the Old Testament. This was a relief to Augustine, who had found several Old Testament passages quite troublesome. Of further appeal was the Manichaean solution to the problem of evil, which had greatly perplexed Augustine. They simply answered that evil exists independently of the good God, who is powerless to stop it. Finally, Augustine was impressed by its asceticism and pious spiritual devotion to 'Christ.'


Despite such attractions, over the years Augustine became increasingly dissatisfied with the sect, finding particularly worrying the discrepancy between the cosmological teachings of the Manichees and the astronomy he learned from his wide reading. He began asking questions, but was repeatedly deferred to the great leader Faustus, who, he was assured, would have all the answers. He looked forward to the teacher's arrival in Carthage, but when the meeting finally occurred in 383, Augustine was left badly disillusioned. After this disappointment, he ceased to progress in the religion, eventually becoming a Manichee only nominally and socially.


Later that year Augustine departed Carthage for Rome, where he stayed with a fellow Manichaean and worked as a teacher. But by the autumn of 384, alarmed by rumors of the tendencies of Roman undergraduates to avoid paying tuition fees, he secured a position as Public Orator in Milan. He arrived in Milan just before his thirtieth birthday, and it was there that he would experience once of the most famous conversions in Christian history.



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